Exercises for Building Better Teams
Have you ever seen a team perform so great that you wanted to join it? If you examine the values of such a team, you may discover a perfect balance of orientation on people and results. If you are trying to discover how far away your own team is from this state, read this article and try the exercises. I’m sure that with the correct questions and answers, you will find your own state of perfection.
In the 1960s, Robert Blake and Jane Moulton investigated various leadership styles and discovered that leadership can be measured in two dimensions: concern for people and concern for results. They created a grid to illustrate leadership styles.
They stated that leadership style influences teamwork and this thesis established a base from which to evaluate team dynamics and health.
The concept of work organization has been evolving for years. Not only agile practitioners have discovered that self-organized teams are highly effective. A strong manager is not a requirement for a well-performing team, but that does not mean that self-organized teams lack leadership. There is plenty of leadership in such teams; it is just distributed among all team members rather than gathered in one person.
Distributed leadership does not invalidate Blake and Moulton’s thesis. Focus on and balance between people and results remain important to the team. To ensure that such a balance exists, Alexis Phillips and Phillip Sandahl proposed a Team Diagnostic model based on Blake’s leadership grid. They translated “concern for people” at the management side to a measurement of team positivity that reflects team spirit and joy of work. They transformed “concern for result” into team productivity, which means effectiveness in delivering results. They identified critical competencies for each of those areas and it is amazing how well this list aligns with the agile mindset.
As team positivity factors, Phillips and Sandahl identified:
- Trust — all team members have confidence in other team members.
- Respect — treat everybody as a valued partner.
- Communication — nonviolent communication is focused on solutions.
- Interaction — give and Receive feedback, and treat conflict as an opportunity to improve.
- Cameraderie — team members feel empathy, express kindness, and are friends.
- Optimism — team members see positive aspects.
- Diversity of values — diversity encourages new ideas and different points of view.
Their productivity factors are:
- Goals and strategies — the team has clear goals and vision of product. Priorities are set. Co-workers provide fast feedback on the realisation of goals.
- Alignment — people feel a connection with this vision and can align the team’s goal with personal goals.
- Accountability — everybody is doing their best and feels responsible for the product.
- Resources — beyond simply the presence of the required skillset and equipment to perform work, this factor also allows a team to find or ask for missing resources.
- Decision making — the team is encouraged to make decisions at their level.
- Proactivity — this means acceptance of changes and creativity in proposing them.
- Team leadership — the team as a group has strong leadership, which means that in any particular situation, a team “local leader” will take the initiative to encourage the team in a common direction.
Let’s see what happens if a team is stuck in one of Blake and Moulton’s quadrants:
Without focus on both positivity and productivity the team can burn out completely, fail to deliver, or both. To avoid this, levels of productivity and positivity should evolve over time. I would encourage every ScrumMaster and agile coach to understand these ideas and use the concepts of positivity and productivity in their work with teams.
A good ScrumMaster encourages their team to continuously improve in both areas and keep a balance. In order to improve, the first step is to know where you are. I’ve used different exercises to help various teams discover opportunities for defining an effective work style. Below, you can find some that use the concept of balance between positivity and productivity based on Esther Derby’s retrospective framework.
Exercise 1: Create a set of values
The goal of this exercise is to define a common set of values for a team.
This exercise can be useful in defining working agreements, in resolving hidden team conflicts, or as a team-building activity that helps you to better understand each other.
Phase 1: Explain the purpose
Time: Up to 5 minutes
Explain the expected outcome of this meeting, e.g. “It is important to a team to have not only a common goal but also common values that stand behind our working agreements. We’ll spend some time today talking about our team values — but first, let’s play.”
Phase 2: Energize people
Time: Up to 10 minutes
Find some activity that fits your team’s mood and the size of the room. Ask people to do something that expresses teamwork, shows the diversity of team members, or — oppositely — pulls similarities.
If nothing comes to mind, consult the links at the end of this article. There’s a huge list of ideas for trainers and for simple games. Don’t make the game complex, just make sure that all team members participate. It’s nice if the game gets people to step out of their comfort zones. Have fun! This is not waste of time.
At the end of the exercise, ask the team members what they have learned about each other.
Here’s an example of the game Wind of Change:
- Get chairs (one fewer than the number of players) and arrange them in a circle.
- Ask people to sit in the chairs. The one person without a chair stands in the middle of the circle and states the following, completing the sentence: “There is a wind of change for people like me who.…” — for example, “There is a wind of change for people like me who have a dog.”
