Change Leadership

There was a recent post on the Agile Uprising Coalition by @bradstokes about a scenario where a team had lost all sense of safety.  They were motioning through the daily tasks, but innovation, autonomy and excellence appear to be missing.  When I crafted my reply to Brad, I was thinking from an outside perspective on how an influencer may help to correct the patterns of instability.  My reply was a bit artificial, since I am not sure there is an acknowledgement that the leadership tier see this culture as an issue, that there is someone interested in taking this large responsibility head on and that the team itself is willing to believe in an improvement initiative.

Speaking Typing to Brad, I started to reflect on my prior team.  We were in a tragically similar space about 3 years ago.  The team was working and engaged to each other, but faced external pressures that created a sense of distance from the corporate values and strategy.  They were chronically late on commitments, delivering less functionality than was expected (which was often discovered very late in the process) and did not deliver the quality of software they were capable.  The team was good, they had just learned a battery of bad behaviors and lost the fire that drives your larger group towards excellence.

I was asked to come onto this team and guide them through a transformation journey and learn that it was ok to be awesome.. You may think there was a large amount of effort on coaching the team, which there was, but there was also an equal amount of effort coaching those that influenced the team.  Some leadership, stakeholders, technology peers, the governance teams, the list goes on.  Optimizing silos is an anti-pattern taught in lean theory, we should focus on the entire system.

In a blame-centric culture, teams are targeted as the root of under-performance. Teams are asked to “shape up, or ship out” with a dictatorial tone. As if digital products were akin to assembly line manufacturing. Often, the blame placed on teams is inverted, and the leadership team needs to improve the EQ to first ask “what have I done to enable this?”. In a modern organization, where excellence is built-in, delivery is a shared outcome. A cross-section of all parts of the value stream collectively win or lose based on delivery.

Some basic tactics to enable positive outcomes tend to be:

  • Define value in your organization. Is it revenue? Is it an attrition metric? Is it something else?. What is your primary source of value? This sounds simple, but if you have never had the discussion with various people in the organization, I imagine you will learn a bit.
  • What is your value stream? Map it.  Does your value stream change?  Map that to.  Focus on which value stream you want to start improving.  Set metrics, assumptions and hypotheses prior to improving.
  • Establish working agreements. I like to have no more than five agreements per team so that there is an expressed focus on living up to the agreements.  Too many will muddy the water.  The agreements should be defined by the team, stretch goals but achievable, and regularly reviewed.  When one agreement is regularly achieved the team should remove it and select a new aspiration to take on.
  • Reflect regularly. Waste is the antithesis of value.  Look at yourself and your team, ask “What waste can we impact positively?  What waste have we created?”.  Micro-reflections happen many times a day, but more ceremonial reflections are important too.  A time for the collective team to share reflection on how to improve, and taking on new experiments to iterate on for waste reduction.
  • Visualize and vocalize learning. Learning is not just positive outcomes.  Celebrate the negative outcomes to embrace the idea of foregone waste.  IF that bad code went into production, we would have waste in the form of tech debt, failing tests, displeased customers, etc.  Learn to love the failures from this stance.
  • Make safety a prerequisite. Taken from Modern Agile, this is the pillar of high performing teams.  Early in an improvement change, this is harder to do when there are months or years of learned behavior to impact.  Leadership setting the safety example early is crucial.  When something does not go to plan, blame the plan – not the team.  If a failure occurs, celebrate it as a learning from on top.  Exhibit the empathy and culture we want to see within our teams.  Hearing that story of an employee that was unable to define what their role was to Steve Jobs resulting in him being fired is a reminder that the tail should not wag the dog.
  • Go to the gemba. If there are delivery issues, sit with the delivery team. If there are market issues, engage your market.  And if there are process issues, look to your value stream.  I have been in some beautiful offices in my life.  One CXO from a previous life had a balcony that attached to his office and he would regularly be seen smoking a cigar from that balcony.  It was glorious.  But nothing good happens in four closed in walls.  You spent your entire career getting into that office, now spend the rest of your career rarely in there to learn how the work is really happening.

