Coaching Agile Teams: Expect High Performance
Teams often get the basics of agile running within the first few sprints. Agile frameworks, designed to be simple, are just that—simple and easy to get started. And the practices, well-coached, are easy to set in motion, too.
It doesn't take long before the rituals built into agile can leave the team feeling like they are caught in a never-ending hamster wheel—always moving from one ritual to the next and from one sprint to the next and the next and the next. They are making progress on the product they create together but spinning in the hamster wheel nonetheless.
Beyond the company results the team is asked to produce, teams need something else to strive for—something to change the hamster wheel into a journey of their own making. Instead of seeing the same scenery in the hamster wheel again and again, they need to see different signposts and landmarks along the way indicating progress toward something resonant and worthwhile. This "something" is the quest for high performance. It's the daily act of, together, striving to be the best they can be.
We know that motivation in the knowledge age comes when people achieve autonomy, mastery, and a sense of purpose (Pink 2009). Setting high performance as your baseline expectation and giving teams a way to achieve it play directly into these powerful motivators. Thus invigorated, everyone wins. The company gets better results. The company gets teams that can do anything. The teams, and the individuals who comprise them, achieve more autonomy, mastery, and purpose in their lives. Everyone tastes the sweet fruits of high performance.
Set the Expectation
Expecting high performance does not mean that you demand it. Expecting high performance means that you simply know achieving it is more than possible; it is normal. Expecting high performance means that you believe the team can attain it, so you hold them, compassionately and firmly, to that expectation. By believing, you urge them to strive for a vision of what they can become together. They get called forth to be more than they are now.
This propels them forward sprint after sprint and release after release. All along the way, they touch moments of greatness together, fueling their desire to continue the journey. They also experience disillusionment and heartache, causing them to fall back. Through it all, you remain steadfast in your belief in high performance—and in them.
You believe in high performance, but what is it? It's a slippery thing; high-performance models, assessments, and descriptions abound, yet a satisfying all-inclusive dictionary-type definition eludes. You will not find that kind of definition of high performance in this book, either. I seek not to pin it down but to free it by acknowledging that high performance is not as much about achieving a certain state as it is a journey toward something better. Teams that "outperform all reasonable expectations" and "even surprise themselves" may be on such a journey (Katzenbach and Smith 2003). So, too, may teams that get fractionally better all the time.
As their agile coach, help them start their journey toward high performance by simply setting your expectation that they will achieve it. Then, give them the raw materials they will use to create their own resonant definition of high performance—a vision that lets them imagine it and reach for it. Coach them to choose the next step on their path (and the next and the next), all the while staying aimed toward their inspirational vision of high performance.
Create a sense of anticipation, expectancy, and excitement for this journey—first in yourself and then let it flow to them. Lead by believing. After all, if you don't believe they can get to high performance, why should they?