Conquering agile with power and style

by Shawn Belling

During some recent work with a client company that is new to the use of Agile frameworks for managing technology projects; the client’s author and a manager set up a one-to-one conversation to ensure there was alignment on specific topics related to the program. The discussion centered around various elements of Agile: user story development, rigor, and discipline in the format of user stories, the definition of done, sizing, and estimating.

Once the author assured the colleague of the alignment of the thoughts behind these topics, the discussion moved on to the expectations and obligations of Agile coaching in an organization that is just beginning to use some aspects of Agile. There are often a variety of impediments that must be overcome, starting with a lack of training and extending to the common misconception that “agile” automatically means “faster.”

Part of the discussion focused on the obligation experienced practitioners have to constantly teach and coach those who are new to the methodology. This is especially critical when the organization has decided to use a methodology like Agile without providing any formal training to the project team or functional managers. The author and the Agile-experienced manager agreed that in addition to formal consulting or manager roles, the skilled practitioners on the team must always be thinking about coaching. They must also do so with an end goal in mind.

In this recent project, the author likens the experience to that of the team plunging into a swim meet and starting a race without the benefit of formal swimming instruction. The team jumps into the deep end, begins thrashing, and the only goal is to swim a lap and make it to the other side. Once there, the team can catch its breath, assess what it will take to swim another lap and dive back in. In these early laps, style and technique matter far less than striving to complete a segment and preventing the risk of sinking.

As the team executes each sprint, experienced practitioners on the project must be mindful of the need to coach to improve the team’s immediate execution, but also to keep long-term maturity growth in mind. This means that the senior practitioners must be aligned on organizational goals for proficiency and maturity in the specific methodology as well as in the overall project delivery.

Returning to the swimming metaphor – the coach must consider not only immediate improvement in basic technique to help the team complete the current lap, but also a vision of how the team could perform once they’ve mastered the basic technique and are working on improvements in speed and efficiency. This translates back to our Agile project and team as follows:

  • User stories: Teaching a common format and consistently reinforcing the purpose of user stories.
  • Definition of done: Reinforcing a rigorous definition of done to ensure the team embraces value delivery during each sprint and avoidance of technical debt.
  • Improved estimating using relative sizing: Encouraging the team to review and improve their assessment of user stories and their velocity to create more reliable estimates for every sprint.
  • Commitment and accountability: Creating and reinforcing the expectation that the team makes a realistic commitment for each sprint and then holds themselves and each other accountable for delivering.
  • Efficient meetings: Coaching so that the stand-ups, backlog grooming, and sprint planning meetings become progressively more efficient and effective.
  • Impediments: Coaching the team in quickly identifying and acting to remove or overcome impediments during a sprint.
  • Candid and transparent metrics and retrospectives: Facilitating and expecting transparency, accountability, and respectful feedback during sprint reviews so that the team is focused on continuous improvements in a safe yet demanding environment.

As experienced practitioners, Agile coaching with desired end-states in mind through a logical maturity progression will help the team deliver continuous value as well as continuous improvement. Deliberate and intentional guidance from skilled Agile coaches and team members will help the rookies progress through the thrashing stages and quickly learn to perform with power and style.


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