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self-organizing

How can Scrum Masters help their teams to Self-Organize?

in Agile Engineering/Teams by

Working togetherSometimes, teams need a little nudge to help to self-organize. Remember self-organize means the team takes ownership of not only how to produce the desired end results, but they are active participants in understanding the product/project and they work together to ensure they are operating as a team. It is not too uncommon for teams to sit back and wait to be told to self-organize. I usually see this with newly formed teams or teams that have historically worked under command and control environments.

A colleague of mine argues that most people operate this way — they want to be told what to do. Part of me agrees with this concept, I see this during training sessions all the time. But I don’t think this lack of self-starting self-organization stems from people not knowing how and needing to be told. Instead, I think it’s people waiting to be given permission. This behavior comes through loudly in training sessions with folks new to Agile. I’ll often use various interactive facilitative techniques during training and it usually takes at least one person to help get the interaction going. Some of the tricks and advice I’ve used and received not only works during training workshops, but I think the same things can be applied by Scrum Masters (as well as those folks in leadership positions) to help kick-start or trigger a team to self-organize. Here they are:

Practice the Pregnant Pause. The idea is that if you want to trigger conversation, create silence. Here’s how it works, state the problem or objective, or simply a broad statement that you want to trigger conversation about. Now, here’s where the fun begins – count to nine. Let the silence begin. In fact, if you have to count to 99 — I guarantee that someone will break the silence. A good friend of mine called it doing a Michael Cain, say something and throw a long pause in there and just let the team fill in. If they don’t, then maybe the meeting or discussion is over.

post it on white boardStorming. I’m not referring to Tuckman, instead I’m talking about brainstorming. There are some great techniques that you can leverage out there that will get team members involved, even those people that are normally quiet. All you need is a whiteboard, maybe some easel paper, post-it notes, and some markers. It is a amazing to see what starts happening when someone throws out a question or a problem statement, and then watching a team start brainstorming ideas.

Get Out. Yes that’s right, sometimes it’s best to just throw out an idea and instruct the team to come up with the solution, and then walk out of the room. I’ve done this myself, and I’ve never been let down — even with brand new teams.

Become a Facilitator Master. Above I mentioned brainstorming, to do it well you’ll need to practice and learn some techniques. There are many good books that can help, [amazon_link id=”0596804172″ target=”_blank” ]Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers[/amazon_link] by David Grey, Sunni Brown, and James Macanufo, [amazon_link id=”1591843197″ target=”_blank” ]Unfolding the Napkin: The Hands-On Method for Solving Complex Problems with Simple Pictures[/amazon_link] by Dan Roam, and [amazon_link id=”0470601787″ target=”_blank” ]Visual Meetings: How Graphics, Sticky Notes and Idea Mapping Can Transform Group Productivity[/amazon_link] by David Sibbet. Taking a few hours to read the books and a couple hours practicing some of the facilitating techniques will carry you a long way and help the team out greatly.

Have Some Fun. It sounds easy, but it’s been shown time and time again that the team’s productivity is often related to their attitude and the general feeling around the project. When the team starts getting too busy or too tense — this is the time when the Scrum Master should step in, assist, slow-down, or just feed the team with encouragement and substance.

Self-Organizing and Strengths Finder

in Agile Engineering/Product Management/Teams by

Team WorkA key part of any good team, especially an agile team, is teamwork and more importantly a team of hardworking individuals that both care about their teammates and they understand the strengths of their fellow teammates.  In the sporting world you will often hear of situations where one player will attempt to play outside his strengths.  Or what is more prevalent, a player has an outstanding year due to either scheme or competition or simply a well formed team that emphasizes the strengths of the players.  Then that player is a free-agent and goes to another team, and the player’s career sags.  This is primarily due to familiarity, chemistry, and scheme that doesn’t fit the strengths of the player.

There is a concept that surrounds Scrum teams and that is the concept of “self-organizing” team.  Now this concept is often not clearly defined and depending on the Agile coach and or trainer, a team member might view this differently (see Does Self Organizing Team Imply Self Assembly?) .  Nonetheless, if we define self-organizing in the simplest form of a team that has the ability to take inputs and based on knowing certain attributes of their fellow team members, work is doled out, people are paired up, issues are worked out, team members are brought in and pushed out, and, in summary, things just start getting done and done effectively.

The “certain attributes” that a team uses for team self-organization often includes:

  • Team member workload
  • Technical background
  • Domain expertise
  • Team member availability
  • Understanding of the tasks-at-hand
  • Priority of tasks
  • Team member “likes”
  • Team member weaknesses
  • Team member strengths

Of course, all of these are important to consider; however, one would argue that the strengths are where all self-organizing should be focused.  As you guessed it, I’m the one to make this argument – and I encourage everyone who runs any type of team to take advantage of Clifton StrengthsFinder from the Gallup News organization (yes, that’s the same Gallup that does many politico and social polls).   StrengthsFinder came about from Dr. David Clifton – he is known as the father of Strengths Psychology.  The focus of StrengthsFinder is to help people identify their top five strenghts where they work best, understand these strengths, and see how focusing on using these strengths versus working on improving areas of weaknesses is much more productive, self-rewarding, and ultimately successful.

Some have grouped StrengthsFinder into the area of self-help or lumped it with personality tests such as Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator.  It is definitely not a personality test and if you did want to categorize it as self-help, you will find it to be much, much better and more effective than any other self-help book or tool.  When I was approached by a colleague that went through the StrengthsFinder exercise and he express the passion that this is for real and fulfilling, I was convinced I had to give it a go.  So after I took the 30 minute survey and got my results, I quickly learned and understood better why I say, do, and act certain ways.  It helped me rationalize and focus my energies within the areas of my strengths so that I can help my team and the company become more successful.  This didn’t mean I wouldn’t ever work on improving my weaknesses, but it did help me recognize where I can use my strengths to overcome or disguise my weaknesses.

So, you are now asking, why does this have anything to do with Self-Organizing agile teams.  Well, soon after going through the exercise myself, Dave (my colleague mentioned above) implored me to have our whole product development team go through the survey – we did.  After everyone had their top five strengths, we compiled the list and posted it on our team wiki.  We all sat down and discussed what we learned about ourselves and reflected on the strengths of others.

At the time when we did this exercise, we were about ten months into using a Scrum agile methodology.   We had earlier delivered a huge product release and we were coming off a really tough period where everyone was getting burned out by the product launch, supporting new customers, and having some frustrating issues largely due to incomplete quality processes.   Soon after experiencing StrengthsFinder, we saw that the team which would normally “mouse-up” during difficult team discussions, would start leaning on each other strengths.  This helped me as the team lead, to simply sit back and let the team work through challenges that when previously encountered, the team would simply brush under the rug.  Going through StrengthsFinder seemed to give the entire team more confidence and it helped those team members that would often simply focus on trying to improve their weaknesses to instead, embrace their strengths and take on the tasks that best suit them.   Not only would they have more self-confidence, but they also embraced the strengths of their peers.  When we would start new feature or enhancement development, the team members often signed quickly and they would ask a fellow team member that may have been stronger in another area to assist (e.g. using a person that has the Relator strength to interview subject matter experts).

Within two months after working through StregnthsFinders, we experienced measurable quality improvements and we moved closer to a self-organizing team where anyone on the team could lead within their strengths.

So if you are working within an Agile team and you are struggling with the “self-organizing” aspects or your team has hit a continuous improvement plateau, give Clifton StrengthsFinder 2.0 a try.  The books required can be obtained for less than $13 at Amazon or Borders.

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