Best Agile Articles 2018 is a collection of the articles from a variety of authors published on topics of all things Agile in 2018.
The Best Agile Articles book series collects the best agile articles published during a calendar year into a single volume.
On April 6 the authors of the best agile articles published in 2018 came together for a workshop, giving their talk on topics such as Agile Leadership, distributed teams, and others.
If you would like to subscribe to the soundcast of these talks, head to Soundwise.
Today Tandem Coaching Academy publishes the talk Ellen Grove gave during the workshop on the topic of building alignment through team agreement.
About The Speaker
Ellen Grove is an Interim Managing Director at Agile Alliance. She helps organizations, leaders and teams deliver better results through coaching them to bring about the circumstances in which they can work most productively and create real organizational change. As a business agility coach, she helps teams and leaders in all parts of the enterprise to actively address the organization’s most pervasive problems. She introduces techniques from Scrum, Lean, Kanban, Extreme Programming, and Systems Coaching to promote successful collaborative environments that can adapt to changing business circumstances. She also delivers training and workshops in a variety of experiential formats to build the foundations for an agile mindset and practices, and use coaching and facilitation to solve the tough people problems and overcome obstacles to organization change at the team, managerial and corporate levels.
Ellen Grove And it’s something that has helped me considerably in my work as a team coach and as a leadership coach with organizations, this practice of making explicit, what of our ex… what are our expectations of each other as we work together? I think this is really important because one of the hallmarks of high performing teams is that everybody brings a different experience and a different perspective to the table. Um…teams that have like minded people where people come in expecting the same routines; expecting the same approach, are possibly, not always, they’re not always the most functional teams or… I don’t want to say they’re dysfunctional… but they’re not necessarily the highest performing teams, and that we tend to get the best results when we’ve got a diversity of thought and experience at the table. And with diversity in thought, Comes different expectations, comes conflict, comes the need to have hard conversations, the need to try new ideas and this is where working agreements can be really useful. Great teams exist in a state of – it’s called productive disequilibrium, right? We’re trying to be productive but we’re always a little bit out of balance because teams are a living system and living systems that are in equilibrium are dead. So, we want to be constantly seeking equilibrium but we’re never going to be fully within balance. But working agreements are a tool that can help us through that; help us manage that constant dynamic tension that high performing teams try to maintain. Um…the reason this background of this slide has a picture of broccoli is because that issue of, How do we use working agreements to manage conflict?
I worked with the team once, at a place that should probably remain nameless, helping to lift off a new team. And one of the things that became really clear in their early conversations was everybody on the team was kind of uncomfortable with the idea of being in conflict with each other. They were a new team; they were trying to put their best foot forward; they wanted to be successful together, but they’re like, “Oh, we don’t really like it when things get rough.” And in the course of the conversation, they identified that maybe this was going to be a problem to – to them being effective. And they decided as a team that what they needed was a team safe word. That when in conversations and meetings and stand-ups, if somebody thought, “ooh, things are – there’s an issue we’re avoiding here,” they needed a word that they could toss out and share to signal, “Hey, I think we need to stop and talk about this.” And the word they happen to pick was broccoli. And this stuck with me because this is the first time in my practice of lifting off teams the team had decided on a safe word that they wanted to use. But it was a practice that worked really well for them. If they all started using it right away, we’d be having a meeting suddenly, somebody would go, “uhhhhhh, broccoli!” It’s like, oh, okay, we need to stop and talk about that thing that we’re not talking about right now that we’re all dancing around and it was, it was really cool to see that in action.
So there’s a couple of approaches that you might take to building this alignment as a team to get to work together well, and a couple of places where I’ve taken inspiration from and how I use this in practice. One comes from Kent Beck in Extreme Programming Explained, where he talks about the idea of having teams identify their simple guiding principles; overarching ideas that we agree on as a team that are probably informed by our by our values that are a little bit more specific than our values. That helps us make the right choices about what we want to do if we articulate our principles when decisions come up about how do we behave together? How do we react to this situation? We can point to our principles and go, “Oh, okay, if we follow that principle, this is what we want to choose.” Um…another approach that I often use, as well, is having more behaviorally focused working agreements. Rather than just articulating a set of high level principles, we actually get very specific about the kinds of behaviors so that people are very clear and crisp about, “here are the skills and behaviors we want to develop as a team. Here are the things that we want to work on right now in order to increase our effectiveness.”
