Coaches! I’m talking to YOU

I know some amazing, wonderful and inspiring coaches.  I value them and am better for knowing and learning from them.  Then….there are “coaches”.  These people are not really coaches. They’re imitations.  In the spirit of keeping it positive, let’s review what coaches behavior should look like.  I would also like to take a moment to thank them for, once again, teaching me what NOT to do.  I guess I should also apologize.  I’m sure this will make some unhappy.  It’s not meant to.

Let’s begin shall we?

1.  Coaches will support the team on their journey rather than berate a team for “doing it wrong”.

2.  Coaches will coach individuals individually rather than in front of the team.

3.  Coaches will notice when a team member has disengaged and do something about it.

4.  Coaches will be humble.  It’s ALWAYS a learning experience for everyone.

5.  Coaches will apply the rules they ask teams to follow to themselves.

6.  Coaches will coach rather than pontificate.

7.  Coaches will enjoy guiding you rather than lecturing you.

8.  Coaches will remember what it was like before they called themselves “coach”.

9.  Coaches will not call themselves a coach until they deserve it.

10. Coaches will leave the Scrum Master alone so as not to muck up what she’s got going on with the team.

Enjoy the view from up there, guys.  It’s a sure thing you’re going to fall and you’re so high up there, it’s going to hurt.  Ouch!

My Favorite Team

My favorite team is the one I made the most mistakes with and learned the most from.  They also happen to be the most high-performing team I have seen.  They had trust, drive, commitment to each other and their work.  More importantly, they had fun.  It didn’t matter how difficult the work was, they still had a blast with each other.  Managers knew to leave us alone.  They trusted the team and it was well-deserved.  I had the pleasure of getting back together with them this week and we picked right back up where we left off.  Sometimes, I wish we could “get the band back together” but, I know that’s not part of my learning plan.

I couldn’t tell you what makes this team so special to me.  They just are.  This was the team that taught me to worry about the team and not about the work.

There Is More Than One “RIGHT” Way

After Scrum Mastering many teams, I have seen all kinds of approaches used to resolve a team issue or challenge.  When I observe Coaches or Scrum Masters advice being offered with some insistence thrown in, I cringe a little. The reason why I cringe is because I used to be the person giving the “advice” with insistence.  And, let’s be honest,  it wasn’t advice.  It was direction.  Rather than advising, I have tried to learn offering.

Offering recognizes the teams status as an empowered, self-organizing unit.  They can choose to accept your offer in whole or in part.  They can also reject it and that’s OK.  Teams need to chart their own course, try their own way and experiment.  When they’re successful, it’s all theirs.  When they’re not the learning is all theirs too and they will incorporate it into their next adventure.  However…..

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different results. – Albert Einstein

Sometimes, you have to put your foot down.  For example, when a team is constantly committing (but not really) to too many story points in a sprint and can’t understand WHY they’re not able to complete them, putting a cap on points in the next sprint is a good thing to do (IMHO). That said, a lot will depend on the team.  Are they honest with each other? Are they honest with themselves?  Are you willing to have your advice followed, be unsuccessful and mess with the teams’ sense of empowerment? What is it you want them to learn?  Really ask yourself tough questions before putting your foot down and identify other avenues to help return sanity to the team.  Make sure your motivation and intention is pure.

No two teams are alike.  What worked for one may or may not work for another.  Google, offers multiple routes to get us from point A to point B but, the selection is in our own hands.  The same should be true for teams.  There is more than one “right” way and you’re not a traffic cop.

Don’t you just love skeptics?

I actually do.  Especially when they’re on my team.  There’s nothing I relish more than showing someone that, yes, Scrum actually works.  I love them in class when they ask all kinds of questions trying to get me to say “You’re right.  Scrum and Agile won’t work for you.  Keep on keepin’ on.”  I think, in order to really get Agile to work, the people have to change.  Scrum forces the change but, at the end of the day, it’s still the people.  And when you have a team that is excited and doing well and a skeptic joins and tries to crush their Agile will to live, well, the new team member is in for surprise.  You can’t be skeptical when a team is producing, offering help, learning and having fun.  It’s hard to be skeptical when you feel great about your work AND you’re not on a death march anymore.  Also hard to be skeptical when you discover risks sooner and before it really, truly hurts.  What I love most about the skeptics is they become the BEST advocates.  Yep.  I love the skeptics.

