Experiences in Agile Coaching: Courage as a Value

8 April 2013

Narasimhan Anantharangachar
Sripadam Management Consultants

Agile teams find a lot of benefit from external coaching. Especially teams who, for whatever reasons, have not been focusing on continuous improvement. In my experience as an Agile coach, I've come across many situations where I could add value as an external coach. Here is a discussion of courage as a value.

Implementing courage as a value

This has been a tough thing for teams. Though everyone learns about this value in the classroom and gets an immediate feeling that now they belong to an Agile team and hence do exhibit courage, in reality teams often work at their level only, and they're not able to influence the layers above.

Product owners need courage

Product owners often say, "I leave the estimate to you," "Commit to only whatever you are confident of achieving," and so on. This happens during planning but doesn't seem to last through the end of the sprint.

Product owners are not absolute owners in the sense that there are others involved in decisions on priorities. Though in a sprint planning meeting they assume all powers, they face pressures from different people during the sprint. That's when they need to exhibit courage, but not many are able to. The team doesn't get to meet the people who make decisions at some levels; Agile is implemented just in the bottom couple of layers. Often the team gets the blame in such situations. Many times they realize this is happening, but they're not able to voice it. Even ScrumMasters are aware of such impediments and become helpless and get carried along with the tide. A coach has to make this visible to all and help them find ways to overcome such impediments.

ScrumMasters need courage

ScrumMasters say things such as, "Now that you're an Agile team, you should make your own decisions," "OK, the team doesn't have any impediments — great, let's disperse and focus on the work," and so on. Many times it's too late by the time ScrumMasters and the team realize that everything is not fine.

Teams find it hard to notice when they need to replan. ScrumMasters also find it hard to tell the team, whether at the end of the daily Scrum or at any other time, that they need to replan because things aren't going fine. They need to guide the team to see progress daily. If they don't see progress, they should be able to see impediments. If they see neither, either they aren't seeing what is clear or they don't have the courage to make it clear. If team members spend nine hours in office, one of these should be made clear:

  • Completion of work
  • Change in estimates
  • New tasks getting added and worked on
  • Unplanned activities, including idle time

If none of these are made clear, the team is not focused. For ScrumMasters to alert the team to replan requires courage, especially toward the end of a sprint.

Team members need courage

I've seen team members come to a daily Scrum and say, "I took on this task and am done. I will take that one on today," "I worked on Task A yesterday but couldn't complete it as I had to conduct some interviews, but today I will complete it," and so on. Team members leave the meeting having said their pieces, but they fail to see the impediments clearly.

Team members often get carried away by work allocated to them casually by others outside the Scrum team. They often forget that any work has to come through the product owner, and that it needs to be as planned as possible. Changes need to be explained to the product owner and other team members when they happen. Everyone should focus on avoiding unplanned activities that aren't in line with their goals. In order to do that, first they have to identify and make their goals clear. Unplanned activities prevent teams from meeting deadlines, knowing their true velocity, and being productive. One certain way of improving deliveries over sprints is to identify and manage unplanned activities. Teams need this to focus on real improvement as a second step. Hence when they reflect on daily progress and impediments, they also need to see the layer of blocks around them that aren't clear.

Summary

Product owners need courage in order to:

  • Make decisions and stand by them
  • Involve everyone concerned in making decisions on priorities before coming to sprint planning
  • Give the right feedback to the team during the sprint review

ScrumMasters need courage in order to:

  • Prevent external interference from disrupting the team
  • Allow the team to replan as often as needed
  • Help the team manage unplanned activities
  • Help the team clarify the impediments

Team members need courage in order to:

  • Identify and make visible unplanned daily activities
  • Identify the need to replan and express it
  • Identify changes to the estimation and make it visible
  • Boldly make impediments clear

Coaches need to educate management, product owners, managers, ScrumMasters, and team members, often on specific aspects of Agile. They need to talk to everyone concerned and help them all realize the value of making things clear and bringing in a culture that values courage.

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Comments

Kapil Dhawan, CSM,CSPO, 4/8/2013 5:11:24 AM
Good article. Organization should really build an environment which appreciates courage and transparency.
Narasimhan Anantharangachar, CSM, 4/8/2013 8:34:40 AM
Thanks, Kapil, for your feedback.
Margeaux Bucher, CSM,CSPO, 4/9/2013 11:38:21 PM
Thanks for contributing this. Courage is an often under-appreciated attribute.
Aashish Agarwal, CSM, 4/10/2013 12:05:44 AM
Realistic. This is one aspect which is least focused. Much difficult in organizations where there is still a culture of command and control.
Narasimhan Anantharangachar, CSM, 4/10/2013 1:30:07 AM
Thanks for your commens, Margeaux and Aashish! Yes, in a very traditional or mixed kind of culture, it takes longer to change as you observed.
Manish Gupta, CSM, 4/10/2013 5:08:28 AM
When an old team moves to Agile, lower level starts using it but upper level still works in old fashion (aptly described in your article). I have also seen 'Courage' as bottleneck to a few problems that Scrum team faces. Many times impediments do not surface out just because team lacks courage and transparency. I am in total agreement that an external coach can help in unearthing these problems and providing a concrete solution. An external eye also has an advantage of looking things in different perspective and hence can get to impediments in a better way.
Narasimhan Anantharangachar, CSM, 4/10/2013 5:38:52 AM
Thanks, Manish for your comments. Yes, as you said internal people many times get carried away with the tide while an external person can help in such times. Also the reason why I am of the opinion an external coach should not be coaching a team for too long as they may get into the same problems and it may also mean coaching is not being very effective (in most cases).
Glen Wang, CSM, 4/24/2013 9:35:34 PM
Good insight of courage as value. Top leaders are key to help team implement courage value.
Narasimhan Anantharangachar, CSM, 4/25/2013 1:26:26 AM
Thanks Glen, for your feedback.
Manny Segarra 3, CSP,CSM, 4/25/2013 6:34:15 AM
Thank you for bringing Courage to the forefront. I believe Courage is the foundation from which all other Scrum Values draw Strength from. The external coach is a fabulous position to be in, given the limited time you have with a client. It gives you the freedom to speak the hard messages. Courage gives you the power to drive a pillar into the ground and be the force that resists the tide...this anchor gives something the team can rally around and truly implement the change that's needed. Throughout history, there is always one man or idea, that stands against the status quo, this is where Courage is priceless. With Courage, Respect and Truth, you can (should) be able to say and do the things needed to improve the environment around you. Thank you Narasimhan...
Narasimhan Anantharangachar, CSM, 4/25/2013 7:13:21 AM
Thanks for your details comments, Manny. You have rightly and nicely said that it gives the power to drive a pillar...I fully agree with you. Its my experience that though initially people do not like when you express the truth, they ultimately accept it!
Robin Berger, CSM, 11/20/2013 3:55:42 PM
I wanted to thank you for this article. I applied it to our last scrum retro. We have each member describe the courage that they had to show in the last sprint. I think it worked well and got the whole team to participate. I look forward to ready some more great articles here!

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