Sprint Planning : 5 Dysfunctions

Every Sprint starts with a Sprint Planning event. It is very crucial to ensure that the Scrum Team comes to a shared understanding of what and how are they going to deliver a “Done” increment that creates maximum business impact. Although, like other events Sprint Planning also is often marred with few dysfunctions. In this post I will bring forth 5 common dysfunctions that I have observed associated with this event.

5 Dysfunctions of Sprint Planning

Unavailable Product Owner:

Product Owners often tend to think that their job is to pass on the requirements to the Development Team and that is good enough to get the work done. They spend too much time with the end-customers, stakeholders or just writing detailed requirements for the team. On the other hand they spend too little time with the team and are mostly unavailable to the team when they are needed the most. This leads to the most common dysfunction – unavailable Product Owner which percolates to other dysfunctions.

Lack of Refinement:

Since Product Owner is often unavailable, the development team skips the Product Backlog Refinement sessions. As we are aware, Product Backlog Refinement is a collaborative session where the Product Backlog Items are refined and moved towards the ready state i.e. detailed enough, ordered and estimated. Ordering of Product Backlog Items is accountability of the Product Owner, as well as providing enough details around any Product Backlog Item is job of the PO. Now, since the PO is not available then the refinement doesn’t add any value.

Ambiguous Requirements:

As enough time is not spent in Product Backlog Refinement, the development team sees the requirements for the first time during the Sprint Planning. Since, refinement has not happened these requirements are often vague and ambiguous. The development often does not have clue how to move forward. They spend lot of time going over and over a single PBI and thus not making use of the Sprint Planning event to Inspect and Adapt for the Sprint.

Erroneous Forecasts:

Since the team sees the PBIs for the first time during the Sprint Planning, they often do not have any clarity of how to approach the requirement, or they often overlook scenarios/complexities that may arise as they start implementing the requirements. As a result, the estimates provided by the team are either overestimated or underestimated. This in-turn leads to erroneous forecasts of what can be done during the Sprint or thereafter.

No Shared Commitment :

All the above four dysfunctions lead to the final dysfunction which is No Shared Commitment within the Scrum team. As the requirements are vague, the forecasts over/under estimated and there is no shared commitment within the Scrum Team, a tiff starts between the business (Product Owner) and delivery (the Development Team). A game of pointing fingers and highlighting what other has not done or could have done begins. None of which is conducive for the team to work as a cohesive unit.


There might be many more dysfunctions that might lead to not having a successful Sprint Planning event. These are few that I came across. As a Scrum Master it is always good to be vigilant about such dysfunctions, reveal them and help the team to overcome the dysfunctions.

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Working Remotely This Will Hit You Next

Working Remotely This Will Hit You Next

Home-Office desk

The Current Situation

Many people around the globe are working from home right now, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This happened all of a sudden and overnight. Despite the rapidness of the change, moving to remote worked surprisingly well for many teams, because they were used to some degree of remote work before. Especially development teams and technology firms in general have many years of experience with allowing their workforce to do their jobs from wherever and whenever they like. Switching to home office therefore doesn’t feel particularly grim at the moment. When I asked some of my friends how it was going, they unanimously answered: “It works very well, no problems.”

The question on my mind is, if we can sustain this feeling of “it works” in the future. I suggest we can’t. In this article you will learn which scientific results led me to this opinion, and what you should be aware of in your own situation.

The Pandemic Frames a Stressful Context

We are living through a pandemic. Epidemics and pandemics, especially the Ebola outbreaks in recent years, taught us that they are accompanied by high levels of stress and anxieties [1] of the affected population. We fear for our loved ones and don’t want to get infected ourselves. If we get sick, some of us are being stigmatized or fear we might be. If our friends get sick, we might try to keep away from them to protect ourselves. What the article cited above also tells us is, that we are likely to develop depressions and a feeling of helplessness, especially when quarantined or limited in our movement. Which is true for most of us right now.

In addition, we might not always act rationally in such a context. During the Ebola outbreak 2013-2016, people exhibited anxiety-invoked behavior to a large extent. This included for example violence against medical personnel and disregarding of the rules installed to protect the populace, such as funeral rites and treatment of sick people. Research concluded, this happened for at least six reasons [2]:

  1. Fear and stress interfere with cognitive processing.
  2. Personal assessment of risk is hampered by lack of information.
  3. Individuals’ risk assessments are poor even with good information.
  4. Individual actions are influenced by the actions of other individuals.
  5. Mass actions are influenced by the actions of the masses.
  6. Fear-driven actions may escalate and reach a tipping point when compounded by a collapse of the individual’s or the community’s values and cultural references, and/or an erosion of systems of governance and public order.

