Agile Collaboration

Collaborate (verb) – to work jointly with others or together especially in an intellectual endeavor

Collaboration (noun) – the action of working with someone to produce something.

(Source: Merriam-Webster)

I was recently giving some training where I asked people if their work environment was open and collaborative. They answered yes. I then asked if they knew what the CEO, CTO, CFO, Marketing, Sales were doing that week. Most didn’t know the answer. I asked how much say and influence the development team had over the type or scope of product work. The answer was little to none.

We often work in environments that are considered ‘open’ and ‘collaborative’ yet we have small groups making all the decisions and passing them around like dinner invitations. We get a meal but little input into the meal itself. For better or worse, the development team is often told what to do through some hierarchy and given requirements with the expectation that these requirements will be implemented as is and on time.

Collaboration and culture

How familiar does this sound: You’re in a meeting trying to solve some problem. The manager asks for suggestions and you boldly give your opinion on how best to solve the problem. The manager is looking at you without expression, perhaps even staring. You finish your comment and the manager continues to look directly at you for a couple beats after you’ve finished. The manager then states the solution which has no relationship to what you just said or for that matter, what anyone else has said. The manager closes the meeting saying something like, “Great ideas and a great collaborative effort. Thank-you all for helping.”

Now some would say the manager took on-board all the ideas and arrived at a solution but more likely, the manager had already made a decision. The manager held a meeting to check if he or she overlooked something and gave the illusion of collaboration. This kind of behavior is not uncommon and in at least one place I’ve been, managers were expected to make all the decisions.

How your culture is set up can determine how collaboration will work. Think about how your office works today. In Steve Coats’ article, “The Conundrum of Collaboration“, he describes it like this:

Think of it this way. You are one of two candidates being considered for a promotion into a higher position. You have always looked for opportunities to collaborate and have been part of many successful achievements. The other contender’s profile doesn’t focus much on collaboration. Instead it highlights a string of great accomplishments that this person has been directly responsible for throughout his or her career. From what you know about how promotions have been determined in your organization, would you feel like you are in the strongest position?

Although the company culture can deter collaboration, Steve Coats goes on to state that people’s own sense of self is a larger barrier to collaboration.

Clearly there are things about an organization itself that impact collaboration efforts, but none of those are the number one reason that collaboration stalls. That reason is much more personal. It is self-interest. People frequently refuse to collaborate because they do not believe it is in their best interests to do so. And those organizational confines just discussed strengthen that argument.

Sure businesses want people to collaborate but the reward goes to the individual who achieved something. At one place I worked, the performance review rated how independent I was. The top score was “works independently”.  Asking for help can be seen as weakness; always working with others can be seen as a crutch. You can’t expect collaboration if there’s no reward for doing so.

The hero and the collaborator

The Agile Manifesto and Principles don’t tell us how to do software, it’s up to the facilitator and implementer to figure out how best to be agile. While agile doesn’t directly say that collaboration is required, the expanded responsibilities needed for a successful agile team means that collaboration is a necessity.

In most organizations there are identifiable heroes; those people the company can “count on” to make projects successful. While this sounds familiar to most it is also an illusion. The hero does it all except grow the team. If the hero is away or leaves then there’s likely a vacuum that takes time to fill because the development team haven’t been trained or encouraged to step up.

In traditional projects, the heroes are in constant motion, making decisions, telling people what they need to do, and genuinely doing their best to make the project a success.  If the project were less than successful, either schedule or budget weren’t met, fingers are often pointed, usually at development. The heroes are Teflon coated and any negative feeling usually won’t stick to them. One reason heroes can flourish is they have knowledge that others do not have. To maintain their status as hero, it’s incumbent for them to withhold certain knowledge. To be clear, they are not withholding knowledge that could be catastrophic if not shared; they are not about to allow the ship to hit an iceberg. However, they might withhold details of why the work is being done. Development teams are expected to write “IF … THEN … ELSE” and not participate in the broader question of ‘why’. But here’s the problem: the development team collectively has a vast amount of knowledge and experience that is left untapped and businesses should tap into this to grow. Agile would sacrifice the hero to get to this untapped resource.