Does your team have a cold?

I started running again recently.  It’s miserable when you have done NO exercise for so many years to start trying to get back into it.  I was following a plan that eases you back in and I was doing really well.  I had just about completed my fourth week.  That’s kind of a magical week for me when doing anything new because it’s right around the time something starts to become a habit and, well, it gets a little easier.

Enter THE COLD.  I was so miserable and, truly, not able to run.  The cold turned into an upper respiratory and went on and on and on despite my best efforts to be better.  By the time I felt better almost another four weeks had passed.  Earlier running almost habit….GONE.

I went for my first run on Monday and it was truly horrible.  I was amazed at how much I had lost and, honestly, thought about throwing in my shoes.  Today, I went out for my second one and it was easier.  Not awesome but, better.  I felt good and I’m pretty sure on Friday, it will be even easier.

It got me to thinking though how teams work so hard to get into their groove and establish new habits and sometimes, something happens to shake them up a bit.  Like…. a cold.  Maybe it’s a new team member joining or a major change in scope but, it throws them off their game.  It can be discouraging and, as a Scrum Master, you have to help them get better and quickly.  You don’t want the cold to turn into more and have them really thrown off their course.

So, how do you do this?

1. Pay attention to the mood of the room and be alert for the first symptoms

2.  If the symptoms persist, ask questions:  How do you guys feel everything is going?  Does something feel off?  Remember to be quiet and wait for them to break the silence.

3.  Keep the conversation going until they find the diagnosis.

4.  Ask the team the best way to treat it and start treatment immediately.

You don’t have to wait for a retro.  There’s a chance that will be too long.  Nip it in the bud early!


I believe a team needs trust to be high-performing.  This isn’t new news nor is it a unique opinion.  What does trust on a team look like?

  • Team members are open and respectful with one another.
  • There are no “bad” conversations.  The lens a trusting team applies is one of “this will help us be better than we already are”.
  • The environment is happy, safe and focused.
  • Team members look out for one another.
  • Team members are allowed to have “bad” days.
  • Team members, no matter how difficult or challenging the work is, like being on the team.  In fact, the more challenging the better!

There’s more that what I have posted above but, it’s a start.  As a Scrum Master, when there is a lack of trust on the team, it’s vital to help the team establish it.  It’s not an easy thing to do.  I’m curious what others have done to help a team build trust.


Recently, I conducted a retrospective with the team which was interesting and more revealing than expected.  I gave each team member a piece of paper.  The top half was divided into two sections:

1.  What my team mates can expect of me

2.  What I expect of my team mates.

The lower half was left blank.  Each person filled out their own top half.  Once everyone was completed, I had them pass their paper to the left.  Once passed the timer (2 mins) started.  The person with the paper could review what was at the top but, they had to write what they, personally, expected of that person and attribute their name.  Once all the papers made it around the room everyone took some time to review what had been written and share some observations.

What they found was they all had more in the “what team mates can expect of me” than what they expected of their team mates.  Across the board, everyone expected honesty and trust. The expectations others had written were revealing in that some were compliments such as “Continue to bring your energy to the team every day.”  Some were clearly not compliments like “Let other people complete a sentence.”.

It was a very open, honest and constructive conversation.   No one was hurt or insulted.   What was really cool was it didn’t stop in the retro.  Some people had their own, one on one, conversations and relationships were built.

I’m hoping this was a good first step in establishing trust on this team.  We’ll see….

Foundations Are Important

Foundations are what people build on physically and mentally.  If an investment isn’t made in establishing a solid, built-to-last foundation you’ll be hard-pressed to add anything on top of it successfully.  Seems reasonable, right?