Change is not easy. Nor is leadership. Being a shepherd of change leadership is both difficult and rewarding.  In spite of the bullets above, there is no formula to successfully bring about a culture turnaround. There is only observation, measurement, and response.


(Originally posted on

Roughly eight years ago, I stood in my basement office afraid to sit so I didn’t fall asleep. It was the third day managing a project cutover that was meant to be completed in two days—a critical series of technical issues had us stuck at 50 percent complete and well past the release deadline. At this point, my pride was hurt, my emotions spent, and, if not for the need to update the executives every hour on a status call, I am sure I would have been totally empty-minded.

I look back at that release weekend as a pivotal moment in my life. It was a point in my life where I had celebrated some of the most rapid career and professional confidence growth I could imagine, but it was also the first time I came to realize my happiness was as artificial as project dashboards that led me into that disastrous weekend.  I was lacking real happiness.

scaling happiness

Read other Happy Melly members’ #WhentoJump moments


Happiness comes in two primary categories: natural happiness and synthetic happiness(terms popularized by Dan Gilbert).

Natural happiness is what we generally accept as the ubiquitous definition of the emotion – when we are delighted, pleasantly surprised, when our bodies are delighted with that momentary release of stimuli.

Synthetic happiness is when we artificially create happiness by resolving ourselves to achieving a reality we’ve created for ourselves. An example would be working on a terrible assignment, but reaching a breakpoint or the end. You created the happiness associated with completion of a bad task.

Synthetic happiness is not cheating the system, it is healthy and required for us as a species to enjoy life. As leaders of knowledge workers, we need to be sure to make meaningful connections with our teams to understand what are the happiness triggers for them — both natural and synthetic — so that we can create a system supportive of their happiness.

Beyond the types of happiness, leaders should have a lightweight appreciation for the neuroscience behind what makes people happy. There are four chemicals [EDSO] that make us all feel senses of happiness:

  • endorphins
  • dopamine
  • serotonin
  • oxytocin

While I will try to execute a poor-man’s distillation of this here, you should watch Simon Sinek’s talk on this topic to get a more robust explanation.


  • Endorphins are a means for our bodies to mask physical pain — they keep us safe when we need it most. It is the boost that runners often call a Runner’s High. Knowledge workers have endorphins released when they are in a hardcore coding session or when writing in a groove late into night.
  • Dopamine is the happiness chemical that helps us reach our goals. In my world of agile coaching, I frequently leverage dopamine on Kanban workflow boards by having mini-celebrations when each smaller task is completed. There is a ritualistic bonding ceremony for the team to appreciate the mini-accomplishments frequently. Dopamine is a great motivator, but can become addictive and is the same chemical that fuels gamblers, smokers and drinkers. It is a heavy contributor to synthetic happiness and deserves some active regulation in the workplace.
  • Serotonin is the social chemical — it helps us form human bonds. Teams thrive off the relationships they form at work — both collocated and virtual. What is amazing about serotonin is the bidirectional nature of the experience. Recently one of my team members was recognized for a presentation he gave to our leadership team. He was proud of his recognition, which caused his surrounding team and myself to be happy, which made others near us happy too.  Serotonin has a butterfly effect on teams and organizations making it an ideal scaling catalyst.
  • Oxytocin — the servant leadership chemical. Last week, I was among several people that volunteered to help review an upcoming book. The author and editor both experienced dopamine with the influx of reviewers, but I was happy to help. The author is a person who contributes to my professional network and the subject was one of great interest to me. I was charged with a rush of oxytocin during and shortly after my review period. Actually, while writing this, I feel some happiness related to the work again — welcome aboard, oxytocin!

As you can see (hopefully), effective and mindful leaders can identify tasks or interactions that may trigger happiness in groups and individuals. This identification will foster the creation of both natural and synthetic happiness that will increase the overall employee engagement.

