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Thought Leader

Organizations that are migrating from a traditional hierarchical structure and are new to self-organizing teams.

Leaders in the organization but not part of the Scrum Team can be concerned that they often see problems or potential risks, yet they have no good way of bringing them to a teams attention without potentially breaking the teams self-organization or problem solving abilities, breaking the teams flow.


Leaders in the organization have a broader perspective and view of the big picture so they can see consequences of actions that the team may not be aware of.

Leaders want to bring issues and risks to the teams attention in a way that will not make them a single source of knowledge and power creating either dependency or blame.

They don’t want to risk alienation and breaking of the teams spirit.

They want to foster self-organizing, problem solving teams that can learn to think beyond their own roles.

If managers bring it up directly, they risk becoming alienated from the team. On the other hand, it might go the other way: the team may do it without questioning, so they don’t learn. Or they become dependent on the manager, and can’t make decisions themselves as well.

It’s hard to let a team fail, but it is sometimes important to let them learn. But failure does not always result in learning (by itself.) You need guidance; learning from the experienced people, the tribal elders, etc.
Also, the consequences of failure can be devastating to the team, or can have other bad effects.


To keep the self-organization model in play a pattern employed by people in leadership positions outside the team will identify a thought leader within the team who can take ideas and information into the team without it being imposed from outside. E.g. a manager may plant the seed that perhaps the team needs a way to meet with other teams in the organization to share information, possibly a daily scrum with two teams. If the manager brought this up the team might see it as an order rather than a suggestion, or become dependent on the leader going forward. If a team member brings it up the idea will be discussed and initiated internally holding the teams power together.

You are not teaching solving the immediate problem, but trying to teach them to self-improve.  Getting people to learn to solve problems themselves

We teach a way of thinking

Best: Propose a problem and raise questions that will help the Thought Leader think through the situation and bring it to the teams attention. A variant is to allow the Thought Leader to understand their explicit role to bring in ideas to the team.

It’s important, or at least best, to give a sense of the problem to the thought leader, coupled with maybe some gentle guidance or hints. The team should feel that the solutions are owned by them and not imposed.

How to pick the thought leader:
It shouldn’t be the scrum master, because it instills the scrum master with a sense of authority that he or she shouldn’t have.

The person is probably determined holistically through observation of the team, but here are some things to consider:
  • Wise Fool
  • Public character
  • Possibly a Matron/Cruise Director
  • Possibly, but probably not the technical leader(s). What we are trying to do is not make the technical leader the source of all ideas. Also, these may be more non-technical issues. It may be that you can funnel the technical issues through a natural technical leader within the team
  • You want to help some people to grow in the team
  • You don’t want to pick someone who is viewed as the manager’s toady; then it will backfire.


Hopefully, the team becomes able to develop the problem solving skills to identify and solve problems.

Teams become more willing to look outside themselves for ideas and solutions.

The manager gets peace of mind!

You don’t want this to go forever, instead it should be a catalyst to move a team through the transition from hierarchically directed to self-directed.

If you pick the wrong person, they can manipulate the situation for their own gain, and the detriment of the team.

The pace of change will be slower than the manager may wish. If this becomes an issue, the manager may become frustrated, and give up.

This pattern is a variant on Gatekeeper.

Gabrielle Benefield
Neil Harrison