While this happened in West Africa, which seems far away and not necessarily relevant, we can spot the same types of behavior everywhere around the world, today. People leave their homes and gather in droves [3] or empty toilet paper shelves at our local supermarkets [4]. We even attack ambulances [5][6] and doctors [7], as if we could defeat the pandemic this way. Some people don’t seem to understand this behavior worsens the situation.

To make matters worse, some of us are fearing for our jobs or even our existence. In the United States, 3.28 million people lost their jobs last week [8]. Up to 14 million jobs could be lost by summer [9] – and that’s just the U.S. The same outlook is true for most countries right now. While huge monetary aid packages are being prepared by many governments, these won’t be enough to secure all jobs. That means, we are fearing for our jobs while fearing for our health and loved ones. This definitely means an increased level of stress for us.

Effects of Remote Work

Let’s take a look at the effects of remote work on peoples’ productivity and health. A study of Eurofound and the International Labour Office [10] concluded 2017, that “the findings on the effects of [remote work] are therefore highly ambiguous and are related to the interaction between [technology] use, place of work in specific work environments, blurring of work–life boundaries, and the characteristics of different occupations.” This means essentially, that the effects of remote work depend on the person and the context.
The positive aspects this study found are:

  • Reduction in commuting time
  • Greater working time autonomy
  • More flexibility in terms of working time organization
  • Better overall work-life balance
  • Increased motivation
  • Reduced turnover
  • Enhanced productivity and efficiency
  • Cost reduction

At the same time, the study found the following disadvantages:

  • Longer working hours
  • Work-home interference (overlap between paid work and personal life)
  • Blurring work–life boundaries and increased work– family conflict
  • Work intensification
  • Potential lack of necessary rest periods
  • Isolation and negative effects on occupational health and well-being
  • Lack of access to informal information sharing
  • Increased risk of burnout
  • Problems with sleeping

The study [10, p. 38] finds that about 30% of people doing regular home-based telework feel stress at work always or most of the time (compared to 25% of people commuting to the office). “Regular” in this context doesn’t mean all the time though. It means a couple of days every week. The authors conclude: “Partial and occasional forms of T/ICTM appear to result in a more positive balance between the benefits and drawbacks.”

Well, our situation is neither partial nor occasional. Most of us were all forced into this situation involuntarily, full-time, without a clear perspective with regards to when it will end. In the past, most of us were used to meeting our coworkers in person every couple of days and our boss at least once a week. In our current situation, we face several months, maybe even longer, of severe social distancing, which amounts to not meeting our colleagues in person. This is far more extreme than any scientific study conducted so far with regards to home-office and remote work. Therefore, we don’t know for sure what will happen next.

A Possible Scenario

Let’s think of a best-case scenario: Only few people develop anxiety-invoked behavior due to the Corona crisis and the outlook of a possible job loss. Let’s also assume most of our team members love to work from home and only 30% of them experience a high stress level due to the remote situation. If two out of three people can cope with their stress without causing conflicts or needing additional attention by their peers and bosses, this leaves us with 10% of our workforce exhibiting additional needs and potentially causing conflict. That is one person per team.

Let’s evaluate if one person per team is a realistic number. Imagine you are working in a team, consisting of ten people. All work from home now, including you. Some have a house with a dedicated office space. Some are living in flats with no dedicated office space. Some have kids, some don’t. Some are living with their fiancés, some are alone. Some relationships are stable and time-tested, some start to crumble. Basically, your team consists of normal people with common problems.

Now the heat is turned up a notch. Somebody in your team gets sick and doesn’t know if it is Corona or just a regular cold. The grandfather of one of your workers needs to go to intensive care, be it Covid-19 or a heart attack. At the same time, your company has less orders coming in and needs to reduce working hours. The company next door is laying off some people. Your team is great in this situation and acts as professionally as they can. Of course, they also care for their colleagues and discuss urgent issues, such as how to increase sales. That’s when your internet connection fails, you no longer can watch the facial expressions in video streams of your team and your voice comes across garbled.

What do you think: Is this a likely scenario for your team? Could this lead to one person in your team acting stressed-out?

