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Circles of Improvement

June 4, 2021

In the 2017 version of the Scrum Guide a required output of the Sprint Retrospective was to include at least one high priority improvement to how the team works in the upcoming Sprint Backlog. In the 2020 version of the Scrum Guide, we see less prescriptive language, but retain a sense of urgency with this language:

The Scrum Team identifies the most helpful changes to improve its effectiveness. The most impactful improvements are addressed as soon as possible. They may even be added to the Sprint Backlog for the next Sprint.


One of the challenges that teams have is determining which changes they should pursue. A tool that can be useful is one that I recall learning when I was a team manager. The tool is known as the circle of influence, or the circles of control influence and concern. This comes from the book by Stephen R. Covey: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. This seems very appropriate since we are looking to improve our effectiveness as a team.

Circles of Improvement

We can use these circles to guide us when we have identified opportunities we believe will improve the effectiveness of the team. From a practical standpoint, the way we can facilitate the use of this tool is to plot our improvement ideas somewhere on one of these circles. Hopefully, this will start a conversation that reveals the varying degrees of control and influence that the individual team members can leverage for the benefit of the team.


When we find improvements that fall into the control circle that is great news. That is why when I created this image, I made the circle of control gold. Items that fall here are most likely to be actionable by the members of the team (though they may not always be easy). An example for this might be increasing the quality of our product by updating our Definition of Done. We can use the Liberating Structure 15% Solutions to explore how the team may collectively have more control than they do as individuals. The key here is focusing on what I can do with out asking permission, needing additional authority, or additional resources. As a team when we work together to expand our circle of control, we increase the boundaries of self-management and autonomy.


This circle of influence is green in my rendering of it to indicate areas of growth. When we identify improvements that go beyond what we control, this requires collaboration with other people outside our team. Because of the additional time and effort required for collaboration, we will need to use greater judgment and discernment when pursuing these changes. An example for this might be the team taking a greater responsibility in implementing their own changes in the customer facing environment. Moving forward with that change would increase the team’s ability to be cross-functional and increase their ownership of the product. An important consideration for influence is how it is related to the value of trust. When our team builds trust in the organization and with people outside the organization it increases our ability to influence. The reverse is true as well. This illustrates the importance of the Scrum Values of Courage, Focus, Openness, Respect, and Commitment as those behaviors are a foundation to building trust. As we build trust, we build opportunities to greater influence.


The circle of concern is blue because spending too much time on items here can be frustrating or make you feel blue (I know…it’s kinda cheesy). We must use the same or more judgment and discernment on pursuing items in this domain. Typically, we should only spend the time on items that fall into this circle if we think there is a significant benefit in doing so. An example for this might be trying to change a performance management policy that causes division and rewards behaviors detrimental to the team. As trust in our team grows, we may start to see that items that fall in the circle of concern may be within the circle of influence for our collaboration partners. This is where I see Agile Leaders having a tremendous impact on removing impediments to high performing teams. A practical approach in this domain is one where we suggest and perform experiments. Instead of trying to change a policy or process upfront, we seek an exception or deviation to a policy as a hypothesis to a desired improvement. We then use an empirical process of inspection and adaptation to validate our hypothesis. If we are wrong, we can always take a step back. If our hypothesis is correct, we now have data to pursue the change further.


My challenge for you now is to think about how you can use this information to improve the effectiveness of your team. Focus on what you can do, without needing permission or approvals from anyone else. Try an experiment using the circles of improvement. See if this can help you. If it does not help, try something different. If it does help, keep improving and let me know about it!  I would love to hear from you if this helped you, your team, or your organization improve.

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