Category Archives: Agile Case Studies

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 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.


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.


  • 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


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!

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

Martin aziz

Martin Aziz


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Succeeding with your Agile Coach

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I recently said goodbye to one of my organization’s Agile Coaches and I felt that I needed to take a pause and reflect to consider my next move. The engagement had gone well, in fact one of the best we’ve had, but not without its share of successes and failures. But the successes had clearly outpaced any failures, and so there was a lot of good I wanted to build on.

The departing coach was part of a 3rd generation of Agile Coaches that I had worked with in the 3 years since we had begun our company’s transformation to Agile. And while he was a great coach, so were his predecessors and yet they had had fewer successes.

On reflection, what had really happened is that we had changed as a company; we had learned how to better execute our engagements with an Agile Coach.

Deciding to hire an Agile Coach.

Deciding to hire an Agile Coach can be a big step. A couple of things need to have happened, you’ve recognized that you need some help or at least another perspective. And given that Agile Coaches are typically not very cheap, you have decided to invest in your Agile transformation, however big or small. You’re clearly taking it seriously.

However, through my experiences I noticed that things can get a little tricky once that decision has been made. Many organizations can fall into a trap of externalizing transformation responsibilities to the Agile Coach.

In essence thinking along the lines of “as long as I hire a good coach, they should be able to make our teams Agile” can take you into an engagement model that is not very Agile in the first place.

Much like how Scrum and other Agile Practices connect customers with teams and establishes shared risk, an organization’s relationship with their Agile Coaches need to be a working partnership.


Positive Patterns for Coaching Engagements

So it’s important for you to setup the right engagement approach to get value out of your Agile Coach and this goes beyond the hard costs of their services, but also the high cost of failure with not having the right coaching in the right areas.

Here are 5 positive patterns for coaching engagements that I’ve observed:

1. Identify the Customer

Usually it is management who will hire a coach, and they may do so to help one or more teams with their Agile adoption needs. So in this scenario who is the customer? Is it the person that hired the coach or the teams (the coachees) who will be receiving the services? In some cases, the coachees aren’t clear why the coach is there, they haven’t asked for their services and in some cases may even feel threatened by their presence.

For this reason, if management is hiring coaches you need to recognize that there is a 3-pronged relationship that needs to be clearly established and maintained.


With the customer in this case being someone in management, i.e. the person who hired the coach in the first place. The customer’s responsibility will be to not only identify the coachee but then work with the coach to establish and support that relationship.

2. Set the Mandate

Agile Coaches typically tend to be more effective when they have one or two specific mandates tied to an organization’s goals. Not only is the mandate important to establish why the coach is there, too many goals can significantly dilute the coach’s effectiveness. Put another way, Agile Coaches are not immune to exceeding their own Work in Progress limits.

The mandate establishes why the coach is there, and should be tied to some sort of organizational need. A good way of developing this is to articulate what is currently happening and the desired future state you want the coach to help with.

For example:

The teams on our new program are great at consistently delivering their features at the end of each sprint. However, we still experience significant delays merging and testing between teams in order for the program to ship a new release. We’d like to reduce that time significantly, hopefully by at least half.

Once the engagement is well underway you may find that the coach, through serendipity alone, is exposed to and gets involved with a wide variety of other areas. This is fine, but it’s best to just consider this to be a side show and not the main event. If other activities start to take on a life of their own, it’s probably a good time to go back to inspect and potentially adjust the mandate.

If you’re not sure how to establish or identify your Agile goals, this could be the first goal of any Agile coach you hire. In this scenario, the customer is also the coachee and the mandate is to get help establishing a mandate.

3. Hire the Coach that fits the need

Agile coaches are not a homogeneous group, with many degrees of specialty, perspective and experiences. Resist the desire to find a jack-of-all-trades, you’re as likely to find them as a unicorn.

Your now established mandate will be your biggest guide to what kind of coach you should be looking for. Is the need tied to technical practices, process engineering, team collaboration, executive buy-in, transforming your culture, etc?

The other part is connected with the identified coachee. Are the coachees team members, middle management or someone with a “C” in at the start of their title? Will mentoring be required or are you just here to teach something specific?

Using something like ACI’s Agile Coaching Competency Framework, would be a good model to match the competencies required of the perspective coach.

In my example earlier, in order for your team to get help with their merging & testing needs, you may have to look for a coach with the right skills within the Technical Mastery competence. And if you have technical leaders who are championing the change, potentially the ability to Mentor.


