Is it safe to dance?

Have you ever found yourself alone listening to music and you take a look around wondering if it is safe to dance?  Safe because your dancing is so bad it is unfit for other eyes, in fact it is so bad you are not sure you should look.  Perhaps your car is a little safer, it is a capsule of invulnerability, so when you are alone you can sing at the top of your voice and no one can see, or not until you stop at the lights and notice the person in the car next to you looking at you.

Feeling safe enough to be vulnerable is not easy even when you are alone, but it gets progressively harder when there are other people around. Now I’d never sing or dance in front of others, but the other day I found myself at lunch with four of my closest friends at work – if asked I would say I trusted the four of them a lot, I consider them really great friends, so I felt able to be a little bit vulnerable and I told a slightly inappropriate joke.This may not seem a big deal but I immediately became embarrassed I glowed red and went quiet for a while, I found vulnerability is tough even among such good friends.

Vulnerability is tough even among close friends

We all want to be liked and accepted, to be included in a group, and so it can be hard to be vulnerable, and yet the irony is that taking the step to show vulnerability may well be the step needed to make those friendships and your team stronger.


Trust in a team

In a team environment it is so important that you can feel enough trust with ALL of your team mates that you can truly feel able to say things like:

  • I need help
  • I don’t understand
  • I disagree
  • I made a mistake
  • I find those tasks difficult
  • Show me how to do that again
  • I feel uncomfortable when you do that
  • I wanted to do the task you took
  • I am unhappy with this decision

But if I struggle to trust even my best friends, how can I possibly trust co-workers that I know much less, after all the same rules apply. I want to be liked and accepted, I definitely don’t want to look stupid or uncooperative, I don’t want to discourage others or waste time, I have a burning need to feel valued and part of the team. I need to show my worth to my boss, etc.

Is it safe to dance?

Essentially when you are part of a team you are asking yourself “is it safe to dance?”
If you keep that in mind it gets easier, what would make it safe to dance for you. For me it would take a lot!

I’d need others to dance first, probably all the others, but certainly the leaders, the people the others respect. I’d need to see that some were as bad as me, I’d need to see that no one was laughing at them (only laughing with them) and that everyone was encouraging and supportive, then and only then might I feel able to be vulnerable and join in, and frankly it would take a few repeats before I would truly feel comfortable.

We can dance if we want to, we can leave your friends behind
Cause your friends don’t dance and if they don’t dance
Well they’re no friends of mine…



How does that relate to work?

You may think that dancing is not like working in a team and that the humiliation of dancing is far worse that simply doing your day job, but I think this is one of the reasons teams suffer from an absence of trust so often.  We dismiss both the importance and underestimate the difficulty of building trust in a team.

In a team environment you are sharing your ideas which are deeply personal, your knowledge and judgment which may be closely associated with your sense of self. Doing something wrong could affect your job, maybe even your career. Sure you may not look and feel like a buffoon but the stakes are much higher. And even if you get past the work related barriers you still have to contend with our inherent desire to be socially accepted, to be liked and valued.

So how do you build trust on a team?

Actually this is not that complicated it is not really any different to building friendships.

  • Spend time to get to know each other, take a few minutes during meetings to get to know each other, this is not waste, a few minutes spent building relationships could well be the most productive aspect of the meeting in the long term.
  • Chat over coffee and as you work – about personal stuff
  • Have lunch together as a team – this works best if the whole team is together.
  • Play games! One of the best ways to build relationships is to play a game something simple like a card game is great, it is inclusive and leveling, the most junior member of a team can challenge the most senior in the safe confines of the rules of a game this makes it much easier to discuss work ideas on a level playing field later.
  • Time, trust and relationships take time, do not underestimate it.

For all of these it works best if everyone is there to avoid creating pockets of trust which could undermine the team later.


The last one was time, and warrants an extra note. Building relationships is a slow process you can’t simply flick a switch, allow teams the time and space to grow the relationships will build and grow stronger and stronger, and once the team is stable changes can be made so long as a core remains to keep the identity and trust that has formed.

