My Approach to Running an Intervention

On my resume, it says I ran an intervention. I’ll admit, it’s a dramatic term, but damn was it necessary. Certain details aren’t important – I’m not gonna be world-buildin’ here – so I’ll leave out personalities, politics, and a lot of context to jump to the point in the story where I called it: the last Retrospective.

Well, fine. A little context: The team was fractured, which isn’t a fair characterization because… they never fully formed. It was always one team who’d been together for a while, led by “Alice”, and the newer few who joined from a broken up team, led by “Bob”. This was a move by engineering management to create full-stack teams, and this one was building a new product, requiring a new API.

You can see where this is going: Alice & Bob didn’t agree on the API design. Like, really didn’t agree. Things got stagnant. So stagnant, that as their Agile Coach at one Retrospective I, gently, had it. I pointed to Alice & Bob and requested their presence for 45 minutes as the 3 of us over the next day at the local hotel lobby down the block for an intervention.

I had never used that term, let alone run one, but I knew I’d figure it out by then, much better than on the spot, and it went like this…


When they both showed up, we all shook hands, then I sat us at a fairly evenly yet closely spaced seating group. Chill: this is pre-COVID. I then took out my phone, displayed its face to both in turn, then dramatically placed it face-down on the table between us. They did the same, albeit less dramatically.

Not Evil

I then bastardized the Retrospective Prime Directive, which actually goes like this:

Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.

Norm Kerth, Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Review

I let ’em know that I flipped a coin beforehand to determine who I’d have go first.

I asked Alice if she thought Bob genuinely wanted the best for this new product we were building. She thought so. I asked Bob the same question about Alice. He thought so. So far, so good.

Note the slight focus on the past. Now let’s bring that focus to the present.

Status Quo

I asked Bob to describe, uninterrupted, in language as colourful as he felt necessary, his view of what was going on. I then asked Alice to do the same, uninterrupted. They were both civil, which I wasn’t prepared for, but which I welcomed.

Now let’s focus on the future.


I asked Alice what she was looking for in future interactions. She had a decently sized list of wishes. I then asked Bob the same thing. He also had a decently sized list. Again, both were civil, and to my surprise, able to articulate their desires without much thought.

Now let’s solidify that future.


I asked Bob, when thinking of Alice’s wishes, which of those wishes he felt he could reasonably give her. After a slight pause, he said, “All of them.” I swiveled my head over to Alice. She said, “All of them.”

I gotta tell ya. I was excited.

For, like, half a second.


Seizing this momentum, I said, “Wow! Alrighty, then. Let’s pick THREE. Bob, what are three items you can commit to giving Alice? And Alice, what are three you can commit to giving Bob?” There was a total of six very thoughtful pieces of Kaizen from that hotel lobby session. I wrote ’em down, letting Alice & Bob know that we would inform the rest of the team the next day, and take it from there.

I only remember one of the six Kaizen: If one of ’em was invited to a meeting related to this product, the other would also get a seat at the table.


We shipped it. It all worked out.

Organizational Learning

When that first team eventually disbanded, I Agile Coached another similarly full-stack team. They were soon tasked with creating… an API. When both “sides” saw the design notes from the other side, both leads did this eerily synchronized inward hiss, explicitly acknowledging their disagreement, followed by recalling the experience of Alice’s & Bob’s team, followed by agreeing that they did not want to go through that hairy adventure, followed by, “Let’s take it slow.”


Were there opportunities before it came to this to remedy the organizational and/or communication break-down? Of course, but that’s a different story.

Are there more ways to run an intervention? I’m guessing so. You can Google that if you like, ’cause I’m not going to, unless I… end up with another fractured team… building another API.