Lateral Violence and Workplace Safety – Awareness for Agile Teams and Coaches

Two very interesting videos.  The first, a presentation by Rod Jeffries, goes through a treatment of “Lateral Violence”.  The second is three role-play scenarios to demonstrate the concepts.  Both of these videos are in the context of nursing in hospitals… however, it takes little imagination to see how they apply in other environments.  I would actually assert that the problems described in these videos are endemic to most organizations.

Alistair Cockburn has also written about safety in a team context.

Scrum and other agile methods all have some mechanisms for dealing with this sort of challenge, but they can start failing quickly if the sponsors of the agile effort do not overcome the habitual and cultural challengs.

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Changing Patterns of Thought for Defining and Expanding Done

“Without changing our patterns of thought, we will not be able to solve the problems that we created with our current patterns of thought.”  -Albert Einstein

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but habit.”  -Aristotle

Among leading Agile thinkers, coaches, trainers and practitioners there is a rich, ongoing discourse around a subtly deceptive concept  – the concept of the Definition of Done.  Within this discourse, a singular constant challenge is emerging:  old patterns of thought.

For example, there is an old pattern of thought that tells managers of software companies that at least some part of the Definition of Done must be imposed on teams in order to protect a universal standard.  Rationalizing this antiquated thought pattern seems to have become a rigorous intellectual discipline in and of itself.  One of the most prevalent excuses to which many managers have invested a great amount of mental and emotional energy seems to be around the challenging concept of multiple Agile teams working together on the same project (or product).  Surely, in such cases there needs to be some kind of imposed standard that all teams need to comply with in order to avoid chaos in the main build, yes?  In fact, this is the exact wrong approach to take.

We also seem to become confused at times by our own limited understanding of the words that we use when attempting to talk about things we are or are not trying and learning to do.  The more we learn about doing something, the more we are able to talk about it in practical terms.  Since theoretical discussions around semantics rarely result in appreciably improved behavior/results, we will endeavor here to address this subject with both brevity and caution.

Our old patterns of thought make understanding many words, including the word definition and the word done, problematic.  We tend to think of these words as implying static, rigid, absolute conditions; for example, the way we tend to think of the word definition in terms of the definitions of words.  We like to think that those definitions are relatively stable.  Indeed, there are some real benefits to this.  We can have conversations with people and assume that for the most part their understanding of the definitions of the words we are using are similar to our own.  But even with words, there can be more than one definition, which already makes the definitions of words less static than they often seem.  At some level, one might even ask – who actually decides on the definitions of words?  Is there an actual authority out there (not merely the self-proclaimed “official” authorities) that decides on definitions and hands them down to us?  Some may say “yes, indeed, namely the authoritative texts of the world’s religions,” for example.  On the other hand one could also say that the definitions of words have evolved through the ages (just as languages have) as humanity has received progressively more complex guidance from religious texts according to its evolving capacity (compare, say, the Bhagavad Gita to the Quran).  But that is another conversation.  What is important to acknowledge here is that the meanings of words expand and evolve over time given the capacity of the individuals who use them to develop new patterns of thought and that the energy required to do so is tremendous, even epochal.

An old pattern of thought construct around the word done is equally problematic.  A conversation limited by a rigid understanding of the concept of what done means, is and looks like can quickly take us spinning off into the stratosphere of “nothing is ever done.”  When there is a lack of trust and respect among people, as is generally the case in our society, and since ownership and ego are often entangled with limited and rigid understand, we then find ourselves in situations in which the limited and rigid understanding of a few with arbitrary power and authority take precedence over the understanding of others.  In other words, people in authority are expected to solve every problem and people that do work are expected to be robots.  Both are set up by this arrangement to fail.

Indeed, there is a real problem in trying to talk about things that we do not do, or that we do not sincerely try to do.  True learning, on the other hand, consists in people striving to be truthful and sincere working together  engagement in a continuous cycle of action, reflection and consultation.  Learning also requires us to be truthful – if we think we have all the answers, learning becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible.  If we are not at least trying to learn to define what “done” is to us, we will never be able to actually talk about it in a knowledgeable and meaningful way.  Furthermore, it will likewise be impossible for us to help anyone else learn to understand their own Definition of Done if we haven’t learned through real experience about how to understand our own.