4. Establish Feedback Loops

With the coach, customer and mandate clearly identified, you now need to be ready to devote your time to regularly connect and work with the coach. Formalizing some sort of cadence is necessary, if you leave it to ad hoc meetings you will typically not meet regularly enough and usually after some sort of failure has occurred.

The objective of these feedback loops is to tie together the communication lines between the 3 prongs established: the customer, the coach and the coachees. They should be framed in terms of reviewing progress against the goals established with the mandate. If the coachees ran any experiments or made any changes that were intended to get closer to the goals, this would be the time to reflect on them. If the coachees need something from the customer, this would be a good forum to review that need.


Along with maintaining a cadence of communication, feedback loops if done regularly and consistently, could be used to replace deadlines, which in many cases are set simply a pressure mechanism to maintain urgency. So statements like “Merge & test time is to be reduced by half by Q2” now become “We need to reduce merge and test time by half and we will review our progress and adjust every 2 weeks.”

5. It doesn’t need to be Full Time

Resist the temptation to set the coach’s hours as a full-time embedded part of the organization or team. While you may want to have the coach spend a significant amount of time with you and your coachees when the engagement is starting, after this period you will likely get a lot more value from regular check-ins.

This could look like establishing some sort of rhythm with a coachee: reviewing challenges, then agreeing on changes and then coming back to review the results after sufficient time has passed.

This approach is more likely to keep the coach as a coach, and prevents the coach from becoming entangled in the delivery chain of the organization. The coach is there to help the coachees solve the problems, and not to become an active participant in their delivery.

Time to get to work

Bringing in an Agile Coach is an excellent and likely necessary part of unlocking your Agile transformation. However, a successful engagement with a coach will have you more connected and active with your transformation, not less. So consider these 5 positive coaching engagement patterns as I consider them moving into my 4th generation of Agile coaches. I expect it will be a lot of work, along with a steady stream of great results.

Martin aziz

Martin Aziz



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The Scrum Master and Product Owner as leadership partners

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After a recent large organizational change that resulted in a number of new teams formed, a product owner (PO) approached me looking for some help. He said, “I don’t think my new Scrum Master is doing their job and I’m now carrying the entire team, do we have a job description we can look at?”

I can already imagine how a version of me from a previous life would have responded, “yes of course let’s look at the job description and see where the SM is falling short of their roles and responsibilities”. But as I considered my response, my first thought was that focusing our attention on roles and job descriptions was a doomed route to failure. Pouring our energy there would likely just extend the pain the PO, and likely SM, were going through.

Sure we have an SM job description in our organization, and it clearly documents how the SM provides service to the organization, team and PO. But reviewing this with the seasoned SM didn’t really make sense to me; they were very well aware of the content of the job description and what was expected of them.

At the same time that this was happening, another newly paired Scrum Master asked for my help regarding their PO. From their perspective the PO was “suffocating” the team. The PO was directing the team in many aspects of the sprint that they felt was stepping beyond their role. “I don’t think the PO knows their role, maybe you can help me get them some training?” was the SMs concluding comment.

Over the course of the next few weeks this scenario played out again through more POs and SMs sharing similar challenges. Surely this was not a sudden epidemic of previously performing individuals who now needed to be reminded of what their job was?

Recognizing the impact of change

A common pattern was emerging from all of this, change was occurring and each individual was relying on, and to some degree expecting, old patterns to continue to work with their new situation. Their old way of working in Scrum seemed to work very well; so it was everyone else around them that was not meeting expectations.

The core issue however was that change was not being fully confronted: the product was different, the team competencies were different, the stakeholders were different, the expectations were different and finally the team dynamic was different all the way down to the relationship between the SM and PO.

Scrum as a form of Change Management

I looked for the solution from Scrum itself, at its heart a method for teams to use to adapt to and thrive with change. Was there enough transparency, inspection and adaptation going on between the SMs and POs in these situations? I would argue, not enough.

A pattern was becoming clear: nobody was fully disclosing their challenges to the other, they hadn’t fully confronted and understood their new situation and hadn’t come up with new approaches that would improve things. Said another way, they hadn’t inspected their new circumstances sufficiently and transparently enough so that they could adapt their role to fit the new need.

One thing that many successful SMs and POs recognize is that they are both leaders dependent on each other, and for their teams to be successful they need to figure out how they will work together in partnership. It doesn’t matter whether the terms of that partnership gets hashed out over a few chats over coffee or through a facilitated chartering workshop. What matters is clarity around how you agree to work together as partners meeting some shared goal.

