Agile, Experience, Leadership, Learning Lessons, SAFe, Team Building, Tools

SAFe Team Self-Assessment Experience

Our company recently adopted the SAFe framework. One pillar of SAFe’s House of Lean is Relentless Improvement. There are many ways to identify areas to improve – retro, inspect and adapt, iteration review and system demo just to name a few.

Another tool that SAFe provides is Team Self-Assessment.

When I started looking into the tool, I noticed there wasn’t clear direction around how to use it, just a short description of the tool’s purpose. I started to think:  

  • Does each team member take this and then I average the scores?
  • Do we take this together, like sizing, where we all agree on a number?
  • Do I want to get a quick snapshot here, or have the team kind of think about each question (with a timebox either way)?
  • Am I over thinking this in general?
  • How often should this assessment be taken? Once a PI, multiple times? Once every other PI?

I started to do some research on implementation practices and I found an article with great ideas.

  • What I liked
    • They suggest doing this as a team activity, rather than having people take the assessment and submitting it back to one person
    • They used an external facilitator, so the entire team could focus
    • They used a planning poker cadence (everyone says their number at the same time) using post-its & time boxing each question
      • Also, they used posters to represent each category and placed sticky notes along the axis (see pics in the post)
  • Questions that remained
    • Does it make sense to do this more often than once a PI?
    • How does this work with remote team members?
    • How does the scoring work with a poker cadence? Discuss it to meet somewhere or just average the scores?

This article helped me think about implementation, so the team took the assessment last week and here are some more takeaways from our experience.

Our Implementation

  • We took the assessment after the second of six iterations in our first PI (after ~1 month)
    • I originally planned to do this each month, to get a good idea of how the team is working within the PI
  • We used Zoom to facilitate discussion (3 remote team members and 3 local team members)
    • Everyone had a working webcam
  • I shared my screen as we went through the excel sheet, to be transparent and visual
  • We spent ~45 minutes going through the entire assessment (keep in mind, this was the first time we did this)
    • We counted down 3-2-1 before giving our score using our hands
  • We posted individual scores on the webcam using our hands; fist = 0 through five fingers = 5
  • I quickly average all the scores and marked them on the excel sheet
    • I then asked for any comments, especially at the extremes of scoring
    • I tried time boxing discussion 2-5 minutes so we could keep moving

Our Learning Lessons/Feedback

  • Some questions were not applicable because we didn’t complete that SAFe event yet or haven’t completed the PI yet
    • Example: “Team reliably meets 80-100% of committed PI Objectives’ business value” – we only completed 2 iterations so we couldn’t answer this question
  • Some questions seem more like a true/false answer or simplifying the scoring may be needed in the future
    • Example: “Team participates in System Demo every two weeks, illustrating real progress towards objectives” & “CI, build and test automation infrastructure is improving” could be true/false answers
    • A 0-5 scale is rather large for short questions in this format. It may make sense to modify the scoring scale to simplify the assessment. Maybe 1-3 like The Five Dysfunctions Of A Team assessment (1 = Rarely, 2 = Sometimes, 3 = Always)
  • The discussion after the question is more valuable than the actual answers to the questions
    • One of my team members made this comment and it was insightful because everyone can interpret the questions a little differently. So discussing the questions after the answers helped everyone think about the question and how the team can improve

Overall, this assessment worked well after the first two iterations. It helped the team take a step back from the day-to-day and think about the bigger picture. Also, I think this tool is useful multiple times per PI, but you need to modify some of the questions. Lastly, I think the next time my team is in-town, following the other blog post about using posters and post-it notes to take the assessment is a great idea that I want to implement.

If you have any questions, suggestions or other experiences, please reach out and let me know!

Communication, Discipline, Experience, Improvement, Leadership, Learning Lessons, Remote, Remote Leadership, Self-Awareness, success, Team Building, Technology

After One Year, I Stopped Working Remotely

I spent the past year working remotely. Working remotely sounded great! I envisioned that I’d be able to work from anywhere and be super productive. I talked to other remote team members to try and anticipate any issues and made preparations based on their suggestions. I thought I was prepared. It’s not exactly like the feature image for this post, but I think it can be close. Here are my learning lessons.

What Went Well

I was always caught up on email, rarely late to meetings and always got solo tasks completed on time.

Also, I found that leading remote teams, as a remote team leader, really helped me understand some of the challenges of being remote. I believe it enhanced leading remote team members, more than leading remote team members strictly from an office, as I have done in the past.

What Didn’t Go Well

I found myself struggling to collaborate with my leadership group and other team members at times, I spent a  lot of time making calls and leaving messages, sometimes I was physically uncomfortable and most unexpectedly, I was more lonely than I anticipated.

