The Not-So-Funny Team Toxin: Sarcasm

Photo by clement127

Photo by clement127

I am reflecting upon work groups that are unproductive. And noticing that the problem isn't necessarily the people or the work--it's in their interactions.

Is there such a thing as a sarcasm hangover? I don't know how else to describe it. For me, it's like this: you're in an environment where people frequently make sarcastic jokes, and you might come up with a few zingers of your own. Later you feel a malaise and “off” compared to your normal pleasant self.

A while back I was at dinner with a group of friends; we hadn't all been together in a while, and the back-and-forth quips started flying across the table. A few had edge to them. The next day I was bothered by it and reached out to one friend in particular to talk about it. I realized that while I like all of these people, I didn't necessarily like myself when we got together and made sarcastic jokes like that. In theory, it would be nice to see everyone more often than once or twice a year. In my heart, I knew I wouldn't pursue it if that was the way we would act. Part of me can be a real jerk, and that's not something I desire more of.

Some people view sarcastic jokes as harmless. It's prevalent in pop culture. However sarcasm is an example of toxic behavior--behaviors called the four horsemen of the apocalypse when it comes to relationships. A toxic behavior that begets more toxic behaviors if we are not aware.

Yikes! Those jokes don't seem so funny anymore.

The experience of being in work settings where sarcasm is the norm now hits me differently. I see the verbal jabs and feel the pointed edge. I imagine pink slime slowly coating us and amplifying our negative emotions like a scene from Ghostbusters 2. If we are to spend any meaningful time together productively, our awareness needs to be raised. We make jokes to avoid uncomfortable truths. What's going on under the surface? How do we need to be with that? What support is wanted?

If your team’s productivity isn’t what you want it to be, look at what's going on between people and listen to how they joke about each other and their work. Sarcasm may be a signal of deeper issues.

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.

Brewing Great Agile Team Dynamics

Photo by Shawn Rossi

Photo by Shawn Rossi

One of my coworkers texted me the other day asking if I could bring her a Diet Coke. She was teaching a full-day class, and it was mid-afternoon. I was thrilled to have finished my last meeting of the day so I could oblige. Why?

Because we're teammates. Because she does a lot and asks for little in return. And because this was a small way that I could show my appreciation.

Years ago, this coworker and I worked together at another company and did a DISC workshop to learn about our behavior profiles. We learned our own behavior and communication preferences, and more importantly for our coaching team, we learned about each other's profiles. That's when I recognized that this coworker of mine is high in Steadiness (and that the colleagues I found challenging to work with had the exact opposite profile of mine). People high in steadiness are reliable, humble, and enjoy being part of a team. Knowing that and my own preferences has made it easier for us to work together.

Want to learn more about DISC and how it can be used with your team? Listen to Barry Forrest and I chat with Ryan Ripley on the Agile for Humans podcast, read our Brewing Great Agile Team Dynamics presentation slides from AgileIndy, or sign up for an Agile Team Dynamics workshop.

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.

Software Development--It’s All About Learning!

Photo by Sonny Abesamis

Photo by Sonny Abesamis

Sometimes I learn new things at conferences and training classes. And sometimes I am reminded of things that I already know.

Two events caused me to see something I knew but had lost sight of:

  1. Craig Larman mentioned in LeSS class that software developers are trained in computer science programs to gather requirements, design, code, and test, so doing these activities within a self-organizing team is not a big stretch for them.
  2. Diana Larsen pointed out during the Organization Design Forum that “knowledge worker” is a misnomer for software developers—a better name would be “learning worker” because we are continually learning more about our customers, our business, technology, etc.

Software development is all about learning! That sounds obvious, and in some ways, it is. It is the foundation of our work. Learning is the bottleneck in delivering software. And yet I see organizations try to optimize teams and processes based on knowledge rather than learning. Teams are often designed based on people’s roles, assumed skills, and existing domain knowledge instead of allowing cross-functional teams to self-design based on their understanding of people’s skill sets and social preferences.

I also remembered a few facts about adult learners that further amplified for me why scrum teams can be great learning vehicles:

  • Groups learn faster than individuals
  • An individual’s commitment is proportionate to personal investment in design
  • Highly cohesive groups influence each other more than non-cohesive groups
  • People have to see practical connection

How is your organization design supporting learning rather than knowledge? How is it not?

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.

Zombies of Scrum

Photo by Dave Mathis

Photo by Dave Mathis

You’ve probably seen it: a team that has a standup meeting each day to provide status updates. A team that demos their work to stakeholders but rarely receives real feedback or changes. A team that works in “sprints” but may or may not have potentially releasable product at the end of the timebox. And the team is ok with this state of being.