As an SM or PO, here are some sample questions whose answers you may wish to understand and align on:

  • Do we both understand and support the team’s mission and goals?
  • What are the product goals?
  • How can we best help the team achieve those goals?
  • Are there any conflicts between the team and product goals?
  • When our goals or methods are in conflict, how will we resolve them?
  • In what ways will I be supporting your success as an SM/PO?
  • How will we keep each other informed and engaged?
  • Should we have a peer/subordinate/other relationship?

So if you are an SM or PO, and it’s unclear to you on the answers to some of these questions, you may just want to tap your leadership partner on the shoulder and say “let’s talk”.


Martin Aziz



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The Daily Goal

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When my Scrum team first proposed trying mobbing I wasn’t sure what to expect. No one on the team (including myself) was an expert. I reserved judgment and watched a few sprints. I stayed silent when the same team decided to skip the tasking out portion of planning and simply pulled in enough stories to fulfill their Sprint goal.

After a couple of sprints it became obvious that there were a number of pros; the team was engaged and aligned. They responded as a consistent, unified voice at Sprint Review and Retro. Planning went a lot faster as the team no longer wrote out all their tasks and didn’t have to copy all of them into Jira.

In particular, the Daily Standup’s usual agenda of “what did you do yesterday? what are you doing today? what are you doing tomorrow?” became redundant. And this had me thinking; ‘maybe the team didn’t need a stand up anymore? What’s the point?”

Then, one of the team members introduced me to the concept of the daily goal and I watched as he walked the team thru it. I thought this made a lot of sense and so did the team. We kept up the practice. Some days the team would forget about it or be too tired to bother. I noticed on those days the team wouldn’t be as clear on what they were working on or how to align on a particular challenge. I also noticed that the Stand Up the next day would be more fragmented and meander a bit. They would forget to communicate to one another and look at me as their Scrum Master expectedly, wanting me to drive it.

I started to coach the team back to their daily goal practice and reminded them this Stand Up was for them to align on the work ahead for the day. This became more important as the team divided up into mini mobs or pairs and were no longer one big mob.

I find the Daily Goal useful for a number of reasons. Instead of tasking out the work a week in advance, they decide how to approach the work on a daily basis that takes into account any day to day changes that have happened. Planning goes a lot faster now that we’re not tasking out all the work in advance. The team stays focused on a daily basis as opposed to at just Planning. They write their daily goal on their Scrum Board making it visible to anyone on the floor what their focus is for the day. Even better, the daily stand up as renewed purpose and the dialogue is more interactive.

Here are some examples of our Daily Goals:

  • Refactor Story 1
  • Coordinate with outside team members to align on test strategy
  • Complete happy path for Story 3
  • And sometimes it is as simple as “Complete story 4”

I hope to continue the practice and frankly, it’s fun! Achieving short time goals is motivating and brings a sense of accomplishment. I highly recommend it. Let me know your thoughts and if you’re trying this technique let me know how it’s working out for your team.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Alexandra Dragon is a first-time contributor to Agile Advice – please welcome her in the comments.  And let us know if you are interested in contributing.]

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The Real Daily Scrum

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On many occasions, I have observed “Scrum Masters” and even “Product Owners” attempting to drive what they understand to be the Daily Scrum. Just this morning, I witnessed a “Daily Scrum” in which a “Product Owner” gave the team a bunch of program updates and made sure that each team member had tasks to work on for the day. Then, the PO “wrapped up” the meeting and left the team to get to the work. I then stayed and observed what the team did next. They actually stayed together to discuss the work and figure out how they were going to organize themselves for the day. I then went over to the Product Owner and whispered in her ear that the team was now doing the real Daily Scrum. She said “Oh,” and promptly walked over to find out what was going on. I then observed her from a distance nodding her head several times while appearing to understand what the team was talking about. I’m not sure if she understood or not, but that’s irrelevant. The point is that the Daily Scrum is for the Development Team to inspect and adapt its progress towards the Sprint Goal and decide how it will self-organize for the coming day. If the Development Team decides as a result of the Daily Scrum that it needs to re-negotiate any previously forcasted functionality with the Product Owner, then that conversation can certainly happen at that time.

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Link: Agile in the Classroom

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If you are a long-time reader of Agile Advice, you know I take interest in Agile methods used in non-software environments.  My buddy Mike Caspar has another great story about the use of Agile in the classroom, and in particular, how he has had an impact as a coach.

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Link: Slashdot on Mob Programming

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Slashdot has a post on mob programming that, as usual, has brought out the poorly socialized extreme introverts and their invective. There are always interesting and insightful comments as well.  I recommend checking it out.  The post links to some studies about mob programming that are also interesting.