You can use either of these approaches as the means to help design our culture together. That’s really what working agreements, what simple guiding principles are for. It’s about how do we co create the culture we want to have together? How do we align on how are we going to be together in order to be a successful team? So just to give a simple example of the difference between a principle and sort of a more behaviorally driven working agreement, a principle might be something like “Be Present.” And this is often what comes out early in conversations. But what what’s important to us how do we want to be, we want people to be present. Okay, well, what does it mean? What would it look like if we have that? A more behavioral approach might be something like not having your electronics on the table during discussions, or not using headphones in the team room. Or… uh… I’m just thinking both of those behaviors aren’t really very relevant in a distributed world where we’re all connecting through electronics, most of us have our headphones on, but they give you an example of the difference between the high level principle versus the nitty gritty, “here’s a thing that we want to do differently.” So, these are also very simple, ver- very simple living documents and I Just wanted to show a couple of examples of what some of the working agreements that I’ve co-created with teams look like in practice, short lists of key ideas, whether they’re principle based ideas or specific behavior based ideas. Clear, easy to understand, co-created by the team, and visible and present as part of our visual management system, so that they’re there when we need to refer to them. Uh…Because that’s another critical element of the success of a working agreement. What gives them their power is for team members to be able to look at them and refer to them when you need to; particularly when you feel somebody isn’t or, and it might be yourself, but, when somebody on the team isn’t living up to what we’ve agreed to, it’s a lot harder. Just go to somebody and go, “You know what, we talked about doing this and I don’t think you’re doing it and it’s making me crazy” versus If you have this front and center, if you have the sort of the rules of the game posted in the team space, sometimes that makes it easier for people to call it out and go, “Hey, you know what? I think we all agreed that we were going to do this. And I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. What do we want to do about that, because I’m going to call broccoli on the team.” So having it simple, very simple, very clear, very visible, and very easy to update as the team matures, those are some of the hallmarks of a really successful working agreement.
So the kinds of things that you might put in a working agreement, often when I start working with teams, a lot of them tend to really focus on the process kind of logistics; when they say, “hey, let m-” when I say “let’s sit down and create a working agreement,” their minds jump to, “Okay, we’ll have our meetings at this time, and we’ll meet here, and we’ll do that.” and they might get into talking about let’s agree that we’re going to talk about things face to face rather than using email.Um… But when I create a working agreement with the team, I want to dive in a little deeper than that. And these are kind of at a high level, these are the sorts of questions that we explore in a conversation about working agreements. First of all, we want to get at, for each person, what’s important to them as a team member? What to them means… what does being a successful team mean to them? We want to create a collective understanding of what ar- what do we value together and how do we show it? The really important ideas are the how do we want to treat each other? How do we want to work together as a team? And what do we want to do when we don’t agree? Because, I think a lot of us go into a new team with an expectation that everybody thinks the same way we do about how a function a high functioning team should work. But when I go back to what I said at the outset about, one of the things that really makes us successful team is having bringing people together with diverse experience and diverse perspectives, it’s not really realistic to expect that we all have the same idea of what makes a great team. And if we spend a little bit of time upfront exploring that, that can really help take us a long way in terms of getting to be a functioning team sooner rather than later.
So, on that note, I want to stop talking at you for a little bit and give you a chance to explore some of these ideas in the breakout rooms. So what I’m going to share is setting up the breakout rooms. The question that I want to ask of you is I want you to think for a moment and we’ll take a couple of seconds to reflect individually on this. I want you to Think back to the teams that you’ve been a part of. And I want you to think back about what was one of your best team experiences? Or conversely, what was one of your worst team experiences? And I want you to think a lot about how did the team members behave in that setting. And that’s the subject of your conversation in breakout rooms. Whether it was the best team or the worst team, you might want to make clear which one it was, how did the team members behave that contributed to the team working that way? So we’re going to break you into groups of about four or five people. And we’ll give you four minutes to share your experiences and your ideas about that in the breakout room.
