Tag Archives: Business

When the team says, “we need detailed requirements before we can estimate”…

The next time the team says “we can’t estimate without better requirements” what they actually mean is, “this is crazy, but hey…if you think you can accurately predict all the exact requirements and you can guarantee that nobody in this company will change their minds about those requirements between this moment and forever, then we’ll give you an estimate to hang your hat/noose on.”

Every group responsible for the creation and delivery of software (or any complex/creative product for that matter) will experience dissonance between the need to plan and the need to obey the laws of nature which prevent us from travelling through time and future-telling.  Business leaders have to finance the development of product; creative and technical leaders have to solve complex problems amidst dynamic, unpredictable, circumstances.  These conditions manifest as a dichotomy which is difficult to mediate (at best) and/or downright toxic (at worst).

On one hand, a common sentiment among project managers is: “The problem I have with the release planning stage is that without clear requirements, the developers don’t like to give estimates, even with story points.”

On the other hand, a common sentiment among developers is: “Stakeholders don’t understand what they’re asking for, if they knew the complexity of our technology they wouldn’t be asking those questions.”

If developers don’t like to provide estimates, it is likely because others in the organization have used their estimates as though they are accurate predictions of future. Thus, when said estimates turn out to be inaccurate they are used as punitive metrics in conversations about “commitment” and “velocity” and “accountability”.

Point of order: NOBODY CAN PREDICT THE FUTURE.

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The Agile Manifesto – Essay 3: Working Software over Comprehensive Documentation

How much documentation does it take to run a project with ten people working for six months?  For some organizations it takes way too much:

Photo of heavy documentation for software project

This binder (about 3 or 4 inches thick) is all the documentation associated with such a project.  In looking carefully at the project, creating the documentation took far more time than the time spent on designing, writing and testing the software.  Yet, the documentation does not produce any value.  Only the software produces value.  The Agile Manifesto, asks us to focus on the outcome (working software) and to make tradeoffs to minimize the means (comprehensive documentation).

The Agile Manifesto asks us to challenge our assumptions about documentation.  In many work environments, documentation is an attempt to address some interesting and important needs:

  • Knowledge sharing among stakeholders and the people working on a project.
  • Knowledge sharing across time as people come in and out of a project.
  • Verification and traceability for contracts or other compliance needs.
  • Decision-making and analysis for business and technical problems.
  • Management oversight and control.
  • Various aspects of individual accountability.

Documentation is usually heavier (more comprehensive) the more the following circumstances exist in an organization:

  • Geographical distribution of people.
  • Lack of trust between people, departments or organizations.
  • Regulated work environments.
  • Depth of management hierarchy.
  • Number of people directly and indirectly involved.
  • Knowledge and skill sets highly segregated between people.
  • Culture of respect for written texts.

Working Software

What if the software itself could address the needs that often documentation is used to address?  Let’s look at them in turn:

  • Knowledge sharing among stakeholders and the people working on a project.
    If the software is functional at all stages, as supported by Agile methods such as Scrum and Extreme Programming, then the software becomes an effective representation of the knowledge of all the people who have participated in building it.
  • Knowledge sharing across time as people come in and out of a project.
    Software that is technically excellent is often easier to understand for people who are new to it.  For example, excellence in user experience and design means new users can get up to speed on software faster.  Use of good design patterns and automated testing allows new developers to understand existing software easily.
  • Verification and traceability for contracts or other compliance needs.
    Test-driven development (code) and specification by example (scripting and code) are forms of traceable, executable documentation that easily stay in-sync with the underlying software system.
  • Decision-making and analysis for business and technical problems.
    In particular, diagrams can help a great deal here.  However, electronic tools for creating such diagrams can be slow and awkward.  Consider the practice of Agile Modelling (basically using a whiteboard and taking photos) as a good alternative to precise technical diagramming if you are doing problem-solving.
  • Management oversight and control.
    Reports and metrics drive much of the traditional documentation in an organization.  Simplifying reports and metrics often leads to a clearer picture of what is going on, reduces the opportunities to “game” the system, and always results in lower levels of documentation.  As well, some reports and metrics can be generated 100% through automated means.  All that said, the fundamental premise in the Agile manifesto is that management should base decisions on what is actually built – the “Working software” by looking at it and using it.
  • Various aspects of individual accountability.
    If you really need this, a good version control system can give you the information for this.  Sign-offs and other types of accountability documentation are typically just waste that doesn’t actually help in process improvement.  Most people who are in high-compliance environments already have licenses and/or security clearances that provide this accountability.  If you software is working, however, then this isn’t even a concern as trust is built and bureaucracy can be reduced.