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An Evolution of the Scrum of Scrums

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This is the story of how the Scrum of Scrums has evolved for a large program I’m helping out with at one of our clients.

Scrum of Scrum photo Continue reading An Evolution of the Scrum of Scrums

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Scrum Data Warehouse Project

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May people have concerns about the possibility of using Scrum or other Agile methods on large projects that don’t directly involve software development.  Data warehousing projects are commonly brought up as examples where, just maybe, Scrum wouldn’t work.
I have worked as a coach on a couple of such projects.  Here is a brief description of how it worked (both the good and the bad) on one such project:
The project was a data warehouse migration from Oracle to Teradata.  The organization had about 30 people allocated to the project.  Before adopting Scrum, they had done a bunch of up-front analysis work.  This analysis work resulted in a dependency map among approximately 25,000 tables, views and ETL scripts.  The dependency map was stored in an MS Access DB (!).  When I arrived as the coach, there was an expectation that the work would be done according to dependencies and that the “team” would just follow that sequence.
I learned about this all in the first week as I was doing boot-camp style training on Scrum and Agile with the team and helping them to prepare for their first Sprint.
I decided to challenge the assumption about working based on dependencies.  I spoke with the Product Owner about the possible ways to order the work based on value.  We spoke about a few factors including:
  • retiring Oracle data warehouse licenses / servers,
  • retiring disk space / hardware,
  • and saving CPU time with new hardware
The Product Owner started to work on getting metrics for these three factors.  He was able to find that the data was available through some instrumentation that could be implemented quickly so we did this.  It took about a week to get initial data from the instrumentation.
In the meantime, the Scrum teams (4 of them) started their Sprints working on the basis of the dependency analysis.  I “fought” with them to address the technical challenges of allowing the Product Owner to work on the migration in order based more on value – to break the dependencies with a technical solution.  We discussed the underlying technologies for the ETL which included bash scripts, AbInitio and a few other technologies.  We also worked on problems related to deploying every Sprint including getting approval from the organization’s architectural review board on a Sprint-by-Sprint basis.  We also had the teams moved a few times until an ideal team workspace was found.
After the Product Owner found the data, we sorted (ordered) the MS Access DB by business value.  This involved a fairly simple calculation based primarily on disk space and CPU time associated with each item in the DB.  This database of 25000 items became the Product Backlog.  I started to insist to the teams that they work based on this order, but there was extreme resistance from the technical leads.  This led to a few weeks of arguing around whiteboards about the underlying data warehouse ETL technology.  Fundamentally, I wanted to the teams to treat the data warehouse tables as the PBIs and have both Oracle and Teradata running simultaneously (in production) with updates every Sprint for migrating data between the two platforms.  The Technical team kept insisting this was impossible.  I didn’t believe them.  Frankly, I rarely believe a technical team when they claim “technical dependencies” as a reason for doing things in a particular order.
Finally, after a total of 4 Sprints of 3 weeks each, we finally had a breakthrough.  In a one-on-one meeting, the most senior tech lead admitted to me that what I was arguing was actually possible, but that the technical people didn’t want to do it that way because it would require them to touch many of the ETL scripts multiple times – they wanted to avoid re-work.  I was (internally) furious due to the wasted time, but I controlled my feelings and asked if it would be okay if I brought the Product Owner into the discussion.  The tech lead allowed it and we had the conversation again with the PO present.  The tech lead admitted that breaking the dependencies was possible and explained how it could lead to the teams touching ETL scripts more than once.  The PO basically said: “awesome!  Next Sprint we’re doing tables ordered by business value.”
A couple Sprints later, the first of 5 Oracle licenses was retired, and the 2-year $20M project was a success, with nearly every Sprint going into production and with Oracle and Teradata running simultaneously until the last Oracle license was retired.  Although I don’t remember the financial details anymore, the savings were huge due to the early delivery of value.  The apprentice coach there went on to become a well-known coach at this organization and still is a huge Agile advocate 10 years later!

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Family Kanban for Cleaning

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Two nights ago I had a great discussion with my son, Justice Berteig, about how we have been managing to do house cleaning every week.  We have been using a very basic Kanban system.  I have created about 100 stickies each of which has a basic cleaning task such as “tidy the kitchen counters” or “vacuum the office floor” or “clean the powder room toilet”.  If we do all of the tasks, it represents a fairly complete cleaning of the whole house.  Every Saturday morning, all six of us (myself, my wife and our four kids) choose one task at a time and put the sticky for that task in the “In Progress” column.  When we finish a task, we move it to the “Done” column.  When all the tasks are done, we all are finished.  We reuse the stickies each week.  Sometimes if we want to do a quick clean, we won’t put out all of the stickies.Cleaning Kanban - Task

It works well in one specific way: everything gets done!

