The Deceptively Simple Liftoff Checklist

As a coach and facilitator I spend a lot of time helping my clients establish new teams, and sometimes helping existing teams that are in need of a reboot revitalize themselves.  I find that it’s critical to invest a little time at the outset to help everyone get on the same page about the problems to be solved and how this particular group of people will work together in this specific environment.  This sets up the team so that everyone can work with purpose,  make better decisions about the work, and work more effectively with each other and with the team’s partners.  This doesn’t have to take a long time – getting everyone together for a day or two of structured conversation can create enough shared understanding that the team can get to work – and my experience has repeatedly demonstrated that a relatively small investment in talking (spoiler: it’s not all talking, actually)  together at the outset repays itself many times over in increasing team effectiveness.

Liftoff - Purpose, Alignment, Constraints

Because I can’t make everyone read Diana Larsen and Ainsley Nies’ excellent book Liftoff: Launching Agile Teams and Projects, I’ve created the following 15 item cheat sheet describing the objectives of a liftoff to help explain what a new team might want to sort out at the outset to get themselves off to a more solid start.  Each of these items seems straightforward, but it never ceases to amaze me how many different understandings emerge when you sit down with the team and start to dig into these seemingly obvious questions.


The Deceptively Simple Liftoff Checklist

(Important caveat: the team doesn’t need to have a full and complete understanding of every aspect of each of these items to check it off the list – the heuristic here is Good Enough For Now)

Purpose – “Why are we here?”:

  1. The team has a shared understanding of its vision.
  2. All team members understand the key business outcomes desired to realize the team’s vision, and the indicators they will look to in order to determine whether they are succeeding at realizing those outcomes.
  3. Team members know who their customers and partners/stakeholders are
  4. The team has an initial backlog of valuable work items that will help the team realize the business outcomes
  5. Team members have a sense of how the business value of work items is defined and where tradeoffs might be considered in meeting customer expectations.

Alignment – “Who are we and how will we work together?”:

  1. Team members know who is a core member of the team, and who are external contributors who they need to work with to help them deliver.
  2. The team has articulated its shared values
  3. Team members have identified simple guiding principles to help them be successful together
  4. The team has a working agreement outlining specific behaviours they want to support each other in so that they can work effectively together.
  5. The team has identified the capabilities it possesses and the capabilities it needs to develop in order to deliver reliably and with quality, and to minimize bottlenecks/single-points-of-failure.

Context – “What’s the bigger picture? How do we understand the system and its influences?”:

  1. The team knows who its stakeholders/partners are, and what information/decisions/resources they need from each other.
  2. The team understands what decisions about the work have already been made and other constraints that will determine what/how they deliver
  3. The team has considered the risks and opportunities inherent in their upcoming work, and is actively considering how to mitigate risks and take advantage of opportunities for greater benefit.
  4. The team knows what resources are needed to deliver, and is working to get the resources it doesn’t currently have in a timely fashion.
  5. The team has established the initial practices it will use for coordinating, collaborating and communicating its progress.

I’m hoping to unpack each of these objectives in a subsequent post (it’s the new year and I’m optimistic about posting more than once every 18 months), and share some ideas about how you might help the team to check each of these items off and have some fun along the way.




Rollin’ Rollin’ Rollin’: Using Story Cubes to jazz up team retrospectives

Are you looking for a simple way to liven up your retrospectives?  In my coaching engagements, I often encounter teams that are having ineffective retrospectives because they always take the same approach to framing the discussion. Using the same format for every retrospective preordains a very similar conversation each time, and it won’t take long for team members to start grumbling that the retrospectives aren’t working for them, creating a Doom Loop of disengagement.StoryCubees

I’ve had surprising successes dropping a handful of Rory’s Story Cubes on the table and suggesting “Hey, maybe we can use these to have a team conversation?”.  Story Cubes share some of the magical properties of using LEGO Serious Play to spark a serious conversation: they’re fun, they’re tactile, and they’re easy to use.  More introverted team members who might be intimidated by being asked to do improv don’t seem to notice when there are Story Cubes involved.  By breathing a spirit of playfulness into the conversation, and engaging fingers as well as tongues, the people at the table will share ideas that haven’t surfaced in previous retrospectives.  It’s also a great technique for dragging the conversation out of the rut of endless griping that some retrospectives seem to fall into.