But the real power of happiness is seen at scale. How can organization at large be happy? How do we create self-priming happiness engines?

‘#Happiness scales when orgs make conscious, long-term decision to value people & teams over…CLICK TO TWEET


There is a simple pattern emerging that fosters happiness at scale.

Happiness scales when organizations make the conscious, long-term decision to value people and teams over short-term financial gains.

While this sounds simple, changing existing mindset from revenue-first to employee-first is by all means disruptive in most large organizations.

By building a culture that fosters those happiness chemicals, leaders can start guiding teams and organizations toward happiness at scale. As the organization starts its mindful happiness journey, it takes on a beautiful transformation — usually with serotonin as the catalyst.

Serotonin has a butterfly effect on groups which causes happiness to multiply.

Leveraging the concept of happiness distribution via teams and departments is a grassroots happiness scaling method. When you are looking to redirect organizational culture to be more mindful, it’s important to acknowledge your creative workers’ intrinsic motivators, like:

  • Respect
  • Courage
  • Transparency
  • Openness
  • Focus

You need to find constant moments to celebrate, using tools like the Celebration Grid. A focus on perfection is a scaling inhibitor, while creating a culture focused on learning is a scaling accelerator.


Beyond the softer aspects of scaling, more tactical actions can be taken to create a growing culture of happiness. I have personally implemented Experimentation Days, guilds, and engagement assessments in organizations to introduce workplace happiness. Experimentation Days set aside work time for knowledge workers to scratch that innovative itch, while not having to have a direct correlation to their day-to-day tasks.

At my organization, I co-founded a maker program where anyone interested could set aside a half day per month to work with Arduino boards and robots to create fun gadgets for the office. Sometimes, these mini-projects fail, sometimes they succeed, but every time we have fun and build stronger bonds.

We show videos of these employee engagement events in our recruiting process to show the culture we are trying to build.

I’ve also helped create a virtual guild within my company that focuses on emerging agile practices. We meet via phone and Webex, and regularly have well-known external speakers come and share their recent areas of study. It promotes learning, but also an active interest in our desire to improve as a group.

Measuring team improvement has been an area of research for years. As I have professionally grown, my appreciation for the inherent flaws of following metrics in isolation has increased. While metrics can be bad if not taken into total context, they are not bad if properly applied.

This year my team introduced OfficeVibe — an employee engagement polling tool that integrates with Slack and allows for lightweight anonymous feedback loops broken down into various areas of impact. Via this tool, we have learned and taken action on several items of displeasure for our team. For example, the development space temperature setting was too cold. It sounds simple, but it had largely gone unnoticed until we had the feedback provided in OfficeVibe to bump it up. Since doing so, the engagement score has improved. There are similar tools out there, but OfficeVibe has been the most effective means for continuous and tight feedback loops I have seen for the enterprise space.

The most interesting thing I have learned about scaling models at large is that there is no single model that will last. When dealing with highly dynamic systems such as machine learning, cloud storage, compression or — the most dynamic system of all — people, any scaling approach we take must be seen as an organic, constantly changing model.

Happiness models must be revisited and revised often in order to continue improving them.CLICK TO TWEET


Creating practices and tools to promote happiness takes a mindful leader with the support of higher level leadership. The C-suite and thought leaders need to remain engaged in order to ensure support sustains or — better yet — increases.

It’s just as important to continue to tune your happiness systems. This means experimenting and finding new problems to solve. And it means working with teammates one-on-one to understand what they think of the systems introduced and to see where they can be improved.
Truly investing yourself into the craft of creating happiness is a daily effort and not a one-time ceremony. Once you start seeing some short-term success, you need to maintain a high focus on continued happiness and mindfulness. Some more progressive corporations have taken happiness to the extreme of hiring Chief Happiness Officers or similar. While this shows a firm’s commitment to improvement, I tend to favor the stories of happiness driven from the trenches and ranks. Perhaps both are needed in some companies.

