How a blues band taught me to build agile teams that rock.

This article is based on the session I presented with Nigel Dalton (CIO, REA Group) at Agile Australia 2016. It explores some of the things I learned about high performing teams while watching my favourite blues band, and includes insights provided by Nigel as an amateur musician.

This is the story of a blues band – Geoff Achison and the Souldiggers – and the lessons I learned from them that can also apply to building high performance Agile teams.

The band is led by Geoff Achison, a self-taught guitar virtuoso, whose infectious and inventive style has earned him many fans – and awards – around the world.  You can hear some of the Souldiggers’ work on Geoff’s YouTube channel.

The inspiration for this article came while watching them play at a small hotel in Belgrave, the Micawber Tavern. I realised that many of the characteristics that make these guys such a great band were the same things that can apply to Agile teams.

I’ve been following the band for about 12 years, ever since a friend loaned me a CD of one of their live shows, and have got to know Geoff well through talking with him at gigs.  

Title
Geoff Achison (lead guitar & vocals), Gerry Pantazis (drums), Roger McLachlan (bass guitar) & Mal Logan (keyboard)

That’s Geoff on the left on lead guitar and vocals, Gerry Pantazis on drums, Roger McLachlan on the Bass guitar and Mal Logan on the keyboard.

At Agile Australia 2016 in Melbourne, Jeff Smith, CIO at IBM talked about Pixar, and how they hire musicians because of their habits of rigorous practice and understanding that grim determination is part of success. But as musicians, they exhibit many other  desirable characteristics when they play as part of a band. Things like trust, leadership, communication, having a shared vision, empowerment, giving & receiving feedback and having fun.

Trust

In a band, all members rely on each other to play their part – without any one individual, the music doesn’t sound quite the same.  

Like any other team, to deliver the best performance, the band needs to be able to trust each other – trust they’ll keep in time, play the right tune and – if something goes wrong -trust they will cover each other.

An interesting example of how trust came into play was when something went wrong for the Souldiggers at a gig at the St Andrews Hotel. This particular night, the pressure for a great performance was high – the band was filming the show for a live DVD project and had spent a lot of money on cameras, lighting, audio recording equipment and so on.  As luck would have it, Roger McLachlan – the bass player – broke a string right in the middle of a song. But because he had complete trust in the rest of the band, he remained calm and didn’t panic.

The band played on while Roger grabbed a new string, fixed his guitar, and joined right back in as if nothing had happened. When I asked Roger about this recently, and he said “it was all cool… I knew the guys would catch me if I fell.”

The resilience demonstrated was a result of the trust that the band had developed over time.

Trust
Geoff Achison (front) & Roger McLachlan (rear)

Nigel expands on this – “Agility, with its practices and humanistic foundations, leads to resilience for a team or organisation. But it doesn’t automatically lead to innovation, as everyone from Clayton Christensen to Dan Petre have pointed out.” Nigel also postulated that “maybe, Agile development should have been called ‘resilient development’?”

So how can you foster trust within an Agile team?

Pay attention to the way that team members interact – take the time to get to know each other as individuals and develop a level of care for each other. A high level of intimacy leads people to not wanting to let each other down, and builds a stronger team as a result.

Be credible – don’t let members stretch the truth about abilities or qualifications and allow them to demonstrate their expertise as part of the work they do.

Be reliable – make sure everyone delivers on commitments – be it individual or team commitments – things like arriving at meetings on time  or making sure that things are done properly without shortcuts. And if someone can’t deliver on a commitment, make sure it’s communicated early.

Be open – if you make a mistake, don’t try and hide it or blame others. Own it and learn from it.  Be prepared to put yourself out there for scrutiny and invite feedback.

Address issues directly – building trust relies on having courage to raise concerns with someone, rather than bottling them up or referring to a manager for action.

Trust is about creating an environment where people feel safe – safe to speak up, safe to innovate and safe to fail.