Host Okay, I just need to put one person in the room with his telephone. So let me move one person real quick. So that way… he is both in one place. Okay. I’m going to open up the breakout rooms and send you in those. And Ellen, you’re in a room by yourself so you can pop back out if it sucks you in automatically. And I said five minutes right, you’ll get a two minute warning. Ellen Grove Yeah, that will be great.
Host Okay Ellen Grove Excellent. Excellent. Welcome back. Well, I hope certainly heard that there were interesting conversations going on in a couple of the breakouts. And I hope that gave everybody a chance to hear firsthand, first of all, the kinds of experiences that people have had and how there’s a real range in what we value as team experiences. Or even perhaps you might have found that some people identified, “Awww I had a team member who did this thing and it was the worst thing ever.” And somebody else is thinking, “Wait, I love it when my team members do that.” And this is the purpose of creating a team working agreement is to make some of these assumptions explicit; so that we can decide together, how can we work together to be more successful. We can be aware of what people’s preferences are, what people’s, you know, what people really like, and what are the things that are going to make them crazy as team members? Sorry, let me advance my slide here. So this is about it. Working agreements are about aligning expectations about making sure that everybody is on the same page about, for us, for this group of people, what do we think it means to be a good team? What are the things that we need to focus on as a team in order to be a more more effective team? When you create a working agreement with the team, it helps individuals become more aware of their own behavior. So simply by having the conversation about, “hey, these are the kinds of things that we want to be doing”, you don’t have to have somebody who’s being kind of, you know, the behavior monitor for the team. If the team has talked about and said, “Oh, we want to focus more on communicating this way” or “we want to make sure that we’re doing this”, every individual is more inclined to think about, “Am I doing that?”, “Am I doing enough of that?”, “Am I doing too…” you know, to evaluate their own behavior, and step up to the plate a little bit differently. Having a working agreement gives us a mechanism for establishing mutual accountability. When we have created a working agreement, and ideally, as part of creating the working agreement, we’re going to ask explicitly, “What do we think we should do if these things aren’t happening?” That gives all team members a space to hold each other accountable. Because we’ve already agreed explicitly, hey, as a team, we sat down, we had the conversation, we’re going to do all of these things, and we’ve talked about what we’re going to do if they’re not happening. Even if people aren’t feeling as confident as they might about calling each other out. It gives them a tool that they can use to say, “Hey, we agreed on this, it’s not going on, what do we want to do about it?” So it’s a means of establishing clarity, of being transparent about what our assumptions and what our desired behaviors are, and really creating respect for how other people want to be as part of the team. You know, and if you had to wrap it all up, it’s a tool that allows us to encourage – we want diversity and thinking because we want people to bring different ideas and different opinions to the table. But having said that, we do want to have some degree of harmony and behavior so that people can work together effectively; you know how the human system works.
So I talked about really focusing on behaviors rather than process and the questions that I like to use When we’re talking about things that we need to put in a working agreement, there’s these six questions are kind of my go to. Now, when I do this talk in a non-distributed setting, we explore these through Lego serious play. I couldn’t figure out how to share Lego with everybody. So unfortunately, we’re just going to talk about one of them today. But these are the questions that I use to get team members to open up. Let’s talk about our best or worst team member because that gives us a sense of the experience that people have had. And also, what do you like? Like… what… what do you like when other team about how other team members work with you? Or what are the things that people have done with you in the past that might be triggers for, “Oh, don’t talk to me like that!” I like to ask people to reveal what’s the superpower you bring to the table? What’s something about yourself that other team members might not see but it’s going to help the team be successful? What kind of help do I want from my teammates? Because I think this, again, is one of the hallmarks of really high performing team is a sign of a really functional team is when people are ready and able to ask for help as soon as they need it. And that’s something in a lot of professional environments that’s really hard. Because we’re conditioned to be the experts; we’re hired because we’re the best at our job. We have a deep knowledge of skill, you know, we have deep knowledge and skill in this area. And it’s really hard for people to come forward and go, I don’t know, I need help. Please help me. So having that conversation at the outset can be super useful. This is a question that I got from my friend Jake about talking about what happens for me when the going gets tough. If I appear to you to be stressed or overwhelmed. This is the kind of help I would like from my teammates. That’s really useful information for us to have before the going gets stressful