As we engage in a real learning process, through action, reflection and consultation, new patterns of thought begin to emerge and perhaps even crystallize.  These emerging new patterns help us to bring concepts out of the stratosphere of semantics, rhetoric and theory back down to earth where we can actually act and reflect on them in order to implement creative new solutions to the problems of our world.

In her Agile 2007 presentation The Role of Leadership in Software Development (, Mary Poppendieck offers powerful insights into the history of patterns of thought around leadership and the emergence of Agile thinking out of the wisdom of Lean Manufacturing.

As with all Agile methods, Scrum is a framework for learning in which new patterns of thought that began to crystallize in Lean Manufacturing practices have been adapted and applied to software development practices.  It then follows that the Definition of Done in Scrum is consistent with a specific Lean Manufacturing practice, namely Standard Work.

In his book Workplace Management, Taiichi Ohno, the father of Lean Manufacturing, defines Standard Work as such:

“There is something called standard work, but standards should be changed constantly.  Instead, if you think of the standard as the best you can do, it’s all over.  The standard work is only a baseline for doing further kaizen [change for the better].  It is kai-aku [change for the worse] if things get worse than now, and it is kaizen if things get better than now.  Standards are set arbitrarily by humans, so how can they not change?

“You should not create these away from the job.  See what is happening on the gemba [shop floor] and write it down.”

Based on the assertions of the previous two paragraphs, we must conclude that just as standards should be changed constantly in Standard Work, so too should definitions change constantly in the Definition of Done.

How, then, does our work benefit from a Definition of Done that is always changing?  This is a deceptively simple question, as it is an example of a problem posed by old patterns of thought that can only be solved by new patterns of thought.  In order for the old patterns of thought thinker to be helped to form new patterns of thought, he must be accompanied by the new patterns of thought thinker to develop the capability to adopt new patterns of thought.  In other words, in order to really learn, people need to be accompanied by those who have more experience.  Such an exercise is far beyond the scope of any article and requires a completely different venue – namely the coaching relationship.  More about capacity-building and accompaniment later.

For now, suffice it to say that the point of having a Definition of Done that is always changing is to allow for kaizen – the Definition of Done, therefore, like Standard Work, is only a baseline from which we constantly change for the better.  In other words, the Definition of Done is the record of what we are actually doing now. It allows us to be absolutely confident that we know as much as possilbe about what we are actual doing now so that we can make real, concrete, and confident decisions about actual improvements to our work.

Actually doing the Definition of Done, as Ohno tells us is simple:  “See what is happening on the gemba [shop floor] and write it down.”  For many of us though, this simplicity is deceptive in that it is actually often very difficult – both the seeing and the writing.

The ability to see what is actually going on is clearly vital to the capability of defining done.  It is valuable, therefore, to examine more closely the sense of sight:

We have physical eyes that see.  What do our eyes see?  Light.  Is this what Ohno is talking about when he says “see what’s going on” – literally seeing light – or is he talking about a different kind of sight?  Clearly, what he is talking about is what we might call true sight, or the ability to see the truth.  We can think of truth, therefore as being like light.

Is it our physical sight that sees the light of truth?  This, of course, is impossible since our physical eyes only see physical light.  So what is the sense in us that allows us to see the light of truth – in other words, what is true sight?   Some may say that it is our sense of justice.  One must have a strong, developed sense of justice in order perceive truth, especially in environments like software development in which the truth can be easily hidden.

Writing down the Definition of Done with accuracy and clarity requires us to be both truthful and precise.  This is very difficult to do well in our present environments of opacity, defined roles, command and control management, fear of failure and general distrust.

Clearly, we can see now that the Definition of Done, challenging to understand in its subtlety as a concept, is far more difficult to apply effectively in reality and therefore fully realize its value in practice.

The concept that allows for the value of the Definition of Done to be realized is the concept of expanding the Definition of Done.  Expanding the Definition of Done in Scrum and Agile is the equivalent of kaizen in Lean Manufacturing.  In order to expand the Definition of Done, the actual Definition of Done needs to be well understood.  In other words,  “Where there is no Standard there can be no Kaizen.”