But Justice was complaining about the system because he works a lot harder and one of my younger kids has admitted to doing less than she could… because she can get away with it with this system.

Last week we tried a modified system where each person has a task allocation.  For example, Justice had an allocation of 25 tasks.  Our younger daughter had an allocation of just 5 tasks.  We then took turns to choose one task at a time (although there were a lot of exceptions to this) until all the tasks are pre-allocated (similar to how teams used to do Sprint Planning).  But, although some people finished all their tasks, not everyone did and so there were a number of things left over that never got finished.

In other words, we stopped using a Kanban system, and we stopped reaching the overall goal of a clean house.

So Justice and I had a long conversation about this problem.  In the interests of continuous improvement and experimentation, I didn’t just force the issue back to the old Kanban system.  Instead we decided to try the following changes:

  1. Limit the tasks to only those in common areas.  Private areas such as bedrooms would be taken off the master list.
  2. Each task would get an estimate from a scale of 1 to 3 to represent their relative difficulty.  We will talk as a family about the estimates and maybe use a simplified “bucket system“.
  3. Now, instead of an allocation of a specific number of tasks, the allocation would be for a total amount of effort.  We agreed that our youngest would get a smaller allocation still, but she could take any number of tasks to fill it up.
  4. We also agreed to be more disciplined about taking turns to choose tasks.

I’m going to add one more thing which is to do a specific retrospective on how it worked to see if we can come up with further improvements.  I have to admit that I hope we go back to the Kanban approach!!!

Check out our new Kanban training offering: Kanban: Gentle Change currently available for public enrolment in the Toronto area and for in-house delivery wherever you might be!

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The Start of a True Team

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I wrote this article for our Real Agility Newsletter, but I wanted to share it here too, just in case some of you don’t get it.  I think this is important to share because it gets to some of the deep values of Agile and good teamwork.

– – – – – – – –

The team really is important. Last month I wrote about love. This month, I’ll write about commitment. Our team has gone through some extreme tests this last month. Commitment kept us together.

Our business has been through crisis before. In the second half of 2005, my own financial mis-management led to near-bankruptcy for the business and for myself personally. My dear long-suffering wife and business partner, Melanie, kept things under control as we recovered. In late 2009 the Great Recession hit us hard and we had to cut our staff back to just Paul and myself by laying off three talented friends and cutting work to a loyal subcontractor. That was incredibly painful for everyone involved. A similar crisis occurred again in late 2011, although it wasn’t as severe. In September last year, our projections were showing a looming crisis… but we narrowly averted any layoffs when a smaller consulting deal closed and one person was let go for unrelated reasons. We still needed more work, and in late fall we were expecting to close three important deals.

In January we knew we were in trouble. Business was not booming. In fact, those three important deals had fallen through with nothing obvious on the horizon to replace them. Our office management was in a shambles with two recent changes in staff and very little continuity. Our accounts receivable had several items that were waaaay overdue. We were starting to dig deep into our operating credit with no obvious way to climb back out. The partners, Paul, Travis, Melanie and I started to talk about serious stuff: deep layoffs. We were worried we may even have to cut all the way back to just me doing work (mostly CSM classes) – a staff level we haven’t seen since 2007!

Two weeks ago, the four partners had an emergency weekend meeting after our early February attempts to build sufficient immediate cash flow failed. We consulted for over four hours around a single question: what should we do? Our projections were showing us running out of credit in just four weeks, our business development pipeline was almost empty and the few things in it were clearly long-shot deals, at least in the timeframe we needed. It seemed almost impossible to avoid deep layoffs. Our love for each other seemed almost irrelevant to the crisis, despite the depth of our feeling.  The consultation was difficult and filled with despair.

My memory for exact words is poor. I remember concepts, relationships and feelings. During that weekend consultation, one thing really stood out: we started to talk about commitment. We talked about what it would mean to be committed to each other and to the business vision of transforming people, process and culture. Most powerfully, we talked about the commitment of our newest employee, Nima, who seemed determined to go to the ends of the earth, to the very last moment to help us all succeed. As we talked about commitment, we came to our most powerful decision: sink or swim, we are all in this together to the end.