Trust takes time


If I had to recommend one book that would help your team become the best Agile Software Development team, it would be The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni, the book does not even mention agility.  But in my opinion the vast majority of questions I’m asked or problems I see can be traced back to something covered in this book.

You cannot uncover better ways to deliver software without first uncovering better ways to work as a team. And the basis for an effective team is Trust.

Building trust should be your top priority, spend the time, make the time, it is an investment in the future of the team. Without trust anything else you do will suffer.

Without trust anything else you do will suffer.

Take the time to build trust on your team, make it safe to dance.



Is learning an expense or an investment?

The capacity to learn is a gift;
The ability to learn is a skill;
The willingness to learn is a choice.

Brian Herbert

It is pretty safe to say that most learning involves some kind of cost, whether it be that you are slower as you learn or have to explicitly take time to learn something new. There is a time aspect, an effort aspect and sometimes even an overt outlay of cost for a training course a book or a subscription. But all are a cost to you or our employer. But the question is: Is that cost simply a necessary expense or is it a worthwhile investment for the future?
Is that cost simply a necessary expense or is it a worthwhile investment for the future?
This is a tough question and I am sure many employers and employees wrestle with on a regular basis.  For the employer there are concerns that time spent learning is time that is not productive (or not as productive)  the time could be better spent generating income.  In the case of formal training or qualifications there may be an opportunity cost of the time spent AND the cost of the training which can be significant, and perhaps more concerning the employee becomes more employable and more valuable as a result so there may be a consequential increase in turnover or a necessity to pay the employee more as a result.  In essence it is easy to become focused on the expenses and forget the benefits that come from a better trained and more fulfilled workforce.

As an individual/employee it often is expected that you do your learning on your own time, you are motivated for self-improvement and your employer may focus on the benefit the employee gains rather than the benefit to the employer. The difficulty with this is that learning time tends to be when you are least energetic, or at times when you are sacrificing other activities.


Short vs Long-term thinking

In the simplest form the choice may often come down to the type of work and whether an investment in people will benefit the organisation. My initial thinking is that if you expect to have a high turnover of staff or the type of work you do is low skill, then investment in people may be perceived as an expense rather than an investment but even then I wonder if an investment in learning may reduce turnover and increase skill.  But in the field of software where the world changes almost daily, with new techniques and new approaches appearing regularly, then an investment in learning is not just beneficial it is almost essential just to keep up. To not invest in learning could be very detrimental to the long-term prospects of your organisation.

Choosing NOT to invest in learning could be very detrimental to the long-term prospects of your organisation.  

In ‘software fields’ good people are hard to find, and even harder to keep. Many organizations now operate flat structures with little or no hierarchy, promotion in the conventional sense is no longer the main form of advancement. Individuals grow through learning new skills and becoming experienced in new techniques, and not simply hands-on learning and experience.   We rely on intrinsic motivation – Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose, to keep employees engaged, happy and productive.

A key element to both Autonomy, Mastery and even Purpose is time for learning and reflection.  People that are not supported in this are likely to be less fulfilled, less happy and more likely to look for work elsewhere. Entropy sets in, and in software that can be fast and devastating for both individuals and organizations, individuals with outdated skills can find it difficult to find work and become demoralized and trapped, organizations can find that motivated individuals want to be working on new technologies and embracing new techniques.

What is our goal?

An organisation is generally interested in making money and growing either in size or in effectiveness, understanding this we can attempt to visualize how individual learning can support that goal.  Learning and personal development leads to a sense of Mastery, empowering the employees by giving freedom to use the time as they see fit provides autonomy, and sharing your company vision and how they can be a part of that provides the purpose.  Employees that feel these motivations will be happier and will be far less likely to leave, turnover is hugely costly to an organisation especially when it is the better employees that are more likely to leave.  The reduction in turnover alone may be enough to justify significant effort.  But improving employees will use those new skills in their work, they will encourage others and it is highly likely that productivity and creativity will improve.  In short providing opportunities for learning supports the goals of most organizations.

How much time should be assigned to learning?

