Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash

Real-world cases and challenges—this is the exciting part of my work in high-performing teams. Real people have complicated and unpredictable lives and behaviors. This is where ideas get tested.

For example, I recently got involved in a discussion about showing up at meetings. A team leader was having difficulty getting their teammates to attend the Daily Scrum (or Daily Stand-up). The Daily Scrum is a short meeting for a group of teammates—many agile teams use it as one of their practices. It’s a chance for everyone on the team to gauge their progress, ensure they are aligned, and to ask each other for help. It’s short and sweet, and it’s probably a good idea for teammates to talk to each other at least once a day.

A set of agreements like the Core Protocols is designed to be easy to embrace as a whole. If you adopt the full set of protocols as your team agreements, then there usually will be an answer to whatever conflict or situation that needs resolving. You’ll find that various protocols will help you fix the situation. When you adopt the protocols alongside another set of team agreement—like Scrum—then there are more opportunities for friction, where the frameworks could contradict one another. Here’s an example:

  • The team has signed up and committed to doing Scrum. The Daily Scrum is an important regular checkpoint. Whatever else is on our plate, we safeguard that timeslot and show up to it, every day.
  • The team has signed up and committed to the Core Protocols. So each person knows that they have the right to opt-out of any activity, including the Daily Scrum. They can pass or check out without justifying or explaining their actions.

See the problem?

Let’s take a step back from the frameworks and protocols and look at what’s going on in this team. If people don’t want to come to a meeting like the Daily Scrum, it’s important to understand why that is.

Why are they disengaged?

Yes, I agree that sometimes meetings suck and we should do something about that. Let’s assume this particular team’s daily scrum meeting doesn’t suck. Yet, there are all sorts of reasons that any individual could consider that their time is better used elsewhere. Both the Pass and Check Out protocol put the responsibility on the individual to weigh the pros and cons of the best use of their time and attention. It also precludes anyone else from challenging this choice or demanding explanations.

A consequence of this protocol that sometimes gets overlooked is that when you have not passed or checked out, you are 100% checked in. Your involvement is voluntary. When you are with your team, you are telling your teammates that you are totally engaged and participating.

We live in an era where actively paying attention (paying recognizes the actual cost involved) is a dying art. I do a lot of classroom teaching and keynote speaking. It’s self-evident when someone in the group disengages mentally but stays present physically. Have you ever sat next to someone who is googling for the latest results on their sports team, or reading the latest politics news, or watching a video? When one person disengages, everyone suffers.

It’s tough to be on the receiving end of this at times. As the teacher or keynote speaker, you ask yourself, why aren’t they paying attention to me? But I try to flip the feeling and take responsibility for it. Maybe I’m not engaging enough, which is my problem, not theirs, to solve. Do I need to be more charismatic, more provocative, do something unexpected? What might that look like? Am I delivering my end of the social contract, to present this material effectively and engagingly?

It’s my job as a teacher to make the learning experience fun, to recapture the way it felt to discover new things as a kid. There’s ample evidence now that we learn best when we interact and DO things for ourselves, just like when we were children. So I try to design my classes and talks as interactive experiences. That’s my side of the deal.

Conversely, they are adults. Does their side of the social contract (or indeed their employment contract) require them to pay attention and learn what I’m teaching? Do they want to learn it? Are they showing up because their manager sent them? Because they are driven to acquire new skills? Because we do Thursday lunch-and-learns and everyone is expected to attend, or it might look bad on an upcoming performance review?

It’s just like asking, “Are we expected to show up at this Daily Scrum because we’ve said we’re doing Scrum, and that’s what the rules say?”

The answer again lies in what we can do to help people opt-in explicitly. To bring their whole selves to the situation. To show up in mind as well as body because they have chosen to, not because someone told them they have to.

What kind of meeting will that be, with people who are technically there, but who don’t want to be?

Disengaged == feedback

When someone in my keynote looks at her phone instead of at me, she’s giving me feedback, loud and clear. I won’t put her on the spot and ask her about it, breaking the psychological safety in the room. And, anyway, I might be misreading the situation. Maybe she’s taking notes on her phone. Or she’s responding to a super-urgent message that she absolutely has to deal with right now. She might even be enthusiastically tweeting about how awesome my keynote is. The best I can do is to notice what’s happening and try to win back her attention. (Her attention will wax and wane no matter what I do. 10 minutes seems to be the maximum we can expect from any human.)

Let’s return to our struggling Scrum master. What can they do if their team is struggling to make even 15 minutes each day, to show up and attend to the Daily Scrum?

Maybe there is a work issue. We could discuss it, perhaps individually or possibly with the team as a whole. We could explore what’s getting in the way. Are people seriously overloaded? Or do they simply not care enough about the outcome, about the end goal? Is there a lack of shared vision, a lack of purpose to which everyone can opt-in? Then something needs to change.

Sensitive and appropriate use of the Core Protocols can be used to unlock this. Checking the intentions of those who are disengaged, who are showing disapproval through their actions. Investigating, with disinterested fascination, what’s really going on for that person. What value do they see, in the team’s collaboration? How do they feel about the team, its activities, its big-picture goals? Continuously check-in; make the temperature-check an act of flow in which you become sensitive to the slightest shift in the mood.

Engagement is about leaders

Remember the (probably apocryphal) story of the janitor at NASA, who replied to President John F. Kennedy that his job was “helping to put a man on the moon”? That’s the goal. To inspire each team member with shared vision of what you have come together to do. Not the why of this particular meeting, sprint, or product, but the bigger picture—our transcendent purpose together.

Dig deep, and you will find the glamor, the attraction, the dream you can all get behind and deliver. The mechanics of the “how”… that’s not so important. Perhaps you can even switch up the cadence of the meetings if they aren’t serving the vision. Scrum is a great framework, but it’s not intended to be applied religiously in every set of circumstances. The Core Commitments are unequivocal that you can agree to abandon any commitment if you can replace it with something better.

By checking in, opting in, and sharing in a psychologically-safe team, you can work together to find a solution that suits all of you, and serves your goals. That raises everyone’s performance. It increases satisfaction and intrinsic motivation all around. Working in a highly engaged and happy team is a fantastic experience.

It gets the job done too—so everyone is happy.