All posts by Travis Birch

Travis has been helping businesses improve since 2008. His clients include Royal Bank of Canada, Scotiabank, Bank of Montreal, Bell, Telus, American Express, LoyaltyOne, Aimia, Blackberry, Dealertrack and the Government of Ontario. He is an Accredited Kanban Trainer with LeanKanban University, a Certified Scrum Professional with the Scrum Alliance and a Master of OpenAgile. Travis considers Kanban’s systematic yet humane approach to evolving organizations a key differentiator to other organizational change approaches. Travis brings curiosity, enthusiasm, respect and empathy to his work as a trainer and consultant.

Announcing Release of OpenAgile Primer

Berteig Consulting is thrilled to announce the early release of the OpenAgile Primer, version 1.0, now available for download at http://www.openagile.com/TheOpenAgilePrimer.  This release falls 2 weeks ahead of the scheduled release date of 1 December 2009 thanks in large part to the implementation of OpenAgile itself in the creation of the document.

The Primer is intended as an introduction to the methodology of OpenAgile as well as required reading for the soon-to-be released OpenAgile Readiness Knowledge Test.  Successful completion by individuals of the Readiness Test will result in the award of an OpenAgile Readiness Certificate—the prerequisite for OpenAgile Team Member Certification.

The team wishes to thank all those who have generously contributed to the realization of the first version of the Primer and looks forward to collaborating with many more of you in the future.

OpenAgile public course listings have already been posted on the Berteig Consulting website: http://www.berteigconsulting.com.

We also warmly invite you to become involved in the OpenAgile Community through the OpenAgile Wiki:Community Portal.

We will keep you posted as the work progresses.

To learn more about OpenAgile, please visit us at http://www.openagile.com.

Regards,

The Berteig Consulting Team


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Why try to be good?

What motivates human beings to do the right thing?  To do good deeds, to be truthful, to be kind, to be helpful, to try to make the world a better place?  First of all, we have to realize that everything we say and do has an actual, real effect on our environment for better or for worse.  Every time we help someone, or tell the truth, it actually makes the world better in some small way, just as when we lie, cheat, steal or speak unkindly to someone, no matter how small the affront, we actually make the world worse.  In fact, our thoughts, words and actions can really have only one of two basic effects on the world – they can make it better or make it worse.  Period.

There are some powerful cultural forces in our society, most obviously the constant stream of materialistic propaganda through various forms of hypnotic media, that influence the way we perceive our ability to contribute to the betterment or worsening of our environment.  The basic message is that individuals can’t affect any real fundamental change in society (i.e., their environment) and that the best any of us can do is to change our position, rank or class within the permanent structures of our society.  Therefore, “only the strong survive”, “get what you can while you can” and the “pursuit of happiness” have become not only slogans that we live by, but conceptions of human nature that have constructed our social reality.

For example, the concept behind “the pursuit of happiness” is that happiness is something external and fixed that a person has to find somewhere “out there”.  Embedded in this “right” is the implicit message that “average” individuals and groups do not have the potential to exert influence on, and contribute in any meaningful and lasting way to the shaping of the prevailing social order.  Thus, there is always a better neighborhood to live in, a better employer to work for, a better school for your kids to go to, etc.  It disempowers us all from thinking that we can get together and do something right now about our immediate reality.  “Don’t even bother”, it says, “you won’t be able to change anything anyways – you’re wasting time, effort, and worst of all – money!  Better to lie just a little, cheat just a little, step on your neighbor just a little in order to protect your own little piece of turf.”

Understanding the truth about our reality – our potential to contribute to the betterment of the world – is what will actually begin to motivate us to be good – that is, the fact that our good thoughts, good words, and good actions can and do make the world better.  “Better” becomes not merely an external pursuit that we fight to get our little piece of; rather, it is an organic, sembiotic process of growth.  For one thing, it requires vision: What would the world be like, for example, if everyone always tried to tell the truth?  Would it really be so bad?  Would human affairs come to stand still?  Would the economy crumble?  Or would it, rather, begin create something new… something better?


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The ScrumMaster Training Interactive Case Study

You have just been hired to be the ScrumMaster for a team at Zysoft Corp. Your boss, Jeremy, hired you because he likes your attitude and because you have been a team lead at a competitor. But you have never been a ScrumMaster before. Jeremy assures you that you will do “just fine! Scrum is simple!” But some of the things Jeremy told you in your interview make you wonder if it will really be so easy…

The ScrumMaster Training Interactive Case Study is the latest learning tool offered by Berteig Consulting. Like a chose-your-own adventure book, you enter into Jeremy’s world and confront real-life scenarios and learn to overcome real-life obstacles.

