Improving the Agile Assessment

Photo by Jessica Lucia

Photo by Jessica Lucia

Agile assessments are fraught with nastiness, and I've learned a lot about how to conduct them through the mistakes I've made in the past.  Today I led an agile assessment for another coach's team, and the overall experience was positive (for the coaches and for the team).  Here's what I did to foster that:

  1. Explain "assessment."  Part of our client organization's goals is to have teams achieve a certain level of maturity, which unfortunately pressures the teams to reach a particular "score" because it will be compiled in a report.  That's pretty scary for a team.  I disclosed the organization's goal upfront (there's little sense in hiding what we all know) and went on to explain that the assessment is actually designed to be a deep-dive retrospective tool for teams to reflect on how they're doing and areas to possibly improve.  The concept of the assessment becomes more familiar since the team already conducts retrospectives regularly.  An assessment also helps the coach provide the support the team needs.  
  2. Discuss the maturity model.  We've developed criteria for defining maturity levels based on Shu-Ha-Ri, so I quickly review what they mean at a high level.  They are part of a team's agile journey, and I like to highlight the positives of each level.  Our assessment covers with different focus areas, which I list upfront, so they understand the structure.
  3. Review the process.  I've helped modify our assessment process quite a bit, and the one part that bothers me about our current practices is that the coaches take electronic notes during the assessment.  It can make teams nervous when we start typing as they're talking.  I told the team that we'll be taking notes throughout, and this time I went on to let them know that we're typing the good things we hear as well as the things they are recognizing could use improvement.  These notes allow us to reflect back to the team afterwards to help them create their self-improvement plan.  I think explaining the notes that we're taking contributed significantly to the team's ease during the assessment.
  4. Get to know the team a little.  I teased that just as their coach had not told them previously about the assessment process, he had not told me anything about them.  We were in their team room, and the information radiators were already giving me some insight into their work, but I wanted to know a little more before we started and put them more at ease.  How long had they been together?  What products do they support?  What is each person's role?  After all of the introductory talking I had been doing, it was good to get them speaking and engaged.
  5. Let them talk.  I gave the team the assessment questions and told them to read the first one aloud, answer it as a team, and when they felt like they had said enough, move on to the next question.  After the first few questions, their answers started leading into the following questions or touch on other areas--this is all ok.  I make notes where I need to and don't interrupt them.  We didn't have enough time to finish the full assessment in one meeting, and I felt it was more important to let them have full conversations rather than keep to the time box; after finishing the questions for the first area, we discussed how much time was left in the meeting and how much of the assessment remained.  I told the team that I liked the type of conversation we were having and did not want to lose that in the remaining time--the team chose to focus on completing an additional area and schedule an additional meeting for the remainder.  Each team takes a different amount of time to go through the full assessment, and I've found it is a disservice to cut them off or try to expedite the process.
  6. Listen, make eye contact, and smile.  This is an elaboration of #5.  Odds are, the team has some accomplishments under its belt and some good challenges ahead.  Listen to their stories and be present with them.  Smile as they reminisce and brag and even as they touch on the stuff they are struggling with--focus on how far they've come as a team.  It is an honor to partake in their learning, and it is exciting.  Show thanks for their openness.  As coaches conducting the assessment, we are scanning an excel spreadsheet for areas to type notes, but we must not get bogged down by the tool and disconnect from the team.

Even after making the assessment a more positive experience, the fun part for most people is later--celebrating the team's results.  Regardless of whether they are Shu, Ha, or Ri in maturity, going through the assessment is a passage rite that helps the coaches to recognize the team for its past learning and growth.  I like for the team to celebrate as a team and be part of an additional celebration to recognize all of the teams that have been assessed within their organization.  Multi-team agile celebrations will have to be a topic for a future blog post!  

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.