The hero acts like a tourniquet; too tight and the limb withers and dies, too loose and the patient dies. If the hero holds too tightly to knowledge, the development team will feel less engaged. If the hero let’s go without priming the team, the inexperienced team will likely falter. The tourniquet is not the long-term solution but a stop-gap. The danger to the business isn’t the hero themselves but the over reliance on the hero to the detriment of others learning and growing. I’ve been in meetings where one person says they’ll do everything and everyone else steps back to allow them to proceed. A hero can help make the company successful but we’re not here to rest on our current successes, we want to be more successful. Having heroes can limit imagination and growth because you’re stuck with what the hero knows.

Collaboration and success

The need for collaboration can come down to how you measure success. If you’re being agile, success is measured by customer satisfaction and achieving business goals due to that satisfaction. In traditional software development, success is measured by completing the project plan on time and on budget.

To be successful in agile, everyone working on solving the customer problem needs to be aware of how the customer perceives their problem and what they feel is a solution.  This is the fundamental shift from traditional project management. Everyone involved in the solution needs to have a near-identical understanding of the customers’ problem. This necessitates collaboration with the customers, development, product, marketing, sales, support, and management.

Steps to improve collaboration

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win”JFK Rice University 1962

“win just one for the Gipper” – attributed to Knute Rockne

“I have a dream!”Martin Luther King 1963

If you’re looking to improve collaboration, one could say simply change the company’s culture to reward collaboration but this is insanely hard. Besides, when was the last time something big happened because you ‘said so’?

Improving collaboration within a business and between teams requires finding the answers to these two questions:

  1. how does collaboration benefit the individual
  2. how do I collaborate more

Neither question has an easy answer and the details of the answer are wholly dependent on the environment. However we can look at some general strategies to answer both.

Benefit the individual

One thing that most people will agree on is an engaged employee is a happy employee. The first step toward engagement will be to trust the them and their team to collectively find solutions. This begins with the business establishing boundaries where the team can operate and make decisions freely. For a development team this probably starts with the product backlog and grooming the requirements/user stories. To be clear, it becomes the team’s responsibility to work side-by-side with the customers, users, and product people to appropriately understand and refine the work. The reward is the team gets more input to the product. As the team becomes more involved with the business of solving customer problems, the more skin they have in the game. The teams will spot pitfalls and opportunities much sooner, increasing the likelihood of success. Taken together, this empowerment to make decisions and the added responsibilities will:

  • create strong team bonding
  • increase the team’s sense of ownership of customer and business problems

This will also allow a team to fail earlier and make corrections much sooner.

Collaborate more

It’s very easy to tell people to collaborate, very hard to have valuable collaboration. When I worked with teams that were located in different cities, I arranged for two scrum-of-scrum meetings each week. I also set down an agenda that balanced high-level knowledge sharing (e.g. business/customer problems being worked & architecturally where the last and next changes would occur) with low-level implementation work so developers weren’t stepping on each other. These collaboration sessions were facilitated by scrum masters and one team in each city documented decisions and actions. We did the double documenting to make sure we all heard and understood correctly. As we progressed we adjusted these sessions to maximize the value and reduce the duration. We generally did them in less than 20 minutes.

To get the executives, senior managers, customers/users, and agile teams on a first name basis so to speak, we did inception workshops. A key activity for internal collaboration was a ‘who/do‘ table. This is based on the book “Gamestorming” by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, and James Macanufo.

Through this table of actions, all stakeholders team up and commit themselves to achieving a successful result. While there are several activities that can be done throughout a project to strengthen collaboration, retrospectives for example, having this at the start sets strong expectations for all stakeholders. The ‘who’ on the list are actual names of people when needed or roles otherwise.

If the team has trouble identifying who they need to collaborate with, they can do a variation of the circle & soup game during retrospectives. This is a game usually used to identify improvements and problems that either slows down or blocks something the team feels is important.

  • Inner circle: “Team Controls” – what your team can directly manage
  • Middle circle: “Team Influences” –persuasive actions that your team can take to move ahead
  • Outer circle: “Soup” – Can’t control or influence: elements that cannot be changed. This refers to the environment we work in and must adapt to. Ideas from the other 2 circles can identify ways to respond to the barriers floating in our “soup.”

