It’s hardly ever “them” — agile coaches, look to yourselves first

by Lyssa Adkins on September 19, 2011

How do I motivate them?

You know, they just sit there saying nothing.  When they do talk, it’s the same old ideas over and over.  How do I get them engaged?

How do I get them to make good on their commitment?

How do I deal with one that just doesn’t get agile and taints the rest of them?

These are some of the questions I hear repeatedly from the agile coaches I encounter.  And, agile coaches, I have this shocking news to tell you…it’s hardly ever them.   If you notice a lack of motivation, commitment, engagement and openness look to yourself first.  What are you doing – actively doing – to create an environment where people are free to be naturally motivated, engaged in dialogue and new ideas, focused on their commitment, and open enough to address the uncomfortable parts?

Natural motivation – There is nothing more motivating than knowing you have done a good day’s work and created something that someone else values.  Forget the bowling outings, forget the “team-building exercises” (ok, do these for fun if you want).  Instead, focus on an important boundary condition that allows people to create value: does the product owner (and team) know why we’re doing what we’re doing?  why it’s important?  can every single person on the team articulate the “why”?

True commitment – Do you ever claim commitment on their behalf?  In the sprint planning meeting do you ask, “OK, so we’re committed to this, right?” and then pause only 2 seconds before you move on to the next thing?  Commitment does not confer from one person to another.  It must be taken up by each person, on their own.  So, don’t confer your commitment on them.  Instead, ask the question and be silent.  Stay silent until someone else speaks.  Then, let them talk it out.  Let them dissent and push back if they need to.  If you don’t help them do exactly this then you are just teaching them that you don’t stand for their commitment.

Engagement – If most of your agile meetings look like people sitting around a table, taking turns talking and being polite you can forget engagement.  Engagement comes from being engaged in the current activity — where messy talking, thinking out loud, working on something together and interacting are the norm. So, instead of running meetings where take-turns-talking is the primary mode, design meetings that require people to interact with one another.  This means that you’ll have to do some preparation for each meeting, to pick the activities or modes you offer the team.  It’s ok, this is your job after all.

Openness with the uncomfortable – In the face of an uncomfortable moment or an uncomfortable topic, it’s easy to start jabbering on to fill in the “dead air.”  But, guess what?  The air isn’t dead.  It’s actually quite alive.  It’s alive with tension, perhaps confusion or sadness.  Instead of filling it, show a sense of openness, and even curiosity, about what’s happening.  Instead of shrinking from it, you can let the uncomfortable occur and then acknowledge: “It feels like a bomb just went off in here.  What’s happening?”

Of course, I know that some of thee ideas may feel strange to you, especially this one.  “How,” you might ask, “can I work with the uncomfortable when I’m afraid of what they might say?”  There’s no easy answer for this – each person finds their own way when they get more skills.  And, I hate to point you to my own work, but the truth is that those skills are built in the agile coaching classes offered by the Agile Coaching Institute.  It’s where you get them.  It’s where you practice them.  It’s from these classes that you start to operate as a much more skilled and centered agile coach who can stand the uncomfortable, engage others and ensure they have what they need to fly.

Now…back to your current world.

Once in a while you do have that one person who just won’t get involved, who bad-mouths agile at every turn and who poisons the team.  Notice that I said once in a while.  Why only once in a while?  Here’s what I have learned: Once you create an environment that supports interaction and commitment, you’ll find far fewer people in the “problem” category.  The team members respond to both the boundary conditions and the freedom within the boundaries to be naturally creative, resourceful and whole.  Because, guess what?  They always were.

Agile coaches…please share with one another in the comments…

What do you actively do to create an environment where people are free to be naturally motivated, engaged in dialogue and new ideas, focused on their commitment, and open enough to address the uncomfortable parts?

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Most things work…until they don’t
February 23, 2012 at 8:36 am

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lyssaadkins December 31, 2011 at 4:08 pm

Sounds like big wins by knowing when to step in as master of “the rules” and step back to let things happen. As an agile coach, cutting losses is always a choice. I like to do it “with” the person instead of “to” the person and, most of the time, I find that the person makes their own choice of what’s best for them. I don’t stand for disruptive “bad apple” behavior, though. When it negatively impacts the team, it gets addressed. And addressed, and addressed until something gives. See this blog post on not being nice:

Nick Jenkins December 21, 2011 at 7:15 pm

Recently had the “one bad person” syndrome – his contribution to a daily standup started with “I just want to say, this is a waste of time and is very distracting from the real work I have to do”.

It rocked everyone back on their heels, so I thanked him and moved on. Sat down with him later and explained the purpose of the standup, the quick nature to minimise disruption and what each person was expected to contribute.

He acknowledged it all but still maintained that it disrupted his day and was “pointless and irritating”. He said other people felt the same. So I told him they weren’t compulsory and he didn’t have to attend and that I would talk to the other people. I did and no one else objected as strenuously.

Next standup everyone else came but he stayed in his seat.
Ten minutes in, he was looking over his shoulder.
Fifteen and he was eavesdroppping.
Now he’s kinda, sorta rejoined the standups but in a non-committal way.

While I always look for the value in people and try and find the common ground (motivation) I’ve been a manager of teams of up to 70 people and still believe sometimes you have to cut your losses. If someone is damaging the team, removing them is an option.

Sometimes I think agile teams tend to err on the side of group hugs and consensus, but to be fair to others and build the safe space for the team sometimes you need to tackle bad behaviour directly.

Of course I like a group hug as much as the next guy….

Drew October 11, 2011 at 1:15 pm

I think that it is a matter of being as open and honest (and even vulnerable) as possible with all of my communication as an agile coach. This, I believe, sets an example for the rest of the people in the teams that I coach. I have also had success with preparing meetings that require everyone to interract. This has led to a better sense of “team” as projects move along.

Jenn September 22, 2011 at 8:01 pm

I agree. I have learned SO much from this last engagement reflecting on where I need to be quiet and NOT commit for the team. It’s still difficult…being across an ocean with the development team and the management micromanaging with me being not able to wrangle the chickens who meddle with the team because they are next door and I’m across the ocean. It is much better when we are together in the same room. But, I do have a good dev team… they are naturally stepping up. We just have a tough project and the external politics create circles around circles of communication that are hard to corral when we are physically separated. But, just recently, we had one of the healthiest “agree to disagree”, messy conversations that were previously held in circuitous back channels. This time it was handled as a public team conversation. I was so happy with that! One small step forward. Too many steps back, but I’m learning SO much from the experience and the failures.

April Johnson September 21, 2011 at 5:51 pm

It comes down to the questions we ask, I think. “You know we committed to this, right?” is different from “So, what are we committing to here?” (and waiting for a response.

That, and the degree to which we make it clear that we know the team is knowledgeable (as well as creative, resourceful and whole).

I’ve run into the latter with a team I’m helping – they were labeled problem children when their practices went off the rails after several months of under-delivering. I made the mistake at first of trying to get a diagnosis of their problems (whether from me or from them, it wasn’t the right thing) rather than just given them tools to make the problems visible so they could decide what to pay attention to.

Sara Taillon September 19, 2011 at 12:50 pm

I agree that the issue is often the Scrum Master or coach, not the team members. And even when it really is the team, or a certain team member, there are a lot more positive ways to affect your own behaviour rather than to try to change others. Support the team to find its own way forward through challenges, hard as it may be to let go. That’s the only way for the team to truly own it’s commitments.

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