All posts by Jerry Doucett

Agile enthusiast, amateur photographer, recreational kayak nut and passionate about Algonquin Park.

Practicing Scrum (subversively): you CAN do it!

Learn more about transforming people, process and culture with the Real Agility Program
photo by V. Senyk
photo by V. Senyk

by Jerry Doucett and Valerie Senyk

You want to be practicing Scrum! You’ve taken Scrum training, received your industry certification, and perhaps even experienced being a Scrum team member. In your heart you believe Scrum is the right tool and approach for you, and you believe your current organization and your customers could really benefit from Scrum practices. 

However, for whatever reason your organization is either hesitant to consider Scrum or believes it’s a bad idea. Perhaps there was an experience with a poorly executed pilot. Perhaps your leadership see it as being too risky.

What do you do?

This article explores how you could subversively practice ScrumMaster-ing in your workplace without getting into trouble or breaking the rules. (Ssh…we won’t tell!)

Before you even begin strategizing, you need to ensure that what you do aligns with the Scrum values, namely:

 

Doing Scrum subversively will certainly take considerable courage, focus and commitment on your part. Be aware you will be challenged to respect the existing organizational culture and norms, and your organization may push back on your efforts.

You also need to acknowledge that the very act of being subversive means you are not being completely open or transparent that you are trying to practice Scrum.

Or you could tell your workmates, “I’ve had this terrific training in Scrum and could we try a few of the techniques to see how they work?” Then introduce something as simple as time-boxing or holding retrospectives with your colleagues.

You will also want to ensure what you do is harmonious with Scrum Theory and the pillars of empirical process, which are:

1. Transparency 2. Inspection 3. Adaptation

Normally, one could say there’s a direct conflict between being transparent and being subversive. Keeping this in mind, it is imperative you be absolutely transparent on the actions you are taking and what the specific goals, outcomes or learnings are that you hope to achieve.

However, given the circumstances you’ll likely choose to not use Scrum terminology to describe what you are doing. In other words, describe the practices and activities that you are implementing or recommending, express their benefits and what you hope to accomplish, but don’t explicitly call them by their Scrum name.

As for Inspection and Adaptation, those approaches should be perfectly aligned with your intent to try to help your company become a learning organization. That means you will need to park your ego at the door and accept the results. If your learning shows your subversive Scrum activities do not provide the benefit you’re aiming for, you will need to stop them regardless of whether you think they should work.

Let’s explore some activities and practices you may want to tactfully consider to help your organization benefit from Scrum (without actually “doing” Scrum).

1. Lead by Example

As someone that appreciates the values of Scrum, you should aim to educate others and provide them with a similar understanding. That means practicing these values in how you show up and in everything you do, even explicitly calling out certain actions when they are a prime example (whenever it is appropriate).

This does not mean preaching! Instead, it could be sharing your thoughts about something when contributing to a decision, or simply pointing out when and how something that aligns with the values contributes to a better team, a better experience, or a better solution.

Leading by example also means being human and honest when mistakes are made or when failures occur. This can be particularly risky in an organization that has not embraced Agility, or where failure is frowned upon. That is where you need courage, and a commitment on your part to hold improvement of the work above your own individual career needs.

2. Communicate More

Make a concerted, conscious effort to communicate with your team and partners more. For example, get up out of your seat and spend more time in informal face-to-face discussions rather than sending e-mails or chat messages.

Perhaps you can have short, informal meetings with just the team either daily or several times a week to see what’s been done, what needs to be done, and what challenges the team is facing. The key here is to keep it short, focus on what is needed to move work forward, and define actions to address issues. Then always follow up and make sure the actions are being pursued and that progress is shared with the team.

3. Be Open And Transparent

Although you may consciously choose to not use the proper terminology and language of Scrum, the key is to always be honest about what it is you are trying to do, why it’s important, and what the desired outcomes are.

To this end the goal should be to become an organization that “learns about learning”, constantly tries to improve, delivers value faster, and applies new knowledge in the best possible way. Scrum may be a fantastic catalyst for that, but there are many other approaches that will achieve similar results.

4. Use Better Meeting Practices

Another approach to consider is improve meeting experiences by time-boxing and defining a specific scope for each meeting. Setting a time limit and outcomes for a discussion helps create a sense of urgency, manage expectations and focus the conversation on the most important topics. The facilitator will need to enforce these constraints, otherwise you lose the effectiveness of the practice.

5. Have One or More Key Stakeholders Empowered to Make Product Decisions

This may be a considerable challenge in organizations where there is little appetite or understanding about Scrum practices, but do what you can given your authority and influence. If possible, try to have a single voice (key stakeholder) defined as the person with the final authority on the product or service that your team is delivering. Work with that individual to set them up for success by connecting them with the other stakeholders, perhaps facilitating discussions with them, and showing the key person(s) effective techniques for prioritizing the work that is being asked for.

6. Limit Efforts to What Matters Most

One practice that is important to apply, but often difficult to master, is focus. Limit work and discussions to the most important tasks and activities, and request that other discussions on lesser-important work be delayed. Always try to focus the conversation back to what is currently the most important work.