At a previous company they set aside 2 hours a week for each employee to dedicate to personal development, this was in addition to any formal training. This is close to a 5% increase in overhead per employee, which is significant but set aside a reduction in turnover may be immediately beneficial.   In practice however it was not always observed, pressures from projects would often squeeze this time as it was seen as secondary to business objectives. The frequency in which it was observed undermined the policy.

In environments where time is billed to clients it becomes even harder for a company to see the value of learning, it becomes un-billed time which is even more costly but that doesn’t reduce the importance or value in the learning time.  I’d like to see organizations regularly set aside 1/2 a day each week for personal development, and provide the tools necessary to make this effective – pluralsight subscriptions, purchasing books for employees even if they are not directly relevant to their work – remember the goal is to motivate and create an environment for improvement.   At 10% of employee cost this is a significant ask, but I would hope that if introduced in the right way with enthusiasm and support, employees will embrace the way you are valuing them and their personal development and this investment will pay dividends.

Our danger is not too few, but too many options … to be puzzled by innumerable alternatives.

Richard Livingstone

Can you have too much autonomy and too much choice?

One final observation is that when presented with boundless autonomy we generally become lost and confused.  Most people will respond to this with confusion and more limited actions than when provided with a framework.  Imagine a restaurant with no menu, you could order anything you like. Most people would be conservative in their responses, they will not challenge themselves or their boundaries instead choosing something they already have confidence in and confidence that it is easy for you to provide – some will challenge but most are cautious. Also most people don’t like this, they want a restaurant to have a menu. They may grumble that something isn’t on the menu, and may ask to switch X for Y on their order or for the cooking to be modified, but the framework of a menu provide scaffolding and enables choice, the lack of the scaffolding stifles it.

It is the provision of boundaries that enables us the pleasure of pushing them, and having some guidance of what our options are for learning enables us and empowers us far more than a blank slate.  With some ideas of what is available we are able to ask for more or suggest alternatives.


  1. Make Time: In my opinion an organisation that is in the software field needs to make learning a pre-requisite, this is the most important task of the week.  Learning time is very important, so set aside time for it, and make the time such that it doesn’t conflict with the team or other business activities, Maybe set aside Tuesday morning as personal development time and challenge anyone not using it.  Teams where there are pressures or pairing may feel that this time impacts on their peers or their project this message needs to be challenged regularly.  This is for the long-term health of the business which outweighs any temporary short-term pain.
  2. Scaffolding: Create a framework where it will be used and is not just a hollow gesture, have a menu of options, and people who’s role is to support and guide, set development goals, provide subscriptions to online training, a budget for formal training, encourage in house peer training in this time. Encourage people to present their learning, acknowledge them for their efforts and especially for sharing it with colleagues.
  3. Broaden Scope: Don’t limit this to technical skills, or to skills your organisation currently uses, this is about personal development, so team building, soft skills, and even time to reflect on learning or their career/interests all help with that.
  4. Support: Some people will need more encouragement and support than others and so a group that is dedicated to professional and personal development could be invaluable to get the best out of this initiative.  All of us can benefit from someone to help us identify our goals and a plan, and to encourage us stick to it.
  5. Persist: Finally this will take time to become habit, starting the initiative is not enough, for a while it will require reminders and reinforcement to get the best from it, but if you are able to provide your team with the opportunity to grow as they want, I believe they will become far more engaged, enthusiastic and energetic.



Self-Organisation vs Human Nature

I love the notion of self-organising teams, the belief that if left alone the team will pull together and solve the problem at hand. I also love the notion that a team doesn’t need named roles and that a team should be multi-skilled and can and will do any and all tasks necessary to deliver the work.  As a model this does work, I have seen some great teams that can and do achieve this. But I don’t think this is the norm. There are certain foundations necessary for this model to work and for far too many teams they don’t have the necessary pre-requisites.

The team must have (or have readily available access to) all the skills.

The first is to have ALL the necessary skills on the team. Which may sound obvious, but when arranging and staffing teams we will generally ensure that a couple of the core skills are present and overlook or underestimate the importance of other skills. Or some of the other necessary skills are a lot less tangible and quantifiable, ‘softer’ skills, so we trivialise or undervalue them, when actually those less defined skills are likely to be the ones that mean the difference between getting by and excelling.

