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Book Excerpt: Coaching Agile Teams by Lyssa Adkins

Teams often get the basics of agile running within the first few sprints.Agile frameworks, designed to be simple, are just that—simple and easy to get started. And the practices, well-coached, are easy to set in motion, too.

It doesn’t take long before the rituals built into agile can leave the team feeling like they are caught in a never-ending hamster wheel—always moving from one ritual to the next and from one sprint to the next and the next and the next. They are making progress on the product they create together but spinning in the hamster wheel nonetheless.

Beyond the company results the team is asked to produce, teams need something else to strive for—something to change the hamster wheel into a journey of their own making.Instead of seeing the same scenery in the hamster wheel again and again, they need to see different signposts and landmarks along the way indicating progress toward something resonant and worthwhile.This “something” is the quest for high performance. It’s the daily act of, together, striving to be the best they can be.

We know that motivation in the knowledge age comes when people achieve autonomy, mastery, and a sense of purpose (Pink 2009). Setting high performance as your baseline expectation and giving teams a way to achieve it play directly into these powerful motivators.Thus invigorated, everyone wins. The company gets better results.The company gets teams that can do anything. The teams, and the individuals who comprise them, achieve more autonomy, mastery, and purpose in their lives. Everyone tastes the sweet fruits of high performance.

Set the Expectation

Expecting high performance does not mean that you demand it. Expecting high performance means that you simply know achieving it is more than possible;it is normal.Expecting high performance means that you believe the team can attain it, so you hold them, compassionately and firmly, to that expectation. By believing, you urge them to strive for a vision of what they can become together.They get called forth to be more than they are now.

This propels them forward sprint after sprint and release after release. All along the way, they touch moments of greatness together, fueling their desire to continue the journey.They also experience disillusionment and heartache, causing them to fall back.Through it all, you remain steadfast in your belief in high performance—and in them.

You believe in high performance, but what is it? It’s a slippery thing; high-performance models, assessments, and descriptions abound, yet a satisfying all-inclusive dictionary-type definition eludes.You will not find that kind of definition of high performance in this book, either. I seek not to pin it down but to free it by acknowledging that high performance is not as much about achieving a certain state as it is a journey toward something better.Teams that “outperform all reasonable expectations” and “even surprise themselves” may be on such a journey (Katzenbach and Smith 2003). So, too, may teams that get fractionally better all the time.

As their agile coach, help them start their journey toward high performance by simply setting your expectation that they will achieve it.Then, give them the raw materials they will use to create their own resonant definition of high performance—a vision that lets them imagine it and reach for it. Coach them to choose the next step on their path (and the next and the next), all the while staying aimed toward their inspirational vision of high performance.

Create a sense of anticipation, expectancy, and excitement for this journey—first in yourself and then let it flow to them.Lead by believing.After all, if you don’t believe they can get to high performance, why should they?

Introduce a Metaphor for High Performance

Metaphor is a powerful thing. Professional coaches have known this for a long time.In fact,“metaphor”is a core skill taught in professional coaching courses (Whitworth et al. 2007).

“I’m the glue that holds this family together.”

“I’m the pebble in your shoe, reminding you to tread lightly.”

“I am a thousand candles lighting the way.”

“I am a bird soaring above it all.”

“I am a beacon calling you forth.”

Coaches ask questions that help clients create their own metaphor,one that is visceral and resonant. Clients use the metaphor to guide them through the events unfolding in their lives.

If it’s keeping one’s head above water during a time of rapid and unpredictable change, perhaps the metaphor “I am a bird soaring above it all” serves to help the client stay balanced as waves of change crash all around. Perhaps the client has a calling, something important to share with the world. Maybe then the metaphor “I am a thousand candles lighting the way” helps keep the juiciness of the purpose alive and resonant as it fuels their work.

Teams use metaphors the same way.Through your coaching, a team may create their own metaphor to help guide them through turbulent or exciting times. To get them started and to help them create a vision for high performance, offer images that spark metaphor. One such image features a tree: the High Performance Tree.