One person per team, acting “special” can ruin your whole team’s performance and health, if not addressed early and thoroughly. One problem is, that most of us are not used to or trained in how to deal with team conflicts and people’s anxieties remotely. Another problem is, that the best-case scenario above is highly unlikely. In my opinion, we are lucky if just three out of ten people are affected by anxieties or more stress than they can cope with.

What Can We Do About It?

The first thing we need to do is determining how many people in our teams are affected or could be in the near future. Therefore, we need to establish a high level of transparency with regards to stress and well-being of our employees – and ourselves. We definitely should watch out for conflicts, behavior we don’t understand and signs of stress or burnout. As a leader, we need to help our teams as role models, with serenity (you can read more about this here). Agile processes help you to establish a high level of transparency. Scrum for example comes with two great assets in this situation: A Scrum Master, who also is a people-carer, and a Sprint Retrospective, which allows us to check in with everybody at least every couple of weeks. While this is certainly not enough to succeed, it gets us two steps closer to situational awareness. Also, sit down with your team and discuss the issues openly. Invite everybody to come forth with their fears and suggestions.

Make everybody aware of the “optimism bias” [11], which means people believe bad things only happen to others. In addition, you might want to consider learning about stress-coping mechanisms and patterns. Some are healthy, others are not. You can also establish rituals in your teams that work as stress-relievers, for example a virtual dance party or even just talking about oneself instead of work for ten minutes each day. Whatever you do, keep transparency high, inspect your situation together with your team often and adapt your approach from there. Get help, if and when you need it.

Have you recently experienced such an issue in your team? Is there more conflict than usual? Let me know through LinkedIn or leave a comment below this article, maybe we can learn together.



[1] Dtsch Arztebl 2020; 117(13): A 648–54,

[2] Shultz, J.M., Cooper, J.L., Baingana, F. et al. The Role of Fear-Related Behaviors in the 2013–2016 West Africa Ebola Virus Disease Outbreak. Curr Psychiatry Rep 18, 104 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11920-016-0741-y

[3] Klein, Asher & Rosenfield, Michael: Walsh Calls Out People Gathering in Boston Parks During Coronavirus Outbreak. https://www.nbcboston.com/news/local/mayor-walsh-to-speak-on-coronavirus-outbreak-in-boston/2098216/ , NBC Boston, accessed 28th of March 2020

[4] Jones, Charisse & Tyko, Kelly: Preparing for the coronavirus: Shoppers are finding empty shelves, long lines at stores nationwide, https://eu.usatoday.com/story/money/2020/03/13/coronavirus-toilet-paper-selling-out-costco-walmart-target/5041064002/ , USA Today, accessed 28th of March 2020

[5] Walker, Joe: Coronavirus Kent: Six ambulances have holes drilled in tyres in overnight attack in Ramsgate, https://www.kentonline.co.uk/thanet/news/holes-drilled-in-tyres-as-six-ambulances-attacked-224229/, Kent Online, accessed 28th of March 202

[6] Couzens, Gerard & Stickings, Tim: Pensioners on coronavirus evacuation buses are pelted with ROCKS in Spain by locals to stop them arriving from virus-affected area, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8155335/Pensioners-come-attack-coronavirus-evacuation-Spain.html, MAILONLINE, accessed 28th of March 2020

[7] Jha, Nishita & Dixit, Pranav: A Doctor Was Assaulted On Her Way To The Hospital. She’s Not The Only Medic Being Attacked, https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/nishitajha/coronavirus-india-doctors-nurses, BuzzFeed News, accessed 28th of March 2020

[8] Pickert, Reade: U.S. Jobless Claims Jump to 3.28 Million, Quadruple Prior Record, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-03-26/u-s-jobless-claims-surged-to-record-3-28-million-last-week, Bloomberg, accessed 28th of March 2020

[9] Wolfe, Julia & Cooper, David: States are projected to lose more jobs due to the coronavirus, https://www.epi.org/blog/states-are-projected-to-lose-more-jobs-due-to-the-coronavirus-14-million-jobs-could-be-lost-by-summer/, Economic Policy Institute, accessed 28th of March 2020

[10] Eurofound and the International Labour Office (2017), Working anytime, anywhere: The effects on the world of work, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, and the International Labour Office, Geneva.

[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Optimism_bias

Image by Free-Photos on Pixabay 

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Understanding the Difference Between Scrum and Agile

Understanding the Difference Between Scrum and Agile

En la reunión del Manifiesto Ágil en 2001, se escribió un conjunto de 4 valores respaldados por una docena de principios.