In my recent training programs as research for this article, I have surveyed over 100 people on one aspect of documentation – code documentation.  Every individual surveyed is either currently coding or has a coding background, and every single person had the same answer to a simple scenario question:

Imagine that you have just joined a new organization and you are about to start working as a software developer.  One of the existing team members comes up to you and introduces himself.  He has with him a piece of paper with a complicated-looking diagram and a full binder that looks to be holding about 250 pages.  He asks you, “you need to get up to speed quickly on our existing system – we’re starting you coding tomorrow – would you prefer to go over the architecture diagram with me or would you prefer to review the detailed specifications and design documents.” He indicates the one-page diagram and the binder respectively.  Which would you prefer?

(I’ve put up a Survey Monkey one-question survey: Code Documentation Preference to extend the reach of this question.  It should take you all of 60 seconds to do it.  I’ll post results when I write the next Agile Manifesto essay in a month or two.)

The fact that everyone answers the same way is interesting.  What is even more interesting to me is that if you think through this scenario, it is actually almost the worst-case scenario where you might want documentation for your developers.  That means that in “better” cases where documentation for developers may not be as urgent or necessary, then the approach of just going to talk with someone is a lot better.

Documentation and Maps

The problem with documentation is the same problem we have with maps: “the map is not the territory” (quote from the wisdom of my father, Garry Berteig).  We sometimes forget this simple idea.  When we look at, say, Google Maps, we always have in the back of our consciousness that the map is just a guide and it is not a guarantee.  We know that if we arrive at a place, we will see the richness of the real world, not the simplified lines and colours of a map.  We don’t consider maps as legally binding contracts (usually).  We use maps to orient ourselves… as we look around at our reality.  We can share directions using maps, but we don’t share purpose or problems with maps.  And finally, maps assume that physical reality is changing relatively slowly (even Google Maps).

Many times when we create documentation in organizations, however, we get confused about the map versus the territory.

Agility and Documentation

Of course, code is a funny thing: all code is documentation too.  The code is not the behaviour.  But in software, code (e.g. Java, ASM, Scheme, Prolog, Python, etc.) is as close as possible to the perfect map.  Software is (mostly) deterministic.  Software (mostly) doesn’t change itself.  Software (mostly) runs in a state absent from in-place human changes to that software.  Software (mostly) runs on a system (virtual or physical) that has stable characteristics.  The code we write is a map.  From this perspective, documentation becomes even less important if we have people that already understand the language(s)/platform(s) deeply.


This essay is a continuation of my series on the Agile Manifesto.  The previous two essays are “Value and Values” and “Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools“.

 

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What’s in a Voice? Communicating Who You Are [Updated with edits]

In our professional lives and in doing business, we commonly follow the advice to “dress for success.” We make certain to wear that business suit, or a particular pair of snazzy heels, or a certain color of tie. For better or for worse, we can be judged in the first few seconds of contact with a potential employer or customer by our attire, our hairstyle, our facial expression, our nose ring…

A more subtle way we evaluate a person is through the sound of his or her voice. The voice is a very personal instrument, and it can communicate so much about who you are, your abilities and your intentions.

The voice can tell you whether someone is nervous or at ease. Whether they’re authentic or stringing you a line. Whether they care if they communicate with you or not. When I was a kid, I thought I could detect when someone was lying to me by a certain glitch in the voice, or a tell-tale tone. Often, our brain makes intuitive judgements about what’s being said to us, and is sensitive to vocal rhythm, clarity, tones, and the use of language.

One may think it’s not fair to judge someone by their voice. Let’s face it, a voice – like being short, or having a large nose – is usually unchangeable. But it’s how the voice is used that matters. We all have an inherently full, expressive voice, but things happen to us in life that can negatively influence and/ or harm that voice.

Think of the person who speaks so quietly it’s almost a whisper – you must lean closer to catch what she says. This person may have had some trauma in her life, like being constantly told as a child to ‘be quiet’, to de-voice her. I know people whose greatest fear is public speaking, who quake inwardly and outwardly, even if they have something important to share with others.

