A Team for Teams

by Katrin Elise Dreyer - 10 Oct 2018

How we revolutionized the way we worked agile

One and a half years ago we started something new at Zalando. We asked all producers of our department to join one team with the purpose of helping us create great teams to get things done in the best way possible.

Where did we start from?

The producer role had been introduced at Zalando to provide a team with whatever it lacked at a certain moment in time, be it a roadmap, team building, process improvement, documentation or even testing. The role was an extremely clever idea to get through the change that was initiated with radical agility as it made sure that in times of restructuring the most crucial needs of a team were met and the flow could continue. But as useful as it was to get Zalando through the change, it caused very diverse perspectives on the responsibilities and capabilities of one and the same role. For example, some producers would assume the responsibility for a team’s roadmap whereas others saw that responsibility with the product managers. These diverging perspectives resulted in diverging expectations, and eventually disappointment and frustration between producers, leads and product managers.

On top of that, producers were designed to be “part of the team,” helping the team to organize from within whatever it took to do that.

This brought about a few questions and problems:

  • How does a producer empower a team to grow autonomous, if he/she is a part of that team and continuously takes over operational tasks?
  • A team change for a producer would mean a leadership change in many cases thus the long term development was often interrupted.  
  • How does he/she know what career level he/she is eligible for if there is no clear set of skills and the variety of the execution differs so much?

In Retail Operations, teams receive different input since every producer has a different focus. Producers learn to effectively enable multiple teams in a shorter time. In this setup we might be able to help more teams with less producers. Producers would no longer be a part of the team but would be partners to the team lead, working collaboratively and could thus support on a wider set of topics, for example product delivery collaboration or facilitating the alignment workshop for a high level architecture.

So what did we do?

All of this we wanted to tackle with our newly formed team of agile coaches, and so we had to set up quite a lot of things to lift the role to the next level.

  • Coaches would sit with the teams they worked with and for, but be directly answerable to a producer lead; they would learn from and support each other. e.g. If an agile team coach is stuck with a challenge he/she gets support through a team “intervision.”  
  • We established a team with its own leader to take care of people development, creating common practices and standards, and roughly organizing the assignments and be a back up expert for any questions the coaches might have
  • We clarified the role and expectations on each job grade
  • We looked into our processes to find out what setup this team needed to effectively integrate with the rest of the department organisation. For example, did we start to align on the goal with the respective team leader before a coach started to work with a team?
  • We invested in the development of the skills necessary to become excellent  

Role Clarification

The goal was to find the most crucial gap in our organisation, and taking our skills into account, narrow our contribution down to the most impactful place. After interviews with engineering leads, and others, I found that the teams needed professional support in the adoption of agile processes and excellent collaboration. Eventually we stopped working as generalist producers and started to work as specialised agile team coaches. We inserted the term “team” as there is a central team of agile coaches at Zalando, who develop the agile culture on a company level in coaching upper management and whole departments, as well as offering standardized trainings. In contrast, we coach teams on their processes and collaboration for a long period of time and facilitate cross-functional workshops in one department.

Process

However, to get to a place where this role could fully unfold its impact and fit in with the rest of the roles, we needed to take a few more steps. First of all we had to define a setup with our most important stakeholders: the engineering leads at retail operations. While the overlap of responsibilities in producers and leads would sometimes cause frictions or responsibility diffusion, the new role should be complementary and supportive. Through a couple of iterations we came up with a sponsorship model that starts with an engineering lead or product specialist requesting the help of an agile team coach. The agile team coach then observes the team for a while and writes down what he or she understood the problem was, the root causes he/she identified, and determines success measures and milestones throughout the coaching. To be a little more specific here: Usually the leads ask us to “make the team faster.” However, each team loses speed for different reasons. So the coach analyses the situation and comes back with insights on the “slowness.” This could be that the collaboration with the product manager is difficult or that the team has not learned to speak openly about issues. It could be that the team does not know how to turn a big problem into a small manageable chunks of work. Each of these root causes need to be addressed with a different coaching approach. This is aligned with the sponsor, the agile lead and if possible at that point in time, with the team.

The sponsor and the coach from then on have regular check-ins to talk about the status quo, next steps and distribution of tasks amongst each other. In case of severe dissatisfaction on any side, the issue can be escalated to the agile lead, who will mediate and try to reunite the sponsors and the coach. Our internal processes have evolved into a one hour bi-weekly operational meeting, where we talk about our own organization and discuss management updates.

The second meeting is our one hour deep dive. Here we raise all topics that cannot be discussed in a short amount of time but need some reflection or longer explanation. The last regular meeting we have is a half hour board meeting to keep us updated on each other’s sponsorships.

Development

The last piece of the puzzle to a successful agile coaching team is the trainings we invested in. The combination of a deep understanding of agile frameworks, team dynamics, innovation and moderation was not a standard for the producers at Zalando and is only in rare cases to be found in SCRUM masters. So we identified three places for the development of an agile team coach and took trainings accordingly.

The first area was team dynamics and team building. A three day training with an experienced academy in Berlin helped us to learn basic concepts and the necessary attitude for facilitating team building, and just as important, it helped us to get to know our limits. In the same quarter we visited an onsite change management training. For both trainings, we made sure to check in on our learnings and experiences in our deep dive sessions. The second area to learn about was delivery processes. As everyone on the team had a good understanding of SCRUM we took an intense training on Kanban, which also helped us to better reflect the success of the process improvements back to our teams. The last area is innovation and moderation. Team members took part in onsite visualization trainings, moderation trainings and we are now learning about innovation formats to better be able to support cross-functional ideation and planning. We took time to reflect on our learnings in our weekly deep dive sessions, co-planned a lot of the support we offered to the teams and shared new tools and ideas regularly.

So what did we gain?

All of these measures were a big investment to our department and Zalando, and obviously it’s important to check whether they were worth it. However, what we got from this change is considerable:

  • No role conflicts between engineering leads and product managers and agile team coaches anymore but appreciative, respectful working relationships
  • Professional approach to change initiatives: instead of fixing one small problem after the other we develop change strategies and measure our success
  • A coaching team that effectively and efficiently helps each other
  • Happy coaches and very good candidates in our last recruiting process
  • We gained trust beyond the tech teams and are currently involved in four non tech teams creating transparency, team spirit and self organization for them
  • We extrapolated our skills beyond supporting the delivery process and instead we now contribute great facilitation in the discovery, definition and design phases of the product development process
  • We have established a more mature agile culture in our department as the agile coaching team has established an alignment on some best practices such as clear planning process, estimations and expectation workshops
  • On the basis of this, we also started to work with elements of Scaled agile frameworks, such as a board for overall team coordination  

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