Nobody is perfect on Day 1
Coaching teams is like nurturing a garden. Just as you can’t expect a barren land to blossom into a lush paradise with a single gesture, you can’t transform a team’s dynamics and practices in one sweeping motion.
The pursuit of perfection can often hinder progress. Coaches who expect a high performing Scrum team right from the outset can lead their teams to frustration and burnout – both for the coach and the team. Instead of aiming to eliminate all flaws at once, coaches should focus on identifying the most critical areas for improvement. These high-impact opportunities are the ones that will yield the most significant benefits for the team’s performance and morale.
For example, I worked with a Scrum team once who was new to Scrum and had a lot of trouble with the concept of developing and testing new code in one Sprint. Incremental delivery – or delivering a done, usable increment each Sprint – is central to Scrum. For software teams, this usually means that the Scrum team should develop and test new software every single Sprint. It can be intimidating, and the team wasn’t ready for it. But they agreed to work towards incremental delivery. For six months, this team developed in one Sprint and tested in the next, which is not ideal. But during those six months, the team worked on refining their Product Backlog to have smaller sized Product Backlog items. They worked on pair programming and on developing regression testing scripts so that they would be ready to develop and test in one Sprint. Finally, at the end of six months, the team decided they were ready to try and develop and test in one Sprint. They did it, and it worked, and they haven’t looked back. Six months after that, they were one of the highest performing teams in the company. Sometimes it takes awhile to get to be a high performing team, and a great coach needs to understand that sometimes continuous improvement is a marathon, not a Sprint.
Embracing the Incremental Journey
A series of small, incremental improvements often has a more profound and lasting impact than a sweeping process update. This concept parallels the agile principle of delivering value incrementally rather than attempting to release a massive product all at once. By introducing changes gradually, teams have the opportunity to adapt, learn, and internalize new practices more effectively. Each small improvement contributes to an overall upward trajectory of progress.
I worked with a reporting team a few years ago who really embraced this concept. Every Sprint, they were enthusiastic about identifying some small improvement to their process. We didn’t make any significant changes, but rather, a series of very small improvements. For the first Retrospective, for example, the team decided that there wasn’t enough information on items in the Product Backlog to enable the team to deliver a done increment, so the Developers asked to take over responsibility for writing Product Backlog items for a single Sprint. The next few Sprints, the team identified changes that they wanted to make to the display of the Scrum board. Every Sprint, the team made these kinds of small improvements, and at the end of six months, it was truly astonishing how far they had come.
By contrast, there was another team who did a full redesign of their intake process at the same time. It was a significant change and six months later, there was no impact because the team was not able to absorb the change. Sometimes a series of small improvements is better than a whole process redesign in one go.
Coaching is a delicate art that requires a balance between aspiration and pragmatism. The truth that you can’t coach people out of every bad practice all at once serves as a guiding principle for effective coaching. By prioritizing high-impact opportunities, timing interventions strategically, embracing incremental progress, and focusing efforts on select areas, coaches can guide teams toward transformative change. Just as a garden flourishes under the attentive care of a gardener, teams thrive when coached with a discerning and holistic approach.
Don’t miss out on the Scrum Day event coming to Madison, Wisconsin, on September 14, 2023. This isn’t your same old conference. Scrum is a team sport, so this conference has something for Scrum Masters, Executives, Product Owners, Developers and those who are just curious about Scrum.
Morning keynote is a series of guided discussions designed to help make new connections while advancing your practice
Lunch keynote is Scrum.org CEO Dave West , who will be speaking to developing individuals for successful Agile teams