Sunday, 4 May 2014

Focusing on the soft, people side in coaching agile teams

In my day-to-day work I generally impart advice and guidance to all types of teams that play a part in the projects that I run, though it seems to be from the point of a "program manager parting some guidance on development / integration topics" - it is expected from the role, not strictly being measured by the progress I make with it, considered as free-and-impartial advice. I have very recently however, landed my first official gig as an Agile coach, taking on a group of fairly young people (split into two teams, but part as one group). I was at first a little edgy with this engagement to be honest, since my exposure to date involved middle managers & team leads, whereas this involves interacting with a fairly young, dynamic & fresh "Gen Y" bunch, and to top it off, are not involved in Software / Systems engineering, instead operate at the Business Intelligence / Customer Experience process area.

I'm hoping I can share this new journey as part of this blog, so here goes. I am, by the way, the third coach to be assigned to this team, so in my first two-hour session, I decided to focus on the classic retrospective: What have you learnt to date?, What would you like to learn? What's your goals? Lets create a backlog for this journey that we can measure progress over each week?? The audience was a mixed batch of people, some having been exposed to a years coaching already, others only a couple of months, having recently joined the team.

I also wanted to touch on the people, softer topics first as a measure to break the ice, get to know everyone, and see where it goes. It turns out though, that the soft topics took the entire session, people were quite engaged, quite a few topics, comments and innuendos surfaced that pointed to deeper people / team challenges so solve in the background, at the same time, thinking about how to promote process improvements with value stream mapping, etc. I had sat in on two previous coaching sessions where we created the team's process map, that still needs to be rationalised.

In the end, we left off with a few exercises for the team to go away and come back to the next retrospective with feedback around: Team Charter & Appreciation Agreements. I also ended by asking for direct feedback for my own self-learning, reflection & improvement.

Appreciation Agreements
One of the first things I do when running retrospectives and other workshops (planning, brainstorming, post-mortems, etc) is to set the stage for the session by introducing the working agreements, or appreciation agreements. This is necessary and vital to creating an atmosphere for collaboration, openness, trust and respect. Some of people in the team were already familiar with this topic, but expressed appreciation for doing the refresher since they "learnt about it before, had never followed through and consistently implemented it in practice". The stuff that came out of this conversation was enlightening, pointers parked as exercises for the team. I covered the following key points that seems to be a common starting point for setting the scene, pretty self-explanatory:
Sample rules for the session - Appreciation Agreements
I asked the team to think about a similar list for their own team in the form of a standard Team Charter. It doesn't have to be detailed, just focusing on the essence of behaviours you'd like when interacting as a team. Agile values people over processes, collaboration over stickler for documents and is indeed quite pivoted around team relationships. It's not that we "Leave Emotions Outside" in all interactions, there's a time and a place for emotional venting. There's a certain retrospective that focuses on emotional topics - so I showed the team one way of using an Emotional Dashboard / Feelings Radiator / Venting Board that the team could use anonymously, on a daily basis to highlight incidents of emotional highlights/low-lights. Basically use different colour post-its on a board that tracks daily, at the beginning of each day, the team can talk about any highlights/lowlights from the previous day.

Emotional Radar Map

Some aha, light-bulb moments in that train-of-thought alone…a team leader / manager then passed a comment on how to address non-performance, in his words "YOU are slacking" - aha, another topic to nip-in-the bud…

This is a classic traditional management / stick approach of direct management style where the manager / team leader demands performance and uses a public forum (like a stand-up or team meeting) to address and individual directly (!). Indeed, this is a valid concern, but for an agile/lean team to mature and be nurtured into a high performing team, you need to be careful in this area, especially with this type of behaviour pattern. So I dedicated a full whiteboard (and about 20 minutes) in unpacking just this one sentence alone:
Unpacking "YOU are SLACKING"
In a team that is heading towards fostering an agile/lean mindset, trust is quite an important value to be embedded early on, forming part of the core principles of the team charter. If a line manager (team leader) singles out an individual, in front of the entire team, during a stand-up or retrospective, things aren't going to go down so well. Firstly, the use of the word "You" is confrontational, accusational and too directing. We're a team, there shouldn't be that strict hierarchical subordination thing going on. "Are" connotates certainty, absolute truth that has been validated by some evidence. "Slacking" is just plain right harsh. Yes, some companies do manage by objectives, subject their employees to regular appraisals, etc. Whilst I have strong views about just getting rid of performance reviews altogether, we have to appreciate some of the dynamics and historical reasons in a country's labour laws - for example, South Africa is pretty unique, and has a big challenge in growing the skills-base, putting people is really difficult to fire someone.

Instead, a team leader or line manager needs to take another approach to dealing with poor performance. First get rid of the nasty talk and settle on something more softer, like "I notice the tasks we've assigned in this area is taking longer than we expected. Are there any impediments, blocking issues that we should know about? Are there any dependencies we're not tracking?".
The leader should try to unpack any blocking issues, taking into account possibilities such as Emotional State of Mind, Tools, Dependencies outside one's control (higher management).
If performance measurement is part of the group's process and requirement from HR, then before you can deliver the blow of "slacking", you need to have some measurements in place. Start tracking the day-estimates for tasks, the original estimate, as well as for each day slipped, tracked that as well. The more data you have, the better. Data points to evidence, with the evidence you can learn. Without evidence, it's just a matter of opinion, and emotions will fester, trust will disappear.
You can approach these problems in a retrospective as a team, remember the team delivers, not the individual. On a one-to-one basis, take the individual aside, to talk about deeper issues of non-performance, etc. As a team, you could consider pairing, sharing expertise and getting used to helping pickup the slack to ensure the team delivers as a whole.
When you agree with your team on making improvements, say that you've noticed a disparity in the tasks that are essentially generic and should take almost a constant time (remember this is not a software development team), then you could set some targets to improve cycle time of tasks, as shown below:
Breaking Tasks by Complexity, T-Shirt Sizes & Driving down Optimizations
In the spirit of the "YOU are SLACKING" discussion, I recalled a scene from the 2014 Survivor South Africa season, whereby the captain of the Utara tribe lashed out on a team member in front of the whole team, accusing the guy of being a "spoilt brat", etc - causing the affected team member to lose face, highly tense, emotional & embarrassing scene- this kind of behaviour scores negative points in leadership, something that must be avoided at all costs.

Coaches Feedback
I ended the session with soliciting feedback from the team, implementing our agreed appreciation agreements as set out in the beginning, doing a round through the room, giving each person up to two minutes to speak, no interruptions, ending in me and the team appreciating the individual's input. Thankfully, nothing too serious, the team enjoyed the session, felt engaged and appreciated that we touched on something that was kind of beginning to fester. They look forward to the next session, I am hooked as well. There is one thing to work on though, that I'm now the third coach in succession - so have to figure out how to make sure the transition or pairing with the existing coach to promote consistent learning style...
My Feedback from the team

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