because some people want a lot of hands-on support and encouragement. Other people are like, “No, I’ve just got to go figure this out. Leave me alone!” And wouldn’t it be awesome if we knew about that; if we knew what their preferences were before that happens? I think it’s really important as we’re talking about working agreements to talk about conflict. Um.. and I do a really simple exercise. We’re not going to do this one today; we’re going to discuss another question. But the conflict question is, I just get a bunch of different colored pieces of paper or you can use crayons, or marbles, or Skittles; doesn’t matter. Get the group around the table and ask them to pick the color that signifies conflict to them and why and just have a quick roundtable conversation about that. Because you might assume given some of the cultural associations we have with color and emotion, that everybody would pick the same color and they don’t. And you can learn some fascinating and really useful things about how all of the members of your team feel about getting into difficult situations just by doing this really simple exercise. And then the last question, which is, again, a really important one, is talking while we’re putting together our list of these are the things that we should do. What do we want to do if one of us is letting the team down? How do we, in the event that we’re not honoring our working agreement, how do we want to handle that? So everybody knows from the get go, this is how the process works. I know what’s going to happen if we noticed that this isn’t happy that what we’ve agreed to isn’t happening. And these six questions I think, are really, really useful for forming a working agreement. I’d like to send everybody back into the breakout rooms for..do we still have time a five minute break out, Cherie? Host Yep, we still have 20 minutes.
Ellen Grove Awesome. Perfect then, because what I would like to do is send you back into your breakout rooms to explore one of these six questions. I think I phrased a little differently between the slides. But the question that I’d like you to think about right now, I’ll give you a couple of seconds to think about it, and then talk about in your breakout groups, is this question, “What kind of help do you want as a team member? What kind of help do I want from other people on my team in order to be at my best?” So give you a couple of seconds to think about that and then we’ll send you into breakout rooms where you can chat, with the group that you met with before, about what kind of help would you want to be the best team member you could be? Host Okay, Welcome back, everybody, everyone is back in. So we’re good to go forward.
Ellen Grove Excellent. I hope that brief conversation about what kind of help I want to accomplish two things. One, Hopefully you learned about other people in the group, what kind of help would they want to have to be good team members? Because if we were in a situation where we were starting off a new team, this would be fabulous information to have about how can I help my teammates be awesome, understanding and upfront what kind of assistance they want from me, helps me to be more of the kind of team member they’d like to work with. It also helps me as a team member think through, “Well, what what kind of help do I want?” Those of you out there who maybe aren’t… I know, I’m not a very introspective person – and while I know what I don’t want, I don’t think I ever spend much time thinking about, “well, what kind of help really do I want? What is this thing that helps me to be more effective at my job?” So having these conversations helps us clarify expectations, both between team members, but also internally. And I find that really, really valuable. And there’s are these are while everybody was in the breakout room, I was looking at some of the conversation in the chat and there were suggestions about here’s a template you can use. Here’s a great article. Here’s some ideas for how tool that you can use to shape this conversation. And I just want to say there’s lots of ideas out there. I – those six questions that I shared with you in the previous slide, I’ll go back to them. These are generally my go-to questions, because I find, for me, they touch on the important aspects of how do we want to be a team together they start to build, how do we appreciate each other? They dig into the, “What kind of help do I want from other people?”, “What are we going to do when the going gets rough? and especially if we find ourselves in conflict, give me a clue about what other people expect, because some people are very conflict avoidant. For other people. It’s like, Ooh, you know, lots of arm waving and loud voices. That’s how we exchange ideas. It’s really good to know upfront which way the other people in your team are wired. But there are other kinds of questions you might use. You don’t necessarily need to use my six. They’re a great place to start. But there are some other kinds of questions you might talk about. You might have an explicit conversation about values. What are the values that we hold together, what’s important to us, what matters? What kind of space do we want to create together? Real- you might, depending on the team, I’m not sure I would use this with a new team but certainly if you are revisiting your working agreement with the team that had begin to… begun to work together for a while, having an explicit conversation about how do we increase trust? How do we take it to the next level? Um… but I think it’s also the last one here, I think is really important, no matter which questions you ask is, “How will we know if our team agreement is working? What will we see? What will it feel