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Stride Tech Talk: Diana Larsen and Ainsley Nies - Liftoffs

Debbie Madden
Dec 22, 2016

For this month's Stride Tech Talk, Stride CEO Debbie Madden discusses the importance of Liftoffs with Diana Larsen and Ainsley Nies, co-authors of the book Liftoff: Launching Agile Teams and Projects.  

Both Larsen and Nies are seasoned agile professionals, and frequently share their insight at agile conferences and workshops. Their expertise covers a wide variety topics to optimize agile teams, including continuous improvement, facilitating great retrospectives, and team leadership. In their co-authored book, they addressed the value of Liftoffs for agile projects, and why they should be practiced more routinely in agile organizations. 

A Liftoff refers to a process that takes place prior to the start of an agile project. It's purpose is to align the goals of the project, define project roles, and builds momentum for the core team and project community as a whole. 

Read on to learn more about the best practices for Liftoffs, and how they improve project outcomes for agile teams. 

Debbie: Your book Liftoff: Launching Agile Teams and Projects is one of my all time favorite reads. What's a liftoff and why is it so critical for Agile teams? 

Diana/Ainsley: First, we want to let you know there’s a new, updated second edition of Liftoff. It’s Liftoff: Start and Sustain Successful Agile Teams, and it’s available from pragprog.com .

Liftoffs support and reflect agility. Liftoffs help leaders give teams the best possible start for the work. You may be familiar with kickoffs, boot camps, and other project-launching activities. The point of a liftoff is similar, but it focuses especially on the needs of the team.

Many product work efforts start with creating a simple data sheet, then stop there. In our experience, that’ s just not enough. Data sheets that outline the business case for the product may be necessary, but they aren’t sufficient to prepare everyone for collaborating to deliver.

An effective liftoff achieves alignment, a shared understanding about the work and why it exists. Liftoffs contribute to team trust and sets a tone for the ongoing work. Team building isn’t necessarily the focus, but seems to happen naturally during the session.

Liftoffs are great for any new group effort. They are essential for effective agile teams.

 
Debbie: I've got a team that's mid-project that isn't aligned, is a liftoff a good tool to help misaligned teams mid-flight?

 
Diana/Ainsley: Absolutely! Liftoffs are most often conducted with new teams or teams that are taking on new work. In the book we included several examples of teams that used a liftoff as a sort of reset button. It’s a great way to help a troubled team get back on track. Follow the same steps for planning, designing, and facilitating a “reset” liftoff as you would for any other.

If the team’s trouble is misalignment, you’ll want to give special emphasis to the kind of misalignment they exhibit. Can you find clues in their retrospectives outcomes or interactions? Is it a lack of common understanding of the “why”? Do they share ideas about the nature and purpose of the work? Are they misaligned in their approach to doing the work? Are they struggling with teamwork or collaboration? Are they misaligned organizationally or in timing? Explore the team’s challenges before planning the liftoff.
 

Debbie: What are the top 2 biggest mistakes teams make when running Liftoffs?

 
Diana/Ainsley: Number one is poor planning. Once we heard an Agile luminary say that the best way to get a team started was to put them in a room and close the door. No planning, no attention to what information the team might need for successfully accomplishing the work at hand. We disagree. It may seem recursive, but it’s helpful to hold a mini-liftoff for the planning group to clarify the purpose of their work too. Carefully planning a liftoff is a sign of respect for the team, its effort, and the product we expect them to produce.

Number two is not engaging the product managers in defining purpose. We spend about half of the total duration of a liftoff making sure that there is a common understanding and at least initial clarity about product vision.

Number 3 (though you didn’t ask) is ensuring you have the right people involved in all parts of the liftoff.
 

Debbie: What's the biggest sized team that Liftoffs work for? What if my team is bigger than this?

 
Diana/Ainsley: Generally, we encourage “Agile-sized” (3-10) small teams, and we have held liftoff events with up to 15 teams working simultaneously. With group work, the larger the number of people, the longer the duration must be to allow for all those conversations to happen. The larger the number of people, the more skilled facilitators you’ll need to support group work. With this in mind, so far, we haven’t found a limit. The larger the number of people the more working space and supplies are required.

Plan for time, location, and personnel to create an environment that accommodates the number of teams or team members you have. 
 

About Diana Larsen and Ainsley Nies

Diana Larsen is author of Liftoff 2nd ed.: Start and Sustain Successful Agile TeamsAgile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams GreatFive Rules for Accelerated Learning; and co-originator of the Agile Fluency(TM) Model. A founding partner of FutureWorks Consulting, she leads the practice area for Agile software development, team leadership, and Agile transitions. Diana delivers inspiring conference keynote talks and has contributed as a leader with Agile Alliance, Organization Design Forum, and the Agile Open Initiative.

As an independent consultant, Ainsley Nies’ work is focused on the development of sustainable environments for learning and continuous improvement. She teaches a variety of Agile Management courses at local universities and is co-author of Liftoff: Start and Sustain Successful Agile Teams.  Ainsley speaks at conferences and facilitates Personal Retrospective workshops and Open Space events. She also volunteers as: Director, Agile Alliance Agile Open Program, Board Director AAUW CA, and founder/organizer of the Agile Open California.
 
What do you do to set your agile team up for success? Comment below and let us know your best practices, or download our free guide "How to Facilitate an Agile Retrospective" to learn actionable techniques that will drive real results to your agile team. 
 
facilitating-retrospectives

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