Yesterday was a tough day for me.  I started coaching a team recently that had the benefit of a consultant coach for about six weeks.  This team was chomping at the bit to “just get going”.  I had been told they had been in training, workshops and all kinds of other things prior to my arrival and so I, incorrectly, assumed the foundation had been established.

Lesson #1 (for the 100th time):  Don’t make assumptions.  Trust but verify.

So, two weeks ago, they started sprinting.  As you can imagine, it was a solid, foundational learning experience.  Planning was done(ish).  They had been instructed to use Scrumban.  Admittedly, I am far from an expert in Kanban and know even less about Scrumban so I wasn’t certain about how to go about helping this team.  I went to do some on-line research and consulted with some coaches I trust.  I learned that attempting a hybrid from the get-go might not be a good idea, but a committed team could work through it.  I crossed my fingers and hoped they knew what the heck they were doing.

Lesson #2:  Sometimes, you risk losing an excited team by not trusting your gut.

It was really hard – for them and for me.  I found myself at a loss for what to do and they were clearly very frustrated with the process as was I.  Back to consulting with trusted coaches who advised me to take them back to Scrum or Kanban.  Based on what I read about Kanban and not having the experience with it, I opted for Scrum both as a better fit for them and for me.

Lesson #3:  Building a solid foundation on top of a crappy one isn’t ideal.

I worked with the necessary people to get a full day away from the work to invest in some training and establish a foundation.  Yesterday was the day.  First question out of the gate after the goals, agenda and we’re going back to Scrum intro….. “Doesn’t the team decide?”.  Yes.  Yes they do.  Once a team has been presented with what each framework offers and can make an informed choice, they can certainly choose.  This team didn’t choose Scrumban, it was prescribed.  I wasn’t allowing them to choose Scrum either.

Lesson #4:  Trusting yourself and others takes guts.

We worked through the agenda.  A background on Agile.  Review of Scrum.  High-performing teams.  Story writing.  We powered through.  I powered through.  I was tested at every turn.  At the end of the day I was exhausted, frustrated and, frankly, a little beaten.  This morning, I wasn’t looking forward to going in to work.  Here’s what happened:

  • A team member watching me slog through getting all the stories and tasks into the spreadsheet and up on the board offered to learn how to do it and them completed the last 25% of it for me.  Bless her.
  • A team member put a large post-it on the wall for people to share their “Bold” Agile actions.
  • Another team member put a different one up for members to share how they were “fertilizing their roots”.  We did a review of the high-performance tree in Lyssa Adkins amazing book “Coaching Agile Teams”.  (LOVE that book)
  • The team was positively chatty today.  Generally, they’re all clammed up and it’s stifling.

Lesson #5:  Being challenged is a good thing.  It makes you give it your all.

On to more learning now and if someone can please tell me more about Scrumban, I would really appreciate it.

Final Lesson (for this week):  Don’t start without the foundation.  This applies to teams or to Scrum Masters with a new methodology.

Listen to understand rather than listening to respond

When a new team comes together, it’s interesting to watch the dynamics.  In my world, there are a lot of strong personalities.  Really smart people with great ideas and a desire to go beyond what’s expected.  It makes for some interesting forming.  The last team I set up had some great conversations about stories and, initially, I don’t think anyone heard them except for me.  I found myself saying things like  “A – What did you think of what B just said?” a LOT.  Prior to going into their first sprint, we had a retro.  Happily the team identified communication as their focus in their first sprint together.  They identified and agreed to actions:

  • Don’t wait to ask questions because everyone on the team will benefit from the answers.
  • If you don’t understand or agree, say so.
  • Listen to each other.

Listening to understand can be so difficult.  I know it can be for me.  It used to be impossible for me.  I was certain I knew exactly what someone’s point was and would have my brilliant response ready before they had even finished talking.  Generally, I would interrupt and impart my wisdom only to find out I missed the point entirely.  I conveyed something similar to the team once they had agreed on their actions and they modified that third bullet to what is now in the title.

I try to always remember this myself.  I’ve gotten better, but it will always be something I have to work on.  All this Agile transformation going on has my brain in overdrive, but I’m of no use to a team or anyone else if I’m not listening to understand.