Cracking The Code To Teams: What Educators Can Learn From Programmers

Cracking The Code To Teams: What Educators Can Learn From Programmers

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While so many educators devour books on leadership and attend lots of conferences, their efforts often fall short when they try to achieve game-changing goals with teams.

What if the secret lies with programmers? What if they’ve cracked the code on achieving big goals with teams and it’s a matter of educators learning their strategies?

The secret is an organized approach to work programmers call “scrum.” Once you get past the name, you’ll realize it’s a process that has a lot to offer educators. In fact, scrum methodology is like a lot of things in life. Once you understand it, you’ll wonder how you got anything done without it.

How Does It Work? 

Scrum is a team-based approach many software engineers take to develop products. Scrum methods include two key meetings, “sprints” and daily “stand ups.” “Sprint” meetings take place every one to three weeks. During a “sprint” meeting, team members set their goals. At the next “sprint” meeting – one to three weeks later – they review their goals and discuss what worked and what needs to change during the next “sprint.” To stay on top of their goals, team members participate in daily “stand up” meetings in between each “sprint.” These meetings are brief – 10 – 15 minutes – and follow a set protocol. “Sprints” and “stand ups” are game changers when it comes to unlocking team potential.

During daily “stand ups,” each team member shares three things: (1) actions taken yesterday; (2) actions to be taken today; and (3) any obstacles thwarting today’s actions. Updates are brief and highly focused. Discussions are postponed until the standup is over. “Stand ups” allow team members to hold each other accountable, adjust goals on the fly, and ensure no one gets derailed.

Takeaways for Educators 

“Sprint” and daily “stand up” meetings allow a diverse team of software engineers – including members of the team who may be off site – to develop simple to complex products in relatively short periods of time. Their approach offers a model for educators when it comes to increasing team effectiveness, especially the following seven takeaways:

1. Share daily. Hold daily stand up meetings and set the expectation that each team member, including you, will share. Be candid about your work when it’s your turn, and listen hard to what others have to say. Ask clarifying questions, as needed.

2. Own outcomes. Focus on the goals you’ve set together and the actions you’ll be taking. Break actions down into steps and know which ones you’ll own. For “stand ups,” share work you did yesterday, work you’ll do today, and any “blockers” to work flow. Your updates will be brief - one to two minutes each, at most - and will help you respond quickly to others’ needs, as well as solve problems as they come up.

3. Expect obstacles. Engineers call them “blockers,” and they’re any obstacles that come up as you work. As soon as a blocker comes up, share it with your team at the next stand up to see if anyone has a solution or a suggestion for finding one. There is no shame in getting stuck or saying, “I don’t know.” Sharing obstacles helps you leverage team members’ knowledge and skills.

4. Focus on the problem. There is no place for casual conversation during a stand up. These meetings focus on problems teams need to solve and the work each person is doing to solve them. Expect team members to police each other (“Hey, should you talk about that offline?”) if people get off track. If you need a more in-depth conversation, say you’ll hold it after the stand up.

5. Prize feedback. Recognize that daily stand ups provide feedback on daily progress, while sprint meetings offer opportunities to reflect on longer-term progress. Incorporate online tools, like Trello and Outline of Giants, to visualize “velocity,” or how long it takes to achieve particular goals. Use this information as feedback to set goals and timelines at the next sprint.

6. Keep learning. “Stand ups” reveal problems. While team members often solve many of them, some may stump even them. When that happens, expect to dedicate part of your day to learning - reading, researching, mucking around, failing, contacting experts, experimenting with options - and, more than anything, trying to figure it out. No one expects you to know it all, but they will expect you to take ownership for finding a solution.

7. Value Diversity. More diversity means greater access to solutions. When team members vary in personality, background, training, country of origin, race, age, gender, and experience, they offer many more perspectives when “blockers” pop up. Their diverse networks may provide more creative and innovative solutions. Seek out diversity as you build your teams.

What Could This Look Like in Schools? 

No matter which stakeholder group you’re a part of - student, teacher, or school leader - you can use the strategies of sprints and daily stand ups with your teams. Here are some examples:

Students: Student leaders, such as athletic team captains, club and publication leaders, and others, can develop sprint goals with their teams. Then they can hold brief daily stand ups with team members to assess progress. Likewise, student academic teams - groups of students working on academic projects across any subject or grade - can set goals and assess progress daily. Adults and students can discuss online spaces, like blogs, Google docs, Twitter, and others, where they can share reflections and helpful solutions with peers in their community and around the world.

Teachers: With students, teachers can approach all projects and long-term assignments with sprints and stand ups. This builds structure into the process, help students see progress and reflect on that progress. In addition, teachers can use it with their own curricular planning teams, committee or task forces. Brief, daily stand up meetings can provide focus and reinforce the importance of the work everyone is doing together.

School Leaders: In your work with a committee, task force or on school improvement goals, you can employ sprint meetings to initiate the first phase of goals the team needs to achieve. With brief, daily stand up meetings, you can streamline and prioritize that work. Finally, when you meet again for ongoing sprints, you can reflect on progress, reassess timelines, and set up the next phase of goals and actions to be taken.

Developing sprint goals and holding daily standups drives constant communication, a focus on outcomes, and an expectation that each team member will contribute to those outcomes while supporting one another along the way. No one is ever alone. While meetings may be more frequent (and less time consuming!) than is typical, the focus on feedback, real-time problem solving, progress, and outcomes makes them much more effective. Take a tip from the engineering community and add some scrum to your meetings.

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