We hope that you have fun with this and gain some valuable insights into the role.  The tool is still in beta, so we very much appreciate any and all feedback.  Enjoy!


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How the Agile Community Can Contribute to the Betterment of the World

On April 1, 2009 Scott Ambler posted on his blog “a parody of a very serious ethical lapse within the agile community.”  It was an April Fool’s joke – a fake ad for a 2-day agile certification course called “SCUM Certified™ Agile Master, or more colloquially SCAMmer”.  The mock-ad states that

We want to be perfectly clear about this, by taking this ‘certification course’ what we’re certifying is that you attended the course.  It is your choice (nod nod, wink wink) if you wish to present yourself as a professional SCAMmer.  Yes, about 99.8% of course attendees choose to do this, why would you take the course otherwise?

This piece will not be a direct response to Ambler’s joke.  That would be…well, rather foolish.  Instead, what I intend to address here are the concerns raised by his “Parting Thoughts”, which take on a more serious tone and seem to be getting to the heart of what’s really (and understandably) bothering him.

In his “Parting Thoughts”, he states “I believe we can do much better.”  He is referring, of course, to the “ethical lapse” jokingly addressed by his mock-ad.  He goes on to say:

My hope is that this joke has made you step back and think about what’s going on around you. Being a “Certified X”, whatever X happens to be, implies that you’ve done something to earn that certification. If you’ve done very little to earn a certification then at best that’s what your certification is worth: very little.  If you’re involved in a questionable certification scheme, regardless of whatever justifications that you tell yourself you have still shamed both yourself and your so-called profession.  If you turn a blind eye to people who claim to be “certified masters” after doing almost nothing to earn that certification then you too are complicit: As Edmund Burke first said, all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.  I invite everyone in the agile community to read Ethics for the Real World and to stand up and show some integrity.  Enough is enough.

What Ambler seems to be saying here is that for those of us in the agile community to “do much better”, what we really need is to do something about “questionable certification schemes”.  The “something” he proposes is that we should not “turn a blind eye to people who claim to be ‘certified masters’ after doing nothing to earn that certification”.  What he then prescribes to all of us in the agile community is to read a book and to “stand up and show some integrity”.

So I decided to take the challenge… sort of.  What I mean by “sort of” is that I didn’t read the whole book; rather, I followed the link to amazon.com and read the first chapter entitled “Almost Ethical: Waking Up to Compromise”.  I think I got it.

So, let’s say that we can all agree that integrity is a good thing and it would be  good if everyone’s actions were always distinguished by integrity and uprightness.  At the same time, let’s assume for the sake of this blog that we can also all agree that we live in a very complex world that constantly presents us with situations that make it very difficult to live up to such a standard.  Perhaps we may also all agree that in many of these situations, we often fail to live up to the standards of integrity that we espouse and would like to see established in the world.

In Ethics, Howard and Korver identify that “Lying, a form of deception, plays a central role in ethical compromise” and that lying “appears… commonly in ethical thinking.”  They point out that “Most of us are practiced liars.”  They offer the results of one study as evidence of this:

147 college students and community members kept daily diaries of lying.  The students reported telling an average of two lies per day, the community members one.  None thought their lie telling was serious (although none of them asked the people they lied to).

They go on to make the following observations:

If we hold a video camera up to our lives, we may be astonished at the incredible sweep of lies on the landscape.  If we pan that camera to view the lives of others, we see disingenuousness everywhere.  Imagine being in the shoes of the following people, whose stories are based on real events:

  • You are a consultant, and you know your bid for phase one of a project, $300,000, will turn off your client.  You could bid $200,000, knowing your client will soon agree to the extra work and expense anyway.  You are tempted to understate the cost.
  • You are a young engineer, and you can’t get a software test to run as specified before an industry trade show.  Your manager urges you to run past tapes of the test at the show, pretending that it is a live test.  You are tempted to go along.
  • You are an entrepreneur seeking money to fund your new start-up.  You know venture capitalists chop revenue forecasts by 50 percent.  You are tempted to inflate your revenue forecast by a factor of two to compensate for the expected discount.

Whether or not you’ve ever been in these situations, you no doubt have been in similar ones.  Every time, you have probably had at least one very good reason to compromise – and at times you did.  You lied.  You may feel uneasy about it.  You may even be haunted by it.