At the end of that fateful Thanksgiving Saturday, we made the call to roll back the release. We were losing data and despite the best efforts of the global team working on the issue, it could not be resolved. That evening, the team in charge of the rollback initiated the 24-hour process so our customers would not be impacted on Monday morning. Shortly after the final call ended, I went to sleep without saying a word to anyone. I just curled into my bed exhausted not understanding how this could have happened. Within a year I had left this company and found myself starting on a leadership and agile journey that really nurtured what I now know as my real happiness.

What leaders can learn from Tony Dungy

This year Tony Dungy will be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton, OH.  His history in the league dates back to his playing days in Pittsburgh.  Ominously enough, he started out as a passed over, undrafted free agent for the team  Upon making the team, he switched from a college quarterback to a professional safety and special teams player.  In his second year, he was on a Super Bowl winning squad in Pittsburgh, and later played out a pedestrian career on both San Francisco and the NY Giants teams before ultimately retiring from the league.

After his playing days, Dungy went on to coach.  He mired in the assistant coach ranks in both college and at the professional level for 17 years, waiting his turn to be interviewed for the head coach position.  All the while, Dungy honed his coaching philosophies of simplification and repetition.  His belief was simple; to optimize outcomes, you have to build trust based teams and intrinsic habits of excellence.  During those 17 years as an assistant, Dungy was invited to speak with four teams for a head coaching position.  All four times, he unfurled his plan of simplification and hardcoding habits into players.  At this time in the league, the West Coast offense was in the maturation phase of its popularity and teams were seeing ever-growing playbooks and new schemes.  Dungy’s proposal was to fraction off the playbook and to learn it so well that, even though the competition knew the plays his team would run, they would be slower than the team and unable to stop them.  He also believed steadfastly that winning was an outcome of the full team, and therefore, believed coaching the 53rd man on the roster was as important as coaching the 3rd man.  After presenting this four times, he received four notifications he did not land his dream job.

“Champions don’t do extraordinary things.  They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they’ve learned.”

It was his fifth interview, with the last place Tampa Bay Buccaneers, that Dungy finally realized his dream of heading his team.  He installed his scheme of simplification, trust, and habit forming from the first day.   He drove fundamentals of trust and belief in each other that the team will execute as they have trained.  He hardcoded the habit of the team into itself.  As a result, the Bucs reformed from one of the worst in the league, to a perennial contender.  As a coach, Dungy went on to record 10 consecutive play off teams and become the first African American head coach to win the Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts.

“I always coached the way I’ve wanted to be coached.”

What leaders can take from the story of Tony Dungy is that trust and teamwork are fundamental in delivering change.  Also, implementation of complex and dogmatic frameworks may seem like the solution to institutional hurdles, but at times simplification and core training will also deliver amazing results.  Providing teams/departments/units/companies a safe environment to learn and execute is paramount.  Understanding that changing bad habits cannot be done without organization belief that the change is needed and being done in good faith, is core to any transformation from  under-performance to a culture of high-performance.

Intrinsic Motivation: The virtual Kudos Box

(Originally posted on

I work for an organization that has a defined hierarchy system that has prescribed reward and merit subsytems. Thankfully, there is also built-in flexibility for the departmental leaders to develop talent and have additional rewards to motivate, inspire, and award individuals and teams for performance. carrot

I truly believe the best reward for individuals is the reward that is both unplanned and presented by peers. There is ample research to show that planned rewards, such as annual bonuses, do not have as great an impact on employee morale, performance, and happiness as does an unplanned reward structure. When an individual knows the process for performance monitoring, they perform to that degree of monitoring. In the Agile Manifesto, the first principle states, “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” As an agilist, I not only strive to live this and the other principles but I place high value on the relative position of this core belief above all others laid out by the manifesto signers back in 2001 in the Utah lodge.

