How Agile Coaches Scale Continuous Improvement

Zalando’s Agile coaches deep dive into how they scale continuous improvement.

photo of Samir Hanna
Samir Hanna

Agile Coach

Posted on Feb 12, 2016

Since 2015, we have been scaling the continuous improvement practice by finding inspiration from systemic thinking, management 3.0 and agile retrospective. You may wonder why we chose the retrospective as a concrete practice for implementation. This is because teams inside Zalando’s Technology do what it takes to get things done: planning, coding, demoing, managing backlogs, and much more. All whilst being bound up in operating, making it difficult to continuously improve. In our opinion, retrospectives are not only helpful, but they are vital to allow teams to work successfully and productively. The retrospective is about reflection and evolution. Operating without reflecting is like the walking dead - but we are not zombies, we are alive, we are thinking.


This post will provide you with some feedback on the concepts our team of Agile coaches used to scale continuous improvement: the adoption lifecycle, continuous improvement as a product, our circle of facilitation, urgency, desire and supervision.

Start with early adopters

Instead of trying to convince or force hands, the idea is to look within the organisation for innovators and early adopters. These are teams and people actually seeking out retrospective and ready to invest time to receive the benefits.


Implementing a high quality “retro app” product

Once we found three teams willing to work with us, we built a retrospective product (we called it retro app, because we are mobile first ;-) ) that would tackle all the retrospective anti-patterns while being easy to use and appealing. The retro app consists of a set of posters (click here to get the full HD version package - you can print them in A1):


This is how we use the posters :

Gathering data: Warming up the brains and sharing the perspectives via a timeline.

Generating insights: What can we improve? Focusing on the elements the team has leverage on.

Deciding: Comparing the insights and selecting the low hanging fruits.

Improving: Building a plan.

  • Clarifying the issue and bringing a sense of urgency by quantifying the impact.
  • Define a target and create desire, so that the team is excited and wants to fix the issue.
  • Build a concrete plan consisting of baby steps (with owners) to get closer to this vision.

Monitoring: Do what we plan, check that problems are not occurring anymore and enact decisions.

Closing: With feedback, we improve everything including the retro app and the facilitation.

If this sounds familiar to you, we were inspired amongst others, from here:

Circle of facilitation

To sustain and scale, a great tool is a must have. Teams need support in their continuous improvement efforts, but a tool is not sufficient without skilled people. Whilst building the retro app, we turned team members into retrospective facilitators by explaining how to use the retro app, equipping them with moderation skills, providing them with markers, and post-its (read more on retrospective facilition here). These facilitators, key element of the scaling strategy, are all members of different teams and have different roles and accountabilities: they manage roadmaps, projects, write code, test, and more.

They produce and therefore they want, as well as need, to contribute to their retrospective. We have learned that moderating is not always the best friend of contributing, so we introduced a facilitation circle in the form of a rotation. Rotation has exciting side effects: facilitators move from team to team, connect, break silos, discover new perspectives, check how other teams work, see what they are doing well and what they are struggling with. They can then bring back that knowledge to their own teams, and use the insights to grow.


At this stage, we have a system that is continuously improving, tackling problems, and reaching decisions. It is a small system, but a scalable one without dependencies that is self-replicating and autonomous.

At one point scaling becomes easier. Something similar to viral marketing happens and our early adopters naturally pull the early majority. Growing is one thing, sustainability is another. We observe that with every single practice: initial enthusiasm slowly start to drop off. We have learned that the keys to sustainability are: a sense of urgency, desire and maintaining high quality standards.

Sense of urgency and desire

Understanding why you are doing something is a great way to make it sustainable. Our team of Agile coaches failed a couple of times here by pushing for a retrospective that worked in the beginning, but was not sustainable. Therefore, when we receive a request, our first step is to clarify it: get to the root cause, interview all the stakeholders, collect all the perspectives and manage their expectations. This clarification exercise sometimes already solves the problems. Just having people together and providing them with a safe and efficient environment (trust, moderation, whiteboard, mind map) for discussion and reflection results in decision, ideas and actions.

During these sessions we observe two phases: the first being " negative", where teams share their pains, and clarify to all parties how urgent it is to process all the tensions. The second phase being “ positive”, where teams understand how to process the tensions and where they could be if these tensions were solved (also known as desire). We observed that with a shared sense of urgency and desire, retrospectives are more likely to be sustainable.

Maintain quality aka supervision

We now have a high quality standard approach based on a great product (the retro app), and trained facilitators. But how do we maintain this while scaling? Every tool can be misused, every facilitator can make mistakes, and you can’t plan for everything. The strategy here was to enable feedback loops. Our Agile team set up a facilitator guild chat for fast feedback and Q&A. On a monthly basis, facilitators talk about their retrospectives: what went well, what can be improved and what issues they encountered. Then the whole process comes full cycle, and together we do a retrospective of our retrospectives using the retro app!

What’s next?

After five months of work, we are in the middle of our journey. The innovators pulled the early adopters, who pulled the early majority. There are around 30 teams are in our circle exchanging facilitators, learning from each other and improving efficiently. It is a cultural shift to a continuous improvement mindset. But is our work complete? Of course not! We’re just halfway through our journey, and we will spend the next few months answering questions that arise, such as :

  • We got rid off the agile coach as facilitators bottleneck, how to get rid of us as trainer for new teams?
  • Teams using the retro app since month now starts to get bored with the repetitive steps. How to develop new activities, and who can do that?
  • We have a retrospective approach working, a network of facilitators… and what next? Can we build something bigger?

There are probably blind spots we have not discovered yet, can we solve them with the ingredients we have at the moment?

We will figure it out and let you know.

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