An approach to build great (agile) teams

Hannes Horn
5 min readMar 27, 2016


Managing an organization successfully has a lot to do with building great teams. And looking at agility as a success factor of software development it is not a coincidence that some software guys thought about how to develop great teams and developed a “software for your head” :). The so called Core Commitments and Protocols (TCP) is a great approach, developed by two people, Jim and Michele McCarthy, from Microsoft. Attending a four hour-workshop with Richard Kasperowski in San Francisco I realized that this is just awesome.

(Source: Handout / Book: “A Guide to Greatness, Based on the work of Jim McCarthy and Michele McCarthy, by Richard Kasperowski”)

The Core are five necessary conditions that must be fulfilled: Freedom, Self-Awareness, Connection, Productivity and Error Connection plus a foundation called a Positive Bias. Taking the key findings of Daniel Pink and Susan Fowler (check out my third and fourth blog) of “how motivation works”, this approach takes the basic needs of people, like autonomy (freedom) and relatedness (connection), really serious. Later on we will see that also purpose and mastery are key elements to make this approach work. Based on the “Core Commitments and Protocols”, this approach defines a framework to meet the core conditions and collaborate as a team. Those protocols are well defined and consist of concrete actions like Pass, Check In, Check Out, Ask For Help, Protocol Check, Intention, Check, Decider, Resolution, Perfection Game, Personal Alignment and Investigate ( and The Core are five necessary conditions that must be met).

Without claim of perfection I will summarize what I experienced through the four hours workshop.

1. It all starts with a personal commitment Everybody has to agree on a “Positive Bias” regarding the session. That sounds easy but it isn’t: It really means, never negate others ideas. Instead always accept ideas and ad your thoughts just by saying “yes and”. Try it and discuss a topic, first by saying “yes but” and then switch to “yes and” and see what happens.

2. Looking at the majority of current companies (often driven by command and control or just “at work you have to follow what is expected from you”), this core will be the most criticized one: “Freedom” (autonomy). It means that every team member can choose (e.g. the work which has to be done) and make decisions (e.g. about how to do that work) by themselves! During meetings you always can “pass” if you do not like to say something or leave the group with a “check out”, not having to explain why you left! The only question you should ask yourself before leaving is: can I contribute or learn something? (I would guess most of the current meetings would just happen with a fewer amount of people). Now the need of purpose (Why do we do that?) and mastery (Can I learn and grow? / What’s in for me?) is the key why people are engaged and stay with the team.

3. Working in teams is never without emotions. To meet this demands “Self Awareness” is a foundation of this approach. Every meeting starts with a “check in” and the question of how do “I feel …” (with just: mad, sad, glad, afraid) and if people like with a short reason (“because …”). To guarantee freedom everybody can “pass”. Other protocols are “Asking for help” or the “Personal Alignment” to address your desires and what’s blocking you, what you really want. Especially the last one has a huge impact to the dynamic of a group. It’s not common to deal with revelation in a business context but as a root of trust it is the most impactful one. E.g. if you struggle with holding a presentation you will be asked what you want, what is blocking you and which virtue would dissolve this block? After you found the a personal alignment is required. To make that easy, the most popular personal alignments are provided through the protocol: Integrity, Courage, Passion, Peace, Self-Awareness or Self-Care. The final step is to share your story and personal alignment with the group. They will support everyone in finding the block (if you haven’t managed to find it yet) and to solve the issue by working with each other! From my perspective this is one is the most powerful protocol to speed up the “Forming to Norming” phases of Tuckman’s Team Development Process.

4. Easily written down, but hard to practice is to establish “Connection” within a team: That means no judgment and again no negotiation. Instead, using the “Intention Check”, people are asked to tell their intention about the behavior they have shown. A “check out” is always possible if emotions are hard to handle. But also the team members are invited to “Investigate” through asking and helping out with great questions — but no solutions!

5. To really get things done some protocols are defined to raise the “Productivity” within the team. A great protocol is the “Perfection Game”, an easy form to follow. Take e.g. an elevator pitch: provide your first try, let your teammates vote it (from 1 — bad to 10 — outstanding) and try it again. And again… the progress is awesome. With “Decider” it is easy to get decisions done and move forward. If the decision is hard to make, “Resolution” is a nice protocol to help out.

The whole method needs a lot of discipline to follow. But once it is done and experienced the results are awesome. With this amount of trust you will get, teams are able to collaborate with each other much better, faster and efficient than before.

The core principles are already adopted in different companies I visited in San Francisco. Most of them are using different approaches to guarantee “Freedom, Self Awareness, Connection or Productivity” and there are great examples how companies can manage that personal needs are met in the workplace. The approach of creating teams for different projects at Optimizely allows “Freedom” through letting team members choose their team. At Pivotal Lab, a highly innovative company regarding the culture and work approach, software development happens through ”pair programming“ (including a rotation) or ”mob programming“, where people work closely together to get things done (more information you will find by searching for Janice Fraser @ Pivotal).

Best of all, taking the Study of Google (The five keys to a successful Google team) the core protocol approach really matters regarding the first key of the study: psychological safety. Developing a team which stops behavior like judging and defending will lead to trust, awareness and openness to each other and that´s the basement of psychological safety.

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