The high Performance Tree

The High Performance Tree came into existence when I was coaching several teams that had been together for some time.They were doing fairly well with the basic practices of agile (standard meetings and accomplishing sprint goals), and they were consistently delivering results that mattered, yet their managers knew there was more to get.

As their agile coach, I had no idea how they were going to move toward high performance, and I knew each team would do it their own way no matter what I offered, so creating a highway or even a meandering pathway for them to follow wouldn’t work. I had to come up with something evocative that would kindle their desire to pursue high performance on their own terms, something each team could use to come up with their own highway or pathway. Fresh from my own learning about the power of metaphor, I created the High Performance Tree (see Figure 2.1).

Introduce the tree to the team any time. Doing so at the beginning, perhaps in the team start-up, sets them up well, but it also works to introduce the tree as a way to look at a problem or deficiency when one crops up. Once introduced, refer to it as situations arise in the team and use it as material for retrospectives.

To introduce the tree to the team, just draw the tree from the roots up as you teach the meaning of the Scrum values and as you list the characteristics of high performance.You can see from the illustration that you need not be a good artist to do this.

As you write the words for the roots of the tree, teach the Scrum values. Simply stated, they are as follows:

Commitment: Be willing to commit to a goal. Scrum provides people all the authority they need to meet their commitments.

Focus: Do your job. Focus all your efforts and skills on doing the work that you’ve committed to doing. Don’t worry about anything else.

Openness: Scrum keeps everything about a project visible to everyone.

Respect: Individuals are shaped by their background and their experiences. It is important to respect the different people who comprise a team.

Courage: Have the courage to commit, to act, to be open, and to expect respect (Schwaber and Beedle 2001).

If you don’t use Scrum but think these values will serve, remove the references to the word Scrum. (You don’t even need to mention that they come from Scrum.) You can also use Extreme Programming values in place of,or in addition to, the Scrum values if your team develops software.The definitions of these values assume Extreme Programming practices occupy the center of the team’s software development repertoire:

Communication: Keep the right communications flowing by employing many practices that can’t be done without communicating. Problems with projects can invariably be traced back to somebody not talking to somebody else about something important.

Simplicity: What is the simplest thing that could possibly work? Make a bet that it is better to do a simple thing today and pay a little more tomorrow to change it if necessary than to do a more complicated thing today that may never be used anyway.

Feedback: Concrete feedback about the current state of the system is absolutely priceless. Optimism is an occupational hazard of programming. Feedback is the treatment.

Courage: Have the courage it takes to develop good software, which may mean throwing away code and changing direction, even late in development.What’s to say that you won’t ever develop yourself into a corner? Courage (Beck and Andres 2004).

If neither of these sets of values fits and your company has established values that will work well, then use those instead. Here’s the key:The values you use must be defined so that they are relatable to agile, easily understandable (not full of abstract notions or business jargon), and resonant. Use only those values that evoke a sense of desire in the team members.You know you have a good set when team members consider the definitions and say,“Yes,I want to be more like that. I want us to be more like that. I want our company to be more like that.”

As you continue the drawing, go on spinning a vision for them. If the roots are strong, they nourish the tree, and the tree grows up to the sky—straighter and taller.It sprouts leaves that gather in more and more sunlight.As the leaves gather light,they,in turn,nourish the tree.Everything grows stronger,taller,and greener.The tree has become an inviting place, and the team notices they have sprouted some things themselves—the characteristics of high collaboration and, thus, high performance (adapted from Tabaka 2006):

  • They are self-organizing rather than role- or title-based.
  • They are empowered to make decisions.
  • They truly believe that as a team they can solve any problem.
  • They are committed to team success vs. success at any cost.
  • The team owns its decisions and commitments.
  • Trust , vs. fear or anger, motivates them.
  • They are consensus-driven, with full divergence and then convergence.
  • And they live in a world of constant constructive disagreement.