Ohno says:

“When creating Standard Work, it will be difficult to establish a standard if you are trying to achieve ‘the best way.’  This is a big mistake.  Document exactly what you are doing now.  If you make it better than it is now, it is kaizen.  If not, and you establish the best possible way, the motivation for kaizen will be gone.”

This brings us back to the initial problem created by our old patterns of thought around our understanding of the Definition of Done – namely the misconception that at least some of the Definition of Done must be dictated by management in order to have consistency across teams working on the same large project.  The solution to this problem is challenging yet simple:  It’s irrelevant.  An organization is a living, breathing entity.  When management makes room for kaizen by not dictating standards, kaizen has more power to pollinate the entire organization and transform the way people think and work than imposed standards could ever begin to hope for.  Dictating standards, in other words, is limiting while kaizen harnesses the creativity of all.

Again, Ohno says:

“We need to use the words ‘you [the worker] made [the standard]’ as in ‘follow the decisions you made,’  When we say ‘they were made’ [for you] people feel like it was forced upon them.  When a decision is made, we need to ask who made the decision.  Since you also have the authority to decide, if you decide, you must at least follow your decision, and then this will not be forced upon you at all.

“But in the beginning, you must perform the Standard Work, and as you do, you should find things you don’t like, and you will think of one kaizen idea after another.  Then you should implement these ideas right away, and make this the new standard.”

Changing our patterns of thought requires creativity, but who’s creativity?


“Years ago, I made them hang the standard work documents on the shop floor.  After a year I said to a team leader, ‘The color of the paper has changed, which means you have been doing it the same way, so you have been a salary thief for the last year.’  I said ‘What do you come to work to do each day?  If you are observing every day you ought to be finding things you don’t like, and rewriting the standard immediately.  Even if the document hanging there is from last month, this is wrong.’

“At Toyota in the beginning we had the team leaders write down the dates on the standard work sheets when they hung them.  This gave me a good reason to scold the team leaders, saying ‘Have you been goofing off all month?’

“If it takes one or two months to create these documents, this is nonsense.”

People on the shop floor or the Scrum teams need to be given the freedom and authority to figure out how to do their work better and change the standards of their work as they learn.  Ohno was really first and foremost a master coach who knew how to accompany people to develop their capabilities to perceive truth and generate and apply their own knowledge and creative solutions to challenging problems.

Gary Hamel, in his article “Management Innovation” in the February 2006 edition of the Harvard Business Review, wrote:

“Only after American carmakers had exhausted every other explanation for Toyota’s success- an undervalued yen, a docile workforce, Japanese culture, superior automation- were they finally able to admit that Toyota’s real advantage was its ability to harness the intellect of ‘ordinary’ employees.”

In Scrum, the Team itself defines Done by what it actually gets done.  The ScrumMaster removes obstacles so that the Team can expand its Definition of Done (kaizen).  Scrum assumes that all Team members are dedicated to expanding the Team’s Definition of Done from Sprint to Sprint and that the Team will achieve this as long as organizational obstacles (such as managerial control fetish) are not impeding it from doing so.  When a Team is empowered in this way to expand its own Definition of Done (as well as empowered in other ways, according to the rules of Scrum), it will have the space it needs in order to grow into a hyper-productive Team.  That is to say that no one outside of the Team (i.e. management) dictates any part of the Team’s Definition of Done (a common management practice that results in kai-aku).  The Definition of Done is one ingredient in the remedy for curing our culture’s leadership disease – the failure to learn.

“…your failure is an internal disease…You firmly believe that sound management means executives on the one side and workers on the other, on the one side men who think and on the other side men who only work.”  -Konusuke Matsushita

(Shameless Plug: we offer excellent Certified ScrumMaster Training and in it we discuss the Definition of “Done” in the context of people’s actual problems.)

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Report average velocity and fail 50% of the time

The question of “expected velocity” and long-term planning has come up at more than one client. A recent client conversation got me thinking, however, questioning how to interpret velocity when estimating and plotting a roadmap based on a current backlog of features. Assume, for a moment, a backlog of story-pointed features, and 10 good iterations (consistent team, no odd occurrences that would affect velocity). Mathematically average velocity (well, a mean really) is a 50/50 proposition for any subsequent iteration. Some organizations don’t find this level of confidence acceptable. What velocity should be reported as expected for iteration/sprint planning and roadmap forecasting, and how should it be used?