Story Cubes are easy to use, and can be adapted to a number of different purposes.  The Original set is enough to work with, though including another set such as the Actions (particularly useful for Retros) or some of new Mix-ins can help inspire greater creativity.

Here are some ways that you might incorporate Story Cubese into your next retrospective:

  1. Check In: One person rolls, then each participant picks one cube and offers an associated word to complete a simple check-in statement, such as “The last sprint was great because…” or “Today, I’m feeling like…”
  2. Data Gathering: Use the cubes to inspire the story of the retrospective.  Dana Pylayava suggests:  “Everyone picks 1 image as his view of last sprint. Speaking in turns, team builds the shared story in 9 cubes”.  There really are no rules here: have each person choose one cube or a few; people can roll again if they come up dry in continuing the story. Or have each person roll and then use all the cubes to tell a short individual story about their experience of the sprint.
  3. Gathering insights: To mix things up and really boost ideation, try combining Story Cubes with brain-writing to encourage everyone to generate ideas about why things are the way they are.  Roll the cubes, have each participant silently write as many ideas as possible on individual post-its using the images on the cubes as inspiration in identifying patterns, themes, and connections. Roll the cubes again and repeat.  Then use silent affinity grouping to assemble the big picture before starting to talk about what’s been revealed.
  4. Deciding what to do: This is where the Actions or Voyages cubes might be particularly useful to draw out creative ideas about “What is the thing we should do differently next sprint to be more successful?”.  Use the cubes to brainstorm as many ideas as possible about what types of actions will get the team to the desired destination (and then make a collective decision about which one to focus on, of course!).
  5. Closing the retrospective: Similar to the Check In, have participants select an image from a cube to help them complete a closing statement, such as “Our next sprint will be better because….”

While I’ve offered ideas for how to use Story Cubes for any phase of a retrospective, I wouldn’t recommend using them for the entire thing.  Choose one or two of the phases and combine using Story Cubes with other techniques for soliciting input – this is a great way to start especially if your team is unaccustomed to using playful props to do serious work.

Some other ideas for how to use Story Cubes in retros:

I would love to hear from you about how you’re using them – leave me a comment!

Where to find them?: Rory’s Story Cubes are available at many toy stores, via Amazon, or directly from Rory’s Story Cubes. And no, I don’t get any promotional perks for being a Story Cubes fangirl.  I just really like their product.

Vote for “Discover To Deliver” class to be offered in Ottawa! (or Montreal!)

Well-formed user stories help Agile teams to make the right decisions about what to deliver next.  Ellen Gottesdiener and Mary Gorman’s excellent new book, Discover to Deliver: Agile Product Planning and Analysis, gives Agile teams practical guidance on planning and analysis practices that will help practitioners explore all dimensions of their product so that they are focused on learning the things that will enable them to deliver great products.

There ‘s an opportunity to have the “Discover To Deliver” class offered in either Ottawa or Montreal in October.  Visit this page to find out more about the course and indicate your interest in attending.  The more interest we have, the more likely it is we can bring Ellen or Mary to Ottawa to offer a fantastic learning experience.

Introduction to Lean & Agile Work: presentation to IEEE Ottawa

On Tuesday, I had the pleasure of presenting “An Introduction to Lean and Agile Work” to one of the IEEE Ottawa SIGs

As a prelude  to the conversation, we played a simple variant of the penny game in order to spark some lively discussion and great questions to frame the rest of the evening.  We then talked about Agile values and principles, and how those ideas are manifested in Agile and Lean practices.  As the group was quite small, it was less of a formal presentation and more of a conversation with a few pictures to help clarify key ideas about Scrum and Kanban:

scrum 3









The conversation was lively and long (as an Agile coach, I tell myself that one day I’ll get the hang of this time-boxing thing!), and from the comments afterwards it was clear that the talk had sparked a lot of curiosity about how these ideas could be applied in practice. My favourite comment was “You know, we’re supposedly doing Agile at work, but we’re missing a couple of really basic elements.  I get it now!”.

Here are the slides from the presentation:

Download the Scrum & Kanban Fundamentals handout.


Steps for creating a new game

Play is powerful stuff. I had the tremendous good fortune to take part in Play4Agile, an Unconference on games for Agile teams held near Frankfurt, Germany two weekends ago. It was a tremendous amount of fun and a really intense learning experience — there were so many skilled and enthusiastic people there to learn from and create with that a goodly number of new games were generated over the course of the weekend.