As well as identifying problems and how to approach finding a solution, the circle & soup game makes clear the avenues of collaboration. For those improvement items they ‘control’, these are the areas that collaboration is needed within the team and between teams. The items in the ‘influence’ and in the ‘can’t control or influence’ circles means collaboration with those people who own the area of interest. The different circles suggest that different tactics and collaboration skills will be needed.


What happens with the developer who only wants to write code and doesn’t see talking to users or writing user stories as enjoyable or desirable? Moving these people is hard and could be likened to moving the sofa across a floor. At first you’ll need to exert lots of force to overcome static friction but once moving, you only need enough force to overcome kinetic friction. However, there is a point when it’s cheaper to hire right thinking people for the team rather than attempting to change behavior. This may sound harsh but it needs to be done on occasion. When I’ve seen this it often benefits both the company and the individual. I’ve also seen where someone once removed from an agile team returns sometime later.


Collaboration isn’t natural behavior for people and is therefore something that must be practiced and learned. There are tools that can help, ‘who/do’ lists and ‘circle & soup’ games, but in the end management and teams must recognize collaboration adds a dimension of efficiency and speed to any endeavor. The business needs to setup the conditions where collaborating becomes natural. Managers and management have long been collecting information, filtering it, and making key decisions. Pushing decision making down to the people who have the knowledge will be a challenge for some managers. However, only management can begin the process of removing hierarchies from peoples’ minds and teach teams how to collaborate and how to behave to maximize collaborative results.


An Idea in An Agile World

All new products and new product features start with an idea. This idea becomes the first user story, user story #1, for the product. User story #1 begins a journey that could end with either happy customers and happy business stakeholders or end up in the bucket of disused ideas. So what happens to user story #1 and what do you do with this new idea?

You can find lots of articles on breaking down user stories. You can also find articles on how to write good user stories but you usually don’t see too many articles on how the first user story is used to develop a business case. What follows are some thoughts and insights on how to take user story #1 and developing it for greater success.

User story #1

User story #1 is the idea. It’s an idea to achieve business goals, an idea to solve customer problems, and an idea to create or change a product. We’re all familiar with user stories written with an eye toward solving a customer problem through product updates. User story #1 is different as it’s not so much about solving a customer problem as it is a ‘thought’ experiment to discover what customer problems we can solve. So the question is, how should we go about validating the idea?


When the new product idea is first presented as a means to achieve a business goal, there will be interest but it’s unlikely the business is going to throw monies your way, at least not at first. The business needs more than just the idea, the business needs data to back-up and justify the idea. This translates to meaning the idea is put through the discipline of Ideation or Envisioning.

The idea is the highest level user story for the product but the picture is incomplete and outcomes uncertain. However, there’s usually enough to the idea to begin analysis and experimentation. The analysis often results in a series of metrics and measures collected during envisioning. These are often measured on a some scale that best serves your business. For example, aligning to company strategy might be scored 0=no alignment, to 5=full alignment. Costs might be 0=<$10,000 to 5=>$450,000. Below are some metrics you might be familiar with.

  • Alignment with the company’s strategy,
  • Moves the product team towards achieving a business goal,
  • Is technically feasible,
  • Product innovation category (new, adjacent, or sustaining),
  • Cost associated with it (implementation is usually the biggest component),
  • Predictable business outcome if implemented (revenue, customers, users, …),
  • The business risk of implementing/not implementing is calculated,
  • The competitive advantage, and
  • The market breadth (new, adjacent, or sustaining).

To do the above takes time and you might look at the list and think, “that doesn’t look too agile to me”. Today’s reality in the digital age is all these items need to be completed in the morning so the development teams can implement and deploy by late afternoon. For most of us this isn’t exactly true, yet. But time is a pressing consideration and being quick is important. What we need to find is a way to do business so we have both enough knowledge to start and we have a clear idea of what further information we’ll need. The key bit of knowledge we need to have up front is that the idea aligns with the business’s strategy and goals.