- People who share the stated characteristic stand up and rush to find any other chair that was just abandoned by someone else who shares that characteristic. (You cannot get back in the chair that you have just released.)
- The person who does not get a chair starts the next wind of change.
- Play a couple of rounds then ask team members what they have learned about their teammates.
Phase 3: Generate insights
Time: 30 minutes
Now is the time to talk about values. Describe positivity and productivity, and explain that both are equally important. You can show the graph above.
You can choose different options to continue discussion depending on your comfort level.
Option 1: Print all positivity and productivity competencies mentioned above, each on a single card. (You should have 14 cards.) Put the cards on the table and ask the team to classify each competency as an element of productivity or positivity. Start a discussion on what those words mean to the team.
Option 2: Bring the Agile Manifesto or ask people to recall the agile values and principles. Ask the team what values are important to them. You can discuss which of those values influence productivity or positivity.
Option 3: Ask team members to individually write down the three values that are most important for them in their work. Gather the input from all team members and let them describe how they understand those values. Discuss which of those values influence positivity and which affect productivity. Remember, you will end up with a unique set of values — it can be surprising.
These are only examples. You can use any method that works for your team. The result you want is to generate a list of the team’s values with common definitions. Sorting them between positivity and productivity is more a tool to ignite discussion than a goal in itself.
Phase 4: Create a plan
Time: 30 minutes
Ask the team to prioritize values. You can use “must have” and “nice to have” labels. For each “must have”, ask people what behaviors exhibit or break this value. Moderate this discussion to reach agreement on your team’s common values or working agreements. When you finish, show the complete list and once more ask the team if they agree with it. When you get approval, mount the list in a visible place in the team’s area.
I use this exercise mostly to build working agreements. My suggestion is to look at what kinds of values each team member is picking up. It will help you better understand your teammates’ behaviors.
I’ve never had a team choose values belonging only to one area (productivity or positivity) but some teams tend to pick up more values from the area that they feel more comfortable with. I’m don’t push to keep balance, only show teams my observations.
It’s easier for people (especially in the IT industry) to talk about productivity than positivity factors and to explain what kind of behavior they are expecting. Trust or respect are difficult to describe but they eventually will also appear on the list.
The following are real-life examples of working agreements that were created as a result of this exercise.
Goals: “Each sprint and story has clear acceptance criteria, so check it during the backlog grooming. The visual layout is created at latest during planning.”
Accountability: “We are accountable for our code:
- “Do not check in code that is not reviewed.
- “Always fix bugs as top priority.
- “Maintain unit test coverage at the minimum level of 75%.”
Cameraderie: “Go for a beer at least once per sprint.”
Respect: “Respect time. Do not be late. Do not extend meetings. No meetings after 4 PM.”
Communication: “When Kate is working from home, call her on her mobile — do not send e-mail.”
Customer interaction: “Every Tuesday at 1 PM, an operator from xxx company will join a call to answer questions.”
If rules are written down, a team usually doesn’t need help to execute them. This is the greatest benefit of rules created by the people — instead of forced by company policy. None of team members felt ashamed to talk about fulfilling working agreements; they didn’t need a ScrumMaster or manager to voice their concerns.
I’ve also seen the following messages sent among team members:
- “Hey, next week is my birthday. How about our monthly beer next Friday?”
- “Mark, it’s 4 PM. We need to stop here as I have to pick up kids from school. Please check what we have left and we can continue tomorrow after daily.”
- “Guys, I’m pissed off this morning. Three tests failed last night and no one cares. I have fixed it but that’s not what we agreed.”
Disobeying rules that we have created for ourselves is much harder than ignoring rules created for us by another.
Another benefit that my team has found is that they can change their own rules. If you have created a rule that is not working correctly, you just need to get buy-in from your team to move forward and change it.
Senior managers usually ask me here if I’m scared that a team will abuse this possibility. My answer is no. I stopped pushing most external policies upon my teams in 2008 and have since let them tell me what they want.
The most challenging situation that I’ve faced was when a team voted to work in shifts and remotely at the same time. They pointed out that having a full team working at the same time was hard for them due to a resources bottleneck (in equipment usage). They created a rule that stated that until more equipment became available, they will be in the office only between 1 PM and 3 PM each working day and the work schedule outside these hours is left to each individual. I was scared. Would they be able to work efficiently? Would they be working at all? How would this influence communication? Isn’t it against company policy?
We expected new equipment in five weeks. I took a deep breath and said okay.
