Book Review: Coaching Agile Teams

October 19, 2010

Coaching Agile Teams: A Companion for ScrumMasters, Agile Coaches, and Project Managers in Transition (Addison-Wesley Signature Series (Cohn))I’m always on the lookout for a book that will help us raise our understanding of Agile development and improve our ability to execute. If you have the same objective, I recommend Coaching Agile Teams: A Companion for ScrumMasters, Agile Coaches, and Project Managers in Transition by Lyssa Adkins.

High Expectations
Lyssa references Dan Pink and his take on what motivates knowledge workers: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Lyssa’s point is that, “Setting high performance as your baseline expectation and giving teams a way to achieve it play directly into these powerful emotions.”

Lyssa immediately sets us straight on what she means by this, lest we get the wrong impression: “Expecting high performance does not mean that you demand it. It means that you simply know achieving it is more than possible; it is normal. Expecting high performance means that you believe the team can attain it, so you hold them, compassionately and firmly, to that expectation.”

But how do you achieve high performance? Lyssa uses the power of metaphor with her High Performance Tree.

The High Performance Tree
The High Performance Tree guides teams towards high performance:

Lyssa instructs us to draw the tree from the roots up, teaching the meaning of Scrum values while you list the characteristics of high performance. I won’t delve into the details here, but the entire chapter from the book is available here if you are interested.

Building a high-performing team requires that people understand one another, and Lyssa outlines various activities that teams can use to learn about one another. I like Lyssa’s take on these activities as they focus specifically on what is important to know from a business context; As Lyssa says, “No fluffy stuff.”

A couple of quick examples:

Market of skills: Imagine that each team member owns a booth at a market. Within 20 minutes, each person makes a poster that answers the following questions:
  • Which competencies, skills, and abilities related to the team are available at your booth?
  • What is available under the counter of your booth? (What competencies, skills, and abilities do you possess that may not be relevant to the goal of the team?)
  • Which competencies, skills, and abilities would you like to achieve or learn from of the other team members?
Each person then presents their poster, and everyone learns what others have and are excited about, what skills could be available to the team, and how they can help someone gain the competencies, skills, or abilities the person wants.

Constellation: This starts in an open space with any object in the center of the floor, representing the center of the constellation. Team members stand around the object, and as each statement is read, individuals should gravitate toward the center or away as if it were a scale. The closer to the center object, the more true the statement is for them, and the further away, the less true.

Some warm up statements:
  • I enjoy time alone.
  • My happiest times are when I’m in nature.
  • I like to make things with my hands.
  • I thrive being around people.
Once the warm-up is done, you can move on to using statements designed to raise work preferences:
  • I like speaking in front of people.
  • I avoid conflict with people who have more seniority than me.
  • I like surprises.
  • I do not like uncomfortable silence and work to fill it in.
  • I enjoy public recognition.
  • I get quite in uncomfortable situations.
  • I am a perfectionist.
  • I enjoy debates.
  • I like to facilitate meetings.
Coaching Advice
Coaching teams that are self-organizing places some practical constraints on coaches: When is it appropriate to be involved? Should I work at the team or individual level? Coaching Agile Teams has the answers.

You must coach at both individual and team levels. It’s a question of when.

Coaching at the team level will have the strongest effect at the beginning and end of a sprint or project. During the middle of a sprint, it is best for the coach to help keep the team moving by assisting in things like removing impediments that are outside of their control. The golden rule with Agile teams is that, “it’s the team’s commitment, not yours.”

This means that as a coach, you don’t solve problems for the team. When there are problems that need to be taken on, take the problem to the team. As Lyssa points out, some decisions may be management calls, but even these decisions should not be made without consulting the people how have to live with the result.

And when you do address a problem with the team, Lyssa’s advice is that you “ensure that you balance problem-solving with their ability to sprint. Raise only those problems mid-sprint that must be attended to immediately. Let the others wait until the retrospective.”

This places you as a coach in the position of staying at the process level; Lyssa asserts that, “Most problems on agile teams can be solved by strengthening or reaffirming an agile practice.” As a coach, stay away from the details of the team’s every decision and plan.

Coaching styles will vary. For example, with new teams new to agile, Lyssa recommends invoking the Teaching style of coaching. And if you observe the team violating a rule of agile and you feel strongly that they should “do it by the book,” Lyssa is direct in her advice: “Put your foot down.”

While Lyssa likes to be direct, she does so in a way that engages the team to solve its own problems:

“State what the symptoms you see, float your hypothesis, and ask the team what they want to do about it. When you float your hypothesis, make it light and open. If you present it in too much detail or with too much ferocity, then they won’t be invited to challenge it and tell you what’s really happening. You might say, ‘Hey everyone, I see a couple of things: The burndown chart looks a bit flat, and the storyboard looks like a lot of work is happening at once. Hmmmm… I could guess that we have too much going on simultaneously. What do you think?’”

Agile development is all about inspecting and adapting. Some key questions to keep in mind during a retrospective that Lyssa recommends:
  • Is the team using the structures of agile to stay coordinated?
  • What is the team tolerating?
  • How well does the work flow?
  • Where are the breakdowns in communication, coordination, attendance, attention to one another, and collaboration?
  • Where are the brilliant moments?
  • Where does it feel slow, like molasses on a cold day?
  • How does the team’s level of anxiety change throughout the sprint?
  • Are people present physically, mentally, and emotionally?
  • When and how does the level of excitement change?
Collaboration or Cooperation?
Coaching Agile Teams discusses the topic of collaboration, contrasting it against cooperation.

Collaboration yields a whole that is greater than the sum of the individual parts.

Cooperation yields the sum of the individual parts.

Why is this important? Lyssa states, “If the work the team has been charged with does not require innovation and they are content to use agile practices mechanically, you may choose to stop at cooperation. Cooperation features the smooth flow of work-in-progress from one team to another and between the team and the wider organization.

“Collaboration needs cooperation as its base, but it adds the essential ingredient for yielding innovative, breakthrough, and astonishing results.

“When collaborating, team members build on top of one another’s ideas, each person giving away from their cherished vision of what it “should be” so that something better, something that no one of them could have imagined alone, emerges from the ash of their burned and forgotten personal visions.”

Coaching Agile Teams provides plenty of insight and advice that we as coaches, managers, and agile practitioners will find valuable. The book is well written, and explains each topic clearly. I highly recommend this book, and I’m sure that you will find it a useful addition to your Agile library.