Your Team – Known Unknowns

Recently, I came across the story of Su Meck who, at 22 years old, lost her memory completely. She had to learn how to read and write, then went to school and then, amazingly, to college and now, 45 years old and 20 years young, she has a degree.

So what does Su’s courageous story have to do agile coaching?

Well, no one she went to college with, people who interacted with her day in day out, knew her story.

Which begs the question – how well do you know your team?

In the world of agile software development where we are highly focused on generating continuous value for our clients, it’s easy to lose track of the team we work with.

The highest performing teams are ones where people have shared goals, where team members form expansive emotional states, within which everyone feels comfortable with each other. These spaces have a high ratio of positive to negative interactions and equal amounts of advocacy and inquiry. To build these sorts of spaces there must be trust, interest and empathy between the members of the group (Marcial Losada and Emily Haephy in American Behavioural Scientist 2004; 47; 740)

This is not an easy state to create, but it is truly impossible if you don’t take the first steps to create an environment where team members know each other better.

An Agile Coach tries to ensure that the team is constantly laying the groundwork for the team to reach the next level of performance. So, in this post, I present some activities that allow a team to learn about different aspects of its members. Using these activities an Agile Coach can help a team gain knowledge about:

  • The implicit roles in the team:  How team members work within a team – and how they want to work in the future.
  • The professional journey of its members: How team members have become part of the team.
  • The skills of the team: The skills each team member has and the ones they want.

I believe that a team that has done one or more of these activities will end up having more trust and interest in each other and empathy for one another allowing, to quote leading Agile Coach Lyssa Adkins, for the joyful pursuit of excellence.

Activity 1: RoleCall


Each person nominates the roles they think that they play in the team and what roles they would like to play in the future. Note: these roles are not professional roles (e.g QA, Developer) instead they are implicit roles that are not often talked about (e.g Truthteller, Wise fool, Scout – see Appendix A).

When do it?

This can be done at any time but works best with a team that has worked together since the team members will know each other well enough to understand how a team member inhabits their role(s).

Why do it?

There are many roles in a team. This exercise tries to get a team to see this and get everyone to see their worth, and that of other team members, to the team. It also allows the team to see the roles that other team members aspire to.

How it works:

  1. Create a list of roles (see Appendix A for a list I use for inspiration)
  2. Tailor the list for your team and make sure it’s available to all participants (google doc, printed hard copy or what ever suits your retro).
  3. Ask each team member to read the entire list of roles.
  4. Explain to the team that this is not a time to be humble and instruct them to choose the 5 roles that they think they inhabit (some of the time), write them on a sticky and post them on the wall.
  5. If the role they think they inhabit is not on the pre-canned list you’ve created, encourage the team to create new ones and use them for their list.
  6. Each team member takes turns going through their list of roles with the team.
  7. The other team members are asked to suggest, if any, additional roles that they think are missing from the team member’s list (max of 2).
  8. Then the team member then selects 2 roles from their extended role list that they think are the primary roles they play in the team.
  9. After the above steps are complete for each team member, then have each member move on to choose the roles they want to inhabit more than they do now (this can be a role in their current list that they wish to inhabit more).
  10. Have them share with the entire team why they choose those particular roles to emphasise in the future.

Future roles

Activity 2: Journey Lines

Team members plot out their professional journey for the team to see.

When do it?

This is an ideal activity for a project kick off with a new team.

Why do it?

It allows the members of the team to see each other as more than just their currently assigned roles. Instead, they can see each other’s professional journey; all of us have had success and failure and everyone on the team had a path that led them to being part of the team.

How it works:

  1. Explain to the team that knowing where people have come from allows for more empathy throughout the team. Explain that no records will be taken of an individual’s journey line; that this is only for the people in this room/virtual space.
  2. Introduce a sample journey line (this can be yours or an example – see diagram below). Walk through the journey line explaining the X-axis is time and Y axis is happiness. Show how significant events are noted and talked about. Explain that the person walking through the journey line can include as little or as much personal detail as they are comfortable with.
  3. Give the team 5-10 mins to sketch out/ think about their personal journey line.
  4. Each team member then goes to the board and walks the team through their journey line.

