Building Trust and Culture in Teams: An Interview with Scott Ross

Scott Ross is presenting a session named "Leveraging Core Values for Healthier, More Productive Teams" at the 2012 Better Software Conference East. Scott shared with us the importance of maintaining a positive culture around development teams in order to keep everyone happy, healthy, and productive.

In the software industry for more than twenty years, Scott Ross is currently director of software at Omnyx, a joint venture of GE Healthcare and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Scott has been practicing Scrum for three years—after spending two years practicing Scrum-but.

Noel: You’ve talked about the need to “craft a culture that supports agile.” What are some of the challenges that can make that process difficult?

Scott : It depends on the company. If upper management does not understand agile, or does understand it but does not buy into it, that lack of support is a challenge to overcome. If employees have previous professional experience in an unhealthy culture, they can be slow to trust, and trust is fundamental to self-organizing teams.

Firefighting or focusing on deliverables at the exclusion of all else can result in short-term wins and critical longer-term failures. And regardless of the company, it takes a lot of communication and persistence to drive any change.

Noel : There’s often a lot of talk about “leveraging core values” – why is that so crucial?

Scott : If you’ve ever worked at a company that had core values that nobody could recite, that no one remembered, that was nothing more than a yellowing piece of paper framed on the wall, you have the answer. Creating core values gives you nothing more than a tool to direct change. It is a description of who you want to be as an organization. Writing the core values does not move you to living them, referring to them, reinforcing them, holding each other accountable to them does.

Noel : What kinds of tools can be used to accomplish that process?

Scott : The Center for Creative Leadership has a three-step model for giving critical feedback called SBI, which is helpful for people who struggle in that area. StrengthsFinder is a great tool for understanding our peers and ourselves better. TKI is a tool, which identifies preferences for dealing with conflict. If a foundation of trust is established first, these tools can be helpful.

Trust is built by spending time together, refusing to participate in gossip, being consistent, having a shared goal, allowing yourself to be vulnerable. When trust goes up, productivity goes up.

Noel : Your session title promotes the building of “healthier teams.” What makes a team healthy, and what keeps a development team healthy?

Scott : A team is healthy if it accomplishes more than the individuals making the team would indicate, and if everyone on the team is fruitful and fulfilled. A healthy team is accountable for getting good/great results in a predictable manner, embraces diversity, is introspective, seeks to continuously improve, has fun at work, respects each other.

As far as keeping a development team healthy, the single most important thing is to look for signs of eroding trust and dig into those immediately. If there is mutual trust and respect, continuous learning, good tools, good challenges and measuring results go a long way to maintaining a healthy team.

Noel : As someone who has implemented agile methodologies and principles in the medical field, and at the FDA level, in what ways have those changes benefitted consumers/patients in a way they might not have attributed to agile?

Scott : Great products have been built with a variety of methodologies; so agile does not necessarily bring product benefits that other methodologies cannot. There’s no law against prototyping while you are doing waterfall.

I think agile’s biggest benefit is visibility. Holding numerous release reviews with external stakeholders - even when the release is internal and will not see the light of day for several more release cycles – results in products that have evolutionary customer input. Since it is rare for customers or designers to craft the perfect experience at the start of a project, that feedback/modify cycle yields more usable products. So my answer would be that agile’s high focus on customer interaction yields more usable products.

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