Interpreting velocity, before anything else, requires some context. An agile organization that sees estimates as hypothetical might find this article is of less use. In fact, a good question is whether estimation is even a value-added activity. For this post assume an organization that sees strong value in estimation and planning.


The biggest piece of context is to know the organizational culture. This is important in two respects, and both of these cultural factors are important because they impact how Velocity is understood within the organization.

What is Failure?

First is the meaning of failure in the organization. Is failure to deliver what was committed to by the planned date considered a failure of the team, or is it simply a fact to be understood and accounted for in future planning? Even in Agile organizations, the former is often true and a hard habit to break. If not delivering to expectations is considered failure and has negative consequences, then that means that estimation is being treated not as estimation, but as prediction and contract. Velocity is therefore a commitment, and should therefore be used conservatively.

Consistency or Speed?

The second item to know is whether consistency and predictability of delivery is of a higher strategic value than the actual rate of delivery. This is often un-stated. Usually people want fast and consistent delivery. The truth is that you can get consistent, or fast software development, or a balance between the two. Lack of trust is usually a strong motivation to encourage consistency over speed, or a history of quality problems, etc. In this case, as well, Velocity is more of a boundary than an indicator.

Emotional Loading in Estimation (or why not Low-ball?)

If estimation is seen as binding, contractual, or limiting, then additional emotions get overloaded. Trust, promise, and betrayal are words used in such organizational cultures. Distrust is usually a strong factor, especially between silos (business vs. technology, company vs. project management vs. customer, etc.). So when people are asked to give estimates, even using agile-friendly mechanisms such as story points, there is usually a process of cementing that estimate into a part of an accountability model, so estimates start to get conservative. People are then accused of low-balling, others are accused of irrational expectations… we’ve all seen this. The language clearly becomes one of contention and blame. Even the term low-balling is often an outright pejorative term for estimating too conservatively.

This doesn’t happen only in agile environments, and project managers in traditional PMBOK frameworks have long factored risk into “contingency budgets”. Interestingly, however, if a Project Manager were to factor risk into the task estimates, they’d be “low-balling capacity,” yet if they were to factor it out and layer it on top of the project work, it’s “contingency budgeting” (At least in a few experiences I’ve had). Either way, someone’s adding a factor for uncertainty, based on the need to predict conservatively or liberally or somewhere in between.

That’s the point of the article: how can Agile projects use velocity to estimate as conservatively (or liberally) as is appropriate?

An average is a 50% chance to succeed (or fail)

Velocity is not a constant. It’s a set of instantaneous values on a curve, with instances being iterations. That means that it varies, and is therefore only meaningful statistically. So how do you reasonably use velocity statistically, and improve confidence? One way is to stop delivering against “average” velocity.

A lot of coaches use average velocity over the previous N iterations. This is not helpful for all sorts of reasons, if estimation is a commitment. By definition, average (well, actually a mean, but they’re close) is a 50/50 proposition. If you report the average team velocity (assuming it’s accurate), then about half the time the team will be under and about half the time the team will be over, statistically. So basically an average is a crap shoot, when taken in any given instance. It’s can only be good in the long run. For this to work, the long-haul has to include permission to fail and a lot of trust. Teams need to be able to go miss dates but will sometimes exceed dates and it should all wash out in the end. In organizations such as I’m describing, that trust isn’t there, so. Additionally, if the language of commitment is around meeting instantaneous iteration commitments (as opposed to delivering high-quality customer value as quickly as is sustain-ably possible) then you aren’t playing the long-game, you’re playing a very short-game.

Simulate Velocity, not work

In a PMI training course I took when I was at Sun Microsystems, we were nicely informed that two point estimates of tasks are a perfect way to fail half the time, per the above logic. One point estimates are just idiotic. Three point estimates were better. We simulated with a monte-carlo algorithm and found a curve and a distribution, and then determined a confidence level yadda yadda. Well, we’re trying to avoid wasting a lot of time estimating up-front, but one way to start representing velocity properly is to do the same kind of statistical modelling done in traditional product management, only simulate velocity, not work items.