If you’re forming a new team, developing a social contract as a group is a great way to kick start group expectations and begin the process of building trust within a team.

Leadership

The singer in a band is often referred to as the front-man and most people assume that they’re the one in charge.

Leadership
Geoff Achison & Roger McLachlan

Often though, the roles can change throughout a song or a show.   In fact, the bass player has a huge leadership responsibility as they provide the foundation of a song – the rhythm and the harmony – which determine the style.  It doesn’t matter, for example, if the lead guitar is trying to play blues if the bassist is playing reggae!  

Nigel observed that the bass player’s leadership “…is not ‘boss-ship’. It’s much more akin to servant leadership, which is why the bass player is so under-recognised.”

In a great band, anyone can step forward to take the lead and have a major impact on the final result.

Geoff sums it up well when he says “… we’re mixing ourselves as we’re playing, so at different times, different instruments will be stepping into the fore to take the lead.”

This shared leadership means that it’s not “…one dude, standing up the front playing licks over the other guys while they’re just in the background” but that “… everybody is doing something fantastic.”

In Agile teams, you want everybody to do something fantastic too, and leadership roles can and should change.  

  • Developers can lead the direction based on technical decisions
  • Iteration Managers, Scrum Masters, Delivery Managers – or whatever you choose to call them – can help lead the team to continually improve the way they work.
  • Product Owners can affect the direction and delivery of a product based on prioritisation
  • The best teams work together to deliver a goal, and share the responsibility of leadership when needed.

Shared Vision.

Geoff has an interesting model for the Souldiggers.  While he has a regular group he plays with when he’s at home, he can form a band with different musicians, no matter where he is.  

Shared Vision
Geoff Achison with Chris Wilson’s band at the Corner Hotel, Richmond

He realised early in his career that if he was to tour internationally, it would become very expensive (and hard to co-ordinate) taking the band with him each time. So he developed the concept of forming a band in each location, using local musicians – The Souldiggers. To do this, and still be able to play HIS songs, he relies on both the skill of the performers and on being able to give them a shared vision of what each song should sound like.

Apart from sharing examples of their previous work, musicians can use known patterns for songs, for example describing a song to a musician as a Texas Shuffle, a Slow Blues or a Reggae to quickly communicate an understanding of the particular style of a song.

What Geoff is doing is art, but it’s still a business – being able to communicate the shared vision allows him to take his art around the world.

Sometimes, a band might get together for a short term “project”.  Nigel’s experience playing with bands in the Battle of the Agile Bands charity shows highlights the importance of establishing a shared vision to get everyone up to speed quickly.

In a software development team, you’re not reproducing a piece of music, but working on a new “piece” each time, however there are still common patterns – a customer address form, a shopping cart, a search form or a search results page – which all provide a general understanding of what’s being built. This shared vision allows the team to work together to a common goal.

You can help develop this by getting the team involved from the very beginning, using inceptions and workshops that define the outcomes and the objectives of a product. As a result you allow everyone to understand what’s needed and attain alignment.  

These types of activities also help develop a sense of ownership within the team.  When everyone is so engaged and invested from the very start, an emotional attachment is formed and the (final) product becomes their “baby”.

It is also important to ensure everyone still continues to understand the vision throughout the lifecycle of a product.

Autonomy / Freedom

With a shared understanding of what your final product is supposed to be – whether a web application or a song – the team can feel empowered to make the right decisions that produce the best outcome.

Empowerment
Roger McLachlan (bass guitar) & Gerry Pantazis (Drums)

In jazz and blues music, there is often a lot of improvisation.  Despite seeing the Souldiggers play many times, there’s always something new in each performance that keeps the music fresh.

A different twist from the bass, the drums, the keyboard or the lead guitarist – each musician is trusted and given the freedom to tweak things as they play… improving, inspecting and adapting.  Once you’ve got the basic pattern right, it’s easy to build from that.  When it’s someone’s turn for a solo, they’re free to soar and let their creativity shine, whilst still staying true to the spirit of the song.  Despite all the improvisation that may go on, the song remains recognisably the same.