Placing individuals over the process in this context means to structure rewards at the individual level, on an irregular basis. Said another way, implementing a method by which anyone can be awarded at any time for anything seen as good. Equally as important to having an open system is the input sources to the system. Managers muddy otherwise healthy human interaction at times — stated from my perspective as a manager of many people. Rewards that are given from one peer to another peer in plain view of managers has proven to be much more meaningful and impactful than the traditional “top down” reward system.

A method by which anyone can be awarded at any time for anything seen as good.

Last year my team adopted the Firestarter and Fix-It awards. The Firestarter award is meant to call out an individual who invokes passion and drive as an aspect of our team. The change can be a new technology, a new process change, a new way of thinking — fixitanything that enables us to improve. (Yes, the term “Firestarter” was intentional, to break from old habits wherein “firefighting” is seen as a good trait.)

The Fix-It award is meant to call out an individual who took some aspect of our code, process, communication model, or overall delivery steps and improved it. While this can be technical in nature, the nomination is not limited to technical improvements alone. Team members are empowered to think outside the box when it comes to the Fix-It award.

As the implementation of the awards came to fruition, the primary focus was to have an easily accessible award collector, to have a real-time feedback loop for the person submitted, for it be outcome based (not behavior based), and for it to be driven by peers but presented publicly in front of managers. One critical aspect of my team that makes thisfirestarter process valuable is the dispersed nature of the group. We have team members in India, U.S. Eastern time zone, and U.S. Central time zone. Placing a pile of index cards and a pen next to a shoe box with a slot cut in the top does not fit this team structure. Thankfully, we have SurveyMonkey to address issues just like this! With a simple three-field survey creation (your name, the nominee’s name, and a message about why they are being nominated), the virtual shoe box is complete.

Throughout the sprint, with a reminder at every retrospective, team members can award their peers with a note of praise, which is immediately shared with the recipient, including the name of the peer who awarded them. The only manager involvement is the sending of the award notification to the recipient — Survey Monkey does not have the ability to do this as far as I am aware.

After five sprints, we aggregate all individual peer recipients. Whoever has the most nominations gets their name engraved on the associated plaque and rights to keep the plaque on their desk for the next five sprints. Whenever needed, the plaque is shipped to the oawardsffice or home of the virtual team member. In the event of a tie (which has happened), we all as a team figure out how to share the award for five sprints.

The award itself is a small symbol of a greater honor: the peer recognition that stands behind the plaque. (As a side note, creating the plaques is a great and inexpensive craft you can do with your kids if they are in the right age.) Seeing the excitement and happiness from the team following the award presentations, you instantly realize there is great pride and motivation resulting from the award process.

There are multiple byproducts of implementing an intrinsic reward system such as this. First, it creates an increased level of employee engagement by showing there is recognized value in what they do every day. Second, it creates an environment of trust by giving team members an outlet by which to recognize peers in the open, and conversely by allowing individuals to accept recognition. The intrinsic reward system caters to all four of the happiness chemicals as well, allowing for an increase biological trust compounds in our body. Third, there is a management feedback loop provided directly from the trenches. Managers try to observe and learn about teams and individuals both up close and from afar. However, it is often difficult for performance to change when individuals know they are being monitored. Having a peer system allows for true and meaningful feedback loops. And finally, it just feels right. Allowing people to formally thank their peers is appropriate at all times, but not creating a means to do so may inhibit this communication.

The evolution of this process is likely to change. We may modify the tools, the awards, the criteria, etc. However, there are several truths that will remain resolute:

  • Don’t promise rewards in advance.
  • Keep anticipated rewards small.
  • Reward continuously, not once.
  • Reward publicly, not privately.
  • Reward behavior, not outcome.
  • Reward peers, not subordinates.

These principles are documented by the Management 3.0 movement, and there is further learning about the background on the Web.

Which came first, respect or the desired outcome?

(Originally posted on

Recently I was in a car driving down the eastern coast of England with my Uncle David. It was a long ride through the winding country roads typical of Suffolk. We had a series of conversations about life, including his time as a touring trumpet player with various bands around Europe. His crowning achievement was twice playing in the Palladium in London — first in 2005 then again in 2013. By all accounts, David Brook made a name for himself as a quality European trumpet player, for which he has a lot of pride. 