Esto era el inicio de lo que es Agile.

Hubo 3 expertos en Scrum presentes y los 4 fundadores de eXtreme Programming. 

Estos fueron los únicos dos procesos ampliamente implementados en el mundo real.

Están relacionados porque los fundadores de ambos procesos se comunicaban en los grupos de noticias de Internet a medida que se formaban y reutilizaban ideas el uno del otro ya en 1994.

Los otros expertos en la reunión, habían escrito libros y documentos sobre procesos de desarrollo más adaptables y flexibles para reemplazar el Rational Unified Process de IBM que era dominante en ese momento en software, pero demasiado pesado.

Entonces Scrum y XP son los padres de Agile, y Agile no es un marco o una implementación operativa. Es un concepto abstracto no operativo.

La implementación operativa de Agile en más del 80% de los equipos de hoy es una variante de Scrum.

Los equipos más hábiles implementan prácticas XP dentro del Scrum.

Una práctica de XP extremadamente importante implementada en los primeros equipos Scrum es la integración continua varias veces al día y el despliegue a producción al menos una vez por sprint, si no varias veces al día. 

Además, el movimiento DevOps ha evolucionado para promover esta práctica que formaba parte de los equipos originales de Scrum y XP.

Más del 50% de los equipos “ágiles” no pueden entregar al final de un sprint y llegan tarde, por encima del presupuesto del proyecto, con clientes insatisfechos según los datos del Standish Group en cientos de miles de proyectos. 

Así que ten cuidado con el falso Agile y los falsos mesías de la agilidad. Espero haberte explicado la diferencia entre Scrum y Agile.

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Virtual Agile Transformations

COVID-19 forces millions of Scrum teams members currently to work from home. Online collaboration tools are getting a real stress test through an influx of new users these days.  Teams around the world see in action how these tools can be powerful, not only complimentary to on-site work, but as the one and only strategy. In a software development project, many of these tools are mature, reliable and provide a great feature set that pretty much fulfills the needs of agile teams one way or the other.

Agile Transformation Kata
Agile Transformation Kata Poster

Nobody has that crystal ball but I believe, the longer the crisis continues and work from home becomes the new normal, the more of these tools and new work patterns will find their way into new habits post corona virus.

Agile transformations around the world are also impacted as the tools needed are very different. Think about Open Space or Lean Coffee just to use an example.  But also think about transparency and inspection and adaption of the agile transformation itself.  

How is your audience (coaches, leaders, managers, etc.) equipped not only to transform an organization to agile but also apply an agile minutes using a virtual tool set? Going back to “alignment” meetings via powerpoint and all participants dialed in as audio only would set the industry back by miles. The Agile Transformation Kata is for example, such a practice that reinforces an agile mindset during an agile transformation and through many reflection cycles allows to adapt to new emerging needs, like COVID-19. We are answering questions around agile transformations if you are interested to join.

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VLOG What Are The Differences Between Scrum Master And Product Owner

VLOG What Are The Differences Between Scrum Master And Product Owner

Hello awesome people! I hope you all are staying safe and healthy in the midst of this global turbulence. So many things changed in my life in just a week, which made me have to reorder my life backlog including the vlogs that I have already planned.

In today’s vlog, I discuss about the differences between the Scrum Master and the Product Owner role. Many people in the past have asked me about the differences between the two roles, mainly from those people who are switching careers. So, if you are one of those people who are deciding whether you want to make a career as a Scrum Master or Product Owner, hopefully this vlog helps you to choose and decide and also to get relevant training. Hopefully you enjoy this one and find some insights in it.

Thanks for your continuous support to my channel. Stay safe and stay healthy everyone. Let’s support each other so that all of us can go through this global turbulence. See you until my next vlog.


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Slow Conversations For An Ever Faster Moving World

Image Source: Can Berkol - stock.adobe.com


When global change is on all of our doorsteps, people need to know their voice is being heard. People can only be heard when someone offers time to truly listen.

The urgency of having the right type of conversation, especially today in a remote setting, has significantly increased overnight. This blog provides a perspective on a particular type of conversation and my own “personal experiences”  that show we need them more than ever. As inspired by the article “Compassionate communication and slow conversations”, let’s call these conversations “slow conversations”.

