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The Agile Project Manager “The Secret Sauce: Team Appreciation”

Feature May3 25616213 XSI was attending a session at the Agile 2011 conference where Jean Tabaka from Rally Software was talking about some generic agile coaching tools & techniques. Jean happened to mention a few times that Rally had been internally focused on some organizational change models that happened to focus on strengths, positive recognition, and appreciations.

Focusing in on appreciations, she stated that it started in team retrospectives. That Scrum Masters would ask the teams to share their appreciations of each other as a startup or entry ceremony for each retrospective. But then it caught onto other organizational meetings. She mentioned that many of their company wide, all hands meetings began with appreciations.

And that it began to change the tenor of the culture, influencing the collaboration, teamwork, and overall energy & results of the company. I came away thinking that I’d been a bit lax in reinforcing “appreciations” in my coaching and she inspired me to renew my focus.

Before I talk directly about appreciation dynamics, there are three trending & related areas that I want to mention. I think they help support this post and will help you explore this area.
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Positive Psychology & Flourishing

First up is positive psychology. Martin Seligman is considered the father of Positive Psychology and the focus on flourishing and wellbeing. Two areas of flourishing are of interest in agile teams, or at least they’re the components I’ve chosen to share in this post.

First is a focus on positive emotion. This can be “tuned” by everyone writing down three positive things that occurred during each day. You can do this via journaling or some other method of capturing team events. It’s best to do this at the end of the day, to focus your mind towards positive outcomes and successes.

The second area is engagement. This can be “tuned” by preferentially using ones highest strengths to perform tasks which one would perform anyway. Here you’re leveraging your strengths in your role. The agile methods endeavor to maximize positive emotion and engagement as part of the essence of a self-directed team.

Seligman and others have also emerged the term flourishing to represent the embodiment of positive psychology in one’s life.

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Strengths-Based ‘Movement’

This leads quite nicely into the strengths based and coaching movements. A popular analysis tool is StrengthsFinder from the Gallop folks. It’s now at a 2.0 level and it assesses and finds your strengths as they align with 34 core areas.

Part of the tool, once you’ve identified your strengths, is to guide you towards leveraging your strengths in your day-to-day work and personal lives. It’s my view that you can change (improve) weakness, but do it painfully and slowly. The impact won’t be felt for quite some time. But if you reinforce or amplify and leverage your strengths, you’ll accelerate your growth and impact within your organization.

You’ll also be happier and more engaged.

Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative Inquiry or AI is an organizational development technique that I’ve been aware of for quite some time. And it aligns incredibly well in agile team coach as do all of these techniques.  The central force in AI is running an AI Summit where you focus on what’s “right” about an organization vs. what’s wrong and trying to fix it.
By reframing your group questions towards strengths, you try to:

  • Discover: the things that are currently working beautifully in your organization
  • Dream: or envision what processes or approaches might work well in the future
  • Design: plan or prioritize those process or approaches that would work best
  • Destiny (or Deliver): the proposed design the group has envisioned

Nowhere in this did I use terms like “root cause analysis” or fixing a problem. This is all about amplifying your strengths towards even more innovation and results.

Applying AI to Agile Retrospectives

It’s a very common practice in agile teams to do a retrospective that follows a prescribed format of answering the following questions:

  1. What did we do well?
  2. What did we do poorly or badly?
  3. What would we like to try?

If we were to take an AI approach to retrospectives, we’d drop question #2 entirely. We’d amplify #1 to include individuals, the team, and even the organization. Leading the discussions towards strength amplification – or how do we do even better.

The third question is interesting. Very often I find teams coupling #3 to #2, for example: “we really struggled with estimation in this sprint, so why don’t we try this technique”. While on the surface it sounds like we’re considering positives or strengths, we’re really not.

I’d either like to drop the question entirely or reframe it to something like this:

What creative and innovative new ideas or approaches can we try that will amplify our strengths and increase our overall results?

I know, I know, I can get a little wordy. But in this case, I think the question reframing focuses the team towards appreciation, strengths, positive improvement, and innovation. A fairly powerful cocktail if you ask me.

But let’s get back to the original point…

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Now back to Appreciation

Now that I’ve established a bit of a research and study baseline for you to explore, I want to get back to the original thesis of this post. The point Rally Software was emphasizing is a whole team view towards appreciating each other. Here are some of the characteristics of their appreciation:

  • It was given from one individual to another, directly
  • The sender and the receiver made eye contact
  • It was specific, so a specific act or incident that you are thanking the other person for was acknowledged
  • It’s done openly or in public
  • The receiver acknowledges the appreciation directly, with a “you’re welcome”
  • And you do this until you run out of appreciations amongst the group

Quite often, this is a kick-off or initial ceremony, meaning it’s done at the beginning of a retrospective or a meeting. It has the wonderful effect of warming everyone up.


Another observation is that it snowballs over time. In the beginning teams are often shy or reluctant to recognize each other. They’re often afraid to call someone’s positive behavior out. Not sure why that’s true, but it often is.

But as this practice is instantiated into each teams or your organizational fabric, it gets easier and easier to recognize each other, to simply say “Thank You” for your efforts in a public and meaningful way.

It also seems to change the culture. People start thinking about each other as team mates and not simply co-workers. They begin to be more observant and thankful for each other’s efforts. The daily stand ups become a bit more positive, results-oriented, and energetic.

I’ve even seen the case that, now that the shyness is wearing off, that the team’s ability to ask for help increases too. So no longer do team members “hold onto” work too long before raising their hands for help. They realize that they’re “appreciated” even when they’re struggling. That their team “has their back”.

Wrapping Up

I think solid Agile Project Managers sort of get a visceral feel for when and where to appreciate their teams. They make it situational and appropriate. They also make it immediate or time sensitive, because nothing makes a worse impression than thanking someone for something a year after it happened.

Beyond the personal appreciations though, I think they setup an “appreciative environment” where their teams are kind, gentle and thankful to each other, where they leverage strengths whenever possible while influencing the teams work.  An environment that is infectious in its positive energy and can do spirit.

I’d encourage everyone reading this to invest time in your personal and team-based “appreciations”. I’m positive you’ll see a difference!

I appreciate your listening,

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

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