Roger McLachlan talks about having freedom – “… it’s always a lot of fun though, because everyone’s free… to contribute any ideas.”  It’s also interesting to note that Roger makes the comment that, “…you can’t play any wrong notes in this band” – the key element of trust plays a big part here – the profound trust they have in each other provides the platform for the freedom to experiment.

In Agile teams:

  • Share the goal and then allow individuals to make their own decisions about how to deliver it – let the team decide what development platform to use, what software architecture is best or the type of user experience they decide to implement
  • David Marquet, author of “Turn the Ship Around!” and one of the keynote speakers at Agile Australia 2015, talks about pushing authority down to where the information is – allowing people with the knowledge to actually make the decisions.
  • Tell the team where they need to go and let them figure out how to get there – Spotify’s video on their engineering culture from 2014 describes how alignment enables autonomy, and the differences between telling a team to “Build a bridge” or that “We need to cross the river”.

Feedback

One of the things about the Souldiggers that never ceases to amaze me is that the band never uses a set-list – the pre-planned list of songs that many bands work from during a show.  

Instead, Geoff picks and chooses songs during the performance based on how he reads the room.  Throughout a show, he’ll keep an eye on the vibe and energy of the audience, and choose what the band plays based on feedback,  such as applause, the number and energy of the people on the dance floor and the atmosphere in the room.

They’ll build up the intensity of songs to a peak to get the crowd dancing and then slow things down with a more laid back tune to give the audience a break .    And of course, they will take requests from the crowd – Geoff welcomes fans calling out song titles as inspiration for what he’ll play next.

Feedback
Geoff Achison, getting the crowd dancing at the Micawber Tavern, Victoria.

If we think of the audience at each performance as Geoff’s customers, then people jumping around on the dance floor is certainly an extreme example of positive customer feedback!

  • An Agile team can also use customer feedback, although it’s seldom as direct and immediate as a band will get.
  • You can use tools such as click tracking, conversion funnels, heat-maps, sales volumes and other data to measure the impact and value of your work.
  • Customer feedback forms, focus groups or user test sessions also provide valuable insight.
  • At carsales, developers spend time listening in on our customer service calls so that they can hear feedback directly from our users.

Don’t forget that feedback isn’t just about being from customers. Feedback within the team about both the product and the way that the team works together, and feedback from stakeholders is just as important.

Communication

If you look at the bottom left of the next photo, you can see a bunch of wedge shaped speakers pointing back at the band.  

Commuication
Foldback speakers – a key communication tool for the band.

I always wondered what these were for, so one night I asked Geoff. He explained  that they’re part of the foldback system which allows the band to hear each other so that they can stay in time and in tune with each other.

Nigel jokingly suggests that the foldback speakers are actually intended for standing on to create the perfect “rock ‘n’ roll” pose!

Nigel
Foldback speakers help create the perfect rock ‘n’ roll pose for Nigel Dalton.       Photo courtesy of Nigel Dalton

If you pay attention, you will also notice the band communicating throughout a show. They’ll count in a song so they can all start playing together, they’ll communicate about what song to play next, who’s going to take a solo or when to repeat a passage of music. Sometimes that communication is not verbal, but a gesture, a look, or even just playing a few notes to lead into a particular song.

Listening is key.  Geoff talks about how “everybody is listening to everybody else, and you play according to what you’re hearing”.

Agile teams should also communicate constantly:

  • Through rituals like the daily stand-ups and regular retrospectives
  • Informally – by just turning around and talking to one another
  • Through activities such as inceptions and workshops
  • Using tools like Slack, Hipchat or Skype
  • Wherever possible, encourage face-to-face communication

Nigel reflected on his first time as a player at the Esplanade Hotel in Melbourne’s busy St.Kilda – “Being on stage is incredibly noisy. Everyone has their own amp or instrument and a foldback, which contains a mixture of their own instrument plus something they want to key off lead vocals, keys, or bass. Everyone is different. It was such an overwhelming experience, I nearly fainted with the noise and stress of being on that stage.  It was so loud, I couldn’t hear my own amp, so I just played and prayed.”

