Article Review: Agile Teams Bend But They Don’t Break

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In an out-dated model of work environments, there are clear “rights” and clear “wrongs.” Usually, the management or leadership determines this and they call it “Policies and Procedures” or “Mandates” or simple “Rules.” There are usually severe consequences for not following these, intentionally or accidentally.

In the new and emerging agile model, where team members focus their attention on taking action with little planning, reflecting, learning and planning frequently work environments are very different.

Instead of looking for people to blame when challenges emerge, an agile team looks for ways to learn and develop. The team can collectively embrace new ways to adapt to change together.

This is one of the things I am learning about in high-functioning agile teams.

I like the way Brian Milner addresses this in his article “6 Ways to Bring  Humility to your Agile Leadership Style.”


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Review: Switching to the Agile Mindset

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Recently, I discovered a well-written article on Scrum Alliance posted from a member entitled “Switching to the Agile Mindset.” In this article, the author lists six key components of the transformation individuals and teams go through as they adapt more agile mindsets and approaches to their work. I found this article ideal for new coaches and also useful for people on the team who may feel challenged by the switch.

The part which stands out for me the most is the phrase, “Change acceptance develops agility in a team.”

This concept is enshrined in the Agile Manifesto itself. Being able to adapt well to change is the cornerstone of the new mindset and a high-functioning agile team.


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Making Unconscious Habits in Culture Conscious in Agile Teams

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In the past, in our North American culture, power and authority in an organization was held by those who earned the most money, had the titles to go along with their authority, and they had the right to make decisions about where they went, when they went places and who they associated with. They also had the power and authority to decide what others did and didn’t do in their work environment. That was in the past.
 
Where we are headed in a more unified and equal culture, based on principles of collaboration and understanding is that power is now more equally distributed. Those who didn’t have access to education now do. Those who were previously barred from environments of wealth and prosperity are now welcomed in. Corporate cultures, and organizational models across the board are changing and it’s good for everyone.
 
The biggest challenge in any change arises when someone’s fear of being excluded is realized. The issue is no longer about money or time or integrity. The issue is that as work environments change, old (mostly unconscious) patterns of exclusion are changing too. It means janitors associating with doctors and delivery teams eating lunch with those in leadership (imagine that!). When an organization is going through a transformation, when they notice behaviours which were limiting and exclusive and change them, they are actively contributing to an ever-advancing civilization. They are creating a new and inclusive culture.
 
At times, mistakes will be made. Old ways will sneak their way back in and one or more team member may get snubbed or excluded for one reason or another. This happens. It’s normal and is part of the learning process.
 
But in time, the aim for any agile team is to continually make these old exclusive unconscious habits conscious so that work environments can continue to embrace a greater diversity of people, not just of cultural backgrounds but from different social and economic backgrounds, too.
 
The difference in life experience from someone who has lived in poverty to someone who has lived in wealth is as if they grew up in different worlds, even though we inhabit the same earth. Everything is different. Language. Behaviours. Hopes and Dreams. Everything is different on any level.
 
However, just as different races are now joining together in work and in marriage more often, so are people from different socio-economic backgrounds coming together too, in work, in community building, in families.
 
The pain of the growth is a worthwhile investment into a brighter and more unified future not just for us but for the generation to follow us.

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Article Review: Thinking About the Agile Manifesto

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Often times, as I’ve been researching about agile methods and how to apply these to create real and sustainable change in an organization, I come across reference to the Agile Manifesto. I list it here today for those who are new to the field or who are getting back to the roots after trying a few things with different-than-expected results. It is an instrumental document. The values and principles listed here truly do shape the way agilists think and operate and to some degree or another the results appear to be better than before this founding document was introduced. So here is my “hats off” to this remarkable item which plays a pivotal role in cultural transformation.

The four key values are:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan

Personally, I find the first one the most meaningful of all. When we value individuals and interactions over process and tools we are truly improving in leaps and bounds in creating collaborative environments which are continuously improving.


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Article Review: Beyond the agility: Lean

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BERTEIG’s expert in Kanban, Travis Birch, introduced me to Kanban through this link. It may be one of the most reputable sources for Lean/Kanban content online. One article I find particularly appealing is Beyond the agility: Lean. I’ll admit that one of the reasons I became hooked is because the phrase “Anybody who thinks we can overcome an emotional resistance with logic was probably never married. We can only overcome emotion with a stronger emotion.” Having been married, this peaked my interest. The rest of the article goes on to give a fantastic introduction into the agility, Lean, Kanban relationship and it served to deepen my understanding of all three. Great read!