Personality is also expressed through the voice. Imagine the annoyingly loud talker sitting nearby in a restaurant. This is certainly someone who wants too much attention and tries to get it by being overbearing. Or the fast-talker, who doesn’t want any other opinions but his own to be expressed, and doesn’t give the listener an opportunity to think or to respond, lest they disagree with him.

Anyone can be trained to use their voice for positive communication. A voice is an instrument that can become effective and optimal with practice.

Here’s a few things to think about in how you use your voice:

  • Are you clearly enunciating your words so as not to be mis-heard?

  • Are you directing your voice to the person or people you want to communicate with?

  • Are you speaking in a rhythm that’s neither too fast nor too slow?

  • Are you allowing your true feelings or intentions to come through?

  • Are you being honest?

The voice is just one of the important tools we use to communicate. If your work requires relating to other people in any way, for example, making presentations, or promoting a product, consider how you use your voice and what it may communicate about you!

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Announcing the Agile Advice eBook – Finally Ready!

Agile Advice Book - coverThanks everyone for feedback, comments and suggestions for my new book, Agile Advice – Creating High Performance Teams In Business Organizations.  It is available for purchase (only $2.99) on lulu.com (that’s where the link goes).  Here is the blurb about the book:

Agile Advice is a collection of brief articles and longer essays about Agile methods and their principles and practices. Agile Advice articles come primarily from the popular AgileAdvice.com blog which has been in the top 50 of Agile blogs since its inception in 2005. The book has three never-before-seen essays including “Agile Mining at a Large Canadian Oil Sands Company”, “Crossing the Knowing-Doing Gap”, and “Becoming a Professional Software Developer”. Agile Advice also has a whole section on choosing an Agile method. The author, Mishkin Berteig, has been working with Agile methods such as Scrum, Kanban, and Extreme Programming since 1996.

Once you have read it, I would love to hear your feedback and reviews here.  I will try to publish updates quarterly over the next year to make it even better!  Thanks again for your support.

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Announcing: The Real Agility Program

Real Agility Program LogoThe Real Agility Program is an Enterprise Agile change program to help organizations develop high-performance teams, deliver amazing products, dramatically improve time to market and quality, and create work environments that are awesome for employees.

This article is a written summary of the Executive Briefing presentation available upon request from the Real Agility Program web site.  If you obtain the executive briefing, you can follow along with the article below and use it to present Real Agility to your enterprise stakeholders.

The Problem

At Berteig Consulting we have been working for 10 years to learn how to help organizations transform people, process and culture.  The problem is simple to state: there is a huge amount of opportunity waste and process waste in most normal enterprise-scale organizations.  If you have more than a couple hundred people in your organization, this almost certainly affects you.

We like to call this problem “the Bureaucratic Beast”.  The Bureaucratic Beast is a self-serving monster that seems to grow and grow and grow.  As it grows, this Beast makes it progressively more difficult for business leaders to innovate, respond to changes in the market, satisfy existing customers, and retain great employees.

Real Agility, a system to tame the Bureaucratic Beast, comes from our experience working with numerous enterprise Agile adoptions.  This experience, in turn, rests on the shoulders of giants like John Kotter (“Leading Change”), Edgar Schein (“The Corporate Culture Survival Guide”), Jim Collins (“Good to Great” and “Built to Last”), Mary Poppendieck (“Lean Software Development”) Jon Katzenbach (“The Wisdom of Teams”) and Frederick Brooks (“The Mythical Man-Month”).  Real Agility is designed to tame all the behaviours of the Bureaucratic Beast: inefficiency, dis-engaged staff, poor quality and slow time-to-market.

Studies have proven that Agile methods work in IT.  In 2012, the Standish Group observed that 42% of Agile projects succeed vs. just 14% of projects done with traditional “Bureaucratic Beast” methods.  Agile and associated techniques aren’t just for IT.  There is growing use of these same techniques in non-technoogy environments such as marketing, operations, sales, education, healthcare, and even heavy industry like mining.

Real Agility Basics: Agile + Lean

Real Agility is a combination of Agile and Lean; both systems used harmoniously throughout an enterprise.  Real Agility affects delivery processes by taking long-term goals and dividing them into short cycles of work that deliver valuable results rapidly while providing fast feedback on scope, quality and most importantly value.  Real Agility affects management processes by finding and eliminating wasteful activities with a system view.  And Real Agility affects human resources (people!) by creating “Delivery Teams” which have clear goals, are composed of multi-skilled people who self-organize, and are stable in membership over long periods of time.