One of the (many) really helpful sessions I took part in was a session on designing games organized by Antti Kirjavainen and Ole Jepsen. I’d already started collaborating on a game with a small gang of people, and we all attended this workshop in order to figure out where to go next with our ideas. Annti gave us a road map for developing a new game:

1) Vision: Why should people play this game? What will they learn? What will they achieve?

2) Identify:

  • Objectives – what are the intended outcomes of the game?
  • Constraints – what the limitations for the activity (how may players, how long might it take, what supplies are available)?
  • Use contexts – who will use this game and how?

3) Brainstorm! – generate a pile of ideas for building a coherent activity

4) Define the game concepts:

  • what do the players do?
  • what is the goal of the game?
  • when does the play end?
  • what are the game objects?
  • what are the main features of the game?

5) Generate test questions to evaluate the game:

  • Is it fun?
  • Are the players engaged?
  • Is it scalable?
  • Is it potentially viral?
  • Do players get the intended ideas?

6) Create a prototype

7) Play test

8) Consider the answers to the test questions based on experience, and go back to step 4.

While this map is simple, creating a game itself is not, thought an idea can grown into a game quite quickly.  My next post will get into the nitty-gritty of how we put together the first version of “Nobody’s Perfect” in about 5 hours.

Recommended viewing: The Biology of Business

Hat tip to Thom Kearney for drawing my attention to this great presentation:

Meeting Expectations

A member of a team I’m working with recently observed that the team’s design workshops were much more effective when she (and everyone else) came to the meeting prepared with an agenda, examples of the problem space and some other concise reference materials related to the design discussions. Having this pre-work (and pre-thinking) in place made the meeting flow smoothly and helped participants understand the context for the decisions being made so that a lot of ground could be covered in a relatively short working session.

The observation that meetings will be more effective with some thoughtful preparation seems like common sense, but somehow I still find myself attending too many meetings that waste people’s time and energy because the intended outcomes aren’t clear and/or necessary info & decision makers aren’t in the room. I sense that because Agile favours lightweight processes and documentation, some teams have formed the impression that you shouldn’t be worried about things like agendas and preparing for meetings/workshops/whatever kind of group session, because you’ll do it all “just in time” (i.e. “making it up as you go along”); this is a misunderstanding, as Agile work practices place great value on identifying desired outcomes and how you’ll know you’re done before you dive in to a piece of work, as well as timeboxing work to help make sure that something of value gets delivered in the time available.

There’s a lot of really good advice on facilitating effective meetings readily available. I go back to Jean Tabaka’s book Collaboration Explained repeatedly for guidance on how to facilitate effective meetings while fostering collaboration and creativity. One technique from this book that I’ve had great success with is building agendas using a set of questions; rather than just identifying a topic for discussion, phrase the agenda item in terms of the specific question(s) on that topic that the group needs to answer. This technique has three advantages:
• people are prepared for what specifically needs to be discussed/decided
• there is an clear outcome to the discussion identified from the outset so that participants know when the topic is “done” for the meeting (“have we answered this question?”)
• it limits rat-holing by redirecting focus back to the specific aspect of the topic to be addressed
Agendas might also include timeboxes for each topic/outcome in order to keep the group on-track. It’s astonishing how much can actually be accomplished in a few minutes of discussion when the team is prepared and focused.

You can help tighten up your team’s meetings even if you’re not the meeting facilitator. Esther Derby provides a great list of suggestions that any meeting participant can implement to help improve meeting discipline, including :
• ask for an agenda ahead of time
• send only one person from your team
• politely decline the invitation
• offer to take notes
• facilitate from where you sit
• ask for progress checks
• help others participate
• summarize
Lastly, don’t be afraid to ask questions about the proposed duration of a meeting. Microsoft Outlook has conditioned us to schedule meetings in 30 minute increments, but different meeting purposes require differing amounts of time (often less than 30 min or 1 hour). Using arbitrary timeslots because that’s what the scheduling app gives you by default leads to Parkinson’s Law. Be bold and schedule a 15 minute meeting if you think the objectives can be met in that time. And rather than waiting several minutes to begin in order to accommodate latecomers, start your meetings right on time and end them after 25 or 55 minutes to allow participants time to get to their next engagement (of course, if your team is dedicated and co-located, this is a non-issue).