Bottom Line

Working remotely can definitely work, it just didn’t work for me. I prefer to work in the offices and around other people, rather than work remotely at home.


For me in my current role, my strengths are best suited for in-person interactions and I personally work better when I am in an office. I thought about working from a co-working space, but never took action on that, although I would encourage and suggest co-working spaces to others, if a viable option.

Suggestions For Others

I believe taking time to think about implementing these suggestions can improve and help anyone that is looking to transition into a remote environment. What is your experience? Let me know!

Try It Out Before Making The Jump

Remote work may or may not be for you. You should think about your strengths (more below), talk to other remote team members to understand their insights and try a short period of seriously working from home, before working remotely full time to see what works best for you. I suggest a three month trial period because it’s short enough to get a good understanding if it is right for you but not too long that you may suffer from it. Also, I suggest looking into a co-working space and trying that during your trial period.

Know Thy Self

What are your strengths? What allows you to bring your very best, as often as possible? If you don’t know these, you should spend some time reflecting and identify these items.

For me, my strengths are my physical energy, my curiosity to learn from others and build relationships, and my general energy/enthusiasm on a day-to-day basis. When I moved, I didn’t realize I’d be positioning myself in a way that impacted these. I realize you can still accomplish some of these things over the phone or via Skype/Zoom, but I determined remote work limited these strengths at times.

I Really Missed Office Furniture

Good desk chairs ARE SO WORTH IT! I missed our desk chairs more than any other material object. No free coffee, slushies, snacks, standing desks, fun events etc., will compare to how much a comfortable desk chair will literally make or break your work week. I bought a cheap IKEA desk chair on craigslist and it was fine, for a few weeks. Then it wasn’t. If you are seriously going to work remotely, invest in your office set up or work from a co-working space that has good furniture. A great desk chair, good desk and second monitor are essential, in my opinion, for a baseline level of success as a remote team member.

Working By Yourself Can Be Lonely

I enjoy working around other people that want to do great things. It inspires me and it provides a layer of support that I didn’t realize I needed until I moved.

Working at home, alone, became pretty lonely. I still got my work done, but it was harder to bounce ideas off people and build relationships with people you don’t know as well. I really enjoy bouncing ideas off others, but to be successful (in my opinion) you need to bounce ideas off lots of different people all the time. Building newer relationships to do this, remotely, was a lot more difficult for me than I anticipated.

Working With Non-Remote Team Members Requires Good Technology

This is a really big thing. If you’ve never worked remotely (different than working from home one day a week), it can be really hard to understand how to interact or connect with a remote TM. The amount of meetings where Zoom (remote conference room tech) didn’t work properly, happened multiple times per week.

In addition, make sure you set up expectations with yourself and your team on how you will be communicating on a regular basis. Using Zoom/Skype + a web cam is the best in my opinion because it’s the closest thing to face-to-face communication. It is great to see people, rather than just using a phone.

I did find that calling people from your cell phone in a day where robo-calls makes you feel really popular requires more time leaving messages, sending follow up emails/IMs and then waiting for replies. This became less efficient than I expected at first.

Keep A Routine & Get Some Fresh Air

I would wake up, bike to work, workout, shower, go to the office and eat breakfast in the office. This was my morning routine for most of the time I worked in Detroit. When I moved, I tried a few different things and ultimately found that minus a commute, working out before work, showering and eating breakfast set me up for success before I logged on  for the day.

Just because you work remotely, doesn’t mean you should sacrifice what makes you successful at getting prepared  to bring your best to work. You should prepare yourself just like you were going to the office, minus the commute.

Lastly, now that you aren’t commuting anymore take some time to leave your space and get some fresh air. While I was advised to separate your work space from your living space, I couldn’t do that. If you can’t afford to separate spaces, I believe it’s important to regularly separate yourself from your space so you avoid cabin fever.


Picture credit:

Agile, Communication, Estimation, Focus, Goals, Improvement, Leadership, Learning Lessons, Remote, Remote Leadership, Team Building, Tools

Great Teams > Improved Estimation

A few weeks ago, one of the teams I lead tried a different way to structure their two week build.

Instead of committing to work and tasking everything out at the start of the two weeks, we started each day committing & tasking work and ended each day seeing if we made those commitments. Also, we had a retro at the end each day to try and improve for the next day.

We tried this approach due to two identified issues (described in Day 0)

  1. New team members cause storming
    • We added two new team members and we were storming. Our old processes of accomplishing work changed because new team members needed to learn our solutions and that added time to what we thought we could accomplish in the past
  2. Estimating our work is hard and we were struggling with it
    • Due to adding more time to what we thought we could accomplish, we had trouble estimating what we could truly accomplish over a two week period (our build cycle). We found that we were crunched for time or dropping work as we neared code complete.

