Archive for the ‘Leadership’ Category.

Building a Learning Culture on Agile Teams

I was thrilled to present at Agile 2009 on building a learning culture on agile teams. This post is a short summary of the presentation. You can view the presentation on slideshare. The image below is a mindmap of the presentation:

Building a Learning Culture Mindmap

The main point is that in order to embrace change:

We should strive not only to deliver value today but simultaneously increase our capacity to deliver value tomorrow.


There are so many dimensions we can learn: our products, our customers, our domain, new technologies and so on in order to embrace change and deliver value. Now, embracing change is supported by learning and so we can consider change models for insights.  Even though the change model from Virginia Satir is modeled on dysfunctional families I believe the applicability to agile teams is sound. I often find the limiting factors in building high performance agile teams are the team members mental models and the team’s ability to work together effectively.

To build our capacity to embrace change and achieve ever higher levels of performance we need to build learning teams. This is one of the five disciplines that Peter Senge discusses in his classic text The Fifth Discipline. I find two main challenges that the five disciplines present to agile teams. First, much of the book applies to larger organizations than agile teams and second the book is short on practical tools to help learning teams. The supporting text,  The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook and other tools primarily from Agile Retrospectives and Fearless Change provide activities and simulations that you can use with agile teams.

Learning map

Now, I want to bridge the game from the principles of team learning to the practices by way of an agile learning map. I built a learning map based on on the Chinese symbol for learning. It provides four key areas that are necessary for building a safe learning culture:

  1. Intentional – Proactively plan and retrospect on learning activities
  2. Incremental – Focus on small incremental. progressive learning
  3. Infrastructure – Build a workspace structure that supports effective learning
  4. Individual Safety – Make sure people feel safe to learn

The presentation provides a more detailed map of activities and patterns you can use in each of the above areas.

Building the teams learning muscle is key to long-term agile success!

Truthfulness on Software Teams

A short while back I invited Mishkin Berteig to come to Waterloo to talk about agility. I was looking for something that would have a broad appeal to developers, testers and so on but would also have depth. Mishkin drew a full house and gave a great presentation on delivering successful agile projects. He covered the agile bases with a good overview of agile values and practices. Things got deeper and more interesting when he talked about truth. I know he is sincere about this because of the Scrum Master training I received from him. Mishkin’s email signature is:

“Truthfulness is the foundation of all human virtues” – Baha’u’llah

Mishkin pointed out that agile methods rely on people speaking the truth and acting with integrity. I thought this was very insightful since most agilists focus on either technical aspects of agility such as TDD, refactoring or they focus on team and leadership issues. But what Mishkin is talking about is a deep personal honesty to see things how they really are and to act accordingly.

You see, I have from time to time in my career told little white lies to my peers and managers. And I almost always got away with it. For example, once when I was developing a financial application I made what I thought was a good design decision but really struggled to get it to work. I did not want to appear as if I had made a mistake. I basically lead everyone to believe all was well and meanwhile I worked insane hours to get it all working. I was letting pride get in my way and was lying to cover up a bad technical decision. And this lack of truthfulness prevented me from seeking help. I resented the long hours I had to put in and I was unhappy. It was unfair of me to hide the reality from my peers and managers. I suspect I am not alone.

Now, I think it should be obvious that on an agile team you simply could not get away with such behavior for any length of time. There is collective code ownership, daily stand-ups, task and story tracking, sustainable pace; all of which make the whole process much more transparent. So, on the one hand I agree with Mishkin that agile methods rely on people speaking and acting truthfully. But in practice agile methods make it hard to say anything but the truth!

But we are devious creatures and so I would like to leave you with some questions to ponder:

Developer with halo

  • Are you honestly expressing your doubts and concerns in retrospectives?
  • If something is bothering you with another member of the team do you act in a direct but respectful way to resolve it?
  • Are you able to freely admit when someone has a better idea or design than yours?
  • Are you willing to admit when you make a mistake?
  • Do you say the same things about someone when you are face-to-face with them to do you say something different behind their back?

If you can’t honestly answer yes to the above questions then maybe you’re not as honest as you should be. Start by being honest with yourself. Pick one apsect of your behavior that that is not as truthful as you would like and strive to be more truthful.

Truthfulness really is the foundation of all human virtues … and agile teams.

Agile Coaching and Leadership Retreat

The need for a more enlightened leadership style was drilled home to me at one client’s site. I was continually frustrated when brainstorm sessions and meeting that I planned were complete failures. I had a hard time getting the team to come out of their cubicles let alone participate in retrospectives. At the peak of my frustration the team was profiled using Myers-Briggs personality typing. I was typed as an extrovert and every other person on the team was typed as an introvert. Well no wonder I was getting nowhere, I was trying to get the team to work like I did, as an extrovert rather than adapting to how they wanted to work. So, I made a real effort to prepare information ahead of meetings so the team had time to reflect, used more democratic techniques for retrospectives and so on. The result was a much improved team interaction. I realized then that effective agile teams require enlightened coaching and leadership to steer the team through challenges like this.

When I ran into Deb Hartman at AgileCoachCamp it was clear that her focus is very much on coaching and leadership for agile teams. I find this refreshing because there is a lot of focus on the technical aspects of agile such as TDD, refactoring, continuous integration and so on. I sometimes feel this “software” side of agility gets short shrift. She ran some great workshops on effective listening, powerful questions and agile games.

Now Deb has put together an agile coaching and leadership retreat with Michael Spayd and Lyssa Adkins:

Co-Active Coaching Fundamentals for Agile Leaders is designed to provide Agile Coaches with fundamental professional coaching skills. Based on the “Co-Active Coaching Fundamentals” course of The Coaches Training Institute, it is taught through participation, using practical skills you can apply right away,and offers extensive opportunities to coach and to receive feedback on your own coaching.

In particular, you will learn to:
   •   Use the four cornerstones of Co-Active Coaching
   •   Communicate with clients using the 5 contexts of Co-Active Coaching
   •   Use the Professional Wheel of Life assessment tool with clients
   •   Distinguish and use the three levels of listening
   •   Demonstrate the most often used coaching skills

The retreat is planned for August 1-3, 2008 in Toronto to accommodate agile coaches and leaders planning to attend Agile2008. Learn more at