After that critical point in our discussion, we set some goals, determined some important activities, and decided to go literally day-to-day in deciding if it was time to wrap up the business. And, strangely enough (I say ironically), we decided we needed to shorten our planning cycle from a month to two weeks, increase the discipline of our team’s interactions to bi-daily check-ins, create a detailed set of dynamic plans for the two weeks, and have a review meeting at the end of the two weeks. Sounds a bit like an Agile team, doesn’t it?

What happened? Well, we’re still around. We’ve closed enough business that our projections are now showing us staying in a steady state financially for the next three months. That’s a dramatic turnaround from just two weeks prior. We aren’t going to run out of credit. In fact, we now have enough prospects that we expect to be extremely busy in just a couple more weeks. Our end-of-cycle review, which happened on Friday, was still difficult. There is still great uncertainty about many things. But the one thing that is crystal clear, strong as steel, and deep as the deepest ocean is our commitment to each other to succeed together. We are a true team.

– – – – – – – –

If you have similar stories to tell, I would love to hear them!

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Facing the facts early on. Risk Mitigation can be a powerful motivator.

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

Recently, I was able to witness a remarkable event in a company that is relatively new to Agile. They have several teams at about Sprint 12, with several new teams just starting up. Many of their processes are waterfall based.

A failed waterfall project was moved to an existing Agile Team.

In the second Sprint, the Team (feeling trust in the organization and the process), came to the Scrum Master and said, “We’d like you to talk to management. We are not sure this project should be using the platform we develop on. We think another team’s platform may be more appropriate”.

The company had spent time developing a “specification document” for this “project” before Agile was introduced. There were detailed specifications as to how the product was to be created and which platform to use. NONE of this was done with the benefit of asking those that would actually be doing the work.

The project was initiated before learning about applying Agile. One developer was tasked with following the specification. After 2-3 months of frustration, the developer left. This left the company in a bad position. Not only was the project incomplete, but there was also no knowledge transfer. The project was basically stopped.

As Agile was now the new target way of doing things, the project (and new developer hired through the previous process) were added to an existing SCRUM team. The team is using one week Sprints.

After only two Sprints (two weeks), the team had recognized the futility of the approach that was “specified” and took this to management.

Traditionally, large organizations staff for projects. In an environment such as this, how could team members be expected to be truthful and honest about the state of affairs? It would mean the end of their jobs or contracts.

The key here is to allow teams to stick together. Not only will you avoid losing all the efficiency the team has built up, but you will also allow them to be truthful about their situation.

If you are a manager reading this, ask yourself. “Do I want to know that things will go wrong at the beginning of the project or wait until 5 months have gone by to be told, ‘We knew it would never work””. Or even worse… “We knew the product owner was asking for ridiculous features that had no Return on Investment for the company, but hey, you hired us for this contract. We just follow instructions”.

As it turned out, the project did continue with the current team, but with some changes to the specification. The parts of the system that were going to be problems in 5 months were re-evaluated and were removed as they really did not have any real value to the company. It was then decided to stick with the same platform.

Discussions did occur regarding moving to the alternate platform, but were deemed unnecessary after open discussion between the teams and the managers involved. Realistic expectations were set based on value to the company.

Sometimes features are absolutely mandatory for the product. This cannot and should not be taken away from the process. What we gain here is that we are able to have a discussion about necessity. In the end, the business has to decide what is valuable, not the development team.

In a case like this, ask yourself, “If my team is very against this, maybe I should at least think about it”.

The company is working in a very short iterative environment, they quickly recognized a flaw in the system design and dealt with it after only 2 weeks into a several month project.

Working incrementally allows the company to “Inspect and Adapt” on a regular basis. This has to include the question, “Does this still make sense?”. If you need to go backwards, let it be to reverse one or two Sprints of work, not months, or even years.

Fortunately, for the company, the product will come out on time, with appropriate technology based on Return on Investment, and likely with significant cost savings over the initial design. This will also allow the team to get started on other high value projects. Talk about win-win.

This project could have gone to another team. It would not have been negative for the first team. The next project would have just come down the pipe for them.

The early signs helped adjust the “expectations” and everyone is moving forward with a clear understanding that they are on a more appropriate path going forward.

For those of you out there trying to convince companies (or yourselves) that Agile is an effective framework, don’t be afraid to talk about “RISK MITIGATION“.

Think about it this way; The company wants to know early on that there will be a problem, not near the end of the project. This is part of the purposeful transparency of any Agile framework.

