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InfoQ Homepage Articles Q&A and Book Review on Liftoff, Second Edition

Q&A and Book Review on Liftoff, Second Edition

Key takeaways

  • Teams that start well tend to continue well. Teams that don’t start well often struggle to catch up.
  • Attention to planning and logistics pays off in the Liftoff and later on.
  • Understanding context matters.
  • Purpose matters.
  • Living charters reflect agility.


The book Liftoff, Second Edition by Diana Larsen and Ainsley Nies provides practices and insights for chartering teams by understanding their needs, building trust, and defining how they will interact in the team and align with other parts of the organization. It's a book for Agile coaches, Scrum masters or agile product and project managers to help teams to understand the why behind the work and find ways to start and become effective.

InfoQ readers can download an excerpt from Liftoff, Second edition.

InfoQ interviewed Larsen and Nies about the challenges that teams have to deal with and how liftoffs help them to deal with them, how retrospectives fit into liftoffs, ways to train skills or practices in a liftoff, how agile chartering can help to build strong teams, why is it important for a team to understanding the context that they are working in, and the benefits that liftoffs can deliver.

InfoQ: For whom is the book Liftoff intended?

Larsen: Whatever your role, we’ve written this book for you if you want to lead, or belong to, a successful team. Liftoff is written for anyone who has a stake in product development, delivery, and deployment.

Nies: Specifically, if you’re an Agile coach, Scrum master for multiple teams, agile product or project manager, or other person who facilitates teamwork and team meetings, Liftoff can help you do your job. Happy readers have also included executives and executive sponsors; CIOs and CTOs; product development, program, traditional project managers; product managers and owners; engineering leads and development team members; business analysts, QA managers, QA leads, test leads, and more.

InfoQ: What has been added or changed in the second edition?

Nies: When we decided to write a second edition, we committed to review every word, sentence and paragraph from the first book. And we did. Some we changed. Some we left alone. We found a number of places that required the addition of new materials because of what we’ve learned over the last few years.

Larsen: We added a new chapter, “Navigate Learning Environments,” to highlight the importance of understanding teams as complex adaptive human systems. We included new “In Practice” stories at the end of each chapter to show liftoffs in real life. We added other new material, and shifted to an even more readable style in our writing together.

Nies: In the first edition, we had an emphasis on project work. The second edition changes perspective, recognizing that teams do the work, not projects. We also added new thoughts on the role of managers.

InfoQ: What exactly is a liftoff?

Larsen: Liftoffs help leaders give teams the best possible start for the work. You may be familiar with kickoffs, boot camps, and other project-launching activities. The point of a liftoff is similar, but it focuses especially on the needs of the team.

Nies: Many product work efforts start with creating a simple data sheet, then stop there. In our experience, that’ s just not enough. Data sheets that outline the business case for the product may be necessary, but they aren’t sufficient to prepare everyone for collaborating to deliver. An effective liftoff achieves alignment, a shared understanding about the work and why it exists.

Larsen: Liftoffs contribute to team trust and set a tone for the ongoing work. Teambuilding isn’t necessarily the focus, but it seems to happen naturally during the session.

InfoQ: Which are the challenges that new teams have to deal with? How do liftoffs help teams to find ways for dealing with those challenges?

Larsen: First, let’s be clear that liftoffs benefit established teams as well. We tend to think about newly convened teams focused on new pieces of work. However, any team gains from the shared conversations and experience of a liftoff.

Nies: Certainly, what we mentioned before, building trust is a challenge. Teams with high trust perform and produce better. Lifting off and chartering as a team begins that process.

Larsen: Newly formed teams often don’t know the “why” behind the work yet. When this information is missing, new teams often flail and thrash trying to find their way. Productively suffers. Liftoffs ensure everyone is on the same page about the recipients of their output, the nature of the work, the expectations for delivery, how their work contributes to business direction, and other important shared understandings.

Nies: New teams may not know much about the larger systems they work in and that their work must fit into. Liftoff meetings illuminate connections, boundaries, expected interactions, information flows, and the impact of dependencies.