In this approach, you take the last N iterations (say 10). Determine the maximum velocity (optimistic) and the minimum velocity (pessimistic), and then the mode (the velocity value that seems to occur most frequently). Then you do monte-carlo simulation so you get a statistical pattern. Now, you actually can determine an answer based on confidence. If you want to be right with an 80% confidence, you pick a velocity where 80% of the simulated runs were successful. (Note – there are a paucity of excel templates to do this math automatically, and often they are for sale. It would be nice to have a few functions with arbitrary distributions based on min-max-mode to help this along.)

It’s not perfect, and it’s a potentially huge amount of administrative overhead. Elsewhere I’ve referenced blogs that entirely oppose any estimation at all, but if you are gong to, then working statistically with simulation is the only way to take small sample numbers meaningful.

Commitment Velocity: Low-Ball as a policy.

Another approach, one perhaps controversial, but taught by some Scrum trainers is to pick the lowest historical delivered velocity. This is a commitment-based approach, on the assumption that building trust around consistent delivery is critical to building sound relationships where product owners and teams can safely state their needs and get things done with a minimum of contractual behaviour. By taking the minimum, you force a low-ball capacity, which means you can have high-confidence of success after a few iterations. You have, likely, after a while, some spare time on your hands. Teams can then choose to pull more work in (without adjusting their commitment velocity), work on “technical debt”, improve their skills, etc. A team could raise their commitment velocity in certain inflection points in the project. A new team member is added that provides a necessary skill not previously available, and after a few iterations the team is consistently hitting a higher number, but this is a careful process to ensure that they are committing, and if they don’t make their new number, it goes down to what they got accomplished.

Indemnify teams’ learning

An arguably healthier option, if you have built enough trust, is to simply indemnify a team from failing to meet the estimate. Since you’re doing mathematics on actuals to generate an expected future number, everyone can acknowledge that past behaviour is no guarantee of future behaviour, and simply use it for capacity planning. In this case, estimation is actually estimation, not commitment or contract. The team is expected to be ahead sometimes, and behind sometimes. The upside of this is that a lot of extra time isn’t spent playing with fictional numbers. Teams are spending their efforts on delivery as quickly-yet-sustain-ably as they can, and the organization treats them as trusted professionals in this. The temptation to assume you can predict the future is seen as folly, and the estimates are used to guide overall direction, not to make outward customer commitments.

Don’t be mindless

There may be other approaches, I’m sure. The agile community is certainly not short of people who love this topic and can talk for hours on “proper” estimation. The point of this post is merely to point out some options, and ask you to look at your organizational culture, team culture, customer culture, the meaning of terms like commitment, failure, success, consistency, speed, etc. As you understand the culture, balance consistency vs. speed, trust, and other factors to choose a method of estimation that meets your goals. Don’t do estimation based on your own, internal cultural assumptions, as you may have developed or been taught techniques that are useful when and where they were taught, but may no longer be so. Or maybe they weren’t so useful then either. Regardless, this because estimation cuts at the heart of the dialogue between producer and consumer, and establishes parameters for that discussion, it’s critical that you think your choice through.

[Christian also blogs at]

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The Definition of “Done” is Badly Named!

In Scrum, there is a concept of the “Definition of ‘Done'” that is used to understand what teams produce every Sprint.  Unfortunately, it is not well understood, nor is it consistently applied.  Part of the problem is that the name of the concept is misleading.  Every time we do coaching or training in organizations, we spend an inordinate amount of time getting this concept across clearly.  Recently, one of our coaches, Travis Birch, had an insight about the name of the concept.  The word “definition” makes us think of something static and permanent.  Definitions don’t normally change.  However, in Scrum, the definition of “done” is always changing.  Doneness is not something that we get perfect at the start, rather, teams develop their capacity to deliver more and more each Sprint… and not just in terms of features.  As I explained in another article called Four Methods of Perfecting Agile, the definition of “done” is something that can and should grow over time.

