The show and tell hierarchy of needs

The sprint review, the sprint demo, the show and tell… that thing that happens at the end of each short iteration where we demonstrate our most recent work. Whatever we call it, why do we do it?

I remember a long time ago I was trying to encourage an engineer to demonstrate his—and his team’s—work at the regular show and tell. My greatest concern was that his team wasn’t making as much progress as hoped, and it was demonstrating even less. The team wasn’t very engaged with the rest of the organisation and I wanted everyone (them, their peers, the senior managers) to discuss their work openly. I wanted people to see that there was at least some progress, but also to recognise and address any problems openly. Otherwise, I worried, some senior executive would disband the team without any such openness or discussion.

“Your team spends all this time on software development,” I said. “We need to account for that, and the show and tell is the perfect opportunity.”

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“That’s a terrible reason to present there,” said the developer, “Surely we should be trusted. The show and tell should be about celebrating our achievements.”

I’ve thought about that conversation on and off ever since. The show and tell is about many things, and like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs we might think about them building up, from the most fundamental need to the highest form of partnership. So here is a list of show and tell purposes, starting with the most fundamental and working up…

5. Being accountable for our time

As my developer colleague said, every team should be trusted. But what many don’t realise is that trust has to be earned, and even if it has been earned it still needs to be topped up. Just because someone gave you an employment contract once it does not follow that everyone believes you’ve spent your time wisely in the last few days. So the show and tell is a chance at least to top up that trust, to show how we’ve been using our time, and, if there have been challenges, talk about them openly.

4. Revalidating our capabilities to ourselves

I’ve worked with a few teams that, even though they are valued by their organisation, don’t value their own work very highly themselves. Every week they have plans; every day there are problems; and so those plans often don’t quite get achieved entirely. As a result, the team sometimes isn’t too pleased with its work. So next in the hierarchy is being able to remind ourselves that, yes, we have delivered something worthwhile, and it’s appreciated by others.

3. Forcing us to focus on tangible value

It’s very pleasing to take part in a sprint planning meeting and hear someone say, “Let’s think about what we’ve going to be able to demo at the end of the sprint.” Here, the requirement to demonstrate something tangible is forcing the priorities—it’s forcing people to think about and prioritise work that has impact, and can deliver end user value sooner. I know of too many teams that, without the expectation of a show and tell, would not have thought about, and would have delayed, delivering that value.

2. Helping others understand our work

Once we’ve got beyond the most fundamental purposes of a show and tell, those that are for us and our users most immediately, we can start to see benefits for others. By demonstrating our work to our colleagues, our department, and perhaps even our wider organisation, we foster a wider understanding that doesn’t just come from reading reports, but which comes from seeing, hearing, asking, and talking. There are many times when I’ve seen something demonstrated in a show and tell spark new ideas, better understanding, and new conversations. When this kind of cross-team understanding happens we start to see that our various teams’ work is much more than the sum of their parts. Better solutions are found; future problems are headed off early.

1. Celebrating our achievements

Finally, at the top of the hierarchy, is celebrating our achievements. This is when we all remind ourselves that we are part of a much bigger, more effective, team than just each of us working separately. We can rightly feel pleased with ourselves, and be inspired to go on to do even more great work.

So celebrating our achievements is definitely one reason to present at a show and tell. But, as we can see, there are other reasons, too. And while none of them are as glamorous or as glorious, they are hugely important to our personal and organisational wellbeing.

Original photo by Ronald Woan