There’s a Glitch in the Matrix – Getting an Agile Team Back into Flow

One of the attributes of a healthy Agile organization are teams being in a state of flow. You can easily tell when a team is in flow. There is a sense of purpose and vision, there is very little stress, there is laughter and comraderie. They are committed to each other, and when a challenge comes, they handle it together, without drama. They just solve problems, together. The team is not perfect but they sense when something is not right and self-heal.

It seems like the team in flow gets more done than any other team and from outside appearances, they make it look effortless. Sound to good to be true? I’ve seen and experienced teams like this. They are a joy to watch and its absolutely possible.

Now, when a team is the opposite, they are out of flow, the results can be damaging and perhaps even create an unhealthy environment for team members. When teams become out of flow, they:

  • Are always playing catch up. It feels like they are on a treadmill with the incline slowly being increased to an unsustainable height.
  • Will have a tough time reacting to change as its challenging enough getting planned stories completed. The team heart rate is too high from the increasing incline to tackle the next hill.
  • Are challenged to establish retrospectives as a time of gratitude and renewal as these sessions will often devolve into gripe or blame sessions. They are out of breath to put meaningful effort into making this session a time of true retrospect, collaboration, and improvement. They may be too tired to even realize they are out of flow.

If you have a team out of flow, here are some steps to bring them back:

1. Go Back to Basics
Always start with this one. Pull out your Agile framework or Scrum Guide and facilitate a team basic training session. In many cases, a team becomes out of flow when there is a deviation from the framework. Someone is not fully living into their role, a work product is not being produced as it should be, or an activity is not happening when it should be. Bring the team back to “shu” in the “shu-ha-ri” levels of practice.

2. Look at the Planning Session
Once the team has a solid understanding of the basics, observe the sprint planning session. Is the team asking the hard questions during this session? Have they sufficiently answered issues around technical feasibility? Nothing stops a sprint faster than large, unresolved technical design questions. Are user stories well-written with robust acceptance criteria? Is the team over committing? “Flow” can be designed and planned and it starts with this session.

3. Promote the Vision
Give the team a reason to get back into flow. Is the product vision strong and compelling? If not, it may be time for the product owner to take another look at the vision and freshen it up. If the vision is solid, then promote and publicize it. When a vision is exciting and worth pursuing, the team will rally around it.

4. Protect the Team
Distractions from leaders, other teams, and requests from other areas may be pulling attention and time away from your sprint goals and causing team members frustration or anxiety. Do whatever you can to protect the team and keep them focused on the vision. This is why you have a Scrum Master…use them.

 

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5 thoughts on “There’s a Glitch in the Matrix – Getting an Agile Team Back into Flow

  1. Several very good recommendations, Len. I particularly like #2, improving the planning session.

    Related to numbers 2 and 3, the “Design Studio” exercise (also called “Design Charrette”) can bring a team into better alignment. It’s focused on layout/interaction design, but builds a spirit of communication and participation.

    Jeff Gothelf (http://www.jeffgothelf.com/) describes it in his O’Reilly book “Lean UX” (chapter 4). Here is the super CliffsNotes (R) version…

    Define problem and constraints
    Individual idea generation (diverge)
    Presentation and critique
    Iterate and refine (emerge)
    Team idea generation (converge)