I doubt many question the claim that a software developer is a specialist skill, many people can have a go at coding but most serious products require a deeper level of understanding of the code than a casual understanding. I personally believe that the role of QA is similar, many can do the basics and run test cases, but a QA is a specialist skill and those gifted at it possess a perception that few developers even grasp let alone can mimic, they see a problem differently, a Dev tends to see a solution, a QA will see how it might fail.

Similarly with design, few Devs could design their way our of a paper bag, interfaces designed by engineers must give designers nightmares. I have seen engineer designs where every function of the system is displayed on one page giving a casual software tool the appearance of a complex flight control interface. That’s not to say that some Devs don’t have design skills, but generally they are lacking. And then there is Product Ownership – the term for a collection of tasks and skills that I feel is generally drastically underestimated and a skill set that is rare in your typical Dev. In my opinion it is potentially more specialized than that of a developer or QA, and is rarer to find on a typical team composed of Devs and QAs. (Named roles or otherwise)

Drawing the expected value out of a customer or stakeholder and verbalising it, is a skill, translating that into a story can be time consuming and painful, but when done right the Devs can fly and the stakeholders are happy. When done badly the developers churn and the stakeholders grow frustrated. Product Ownership is the vanguard of Agile software development. Being able to articulate a clear vision, and present unambiguous goals and priorities, to write stories that express the value of the work without imposing a solution on the Devs can mean the difference between a goo and a great product.

To do all this requires someone that can communicate effectively with the customer and stakeholders and then transfer that information clearly and effectively to the team, to ensure that the customer is clear on priorities and is happy with the progress requires soft skills that are not at all common. This is an extremely difficult set of skills to master. To simply assume that a team will inherently possess the skills necessary to fulfil this role amongst themselves is inviting disaster. To assume that the customer is clear on their intent or direction and can express that need to developers who may not possess the experience or will to probe and challenge to identify the true need is simply inviting disaster. Product ownership skills and experience is not an automatic side effect of being a Dev – far from it.

The team must be motivated to do any of the necessary tasks.

And secondly there is Human Nature.  This may be seen as a generalization and it is a generalization that I have been trying for years to break, and to be fair there are some team members that do manage to evolve beyond their labels and become more cross-functional team members. Many will take on tasks relating to DevOps or DBA or even some of the other core skills on a team such as Design and QA but, BUT…

What I find more often than not is that if people are left to their own devices: Devs want to code, QAs want to test, Designers want to design and NOBODY wants to do documentation, administration, or talk to stakeholders or to integrate other people’s code. Maybe an over generalisation, but not too far off the mark.

The result..

And of course the whole point of self-organising teams is that they ARE left to their own devices. So we have a bunch of self-organising teams that have a mix of being unable or unwilling to do all of the tasks necessary to deliver the product.  Obviously some do muddle through and when push comes to shove they will step up and get the job done. But many just don’t want to and will either leave it to others meaning that the more ‘Agile’ team members get all the crap jobs, or more commonly I seem teams finding ways to stay busy to avoid doing the tasks they don’t like or facing the problems the team would have if they actually confronted them.

In the book the Lord of the Flies, there is a goal – a signal fire, but the boys become busy and preoccupied with the more interesting tasks and having fun, thus neglecting the fire.

I see non-urgent (and not prioritized) features getting worked on, scope creeps all the time. The ‘build process’ becomes gold plated, and the team starts a whole bunch of ‘spikes’ that take far longer than should be expected. Everyone is ‘busy’ but no one is delivering value (nobody is tending the fire). All because the team is subtly, maybe subconsciously avoiding tasks they don’t like or don’t feel they are able to do. This may sound harsh, but I have seen this behaviour far more often that I would care to count.

So do I advocate self-organized teams? Do I advocate named roles in teams?

In my experience Product Ownership requires skill and dedication. Assuming a team possesses it simply as an after thought or assuming it is a secondary role is very damaging. For a newly formed team/project someone skilled in Product Ownership should be primarily focused on that.(Not necessarily in a named role, but certainly specifically assigned the responsibility). But that assumes there is someone on the team who possesses those skills.