The conversation shifted to my upcoming talk in London: ‘Agile transformations and the impact to organizational culture’. And we had a back and forth over what the content of my talk was — as a musician the concepts of lean and agile thinking are not in the front of his mind. I distilled my talk to him into the phrase: It is about respecting people and respecting teams. 

The topic of respect is when our two seemingly divergent worlds soon found shocking synergy.respect1

Respect, like many other team values, usually only gets noticed when it’s lacking. Unfortunately, too many creative workers have been in at least one environment where respect is regularly missing, and this makes me sad. I see software as a craft, and the people responsible for the delivery of software as artisans. Much like musicians, software developers spend countless hours/days/years learning and honing their craft. Even outside of the academic side of the training and learning, there are endless measures of time where they give away their skills on open source projects and “do me a favor” projects, donating all in the hopes of becoming a professional contributing to a product they believe in.


Yet, a culture was born in which respect for software delivery has eroded to a point that developers became seen as cogs in a machine. Code is code and when things are late, do not work or break, it’s the developers’ fault. And respect is gone.

I had seen this first hand, and nearly left the industry twice as a result. Luckily, I stumbled onto a book written by Ken Schwaber in the early 2000s that introduced me to agile thinking. That lead to me learning about lean development. 


Through the lean and agile journey, you develop a deep appreciation for the need to put respect back into the delivery process. This is the natural effect of respect prioritized within teams:

  • From respect comes safety.
  • From safety comes honesty.
  • From honesty comes conversations and innovation. 
  • Happy teams write better code. 

Recently, I heard Jurgen Appelo pose: 

“Is it that happy teams make successful products? Or do successful products make happy teams?”

When I first heard him say this, I thought it was a toss up, but now see the former as the sustainable engine of growth.



There is enough disrespect in the world today — you don’t have to look long or hard to see it in our information-inundated society. I believe respect-centric workplaces have a positive infectious result that crosses into our personal lives. And for that, we would all benefit.

As we drove into an old beach town, my Uncle David told me of the countless times after shows when agents approached him to play for next to nothing or nothing — and how disrespectful it is to artists. I tried to tell him that it’s the same in software and I work to change that daily. He looked at me and said “But no one in management thinks this way.” I looked him in the eye and said “Even if that were true, shouldn’t someone start?”

Uncle David and Ryan


I believe when respect is present, happy teams make better products. Not that better products make for respectful and happy teams.  Challenge this premise for yourself and your experience and in the next week contribute to this one question surveywith your thoughts. At the end of this week’sHappiness Challenge, we will share the findings at the end of this article.

But feel free to start the debate now in the comments below or, if you are a Happy Melly member, you can join us in the #respect dedicated Slack channel!

Agile Metrics – Feeding the Beast

(Originally posted at

On Thursday, September 8th, 2016 federal regulators announced Wells Fargo employees created millions of fake customer accounts using real customer money.  As a result, Wells Fargo terminated 5,300 employees.  Wells Fargo was fined $185M and is facing a global loss of trust by customers – the impact of which is still not understood.

What’s more interesting than the impact of the scandal is the root cause: metrics.

Wells Fargo offered big bonuses to employees that cross-sold financial products to customers.  From a corporate perspective, this bonus program was a measure of employee performance, product value and customer satisfaction – when in reality the program had an inverse effect on all three.

In the world of agile software delivery, some organizations treat teams in a similar fashion.  Too often the measurement de jour is around story points and velocity.  Over on the Agile Uprising Coalition, we have an interesting discussion going about if story points are valuable.

There are a number of ideas about how to estimate using something other than time. Points, Gummi Bears, Fibonacci numbers, T-shirt sizes. These were originally invented to obscure the time aspect, so that management wouldn’t be tempted to misuse the estimates. (I know: I was there when they were invented. I may actually have invented Points. If I did, I’m sorry now.)