like? What will we observe?” And I think that’s a really important thing to keep in mind when you’re building a team working agreement together. Because often when you sit down and you ask the team, how do we want to be together, you get, I mean, lovely suggestions like: Be present. Let’s treat each other with respect. But it’s really helpful to dig into what does that mean, if we’re treating each other with respect? What does that actually look like in practice? What is the observable behavior that signifies respect? Or if we didn’t have it for each other, what would it look like? Because that really helps a team come together and create a shared expectation of what we’re trying to do. But any set any set of questions, like I said, mine will work for me. But they all they all center around, how do we create the environment, the atmosphere we want as a team, what kind of behaviors will help us create that atmosphere? You might talk about, “How are we going to make decisions together and put that as part of the working agreement?” And and certainly that last bit of it, “How are we going to be in conflict together when it happens?” Because I’ll say the only places I’ve seen where conflict hasn’t surfaced have been some of the most dysfunctional organizations that I’ve ever worked with. “No! No! nothing to see here, move along.” People just aren’t wired that way; my experience. Ellen Grove So a simple framework that you might use for thinking about how do I have a working agreement conversation is getting the team together. And just, first of all, setting the context: Why is it important to create an agreement? Why- Why does it make sense for us to invest a little bit of time, aligning on our expectations about how we’re going to be together. Spending a little bit of time investing in some of those exploratory conversations, like the questions that I suggested that really get at: What’s important for me? How would I like to be helped? How can I help other people in the team?” without diving right into the, “What are the behaviors we are going to agree on?” Spend a little bit of time exploring the topic. After that conversation, that’s where you might ask the team members, “Oh, okay, given all of the things that we’ve talked about, and given what we know about each other so far, what do you think if we’re going to create a team working agreement, what do you think the specific behaviors we need to include in this working agreement, at this time, are?” And that’s what those questions about, “What would it look like if we had it?” or “What would it look like if we don’t have that?” that can come in helpful, because sometimes people will still propose a higher level, “be respectful”, “let’s be nice to each other”, “make sure every voice is heard”. And those are all great things. But sometimes those aren’t enough direction to let people know really, this is what it means when we’re making sure every voice is heard. So get the teams to propose team members to propose the specific behaviors they think are important at this time. And then as a team decide on, which are the ones that we want to focus on? Because you don’t want to overwhelm people with a list of here’s the 10 things that we want to do. Here are the two or three or five that are the most important to us right now and that we’re going to pay attention to. And then like any good meeting, let’s make sure that we agree so we’ll do some sort of confirmatory thing to make sure that everybody is bought in and then a checkout of the meeting. And I just included this in the list of the framework because I really like this question and I was- while I was putting together these slides, I read a blog post from Jimmy Javelin. And the checkout question he suggested was, which one do you think will make the biggest difference? Which one is your favorite? And I love that as a way to get people to really focus on, “what have we decided to do here together? What part of this am I really excited about?” I also think that question might be a little very useful a little bit earlier when you’re trying to select the behaviors. If you can’t decide, which one do you think will make the biggest difference? Let’s focus on that right now. I added this in, this wasn’t part of my original blog posts but it’s something that came across my screen recently, and I just wanted to share to present a little bit of a different viewpoint on this topic of creating working agreements. Because it’s…could be useful to you, Roger Shwartz, wrote The Skilled Facilitator who’s really he’s an expert facilitator and expert in group process, wrote a really interesting blog post on LinkedIn recently that says, You know what, sometimes you shouldn’t leave this up to the group because the groups actually don’t know enough. If you’ve got a new team, or you’ve got a group that’s only coming together for a short period of time, they might not have enough knowledge and context to be able to propose useful behaviors that will really help the process. And his approach was to present a list to the team based on your experience as a facilitator based on your knowledge of the group process that will help this team, this group, be successful. His suggestion is you propose the working agreement and take it to the team. I’m a much bigger fan of having the team co-create their own working agreement, but I wanted to include this to provide a little bit of balance because I – as a facilitator – I can imagine some situations where I actually might want to see the working agreement of the team, I might want to propose, here’s a starting point that we can use. And I thought this article had some great ideas in it. So you might want to take a look at that and consider that as well.
