Wednesday, 22 April 2015 08:11

Agile Teams - The Weakest Link: Can You Hear Me Now?

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In my last post, we explored a situation where a Product Owner had a long-term challenge with their performance that was weighing their team down.

But as I finished that article, I realized that there might be something else going on that I wanted to explore here.

In that situation, the teams’ coach assured me that conversations and escalations had happened between herself, the team, and the Product Owner. She even said she’d escalated things to the PO’s boss. She made it sound like there was a huge amount of clear feedback over the course of two full years.

Given this, they seemed to be at an insurmountable obstacle—a poorly performing Product Owner and nobody willing to do anything to improve the situation. In other words, they were stuck.

But that’s not it…

But that’s not the topic of this post. As I thought about what I was hearing, it began to dawn on me that the coach might not be communicating as clearly as she thought. In the last post, I put the burden of improvement squarely on the shoulders of the Product Owner. But now I want to put some of it on the coach herself.

Perhaps I’ll illustrate the point with a story –

For years I’ve taught leadership workshops, both for traditional and agile-centric leadership. Most often these are general, technical leadership classes that are not agile-centric. Find that hard to believe don’t you? I frequently ask the room full of managers and leaders how strong they feel their feedback skills are. Usually I get quite a bit of bravado, and the majority is emphatic that they’re doing an outstanding job of providing feedback to their teams.

I hear things like:

  • Providing solid feedback is my #1 priority.
  • Bob, it’s my JOB to give feedback, I take it seriously and I do it well.
  • I’m a straight-shooter, everyone knows where they stand with me.
  • Bob, let me give YOU some feedback…

So I’ve clearly touched a nerve and let’s assume everyone IS doing a great job.

But in the meantime, I’ve surveyed their teams. I’ve also looked at past performance reviews the leaders have written and contrast it against the verbal discussions I’ve gleaned from the leaders. The point is, I look for evidence of their feedback and how congruent and clear it has been.

What do you think I typically find?

Quite often that performance feedback isn’t being given at all. For example, people they identify as marginal performers have often been given outstanding reviews and positive feedback. In some cases, even promoted. When I ask team members about feedback, the majority implies that they have “no idea” where their performance stands from their managers’ perspective.

I usually communicate this as an 80:20 relationship, with the leaders thinking they’re 80% effective and the reality is closer to 20% effectiveness. You might ask what causes the disconnect?

I have no definitive answer, but I think the following come into play:

  1. Giving congruent and constructive feedback is HARD, so we often avoid it.
  2. Often we think we’ve clearly communicated something, but we don’t confirm receipt.
  3. Sometimes we like to tell people what they want to hear vs. what they need to hear, avoiding any conflict.
  4. While we might provide the feedback, we don’t follow-up to check on acceptance and progress/improvement.
  5. It takes effort and time.

I have the feeling that some of this might be coming into play in my weakest link article.

Saying is only the first step

I have a general rule on feedback. Just giving it is only half the job, probably the easier half. You then need to strive to ensure your feedback was accurately received AND that it is driving some sort of action or result. If not, then the burden is on you to ensure you provide additional feedback.

The point is, you are not only responsible for giving the feedback, but also responsible for the results. I know, I know, that’s not fair. But from my perspective, just saying words doesn’t drive action. It doesn’t verify that they ‘got’ your message, and it doesn’t ensure that there is a healthy and productive outcome. All of which I suspect you want as part of your giving the feedback.

Dirty little secret

And I shared this with the coach in this sad tale. Leaders don’t always pay attention to what you say. Really, Bob? Yes, really!

Most senior leaders get feedback all of the time, from everyone. Most of it is venting, complaining, or whining about something. So, they often filter the feedback. If they get it and they see events unfolding that support the feedback, then they might take action on it.

But if they don’t see events that support the feedback, often they just assume you were venting and not really expecting them to do anything about it.

That’s why I recommended to the coach to stop hiding the issues and simply expose them. Then the reality on the ground would connect to the feedback that they were giving the Product Owner’s manager.

Wrapping up

I think the entire point of this post is providing improved, more courageous and congruent feedback communication within your teams. Make sure you’re doing it and doing it so that it’s received in the way you envision it to be.

That simply talking and walking away isn’t always effective.

There’s a wonderful book entitled Crucial Conversations. If you found this theme intriguing, I would highly recommend your reading the book.

Stay agile my friends,
Bob.

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Robert Galen

Robert 'Bob' Galen is the President and Principal Consultant of RGCG, L.L.C. a Cary, NC based agile methods coaching & training consultancy. He is a deeply experienced agile coach who is active in the agile community and regularly writes & teaches on all topics related to the agile methods. Bob wrote the book Scrum Product Ownership, which is focused on that role and driving value in team delivery. Bob can be reached at bob@rgalen.com and networked with via his LinkedIn profile.

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