— Ron Jeffries

Why measuring points is bad

Organizations, managers and stakeholders are preconditioned to embrace metrics as a measure of safety.  In traditional project delivery, the PMOs made a strong value proposition by taking the mystifying and highly complex craft of software delivery and distilling the status into dashboards and metrics.  Red/yellow/green, percentage complete and my least favorite, earned value – all have been used to show the external members tracking of how the team is performing with the investment they have been granted.  It is rather easy to see how this quickly translates to the obvious team metric of story points.

But here’s the rub: story points are meaningless to anyone outside of the agile team.  At the core, a story point is a measure of relative sizing of an unknown atomic unit of work given the team context and collective knowledge of the problem they are looking to solve.  It is a means for a team to build a language that is internal to them to gain consensus, and also highlight internal misalignments to drive conversations and interactions.  Taking this internal measure and aggregating into forecasts is very dangerous if the report reader is not aware of the context of the measurement.  Whats worse, since points are internal to teams. comparing a team that put out 20 points to a team that put out 70 points in the same sprint is a very toxic approach.

So, if not points, what should we measure?

The best way to figure out what to measure is to understand what behavior you are looking to address.  Critical to measurement is the core understanding that humans are competitive and will always game any measurement.  It is not a bad thing to address this fact.  Even managers, directors, executives and thought leaders game measurements.  Its part of our animal makeup. There are lots and lots and lots and lots of agile assessments out there to measure people and teams on agile practices.  But blindly applying a measurement to your teams has very low value.

An example of understanding patterns and behaviors you want to change can be seen in a measurement change I took in the past.  I had a team issue with partially done work in sprints.  Lots of work started, some completed.  Looking at the work items, the team was taking on very large items and assigning them to one or two members to work for the duration of the sprint.  Knowing this, we shifted measurements to focus on the number of stories completed.  Recognizing that people want to be seen as successful, we started seeing the desired shift.  More stories were getting done sooner, and (here is the cool part) the teams started slicing the stories more.  The atomic work units got smaller, and smaller again.  This allowed for the teams to deliver more stories sooner and the organization to realize value faster.

Another great measurement is team engagement and satisfaction.  Happier teams write better code.  Better code makes for happier clients.  Happier clients promote your product in industry.  The inverse is also true.  My teams regularly use OfficeVibe to passively and anonymously allow for engagement measurements.  There are other similar tools on the market, but when entering a selection criteria phase be aware of what behaviors you are looking to correct or craft and ensure the tool drives those behaviors or outcomes.

In agile development, just like in banking, metrics that are initially designed to be a positive rating can be misappropriated if there is not regular inspection and awareness of the corporate culture.  Leaders that read metrics need to understand the pulse and spirit of the organization being measured.  Assuming the metrics are an actual measurement or predictability and behavior is short sighted in every industry.

The case for coaching

(Originally posted on

Roger Federer is one hell of a tennis player.  As of this post, he has 17 Grand Slam titles – the most of any man in history – and is regarded by some as the best tennis player in the world.  For those unfamiliar with the world of tennis, Roger has a signature move called “Sneak Attack By Roger” or SABR in which he charges his opponent while receiving the serve and hits a return on the run.  It is as devastating as it is disruptive to traditional tennis play.  The move came about under the tutelage of Severin Luthi in 2015 when Roger was 34 years old – a dinosaur by professional athlete standards.  But it worked.  It stuck.  And it is now a staple for him in international play.

“At the end of practice we were just kidding around almost. I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to chip and charge and just keep the points short. I’m tired. I want to get off the court soon anyway. That’s when I started to run in and hit returns. I hit a couple for a winner. They were ridiculous.

“He laughed, I laughed, Severin laughed. Then I did it again in the next practice just to see if it actually would still work again. Then I tried it the next practice and it still worked.

“That’s when Severin said, ‘Well, what about using it in a match?’ I was like, ‘Really?’ “So he pushed me to keep using it and not shy away from using it in big moments.”