Mike Caspar
Mike Caspar’s Blog

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Introduction to OpenAgile Half-Day Workshop – Nov. 4, 2011 in Toronto

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

For those of you who are in the Toronto area, you might be interested in a half-day session being put on by Berteig Consulting: an Introduction to OpenAgile.  There are two sessions scheduled for Friday Nov. 4 – one in the morning, one in the afternoon.  The price is $50/person and at the end of the session, you will be fully prepared to write the OpenAgile “Readiness” certificate exam.  The session is being held at the Hilton in downtown Toronto.  The session agenda is as follows:

  1. Welcome
  2. History and Purpose of OpenAgile
  3. Foundations of OpenAgile
  4. Overview of OpenAgile Processes
  5. OpenAgile Capacity-Building
  6. Benefits of OpenAgile
  7. Case Study: Suncor
  8. Q&A

Register now for the Introduction to OpenAgile morning session.

Register now for the Introduction to OpenAgile afternoon session.

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Case Study: Agile Process and a Twist on “20 Percent Time” for a Self-Organizing Volunteer Team

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

Cross-posted from the personal blog of David D. Parker: A Changemaker in the Making

I am engaged in a learning process with a charity that has undertaken to implement a new model of volunteer coordination based on OpenAgile, an open source agile method.  We recently held an orientation with our new volunteers.  In the hopes that this information will be useful to others who are trying to innovate on their  model of volunteer coordination, here are the instructions I shared with the volunteers.  In summary, they cover our process for sharing tasks, the tools we use to communicate with each other, and our use of what we are calling “60/40 time” a twist on Google’s “20 percent time“.


I. Agile Volunteer Team Process

We are all here to support the charity. We are inspired by its mission and goals, and we want to help in a way that draws on all of our abilities, knowledge, skills, and creativity.
Our team uses a specific system for producing valuable results. We work in Cycles of 5 weeks. The charity’s staff talk with the stakeholders and decide what steps are necessary for accomplishing the organization’s goals. Each one of these steps, called Value Drivers, add up to providing value for the stakeholders once they’re delivered. The staff also decide the priority order for completing the Value Drivers.
In week 1 of the Cycle, there is a planning meeting with all the volunteers who are committed to doing work during the 5 week Cycle. All volunteers are urged to attend and participate.
  1. The meeting begins with reflecting on the results of the previous Cycle. These observations and lessons are an important part of the planning process.
  2. Next, the team of volunteers works together to create a Cycle Plan by taking the highest priority Value Driver and breaking it down into tasks. Tasks are represented by sticky notes on the wall.
  3. Third, the volunteer team counts the number of tasks needed to complete the highest priority Value Driver. If the past Cycle showed that the team can complete more tasks, then the team takes the next Value Driver in the list and breaks it down into tasks. This process continues until the team makes a unified decision that it has taken on the amount of work it can actually accomplish.
  4. The last part of the meeting is commitment. Everyone shares the responsibility for completing the Value Driver (represented by multiple tasks) by the end of the Cycle of work. Therefore each volunteer must truthfully commit to completing the work. If a volunteer is not comfortable committing to all the work on the task wall, then some tasks must be removed until everyone is able to commit.
In week 2, 3, 4, and 5 of the Cycle, the team of volunteers complete the tasks in the Cycle Plan (aka “doing work”).
  1. Volunteers are free to take whatever task is of interest to them. If they need more information about the task, they ask the other volunteers or the staff for details.
  2. When a volunteer begins a task, they sign their name on the bottom of the sticky and move the task into the “in progress” column.
  3. When a volunteer completes a task, they move the task into the “done” column.
  4. There are weekly conference calls where all the volunteers check in. They answer 4 simple questions
    1. What did I do last week?
    2. What will I do this week?
    3. What did I learn/observe?
    4. What obstacles, if any, are affecting my ability to do work?
  5. New tasks can be added to the wall based on any of the volunteers’ observations, obstacles, clarifications, questions, urgent new tasks, etc. If you add a new task to the wall, add your name to the bottom of the task, so that other volunteers can know who to go to for questions. Note that these new tasks must also be completed by the end of the 5 week Cycle.
At the end of the 5 week Cycle, the team presents the valuable results it has produced to the charity staff/stakeholders. Any insights, observations, corrections, etc. are factored into the next Cycle Plan.

