Great Collaboration: The foundation for creative autonomous teams

- Agile and Lean Principles

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by Robbie Wood

The first value of the Agile Manifesto is “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” Defining this as the highest value of agile is recognition that people, with their abilities to communicate, collaborate, motivate, and inspire, are the most important component of the business ecosystem. The writers of the manifesto recognized that software development is a creative activity and, while processes and tools are important, developing the agile mindset and behaviors (individuals and interactions) are more important.

And, why are they more important? The manifesto writers had experienced the prescriptive, command-and-control management practices developed during the 1970s and 1980s and learned that those rigid practices did not lead to consistent success in delivering software products.  This especially became evident with the advent of the Internet and spread of globalization, when suddenly information and ideas could circulate around the world at the speed of light. Businesses needed to find better ways to deliver quickly if they were to survive and thrive in an Internet-based creative economy.

It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.

Charles Darwin

Today, we are operating in this Creative Economy where the customers are collectively in charge of the marketplace. In response, we have adopted agile practices and organized teams of “smart creatives” that include engineers, product owners and Scrum masters.  Many of us are striving to build dynamic and autonomous full-stack teams that will develop and maintain their products from inception through operation, with an eye toward speed, high quality, delivery and customer satisfaction.

However, in building our teams, we have focused a lot of effort on discovering and implementing best practices and finding better ways of using our tools. The questions we should be asking are:

  • How should we be using Scrum or Kanban or, maybe, Scrumban?
  • How should we measure the effectiveness of our delivery and the happiness of our teams?
  • How can we build better dashboards to track our work at scale?

All great, key questions. What’s more important is that our teams of smart creatives continuously improve their agile mindset and behaviors by being better engagers, learners, decision makers and adapters (by being agile).

Successful autonomous teams form ‘ensembles’

agile collaboration

In order to move teams toward focus on “individuals and interactions” (for us, continuous agile mindset and behavior development), ImprovAgility developed a deliberate practice approach based on exercises borrowed from improvisational theater.

Improv is a place where success is not possible without great collaboration. The exercises provide for focused individual skill development, like improving concentration, listening, quick reaction, thinking on your feet, building on others ideas and creativity, and they support teams to grow together as great collaborators.

In borrowing from improvisational theater, we tap into a mindset and body of behaviors designed to create high-performing teams that strive to become ensembles.  In Artful Making: What managers need to know about how artists work, Bob Austin and Lee Devin define “ensemble” as “the quality exhibited by the work of a group dedicated to collaboration in which individual members relinquish sovereignty over their work and thus create something none could have made alone: a whole greater than the sum of its parts.”

Therefore, a team reaching the level of ensemble is a result that emerges from continuous, deliberate practice to improve individual and team-based collaborative abilities.

When artful makers collaborate, either on a play production or business plan, they contribute to making something larger than the individual makers: an ensemble.

Bob Austin and Lee Devin

Play ‘Yes, And’ for great team collaboration

In improvisational theater, the foundational exercise for learning to be a great collaborator is practicing the exercise known as “Yes, And.”  After some warm up exercises at our deliberate practice sessions with Teams, we jump right into a game of “Yes, And,” an exercise that’s easy to learn and just about everyone feels comfortable trying. Once we’re comfortable and fluent in “Yes, And,” we move on to other exercises for deeper skill development in collaborating, self-organizing, motivating and inspiring. However, the basic concepts of “Yes, And” run through all of these exercises.

The reason that “Yes, And” is a very powerful exercise has to do with the basic notion of taking the ideas expressed by your teammate and building on those ideas. “”Yes, And” is a way of thinking, speaking, and interacting with others that keeps you open-minded, allows you to act upon opportunities, helps you innovate, and allows you to fulfill your potential.”

Practicing Yes, And can also be a lot of fun when engaged with your teammates in the exercise.  The residual effect, after most of our sessions, is that team members will keep Yes, And-ing each other for the next few days or weeks.  Even when it’s a tongue-in-cheek response, the powerful impact is there and the mindset starts to develop.  Follow-up exercises begin to reinforce the behavior and over time the team moves towards that level of ensemble where the team becomes more harmonious, creative and successful (the team will know it when they can feel it).

So, if you’re looking to get your team to start focusing on “individuals and interactions over processes and tools,” suggest a few rounds of “Yes, And.”  To start, get one person on the team to make a statement. It can be anything, for example someone can say: “For our next retrospective, I think we should go off-site for a change of scenery” and a teammate might say, “Yes, And I think we should order some refreshments” (agreeing with the first statement and then adding new information). A third team member might say, “Yes, And I know a restaurant that can accommodate us with a private room and refreshments” and you might say, “Yes, And after our meeting we can stay for happy hour for some extra team building” and the original team member might say, “Yes, and we can use a celebration board to highlight our accomplishments” and on and on until you decide to bring the conversation to a conclusion. Sound simple?  Yes, And it’s very powerful!

As we continue this journey to develop a bunch of ensembles, I’ll keep you updated here on the progress or our experiments.  Oh, and even though we care more about individuals and interactions, we still do care about processes and tools.  So, look for future posts that share the results of some other great experiments in evolving the agile mindset along with Lean practices to deliver quality products faster.  But, for now, please give “Yes, And” a try and let me know how it works out.

Feedback more than welcome! Yes, And I can’t read how it worked in the comments below!

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