 


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Video Review: Rethinking Education, David Sabine

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BERTEIG’s David Sabine presented “Rethinking Education” at the first ever TedX talk in Fort McMurray, Alberta in 2012!

“Rethinking Education” has received nearly 3000 views and offers an insightful perspective into the way youth are streamlined into either vocational or educational career paths, and the funding which supports curriculum development. He even addresses important issues such as gender bias. I like how David sees Agile Transformation as having a positive influence on change in our current educational model and how he invites a radical approach to a new way to think about education.

I absolutely love how he combines his background in music composition with his professional training as an Agile Coach at a time when his personal life was changing with the upcoming birth of his daughter. He says “What we need is a common understanding, for a collective effort, for a collective benefit. That is how collaboration will manifest in our social system.”

What an encouraging and inspiring presentation! Please watch the video and share your thoughts on how you would like to see our social education model change now for the future.


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The Retro Game

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The Hunt for Better Retrospectives

The rumours had started to spread, retrospectives at our organization were flat, stale and stuck in a rut. The prevailing thought was that this was stalling the pace of continuous improvement across our teams. In truth, I wasn’t sure if this was at all true, it’s a complex problem that has many possible contributing factors. Here are just some possible alternative or co-contributing causes: how the teams are organized, the level of safety, mechanisms to deal with impediments across the organization, cultural issues, levels of autonomy and engagement, competence & ability and so on…

Despite this, it didn’t hurt to have a look for some inspiration on good retrospectives. I really liked Gitte Klitgaard’s talk called Retrospectives are Boring and Useless – Or are They? In particular the parts around preparing and establishing safety.

On the theme of safety, I thought we could try to go as far as having fun; we’d already had lots of success with the getKanban game (oh Carlos you devil!). Where it all tied together for me, was being inspired by the great question-based approach from cultureqs.com that I’d had a chance to preview at Spark.

If I could create a game with the right prepared questions, we could establish safety, the right dialogue and maybe even have some fun.

The Retro Game

This is a question-based game that I created that you could use to conduct your next retro for teams of up to 10 people. The rules of the game are fairly simple and you could play through a round or two in about 1 to 2 hours depending on team size and sprint duration. Prep time for the facilitator is about 2-4 hours.

theretrogame

Prepping to play the game

You, as facilitator, will need to prepare for 3 types of questions that are thought of ahead of time and printed (or written) on the back of card-stock paper cards.

One question per card. Each question type has its unique colour card. About 8 questions per category is more than enough to play this game.

The 3 types of questions are:

In the Moment – These are questions that are currently on the mind of the team. These could be generated by simply connecting with each team member ahead of time and asking, “if you could only talk about one or two things this retro, what would it be?” If for example they responded “I want to talk about keeping our momentum”, you could create a question like “what would it take to keep our momentum going?”

Pulse Check – These are questions that are focused on people and engagement. Sometimes you would see similar questions on employee satisfaction surveys. An example question in this category could be “What tools and resources do we need to continue to be successful?”

Dreams and Worries – This is a longer-term view of the goals of the team. If the team has had any type of Lift Off or chartering exercise in the past, these would be questions connected to any goals and potential risks that have been previously identified. For example if one of a team’s goal is to ship product updates every 2 weeks, a question could be “What should we do next to get closer to shipping every 2 weeks?”

On the face-up side of the card it should indicate the question type as well as have room to write down any insights and actions.

You will also need:

  • To print out the game board
  • To print out the rule card
  • Bring a 6-sided dice

Playing the Game

Players sit on the floor or at a table around the game board. The cards are in 3 piles, grouped by type, with the questions face down.

therules

  • The person with the furthest birthday goes first.
  • It is their turn and they get to roll the dice.
  • They then choose a card from the pile based on the dice roll. A roll of 1 through 3 is an “In the Moment” card, 4 is a “Pulse Check” and 5 to 6 “Dreams & Worries”
  • They then read the card question on the card out loud and then pass the card to the person on the right.
    • The person on your right is the scribe, they will capture notes in the Insight and Actions boxes of the card for this round.
  • Once they have read the question, they have a chance to think and then answer the question out loud to the group. Nobody else gets to talk.
  • Once they’ve answered the question, others can provide their thoughts on the subject.
  • After 3 minutes, you may wish to move on to the next round.
  • At the end of each round the person whose turn it was chooses the person who listened and contributed to the discussion best. That person is given the card to keep.
  • The person to the left is given the dice and goes next.

