Recently a client called on us to help bring motivation back to a development team. Although the final deadline for delivery was nearing rapidly, team members started to leave the project, worn out and fed up. Need it be said that this didn’t exactly promote work joy and team spirit – or, for that matter, diminish the already unrealistic workload. How had matters come to these dire straits? It surely wasn’t the case that a dedicated multi-skilled dev team was lacking. Only, apart from this, the project seemed to be tainted with all the stains one can think of to make being Agile and rolling out Scrum difficult or impossible. When teams are immersed in a waterfall culture and stuck in the iron triangle of project management, there is little chance for Agility to be a success. Making matters worse, a belated start of the project (due to a delayed go) had gradually created a growing requirement/necessity to work quickly rather than focusing on quality.

The easy answer would be… just fix Scrum and all the rest will follow. That makes sense, for indeed, Scrum can fix a whole lot, with effort, time and a great deal of customer convincing. Creating customer satisfaction by maximizing the business value, is of course the ultimate goal of every software project. But the belated launch of the project and the sheer impossibility of still attaining the definition of success – made me realize that it would be very wrong to talk about story points or speeding up velocity. It wouldn’t even be right to keep focusing on minimizing the MVP – which in this case is at a bare minimum already. We all have to choose our battles wisely. The first thing to do, I thought, is enable the team to find a common denominator, a list of preferred behaviours and shared interests that would make them feel better as a team. Primary focus is ensuring that the project mood board switches from taking to giving energy to the people working on it.

High Voltage

This exercise makes it possible to disconnect the team members’ degree of happiness and motivation from the looming deadlines and the ever-changing backlog. This makes success somehow achievable again, albeit a more personal sort of success, focused on growth and team dynamics. I know this sounds like a long shot, but at least it could possibly lead to a solution with a long-term outcome. In working together the Agile way, we must always remember that people and interactions come first. Read the Manifesto carefully – and you will see that the psychological safety of a team is key to the whole lot – enabling flow away from the items on the right and making room for the items on the left. From there, all the rest is due to follow. Burning up story points should never be accompanied by burning up energy. What is burning down at one side should be building up at the other. Once this is ensured, progress comes at a steady pace.

Details about the exercise

Are you interested in knowing how I helped the team detect these common denominators? For that I used the liberating structure 1-2-4-All, which goes like this:

  • Everybody gets a card and a thin marker.
  • In a time box of one minute, everyone by themselves writes down what comes after “I hate it when people…” (Somehow it’s easier for people to find examples of unwanted behaviour, than asking them for what they appreciate.)
  • Next two minutes they pair up and share their examples, thinking the value and good behaviour that could counterbalance the negative one. This value should be written on the other side of each card.
  • Team up to make a group of four and share your good behaviours and values during a time box of four minutes. Start clustering them when doubles or connections start to emerge.
  • For ten to fifteen minutes (depending on how big the group is), everybody explains to the group their preferred behaviour and the related value. Try to cluster them into groups and define a common denominator for each cluster, to make it more manageable. Make sure that everyone understands them and that nobody perceives any contradictory combinations.
  • Ask for commitment of the group to try and stick to these behaviours and values. Anyone who doesn’t respect them, can be made accountable and should be addressed by the others.

Don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions regarding this topic!

Michaëla is an Agile coach with a focus on value and the human aspects of work. She is devoted to Agile & Scrum, not just as a mindset and framework for collaborative product delivery, but also for their general quality as ways to unlearn innate/inbred habits that prevent us from learning efficiently. A true Agile mindset enables enterprises to break down siloes, and build professional human networks throughout the company and beyond.