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Getting Unstuck: An Interview with Deborah Hartmann Preuss

One of the best kept secrets of next weeks Lean Agile Scrum Conference is Deborah Hartmann Preuss's Workshop on Getting Unstuck. Originally from Canada but now based in Germany, Deborah is a long time figure in the Agile and Retrospective Communities and is known for her ability to bring out the full potential of a team. Deb and I chatted about her upcoming workshop.

Peter Stevens: Your workshop at the LAS Conference is about getting unstuck. What does a "stuck" team look like?

Deborah Hartmann Preuss: These teams want to get the benefits of applying Agile values to their work: products customers love, sustainable team, sustainable codebase. But a stuck team is significantly underdelivering in one or more of these areas, while being satisfied that "this is the best we can do, given our constraints". All teams have constraints and challenges, but not all are stuck - I define "stuckness" as the team attitude that says it's ok to ignore serious recurrent issues, that makes excuses for behaviours that diminish the team's product or morale.

PSt: Why should we spend energy on stuck teams?

DHP: Software and software teams are expensive and highly valuable assets for many firms - getting a team un-stuck can be an important opportunity to improve quality and competitiveness and to reduce cost.

PSt: Reduce cost? 

DHP: Yes, I do think so. What does bad attitude cost you? We are not good at calculating the true cost of fragile software, unhappy customers and co-workers. And there are the (usually uncalculated) costs when unhappy employees leave, taking important knowledge out of the firm.

PSt: How do teams get stuck?

DHP: Some teams start out stuck - they don't realise that they now have new options. Unaware, they build old compromises into the new process. Other teams start to create a decent Agile process within their team, but get worn down as they encounter unexpected resistance where the new process bumps up against existing processes and roles. The existing culture might be subtly or openly hostile to their new Agile values. Whether out of blindness, frustration or peace-making, these teams have settled into a rhythm that is not fully satisfying to themselves, the organisation and/or those to whom they deliver.

PSt: Is this a particular problem of Scrum teams? Or does it apply to all agile practices or even non-agile project management?

DHP: Stuckness has nothing to do with Scrum and everything to do with being human! At work as at home, despite our best intentions, we can get caught up in making short-term wins - not noticing that we're damaging our chances to achieve the bigger, long term wins we also value. It's a question of values, awareness and choices. We all lose perspective sometimes - moreso when things get difficult and complicated. A key aspect of leadership is helping people keep things in perspective. This leadership can come from outside the team, but for real effectiveness it must be transferred inside the team. When all team members own their mission and actively contribute their strengths they effectively lead one another. I teach Agile principles and methods because I think Agile's transparency and self-organisation turbo-charge good teamwork, and create an environment where this shared leadership is fostered. But the tools I will teach can be used in many contexts, not just on Scrum teams.

PSt: What would you recommend to a team trying to get unstuck?

DHP: Retrospectives, with one consistent facilitator. Done after *every* Sprint. If you already do this, create variety to provoke new thinking - there's help for this on the web and in books, so in the workshop I'll only point out a few exercises you might not yet use. Harder is: help them see where and why they are stuck. And hardest yet: stimulate their pride and challenge them. And here's one you might not know: Find your team's Court Jester and support him or her. Someone (maybe you!) trusted by the team to smile compassionately while questioning the status quo and asking uncomfortable questions. A trusted manager or ScrumMaster can play this role, but sometimes it is one of the team members. I expect to see a number of potential Court Jesters in my class next week!

PSt: What will people learn / experience in your workshop at the conference?

DHP: The day will focus on helping teams find and care about what is important, ways to help them see where they fall short, and a few simple ways to help them act. I'll do this by putting participants through a set of exercises with twofold purpose. First: the exercises will awaken and focus participants own values and mission, and challenge new behaviours that they can model to their teams. Second: they can use these same exercises right away with their stuck colleagues!

We will start by sharing our own stories of how teams behave when stuck, to get real examples.  Then participants will look at their own individual values and mission - why do we care about these stuck teams? What do we want to accomplish? Who do I want to be at work? We'll brainstorm tools we already know that help us create the changes we talk about, and I will introduce a few you may not know. I'll introduce some thinking tools that make us more powerful change agents: the Responsibility Process from Christopher Avery and we will practice with Powerful Questions. Finally, we will play the Fearless Journey game to address a couple of participants' own challenges, followed by tools that take the fun ideas from the game and move them into real actions. Participants will leave with a toolkit of old and new tools, and all of the things we do in class can also be done with teams - software teams, management teams, product teams.

Thanks Deb! I will be there and look forward to the workshop!

You can register for her workshop with conference.
Where: SwissICT, Vulkanstrasse 120, 8048 Zürich,
When: Thursday, September 15, 2011

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