The 3 Ls - Listen, Learn, Language
It’s happening again. You are a new Agile Coach or a new Scrum Master asked to join a new team. There is excitement but also a deep-seated fear akin to your first day of school. Asking yourself if the team will accept you and if you are cut out for the challenges ahead. The first instinct in these situations is that you must prove yourself worthy of this role and establish your place on the team. It comes down to the basic instincts of marking our territory and gaining respect. Unfortunately, these basic instincts sometimes works against us as Agile Coaches or Scrum Masters. It causes us to rush into teams and immediately try to “fix” something. These “gut reactions” often cause more disruption and potentially leave a bad taste in the mouths of our teammates, which makes the respect that much harder to earn.
It is counter-intuitive; especially when we feel pressured by the company to show results. I tend to coach those in the role of an Agile Coach or Scrum Master joining a team to step back and make their first priority the 3 Ls (Learn, Listen, Language).
“Are you listening or just waiting to speak?”
Whenever I start on a new team, I like to conduct what is called a “listening tour”. I meet with the team in an informal setting and first, getting to know them as human beings. I learn their names, what brought them to the company, what are their passions, what do they care about, what do they like to do outside of work. I want to establish relationships with the team first.
I then meet with them individually, I want to listen and understand what their expectations are of me in my role. Agile Coaches and Scrum Masters mean something different to everyone and they have potentially had prior experience with others in these roles, what are their thoughts?
Finally, I work on both the team level and individual level to map out the development process. What does it take for the team and each individual to get their work to “Done”. What are the pain-points? Take all of this in, everything about them as human beings, everything about them as a team and really listen. Be curious, ask questions. The key here is not to prescribe anything unless they ask for your opinion, but even then, be careful. It is okay if your response is “I want to learn more.”
The company hired all of these individuals for a reason. Believe that they are intelligent specialists, be humble and acknowledge that they know things you do not, be empathetic and always remember to LISTEN.
“What we learn with pleasure, we never forget.”
Learning and listening go hand-in-hand. You must be naturally curious to be in the role of an Agile Coach or Scrum Master. You should always be asking questions and playing the “wise-fool”, in asking the right questions that makes others think. Think about what a doctor does when examining a patient. They don’t just walk into the examination room, take one glance at you and hand you a prescription. They ask you a lot of questions, they inspect you, take your temperature, and ask about allergies or restrictions to things you can do/have. They learn as much about your problem as possible before diagnosing.
So learn! Learn about what your team is building, how they are building it, what constraints do they have, and what are things they recognize as issues. Ask about what they have done in the past, where have they come from and where are they trying to get to with their process and/or product.
Something I started doing with a recent squad of mine was having regular “Tech Talks”. Since my technical knowledge is limited, I asked the squad if members would be willing to volunteer their time (30 minutes a week) to sit with me and walk me through their process and all of the tools the company had for development. Sometimes a volunteer squad member would come in with a topic; other times I would write down words/concepts I heard, then asked them to help me understand why it was important to development. The team appreciated that I was showing a vested interest in what they were doing and how they were doing it. They also respected the fact that I was driven by learning rather than maintaining my ego and was not afraid to ask for help.
So while you start with a brand new team, always remember to LEARN.
“A different language is a different vision of life.”
Think before you speak. That is another piece of advice I offer to those starting on a new team. And this is also probably the hardest one to master of the 3 L’s, or at least it was for me.
When I first started on my Agile journey as a Scrum Master, I had developed a bad habit of saying “Hi you guys!” or “Hi y’all!”. What’s wrong with that you might ask? Well, beyond the usage of the word “guys” when there were other women present, the key thing I was doing wrong was using the word “you”. I later learned from a team member that by greeting everyone like that, it made them feel that I was still an outsider, not someone truly part of the team. I was using YOU and I, creating a separation that I was completely unaware of within the team dynamic. Through altering my language from “YOU” to “WE”, the team dynamic shifted, I was also now part of the team and responsible for the work being completed. As an example, at stand-ups, I would ask “How are we going to get this story to done?” or “Do we need help with testing?”. This included me in the responsibilities and also did not single out others but referenced the group as a whole unit.
Language is often the first thing that needs to change when helping to change the mindset of others. Other examples of minor tweaks I made to the way I interacted with the team was trying to remove the word “No” from my vocabulary and replace it with “Yes, and…”. This is a little trick I learned from taking Improv Comedy classes. By saying “No”, you shut the other person down, there is no where to go from that word. The conversation is over OR it will escalate in a continued negative fashion. By saying “Yes, and….” the conversation is allowed to continue, you say Yes to note that you have heard what the other person has said, and you add to it, building the narrative rather than destroying it.
However, the content in your language is only half of the battle, also really examine how you are saying things. When you ask “How are you?”, do you really mean it? Are you making eye contact, does your tone indicate warmth and genuine curiosity? People can read you better than you might think. As a trained actress, I can “fake” emotions/body language but people always know that I am putting on a character vs. when I am being real. It is okay to have a bad day and let your team know it is a bad day. It is also okay to slip up and say something in a negative way, but be humble, recognize you slipped and apologize. This will help foster the relationships you have on your team and build the respect.
Always watch your LANGUAGE.
When you face a new team for the first time, do your best to make your first priority the 3 Ls (Learn, Listen, Language).