Activities like standups, retros and inceptions can be just as overwhelming for a newbie to Agile, so this should be taken into consideration when someone new joins your team.

Fun and keeping a band together

Geoff and the band have a pretty busy schedule, sometimes playing multiple gigs in a week. I thought that, playing so many of the same songs over and over, it would be easy for things to get boring, so I asked them about this. I was surprised when everyone in the band made pretty much the same comment – “if it was boring,  we wouldn’t do it”.     

It became obvious through our conversations that they get great pleasure from their passion for music and playing with other great musicians.  

Fun
Chris Wilson, Sweet Felicia, Shannon Bourne & Geoff Achison at the Corner Hotel, Richmond.

The freedom they have to mix things up – playing riffs off each other, improvising during a song or a solo, trying out new material – and the sense of being part of a great team – all help to keep it fun and fresh.

The Souldiggers recently celebrated 20 years, which is a long time for any group – so how can you keep a band together and having fun after so many years?

One way is by giving the band space to work with other people and another is encouraging them to have other musical interests.

Apart from playing with the Souldiggers, Roger, for example, has released solo albums, co-written a musical, and helped build an online singing lesson website.  Gerry plays with three other bands and is a performing arts teacher.

In the Agile world, we can also look at ways of letting teams have fun, by allowing people to take on side projects, or scheduling hack days, or getting them involved in the maker movement.  

All of these activities help to build mastery and provide an opportunity to express creativity and network with peers.

Sometimes you can do things just for fun.  

Last year at Carsales I created a series of events called the Tribalympics – five novelty competitive challenges that teams participated in throughout the year. Tribalympics had nothing to do with our work, but was aimed solely at bringing tribes together in a social context and injecting an element of fun into our workplace.

Knowing when to stop.

Nigel mentioned that, unlike recordings on CD, “there are no fadeouts in live music” so it’s important for the band to communicate with each other about how and when to end a song.  

Knowing when to stop
Knowing when to stop is essential.

The same holds true for Agile teams – knowing when to stop development and release a product is an important aspect of Agile.

Everyone’s heard of MVP and MMP – figure out what the core pieces of your product are, build these, and then release it!

Don’t let developers over-engineer or gold plate code… all this does is add complexity to a product and delay the delivery of value to the customer – one of the seven wastes of lean systems.

Build features based on user feedback, not what you as an individual may think could be useful or cool.   Too often, products are over-done with the inclusion of features based on what someone thought the user might need, rather than based on consumer research.

Ultimately, it’s all about working together and creating the best outcome for your ‘audience’, whether they are a passionate fan or a customer. So listen to what they want and understand what they need and you can make beautiful music together!  

@brettwakeman  

@nxdnz


Thanks to Geoff Achison (www.geoffachison.com   / @geoffachison) for allowing use of videos from the Souldigger’s 20th Anniversary DVD.   All photos by Brett Wakeman unless otherwise noted.

Advertisements

5 thoughts on “How a blues band taught me to build agile teams that rock.”

  1. Hi Brett,

    Thank you and Nigel for the impressive presentation last night.
    I have a sensitive question, which I didn’t dare to ask (or was the smell of pizza too luring)))
    Speaking on trust, you specified that high level of intimacy is desirable, knowing each other on a personal level etc.
    The question is: do you have foreigners* working in Carsales’ teams? If so, how do you enable them to build trust with non-foreigners (in both ends)?
    What can, for example, a middle-aged immigrant offer for entertainment of young Aussie guys, apart from pure work topics? The reality is I think they don’t have anything in common.
    How do you tackle this in your teams?
    Similarly, did Geoff tour outside of English-speaking world and build the band there? Is so, what was the trick?

