Rekindle the connection between the team and the sponsor

As an agile practitioner, do you avoid the word “reporting”? This concept, in my experience, has gotten a bad rap with mismanaged teams that don’t have balanced relationship with their sponsors. The solution? Unite the sponsor and the team. How? Check out my thoughts in this article.

When I used the word “reporting” in a previous article about Agile iteration reviews, “Demonstration is not a stand up meeting“, it triggered some interesting reactions on Twitter:

@duquesnay Seeing the iteration review as a moment of effective reporting is a bit itchy for me (a lot in fact).
@duquesnay Personally I would also prefer 'communication' or something like that of course, and efficient is surely too strong (cc    )
@duquesnay Me in a sprint review, I am not coming to report. What interests me is feedback. [@…]

There is an embarrassment of developers when we integrate the word “reporting” into agile practices. Here are my thoughts.

Project progress, anxiety-inducing notion

Progress measurement is not liked by developers, and that is understandable.

Firstly, development effort is relatively random. A development expected to take a day can turn to a week, and a week eventually become a month. Yet progress will be measured against the original estimate of these tasks.

On top of that, many team’s job depend on things outside of their control, other actors, external resources, or else.

Then, we get caught in a system that encourages commitment, sometimes forced. The pressure to promise optimistic results exists, and we often confuse the answer we believe in with the answer we like to give.

But if the estimates are wrong, it’s the team’s nightlife and weekends that will be sacrificed first.

Even if approaches exist to limit this problem (agile provides a number of them), the subject awakens painful experiences in many of us. I know my lot: our session short Agile projects, are you ready?  (french language) with Jonathan Scher in 2012 was originally a case study on a project we failed. I understand that jaws are tightened when the question of work progress comes up.

“It is gonna be ready when it is gonna be ready” = tone deaf

What shocks me is to hear some within the Agile community refute the question itself, and the relevance of a project steering. Worst example heard among practitioners:

“It’ll be over when it’s over, it would be deceitful to give an estimate to our going client. If they don’t understand this, we shouldn’t sign with them”

Riiiiight. I find this to be a very naive posture – blind to the context. The position of a development team stems from a relationship of interest with the organization that employs it.

Money matters

When on the first day of the project the developers, business experts, the graphic designer / UX and Product Owner all sit in comfortable chairs in front of modern desks supporting dual-screen computers in a clean, heated, and well-lit space, while the coffee machine purrs, someone has already put money on the table. They are the sponsor(s) of the project.

MasterCard ad version:

A team is gathered on a project because some sponsor are pursuing a goal. It’s a financial risk, they could have tried nothing, or bet on another project. Their concern is legitimate. I think disconnecting from it leads to an unbalanced situation.

Let’s imagine that they too propose to disconnect from the financial reality of the developers:

Ok to not do any estimation or reporting, but I’m not taking out a euro before it’s done, no developer will be paid before delivery.

It itches on the current account side of the team members, right? Do you feel the relationship of mutual interest?

United by mutual interest

The exchange on twitter made me react to this feeling of disconnection. There was a lot of “I”s in there: “[…] in a sprint review, I don’t come to do […]” ; “What interests me is […] ”. As if the end-of-iteration demonstration were designed solely for the developers’ use. It is a meeting point with a collective goal.

A high-performance agile project is built around a balanced relationship of interest. The sponsor and the team are united. They talk together, chat about stakes and progression.

So why are we still there?

In my observations the disconnection of the team from the challenges of the project often goes hand in hand with a distance between the sponsor and the team. It’s tempting to blame the sponsor but I think the blame is actually shared.

In any case, it’s a shame, because the sponsor is the most powerful friend of the team. They have power, resources, bring a broader vision of the context and are often pragmatic… if they are sufficiently informed.

How to reduce the distance between sponsor and team?

As soon as I mention the presence of the sponsor during a coaching, the question comes up, so the problem is common. We have levers of resolution on both sides of the relationship. Here are some stinging questions to activate them:

Leverage on the sponsor side

  • When was the last time you attended a demonstration?
  • Have you tried the product before?
  • What is your vision on the performance of the team?

➔ Tip: Reserve regular time to visit the team

Leverage on the team side

  • Who has ever spoken to the sponsor?
  • Do you know firsthand their first 3 stakes on this project?
  • Who has ever seen the progress report shown at steering committee?

➔ Tip: Question the sponsor about the stakes, share the reporting task among the teammates

Note to management: get your feet wet

To titillate one or the other of the parties, any actor facilitating the project can intervene: direct managers, the scrum master, the coach if there is one. However, access to the sponsor is often more difficult. Rare availability, intimidating hierarchical level, barrier of assistants, we don’t always have the access we would like.

In my humble opinion, do not hesitate to get management’s feet wet on the problem. You can, for example, formally request the presence of the sponsor to a demo every 4 weeks. I write “management” in the broad sense: the network of managers of the organization, these people whose role is to grease the cogs of the machine. If several directors are involved in the project, one of them can pass the message around, for example.

The regular presence of the sponsor is a key to the success of the project. Raising this awareness deserves your efforts and your insistence.

Self note to the coach

The last lever is for myself, the coach. I’ve incorporated it into my practices for several years, but it doesn’t hurt to rewrite it in black and white. I have to include the sponsor and his relationship with the team in the scope of my coaching. Complaining about their absence and only intervening with the team is nonsense.

Self-stinging questions:

    • Did I bring up the coaching of the sponsor(s) during the setup of my intervention?
    • Has an appointment with them been set before the start of the project?
    • Did I offer them regular reporting on my intervention?
    • When was the last time I asked them about the project?


(Note: this article is a rewrite of a first version in French from 2014: Retrouver la connexion entre l’équipe et le sponsor)