My desk where I’m currently coaching is surrounded by three Agile teams. Periodically, I’ll just watch and listen to each of them and before long, the heart beat of each team begins to reveal itself. Under “normal” conditions the teams will have a nice steady pulse. They have planned their work effectively, they are having fun, there is energy and excitement, and they are delivering results.
There are times however, when something changes and a noticeable increase or decrease in the pulse occurs. This can happen when a new team member arrives, impacting the dynamics of the team. It can happen when priorities are refined, a significant impediment has been discovered, or it can happen when a manager interjects themselves into team ceremonies. Ever notice the reaction of most teams when delivery dates are mandated to an Agile team? Not pretty.
When the pulse of the team spikes or plunges significantly, the Scrum Master should recognize and react by becoming the team “heart rate monitor.” To explain this concept, here is an excerpt from my book Becoming a Catalyst: Scrum Master Edition. This comes from the chapter The Necessary Fuel where I talk about specific traits a Scrum Master should develop and this text comes from the “Process Conscience” trait.
Well-functioning teams should have a wonderful cadence about them. You can almost hear and see the heartbeat. There is a natural buzz of sustainable energy and pace and hopefully through the Intense Observer trait you have heard and felt what this is like. To be the conscience of the team, the Catalyst finds a natural pace for the team and becomes keeper of the beat. The Catalyst ensures a steady rhythm and an almost comforting flow. I often use the analogy of walking or jogging on a treadmill to describe this.
When you first get on a treadmill, you usually start slowly and gradually increase the speed or incline. Depending on your physical conditioning, if you go too fast or too high too quickly, your heart rate elevates. Stay at this level too long and the incline or speed must be reduced. If your heartbeat remains too low, the benefits of being on the treadmill have been diminished.
Catalysts use a methodology or process to act as the heart rate monitor for the team. They can assess the ideal level of exertion a team should have and strive to keep team members there. With a new team (when the level of team “conditioning” is not yet high), the team operates at a slower cadence while getting used to the methodology, technology, and working with each other. The amount of work the team takes on should be reduced until team members are comfortable with the process and can work up to their optimal heartbeat. Even after a team has been together for a while, reducing the amount of work a team commits too is not easy. Most teams are overly optimistic. It will take a strong conscience to keep them from harming themselves.”
This doesn’t mean there are times when the heart rate should become elevated. Preparing for a major release for example or when the vision of the organization is naturally pulling the team to deliver valuable features. Just like the human body, we just can’t stay there forever or we will burn-out or crash. This is the sustainable pace documented in the Agile Principles.
When you get a sense of the heartbeat of your team you can begin to understand when it is ok for the heart rate to be elevated or when the team is actually stressed by overwork and exhaustion. If the team doesn’t have time to catch their breath, this stress will build to the point of fracture. People will no longer believe “being Agile” is possible and the Agile principles are just words on a screen.
For many Scrum Masters, an approach for determining the heart rate for their team is by determining the velocity for the team and using a burn-down chart. From this chart, if used appropriately, the team health story is revealed. There are also issues with the burn-down chart and I’ll cover that next week.
Take a minute and recognize the heart rate of your team. Watch and listen intently. Are they under stress? Is there a natural hum of energy, movement, and excitement? Everything you need to know about the health and vibrancy of a team can be gleaned from a period of observation.