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InfoQ Homepage Articles A Focus on Agile Principles over Agile Rituals

A Focus on Agile Principles over Agile Rituals

Although I’m a Quality Analyst by trade, my particular interest (and impact) has come through my work promoting whole team practices and not only within testing. This should not be surprising since agile software development was created with a focus on team practices, not solely development practices. As a consultant, I have had the pleasure of joining 8 teams within 4 different organizations over the last 4 years, and in each team a common topic was how we could work more effectively. This article provides real (although a bit dramatized) examples of how we focused on developing team behaviors rather than the typical checklist of team rituals.

Why a move from rituals to behaviors?

Rituals are not inherently bad, but problems arise when there is blind adherence to rituals without an appropriate framework for continuous self-evaluation. One possible framework is Shu Ha Ri, a concept originated with Japanese martial arts and first compared to agile adoption by Alistair Cockburn in his 2001 book, Agile Software Development.

Shu Ha Ri (roughly translated as hold, break, leave) is a way to describe the progression of training or learning, eventually including the ability to handle fluid requirements and changes. In identifying you or your team’s stage, you can take a look at how much structure you need to feel your most productive. At the Shu level, a team or individual’s success comes mostly from imitating or following strict protocols. At this stage, confusion is created when confronted with conflicting options or open ended requests. A team or individual operating within Ha is said to be breaking away, much like when a trumpet player may perform a solo in the middle of a more structured song. Here there is a strain against direct orders, but still a comfort with structure which can be instituted through some agile practices. For example, retrospectives, in which team members evaluate their effectiveness and define concrete ways to improve. The Ri stage is characterized as mastery. A team or individual practicing agile at the Ri stage will be limited by the expectations of others. Ri teams embody the idea of self-organization and responsiveness to change. They have the ability to absorb changes while maintaining a focus on the true intent of the development practice as well as the business objectives.

The pressure to scale agile principles through rituals has been an important topic for a long time. As early as 2006, Martin Fowler warned that the imposition of agile working methods on teams is an anti-pattern. At the same time, when in the Shu or Ha stages, rituals exert a significant impact on, and provide high value for, day to day work. It is therefore very important to constantly evaluate and evolve those rituals. So, when there is a need to shift team rituals, how do you implement a change and reevaluate its impact? The breadth of options on how best to measure growth, whether it be KPIs or SMART goals, shows people are clearly reaching for a way to do this. My experience has proven that a very effective way to do this is the scientific method. At its core is a continuous cycle of observation, hypothesizing, testing and evaluation. When applying this to your team situation, you can observe current physical and emotional reactions to a ritual or team practice and what shift you would like to see, hypothesize what you can do to encourage that change, test it, and finally compare the new behaviors and feelings to validate your hypothesis.

Putting theory into practice

No two teams are the same, and in my experience I have seen a variety of team dynamics that drive how these experiments can be put into practice. Let’s take a couple of real life examples and combine them into a story you may relate to.

Imagine that you have just joined a new team at your company. Your previous team had implemented co-location and open floor plans, and you have seen the positive impact they can have. Upper management has required the same change for this new team a couple of weeks ago, but things aren’t going as well this time. Your new teammates are showing distrust and isolation, as well as raising concern over reduced productivity and perceived lower individual value. These feelings are being reflected in physical reactions as well, such as, wearing headphones and the movement of boards and other objects to create barriers and protective screens.

While you can understand how the team feels, you are excited to share the successes that your previous team had with them. Your rah-rah comments do not seem to be making a difference. It is now time for an experiment, you need a way to increase collaboration. What if you engage in verbal conversation in response to written communication? Rather than allowing email chains and phone tag to continue, you instead find time to solve your teammates issues in person. That could mean grabbing a white board and pen to diagram the complex business process, or maybe actually delivering a piece of constructive feedback that would have been neglected for feeling too harsh in an email.

After employing this technique for a week or two, you notice that people are getting frustrated by interruptions. Ok great! You now have some impacts from your first experiment. Just because the impact is not entirely positive does not mean that the experiment was a failure. Instead, you now have a different concern to solve through a new experiment.

At the next team retrospective, you raise the issue of wanting to continue in person communication without negatively impacting individual concentration and performance. One of your teammates suggests the idea of core working hours in which the tolerance for interruptions would be limited. This idea is well received, so you are able to continue your in-person communication, but limit it to times around the start of day, lunch, and the end of day so as to be outside the core working hours. Another week or two go by and you are starting to see a difference! People are responding well and have even begun to apply the same techniques. Just yesterday your designer even suggested walking over to the marketing team to discuss an inconsistency and what the team wanted to do about it rather than the usual idea of sending an email.

The experiments do not have to stop there. Continue to find ways to make communication more valuable and inclusive. Another experiment may be to create equal space when communicating. For example, when a teammate comes to ask a question, if they do not have a seat, you may choose to stand so as to not make them feel uncomfortable.

In all your experiments, be sure to look for indications of success or new challenges. These can be in the form of either emotional or physical reactions. In this example, we saw more collaboration and in turn curiosity about requirements and problem solving. There were also physical movements like creating space for teammates and walking over to dependent departments.

An example of a possibly more settled team

In this case, imagine that you have been a part of the team for a while. Your team is mostly successful and gets things done, but you feel that it suffers from the “because it’s always been done that way” mentality and you are looking for ways to embrace change as a team. Your team has already been trained in how to follow Agile, so they already attend a retrospective at some intervals. In reality, though, the interval is not consistent nor frequent enough. On top of that, at the last retrospective you noticed a mix of defensiveness and finger pointing as well as disengagement as people surfed their phones and showed up late.