It’s been over two weeks since we started this process. What happened as a result of this different way of working? Did we improve our estimation due to this?

The short answer is no.

Instead, we accomplished something I believe may be more valuable. Our teamwork improved! Instead of improving our estimation, we improved our ability to accomplish whatever was put in-front of us.

Here is how our teamwork and ability to accomplish our work improved

  • Setting a daily goal made each day clearer
    • We had a really good idea of what we wanted to accomplish by the end of that day and it reduced questions because we could bring them up at the start or end of each day, if not earlier during our teamwork on Zoom (Day 3)
  • Increase in challenging each other created better solutions
    • We started to challenge each other more often, when something didn’t seem clear or there seemed to be a better way (Day 7)
  • Our daily schedules helped understand our real capacity
    • Simple yet effective because it helps us understand how much capacity we had to accomplish work that day (Day 4)
    • We established that we would always use Eastern Time when describing meeting times, so we don’t have to figure out all the different time zones (Day 6)
  • Leveraged Zoom more often to improve problem solving as a remote team
    • We started to improve our problem solving because we used Zoom more by talking about issues that came up and we began raising awareness to roadblocks earlier (Day 3)
    • Pair-programmed via Zoom more often for work that was newer to others, regardless of experience level – this helped everyone learn and improved teamwork (Day 1, Day 2, Day 3)
    • Brought people into our Zoom room, instead of having solo conversations, so everyone could hear the issue and bring solutions to the table (Day 8)
  • Thinking about what the work really required, rather than guessing/assuming
    • We started spending time each morning really thinking and solution the story via tasking to create as many tasks we needed to do to accomplish each story, rather than just creating a few tasks based generalities of what we were trying to accomplish
    • This also led to understanding potential roadblocks sooner, which the team then went and tried to solve immediately, rather than running into the roadblock during development (Day 4)
  • Building time for future work with time boxes to avoid getting in the weeds
    • If we thought we would bring in new work the next day, but we didn’t have familiarity with it, we would build time (30 minutes to an hour) to learn about that work instead of guessing on the time it would take to accomplish the work (Day 3)
  • Celebrate success often!
    • We did an excellent job of finding ways to improve, but we forgot to celebrate our success until later in the two week build. We did so much and it was amazing to see! (Day 7)

So what’s next for the team?

We continue to utilize these ideas in our day-to-day build process. We’ve even added to them. Most notably, we have a weekly goal and use daily goals that roll up to the weekly goal. These goals are based on business deliverables for a project we are currently working on.

Final thought

We set out to improve our estimation. Instead, we became a better team. That result is better than expected. Why? Great teams can accomplish any challenge that is placed in front of them, even if their estimation is off. Our team’s goal remains the same – create amazing software solutions to make the real estate experience faster and easier for everyone. Now the team is better positioned to accomplish that goal because we are one step closer to being a great team.

(Featured Image Credit:
Goals, Leadership, Remote, Remote Leadership, Team Building, Technology, Tools, Vision

New year, new team members, clearer direction

My goal for this post: Describe how I set up and facilitated our team outing this year when all my team members were in town for the larger bi-annual tech team gathering. I hope this helps any reader spark ideas for their teams or their projects.

If you have any feedback, thoughts or ideas from your experiences, please let me know!

My Team Outing Experience

Two major responsibilities as a team leader are to clarify the team vision so the team can make decisions that align to our bigger tech team vision and make sure the team works well together to solve tough problems.

This year, I tried starting the year setting the vision and bring the team together via a team outing. Team outings help build relationships, offer a platform to help everyone get on the same page and provide a change of pace for the team (aka having fun outside of the office). Also, as a remote leader leading mostly remote team members I wanted to take advantage of having all the remote team members in town because nothing truly replaces face-to-face in-person interactions.

Before we got to town, I blocked out everyone’s calendar more than two weeks in advance. This is important because remote team members usually get their schedules booked quickly when they are in the office. Also, I recently gained two new team members. I thought this outing would be a great opportunity for the teams to meet and get to know these two team members before we starting diving into work together. Once the time was booked, I set the agenda and structure for our outing by starting with an end goal in mind.

End goal for this outing: Build relationships, clarify team dynamics and have fun!


  • Arrive/Coffee/Intros
  • Kaizen Cards Exercise
    • Definition of Done
  • Stepping Stone Exercise
    • Team Vision, Goals and Project Overviews
  • Lunch
  • False Faces Exercise
    • Team Agreement
  • Chilling Out Exercise
  • Data Center Tour
  • Sushi Making

Exercise: Kaizen Cards (I couldn’t find a link, so explaining the exercise at end)

Why did I use this exercise?

