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Bootstrapping an Agile Team [Part 1 – People]

In this 3 part series, I will explain some of the exercises I’ve been using to build common ground in teams that are newly formed or newly modified. The inspiration comes from finishing the agenda / planning for an off-site for one of my teams, which I’ve conducted for a few teams now.

Part 1 – Intro / Shared Understanding of People [you are here!]
Part 2 – Shared Understanding of Product (Vision, Team Purpose)
Part 3 – Shared Understanding of Process (How We Work)

At Spotify, our teams change quite frequently. There are many reasons for this but the most common reason is to organise ourselves to solve an important business problem. We believe in self-organising teams and we expect our engineers to decide who & what they need to best solve the ever changing business problems that we face. Teams will hire new people, have people move between teams, be disbanded or be newly created.

When a team changes (or is newly formed), the team loses shared knowledge & understanding. It is my belief that an effective team is a group of individuals that have a common understanding of:

People – Each other
Product – Their purpose as a team and/or the vision for the product
Process – How they work

So when I work with a new team (or a team that has changed), I try to organise activities around building some common ground in these areas, usually taking the form of an offsite. The inspiration for this article comes from the fact that I am about to host an offsite with one of my teams that have a new PO (previously an engineer within the team) and 2 new team members. The following blog post is a series of workshops / activities that I have used that have worked well for me.

Part 1 – People

In some cases, when I facilitate some of these activities, it’s really surprising to see people that have worked together for such a long time know so little about each other. (especially when said knowledge includes really useful skills or experiences from the past) Getting to know each other (particularly showing some degree of vulnerability) builds trust in a team. A team that trusts each other are more likely to have valuable, constructive conflicts that lead to continuous improvement, happiness and important decisions being made. (If you want to learn more about team dynamics, trust and all that jazz, check out the book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team – its a quick read and I highly recommend it)

Journeylines

I really like this exercise, its a nice balance of getting to know someone’s personal and professional background. I got this exercise from Lyssa Adkin’s book: Coaching Agile Teams. I love how detailed some engineers get with this activity, some graphs look like a richter scale with fine movements whilst others are broad and sweeping.

Prep: Come prepared with your own journeyline, the exercise will go a lot quicker and people will immediately understand what to do.
Bring: Big sheets of paper (bigger than A3), flipboard size is good. Sharpies / markers. Tape. Some A4 paper for people to do a few rough ones first if they like.
Time: 30min + (5-10min * number of people)

Instructions to Participants
Draw a line horizontally on a big piece of paper (big flipboard size, like A1 or something). Start at the beginning of your career (or as far back as you want, high school, college, uni etc) and plot the highs and lows of your career on the axis. The top half is highs, the bottom half lows. Make it as detailed or basic as you like, the story you tell is the most important part of this. By all means include anything personal if you like, such as weddings, babies, moving cities etc…

Here is a rough sketch of mine I did before I sketched it properly on a nice big sheet of paper:
journeyline

I usually also break mine out into the different cities I’ve lived in (through dashed vertical lines) and draw little sketches on it to make it fun / humorous. (Note that working at Spotify is off the charts, hehe)

Facilitation Instructions:

  • Explain the exercise and give your own journeyline (~10 min)
  • People write up their own journeyline (~15 min)
  • Each person will then stand up, tape their storyline to the wall and talk through it (5 – 10 min per person)
  • At the end, take a moment to discuss what you learned about your colleagues, what was surprising? (~ 5 mins)

This exercise is usually a lot of fun and is also a nice ice-breaker to a day of exercises and reflection.

Market of Skills and/or Competency Matrix

This exercise is a lot more focused on the competencies of the individuals in the team. I sourced the exercise from a blog article titled Team LiftOff with Market of Skills and Competence Matrix written by Anders Laestadius, a consultant at Crisp. (Thanks a bunch Anders!)

Prep: As before, come prepared with your own market poster
Bring: Big sheets of paper (bigger than A3), flipboard size is good. Sharpies / markers. Tape. Some A4 paper for people to do a few rough ones first if they like.
Time: ~ 1 hour depending on team size

The gist of this is that you’re going to create a marketplace where each individual on the team will ‘market’ themselves. Their marketplace poster will have:

  • Some basic personal info about them
  • What motivates them at work
  • Their main skills that are relevant to the challenge ahead
  • Their secondary skills that aren’t relevant, but might be useful to know / learn from
  • Skills that they wish to ‘buy’ from someone else

Facilitation Instructions:

  • Explain the exercise and explain your own poster (~5 min)
  • People create their own poster (~15 min)
  • Each person will then stand up, tape their poster to the wall and talk through it (6
  • 7 min per person)
  • Takeaways, learnings and potential actions (~ 5 mins)

The follow-up (or stand-alone) to this exercise is to plot out people’s competencies on a matrix on a whiteboard to discover any gaps in competency, opportunities for learning or discussion. This is explained in the aforementioned article by Anders.

2 Truths 1 Lie

Don’t have much time? This is a fairly quick exercise that is more of a fun icebreaker but is also great for getting to know one another.

Prep: I sometimes ask the team to come prepared with their 2 truths and 1 lie, as its really tough to think up one on the spot. (most people want theirs to be funny / engaging)
Bring: Nothing!
Time: Dependant on number of people, probably around 15 – 30 min

Facilitation Instructions:

  • Each person says 2 truths and 1 lie about themselves
  • The rest of the people will discuss the likelihood of the 3 options and try to figure out which is the lie
  • Ask the group “Who thinks #1 was the lie? #2? #3?”
  • The original person then admits which was the lie and proceeds to tell a story about the truths (which are usually pretty damn interesting!)

This should take about 3 – 5 minutes per person, but longer if people have to think of it!

As you can see, its rare that Agile Coaches come up with brand new exercises that no-one has done before, we try not to re-invent the wheel, we generally take exercises that others have done / written about and customise them for our own needs. (on the rare occasion we do come up with something unique, I will share one of mine in Part 3)

On that note, if you have any exercises that fit this category (getting to know each other in a new team), please leave a comment, I’d love to hear what has worked well for you!

  • Martin Österberg

    Nice write up of exercises!

    My favourite for tearing down walls between people is Personal Histories from The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. If run right it really help people to be vulnerable in order to build trust within the team.

    I usually end up using 2 truths and 1 lie to round off the day over a beer or two. In that context you can also play more than one round and people usually come up with more and more fun/interesting truths and lies.

  • Pingback: Bootstrapping an Agile Team [Part 2 - Product]Brendan Marsh | Brendan Marsh()

  • Thanks Martin, coincidentally I just finished reading 5 Dysfunctions and noticed the Personal Histories exercise, it is quite similar to Journeylines. And yeah I agree, 2 truths 1 lie is a great icebreaker or to cap off the day. I have also recently been using forehead detective with success 🙂

  • Albert

    Brendan,

    I enjoyed the post and tactics you’re using to discover more about the team. Furthermore, your point about creating/building trust while allowing for healthy conflict is so important for the success of “non-dysfunctional” teams. I cannot stress how vital it is for people to be able to speak up about issues that may arise and work through the issues as a team rather than a single man/lady being an ‘island’.

    Cheers,

    Albert

  • Pingback: Bootstrapping an Agile Team [Part 3 - Process]Brendan Marsh | Brendan Marsh()

  • Glad you enjoyed it Albert 🙂

  • Bent Myllerup

    The originator of Market of Skills is Peter Lang as referenced here: https://www.scrumalliance.org/community/articles/2008/june/coaching-scrum-teams