From a team to A-Team

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Summary:

The challenge was to introduce agility (Scrum) across the AOL Publishing organization. If we subtract the editorial staff, the agile transformation affected roughly 3,000 employees one way or the other. The agile consultant and coach tried to tackle several issues under one “reward and recognition program” umbrella. For example, “How do we know that the 50-70 project teams, who were working in parallel at any given moment, were really doing agile?”

Experiences from an internal reward and recognition program introduced by Jochen Krebs to AOL.  

Early 2008, I became responsible of one of the largest agile transformations in the industry. The challenge was to introduce agility (Scrum) across the AOL Publishing organization. If we subtract the editorial staff, the agile transformation affected roughly 3,000 employees one way or the other. Many of the employee’s jobs turned upside-down as contributing team member. Other, more peripheral stakeholders such as advertising, legal and executives, the agile transformation had less impact on their daily life but was still noteworthy. Needless to say, everyone needed to pull into the same direction to make agile stick across the board. The transformation was rapid with full executive support, but the speedy commitment and high expectations introduced new problems for a transformation of such a magnitude.

I was facing several issues which I tried to tackle under one “reward and recognition program” umbrella. For example, “How do we know that the 50-70 project teams, who were working in parallel at any given moment, were really doing agile?” In my role, I needed to know if we increase productivity with Scrum and if so by how much? In other words, “Was it really (with evidence) a good idea to depart from waterfall?” It was however extremely important that we did not want to get insights through additional bureaucracy. We did not want to establish a command and control process police nor did we want to introduce additional reports and status meetings. The goal was to use what was automatically produced by the Scrum framework. I also wanted to proactively tackle the issue of sprint fatigue when teams burn out over time and agile practices become neglected due to routine and mechanical execution (e.g. retrospectives). Last but not least, we wanted to use the award to help creating a team boundary as well organizational boundary in a company operating across the globe.

The first step was Scrum training for every project team. We did then establish a mix of internal and external team coaching which guided every team through the key elements of iterations, especially iteration planning and review. That lasted for at least two iterations for every team. Many of these 2-day Scrum courses I delivered myself world-wide. The mix of internal and external coaching was crucial for success during the initial iterations. External coaching delivered freshness, experience and purity in agile practices. Internal coaches were especially important, because AOL would need to find a way to keep the agile process alive for the months and years to come. In addition, nobody knew the political and cultural playing field better than the employees themselves.

While the team-based roll-out was underway I was looking for a way to keep the energy-level and morale elevated while we wanted to review the effectiveness of the agile process. In fall 2008, I introduced the “A-team” reward and recognition program for all agile teams. We used A-team as wordplay between “agile” and “AOL” but it also connected the award with the media industry we are operating in. It also made it clear that we were looking for hero teams, not individual hero team members. Either the entire team would become A-team or nobody on the team.

We wanted to make this program catchy, easy to verify, achievable and most important without introducing any new bureaucracy. That meant no paperwork, forms or templates to be filled out and no committee which would decide as a judge. We agreed to one basic requirement which turned “a” team into an “A”-team. That is:

“Demonstrate three months of

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