If things do not turn out as expected
Adventures of an agile coach, and many thanks to my coach

 The setting

As a scrum master, I have the good fortune to coach a team that is already well advanced in its agile mindset: cooperation, focused on quality, improving its performance through retrospectives. The product owner leaves the necessary freedom and is easily accessible. A Dream Team.

Our biggest challenge is to extend this drive to the sister team involved in delivering the product. Our Team believes that the breakdown in two teams is artificial, and we had better plan and work together, end-to-end. Just do it, then?

The sister-Team is an different matter though. They are constantly making negative, sarcastic remarks, offer hard judgments, isolate themselves. Criticism of everything and everyone. “The agile transformation really only serves to always change priority and to make everything the responsibility of the team…”.

 Light point is their scrum master. He sees how it all can work, thinks in the agile mindset, and tries to guide his team in the right direction. Hats off.

Two teams that need to work more closely together, one mostly because of the common planning and the other to make priorities more transparent …

We chose a format that offers both in one go, an interactive game, SAFe City.

The game

We had everything nicely planned: everyone invited, without obligation (another extra meeting!), everyone motivated. A day in advance the Dream team had registered massively, and from the unruly team one person would come. After a successful extra motivating conversation with them, it was exciting to look forward to the workshop. It couldn't go wrong, surely.

But it did...

The unruly team showed up as one man. The Dream Team was late, very reluctant. We started with 20 minutes delay. The unruly team proposed to form mixed groups, but the dream team pointedly did not move, not even after insistence. They talked constantly among themselves, rolled their eyes, exchanged signs of so-called rapport. The electricity in the air rose, and for me as facilitator the tension increased. I was disappointed in my dream team, had to give up meeting the goal of the workshop, just tried to save what was to be saved. The two product owners shuffled disapprovingly on their seat.

The first round of the interactive game was slow, uncomfortable, and none of the enthusiastic collaboration we normally see appeared. The game yielded results, but no experience. We discussed the results, but did not really come to reflection. After a short break half of the dream team stayed away. A relief.

The second round was better, but we had to gain time and this adjustment made us miss part of the result. In the end, we hurriedly enumerated the results bit still did not have enough time for reflection. We quickly came to a few action points, but no one really listened to each other and the decision was not carried by the group.

Everyone was dissatisfied, me included. My Dream Team turned out to be a nightmare, the product owner found it a big time waste, the so-called unruly team felt even more misunderstood, the exercise messed up. I felt it all as a big failure, we achieved nothing.

The next day

A good nights’ sleep brought no comfort. Apart from a sermon by the product owner, nobody talked about the experience. The whole team was under tension by new issues that threatened to compromise the deadline. The product owner expected them solved, and the customer expects quality and they were self-organizing as a team, and for that they had hired the scrum master, the product owner ruled. No?


When you are lucky to have a great coach

I decided to call Lydia. Not exactly looking forward to my next meeting with the product owner.

Lydia could only spare me fifteen minutes. I ranted for 10 minutes, then cursed myself that only 5 minutes remained...

She first pointed out that I didn't have to solve the problem. I was there only to help the teams and the product owner to achieve their objectives. I knew that one … but it was still a big comfort to hear it.

She summed up the whole wretched situation in three action items: do something about the turbulence surrounding the urgent issues, discuss about follow-up steps with the product owner, and handle the behaviour of the participants. All of a sudden, it was no longer a big mess, but only 3 things.

Moreover, she stated that three is too many to tackle in one go. Choose two, and ignore the third. Oh yeah, she'd recommended me that one before, I remembered. It had worked, too. Would probably work again, and the number of problems reduced by one more third. The behavior of the people could wait until Monday in the retro. Good plan.

One minute left. “Conduct a coaching conversation with the owner, do not go defensive. What has the workshop brought him? Why? What does he want to achieve? What can help him? Look for connection, search, reflect... Heard it before, but hearing it again from the coach made all the difference.

And then you do it...

I regained courage. I put the three problems in front of me and postponed one to Monday. The other two seemed to be even smaller. Solution-oriented coaching: it had worked before, I knew the technique. Just apply it, I encouraged myself.

I arrived at the office. Full commotion about a new priority. Again. I listened, nodded, yes, that was the issue, we could no longer put up with it.  Right?

Off to the next challenge, a planning meeting. A fight with the First Product owner. Should that task cost so much time, does it really require all that work? We want to go for quality and not take 4 months to find out that... I summarized the steps on the whiteboard. The team decided to split the whole thing up. After the first steps they would make a reliable estimation and engage in dialogue with the product owner. Done.

Phew. Half an hour left for the difficult meeting with the Second product owner start. I decided to take a look at the solution-oriented coaching. 7 steps. At the second step, my colleague Scrum master came along. About the game yesterday: why the teams made it so difficult. Searched on the internet for something about prioritizing back logs. Found a drawing. Right on target.

We had another 10 minutes to prepare the conversation with the product owner.

Turned out great. The game, yes, there was something in it. That first round, we must certainly apply it in practice. For now, we address prioritizing too intuitively, always requires adjustment. The second round, planning together. Yes, we really need that. Work together towards the same goal. Our backlog must be Common and Balanced. 4 themes. Yes, right, exactly as on the drawing.

Piece of cake…

Only thing left: give the first product owner feedback. Who was very pleased that we were finally putting that game into practice yesterday. And that the second product owner agreed, had in fact proposed it? Top!

End the day at my desk. Comes another one of the team members. Say, how come that our two teams always work on different priorities? Cannot the product owners talk to each other?  So I end my day explaining that that is exactly what they will start doing. And we can propose some improvements in the way of working. I have some up my sleeve…

Thanks, Lydia.

Sign in to leave a comment


Motivation and Team Work
Working in a well-functioning team makes us happier.