Whether you are leading, or are part of a team right now, we need to be hearing each other more than ever. Leadership and team membership, as we all know, is in an ongoing, necessary state of change. Some leaders and teams are further than others, the need for hearing each other still applies no matter how far you are in your transition. The relationship between leaders and teams has shifted from transfer of wisdom to nurturing of people. In order to effectively continue this shift, when the operating parameters are changing on a daily basis, we need to be continually conscious of each others’ needs and how we are communicating with one another.

Personal experience: “Despite the current situation the first week of remote working ended with a strong, positive impulse which will carry into the weeks to follow. The weeks that follow are filled with uncertainty, and yet the opportunity this creates for meaningful change feels stronger as a result of this week’s experiences. This week’s experiences have reminded us of the need to truly listen, as well as the need of being truly heard. The moments when this happened most effectively are in what could be called slow conversations.”

Slow conversations are motivated, intrinsically, by a desire to act differently in a world that is continuing to turn faster from one moment to the next. The rate of change has now shifted exponentially. Slow conversations provide a way to counter this acceleration.


So, what is a slow conversation? 

A slow conversation follows these principles:

  • Making an invitation which allows conversation partners to truly engage openly
  • Accepting an invitation which allows conversation partners to truly engage openly
  • Taking the stance when listening of wanting to really understand
  • Understanding that when talking means truly being heard
  • Knowing that the conversation will remain confidential
  • Having no time pressure


What makes a slow conversation different from a coaching conversation?

When you look at the principles above you might think these are simply guidelines for a good coaching conversation. The difference with the slow conversation is that both participants are there for each other, and the coaching or mentoring role can be exchanged throughout the conversation.

Coaching: the coach remains in an inquisitive, questioning stance with a complete focus on the coachee’s world. The coach offers no solutions, only questions to support the coachee in their thinking.

Mentoring: the mentor starts in a coaching stance and may then share their own experiences as impulses for the mentee.

Important: the mentor returns to a coaching stance after sharing their own experience. By asking whether their input has been useful ensures the coachee takes on the responsibility again for their own next steps.

This will need time at first to work well, however with practice will benefit the relationship in the long term as well as develop conversation skills for the future.

Personal experience: “Experience this week has shown that it is possible. Conversations with team members as well as with customers has shown that we are all people with a common goal of surviving a common crisis. The strength of our relationships is now being tested, and there is something positive happening in being there for each other both as listener and as speaker in the conversations that are taking place.”


How do slow conversations provide benefit?

Benefits have been seen immediately by engaging in slow conversations this week. There was of course a fair share of productive, creative sessions working together remotely on a common challenge. In these cases there was a specific product focus which helped the team engage together. Slow conversations are different. There is no product creation focus, the focus is on the well-being and needs of the conversation partners.

Personal experience: “There were several conversations that I participated in last week, and many more that I am not aware of, that followed the slow conversations principles. This resulted in tighter relationships between the conversation partners and a revitalized positivity and strength to tackle next steps. If these conversations had not taken place, there would have been a significant drop in the positive energy we took away from the end of the week. There would have been a sole focus on efficiency and getting work done. There would have been a risk of taking action without thinking.”

Sometimes an action path is the right one to take – as long as we have identified the right action to complete. A slow conversation provides us the opportunity to reflect on whether we are doing the right thing.

As a leader you will need to seek guidance from, as well as offering it to your team when addressing challenges. As a team member you will need to show courage to provide options to challenges as well as accepting those of others. A slow conversation is an opportunity to practice this. It enables the art of listening and questioning to better understand your conversation partner. It is also an opportunity to regain clarity and direction for yourself by talking through your own situation while truly being heard.

Personal experience: “In doing so, we discover and create new connections to one another. Slow conversations demonstrate that each of us is working through the current uncertainty in our own way, that it’s OK to seek help, and that we can benefit from each other’s approach, no matter what our relationship is.”

Most importantly though, the slow conversations allow us time to readjust our working pace, not to succumb to the external factors outside our influence, and to provide us with time to self-reflect. This self-reflection better prepares us to deal with the complexity surrounding us, and provides an orientation for our next steps until we can reflect together again in the next slow conversation.


What do we need in a remote setting to ensure a successful slow conversation?

Personal experience: “The situations in which slow conversations worked well this last week followed the last principle of slow conversations, namely no time pressure.”

Arrange a time window that feels “more than sufficient” for the conversation. In practice when you have the first slow conversation allow yourself a 90-minute time window. You will need time to first empathize with your conversation partner before interacting more deeply, depending on how well you already know each other.

