“At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.”

This is one of the principles behind the Agile Manifesto. While following all the principles is essential to being agile, one might argue that without tuning and adjusting team behavior on a regular basis, productivity gains will be hard to achieve.

Unfortunately, many read the above principle and only associate it with performing team retrospectives at the end of a sprint, or periodically in kanban. But if you seek to build a high-performing team, there are many more improvement activities you should consider adopting.

Release and Deliverable Retrospectives

Whether it’s a software release or just the delivery of a critical business feature, performing retrospectives is very valuable. Sprint retrospectives are great for identifying ways to inspect and adapt as you go, but you may miss opportunities to improve the end-to-end process you follow.

Release retrospectives should include not only your team, but every team in the organization that touches the end-to-end process. Some of the best suggestions for improvement will come from those who had to collaborate with your team along the way and see your process from another angle.

Knowledge-Sharing Activities

Knowledge-sharing is done implicitly during many ceremonies, but in order to improve the skills of the entire team, explicit knowledge-sharing activities are a must.

One useful technique is holding a weekly lunchtime brown-bag session with a scheduled topic and speaker from the team. Rotate the speaker each week and allow them to pick the topic they believe would most benefit everyone to know more about.

It may be information on a specific agile practice, a demonstration of how to use a particular tool, or just watching and discussing a video about how another team successfully implemented agile. These sessions should have a little bit of structure but may be mostly informal so not much time is spent in preparation. It is much more important to impart knowledge than to share slides.

If your company has a center of excellence, leverage any knowledge-sharing sessions it provides. If possible, align these sessions with your brown-bag process to give your team a break from having to present each week.

You can also designate a team member to track appropriate center of excellence activities and available information so your team can benefit from the work of others. Consider sharing your team’s knowledge and successes at center of excellence events, too—often, you will receive additional ideas for improvement from others who are attending.

Finally, post articles, videos, links, and blogs with useful ideas in your team’s preferred communication channel. Some teams dedicate a bit of time each week to all read the articles and watch the videos, then have a discussion about them. If you do this, make sure you keep track of to-do items for improvement that come out of these discussion sessions so you don’t forget to implement them.

Team-Building Exercises

A team can only make so much progress building relationships in the office. One way to accelerate team cohesion is to hold team events in a more casual, fun, out-of-office environment.

An easy way to do this is to schedule a team happy hour or lunch each month. Approach management about kicking in some money to pay for drinks and food at a nearby restaurant or bar. If the event is after work, hold it somewhere where there are games to play such as pool, darts, shuffleboard, or foosball, to give teammates a chance to bond. Try to choose games that allow teams of two or more to play against each other. While attending these events, encourage everyone to spend a bit of time talking to every other person in attendance.

If funding is available, consider doing some formal team-building activities as well. Whether structured as a set of challenges, such as obstacle courses, escape rooms, or laser tag, or activities facilitated by a professional team builder, the key is to get everyone working together on non-work activities.

External Training and Education

Consider sending individuals or your entire team to an appropriate conference or training. Sending team members to events will provide them with new ideas they can bring back to the team to implement.

Set the expectation that those who attend conferences or training must present the top ideas or skills they learned to the team when they return. This can be done during your weekly brown-bag session. For teams on a limited budget or tight delivery schedule, consider local conferences or training offered on weekends as a compromise. By rotating those who attend such events, no one on the team is overburdened.

If your entire team is able to attend a conference together, plan your time there wisely. Split the team up to cover every concurrent topic you want to learn about, and do a quick retrospective during each conference break to adjust your plan for upcoming sessions. Make sure your team covers technical sessions as well as presentations on interesting tools. Go talk to the providers of tools you find interesting and get demonstrations of their capabilities. Also take the opportunity to chat with conference speakers during any one-on-one sessions and receptions that are held.

If you’re interested in providing training to your entire team, it may be more cost effective to bring a trainer on site than to attend public training. There are other advantages of on-site training as well: Training can be customized to your specific needs, you have the freedom to discuss proprietary information, and the trainer may be able to stick around for a few days and coach your team on what you just learned. Nothing helps cement new knowledge more than immediately applying it to your situation with an expert at your side to help.

Individual Feedback

Retrospectives are great for identifying areas of team process that should be improved to increase customer value. But they are not very useful for improving individual performance. While lots of valuable information about process, tools, collaboration, and roadblocks come out during the retrospective process, the elephant in the room is often the communication approach, technical skills, or overall negative attitude coming from one or more team members. If done consistently, individual feedback on performance also can greatly improve the productivity of the entire team.

To make feedback most effective, it should be given to team members in private immediately following any incident that negatively impacts the team. While it is true that anybody on the team should be able to give another team member constructive feedback, most teammates don’t want to play this role for fear of damaging their relationship with someone they work closely with every day.

As the servant leader on the team, the ScrumMaster is in a unique position to provide feedback without these concerns. Some may argue that a line manager, project manager, or senior executive is the right person to provide this feedback, but while this may be true for a formal performance review, these leaders are often not involved enough day to day to observe and immediately address issues with teammates.

Double Down on Pairing

Growing individual skills can accelerate team productivity as much as team-based activities do. In addition to improving software quality, pairing helps participants improve their skills as well. Strategically pairing up senior and junior members of your team will greatly accelerate the growth of junior team members. Technical staff learn best by doing, and they can learn even faster when it’s alongside someone with more experience.

Originally published on AgileConnection.

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