Get certified - Transform your world of work today


Coaching Scrum Teams Through Radical Collaboration

11 February 2014

After reading the book Radical Collaboration: Five Essential Skills to Overcome Defensiveness and Build Successful Relationships, by James W. Tamm and Ronald J. Luyet, I shared what I learned with my ScrumMaster friends. We were enthusiastic enough about the ideas that we started a coaching session with the following statement:

Today nobody succeeds alone. You must have the skills to build relationships and to form alliances. This is true in everyday situations between individuals as well as between project teams, departments, companies, and organizations.

Becoming defensive destroys relationships. When we become defensive, we think and act in a rigid way. All our intelligence seems to disappear, and we use most of our energy to protect ourselves instead of trying to solve actual problems in an efficient way. It is important that we understand how our defense system works -- that we be able to recognize how it comes into play and learn how to handle it. When we perceive a threat to our well-being, we often respond defensively. This defense response pattern can take many forms, but the overall effect is to prepare us to fight, freeze, or flee the frightening situation in order to protect ourselves. Physically, emotionally, and intellectually we are in a heightened state that is focused on self-protection and defending. We refer to this emotionally activated state and all its attendant reactiveness as the "Red Zone." The Red Zone is not likely to be a place of collaboration, trust building, mutual problem solving, or deeper self-reflection and shared accountability.

On the other hand, when we are physically feeling relaxed, safe, alive and emotionally significant, competent and likable, then we are not likely to behave rigidly or defensively. We are able to be intellectually open and honest and to consciously operate in a nondefensive, cooperative, problem-solving, accountable state we call the "Green Zone." From the Green Zone, we simply do not perceive conflicted situations as threatening, or, if we do, we have Green Zone tools and coping methods that allow us to deal with these situations in a less reactive manner. There may be occasions in life when we really are threatened, and Red Zone activation may be appropriate and useful. However, this emergency response is not appropriate or useful in the vast majority of work relationships and collegial decision-making, creative problem-solving situations.

Your team may be a "Red Zone" environment where turf is guarded and defensiveness abounds.

Red Zone teams are made up of individuals who are short on "Green Zone" qualities such as trust, optimism, and good will. When a project fizzles or fails in a Red Zone workplace, people turn to shame and blame -- focusing not on what went wrong but on who did wrong.

No fun
A Red Zone scrum team isn't a fun team to work on. People aren't excited to be there. Most everyone favors victory over solutions, and they waste more time and energy on self-preservation than they spend on bottom-line priorities.

Productivity and morale suffer because Red Zone attitudes fog the corporate culture.

Greener pastures
A Green Zone team, in contrast, is a fun place to work. Employees work together to pursue a shared vision. They value collaboration and get the job done with a strong sense of teamwork and excellence.

Sure, Green Zone qualities can't save a company that makes lousy products or offers crummy customer service. Yet studies show that, when all else is equal, Green Zone teams enjoy long-term profitability and growth, while their Red Zone counterparts suffer in all areas. Some companies even "Red Zone" themselves right out of business.

Changing colors -- and cultures
So can Red Zone Scrum teams move into the Green Zone? And can employees at all levels learn to collaborate? Absolutely!

Collaboration isn't magic. It's a mind-set and a skill-set  --  both of which can be learned  --  that can make a big difference to a company's bottom line.

A 15-year initiative teaching collaborative skills in highly adversarial Red Zone organizations reveals five essential skills for building successful collaborative environments:

Think win-win. Foster a nondefensive attitude among employees, and reward people who care about others' interests and needs as much as their own. Mutual success is the hallmark of positive, long-term relationships -- and living and working in the Green Zone.

Speak the truth. Dishonesty poisons the workplace. If you're serious about changing your corporate culture, you must speak -- and vow to listen to -- the truth. Green Zoners are open, honest, and "out there" with their intentions, observations, and feelings -- and they receive the same candor in return. They're also excellent listeners -- behavior you must model if you want others to follow suit.

Be accountable. There's no room for shame or blame in the Green Zone. Promote a culture in which people take responsibility for their performance and their relationships. Encourage everyone to choose to change what's not working. Recognize employees who focus on solutions.

Be self-aware -- and aware of others. Work hard to understand your thoughts, feelings, emotions, intentions, and behaviors -- and work just as hard to understand those of the people around you. Create an environment where people feel free to ask what's up when they don't "get" someone else's attitude or behavior.

Learn from conflict. All relationships bump up against conflict once in a while -- especially when deadlines and other pressures loom. The key is to use the conflict to learn and grow. Focus on understanding everyone's underlying interests, then seek mutually beneficial solutions. When you hit a wall, take a time-out, consider what's going on with you and those around you, and then start over.

What I saw as the main takeaway after our coaching session, and what I deeply understood, was that to build a strong team collaboration muscle, team members need exercise. To make sure that they are exercising safely and that they are pushing themselves just the right amount, they need my help as ScrumMaster.

While I'm building the team's collaborative muscle, my coaching takes the character of a symphony conductor. The team needs me to help them get collaboration going, but they don't need me to be their conductor forever. I may need to take care to put down the baton as soon as they start to manage collaborative conversations on their own.

References and suggested resources

Tamm, J.W. The "Red Zone" organization.

Tamm J, Luyet R. Radical Collaboration: Five Essential Skills to Overcome Defensiveness and Build Successful Relationships. New York: Harper-Collins. 2004.

Adkins L. Coaching Agile Teams. Boston: Addison-Wesley. 2010.


Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

Article Rating

Current rating: 4.7 (11 ratings)


Shyla Kottangada, CSM, 11/6/2015 3:47:59 PM
Great article. I like how you've explained with red and green zone. thanks for sharing your insight
We all understand the value of teamwork and how important it is to succeed and Success comes from each member in the team and it is critical to build a collaborative culture. But how? Collaboration and cooperation is a personal choice and willingness and based on trust and respect. As beautifully explained in your article, when the team comes together for the first time there is lot of anxiety and questions, apprehensions about the teammates they will will be involved and working with. Naturally the human brain goes into defense mode trying to determine if these people are trustable. Tuckman's Team building process is so critical to develop, provide a strong foundation for building collaboration based on trust and respect.
Francesco Attanasio, CSP,CSM, 9/14/2016 5:02:22 AM
Thanks Shyla!

You must Login or Signup to comment.

The community welcomes feedback that is constructive and supportive, in the spirit of better understanding and implementation of Scrum.


Newsletter Sign-Up