His frustration filled the room so quickly that our large common area in the office suddenly felt tiny. Story after story about the situation his team is currently in came rapid fire. The words held an uneasy balance between anger and exasperation.
These were the words of someone who knew exactly what was going on, and yet was unable to do anything about it.
On a Friday in the Dallas ThoughtWorks office, an innocent conversation that started from a question across the room turned into much more. A senior consultant who’s on another project across the country was struggling. Client logistical concerns as well as internal pressures within his team were causing simple things to be missed.
Stand ups were limited status reports that didn’t involve the entire team. Retrospectives were canceled. Team pairings were reduced. All in the name of increased productivity for a project where the success was not clear or measurable.
I immediately hurt for my friend, who was clearly at the end of a proverbial rope. The consultant in me wanted to immediately jump to his aid with bullet points of aide, but that wasn’t what he needed this second. He needed some empathy and concern for his well being.
Projects and teams don’t start with the intent to become this. Slowly turning one degree in the wrong direction ends with missing your mark by a mile. As the bard aptly put it:
“You don’t have to settle. It’s a choice you get to make every day.” — Seth Godin
Once feelings ebbed back to normal levels, we started getting tactical. His situation is not unique. External pressures often force teams to make compromises in the day-to-day. You might not all be in the same location. Management could be watching you like a hawk because of the visibility surrounding your work product. Your timeline may be out of your control.
There’s a million reasons why you could resign yourself to accept circumstances, but I’d like to offer an alternative. Tense work environments can be tough to suggest improvements, but it’s possible. Here are a few ways we strategized to bring some camouflaged team improvements.
Introduce retrospectives under the guise of other events.
Many in the community have argued that the most important event for an agile team is the retrospective. It’s the safe environment teams need to meet conflict head on and strategize new experiments for improvement. If you’re under the same pressure to ignore this time, anti-patterns will form and harden into full-fledged bad habits regardless of how awesome you all are.
Good news is there are often many opportunities to inspect and adapt without the need to schedule meetings that include the letters “r-e-t-r-o”.
Stand ups often present great opportunities to ask powerful questions. When everyone’s done sharing, someone should be nominated as the commando to sneak in a retro. Just a simple, “hey, so does have any comments or concerns that the team has with our current day-to-day?” Then, get out of the way and watch the fireworks.
If planning sessions are used, someone could also sneak in a few questions about how things are going. This would differ from stand ups because the meeting is usually a little longer and formal than a quick morning sync. One suggestion could be to form questions under the guise of “ways to keep the cards moving” on the board.
Same goes for sprint showcases. Just slide in some questions and keep rolling once you’ve shown your work.
Sparks will fly, to be sure. Just expect them and lean into the discomfort. It’s better than the alternative of keeping things the way they are.
Use lunch for more than food.
Everyone’s gotta eat in the middle of the day. Regardless of how toxic the work environment, you at least can be afforded an hour to yourself. One of my favorite ways to sneak in some change is between two pieces of bread. Dipping sauce is optional.
Many restaurants have private rooms for larger groups. Depending on how the walls are decorated, you can bring stickies and pens and you’re all set. It may mean you don’t get to enjoy your food as much as the others, but it’s all in the name of helping the team.
Another way to use the meal is for lunch-and-learns. Just like teams needing food, so do clients and outside stakeholders. Introducing some experiments under the guise of “lunch teaching sessions” can lay the foundation for change. Lean on the community for which topics can best assist this cause, and there’s always Slideshare if you need presentation material.
Use the definition of ready for good.
One of the last levers a team can use is the more nuclear option of refusing to do work until things change. I don’t recommend in most situations because it can do more harm than good. The counter could be that doing work the way things are actually is more harmful than actually stopping work altogether.
This is where the definition of ready can be useful.
If the team has set this up already, it’s a more straightforward conversation around adhering to a simple checklist before work items are started. If they haven’t, a smaller session around creating this list is one of the easiest ways to improve workflow patterns.
Another way to use DoR is to revisit the list after a period of time. By “reviewing” the list for new learnings, some additional experiments can be added to hep things out without communicating that you are actually doing anything different.
Shipping work matters.
Regardless of which method of subterfuge you use, none of this will matter if it doesn’t end in shipping work. It’s best to keep this in mind, but this assumption shouldn’t be a stretch for your team or you wouldn’t be trying these experiments in the first place.
Keep your eye on the prize, and don’t be afraid to sneak a few improvements into your team. It’s not as transparent as this coach would like, but it’s sometimes all you have.
Slap on the face paint, and work as a team to drag your way out of the rut.