Are You a Pedestrian, Passenger or Pilot?

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts…

from “As You Like It” by William Shakespeare

When I was a software development manager, there were moments I loved my job and moments I hated my job.

There’s nothing better than the thrill of shipping product. Seeing the fruits of our collective efforts delivered into market.

On the other hand, the worst part of the job was having to play traffic cop or worst yet, babysitter to the squabbles that often break out when people have to work with each other.

In those moments, people are at their worst. Behaving like 4-year old kindergarten kids learning how to share toys for the first time. Screaming, crying, finger-pointing, and stubborn silence. It’s one of the reasons I don’t miss being a manager.

And yet, as an Agile Coach, I continue to see remnants of that kindergarten behaviour. Screaming and crying? Not so much. Instead, plenty of stone-faced silence.

Retrospectives are the pathway to surfacing and mitigating these behaviours.

A good way to set the stage for a team retrospective is the ESVP activity described in “Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great” by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen. It enables the retro facilitator to take a quick temperature check on the team’s engagement level for the retro so that adjustments can be made.

  • “E” is for Explorers who are eager to discover new ideas and insights.
  • “S” is for Shoppers who are happy to go home with one new idea.
  • “V” is for Vacationers who are just happy to be away from the daily grind.
  • “P” is for Prisoners who are forced to attend and would rather be doing something else.

This ESVP activity can also be useful as a check-in activity for any type of meeting. During one engagement a few years ago, a colleague of mine used it with a large audience who were attending an Agile 101 session. Over 25% of the attendees self-identified as “Prisoners”. We invited them to leave the session and we would not let their managers know. They stayed.

Last week, during an uninspired Sprint planning session, a frustrated Product Owner lamented,

I feel like the team is falling apart. The engagement is low and we’re not getting the outputs…

It was especially frustrating given this session was on the heels of a Sprint retrospective the previous day where the team discussed the lack of initiative and traction for the team’s Sprint commitments.

As I listened to his frustration, memories of my days as a manager-cum-babysitter and my experience with those Agile 101 prisoners came flooding back.

I started to imagine the team members falling into 3 categories of engagement.

  1. Pedestrian: walking on the sidewalk, conscious of the traffic all around them but not connected to it in any other way.
  2. Passenger: going along for the ride either enjoying the sights and sounds along the way or complaining without any suggestions to improve.
  3. Pilot: willing to take the wheel and steer, to blaze new trails without a map to uncover new possibilities.

A team filled with pedestrians is a team without a compelling goal.

A team filled with passengers may have aspirations but are counting on others to realize them.

A team filled with pilots will have a plethora of compelling goals and are prepared to do whatever it takes to steer towards them.

Most teams start with plenty of pedestrians and passengers and few, if any, pilots. What’s the ideal mix? How can we help teams get there?

Should we push teams to comply or should we wait for them to pull themselves forward?

Pedestrians and passengers may need to be pushed and prodded. Pilots will always pull themselves and their teams forward.

How might we convert pedestrians and passengers to pilots?

That is the question.

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