    Thank you

    *Foreigner is a person who lived in a non-English speaking country from their age of 13 to the age of 22

    Like

    1. Thanks for your feedback on our talk, and thanks for the question. Throughout my career I have experienced no issues with building relationships within highly diverse teams; in fact quite the opposite. Don’t forget that diversity leads to a much broader range of ideas, opinions and solutions – and there’s plenty of research that backs this up.

      I would argue that even country of birth is irrelevant when it comes to your question about having things in common – I’m in my mid 40’s, with teenage sons. You could ask what would I have in common with a 20-something graduate who’s just started their career?

      The thing to remember is that regardless of where we’re born – or how old we are – we’re all human and have many of the same challenges and interests as we make our way through life. We may like sports, or music, or TV & movies. We have hobbies and other interests. Some of us have had kids, some of us are about to. Some of us own a house, some of us are buying one. Some are married, some are single. If you’re genuinely curious and interested in the people you work with, there’s always something to talk about.

      Our different backgrounds (cultural, educational, socio-economic, just for starters) provide many opportunities to learn about each other simply because we share different life experiences, rather than just being “all the same”.

      As for your question about Geoff – I do know that he’s toured in places like Germany and Holland, but I’m not sure whether he experienced any language/cultural issues that affected his ability to form a band… I’ll have to ask him, but he’s touring in the UK and US for the next couple of months, so it may take some time to get a reply!

      Like

      1. Thank you for the detailed answer.
        First of all, sorry for involving you into this discussion. Feel free to close it if you think is it derailing from the original topic. I just thought the presentation is somehow related to and also your experience has an answer to the problem that has been topical for me and many other immigrants for a long time.
        Immigrants do experience difficulty in integrating deeply, in getting close with others.
        Posing this problem makes one look weak, complaining, incapable of solving problems. That’s why I said it’s a sensitive issue, and immigrants would rarely raise it. To make it clear, I don’t complain. Australia is my country of choice, and I am proud of living and working here. What I am trying it see is what are working solutions, what are the steps to improvement?
        We can obviously say there are 2 main way to begin with:
        1) What an immigrant can do to integrate
        2) In the context of an agile team, what the team (or leader, or organisation) can do to foster close and personal relationships amongst its members
        The only working way I’ve found so far, and it’s along with the principles of your presentation: do amazing job, be credible, be reliable, make your teammate’s job look good: and you will see how with every your achievement you teammates get closer to you, look upon you differently, suddenly make remarks (even personal!) that they didn’t make before. Add there some business trips, where colleagues are confined and have to stick together, and gradually you are much closer with each other.
        I must point out, it was a good distinction between team and workgroup made by Nigel! I would say, at some point ice melts, or breaks, or cracks. I think you would agree that this is the necessary condition of turning a workgroup into a team.
        So as I described above, we can have an ice melter, which will take years.
        Or we can have an ice cracker! When people knew each other personally, they quickly obtained trust, common touch and understanding.
        The only way I can think of how to do it with people of different aged and otherwise background is to drop them on an inhabitant island and make them survive as a team. Realistically, there are trainings that mimic that to some extent. They usually take around a week, typically not comfortable and make deep changes in people’s personalities. But there results are awesome! Would be interested to know if you resorted to any such trainings or otherwise strong team building events in you practice?
        You’ve mentioned that you didn’t have problems in building relationships in highly diverse teams. Just to check: are we talking about really close relationships, like in Souldiggers, understanding each other with exchange of glances, like between Geoff and Roger in the video that you demonstrated on the presentation? If so, I would be very interested to know the insight, what did the trick?