These characteristics shape the leaves of the tree. If the roots are strong and the leaves gather in enough light, the tree will bear fruit.These are the fruits of high performance.

The first fruits you may notice are these:You get business value faster, and then you get the right business value more often.As the roots (values) and leaves (high performance) continue to grow, the team may even bear the fruit of astonishing results—the kind that causes a business to leapfrog its competition and the kind agile was meant to create.Through these, two other fruits appear: a team that can truly do anything and a team that offers room for team and individual growth.These two fruits are the ones that rejuvenate the whole tree and give back again and again.They fuel sustainable growth.

No matter when you introduce the tree, just having the drawing in the team’s work room will be enough. It hangs there, a quiet reminder that high performance is normal and your ardent expectation. As in Figure 2.2,it hangs there when they get into trouble or get into a rut and you point to it and say, “Where are our roots weak?”It hangs there when they are showing all the signs of a high-performing team yet their products reek of mediocrity.You sense they can do better, so you say to them,“What fruits do you want to get now?”

Using the tree this way, your questions become challenges to them, a way to call them forth to a brighter vision of what they can become together.When they take up the challenge, they create the next step in their journey toward high performance. In so doing, they lay down their own path.

For example, perhaps the team feels disappointed in the quality of their work and,through considering the High Performance Tree,concludes that they aren’t truly consensus-driven.They recognize that they tend to jump to the first thing possible rather than hearing lots of ideas from all team members.They think that if they entertained a divergence of ideas before converging on the one to use, the quality of their products would increase. So, they might circle “Consensus-Driven” on the High Performance Tree and write themselves a reminder that doing this well means hearing a lot of ideas first. Getting better at being consensus-driven is this team’s next step toward high performance.

A second team has been missing their sprint goals lately. Someone notices the word Commitment drawn as one of the roots of the High Performance Tree and muses aloud,“I wonder if our problem is that we’re not really committed to what we say we are going to do.” In the conversation that follows, the team discusses how they have been letting extraneous demands on their time and energy take away from their feeling of commitment.They recognize that as soon as they let one distraction in, a bunch more seem to follow until they are doing everything but what they said they would do. So, they make a pact: “From now on, we will help one another push away distractions so we can truly commit and deliver what we said we would.We will put aside our discomfort and challenge each other when we notice someone has become distracted.We will call distractions out for what they are—impediments.”They write these words like a banner across the top of their High Performance Tree. Truly committing is this team’s next step toward high performance.

As they address their shortcomings and make plans for getting better, encourage them to make their reflections and choices equal portions of lightness and heaviness.They need not be engaged in self-flagellation to prove to you or anyone else that they are in the act of improving. Hold out to them that the work of becoming high performing can be done with humor, curiosity, and appreciation, too.

Over-seriousness is a warning sign for mediocrity and bureau-cratic thinking. People who are seriously committed to mastery and high performance are secure enough to lighten up. --- Michael J. Gelb

Approached with amusement or anguish, moving swiftly or sluggishly trundling along, there are no two paths alike, and you cannot even begin to imagine what a team’s path might look like in the end. So, it’s best that you don’t try and,

instead, rely on the team to create the path that feels right for them.

You can tell when the tree has taken hold. It’s when the team talks about the tree as a metaphor for themselves and their chosen pathway to high performance:

“We can grow if we strengthen our roots.”

“We’re a tree; we can bend.”

“The wind may shake us, but it will not break us.”

That’s when the power of metaphor shines through and becomes something useful to them, helping them survive turbulent change or reach for that next big goal.

Another Metaphor: Building the Foundation

If the High Performance Tree doesn’t grab you, try a different image. Make up your own. It need not be fancy or complicated; straightforward works well, too. Scrum trainer and mentor Tobias Mayer uses the imagery of “building a foundation” in his classes. It’s a simple list of five things that make Scrum (and all agile methods) work. He tells people that if you have these five things, then you have everything you need, and the other details will work themselves out (Mayer 2009):

Empiricism: Succeed through a rapid progression of failures. Drive by hindsight, not foresight.