So, on that note, I’m just going to go to the last slide. I just want to give you some ideas of some places that you can go for more information. Of course, there’s the blog post that I wrote, which is why I’m here today about how do we build team working agreements, what are what’s it revisits a lot of the stuff in this presentation clearly. Why is it important? Here’s some questions we might ask in terms of how to do it. Here’s how we attend to the care and feeding of our working agreement. I was inspired in a lot of this by Ashley and Diana’s book on liftoffs. Because I think working agreements are critical to getting a team off to success. And there’s some additional material in there about some examples of how they’ve done this in a variety of settings. And if you’re looking for inspiration that might be a place that you would go to. The other two places, the article by Jimmy gendlin that I mentioned, which was a great approach on bootstrapping teams with a working agreement, and then just just take a different viewpoint, the article from Roger. I’m going to stop here and just find out if there are any questions that I haven’t haven’t addressed. Any new questions that have come in. Host Yeah, we have two or one is, would you suggest having the team craft working agreements as part of a retro or in some other meeting?
Ellen Grove I try to do it, actually, at the outset. Like rather than waiting to unless you’re having a retr- You might tune your working agreement during a retro, that’s a great place to sort of think about, hey, do we need to adjust our working agreement based on what our current ambitions are based on the improvement ideas that we have in mind. But I think to actually initially create a working agreement, that needs to be part of…of… it’s got to be at the start, rather than at the after the retro is always after we’ve spent some time together. So, I usually do this as part of a team liftoff. Host Okay. Thank you. And then the next question that we have from Christine is what are some ideas that you’ve seen teams come up with to hold themselves accountable to their working agreements? Hmm.
Ellen Grove That is a great question. The safe word, the broccoli word, was an interesting… an interesting approach to that but it turned out to be really useful for that team. We had an explicit conversation about, here’s some of the things that we want to do. And they came up with a kind of a fun flag for people to use to signal, “Yeah, I don’t think this is what’s happening right now.” Um… just having those things present and visible has been really helpful to a lot of the teams that I work with. Um…sometimes they might even do – I’m hesitant to recommend this, but I’ve already started down this path, so I’ll say it- Sometimes they might sort of say, hey, Does somebody want to really focus on keeping an eye out for whether this is happening or not happening? And just kind of highlight to us if you notice it, and maybe take turns sharing that responsibility? I’m really care. I want to be really careful about suggesting that because you don’t want to appoint anybody on your team to be the “Behavior Police.” But sometimes it’s useful for, you know, to take turns going, you know, we know we have a problem with this. We need somebody to be paying attention and to at least notice when we’re doing that. But that’s really also very context and personality specific. But those are three of the things that I have seen work in practice. Host Awesome. Thank you. And then we have time for one last question. And it is what helps you create psychological safety?
Ellen Grove Oh, simple question. No problem, I’ll knock that off in 15 seconds. I mean, again, that’s that that’s a whole other thing. In terms of creating working agreements, I think one of the things that’s most important in terms of creating psychological safety is really helping the team understand that this is something that they are – this is a tool they are creating for themselves. This is not something that is for people outside the team to use, or I was going to say even necessarily be aware of although it’s going to be part of your visual management systems, hopefully. But coming into it from the approach, that, as a team, we want to work together, we want to support each other, we want to help this make our team a place where everybody can be the best that they can be. And really letting them drive the discussion of what do we need in order to do that. And that’s where, even though I shared at the end, the idea of possibly bringing a prepared working agreement to the table, I think one of the things you need for to make it as a safer conversation is to really put the control in the hands of the team. It’s not about what I expect of you. It’s about what you expect of yourselves, and do everything you can in order to reinforce that. Host Awesome, thank you. Well, everyone, we’re at the end of this session. I’m going to go ahead and relaunch our poll just to give some feedback.