But you shouldn’t feel alone.  Using compromise as a helping hand in life has a storied, if seamy, tradition.  Even revered leaders lie routinely…

No doubt, subsequent chapters of this book offer helpful advice about how to overcome the temptations to lie that so many of us so often find ourselves feeling.  What I would like to point out, though, is Howard’s and Krover’s insight that lying “has a storied, if seamy, tradition.”  In other words, lying has become an ingrained, normal and expected habit of our culture.  Temptation is one thing, but breaking out of a culture of lying requires a sea change in human morals, standards and codes of conduct.

Now that the immensity of what we’re actually dealing with when we start talking about “integrity” has become more clear – i.e. integrity is a really hard thing to figure out in a complex world that is really messed up – what can we actually do about it?  In other words, is it futile to try to be a person of integrity in a corrupt world?  The short answer to this question is, unfortunately, “No”.  Just like you cannot be a just person in an unjust world.  A brief example will illustrate this fact:  It is almost impossible for any one person living in North America to be able to guarantee that not one article of clothing that they own was manufactured in a sweat shop or by child laborers.  Indeed, most of us can agree that sweat shops and child labor are examples of flagrant injustice.  By participating in an economy that feeds off of their existence, i.e. paying for goods manufactured under such conditions, we are investing in the system that perpetuates the oppression and exploitation of the people whose survival depends on that system.

Being a person of integrity is equally elusive to being a person of justice.  In order to survive in the jungle, you have to obey the laws of the jungle.  So what is the solution?  What can we actually do?  Is it a hopeless situation, this reality of ours?

Indeed, it is not enough for people to just “be good”.  We must also all strive to transform the social environment, structures and institutions that we are a part of in our daily lives.  In other words, it is not enough to be a “good” person who attacks everything that one perceives as being “bad”.  You can’t just decide that you are going to be civilized in the jungle and complain about all the things that are going to eat you and hope to survive.  You also have to contribute to building the civilization that will replace it, contribute to cultivating a new garden.  You will need to find like-minded individuals and work shoulder to shoulder with them and learn to overlook all of their many shortcomings as they learn to overlook yours.

There is another good book that I’ve been reading:  Beyond the Culture of Contest by Michael Karlberg, Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at Western Washington University, whose research and writing focus on the relationship between communication, culture and conflict.  Here is how Karlberg opens his book:

We live in a culture of contest. In western-liberal societies our economic, political and legal systems, as well as many of our other social institutions and practices, are competitive and conflictual.  Surrounding this culture is a culture of protest.  In response to the social and ecological problems engendered by our culture of contest, we engage in protests, demonstrations, acts of civil disobedience, partisan organizing, litigation, strikes and other oppositional strategies of social advocacy and change.

These competitive and conflictual norms have become so ubiquitous that they appear natural and inevitable to many people.  Indeed, conventional wisdom suggests that these social norms are an inevitable expression of an essentially selfish and aggressive human nature.  The prevailing social order, according to this logic, is an inevitable reflection of human nature.  But is a culture of contest and protest really an inevitable reflection of human nature?  Or is it possible that human beings have the developmental potential for either adversarial or mutualistic behaviour? Is it possible that human culture, rather than human nature, determines which of these potentials is more fully expressed?  Is it possible that the prevailing culture of contest and protest cultivates the former rather than the latter?  And if so, what are the implications?

It seems that by taking Ambler up on his challenge, that is, in trying to figure out how to “stand up and show some integrity”, some initial conclusions can be drawn:

  1. Lying is a big, complex problem – a central part of our culture.
  2. You can’t stop the problem of lying by pointing fingers.
  3. Lying is a social problem engendered by a culture of contest – a social norm that is so ubuiquitous that it appears natural and inevitable to many people.  Many would even believe that it is an inevitable expression of an essentially selfish and aggressive human nature.
  4. Overcoming such a powerful cultural norm is not as easy as getting everyone to just read a book or attend a course.

I hope that everyone who reads this finds it to be an attractive invitation to participate in a mutualistic discourse on how we in the agile community can find ways we can work together to contribute to building a better world – a world characterized by integrity, uprightness, justice, truthfulness, prosperity and joy.


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Shervin Satareh on NGO-corporate collaboration

I subscribe to the European Baha’i Business Forum newsletter which often posts interesting articles and interviews about the relationships between business, corporate responsibility and social and economic development.  In his interview, Satareh discusses the need for closer collaboration between corporations and NGOs and how opening up this kind of discourse will contribute to advancing the corporate social responsibility (CSR) movement.