Self-organization: The people closest to the problem know best how to solve the problem.

Collaboration: Foster a “yes, and” mind-set. Re-conceive ideas; do not compromise (Austin and Devin 2003).

Prioritization: Focus! Do the next right thing.

Rhythm: Breathe, and the rest will follow.

About using these, Mayer says,“I see these five principles as the foundation of emergence, which (metaphorically) is Scrum in flower, blooming. Everything emerges in Scrum: ideas, teams, process, design, architecture, products....”

Introducing the imagery of “building a foundation” to the team creates a rich field for metaphor to surface and for them to generate a vision of their journey toward greatness together.See? You need not even call it high performance if that closes people down. Journey toward greatness works well, too. Perhaps you will hear team members use the imagery you offered to create momentum-producing metaphors for themselves:

“Where is our foundation weak?”

“Have we crumbled a bit lately?”

“If we were to lay a new cornerstone today, what would we chisel on it?”

The destination never Comes

An agile team’s journey toward high performance is just that—a journey.The team may touch high performance now and then, they may even live in a state of high performance for a while, but they have never “arrived” at high performance where the story ends. No, the story continues.

Almost assuredly, as soon as they start living in high performance, something will happen to set them back. A team member will get promoted and start micromanaging his teammates.The company will reorganize, and a new vice president will assert her will over the team’s direction. Someone on the team will go on maternity leave, someone will get married and move away, and someone else will simply move on. Every time one of these things happens, team dynamics will change, and the team will take a step back from high performance.

Given this, teach the team to honor their ability to fully and quickly recover from setbacks—even to honor that above the progress they’ve made so far or where they currently “are” on their journey. For sure, setbacks will occur.Your expectation that they will achieve greatness together, a contagion they catch and then expect of themselves, will sustain them even when the way is rough.

A Refresher

Let’s lock in the ideas from this chapter:

  • Make sure the team knows that you expect high performance and long for them to reach for it.
  • Ignite their journey with imagery and challenges that allow them to create their own path to high performance.
  • Support the next step they have chosen by coaching for their greatness and believing they can attain whatever they put their effort and passion into.

Additional Resources

Schwaber,K.,and M.Beedle.2001.Agile Software Development with Scrum.Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.Tucked away in the last chapter of this book are the Scrum values. Reading the clear and compelling definitions of these values is mandatory for any agile coach. Reading them several times over a period of time, and considering them carefully, is mandatory for any great agile coach.

Pink, D. 2009. The Surprising Science of Motivation. Want to know what matters to people and what this has to do with why they would reach for high performance? Watch this short talk to find out. If you want more, get his book Drive:The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, which goes deeper.


Austin, R., and L. Devin. 2003. Artful Making: What Managers Need to Know About How Artists Work. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Beck,K.,and C.Andres.2004. Extreme Programming Explained: Embrace Change, Second Edition. Boston:Addison-Wesley.

Katzenbach, J., and D. Smith. 2003. The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization. New York: HarperCollins.

Mayer,T. 2009. Private communication with Tobias Mayer on September 23, 2009.

Pink, D. 2009. The Surprising Science of Motivation. 2009/08/the_surprising.php.

Schwaber,K.,and M.Beedle.2001.Agile Software Development with Scrum.Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Tabaka, J. 2006. Collaboration Explained: Facilitation Skills for Software Project Leaders. Boston:Addison-Wesley.

Whitworth, L., K. Kimsey-House, H. Kimsey-House, and P. Sandahl. 2007.

Co-Active Coaching:New Skills for Coaching People Toward Success in Work and Life, Second Edition. Mountain View, CA: Davies-Black.

“This article is an excerpt from the new book, "Coaching Agile Teams: A Companion for ScrumMasters, Agile Coaches, and Project Managers in Transition”, authored by Lisa Lyssa Adkins, published by Addison-Wesley Professional, May. 2010, ISBN 0-321-63770-4, Copyright 2010. For a complete Table of Contents please visit:

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