On occasion you may even want to point out times when plans were well-defined in advance but ultimately changed a lot when the actual work was in progress. This indicates the waste in planning too much up front and in constant task-switching. When done in conjunction with time-boxing this practice becomes a little easier.

On a macro scale, try to limit development to smaller chunks of end-to-end deliverables. In other words, deliver small things often all the way to completion as much as possible (e.g. to a staging environment). Then show the outcome and deliverable to stakeholders and customers, explaining that although the final product may not be done, this is to get them something fast and gather feedback.

7. Reflect on Learning

When possible, ensure that reviews of completed work happen frequently. Ensure the outcomes, functionality and value is shown and that learning (for the product as well as the methods) are part of the discussion.

Without becoming intrusive, seek stakeholder feedback frequently and informally. Be willing to demonstrate an ability to pivot plans based on that feedback.

As a team, hold informal retrospectives of how you worked together. If the term “retrospective” is contentious, consider calling them something else, such as a debriefing.

8. Visualize and Display Work

Have your own personal backlog and list of current activities visible at your desk. Use post-its to represent all work that you have on your plate, and ensure it is always up-to-date. Prioritize the work items you have coming up, and visually represent this as a rank-ordered list of things that you have to do.

It won’t take long for people around you to notice what you are doing and ask about it. Use this as a great opportunity to educate others on the values of transparency and focus.

9. Keep Your Team Size Appropriate

If you are on a particularly large team, see if it is possible to split that large team in to smaller groups. The benefit is more face-to-face time and interaction across the new team, an increased sense of belonging and commitment to the new team’s purpose, and it should also be easier (in theory anyway) to get decisions made and increase alignment.

The challenge will be finding a logical way to split the teams to mitigate dependencies of people, skills and products, and ensuring the new teams can still collaborate with one another. Geography might be a good way to split the team if you are distributed, but you would need to ensure all the skills to deliver the solution exist on all new teams.

10. Push for Automation

If you are in a development environment where tools, automation and engineering practices are not currently being used, and they could be of value to your organization, then start investigating whether it is possible. Tools and automation aren’t cheap or easy to implement, but they dramatically encourage you and your teams to collaborate better and they enable the adoption of Scrum practices such as fast delivery of value.

Final Note

Be confident that your own creativity may help you unlock ways of practicing Scrum methodology without disrupting your organization’s practices.

You may or may not be able to implement all of the above actions but, as one Agile coach says, “it’s all about how YOU show up, how YOU are.” In the final analysis, your example, your enthusiasm, your courage will be the best you can offer.


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Formula for Building a Successful Scrum Experience

Learn more about transforming people, process and culture with the Real Agility Program

Under the right conditions Scrum can be a tremendous success story, but it often requires hard work to get there.  For new Scrum teams it means learning to fundamentally work very differently than they are used to, such as relying on a lot more collaboration, making and delivering on shared commitments and building a high degree of trust.  For existing Scrum teams it means constantly renewing the team commitment to each other, the cause, and to the Scrum framework.  This includes the rather painful practice of revisiting the fundamentals and ensuring any deviations from accepted processes or practices were for the right reasons and had the right results.

To have a chance at achieving high performance a new-to-Scrum team will not only need to just change their processes, but fundamentally change the culture and behaviour of the team and all of the supporting roles (that includes their leadership).  Meanwhile, a mature or well-established team should never assume they are high performance; they should always be checking (and rechecking) that they are still living the Agile values.

Needless to say this can become an extremely complex challenge!  To be absolutely clear, I’m not proposing there is a single formula or recipe that works, but I do believe certain criteria can dramatically improve your Scrum team’s chances of success.  To that end here are 10 tips (plus a bonus) that may help you focus your efforts towards building a successful Scrum team and experience.

 

1. Right Number of Team Members

Currently the Scrum Guide recommends that Scrum teams will work best with three to nine people (not including the Scrum Master and Product Owner).  Too few people on the team and you risk not having enough technical expertise and coverage of critical skills.  Too many people on the team and you may become challenged to truly collaborate effectively.  Remember, this is just a guideline and you may be successful with different numbers, you just need to be aware of the impacts and make sure the gaps are covered.

2. Appropriate Balance of Skills

Scrum teams really should be balanced and cross-functional.  Having all of the necessary skills on the team for delivering a complete solution (not roles, but skills) will encourage and support end-to-end thinking all the way from design to implementation.  This approach will result in a better solution and a superior customer experience, but it relies on whole team collaboration.  Note this does not mean individual team members need to be fully cross-functional, but what is important is that all the critical skills are represented on the team and each team member contributes their domain expertise towards the collective strength.

3. Propensity for Engineering Technical Ability

For increased chances of success, a Scrum team should leverage technology and engineering practices whenever possible.  Techniques, skills and tools that facilitate Agile approaches such as Continuous Integration, Automated Testing and Test Driven Development all make technical excellence, continuous improvement and truly being “Done” every Sprint a possible reality for a Scrum team.