Big ideas need to align with business strategy & goals

Before the idea is broken down, or before any real effort is made, the idea should be validated against the business strategy and goals. You might be lucky and the business strategy is developed in such a way that the product manager can have their ideas incorporated into the strategy from the start. When the business defines what their goals are, they develop a strategy to achieve those goals.

The three elements of good strategy (source: Richard P. Rumelt, Good Strategy Bad Strategy)

  1. Diagnosis: “A diagnosis that defines or explains the nature of the challenge. A good diagnosis simplifies the often overwhelming complexity of reality by identifying certain aspects of the situation as critical.”
  2. Guiding Policy: “A guiding policy for dealing with the challenge. This is an overall approach chosen to cope with or overcome the obstacles identified in the diagnosis.”
  3. Coherent Actions: “A set of coherent actions that are designed to carry out the guiding policy. These are steps that are coordinated with one another to work together in accomplishing the guiding policy.”

Working backwards on this list, new product ideas describe the actions needed to deal with the challenges (goals) found during the diagnostics. In this way, new product ideas become an integral part of the company’s overall strategy.

If the product manager can align their ideas with the business, then the remaining items of envisioning can happen relatively quickly. It’s very likely that for most ideas, the effort to define feasibility and cost can occur within an agile team’s iteration. This is a tremendous way to cut the time from idea to completing envisioning. It also provides for giving the customers a chance to evaluate the idea in a practical sense: A/B tests, user testing, or customer interviews. This technique of learning is often used in the Startup world as Build-Measure-Learn cycle.

The product manager will likely obtain full approval for any opportunity that delivers overwhelming value relative to its cost. Kenneth Rubin in his book, “Essential Scrum: A Practical Guide to the Most Popular Agile Process“, suggests that if there’s any discussion over tiny differences in cost or value then it clearly doesn’t deliver ‘overwhelming’ value and the idea should be dropped.

The easiest and best way to determine value is by getting the idea in front of your customers and users and measuring their response.

Using the development team for envisioning

When speed is essential to capitalize on an event or competitive opportunity, get something out in front of the users today rather than waiting until you’re sure. The trick will be to do only enough to answer questions and reduce risks without over committing the team or business. Keep in mind that you and the business haven’t validated the idea yet so there is a risk. If you’re doing Agile then this will fairly straight forward: use build-measure-learn techniques to understand the value of your idea with customers and users.

The product manager works with the product owner, team leads, architects, or full development team to break down user story #1 (the idea) into smaller user stories. These are the fragments needed to showcase the new product or feature idea. These particular stories are not necessarily work to build a product but will often be part of a prototype or demo system to gather information and feedback. Part of the envisioning process is to validate the idea, confirming its potential, with customers and users. To do this, a demo or prototype to showcase new features to potential customers and users can be an enormous asset without spending too much money in the process.

If the product manager has the luxury of dedicated team at their disposal that’s great! However, a new product idea may not as yet have a team but only a handful of senior people to help bring a new idea to life. Assuming there is a team, one approach is to get a team to include some research work along with their normal complement of product work. This is handled as spikes, technical or business exploration, added to the sprint if doing scrum. (If the agile teams are Kanban then there’s less of a concern with disruption and immediate priorities can take precedence.) If there’s a time critical component to the idea and waiting isn’t an option, then cancelling a sprint and pivoting to take on higher value work is an option but not always a good idea. Besides, if doing scrum there’s already a mechanism in place to do research, prototypes, and mock-ups: the backlog refinement sessions.

Using the development team during envisioning helps the product manager answer some important business questions including these 2 metrics from above:

  • technically feasibility-team can better answer this after developing a prototype,
  • implementation costs-implementation is usually the main influence on costs and the team can make a more accurate estimate.

By using the feedback and learnings from the demo and prototype, the product manager can better determine the viability of the idea. Using A/B tests, user testing, or customer interviews, the product manager can:

  • better estimate the business outcome if implemented (revenue, customers, users, …),
  • better assess the business risk of implementing/not implementing the idea,
  • better assess the effect on competition, and
  • better understand the market breadth.

