Thirty-Five is a collaboration technique1 I learned from Lyssa Adkins at Agile 2010. She mentioned it in one of the sessions she was leading and didn’t have time to include it but said she’d teach it in an Open Jam if anyone was interested. About a dozen of us were, so later in the week we got together and learned it.

After the conference was over, I flew from Orlando to Lausanne, Switzerland, where the Swiss and California parts of our new Scrum team were meeting for the first time. Parts of the California group had used Scrum before, but the Swiss folks were completely new to it. We were going to be there for a week and half, and we wanted to learn as much as possible in our time together. We knew the best way to learn Scrum is by doing it, so we decided to accelerate the process by doing very short cycles. That is, we decided to do two four-day Sprints so that the team could see the entire cycle twice while we where there. In addition getting people familiar with the ideas, artifacts, and rituals of the process, it would give us the opportunity to fix problems while we will still altogether. This meant that our retrospectives, particularly the first one, were going to need to do some heavy lifting.

I had been the Scrum Master for parts of the team on an earlier project, and we had had trouble with retrospectives, particularly when deciding what do to do.2 I knew there was even more potential for problems with a just-forming group that had no prior experience with retrospectives. I also knew that it was critical to identify targeted responses to problems and to demonstrate the potential of the process. Finally, I knew that there were several strong personalities in the group (some of whom held positions of authority) who could easily take over any discussion, whether they realized they were doing it or not.3

So when we got to the point in our retrospective were we needed to suggest potential actions to deal with the problems we’d identified, I used Thirty-Five. I asked everyone to write on an index card one specific thing we should do in the next sprint to make us a better team. They wrote their sentences, I explained the rules of the game, and I turned them loose.

During the closing of our retrospective, I asked for feedback. How did it go? What did people think? There were two clear answers: (1) “That was really useful,” and (2) “That was really fun!” In the following four days we tackled the three items that Thirty-Five had told us were the best suggestions. After half of us went home to California and we found ourselves working as a distributed team, the way we had worked together laid the foundation for everything else we’ve done since. Six months later, I can see that our new, more collaborative, more productive way of working started with those eight days together in Lausanne.


This post was first published on Paul Tevis’ blog.  Check the blog out for more great entries on agile coaching on-the-ground.

“35” is a technique for getting agreement on a vision, course of action or really anything WITHOUT shutting down (or off) the quiet people.  It allows everyone to “be heard” because it doesn’t start with open conversation. And…it’s fast.  I (Lyssa) often use it as a vehicle for facilitating a team toward their team vision as described in Chapter 7, Coach as Teacher, of the Coaching Agile Teams book.  For details on how to facilitate “35” see this earlier blog post I wrote about starting up agile teams.  I learned this technique from Tobias Mayer who learned it from someone else who learned it from someone else.  A wonderful inheritance!