As with all other conversations that address both emotional as well as factual exchange, make sure the environment is set up for an uninterrupted conversation. In times of remote working this primarily means a stable private video conferencing tool. The need for other tools will depend on the content of the conversation.

Personal experience: “As slow conversations focus more on the personal exchange than progressing a project or product then communication tools can be kept to a minimum. It is possible to talk at a deeper level and not be face to face in the same room as your conversation partner.”

Allow time for your partner to answer tough questions that you raise. Allow yourself time to answer the tough questions you are asked. Take the pressure out of the situation and give each other room for thought.

Think about the time of day you want to hold a slow conversation. Consider whether a good energy level is present for both conversation partners.

Personal experience: “Despite a long working week, the inspiration for this writing was primarily thanks to two separate slow conversations at the end of the day on Friday of the first remote working week. These conversations started with an intention for a regular coaching and mentoring in one direction. However, they soon became a slow conversation in which coaching and mentoring became bilateral to the benefit of both conversation partners.”

Finally, when you are closing the conversation, check with each other whether the next conversation needs scheduling or whether you will manage adhoc as needed. It is important to consider this while still in the mindset of the slow conversation and before returning to the higher paced efficiency driven environment that otherwise exists.


What other inspirations led to writing about slow conversations?

The impulse for writing about slow conversations came from four different sources. The first source was the experience we made ourselves in our first week of remote working.

The second was thanks to Gunther Verheyen’s blog post “The importance of human contact against the backdrop of a viral war”. Gunther personifies what it means to humanise the workplace, and shares caution in his blog as the business world “goes remote”.

The third came from a reminder in a reflective moment of the book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. We can learn from this reminder to keep a healthy balance in our conversations – conversations that drive both (faster) decision making and those that provide opportunities for (slower) reflection.

The fourth inspiration, which I actually came across after writing this piece, is the article “Compassionate communication and slow conversations”. After discovering this writing I was reinforced in my belief for the need of the right type of conversation at the right time and in the right place.


Together, slowing down the conversation.

Personal experience: “Upon reflection, other slow conversations had also taken place in the week. It was a week in which each of our team established and developed their own remote working approaches. Approaches, which by the end of the week, had gelled into something very much more aligned with one another. This had a lot to do with the quality of the conversations that took place throughout the week. Some were fast, creative product based interactions, many were reflective slow conversations.”

Now, more than ever, it is time to offer and accept invitations to a slow conversation. The realignment we are all currently going through will likely continue for some time. Slow conversations can provide us with some of the help needed to lead and/or be part of a team through the coming weeks and months.

A slow conversation is about being effective before being efficient and will allow us to build stronger relationships. These relationships as we move through the current crisis will better position us to meet the next complex challenges our world will certainly have to offer us.

Keep listening and questioning in order to better understand; keep talking openly in order to be truly heard.

And all that, slowly, please.

When are you going to have your next slow conversation?


Image Source: Can Berkol – stock.adobe.com

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Your Agile Team Needs assistant

Your Agile Team Needs assistant


Are you on an agile team or Scrum team and it feels a little weird? People don’t get along? People don’t respect one another? You see a lack of trust? There’s a lack of conflict or too much conflict? See Robert (Robb) Pieper from Responsive Advisors give his talk “Your Agile Team Needs a Therapist” to an awesome group at Music City Agile 2017 in Nashville, TN.

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Our 10 Tips to Have Productive and Engaging Virtual Meetings

With everything that is happening around the world, teams now face the challenge of doing most of their work virtually. Although some will do this effortlessly, it will take more learning for others. As The Liberators, we collaborate with people from all over the world. Virtual meetings are an essential platform for this. Over the years, we’ve developed and learned a lot of practices that may be beneficial to your own adventures with virtual collaboration. 

In this post, we share our tips for making virtual meetings a useful, productive and engaging experience. We owe a lot to the people we’ve worked with over the years and who inspired us, like Fisher Qua, Anna Jackson, Karen Dawson, and Julie Huffaker.

1. Start with a personal connection

In order to have an effective meeting, it’s important to first create personal connections. Even when people are already familiar with each other, it helps to build safety and personal connection with the other participants. This is even more important in virtual calls, where other participants are pixels on a screen. 

In this call with 4 participants, we asked everyone to google the cover of a book they’re currently reading, and paste it into a shared Google Presentation. We then gave everyone 1 minute to talk about what they liked about that book. It took 10 minutes.