Getting the development team involved with the idea early on will benefit the product manager. This early involvement moves the team from being a partner with the product management into being full members of the business team, bringing along their unique skills and insights into the envisioning process.

Two key outcomes having the development team in on envisioning

One big advantage is the development team is better positioned to undertake the new work if the business decides to proceed. The development team also has more ‘skin in the game’ through early involvement.

Another big advantage is the product manager can determine sooner whether to pursue the idea further. Because the development team has created prototypes or demos for customers, the product manager is better able to collect critical information for the business case. If it turns out there is no profitable business case, the product manager has spent relatively little money to learn a lot. The agile principle of maximizing the amount of work not done is an important one and finding out early to stop is better than running out the budget on a hunch that doesn’t pay off.

In a waterfall environment?

If you’re doing a waterfall type methodology then it’s a given that all envisioning and requirements are defined upfront. This is not bad if there’s little to no uncertainty. However, the early involvement by the full development team to pursue the idea using prototypes is still valid. They’ll not only be putting more ‘skin in the game’ but they’ll improve the accuracy of the estimates and potentially uncover more unknowns.


To increase your chances of success, get the development team involved during envisioning. They can help the business best if they’re a full member of the business team and not just a partner. Use the full development team to validate user story #1. This includes validating customer problems, potential solutions, development costs, and business value.


Being Agile When The Business Isn’t – Communications

I recently met a group of people having a hard time ‘doing’ agile. They understand agile but others in the business chose not to participate. These were managers and business leaders. Although the group’s first reaction is to ‘sell’ agile I gave them an alternative of doing things to add value both for the business and for customers without a sales pitch. What if the team communicated a better way of doing work that created more success? Wouldn’t the business embrace better ways of being successful?

Let’s start by establishing that A) No one goes to work hoping to fail and B) Business leaders and managers often don’t see how changing themselves can improve the team’s outcomes.

Although people don’t want to fail, we can’t assume they’ll do their utmost to be successful. Being successful takes effort but this is something that can be leveraged for your advantage. You’re not going to push agile but rather advocate a means to be more successful. Your communications with the team and business leaders are about being successful and about ways to be more successful.

When you communicate with managers and senior stakeholders in the business, they’ll most often listen to you but more importantly, you’ll need to listen to them. These people want something from the teams and your best approach is to understand their real needs and not just their ‘wants’. Although the business usually measures output as a key indicator, it’s been my experience they need reassurance that progress is being made, promised business value is being delivered, and the team is meeting their delivery commitments. Often times however, management are unaware of what they need to do to help the teams be more successful and it is this particular behavior that teams need to communicate.

Simply put, these communications have three parts: 1) teams to understand the needs of the business and what makes the business successful, 2) business leaders need to understand their role in helping teams (and themselves) be successful, and 3) the teams need to find the means to meet the business’s expectation and let the business know the ‘actuals’. Sounds easy, yes?

Inception workshop planning

The best way I’ve seen to get everyone started on the same page and establishing desired communication patterns is using an Inception Workshop. You can use the inception workshop to fully communicate intentions, expectations, and create an initial delivery plan. Although an inception workshop can have many topics and areas of exploration, I would focus particularly hard on the following topics:

  1. Why we are here – the reason for this activity and our outcomes for a successful workshop
  2. Why is this important – the business goals and objectives we want to satisfy by means of solving customer problems
  3. Product Vision – developing a shared product vision that inspires everyone to achieve the business goals using the product
  4. Stakeholders Who / do – the key stakeholders both internal and external and the actions required for a successful project
  5. Empathy Mapping – a deep dive into the users, customers, or stakeholders
  6. Journey Mapping – how users, customers, or stakeholders will use our product or service (
  7. Trade off sliders – the team’s upfront assessment of what’s important and what will or will not be compromised to achieve total success
  8. Epics / Story Cards / Relative order – initial story mapping to discover or confirm the highest priority requirements/user stories
  9. Estimates / Releases – continuing with story mapping to develop a release plan. The team(s) commit to this release plan acknowledging that some information might be incomplete or unknown.