So what can we do?  Can we rename the concept?  The concept is really a snapshot description of the activities and attributes that a team puts into a Sprint’s worth of work.  For example, at first a team might not be writing automated unit tests.  Therefore, automated unit tests are not part of the definition of “done” – a snapshot of their work at the end of the Sprint does not include automated unit tests.  Then in a retrospective the team decides that they need to create automated unit tests.  They do so in the next Sprint.  Now, automated unit tests are a part of the definition of “done”.  Finally, a few Sprints later, one of the members of the team attends Agile Software Engineering Practices training [shameless plug] and decides that they should start doing test-driven development.  The team learns how to do this and from now on the definition of “done” includes test-driving all production code.

A New Name

Let’s try another name for this concept: the “Expanding Benchmark”.  I think this term much more accurately conveys the sense of the concept.  It is expected that this concept is not static, rather, as the team overcomes obstacles, automates things, learns new skills, and gains new trust and authority, that their work will expand.  And specifically, we are expanding the benchmark of what activities and attributes of software are delivered at the end of each Sprint.

So – let’s get rid of the Definition of “Done” and start talking about a team’s Expanding Benchmark.  What sayest you?

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Why I Joined Berteig Consulting

Most business persons and businesses understand the concept of strategic alliances.  The reason to form alliances are many and varied and include such reasons like; monetary, distribution, market access, shared technology and others.  My reason for joining Berteig Consulting is a little unusual.  First reason is that I am an international consultant, trainer and coach.  My international work requires 100-150 days of travel outside North America every year.  I have been doing this for 10 years and it does not hold the same appeal it did in the beginning of the travel.   Don’t misunderstand me, I still like the travel but I pay a price physically.  So joining a reputable and successful Canadian company was appealing to me.

My second reason for the alliance is that I am very impressed with the knowledge, skills, abilities and professionalism that exists in the Berteig Consulting team. Their values were consistent with mine.  During the summer of 2008, Mishkin Berteig (the co-founder of the Berteig Consulting) and I began to investigate how we could work together.

Needless to say we hit it off.  There is mutual respect.  So I made the move to become a CSM and begin to train, coach and consult within his company.  Mishkin and I have already decided to co-write a book about Agile. I have currently written 5 books which are published in 10 languages, one of which is a best seller.  Mishkin and I hope to publish in late 2009. I will continue my international work to some degree, but my strategic relationship with Berteig Consuting will become more important in the coming months and years.

I look forward to adding value to Berteig Consulting, the team members and all of our clients.   I will do what needs to be done to insure the existing and future customers receive the best advice, coaching and training available in the Agile marketplace.   I care about the people at Berteig Consulting and will make sure they receive value from me.  There is a quote I respect … People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care!   We at Berteig Consulting care about the quality of our interactions with our customers and the results of our efforts.

James M. Heidema, CSM, CLU, CIAM
Berteig Consulting team member
James Heidema’s Profile

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ANN: Agile Software Engineering Practices training by Isráfíl Consulting

Isráfíl Consulting is finally prepared for the first series of its Agile Software Engineering Practices training courses. This series is offered in partnership with Berteig Consulting who are graciously hosting the registration process. Their team has also helped greatly in shaping the presentation style and structure of the course. The initial run will be in Ottawa, Toronto (Markham), and Kitchener/Waterloo.   

Topics covered will include Test Driven Development (TDD), testability, supportive infrastructure such as build and continuous integration, team metrics, incremental design and evolutionary architecture, dependency injection, and so much more. (This course won’t present the planning side of XP, but covers many other aspects common to XP projects) It makes a great complement for training in Agile Processes such as XP, Scrum, or OpenAgile. The overview slide presentation is available for free download from the Isráfíl web site.

The courses are scheduled for:

The course is $1250 CAD per student, and participants receive a transferrable discount of $100 CAD for other training with Berteig Consulting as a part of our ongoing partnership. I initially prototyped this course in Ottawa this December, and am very excited to see this through in several locales. Class size is limited to 15, so we can keep the instruction style more involved. The above schedules are linked to Berteig Consulting’s course system and have registration links at the bottom of the description. Locations are TBD, but will be updated at the above links as soon as they’re finalized.

A further series is planned for several US cities in March, and we’ll be sure to announce them as well.

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