As a rule, we always start any virtual interaction with an opportunity to make a personal connection. Over the years, we’ve accumulated several nice ways to do this.

  • Ask everyone to get a physical object that represents something that is important to them. Then, allow everyone to share their object for a minute. If you have a group of more than 5-6 people, you can use break-out rooms (see below) to do this in smaller groups.
  • Use a virtual version of Mad Tea to get the thinking started. We often use a shared chat window (or Slack) for this. The host reads a sentence (e.g. “I admit that I ….”) and asks everyone to type in a response. On a signal from the host, everyone hits enter. We repeat this a few times with different sentences (e.g. “One nagging question I have is …” or “Something that made me laugh is …”). Afterward, we ask everyone to scroll up through the responses and share salient patterns.
  • Ask everyone to take a piece of paper and draw their experience of a shared challenge with the symbols from Drawing Together. In turn, ask everyone to share their drawing. Or collect it in a shared document. 
  • Ask everyone to go on Spotify or YouTube to find a song that’s been in their head. Paste the album cover or the song into a shared slide. Give everyone two minutes to play a sample of the song and to share what they like about it.

2. Make it interactive (with Liberating Structures)

Even more so than with regular meetings, it’s very hard to stay focused when you’re essentially listening to someone going on and on about something. Even with the best of intentions and with excellent speaking skills and a flashy slide deck, most people tune out after listening to someone for 10–15 minutes.

So make your meetings interactive. Using virtual polls with Mentimeter is one way to do this. You can do even better when you allow people to join in the conversation. Liberating Structures are an excellent help for this — just like in regular meetings. Most of the structures can be translated for use in virtual environments, provided you have the right tools (more on this below).

In this example, we used a Google Slides deck to do a virtual version of the Management in Scrum-exercise we do as part of the Professional Scrum Master II Class. Subgroups could drag the cards on the left on right to the corresponding column. It takes some preparation, but it works well.

3. Break down your interactions

Whenever you bring a group together for a conversation, it is likely that the more dominant voices overwhelm the more silent ones. You’ll lose useful and different perspectives and it’s likely that people will disengage. This is even more pronounced in virtual interactions as the lack of social cues tends to make the silent people even more silent. 

One of the recurring patterns of Liberating Structures is that you always want to start by giving people a minute (or two) to first get their own thinking started about a particular topic, before scaling it up. One of the simplest and most versatile Liberating Structures, 1–2–4-ALL, does this by first starting individually for a minute, then in pairs for two and then paired with another pair for four minutes. The whole group takes 10 minutes to capture the most salient ideas, insights or discoveries

The break-out feature in progress. Here, I’ve created over 20 break-out rooms and are about to invite participants to join them.

This works really well with regular groups. But how do you do it virtually? We are huge fans of Zoom. It has a very nifty break-out feature where you can quickly break down larger groups into smaller ones, each with their own (temporary) channel. You can first create pairs, then merge pairs into groups of four and then return all of them back to the main channel. It’s not as easy as telling people to pair-up in real life, but it works really well. And consistent feedback we’ve received from participants is that it keeps everyone really engaged.

4. Use a digital surface to collect your insights

In a regular meeting, you usually have access to flips and whiteboards. Not only do they offer a surface to track insights and ideas, but it also helps groups think by keeping a trace of their shared memories on a tangible surface. 

How do you do this virtually? Our preferred platform for this Google Slides. It doesn’t cost participants anything and they can access (and update it) from any modern browser. Even better, it supports many users to ‘work’ in one document at the same time. So what we often do is ask subgroups (in break-out rooms) to capture their biggest ideas in a shared slide. When everyone is back on the main channel, we discuss the most salient ones together. 

The output of a collectively generate Purpose statement for a workshop that we designed virtually with a group of six participants. We used the Liberating Structure Nine Whys to generate a list of all the things we hope it could make possible, then paired up to notice patterns. All participants worked together in the same slide (with different colors)

There are many platforms out there that offer similar functionality, like Trello, Google Jamboard and Mural

5. Short time-boxes and frequent breaks

I don’t know about you, but I find virtual interactions far more tiring than regular ones. This in part because of the lack of social cues, but also because you’re essentially staring at a screen the whole time. 

