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April 07, 2016

Launching Your Agile Team with a Workshop

3 mins read

The Agile Manifesto and approaches like Scrum are thin on how to launch teams.  Even more weighty approaches such as the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) are silent on how to get a new team started.

For a team needing to get started, there are three things that must be known:

  1. What is the team trying to accomplish or build
  2. How will the team work together
  3. What stakeholders and factors in the work environment need to be considered

These are what constitute a team charter and need not be anything heavy weight. Diana Larsen and Ainsley Nies have recently written a concise book on the subject called Liftoff. I highly recommend picking this up.

In their book, Diana and Ainsley discuss using workshops that explore Purpose, Alignment, and Context – almost exactly defined how I did so above. And, this approach is almost exactly the one I have taken as I have helped teams launch. The series of workshops I have conducted generally take 2-3 weeks calendar time with some of this time being time for the team to gather information to prepare for upcoming sessions or answer questions that weren’t known during the workshop. I like to call this homework time.

Often times I find a team needs a quick overview of the appropriate Agile approach to get started and sometimes other more training oriented sessions are needed as well, such as how to build and use a story map. The goals of the workshop sessions though are not training but is the work to understand Purpose, Alignment, and Context.

Out of the three areas of workshops, I personally find the workshop sessions around Alignment to be the most valuable. In these, you are exploring commitments, values, and working agreements to which the team members will commit. If these are done well, shortcomings in Purpose and Context can be overcome. If the team can’t work well together, no clarity in Purpose or Context will help the team overcome this shortcoming.

While I have generally gotten these workshop sessions completed in 2-3 weeks, it is important to get through the needed content. I timebox the sessions just to keep them focused and to help keep people’s attention, but the overall length to get a team chartered and started should not itself be a timebox.  Additionally, there may be work that follows from these chartering sessions, such as setting up technical infrastructure or further backlog refinement. While some of the work in these sessions may overlap what is considered release planning or a Sprint 0, it also has some differences that are important.

These workshops don’t have to be dry; they can have lots of exercises, activities, or games that engage the mind and produce useful results.  For example, want to learn about risks that could crop up on a product development project? Try running the Innovation game Project’s Worse Nightmare. Want to understand what team members value? Try a Lego for Serious Play build that answers that question and record the results. How should the backlog be ordered? Identify the first persona to which the application addresses and run the Backlog is in the Eye of the Beholder exercise. Use mindmaps, storyboards, world café-like arrangements, and a variety of other engaging approaches and you will get your results more quickly and creatively.

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