The new equipment came even earlier, but we kept the rule in place for more than a year as it was working perfectly. Team members were giving their best and delivered results that exceeded expectations. They created an internal working schedule and introduced new tools that supported communication and remote collaboration. Other teams in different time zones were delighted that they could always immediately get in touch with someone on this team. It was a solution to compensate for a lack of resources yet built great trust and proactivity inside the team.
Exercise 2: State assessment
The goal of this exercise is to define the current state of the team and to create a plan to move forward.
This exercise is good for a retrospective. You can use it to clear the air in cases such as changes of team structure or issues with delivering or cooperation. You should repeat this assessment after a couple of sprints to see if the team noticed any improvement.
Phase 1: Let people hear themselves
Time: Up to 5 minutes
Ask “What is the weather in the team today?” You can ask each person for a verbal description or have printed images of sunny/cloudy/rainy/stormy/snowy/etc. Landscapes and ask people to pick one and to explain their pick. This encourages people to express their opinions and the responses will summarize the mood for you. Accept all answers and do not judge them. You might hear “It’s freezing because the air conditioner is broken,” or “I have a beautiful spring day because I’m expecting positive feedback from users for newly delivered functionality.”
Phase 2: Set the stage
Time: 20 to 30 minutes
Describe the purpose of the exercise as follows:
The goal of retrospective is to evaluate the current way of working and search for opportunities to constantly improve it. One of the possible ways of dealing with it is by assessing the quality of work. Do not mistake it for quality of product. Two factors make up quality of work: productivity and positivity. Let's have a look at how productive and positive we are as a team.
Productivity is effectiveness of work. Are we achieving goals? Are we producing good products?
Positivity is a measurement of attitude to work. Are we enjoying what we are doing? Do we like the work atmosphere?
This is how we can present those factors.
Create a two-dimensional grid on the floor. Use duct tape on for the axes or label corners in the room. Use your creativity. What is important is to have clearly divided sectors which require physical activity to move from one to another. Invite team members to role-play. Explain that the purpose of this part of the exercise is to gather information about behaviors in different areas.
Ask team members to go to position A and adopt that perspective, to behave as the sector dictates. Give them a minute to absorb this position. Ask them how they feel, how they perceive their work, what would happen if a new person joins this team. Let everybody speak.
Next, ask the team to move to new position and repeat the exercise for positions B, C, and D (in that order).
Phase 3: Gather data
Time: 5 minutes
Draw the same graph on a flipchart and ask each team member to mark down their assessment of:
- where we are right now, i.e. current state of the team, and
- where they would like to be in one to three sprints from now, i.e. the desired state.
Ask them to reflect on the descriptions they provided in the previous phase.
You might decide to gather the data anonymously on Post-it notes.
Phase 4: Generate insights
Time: 30 minutes
Look at the results from the previous phase. Focus on areas with the biggest distances between current and desired states.
One possible scenario that you may observe is misaligned assessments inside the team of the actual or desired state. If there is a significant difference among team members’ opinions, focus the discussion on those aspects. Try to figure out what drives their perceptions. Let people voice their opinions and expectations.
Here’s a real-life example:
ScrumMaster: Ann, you have scored our productivity low, and Tom, you have scored it above the middle. Can you give us insight what your score is based on?
Tom: Our velocity is still growing. This iteration, we delivered three more story points than last time. I do believe that we are doing great.
Ann: Yes, we have delivered more stories this iteration but our unit-test coverage has dropped and we haven’t created any automated functional test for one of the stories. We’re increasing our technical debt in this area and I’m scared that soon we’re gonna pay for this. We’re just focusing on one aspect and forgetting about others and this is not what we promised in our working agreements.
ScrumMaster: What I hear is the concern about fulfilling the definition of done. Am I right? Let’s discuss the details to reach a common understanding.
Another possibility is that team agrees on the current and desired states but there is a big distance between those values. In such a case, focus the discussion on generating ideas for reaching the new state.
Use brainstorming or any creative method that works for you. For example, the ScrumMaster can say, “At this chart, I can see that our productivity is quite similar to our expectations but our positivity level should be higher. Let’s start generating ideas for how to improve our team spirit. I want to remind you that any idea is good at this stage. Please do not criticize ideas, but feel free to modify any or raise as a new one.”
Phase 5: Decide what to do
Time: 10 to 15 minutes
Mark down all ideas and ask the team to sort them in order of importance. You can use a silent sort or dot voting. Pick up to three of the most important ideas and ask the team if these are their choices for experiments for next sprint. Create a plan to implement them.