Winning the Game

  • The game ends at 10 minutes prior to the end of the meeting.
  • At the end of the game, the person with the most cards wins!
  • The winner gets the bragging rights (and certificate) indicating they are the retrospective champion!
  • You should spend the last 10 minutes reflecting on the experience and organizing on the action items identified.

Concepts at Play

players-playing

Context & Reflection – Preparation is key, particularly for the “In the Moment” section. The topics will be relevant and connect with what the team wants to talk about. Also when presented in the form of a question they will likely trigger reflection for all those present.

Sharing the Voice – Everyone gets a chance to speak and be heard without interruptions. The game element also incentivises quality participation.

Coverage of topic areas – The 3 question categories spread the coverage across multiple areas, not just the items in the moment. The probabilities are not however equal, for example there is a 50% chance of “In the Moment” being chosen in each turn.

Fun & Safety – The game element encourages play and friendlier exchanges. You are likely to have dialogue over debate.

Want to play the game?

I’d love to hear how this game worked out for you. I’ve included everything you need here to setup your own game. Let me know how it went and how it could be improved!

Resources:
Retro Game – Game Board
Retro Game – Rules
Retro Game – Card Template
Retro Game – Champion Certificate

Martin aziz

Martin Aziz
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@martinaziz
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Article Review: Sometimes Waterfall is Needed to Become Agile, Scott Granieri

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I like reading success stories. In fact, I wish there were more of them in the agile literature because a success story is “evidence” of doing something that works and it is not just an abstract idea or concept with potential. That’s one of the reasons I like Scott Granieri’s article featured on scrumalliance.org entitled, “Sometimes it just may take a waterfall to go agile.” In this article, Granieri describes a situation occurring at a corporate level to create software for a federal customer. He presents the background, the problem, the solution, the results and the lessons learned. I find this article to be well-written, thorough and engaging.

Here is an excerpt from his conclusion:

“The solution for creating a successful environment for Agile adoption lies within one of the principal tenets of the methodology itself: Inspect and adapt.” He also quotes Ken Schwaber, co-founder of Scrum, who Mishkin Berteig trained with more than a decade ago. But that can be something for you to discover when you read the article.

 


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Article Review: Craig Larman – Less Agile or LeSS Agile?

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Certified Less Practitioner Badge

Craig Larman, co-creator of LeSS, recently wrote a riveting article about agility now featured on Scrum Alliance Spotlight. The article, entitled “Less Agile or LeSS Agile?” reminds readers of the beginning moments of agile and how this word was selected because it fundamentally described a condition of being able to adapt quickly to change.

About that founding meeting, he quotes Martin Fowler as saying, “We considered a bunch of names, and agreed eventually on “agile” as we felt that captured the adaptiveness and response to change which we felt was so important to our approach.” Larman continues to elaborate on how this agility is not meant to be a practice solely for the purpose of “creating more efficient teams who deliver high-quality faster,” although of course this is a natural outcome when teams are agile.

But he takes the concept to a deeper level. He writes, “I like to say that the goal of agile approaches, including Scrum, is to discover successful solutions by being able to … turn on a dime for a dime.”

Therein lies the beauty of being agile. When we are discovering successful solutions and implementing them quickly, even with very little planning, then we are embracing the fundamental essence of agility.


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Breaks Between Sprints Indicate a Problem

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This post is a follow-up to an earlier article: There Are No Breaks Between Sprints.

Breaks between Sprints indicate a problem. Usually such breaks are filled with planning activities including research, requirements gathering, design & preparation, negotiations & approvals and the problem is threefold:

  1. Such plans are based on conjecture (risky and not compatible with Scrum) rather than empiricism (less risky and compatible with Scrum). Those activities are most beneficial when diligently performed by skilled inspectors at the point of the work. The four formal events within each Sprint provide the team and stakeholders adequate opportunity for inspection and ensure that decisions are being made in light of the up-to-date product increment and with respect to current user needs and market conditions.
  2. Breaks between Sprints often include activities which do not add value to the product or are entirely unrelated.
  3. Breaks between Sprints defer the delivery of value because the work performed does not result in potentially-releasable increment of “Done” product.

