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Managing Morale Through an Agile Transformation, Part I: The Sleeping Giant

By: Christy Overall

Whiteboard post-it colored notes

This blog is part 1 of a 2 part series on Managing Morale Through an Agile Transformation.

When working to transition a team to an Agile delivery model a few months ago, a stakeholder took me aside to discuss the team’s morale. Noting that the transition had been difficult, with resistance from multiple team members, he wanted to understand why their attitudes had changed. Sprint Reviews were more enthused, and Sprint Retrospectives were productive. Why the change?

There is no shortage of Agile transformation efforts across many industries in 2017. There is also no shortage of artifacts to monitor Agile Readiness and Evolution throughout each stage of the process. But some of the most important elements of a transformation are also the most difficult to monitor: those concerning the state of team morale. The truth is that Agile allows team members to have more of a voice than many are used to. It empowers everyone to speak up, let their concerns and wins be known, and to have more direct contact with end users. It also allows leadership to change direction more nimbly. However, moving toward an entirely new way of thinking always poses risks. The general attitude of any team acts as a “sleeping giant” that is more impactful than we often realize. It takes time to get to the “other side” and become accustomed to things like eliminating an expectation of complete requirements documentation, the flow of a standup, or loosening the anticipation of a set-in-stone roadmap for the year.

There are many considerations involved in this move to an Agile mindset, but the day-to-day success of it often depends on the team’s optimism and drive. Are they on board? Or are they drudging through the days? How excited is the team to put on a Sprint Review? It is always a good idea to identify change agents early, to zero in on the Influencers. These may not always be people with a title- they may simply be people the team trusts, have worked with for a long period, or simply people who seem to know what they’re talking about. An influencer who is not on board with the benefits of Agile can create cracks in the foundation of a transition, so it’s helpful to sit down with them individually to understand and actively address their concerns and address them repeatedly.

Positive morale, although immeasurable, is something that you “know when you see it”. There are Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), however, that can be tracked by the state of an Agile transformation and reported to project stakeholders and leadership. So where do these KPIs come from? One obvious source is the Sprint Retrospective. The Sprint Retrospective is held at the end of each Sprint and is an essential opportunity for Agile team members to voice concerns, wins, and suggest improvements for the next Sprint. Attendees should be limited to developers and QA resources who had stories in the Sprint being discussed, the Scrum Master, and the Product Owner. It is critical that no management or leadership be present so that everyone feels comfortable offering honest feedback. The agenda is simple and clear: What went well during this sprint? What didn’t go well? What specific improvements would be helpful for us to focus on in the next sprint?

These discussions can paint a picture over time, both qualitatively and quantitatively, of the progress of a team’s morale and attitude about the Agile approach. But, as with any measurement, we need to work with specific KPIs. So, let’s start with numbers:

As is clear, the observations from this team about what went well increased slightly from 7 to 8 items between the two noted Retrospectives. The number of things that did not go well, or “Learning Opportunities”, dropped from 7 to 6. Furthermore, the number of specific improvement ideas increased from 6 to 7. As noted, the number of improvement ideas can be a misleading KPI, as an increase can reflect an increase in engagement and critical thinking. More does not always mean “bad” here. As for the qualitative, Sprint Retrospectives provide plenty of material:

“Great Teamwork”
“Great Sprint Review”
“Good number of stories completed”

But how does this indicate improved morale? Take a look at this team’s feedback (in its entirety) from a few months prior:

…the sole item in the “What went well” category was that some code was delivered. After a few months of consistent ceremonies, leadership expectation re-setting, and quick wins, the team is starting to value the Agile approach. In Part 2 of this series, we’ll discuss how to keep that momentum going.

Christy Overall

Christy Overall


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