InfoQ: Why are logistics so important in planning a liftoff?

Nies: The environment has a lot to do with how well people take in new ideas and directions, and move to execution. Things like the room, the lighting, the meal and break times, the flow of topics, who attends and how their relationships are managed, all have an impact. The environment reflects the value that the sponsors and organizers place on the work. This isn’t trivial and deserves attention in planning.

InfoQ: How do retrospectives fit into liftoffs?

Larsen: Depending the history of the work at hand or the shared experience of team members, a retrospective activity may fit very well into a liftoff. So the short answer is: it could fit well or it might not fit at all. Each liftoff is unique and will need a different set of activities to accomplish the launch of a team. In the book, we list many possible activities and our list is intended to be a starter set of ideas.  Another way a retrospective fits is for the liftoff planners to reflect on how things went and consider improvement ideas for the next liftoff.

InfoQ: In which ways can you train skills or practices in a liftoff?

Nies: Skill building is another option for a liftoff activity. Often, liftoffs are the one time that an entire team gets together, so it’s an optimal time for training. New products may require new languages, frameworks, architectures–and all of these might imply the need for training in new technical skills. Newly formed teams may also need training in collaboration skills or work processes. All of these become part of the planning and logistics challenge.

InfoQ: How can agile chartering help to build strong teams?

Larsen: Teams benefit by engaging three dimensions of teamwork as early as possible. Agile team chartering includes the understanding of “why”, i.e., the purpose of the work; it addresses the way the team will interact and get work done together; and how the team and its work fit into the organization context. Few other activities balance the focus on all three areas.

Nies: Interactions and outcomes of initial and ongoing chartering give the team new self-organized, internally developed, team-built tools and ideas. Teams apply these to: continually improve their ability to perform as a team; provide examples for recruiting and interviewing new members; build on their growth and skill development; and more.

Larsen: You’ll notice that we emphasize ongoing chartering. It’s not a do-it-once-and-forget-it activity. The “first draft” charter continues as a living document that the team reviews, revises, and adapts in response to changing conditions. For example, the team’s first five working agreements may be reviewed at a retrospective and two of them replaced by more pertinent agreements for the current situation. The team uses its contextual understanding to observe when expectations or organizational structures change. By so doing, they can adjust their work as needed.

InfoQ: Why is it important for a team to understand the context that they are working in?

Larsen: Without an understanding of context, humans tend to blunder about trying and failing to make useful meaning of their world. We are meaning making creatures and when we don’t know the meaning, we make it up...usually by filling in with our worst fears. This causes ineffective behaviors, confused actions, and misdirected decisions.

Nies: So now imagine all the ways that when teams do their work, these things impact poorly. I’ll bet you can identify actual examples in real life.

InfoQ: What are the benefits that liftoffs can deliver?

Larsen & Nies: What are the possible benefits of giving your work a great beginning? Happier, more productive teams. Higher value deliverables to customers. Better business outcomes. Healthier work environments. More satisfied sponsors and product developers. World peace. In our humble opinions.

About the Book Authors

Diana Larsen is author of Liftoff 2nd ed.: Start and Sustain Successful Agile Teams; Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great; Five Rules for Accelerated Learning; and co-originator of the Agile Fluency(TM) Model. A founding partner of FutureWorks Consulting, she leads the practice area for Agile software development, team leadership, and Agile transitions. Diana delivers inspiring conference keynote talks and has contributed as a leader with Agile Alliance, Organization Design Forum, and the Agile Open Initiative.

As an independent consultant, Ainsley Nies’ work is focused on the development of sustainable environments for learning and continuous improvement. She teaches a variety of Agile Management courses at local universities and is co-author of Liftoff: Start and Sustain Successful Agile Teams.  Ainsley speaks at conferences and facilitates Personal Retrospective workshops and Open Space events. She also volunteers as: Director, Agile Alliance Agile Open Program, Board Director AAUW CA, and a founder/organizer of the Agile Open California conferences.

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