Sample Journey Lines

Activity 3: Market of Skills

Each team member shares their available skills with the entire team.

When do it?

This can be done at any time.

Why do it?

The skill sets of a team member may not be immediately obvious and this activity allows for some fun discussion and exchange of information.

How it works:

  1. Each team member is given a space (called their stall). This stall can be blank poster, a section of whiteboard, a corner of the room – really whatever is to hand. The team member uses their stall to make something that, in a highly visible manner, broadcasts their current skills and the skills they wish to acquire. These skills can be hard or soft, work-relevant or not. They are simply the skills/competencies the team member has and the skills/competencies the team member wants. The team member’s stall can be highly decorated or plain, it is up to the team member.
  2. While this is taking place, any team member can wander around getting inspiration from what the others are doing.
  3. Once all the team members are happy with their stall (this can be after 20 – 30 mins), then they walk around looking at each others completed stalls.
  4. Each team member in turn displays his or her stall to the team, highlighting their current skills and pointing out the skills they want.
  5. Then all members of the team have the opportunity to update the currently spotlighted team member’s stall with post-its in the following categories:
  •  I WANT IT – A skill that they want
  •  I THINK YOU HAVE IT – A skill that the person didn’t include in their stall
  •  I HAVE IT- A skill they have and that they could help someone develop

Ending thoughts

So there you have it. With a shared goal, an atmosphere of trust and respect and expectations of great things a team can become something amazing. So don’t be part of just any team, be part of an astounding one!

Appendix A: Roles

Truth teller: Raises concerns others fear to.

Gatekeeper: The person that evaluates new ideas / tech if it gets past them – its a core part of the team.

Pattern recognition: Sees how to get team members working on similar things to talk to each other, keeps an eye out for collaboration opportunities.

Deep Democracy Advocate: Ensures all the team vote and are present for important decisions.

The Scout: Talks to other teams, the one that gets out of his/her silo.

The practical pragmatist: Focused on practical solutions and will do what is required to achieve the desired outcome.

Oil on water: The team diplomats. They encourage team unity and attempt to diffuse potentially damaging interpersonal conflicts.

Wise fool: Asks the dumb questions that enlighten.

Comedian: Keeps it fun and light and just a little off balance.

QA Champion: Asks questions for the QA, if QA is not around.

Megaphone: Makes sure all voices are heard, especially the voices of the oppressed.

Child: Genuinely wonders “why?” and is propelled by the insatiable curiosity about life and everything in it.

Comprehensive Reviewer: Really investigates code when asked to review.

Rubber Duck: Is always available for helping people when they need a second pair of eyes.

Customer Champion: Asks questions for the customer when they are not around.

Landscape Artist:  Keeps focus on the big picture, lets the team see it.

Dreamer: Bravely gives voice to possible futures waiting to be created.

Innovator: Brings what’s new to the team, so the team can explore it.

Crossing the Ts, dotting the Is: Pays attention to the details, ensures they are up to scratch.

Perfect is the enemy: Makes sure the team can see the advantage to choose the good over the perfect.

Silent Achiever: Does lots of important work , you only notice if you pay attention.

The Right Hand: Does the work without being asked.

The Artist: Wants to get the GUI just right.

Efficiency is King: Pays attention to the process, hates waste.

Lookout: Reminds the team of near dangers.

The Historian: Knows the history of the project, makes sure mistakes are not repeated.

Contrarian: Takes a different view from the team, to make sure all angles are explored.

Bleeding Heart: Ensures words like compassion, love and respect are present in team conversations.

Client Wrangler: Makes sure the client is present when the team needs them , not when they don’t.

The Mechanic : Listens to the process or the codebase, tuning it up where required, bringing attention to the team when it’s not an easy fix.

The Pollinator: Encourage innovation in others, gives encouragement and time to those with new ideas.

T-shaped: Has a broad set of skills but one at which that he/she excels.

Cheerleader: Keeps the team filled with energy, celebrates success with gusto.

Values Promoter: Makes sure the team is reminded about agreed values.

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