It should be part of the responsibilities of that role to spread that knowledge and share those skills to avoid creating a silo – (why not pair? the way you would a Dev role?) Please note I am not saying this is essential, but I am saying that it can vastly increase the effectiveness of a team. and fears of a bottleneck are unfounded, a focal point and a single filter may actually be a benefit rather than a hinderance.

In a similar vein I think that in the early days of a team of a project a flow manager/coach/Scrum Master type role can help a team form and become effective far quicker. They encourage the team to be aware of the less desirable tasks and to emphasise the importance and value of getting them done rather than focusing on less important tasks. Helping the team understand the difference between the feeling of being busy and actually delivering value to the stakeholders/customer.

Understanding the difference between a necessity of having someone in a role and the benefit a team derives from having someone in a role are often confused and muddled and that is something I intend to return to in a future post.


I do believe teams can be self-organising and I do believe that named roles can sometimes lead to unnecessary siloing – but that is not a certainty and that goal should not dwarf the desire for an effective team. I don’t believe that throwing a team together and taking away titles will magically make a self-organising team. Self management is a learned skill like any other and takes time to learn and to perfect.

I also don’t believe that taking away named roles removes the need for specialist skills. Saying we don’t want a named QA or Dev or PO doesn’t mean you don’t need those skills on the team.

Understanding which skills are needed is vital for an effective team, whether it is self-organised or not.  But even with the necessary skills the team still needs to understand the direction (vision) and be motivated to reach it.

All he does is state the obvious…

A few weeks into a new project and I was given the feedback that all I had been doing is stating the obvious and pointing out pretty much fundamental Agile principles and practices.

At first I was a little offended, I want to be adding value and so it was more than a little disappointing to hear what I felt like was a negative assessment of my work. And so I reflected on what I had been doing, partly to see how I could do better and partly to reassure myself that I was adding value in the right areas.

As I reflected I realised he was right. I had been stating the obvious, but what is not generally well known is that the obvious is not so obvious at all. 

If there is one criticism that could be fairly leveled at me is that I let teams flounder too long before I step in. I have the belief that if a team solves it’s own problems without help they learn far more. If the team doesn’t appear to be seeing a solution I then move on to subtle hints – dropping seeds of ideas, and if I still feel they are not seeing things and I get to the point of ‘stating’ then it is because I don’t think the team is going to solve the problem without more pain than is appropriate for the situation. 

In this case I had been challenging the team to produce working agreements and agree what their definition of done was. This is a scaled Agile project and my fear was that if the whole team did not agree ‘done’ together then one sub team’s ‘done’ would be imposed on all, or worse ‘done’ would be inconsistent between the teams. I also urged them to agree how they would integrate their work, I gave them advice on ‘Vertical Slicing’ and some advice on story writing, especially ensuring that the ‘value’ of a story was clear. All pretty obvious stuff – that is if you knew it already.

But these are new teams and some of the team are new to Agile, I suppose what is disappointing is that it was me that had to state the obvious, and not one of the more experienced team members. Self-organisation only works if the teams take the responsibility, and are then sufficiently motivated to deliver on that – more on that in my next post. 

If my advice was so obvious why did it take an outside observer to see it? Why couldn’t the team see it for themselves?  The answer of course is that solutions only become obvious when you see them,  and it often takes an outside observer to point out what should have been obvious all along. All too often we see things as obvious after they have been pointed out to us or later feel they are so obvious we don’t say anything not realizing our team mates were struggling.

Realizing that common sense is not very common and what may seem obvious to one person may not be seen at all by another is actually one of the more difficult aspects of coaching. Sometimes I ask what seems like a basic or even stupid question because I sense others in the room may be unsure. Sometimes this makes me look like an idiot but sometimes it is clear that the stupid question was not so stupid. (And for the record sometimes I ask to promt conversation or clarification but often I simply don’t know and I figure that if I don’it know maybe I am not alone.

So please, state the obvious in your teams, especially if you feel it may not be so obvious to everyone else in the room.