I feel like these are the zombie teams of Scrum. Teams who have Scrum events but are not getting the value of them. They have lost sight of the pillars of empirical process control—transparency, inspection, and adaptation—and fallen into a mode of rinse and repeat instead.

These teams need a refresher on Scrum. Feedback. A purpose.  I coach teams out of their zombie state so they are more engaged and productive.

Let’s keep zombies where they belong—dancing in classic music videos:

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.

The Key to Increasing Productivity

Photo by JD Hancock

Photo by JD Hancock

To increase productivity at your organization, look at the social connectedness of your people.  Are you hearing from each person or only the "superstars?"  How well are people collaborating and showing empathy?  Asking for help is core to success, and people knowing each other drives helpfulness:  

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.

Providing Safety as a Coach, Facilitator, or Scrum Master

Photo by Washington State Department of Transportation

Photo by Washington State Department of Transportation

Have you ever been in a meeting where you could’ve heard a pin drop because it was so quiet?  Where people were not saying what was on their minds?  Why does that happen? 

Hint: it’s usually related to a lack of safety in the room

Where does safety come from?

Someone once told me that my competence provided safety to the people I coach—a lovely thought, and I can see truth in it.  My experience and knowledge allow me to provide teaching and mentoring, as well as reassurance that you’re not stuck with the status quo.  And I also see where my expertise occasionally makes others feel less safe—afraid that they will be caught doing something wrong or breaking rules.  In those moments, it’s as if I embody someone’s own conscience.  Safety has something to do with how you show up and create the environment, and it is also dependent on how others show up and interact within the environment.

I’ve seen the silent meetings occur when the facilitator ignored the group dynamics and neglected to create an environment for everyone to freely share opinions.  And I’ve also seen the silent meetings happen despite a facilitator doing just about everything in his control to foster a judgment-free environment.  Sometimes people aren’t ready to open up.  Skilled facilitators work hard to help people share and participate in meetings, and sometimes people are not ready for that right away.  Perhaps “getting real” is uncommon, either for the individual, the team, or the organization.  It can take time for folks to feel comfortable voicing their opinions; the facilitator must provide the safe environment at every opportunity so it is there when they are ready.

The art of providing safety

From June to October, I spent some of my weekends building a trebuchet with friends for the annual DFW Trebuchet Toss Off.  It’s a fun activity, and I enjoy being part of a team that builds something tangible (far different from my day job!).  This was my third year participating, and my role is that of Safety Czar.  Because honestly I’m not much of a builder, and I can’t carry much physically, but I do pay attention to group dynamics and making sure that those who are about to use a power saw are wearing safety goggles.  We had a lot of challenges this year with our trebuchet, and my schedule didn’t allow me to be at every build. I feel like I didn’t really fulfill my role this year.  I noticed when certain people were disengaged during the builds where I was present, and I didn’t do much to pull them into the active conversations.  I didn’t take a strong enough stand against some of the physical safety issues; while no one was really hurt, we did cause some damage that could have been prevented.  That doesn’t feel good. 

Coaches regularly see the places where people become uncomfortable—whether it’s the person who isn’t ready to face the real transformation that lies ahead or the team that isn’t ready to take the next step.  The coach stays with them in the moment and uses her skills to deepen the learning and forward the action.  It is not easy to do.  In fact, it can feel exhausting.  Listening intently, asking questions with curiosity, acknowledging and championing the strengths you see, and challenging old thinking… all in service of the person/people you are coaching.

I think that’s the key to providing safety: acting in service of them.  A Scrum Master assigned to a new team can facilitate an amazing retrospective and draw out the introverts if he acts from a place of serving the team as a whole.  A coach can ask hard questions of a team and provide a reality check if she acts from a place of serving the team.  If you act from a place of right/wrong, us/them, waterfall/agile, or win/lose, then safety is lost.

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.

Learning and Change Go Hand-in-Hand

Photo by *Psycho Delia*

Photo by *Psycho Delia*

Agile starts with and thrives on learning.  Teams are often introduced to agile frameworks like scrum in training classes, and they adopt practices over time.  The team is learning as a group, and we want to ignite a passion for learning in the individual team members.  Each team member will be going through change at some point in the agile journey—they will probably experience change multiple times rather than as a single occurrence—and a self-motivated interest in learning can facilitate change.  A person going through change is like a trapeze artist: you have to risk letting go of the bar and allow yourself to be suspended in space as you try something new.  And then, with relief and excitement, you find yourself able to grab onto a new bar—you have made the change!  It can be scary to take the leap for change, and a safety net might not always be visible. 