At The Liberators, we limit the majority of our virtual interactions to 2 hours. We’ve found it helpful to schedule a few shorter calls instead of one long one. This principle applies to online meetups, workshops, and classes all the same. It might seem efficient to squeeze everything into one or two 8-hour sessions, but it’s not effective in our experience. Plus, one huge advantage that virtual meetings have over regular ones is that they don’t require travel or meeting locations. That makes it easier to schedule a few shorter calls instead of one huge one.

In any case, take frequent breaks. We’ve found that a 5- to 10-minute break every hour is a good guideline. 

“One huge advantage that virtual meetings have over regular ones is that they don’t require travel or meeting locations.”

6. Make work agreements

Just like with regular meetings, its important to create rules about how you’d like to interact in a virtual meeting to keep it productive. Virtual meetings lack many of the social norms that we implicitly use in regular meetings, so its good to be explicit about this. 

Depending on how often you’re going to meet virtually, and how much time you have, we use a Liberating Structure like Min Specs or 1–2–4-ALL virtually to create work agreements. Otherwise, we share our experience and ask if everyone’s okay with them. These are some sensible rules:

  • Unless there is a very compelling reason not to, participate with your webcam turned on;
  • Wherever possible, limit the use of chat windows to have side conversations. Use the call itself as the main vehicle for interaction. 
  • Ask everyone to mute their microphone unless they speak. This reduces background noise.
  • Especially in large groups, agree to how you distribute when people can speak. It is very easy for loud voices to dominate the conversation here if all they need to do is unmute and speak. Instead, agree to a hand signal (or the ‘raise hand’-feature in Zoom) and let the host give turns. Be clear about this rule and adhere to it. In general, we limit discussions in large groups to an absolute minimum.
  • Don’t go on and on and on. Ask people to be mindful of how much space they claim and expect that they may be cut short to give space to others.
  • Instead of recording a call, make the taking of notes a shared responsibility. A shared document in Google Docs works well for this. Or capture notes in a chat. Although many participants ask for recordings, very few actually watch it (based on our own statistics).

“Virtual meetings lack many of the social norms and cues that we implicitly use in regular meetings, so its good to be explicit about this.”

7. Be prepared and be clear on the purpose

We never start a virtual meeting without at least a string of Liberating Structures in mind as a starting point. We also create slides for the invitations and for capturing important insights as they happen. The string is flexible and can be adjusted in-the-moment. We also make the purpose of the call clear upfront or determine it together immediately after making personal connections.

The design for a virtual call we do every quarter with a group of about 20–30 participants from all over the world. Notice the Liberating Structures we use (Mad Tea, Conversation Cafe & 15% Solutions).

8. Have a co-host

Hosting a virtual meeting takes effort. Aside from being clear on the purpose and designing an experience that achieves that purpose, there are also the various tools that need to be managed. For example, break-out rooms have to be created in Zooms. Technical issues have to be resolved. We’ve found that having a co-host — where one focusing on guiding the interactions and the other focuses on the tooling — brings peace of mind. It also creates a smoother experience for participants as one host can explain the next structure while the other prepares the break-out rooms.

Having a co-host also adds redundancy in case one host drops out due to a bad connection or technical difficulties.

9. Start with a ‘technical startup’

Start with 5 minutes of ‘technical startup’ at the start of a virtual meeting. People may need to configure their webcams and microphones, or find a spot with good WiFi. You can use the first five minutes to let people test their microphones and webcams, and for others to drop in once they’ve configured. Even more so than in regular meeting, it is very disrupting for the flow if people drop in later. Its a small tip, but we’ve found that it makes a big difference.

10. Expect some chaos

No matter how well prepared you are, and how clear your work agreements are, some chaos is inevitable in virtual meetings. Connections may suddenly drop out, technology can act up and cross-talk happens as people misunderstand cues or experience lag. So expect some chaos every now and then. Laugh about it together and move on :)

It works even with large groups. Thanks to Chee Hong Hsia for this wonderful picture. Although a bit chaotic at times, we managed to run several Liberating Structures (like 1–2–4-ALL and TRIZ).

Closing words

Yes! It is possible to have productive, engaging and useful virtual meetings. In this post, we shared some of the things that work well for us. One look at the tips in this post tells you that what makes virtual meetings successful isn’t all that different from regular meetings. But the things that matter there — like a clear purpose, avoiding loud voices to dominate — become even more important in the virtual space. Give it a try and feel free to share your lessons learned!

Continue readingOur 10 Tips to Have Productive and Engaging Virtual Meetings