So at a point in his career where most players are hanging up the shoes and doing the promotional tour phase, Roger and Seve are leveraging a coach relationship to reinvent the return game.

Thats the beauty of coaching – it is not a practice to instruct the remedial/subservient on the mechanics of how to execute a task.  It is a personal relationship that allows for amazing outcomes to emerge.  World class people recognize and leverage coaching relationships to keep them competitive well beyond the typical shelf life, but in industry we continue to struggle to foster and culture the craft of coaching.

As a proponent of coaching, I wrap a lot of requisite skills into the two words “agile coach”:

  • Engaged master of listening
  • Patient observer
  • Facilitator
  • Functional chameleon – business, technical, industry domain knowledge
  • Cultural change agent
  • and experience based mastery of lean/agile principles and practices

The Agile Coaching Institute has introduced a model that many in the industry have seen which I fundamentally agree most appropriately visualizes this emerging role:


As is typically the case, we focus on the what and how with laser precision, and forget to start with why.  In my experience, organizations have a Palovian like reaction to the need for change.  Hire a consultant, create KPOs, execute training, declare successful transformation for a while; rinse, repeat.  There is research that shows training alone allows for about 22% productivity increase while training supported by coaching increases productivity by 88%.  Organizations that are looking to create real change and progress must start taking an enterprise view of building a coaching competency.

Research by the International Personnel Management Association (IPMA), concluded “ordinary training typically increased productivity by 22%, while training combined with life coaching increased productivity by 88%”.

When assessing how to apply an lean/agile coach, an organization has many options, including:

  • Full-time internal coach
  • Matrixed internal coach
  • External coach as part of agile transformation
  • Hired gun – external agile coach specialized in supplementing organizations of need

Each of these options will have pros and cons.  Factors to consider when making the coaching plan include, immediacy of need, internal skills available, size/scope of coaching engagement, organizational stability and maturity, and funding plan.  As an internal agile coach, I have a bias towards bullets 1 and 2 with a leaning towards the full-time internal coach.  To have this become a reality, you need an experienced lean-agile practitioner that can create a change-based value proposition from the C-level down to the team level.  There must be an agreed to coaching stance that binds the coach to the organization and a vision by which the coaching is pointed.  At scale, no one person can facilitate coaching internationally and spread across dozens or hundreds of teams.  From experience, by golden number of effective coaching relationships is 4-7 teams with and expiration of about 2 years.

An effective person placed in an environment of scaled inefficiency becomes waste.  As lean thinkers we are committed to removing waste, so increasing this is a cardinal sin.  An over-committed coach will create waste in the form of limited understanding and interactions and having a diluted message.  I do not know of a formal case study in the “ideal coaching:team ratio” (if you do, please comment), but experience tells me you are limited to about 20-35 people or 5-7 properly sized agile teams.  Again drawing from experience this is about the size of most business units/programs.  When an organization needs coaching at a larger level than this, the center-of-excellence or coaching-consortium conversation emerges.

Another hypothesis I am working on is the diminishing return impact of an lean/agile

coach.  As is the case with any team changes, you go through Tuckman’s stages of group development: forming, storming, norming, performing.  But an agile coach has another layer of focus – impact.  I have seen a pattern emerge where a coach gains rapid impact with a team within a year, then the message and effectiveness wanes over time.  Typically, a coach should rotate assignments within 2 years to optimize impact.  There is something to be drawn from the freshness of a message coupled with the familiarity bias that develops over the duration of a team-to-coach relationship.  It is known that you should not disrupt the construct of agile teams whenever possible, but the coach tends to operate at a level above the core agile team structure, aligning those teams to the corporate vision, so creating a framework that supports assignment based relationships should not impact team engagement or throughput.

As for Roger; he recently celebrated his 1000th win and took home the 2015 Wimbledon Cup.  He continues to have storied battles with Novak Djokovic, the current world number 1, 5 years his junior.