Getting comfortable with change is hard, and as I see it, change and learning go hand in hand.  Change might sound scary while learning seems safer.  An agile team “reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjustsits behavior accordingly.”  The team identifies changes that can be made and tries them; it learns new ways of working, new technologies, new techniques to deliver high quality products… change and learning are continuous.  The team culture includes learning.  When learning ceases, the ability to adapt to change decreases.  Teams become stuck in their ways, conflict increases, and complacency settles in.  Don't let your rituals become ruts.  Agile teams do not arrive at a destination; the goal is not to improve to a point of maturity or high performance and then maintain the status quo.  In the words of Flannery O’Connor:

Accepting oneself does not preclude an attempt to become better.

As an agile coach and consultant, I am often brought in to organizations to jump-start and facilitate change.  I look for signs of learning in the organization to design the engagement and evaluate success.  If people in the organization are open to learning, then anything is possible.  I can provide training, mentoring, and coaching to incite positive change.  In the end, I hope people realize that success is not in what they know, but in their capacity to learn.

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.

Should you always hold teams sacred?

Photo by sophiadphotography

Photo by sophiadphotography

When an organization adopts agile, there is typically a shift to forming cross-functional and self-organizing teams.  Create persistent teams.  Bring the work the team.  It takes time to reach high performance, so don’t disrupt the team.  Hold the team sacred because team members will learn, grow, and challenge one another in the safety that the team provides.

But what about teams that have been together for a long time and are not actively learning, growing, or challenging one another?  That are not striving for high performance?  The ones that are mired in destructive conflict?  What do you do when complacency has set in?

I vote for disruption.

Change the work and what success looks like.  Change the people.  Change the environment.  Change processes or communication to the team.  Don’t change everything, but please change something!

Agile is about teams that are striving for high performance. For excellence.  What does that look like?  I like Lyssa Adkins’s high performance tree metaphor:

How do your teams rate?  Are they striving for high performance or ripe for disruption?

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.

Where to Look During the Daily Scrum

Photo by Adrian Scottow

Photo by Adrian Scottow

I was talking to a developer friend of mine recently, and I realized something about the Daily Scrum: agile coaches and team members look at different things during the event. 

My friend mentioned that he makes eye contact with team members, particularly new ones, as they give their updates to boost their confidence and encourage them.  Of course team members look at one another during the Daily Scrum!  The Development Team is sharing information and planning its work for the day, and making eye contact with your peers shows that you’re engaged and interested in them.  It seemed so obvious as he said it.

As an agile coach, I observe the Daily Scrum and note how information is being shared within the team; I pay attention to the body language of the team members and the level of information being provided. Is there something not being said?  Are team members engaged? Does the team understand how they will complete the sprint goal?

Since I am not on the Development Team, I generally do not speak during the Daily Scrum. If a team member looks at me while giving his update, I look at the ground. By looking at the ground, I gently encourage that team member to look somewhere else–hopefully at his fellow team members.  This works well in stopping team members from looking at me during the Daily Scrum, but it does not teach them where they should look or how to behave during the event!

According to the Scrum Guide, “the Daily Scrum is a 15-minute time-boxed event for the Development Team to synchronize activities and create a plan for the next 24 hours” and “the Scrum Master ensures that the Development Team has the meeting, but the Development Team is responsible for conducting the Daily Scrum.”  Agile coaches might teach the Development Team how to conduct the Daily Scrum, and the teaching generally happens outside of the event itself.  Development Team members teach one another how to behave in the Daily Scrum during the event

So Development Team members, please look at your teammates during the Daily Scrum.  It is your opportunity to teach one another how to use the Daily Scrum well.

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.

What Happens to a Team without a Clear Purpose?

Photo by Christian Guthier

Photo by Christian Guthier

Have you ever seen what happens to a development team when they lose their Product Owner?  That person who tells them the direction of the product and inspires them with a vision of the future?  When he/she is replaced by someone new who doesn’t understand the product deeply and have a vision for it?

We know that organizations that fall apart can almost always trace their demise to a deterioration of their core – People or Purpose

Like a plant that is lacking sunlight, the team’s behavior starts wilting—they’re falling into bad habits or complacency.  The team struggles.  Conflicts happen.  A mature development team needs a Product Owner to feed them goals through communication and collaboration.  Without a Product Owner, the team is lacking purpose or its purpose is unclear. 

Purpose: one of the three intrinsic motivators.

RSA Animate - Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us

What is your development team’s purpose?  Is it to deliver a product that fulfills its vision?  Does the team have its own motto or mission statement?  Where does it come from?

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.