I found this intriguing in light of the BCI team’s current project of developing the OpenAgile™ Learning System™ and the corporate learning institute.


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Agile Successes and “Failures”

Here are the results from a bit of web research that I just did for a client:

Successes:

Capital One:

Agile 2007 Conference Presentation – “The Growth of an Agile Coach Community at a Fortune 200 Company”

*Mishkin Berteig (http://www.berteigconsulting.com/MishkinBerteig) worked with co-author Kara Silva on a large-scale Agile implementation

2005 Information Week article

Salesforce.com:

Agile 2007 Conference Presentation

“Failures“:

It’s generally really hard to get people to talk openly about failure.  I assert that Agile itself never fails, rather organizations fail to implement Agile.  But that’s for another article. Here are some anonymous stories:

http://www.agileadvice.com/2007/08/09/agile-case-studies/a-cautionary-tale-delaying-agile-adoption/

http://www.cio.com/article/442264/Cargo_Cult_Methodology_How_Agile_Can_Go_Terribly_Terribly_Wrong

This one includes successes and failures in China:

http://www.infoq.com/articles/Agile-adoption-study-china

Another interesting article about the concept of failure:

http://blogs.zdnet.com/projectfailures/?p=494

So cheeky, so true:

“How to Fail with Agile” by Clinton Keith & Mike Cohn

Interviews on adopting Agile:

http://www.infoq.com/bycategory/contentbycategory.action?idx=2&ct=2&alias=adopting-agile


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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 (http://www.infoq.com/presentations/poppendieck-agile-leadership), 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?

Ohno:

“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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The Importance of Questions

I’m currently doing some coaching work with Regina, a new project manager working with a small team of web developers at a community development organization in Toronto.  We had our first session last week. Regina was having trouble getting started on a particular project and I shared with her some of the Agile methods of creating a prioritized Cycle Plan, breaking it down into small tasks, etc.

Regina seems to be finding Agile methods helpful in general, but there was a special kind of interaction that we had around removing an obstacle that was particularly interesting for me.  It had to do with an email she received from Peter, a developer working on one of the websites she’s managing. Regina shared a concern that she didn’t know some of the technical terms Peter was using.  So I had her read through the email and form questions around the points she wasn’t clear about – i.e., “what are buttons?” and I wrote them down as she was speaking.

I then suggested that she compose a reply email containing the same set of questions.  Regina’s eyes opened wide and she exclaimed, “Oh yeah – that’s so obvious!”  I went on to mention that another option would be to go and do some research on her own but that there were some valuable advantages in asking Peter directly, particularly in terms of team-building, that may not be as immediately apparent as asking the questions solely for the purpose of having them answered.  Here are a few:

First, it’s a way forRegina to remind Peter that she does not have a technical background and that he should not assume that she is familiar with web-lingo.  Second, it also reminds him that she is a different person from the last manager he was working with and subtly reinforces that it’s important that they get to know each other as two individual human beings and learn to work together effectively.  Third, and perhaps most importantly, it gives Peter an opportunity to help someone else on the team learn something new, and by doing so, contribute to the culture of learning on the team.  Fourth, and perhaps most obviously, it promotes open lines of clear communication on the team.

(Of course, if the team was colocated, which it is not, lack of communication would be much less of an obstacle!)

Asking questions in the interest of learning makes it visible to others that you don’t know everything.  For some people, this presents a dilemma.  What makes it a dilemma is that asking meaningful questions is something that many people aren’t able to do well.  The ability to ask meaningful questions is a learnable skill requiring the capabilities of truthfulness, humility and courage.  Such capabilities – let’s call them moral capabilities – can themselves be developed through conscious, focused effort.

Someone in the position of a newly hired manager, or a veteran manager with a new team, who lacks these capabilities may feel that it is important to present to a team a persona of all-knowingness.  But, of course, this is false and the truth of one’s degree of knowledge and capability, or lack thereof, soon becomes apparent anyway.  Clearly, this person needs to do some honest hard work to develop some humility, but truthfulness and courage are still often major factors.

Or maybe you’re the kind of person (like Regina) who just doesn’t want to bother anyone.  In this case, humility is not necessarily lacking, but truthfulness – and perhaps most of all courage – may need some attention.  Concepts around moral capabilities deserve much more elaboration, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll leave it at that.