        Next, to what an immigrant can do to better integrate.
        You said: “Our different backgrounds (cultural, educational, socio-economic, just for starters) provide many opportunities to learn about each other simply because we share different life experiences, rather than just being “all the same””
        But sorry I can’t see how it is working. In fact, things happen in the opposite way.
        Yes, there are ample opportunities to learn about each other, but the question is what is the motivation to use them? On one side, yes, an immigrant should be genuinely interested to learn everything about Australia and its ways, provided Australia is his/her country of choice. In the other side, Australian is not interested about an immigrant’s past life for a fairly objective reason: foreign experience is irrelevant. To support this statement, not only I have years of my and other immigrant’s experience. I can tell more: I know a number of people who had had very high positions over there, and the only job they could find here in Australia is cleaning. Apparently, they had soft skills. Apparently, they led people and built teams. Apparently they possess a lot of qualities that could possibly make them good team members and leaders here. But all their skills have been entirely devalued here. May I suggest they failed to break that ice that I mentioned above? Nobody, who is in charge here, has got interested in that luggage of their experience. And, realistically, I can understand why. Foreign experience is really irrelevant. Once we work in Australia, we deal with Australian clients and otherwise do things in Australian way. I don’t understand all these talks about “Cultural diversity is cool”. Sound like propaganda to me. Just words, no reflection of how things really happen.

        As for your comments about having common interests, this is where I entirely agree with you. But let be honest: just discussion on the common topic does not melt that ice.
        For example, I discussed ‘raising children’ topic with Australians for years, but never was invited to any event, be it child’s birthday or just a BBQ. Except for when we were somehow culturally related by background.
        On the contrary, people from the same country find each other quickly and get close instantly. Sometimes from a few words, as if a spark lights between them. Realistically, Aussies mingle with Aussies, Indians with Indians and so each other nation – with their expatriates. This is how things happen. I am in no way a supporter of creating “gettos”, but as water finds easiest way to flow, same happens with people. But it is in the interest of an organisation in particular or Australian economy and society in general to overrule this. How to do it? (Let’s consider at the level an organisation to be more specific.)

        Other topics that you’ve mentioned can be hard to maintain.
        Sport.
        Rarely someone who raises children and has other commitments can find time to watch all matches, then rephrase what the commentator had said and then ‘sell’ it to a friend or colleague as his own thoughts.
        Music
        One really needs to be a musician to share something about music. Otherwise, the cultural difference eats away all common topics. While music on its own does not know any natural languages, realistically rarely someone would like to discuss classics (unless thoroughly dedicated). So realistically the picture of things here is as follows. There are internationally recognised bands and local bands in each country/culture. An immigrant, in his/her youth, prior to coming here, listened to his/her local bands and internationally recognised bands. Internationally recognised bands almost always sing in English, and so a native English speaker knows a whole lot more about such bands, than an immigrant. Whatever remark an immigrant can make on it will be so trivial!
        Movies and TV shows
        No, I think this topic works not for, but against immigrants. This is strongly culture dependent. At the same time, it is so often used in social conversations. When only a conversation went this way, an immigrant is immediately expelled, fell out. He/she can pack up and go home (or back to work desk). It takes years and years to watch these numerous shows to get on topic. Realistically, a busy adult does not have time for this. For most people, it happens from 13 to 22 years of old – the period when cultural identity is formed, as I mentioned earlier.

        So chatting on the above topics is cumbersome.
        On top of that, what develops trust and close relations between people?
        It is the ability to guess what the other thinks and feels in a certain situation. It’s when the other’s reaction is predictable. It’s sharing the common feelings and emotions.
        Common emotional experience can quickly ‘do that job’. Just chatting on common topics is also a way, but much longer. The thing is that an immigrant can hardly use colourful language or otherwise make emotional comments, generate jokes etc. If he/she does so, he/she thoroughly ‘missed the bank’. Complete silence is a response on his/her comment or joke. In my experience though, I saw immigrants who made some progress in this way over 10 -20 years of living here.

        I will highly appreciate to hear from you.
        Please share any working ideas. Feel free to criticise my statements, when you don’t agree.

        Thank you

        Like

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I guess you’ve experienced different organisational cultures to me – my personal experiences have been as I described, where people from all backgrounds have been made to feel part of the team from day one.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s