Collaboration is a key principle of Agile. Yet, I believe
that most Agile teams don’t collaborate nearly as much as
they could, and as a result, their performance falls far
short of its potential.
Collaboration means working together with shared
ownership of the results. There are many ways to
implement it, such as whiteboard discussions, inclusive
decision-making, and pair programming. In most teams I’ve
observed, there’s no shortage of professionalism,
friendliness, and helpfulness, yet there’s only
The Agile literature describes several reasons for this
- Traditional hiring and planning practices emphasize individual accountabilities.
- Individual rewards and performance management get in the way.
- People don’t have enough reference experiences for collaboration from pre-Agile environments.
- People have bad experiences from collaboration (e.g., they felt tested or criticized).
Since the way we speak reflects how we think, I’ll add a
linguistic reason: the word “help.”
In coaching and training conversations, my clients will
often use that word when we discuss teamwork,
collaboration, and getting to ’Done’. For example:
- “If someone’s working on a large task, a colleague can
jump in and help.”
- “If a teammate looks stuck, I’ll go over and ask
whether I can help.”
- “Testers can help developers figure out what they
- “As a BA, I can help the Product Owner with acceptance
If someone needs help and is open to receiving it, this
type of camaraderie is fantastic. After all, working
together can be fun, productive, and a personal growth
opportunity. But here’s the kicker: What if that person
would agree to working with someone else, but doesn’t
People get sensitive around the word “help,” particularly
in business settings. It implies need; admitting the need
is an expression of vulnerability. The more senior the
person, the riskier the need for help. Organizations hire
professionals who should be able to carry out tasks on
their own, so getting help may cast doubt on their
abilities. Help across a functional divide (e.g.,
developer helping tester) may be seen as impossible or
unwelcome. Sometimes, people interpret another’s help as
a favour in need of reciprocation. These are all
perceptions, not fact, but they affect behaviour.
The word “help” often creates this tension even when the
speaker means it in the best possible way. So here’s a
suggestion: don’t use it. Expunge it from your lexicon.
As a coach — someone who is expected and paid
to help — I don’t use it anymore.
What to do instead? Use words and expressions that truly
convey collaboration and partnership. For example:
- If I see someone taking a long time on a task: “Would
you like us to work together so we may finish the task
- If a team mate looks stuck: “Would you like to bounce
ideas off me?”
- A tester to a developer: “Let’s pair up to make sure we
cover all the bases.”
- A BA to a PO: “If you’d like, I can share the load of
acceptance testing with you.”
- “Hey, let’s do this together.”
Verbiage like this shifts attention from personal
obligations to team results. It doesn’t have the negative
connotations of “help,” even if that’s what working
together turns out to be like.
Of course, you can turn this concept around so you’re
asking for collaboration, not only offering it.
That’s leading by example.
Replacing the little word “help” with an offer of
collaboration makes it easier for the receiver to say yes…
and safer to say no. Do this a few times, and you’ll
find that more people are saying yes, collaboration
increases, and your team is happier; you’ve moved closer
to a collaborative culture.
Copyright © 2016, 3P Vantage, Inc. All rights reserved.