What not to say to agile teams

Three types of leaders stand in the way of their team's success with agile. Learn what's missing from your agile conversations
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Consider the following phrases leaders commonly use with agile teams. 

Tara: “It’s vital we make our big client happy. I need you to be really committed and energized to get the product in shape for the big launch on the customer’s deadline.”

Yuko: “I review each project weekly, and if all the planned story points are done, we’re good; if not, your manager needs to push to get you working more efficiently.”

Jorge: “I leave you alone so you can get work done. Each team has a certified Scrum Master and we hired a world-class agile coach to keep everyone on track, so you don’t need to hear from me.”

[ Are you holding your scrum masters back? Read also: Scrum master: 5 signs you need to rethink the role. ]

Frustrated with agile? It might be your fault

Conversational mistakes can undermine an agile developer's efficiency and motivation.

Tara, Yuko, and Jorge approached their roles differently, yet they had one thing in common. None of them were getting the business results they wanted, and they were frustrated with the development teams they considered responsible. Their frustration was misplaced. Why? Because they each were making common mistakes that undermine efficiency and motivation. Their leadership styles, and their ways of speaking to their teams, worked against the nimble, creative technology organizations that they wanted, and they were unaware of it.

Luckily, all three executives were able to do something to address their self-inflicted productivity problems: they changed their conversations, and thereby changed their organization’s culture. It’s not an easy road, but we’ve seen it consistently work wonders for agile teams and their leaders. We’ll illustrate how each of them introduced curiosity and transparency to transform their relationship with their developers.

Tara: The cheerleader

Tara used emotional language and rhetorical flourishes to convince her team that they should deliver what she and the client had agreed to. She was so busy advocating eloquently that she left no time for curiosity.

She never asked what obstacles the team perceived, or what options they were considering for meeting the deadline. As a result, she and the tech team worked night and day, but missed several opportunities to cut scope and to work more efficiently. In the end, they were late on the deadline by several months.

When Tara improved her curiosity, she and the team discovered an opportunity to invest in a totally new product that delighted the big client.

Yuko: The accountant

She was so busy accounting for every minute spent that she forgot to be transparent.

Yuko asked a lot of questions. Questions about speed, working hours, progress against estimates, and lines of code per developer. She gathered a lot of data and used it to push her team harder for progress. But she was so busy accounting for every minute spent that she forgot to be transparent.

Her team had no idea what motivated her to push so hard or why the product was so important; instead they focused entirely on answering her detailed questions and making the metrics look good. They were bang on time according to all the numbers — right up to the day they delivered a product that users hated because it didn’t meet any of the real requirements that only Yuko understood.

However, once she found ways to be more transparent about the motivation behind the project, she helped her team understand what and who her software was for, and they found an off-the-shelf product that met user needs for a tenth the cost of a custom build.

Jorge: The absentee

The outside experts provided no local context and allowed for no adjustments to match his company's situation.

Jorge thought that amassing certifications and hiring expert consultants was enough to make his organization “agile.” Sadly, he was missing out on both transparency and curiosity. His team held all the right meetings and attended all the right ceremonies, but this “cargo cult” approach did nothing to inform or motivate his team. The outside expertise he’d brought in provided no local context and allowed for no adjustments to match his company’s situation.

The team members were “agile” all right, but not creative, aligned, or committed, and the result was decidedly mediocre delivery and quality; the project was soon shelved and forgotten.

On his next project, Jorge engaged much more with the development team, who felt empowered to break the agile “rules” and made huge gains in quality and productivity.

Creative conversations: The way forward

As we outlined in our recent book, Agile Conversations, doing your own conversational analysis can help you change your conversations and improve results.

If you are not getting the results you want, you might be a cheerleader like Tara, an accountant like Yuko, or an absentee like Jorge. Each was willing to accept that they were probably contributing to their organization’s poor results and took steps to address their failings.

Here’s an exercise they used to bring more curiosity and transparency to their process — try it yourself!

Think of a conversation with your team that you’d like to improve — one in the past or one you are planning to have. To look for signs of curiosity and transparency, write the words each person said in one column on the right-hand side of a piece of paper, and next to each, on the left, record the thoughts that you didn’t share in the conversation.

Circle all the question marks. If there are none, it's a sure sign of lack of inquiry and curiosity. Then underline thoughts and feelings that you haven’t shared - if your page is covered in red marks, that indicates missing transparency.

Once you’ve reflected on what is going wrong in your conversation, it’s time to try revising it, and practicing in a role-play with someone else, to see how to increase your transparency and curiosity in future conversations.

You may have to repeat this record-reflect-revise-roleplay loop several times before the new skills and language feel natural. As the new conversational approach engages your team in a real give-and-take, you'll unlock the dynamics that make agile methods work.

We predict you’ll get great results from applying transparency and curiosity, but these are just the start. They form the foundation of the key five conversations for high performing teams, conversations that cover trust, fear, why, commitment, and accountability. Change your conversations and create truly agile results.

[ How can automation free up more staff time for innovation? Get the free eBook: Managing IT with Automation. ] 

Douglas Squirrel, co-author of Agile Conversations, has been coding for 40 years and has led software teams for 20. He uses the power of conversations to create dramatic productivity gains in technology organizations of all sizes.
Jeffrey Fredrick, co-author of Agile Conversations, is an internationally recognized expert in software development with over 25 years’ experience covering both sides of the business/technology divide. His experience includes roles as Vice President of Product Management, Vice President of Engineering, and Chief Evangelist.