It briefly simulates a scrum process, where you have a goal and want to improve on reaching that goal after every iteration. Also, for the first exercise of the day, it is pretty light weight and good to warm up everyone’s brain. Lastly, I think it’s most aligned to the definition of done, which helps you determine if when your work is done, like when you identify the card that is missing.

Team Decision: Definition of Done (link)

How do you know when your work is complete? This is a question that can mean lots of things to lots of people. Does your work need to be in a production environment? Does the work needed to be tested? What information should we have in our stories? These are questions that, if we don’t clarify and decide on, can create issues later.

Exercise: Stepping Stone (link)

Why did I use this exercise?

This exercise involves more physical movement, which can help increase the energy of the team right before lunch is coming and before the last presentation piece for the morning. Also, this activity is a little different than just using your brain. I think this problem is a little more complex than Kaizen Cards, so it was a little more impactful to building relationships with new team members.

Team Awareness: Team Vision, Team Goals and Team Projects

I presented our vision, the larger company vision, our goals and our projects. I wanted to make sure we everyone understood how our work aligns to the bigger vision and raise everyone’s awareness on what each team is working on.

A vision helps facilitate empowerment. It’s critical to empower your team to make decisions because your team members won’t stick around very long if they can’t make decisions and you don’t want to be the bottle neck to your team. When teams or team members look to make a decision, they can use the vision as a guide. In addition, I lead two teams where their work overlaps. For my situation, while I think team members need to talk with each other to tie threads on a daily basis, it’s also important that leaders help the team make some of those early connections. Overall, I hope this presentation helped my team think bigger to connect more dots when they are planning out their project work.

Exercise: False Faces – (link) adapted from Thinkertoys

Why did I use this exercise?

We’ve all experienced the food coma after lunch. To try and prevent this from totally taking effect during our decision making I wanted to use a multi-layer brainstorming technique that required us to change our thinking enough to break the coma. By starting with listing your assumptions, you get rid of the easy work first and begin getting the brain working. Reversing your assumptions really kicks you into another gear because we don’t seem to do it very often. When you try something new or unfamiliar, I believe, it increases your awareness and brain power because the newness of something prevents your brain from taking a break due to familiarity aka a food coma.

Team Decision: Team Agreement

This is a contract that together the team comes up with and holds each other accountable toward. I’ve used this in the past, but this year I did something different. I capped the limit to three agreement values. I did this because in the past, the team will come up with lots of values and it becomes too complex to uphold. An example of a team agreement value: Phone or video communication over email or skype.

Exercise: Chilling Out: The Jell-O Syndrome (I couldn’t find a link, so explaining the exercise at end & adapted from Thinkertoys)

Why did I use this exercise?

After 4-5 hours of brainstorming, listening and making decisions, it’s important to cool down, reset your mind and prepare for what’s next. This exercise is a great way to relax and reset.

When you work out or play an intense sport, you are supposed to stretch or roll out afterward. This can also be considered cooling down. This helps the recovery process and puts you in a position to be less sore later so you can continue your peak performance the next day.

Team Fun: Data Center & Sushi Making

After we relaxed, we moved to the fun portion of our day. We toured the Quicken Loans Data Center, which is really cool because of how complex the building needs to be designed to store and protect all the data. Afterward, we participated in a really cool sushi making class. These types of events, although small, are really great for team building because they allow the team to be themselves which helps promote relationship building so we can understand each other better when we are solving problems together.


Thinker Toys – Great book with lots of different exercise to spur creative ideas

Kaizen Cards Explained – adapted from Quicken Loans Leader Resources

Supplies: deck of cards and a stopwatch

Goal: Have the group shuffle the deck and the facilitator pulls out one card. The team has to find which card is missing as fast as possible. You can give the group a minute or two to discuss their plan before they begin. After you finish the first round, give the team a minute or two to “retro” how they can do it better. Then you repeat it a few times to see how much the team can improve their time.

Chilling Out: The Jell-O Syndrome Explained – adapted from Thinkertoys

Supplies: Quiet space, comfortable position, relaxing music and a facilitator

Goal: Spend 5 minutes listening to the music and repeating this script until time is up: “Close your eyes. Think of deeply relaxing all of your muscles…now clench your fists…relax them… flex your hands toward your shoulders…relax them…place your hands on your shoulders…flex your biceps…now relax your arms by your sides…shrug your shoulders…frown…relax your face…close your eyes tightly…relax them…push your tongue against the roof of your mouth…relax…press your lips together…relax…push your head back…push your head forward…relax your neck…arch your back…relax…suck your stomach in, tensing the muscles….relax…tense your thighs…relax them…flex your calves…relax them…flex your feet…relax them…curl your toes…relax them…”