These nine steps are about reaching a common understanding of who benefits from the project and what problems need to be solved to achieve our business goals. However, more important than these two outcomes is the openness and transparency of the communications between the business and team(s). Planning your business’s next project or endeavor using an inception workshop sets the precedent of business teams and creative teams working together as one in an open communicative environment. Now the real trick is to somehow institutionalize this new-found communication pattern into the organization.

Company culture

I’ve worked in organizations where managers were expected to make decisions and be seen as leading their teams. The reality is this can be changed but it does require a lot of openness and introspection (see The Journey to Servant Leadership as an example).  To keep the open and collaborative feelings discovered during the inception workshop going, the senior business managers and middle managers might need to change the way they work. The key to business success is always knowing where you’re at. This is what needs to be continually communicated upwards, from the teams to the business managers and stakeholders. This part is generally easier to achieve than getting business managers and stakeholders to communicate their current situation and results back to the teams. Why should this be difficult?

One of the reasons a company’s culture is not opening itself up to change is the breakdown in communications. This is evidenced in high level managers aggressively stating how things cannot change and giving ‘reasons’ why this is so. Often when this happens, those wishing for change back down and accept the status quo. The following illustrates people taking positions on an issue rather than communicating.

  • Team lead to Business Manager: Can you tell me how the business is doing with our latest delivery?
  • Business Manager to Team lead: Customers seemed to be happy with the new features.
  • Team lead: Can I get their specific comments and the overall NPS?
  • Business Manager: No, sorry. That’s confidential information.

With that little dialog it’s easy to see how the company has limited access to information. The painful reality is the teams must be completely transparent to the business but the business often has policies that limit its transparency back to the teams. This is where the culture shift needs to occur. If the team is to feel fully engaged with the business, the business must fully engage with the team.

One way to overcome these obstacles is to change the dialog. The dialog above has the team lead ‘telling’ the manager what they need to do. The manager responds with a shallow summary but hides behind policy when it comes to any meaningful depth. The above dialog is just that: a dialog. It doesn’t fall into the collaborative conversation category because clearly there is no collaborative effort made by either party. Culture trumps communication.

A different approach would be for the team lead to consider the business value of their request. For example, take a look at this illustration from Michael Sahota of

What the illustration shows is a variance of culture between the team solving problems and the business people running the company. It is hard to change either of these cultures so don’t try. As I’ve talked about in previous posts, the best way forward is to work within the business’s culture and make a compelling business case for opening a previous inaccessible communication path. Here’s how that communication might go down:

  • Team lead: We’ve been getting some customer feedback at our reviews but we are having some difficulty mapping our value delivered with the actual progress in achieving two business goals: increasing NPS and increasing customer referrals. If we can get better and more specific insight on what customers are saying and doing, we can make sure we’re working those requirements that can deliver the most business value sooner.
  • Business Manager: How can you use this customer information to achieve our business goals sooner?
  • Team lead: Once we can get their specific comments and the changed NPS, we can analyse what is motivating customers to use our product. Once we have that we can groom our stories to get those stories which enhance features customers are talking about to the top of the backlog.
  • Business Manager: Ok. It’s confidential information, I can’t just give it to you but I tell you what, let’s get all the team leads together and we can review the raw data. Will that help?
  • Team lead: Absolutely. I’ll get the team leads together and we can meet here in your office at say, 2:00 pm?
  • Business Manager: 2:00 pm is good. It should take about an hour and if we need more time we can find it later.
  • Team lead: Great! see you at 2 and thanks a lot.
  • Business Manager: You’re welcome. See you all at 2.

The difference with our second example compared to the first is the second is clearly a collaborative conversation and one that resulted in potentially creating more business value sooner. The team lead has changed the conversation from one that is a request from the manager to one that is offering to serve the manager.


Communications between the business and the team needs to be collaborative and mutual. Using an inception workshop is a great way to start any project or adventure with an open, collaborative setting.

It’s also important to understand that the cultural bubble around the teams and the organizational culture are probably different. Any ongoing communication needs to account for this. When talking across cultural lines, use language and terms that are meaningful in the ‘other’ culture. In our team lead example above, the team lead used the language of better achieving business goals to break down communication barriers.