So what now? How can you help the team recapture the intent of the rituals?

One step is to acknowledge the concerns. This can be achieved by reintroducing the meeting goals and maybe even utilizing the Prime Directive. And no, this is not the Prime Directive from Star Trek, but it does still aim to define the guiding principle. In this case it was introduced in Norman L. Kerth’s 2001 book “Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team”. He wrote:

“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”

By reading this at your first retrospective you see a fair number of eye rolls, but people are listening because at least it’s different and they are curious. You hand the reins back to the usual facilitator and proceed as usual through the activities and discussion. But you notice a slight shift in the air. The same people are still speaking up for the majority of the meeting, but they are doing so with a few more disclaimers and a bit more tact. You notice that, while the team members who normally tense up are still defensive, you don’t need to jump in quite as often. This is in part due to the priming you applied before the meeting. The Prime Directive reminds them of the human aspect of their team while also targeting solutioning rather than blaming of environmental concerns. This shift was far from a full transformation, but you can tell that it is a good start so you continue to read the Prime Directive before each meeting and continue to edge towards a more constructive and open meeting.

Then an opportunity arises. Your Project Manager who usually runs the meeting is going on vacation and has suggested that you lead the next retrospective. This is an opportunity for you to apply some of the ideas on unique retrospectives that you have seen applied elsewhere. All you have seen so far is a basic 3 category discussion about what went well, what didn’t go well and what people have questions about. The trend has been to force a few positive points up on the board (“great team snacks”, “glad to have Sarah on board”) and to find that the number of questions and less positive things are passionate and hard to distill into short, solution focused conversations.

The format you choose is a fun one. It is the Zombie Retrospective that was outlined in Akash Bhalla’s blog. It still takes the idea of three categories, but completely reimagines them and primes the team for more constructive thoughts. It also provides a much needed boost in team camaraderie as you all fight off the zombies together! Now, it is nearly impossible to get through a discussion about zombies without at least a bit of side tracking and joking, but you soon realize that this is part of the value and the team is clearly engaged. They may be having side conversations, but at least they are discussing. Some team members may be inappropriately identifying people in their organization as the zombies, but they are also identifying how to mitigate the issues rather than just pointing fingers.

Every team follows a journey that can be impacted by personal interactions and stages of delivery pressure. It is important to not just bulldoze these changes, but instead to embrace them and smooth them out in effective ways. A tailored retrospective that targets the hard questions can be just the trick.

It turns out that the retrospective was such a hit you have been asked to keep running them. You are a bit nervous that this will be stepping on the toes of your Project Manager but they seem not to mind so you give it a shot. When you are in the middle of the next retrospective, it is like a light bulb has just gone off in your head! You may be the facilitator, but it is quite clear that your PM is the one running the show. As the PM shoots down ideas left and right, you see the shields going back up all around your teammates. But every time you try to step in, you too are spoken over and unsure how to proceed given how the PM is exercising their power.

You are frustrated because you know how much potential these retrospectives have but you are now hitting a brick wall. So you reach out to a friend on another team for advice. They suggest that you shouldn’t allow your PM to attend. While that may address the current symptom, it is sure to create a host of other problems. Ok, next idea: Your friend suggests that you “find someone in the group who can stand up to the PM, since I for one would never put up with someone bullying a teammate”. That is it! You convince your friend to be the next facilitator. They are impartial on the topics but aware enough about the team dynamics to keep an eye out for bullying or shyness.

During the next retrospective the experiment goes live and while there are some bumps in the road (for example, your friend had to clarify a lot of the terms and context in the proposed issues), it was clearly a step in the right direction. Your PM was given a chance to voice concerns, but only when it was their turn given the strong facilitation techniques your friend employed. This use of a neutral facilitator increased collaboration and allowed for an equal focus on the emotions of the group as on the topics discussed.

You have now experimented over the course of 4 or 5 retrospectives and need to reevaluate. Let’s return to the importance of both emotional and physical signs of success. You have witnessed more people willing to speak up in the meetings. There have been fewer negative reactions to concerns presented, and instead a focus on solutioning rather than blaming. There has been reference to retrospective discussion throughout the iteration for the first time, and even identification of concerns to discuss ahead of the meeting time. People also appear to be more engaged since they are attending on time and are less likely to have their phones and laptops out.

How you can apply these ideas

These two examples may not mirror your experiences exactly. For example, the developer rather than the PM may be the one who is causing fear in team meetings or you may be working in a distributed team and therefore unable to physically walk up to people. If that is your biggest takeaway, I have failed in this article and will take one more chance to explain with these final take away points:

  • Regardless of the ritual or practice, find a way to focus the efforts back on the original intent
  • Understand you can only control yourself. If you see that a ritual is not working well, find ways to make it more valuable to yourself because others will follow
  • Identify the triggers that mean your team is not finding value in a ritual and make them more visible to people
  • Look for simple but proven techniques for experimentation and improvement like the scientific method or SMART goals to help drive the team to more attainable change

About the Author

Abby Bangser has been working as a Quality Analyst with ThoughtWorks since 2012 with key interests in bridging the gap between the different development team roles and growing the QA community. Experiences include crafting and delivering both internal and external training programs as well as a diverse portfolio of client work. Before coming to ThoughtWorks Abby worked in real estate investments and she continues to stay active in youth lacrosse coaching.

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