I’ve heard other Agile Coaches say that leading a team through any change is as much about coaching them on their personal interactions as it is training them on the mechanics of Agile methodologies.  I was reminded of that insight when I recently read a Wall Street Journal article entitled “Make 2011 the Year of Great Relationships.”

The article’s author, Elizabeth Bernstein, makes some good recommendations on improving your personal relationships that I think are just as applicable to business relationships.  Even better, if you are following some agile practices you may already be following her tips and improving your relationships with your customers and clients.

I’ll leave it to you to read the original article to see how to apply these to your personal relationships, but I’m going to borrow her same tip titles and tell you how to apply them on your agile projects.

Open Up

Just like the spouse who won’t ever talk about how their day really went, a team that won’t discuss obstacles to progress will sour their working relationships over time.  Use the “obstacles” portion of the standups and the retrospectives at the end of your iteration to discuss real issues that need to be addressed.

It’s more important to be open and honest than to look like you know everything.

One great relationship tip you frequently hear is “don’t go to bed mad.”  If you are having an argument with your spouse, try to resolve it the same day before it festers and resentment grows.  In an Agile team, keep the same idea in mind and don’t go into the next iteration mad.  In a respectful and non confrontational way, open up during the retrospective and help your teammates to understand your concerns.

Set a Time – and a Limit

Please, please, please – respect the 15 minute time limits on standups!

I’ve been on teams where some members simply refuse to shut up during the daily scrum.  They often have good points to make, but they can’t make them succinctly, and they refuse to observe the time limits of the stand up and “take it offline.”  This is disrespectful of your teammates, and infringes on their freedom to decide if the conversation is relevant to them or not.

Instead of getting your point made, these conversation hogs will unfortunately build ill will with their teams and will soon be ignored.  If you are regularly interrupted or asked by your teammates to take it offline after the standups, then try hard to observe their wishes and your working relationships will improve.

Take It Outside

To get a fresh look at things, you don’t have to setup some big offsite brainstorming session at a posh resort.  When you are brainstorming with a teammate, try going for a walk outside.  A lap around the block can serve as a time limit on the conversation, as well as a healthy and refreshing way to build rapport with colleagues and get a fresh perspective.

Discuss Finances

This one can be tough, but it really is essential.  Especially on a fixed price agile project, you really need to be open about your burn rate against the project’s budget, even if it’s not good news.  The sooner you get that bad news out there, the more chance there is you can be proactive about dealing with it.

Don’t hide the finances from your customer by only discussing it in invoices – it’s just as important as the burndown on projects where there are development teams from different companies.  Hiding it will certainly spoil your business relationship and destroy any trust you have built up.

Reach Out

Haven’t seen your product owner in a while?  Did they stop coming to standups?

Don’t let that be a relief that you don’t have the pressure of regular customer interaction.  A missing product owner is a red flag, even if they have only stopped attending because they trust you.  You still need to reach out to them, and encourage them to stay involved.  Successful agile projects rely on strong customer interaction, and so if your product owner is no longer involved, it’s up to you to reach out to them.

Just like your personal relationships, if you want to maintain strong ties at work and happy customers, you need to pay attention to the little things and treat your customers the way you want them to treat you.  Here’s hoping you improve your business and personal relationships in 2011!