To correct this problem it is important to identify whether any of the effort spent between Sprints is adding value to the product — that is, which activities effect the form, fit, or function of the actual product. If determined to not be value adding, stop the activity entirely — it is waste. If determined to be value adding then the work ought to be part of their Sprints and the Scrum Team may decide that either the activity should be represented and ordered in the Product Backlog, or should be represented in the team’s Definition of Done.


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Splitting User Stories

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A common challenge faced by inexperienced Scrum teams is related to splitting user Stories (in Scrum, Product Backlog Items or PBIs) so that they are granular enough for development. The INVEST model is a good way to test whether user stories are well-written.

  • I – Independent
  • N – Negotiable
  • V – Valuable
  • E – Estimable
  • S – Small
  • T – Testable

Independent – Each user story must be independent of each other. This prevents any overlap between the items; moreover, it allows the team to implement them in any order.

Negotiable – The details of the work must be negotiable, both among the stakeholders and the team. Specific requirements and design decisions will be fleshed out during development. Many agile practitioners recommended writing user stories on a note card — this is intentional so that a limited amount of detail can be prescribed.

Valuable – Each user story must add business value to the product, the customer and/or the users’ experience.

Estimable ¬– A good user story can be understood well-enough by the team that they can estimate it — not accurately — but at a high-level they perceive that it has size. It is helpful to understand the relative effort as compared to other user stories.

Small – A user story is not small if the team cannot get it done within a single Sprint. As large user stories are split into smaller items, greater clarity about the size and implementation is achieved, which improves the likelihood that the team will get it done within a Sprint.

Testable – Each user story should be testable; this is a common characteristic of well written requirements. If the team cannot determine how the user story may be tested, it is an indication that either desired functionality or the desired business value is not clear enough.

Vertical vs Horizontal Splitting

There are two common ways to split user stories: vertically or horizontally. Horizontal breakdown of user stories splits the item at an architectural component level. Example: front end UI, databases or backend services. Whereas, a vertical slice results in working, demonstrable, software which adds business value. Therefore, it is recommended to slice user stories vertically so as to reduce dependencies and improve the team’s ability to deliver a potentially shippable product increment each sprint.

Splitting User Stories Example

As a customer I can pay for my order so that I receive the products

If the above user story was to be split in a vertical manner, it might be broken down into the various ways a customer can complete a payment. As follows…

As a customer I can make a credit card payment for my order so that I collect reward points on my credit card.

And/or

As a customer I can make a PayPal payment for my order so that I can securely complete my purchase without sharing credit card details with another retailer.

The key point to note in the vertically sliced user stories above is that each story passes the INVEST tests mentioned earlier and therefore a Product Owner can prioritize these user stories based on customer needs. However, if a horizontal approach was used to split the user story (i.e. split by architectural layers and components) then the implementation of such requirements would result in working functionality only when all horizontal components are eventually integrated.

Breaking down by Workflow

Another approach that is commonly used to breakdown user stories is focused on the individual steps a user may take in order to achieve their end goal — that is, a user story which describes a long narrative or “user flow” through a system may be sliced into steps which represent portions of the user’s flow. Continuing from the example above of a customer making a purchase online, the user story can be broken down into the following:

As a customer I can review the items being purchased for my order so that I can be confident I’m paying for the correct items.

As a customer I can provide my banking information for my order so that I can receive the products I ordered.

As a customer I can receive a confirmation ID for my purchase so that I can keep track and keep a record of my purchase.

Other Methods

There are many other methods that can be utilized to breakdown larger user stories such as:

  • Breaking down by business rules
  • Breaking down by happy / unhappy flow
  • Breaking down by input options / platform
  • Breaking down by data types or parameters
  • Breaking down by operations (CRUD)
  • Breaking down by test scenarios / test case
  • Breaking down by roles
  • Breaking down by ‘optimize now’ vs ‘optimize later’
  • Breaking down by browser compatibility

Kudos to this article for inspiring the list above: blog.agilistic.nl.

Other Helpful Resources

The Hamburger Method
User Stories and Story Splitting at AgileAdvice.com


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