4. High Team Member Allocation

Scrum team members should be allocated to as few different initiatives as realistically possible.  The more projects you are allocated to, the more task switching you may have to perform, the longer it will take to complete any one item, the thinner you will be spread and the less effective you will be.  In other words, people (and teams) should limit their work in progress as much as possible and focus on completing those things that truly matter most.  This is true for any framework, but it is particularly emphasized with Agile ones.  Note there is a slight but fundamental difference between being allocated to a team and being dedicated to a team – that is a topic for a future article.

5. Empowered and Knowledgeable Product Owner

Your Product Owner needs to be informed, available, business-savvy, knowledgeable, collaborative, and empowered to make decisions about what to build and what order to do it in.  They also need to be a strong negotiator and very capable at conducting business driven trade-offs.  In the end, a Product Owner needs to effectively communicate, convey and deliver on a clear vision to the Team and Stakeholders to ensure a useful solution is created.  Without empowerment, knowledge, and vision in a Product Owner the team will struggle.

6. Equitable Scrum Master

Having a good process is only part of the equation.  A good Scrum Master will champion and enforce that process, protect the team, encourage collaboration, highlight (escalate when necessary) and encourage the removal of obstacles, facilitate discussions, provide fair and constructive feedback, cultivate a culture of continuous improvement and learning, and work to help the team live the Agile values.

Remember that the Scrum Master has authority over the process but not over the team.  As the process champion the Scrum Master may sometimes even find themselves in a conflict between maintaining the Scrum rules and guiding the team as they discover the need to adapt practices to better align with their own needs and ways of working.  In that regard a Scrum Master should understand and embrace the servant leader role.  In the end, a Scrum Master needs to be the person that helps the team make decisions, but not the person that makes decisions for them.

7. Strong Executive Support

Leadership is the key to driving change and progress.  Executives and managers of Scrum teams need to nurture the environment, let go of the “how”, allow the team to learn from mistakes, and encourage and coach the growth of the collective team knowledge and overall experience.

Understanding the dramatic impact leadership has on a transitioning team is also very critical, as a single word or direction from the executive level can single-handedly affect (either positively or negatively) the team’s future behaviours and resulting successes or failures.  And without a true environment of trust built by the leadership, team members will often shy away from taking a risk to try something new or unknown.

8. Solid Partnership Commitment

There must be a consistent commitment and engagement from all parties in the organization towards adopting the Scrum framework, Agile methods, and thinking.  The initiative must be an open, collaborative experience and there must be complete understanding  and alignment by all parties in assuming the risks and rewards as well as sharing in the effort.  This includes not only business partners and their IT counterparts, but their leadership as well as all of the people and teams supporting an Agile initiative.

9. Reduced Team Dispersion

Co-located teams are more effective communicators and can sometimes experience increased productivity by up to 60% if situated together in the same room.  More simply stated, the greater the dispersion factor, the greater the challenge of collaboration.  Note that time zones are often considered the largest dispersion factor and can have a greater impact than geography.

Although it is strongly recommended that teams be co-located, it is not mandatory to success.  In fact, certain Agile practices have factors, tools and techniques inherent to them to help bridge some of the shortcomings of increased dispersion, such as a higher reliance on frequent collaboration and communication.  But to be clear, they do not replace the value of face-to-face conversation, they are merely a crutch to not having it.

10. Consistent Education and Coaching

To ensure consistency and a shared understanding, whole teams (including the business, IT, and their leadership of executives and managers) should receive a common skills development and education experience in proper Agile Thinking, the Scrum Framework, aligned practices and mindset training.  Coaching should then reinforce this new knowledge and encourage appropriate behaviours to turn these new practices into habits.  Indeed, learning should be a continuous cycle and endless journey towards excellence, and Scrum leverages this through frequent retrospection and continuous improvement.

11. The Right Attitude!

Mutual respect and caring are the cornerstone to the team’s success and it needs to be integral to their culture and beliefs.  Not just saying but living the belief there are no heroes or scapegoats.  Everyone, including the business, executives, team members and leadership must collaborate and share in celebrating the successes as well as accepting responsibility for setbacks and failures.

Everyone must have the right attitude and commit to not only DOING as needed by attending the ceremonies or following the process and practices but truly wanting to BE part of the solution by willingly changing the way they think, work and collaborate.

 

At the end of the day your goal should not be to become Agile or Scrum savvy.  Instead your real goals and outcomes should align with achieving the key benefits of Agility, and with what Scrum offers.  These should include (but are not limited to) increased customer satisfaction, faster delivery of value, improved feedback loops, adopting a continuous improvement mindset, improved employee morale and increased employee retention.  Scrum is just one of the many tools or approaches you may choose to get there, but it is certainly an important one to consider if these outcomes align with your goals.

For Scrum to be truly successful at your organization, you must dramatically transform your very culture and business approach.  To be clear, this is not easy to do but the rewards are well worth the effort.  By embracing such a transformation, the adopted change in behaviour, beliefs and practices should result in a more successful Scrum experience and a higher degree of satisfaction for both your customers and employees.

Can you think of other success factors that might help your Scrum team succeed?  There are lots, so feel free to reach out and share them below.

 

Thanks to Photographer: Chris Potter for this awesome photo.

Sourced from stockmonkeys.com | Flickr Portfolio


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