To sum it up, if you are open and clear in the way you ask questions, people will tend to appreciate it and will trust you more in the end.  Moreover, it can have a transformative effect on the environment of the team.  When your team members realize that you are not afraid to ask questions and be truthful about your lack of knowledge in a certain area, it will encourage them to be more truthful about their own capabilities.  Not to mention that most people feel good when they are able to help others.  When your team members feel safe to ask for help and free to help each other, it is empowering for everyone.

Asking meaningful questions, therefore, is an essential aspect of learning together, and nothing is a more powerful contributor to the success of an organization than a team that learns as a team.


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What is Agile?

The word “Agile” refers to a type of method for getting work done.  It’s all about doing valuable work with speed and quality.  An Agile team delivers finished work frequently while working at a sustainable pace.  Agile process consists of short iterations of work that deliver small increments of potentially shippable customer value.  Frequent delivery ensures visibility of the work of the team, as well as its needs and obstacles, to all stakeholders.

Agile refers to a discipline defined as the middle way of excellence between chaos and bureaucracy.  Agile also refers to the philosophy that humans do work in a complex world.

Although Agile has emerged out of endemic crisis in the software development sector (but not exclusive to it!) – mainly caused by the pressure built up from the strata of systemic dishonesty and distrust – it is not a software development process methodology.  Rather, it is a system of learning that challenges deep cultural assumptions and catalyzes change in an organization.

Agile methods are made of processes, principles and tools.  But most importantly they are concerned with people.  Therefore, Truthfulness is the foundation of success in an Agile organization.

Although Agile cannot force people to be truthful, it reveals the direct consequences of opacity in an organization, confronts it and challenges it to change.

Agile prioritizes by value, not “dependency”.  In fact, Agile teams are expected to break dependencies and are empowered by such challenges.  Agile teams self-organize their own work –  they are not “managed resources”.  Agile is team-focused rather than project-focused.  Agile responds to evolving requirements and avoids frozen requirements.  In an Agile environment change is embraced as natural and healthy, rather than as something “risky” to be avoided.

In short, Agile is about overcoming fear, both on the part of individuals as well as collectively and culturally on the part of organizations.

As with any sincere effort to overcome habitual fear, Agile work is hard work.  Becoming Agile can be an uncomfortable, confusing and frustrating process and can remain that way for a long time.

Agile is the art of the possible.  It’s methods are idealistic, not dogmatic.  Agile is about learning, adapting and striving for the ideal.  Agile is based in reality – it relies on everyone to be truthful about the possible and to contribute honestly towards customer value.

Therefore, Agile requires a constructive and positive attitude.  In an Agile environment, a state of crisis is an embraced opportunity to learn and improve.

An Agile team is empowered by its responsibility to self-organize.  On an Agile team, people work together towards a common goal and coordinate their work amongst themselves.  There are no managers or bosses on Agile teams.  Correspondingly, no member of an Agile team reports to a boss or a manager.  All team members report to the team.  While working on a team, everyone checks their institutional titles, roles and responsibilities at the door.  All members of an Agile team are responsible for one thing: contributing as much customer value as possible to the work of the team.

Agile exposes the true character of an organization’s culture and forces visibility on all levels.

At Berteig Consulting, we practice Agile.  I am currently working in the role of Process Facilitator for our core team of 4.  We work in 1-week iterations.  As a couple of the team members have a 4-day work week, we have our Retrospective on Monday mornings at 10 AM, followed by the Planning Meeting for our next iteration at 11 AM.  The remaining work days begin with a daily stand-up meeting using the reporting methods of the Daily Scrum (each member reports 3 things to the team – “What I did yesterday”, What I’m doing today”, and “What are my obstacles”).  We work in a collocated team room, with product backlog items, iteration backlog tasks, obstacles, definition of done and a burn-down chart all up on the walls.  We are currently in our fourth iteration of our current project (which, in this case, is the business itself!).  As part of our retrospectives, team members actually demo finished work – i.e., Mishkin shows us some of the great changes he’s made to his course materials and Paul demos the latest edition of our beautiful newsletter (the one you’re reading right now!).  Laila has even demoed some travel tools that she’s been working on for the coaches and trainers.  We also decided to each write our reflections in order to share them with those who might find it useful as a way of wrapping up the retrospective for this iteration.

Agile can be implemented anywhere people do work together.  Visibility of work, openness of consultation and a strong collaborative spirit feeds an overall feeling of excitement and optimism on an Agile team.  Clear goals based on small pieces of prioritized value and sustainability of work ensure quality and speed of productivity.  But of course, in order for a team to build up these capabilities, it must establish, maintain and defend a firm and immovable foundation of truthfulness.


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