This exercise is anchored in the agile principles of inspect and adapt. Scrum teams usually are focused on inspecting and adapting processes from the perspective of certain actions and results. It helps to see a bigger picture of team’s environment. I also have found this exercise useful in pushing people beyond their current thinking patterns. Ideas generated during this exercise are different from simply concluding “what is good and what can we improve”. People bring much more of their previous experience to the discussion.
I find that walking the team across all the state fields on the grid to finish in the high-performing zone is an important part of this exercise. It helps people create a vision that motivates them for change.
Once, when a team was standing in position D, one team member said, “I was thinking that the Avengers are like this. Do we want to be like the Avengers?” The team liked it. “Avengers” became their official name and each team member chose an avatar from the movie. What they gathered was a tool that helped them think outside the box and a glue that was keeping the team together: “C’mon. Let’s solve this problem like Iron Man;” “What? This story is much more worth than 13 story points. The testing set will be heavier than Thor’s hammer.” Comparing situations and behaviors to their favorite movie characters also gave them neutral ground for solving conflicts. This particular team didn’t need a peaceful environment. They enjoyed the constant tension that was pushing them to achieve.
In another team, someone said, “That was scary. I was once working in a team in field A. I hated work. We never talked to each other. Management was pushing for results. We hadn’t been responsible for work as a team, but as a group of individuals. I never shared my ideas as someone else could steal them. If I ever hit this state again, I will quit immediately.” In this case, sharing fear and frustration helped clear the air. Beware! When setting the stage, I’ve asked people if they have worked in teams occupying the A, B, C or D section, and I’ve ended up with retrospectives of all past and neighbour projects. It requires great moderating skills to get back on track and talk about the current project; otherwise, this can kill the retrospective.
I have also observed an anchoring process, in which all team members pick a similar place as the first person to vote. Anonymous voting is safer. Another option is to ask strong personalities (each team has its informal leader) to vote at the end.
In my experience, a team usually agrees on the positivity aspects. Things that are difficult to describe are easy to feel. Also, positivity is not the first area that a team is willing to choose for improvement unless there is a conflict in the team. The choices always have to be the team’s.
When productivity is discussed, I see a tendency to focus on details in a not so positive way. You may hear excuses for low scoring such as: “It wasn’t our fault. Requirements were not clear;” “We have poor equipment;” “John has broken the mainlane and hasn’t fixed it for three days because he was on sick leave;” “There is no work for my area of experience so I’m working slowly.”
This need to be cut out quickly. In such a situation, I clearly call out this behavior: “I can hear blame or explanations in this sentence. This isn’t our goal. If you are concerned about the situation, think of what YOU can do to change it.” After one or two interventions, people usually start thinking more constructively: “Okay, next time I see something that I have doubts about, I will ask the team or call the PO to confirm before implementation;” “Maybe we can ask to refresh our build environment. I can pull out stats for how long it takes to perform builds and basics tests if this will help;” “I can do pair program with Andrew to understand this piece of code.”
If people are too deeply buried in negative thoughts and cannot switch their way of thinking, I break the session and ask the participants to do some energizing exercises to bring up the mood. My feeling is that the team will not later execute any plans created during such a state of depression.
I’ve learned that each team has its own desired state and way of working. I used to assume that a state of high productivity and positivity is the target for everybody. That is not true. I’ve faced teams that pinned their desired states in fields A and B. After a couple of sprints in this state, they’ve eventually taken decision to move forward.
Exercise 3: Values reassessment
The goal of this exercise is to check if team values have changed.
It can be used to follow up after a previous retrospective.
Phase 1: Let people hear themselves
Time: Up to 15 minutes
Present your working agreements or team values to the team and ask each team member to select the single statement that is especially important to them. Ask people to comment on their choices.
Phase 2: Set the stage
Time: 5 minutes
Describe the purpose of this exercise as follows:
The goal of this retrospective is to check if we are moving in the right direction with our performance and attitude.
I’d like to remind you that productivity is the effectiveness of work. Are we achieving goals? Are we producing a good product?
Positivity is the measurement of attitude to work. Are we enjoying what we are doing? Do we like the work atmosphere?
Previously, we have evaluated where we are and we have selected our desired state. (Show the states that the team assessed as actual and desired in exercise 2.) Let’s add our current state to this chart.
Hand out markers and encourage the team to add new dots. Examine with the team which areas require further evaluation: “I can see that our positivity has improved since last time but our productivity has slightly decreased. Is it okay to focus on that today?”
Be prepared! You cannot predict what the team will choose. Just follow their suggestions.