II. Communication Tools

Over the time we have worked together, the volunteer team has decided to use a few tools to help us communicate. The main tool is the task wall and sticky notes. The secondary tool is a shared Gmail account.
NOTE: This list of instructions is a working, evolving document; it is not set in stone. Volunteers are encouraged to work together and adapt the way we do things to create a system that works well for all of us.
  1. Login and read new messages
  2. Emails in the Inbox means there is work to be done (if the task is complete, archive the email to remove from the Inbox aka the To Do List)
  3. Apply Labels – Gmail doesn’t use folders; it uses labels instead. Apply labels to emails to assist other volunteers with how to treat the content of that message.
  4. Write up volunteer tasks for the task wall (Note: Label as “Task Written & Posted”)
  5. Get work done:
  6. Move the task on the wall to in progress
  7. If the task came from an email, label the task with your name
  8. When the task is complete, label as “Task Complete” and archive the email so it doesn’t appear in the Inbox
  • ??? – this means more information or context is required to understand the request –> ASK QUESTIONS, or get help, to complete the task
  • By Volunteer Name –> This means the task/email is in progress; A volunteer labels the email with their name when they accept responsibility for a particular task
  • FYI (For Your Information) – these are emails that contain information that is relevant to volunteers, but does not necessarily require action be taken. If action is required, write up a task and post it on the wall)
  • Task Complete – Use this to label When a task is complete; archive the email so it doesn’t appear in the Inbox
  • Task Written & Posted – apply this label after you write up the task and post it on the wall
  • Social Media – these are emails that apply specifically to social media like Twitter, Facebook, etc.
  • Website – these emails are relevant to website updates

III. What is 60/40 Time?

There are many reasons why people volunteer.  Here is a short list that comes from Molly Schar’s article Making the Most of Nonprofit Volunteers:
  • Belief in the mission of the charity
  • Desire to “give back”
  • Meet new people
  • Make new business contacts
  • Invited or inspired by another volunteer or staff member
  • Improve resume
  • Learn new skills
  • Benefits such as free events
We want all of our volunteers to get the most out of their experience here. Rather than insisting that every moment of a volunteer’s time be spent on completing tasks on the wall, we ask you to split your time 60/40. We want to give our volunteers freedom to spend a large portion of time doing things that satisfy their motivations while still providing value to the organization. For example, if someone has an interest in building skills in using social media, but there aren’t currently any tasks on the wall related to social media, the volunteer would be encouraged to use 40% of their time using social media to benefit the charity. The remaining 60% of the time is essential for delivering other important results to the organization. We aspire to having a trusting environment, so it is up to you to monitor how you’re spending your time. During progress updates, all volunteers are encouraged to share what they’ve accomplished during their 40% time. This will help other volunteers to learn what motivates their teammates and will give the team information that can be integrated into future Cycle Plans.

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Case Study: OpenAgile for Charity Volunteer Management

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

Cross-posted from my personal blog: A Changemaker in the Making

For the past several weeks, I have been helping a small charity solve a dilemma. Because the charity is well-recognized for their good work, they regularly attract volunteers who want to help. Unfortunately, the two overworked staff members are too busy to recruit, train, and manage them. My approach has been to use OpenAgile, an open source system for delivering value to stakeholders, to implement a few simple techniques to help them.

There are several aspects of OpenAgile that fit very well for managing volunteers:

1. Self-Organizing Behavior

This means people “volunteer” for tasks instead of doing them based on a tightly defined role or having someone tell them what to do. This frees the staff from having to assign work. Instead, they identify priorities and rely on the volunteer’s creativity and personal motivation to do the task in their own way.

2. Shared Responsibility for the Workload

When there is more than one volunteer, they work in a team and share the responsibility for the workload. The team of volunteers discuss the priorities of the organization, and decide among themselves what tasks need to be completed. Then, they create and commit to a 1-2 week short-term plan that will deliver those results. Finally, they come back after the 1-2 week period and reflect on what they accomplished.  This pattern of action, reflection, learning, and planning is one of the Foundations of OpenAgile.

3. Visible Tasks

This means that all people doing the work should be able to see what tasks needs to get done, what is in progress, and what tasks are done. One technique that co-located teams often use is simply posting tasks on a wall using sticky notes. (Check out my OpenAgile Task Wall Prezi) Another cool idea is Card Meeting which works on the same principle, but it can be useful for distributed teams.

4. Learning Manifesto

The emphasis on learning is perhaps the most important aspect of OpenAgile that aligns with the needs of volunteer management.  The Learning Manifesto states that “Learning is the key that unlocks human capacity.”  Volunteers are drawn to an organization because of its vision but can get pushed away when they feel they’re underutilized or not able to contribute in a meaningful way.  By making it explicit that the volunteer is primarily accountable for learning, the organization creates a safe space for experimentation and innovation.

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