Phase 3: Gather data
Time: 30 minutes
Create a radar plot of competencies for the selected area. The easiest way is to place on the floor string, duct tape, or anything that will divide the room into areas. You can use the positivity or productivity factors mentioned above or the list of your team’s values that you created in exercise 1. I usually select values from only either productivity or positivity but there is nothing preventing you from mixing them. Write the factors on separate sheets and put one in each field as in the image below. Always add a “?” field. You cannot be sure that your list is complete.
Ask team members to walk across the fields to remind themselves what every factor means.
Search for the strong points of the team. You can use some of following questions:
- “At which of these factors you feel strong?”
- “Which factor is the biggest asset of the team?”
- “In which area have you most improved?”
- “For which area would you give yourself the highest score?”
Ask the team members to stand in their selected fields and share their points of view. If needed, ask questions to get deeper insight, e.g. “What helped you in this improvement?” The field with the question mark can be selected by those who would like to use areas not listed.
Now, search for areas to improve. Ask questions such as:
- “Which of these factors are you missing?”
- “If you have to pick one area that would help you achieve better performance, which would it be?”
- “In which area would you like to improve now?”
- “For which of these areas would you give yourself the lowest score?”
Again ask the members to stand in their selected fields. Use the question mark the same way as above.
Observe what is happening. You may discover one or many strong and weak points. It’s possible that someone will select as a weak point the same area that a teammate selected as a strong point. Highlight this and focus on that point during the next phase.
Phase 4: Generate insights
Time: 20 minutes
Start generating proposals for actions that will help you move forward as a team. For example, the ScrumMaster might say:
A significant number of you has chosen accountability as a strong asset that we can build on. You have also selected proactivity as an area to develop and decision making as something that we have mixed feelings about.
Let’s focus on those factors. Please work in pairs on proposals for actions that could influence or employ selected competencies. Write them on Post-it notes.
Of course, use any method that your team might prefer to gather input. Discuss all proposals.
Phase 5: Decide what to do
Time: 10 to 15 minutes
Ask the team to sort all discussed proposals in order of importance, possibility for implementation, or predicted return of investment. You can use a silent sort or dot voting. Pick one to three of the most important ideas and ask the team members if this is their choice of experiments for next sprint. Create a plan for implementation.
There is always at least one person who will choose the question mark.
When leading this exercise as a follow up, teams who have been working together for longer periods of time touch on more difficult items. I’ve heard about:
- Trust — “I feel that we are breaking our trust. At the last retrospective, we showed a delivered story but we haven’t said anything about bugs that we have introduced and not fixed. I don’t feel comfortable with this.”
- Decision making — “We are good at making decisions, maybe even too good. I don’t think that we should make a decision about the limitation of this functionality. This decision should be made by the PO.”
- Goal — “I don’t align with the vision of this product. I don’t think that it will be a success but no one has listened to my concerns.”
You need to address each of those issues. Sometimes, this is way too much to address quickly or even to discuss during one meeting. For one retrospective, I allow the team to select one (sometimes two) area to work on, but I record all concerns and will walk through them one by one during subsequent retrospectives or additional follow-up sessions. Quite frequently during this exercise, hidden conflicts or disappointments are brought to light. During the retrospective, I’m trying to focus only on those that are relevant to the team — but that doesn’t mean that the others are not important. I touch on each of them separately. Sometimes just saying something loud is enough; other cases may result in stating clearly that a person wants to leave a team.
When you are working with the values of your team, keep in mind that the team is living organism. It’s constantly evolving and that is great. Be with them and enjoy their changes. As a ScrumMaster, you will never be bored. Be prepared and open for anything that will happen. Whatever values you discover are the correct values as long as you all agree on them.
- Blake, R. and Mouton, J. (1985). The Managerial Grid III: The Key to Leadership Excellence
- Derby, E. and Larsen, D. (2006). Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great
- Whitworth, L., Kimsey-House, H., and Sandahl, P. (1998) Co-Active Coaching: New Skills for Coaching People Toward Success in Work and Life
- Team Diagnostic.
- Examples of icebreakers and energizing activities:
About the Author
Justyna Wykowska is an agile trainer and coach at ProCognita, supporting customers at the team and organization levels. By combining a technical degree with soft-skills education and real-life experience, she emphasizes collaboration and communication in organizational and team dynamics. Justyna has been leading multinational, distributed teams in huge public-safety projects since 2005. Using broad knowledge about lean and classic project management, Justyna supports groups on their way towards self-organizing, robust teams that understand agile principles, maximize gain by using engineering practices, and are ready for scaling.