There are lots of radical differences between Real Agility and traditional management (that led to the Bureaucratic Beast in the first place).  Real Agility prioritizes work by value instead of critical path, encourages self-organizing instead of command-and-control management, a team focus instead of project focus, evolving requirements instead of frozen requirements, skills-based interactions instead of roles-based interaction, continuous learning instead of crisis management, and many others.

Real Agility is built on a rich Agile and Lean ecosystem of values, principles and tools.  Examples include the Agile Manifesto, the “Stop the Line” practice, various retrospective techniques, methods and frameworks such as Scrum and OpenAgile, and various thinking tools compatible with the Agile – Lean ecosystem such as those developed by Edward de Bono (“Lateral Thinking”) and Genrich Altshuller (“TRIZ”).

Real Agility acknowledges that there are various approaches to Agile adoption at the enterprise level: Ad Hoc (not usually successful – Nortel tried this), Grassroots (e.g. Yahoo!), Pragmatic (SAFe and DAD fall into this category), Transformative (the best balance of speed of change and risk reduction – this is where the Real Agility Program falls), and Big-Bang (only used in situations of true desperation).

Why Choose Transformative?

One way to think about these five approaches to Agile adoption is to compare the magnitude of actual business results.  This is certainly the all-important bottom line.  But most businesses also consider risk (or certainty of results).  Ad-Hoc approaches to Agile adoption have poor business results and a very high level of risk.  Big-Bang approaches (changing a whole enterprise to Agile literally over night) often have truly stunning business results, but are also extremely high risk.  Grassroots, where leaders give staff a great deal of choice about how and when to adopt Agile, is a bit better in that the risk is lower, but the business results often take quite a while to manifest themselves.  Pragmatic approaches tend to be very low risk because they often accommodate the Bureaucratic Beast, but that also limits their business results to merely “good” and not great.  Transformative approaches which systematically address organizational culture are just a bit riskier than Pragmatic approaches, but the business results are generally outstanding.

More specifically, Pragmatic approaches such as SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) are popular because they are designed to fit in with existing middle management structures (where the Bureaucratic Beast is most often found).  As a result, there is slow incremental change that typically has to be driven top-down from leadership.  Initial results are good, but modest.  And the long term?  These techniques haven’t been around long enough to know, but in theory it will take a long time to get to full organizational Agility.  Bottom line is that Pragmatic approaches are low risk but the results are modest.

Transformative approaches such as the Real Agility Program (there are others too) are less popular because there is significantly more disruption: the Bureaucratic Beast has to be completely tamed to serve a new master: business leadership!  Transformative approaches require top-to-bottom organizational and structural change.  They include a change in power relationships to allow for grassroots-driven change that is empowered by servant leaders.  Transformative approaches are moderate in some ways: they are systematic and they don’t require all change to be done overnight. Nevertheless, often great business results are obtained relatively quickly.  There is a moderate risk that the change won’t deliver the great results, but that moderate risk is usually worth taking.

Regardless of adoption strategy (Transformative or otherwise) there are a few critical success factors.  Truthfulness is the foundation because without it, it is impossible to see the whole picture including organizational culture.  And love is the strongest driver of change because cultural and behavioural change requires emotional commitment on the part of everyone.

Culture change is often challenging.  There are unexpected problems.  Two steps forward are often followed by one step back.  Some roadblocks to culture change will be surprisingly persistent.  Leaders need patience and persistence… and a systematic change program.

The Real Agility Program

The Real Agility Program has four tracks or lines of action (links take you to the Real Agility Program web site):

  1. Recommendations: consultants assess an organization and create a playbook that customizes the other tracks of the Real Agility Program as well as dealing with any important outliers.
  2. Execution: coaches help to launch project, product and operational Delivery Teams and Delivery Groups that learn the techniques of grassroots-driven continuous improvement.
  3. Accompaniment: trainer/coaches help you develop key staff into in-house Real Agility Coaches that learn to manage Delivery Groups for sustainable long-term efforts such as a product or line of business.
  4. Leadership: coaches help your executive team to drive strategic change for long-term results with an approach that helps executives lead by example for enterprise culture change.

Structurally an enterprise using Real Agility is organized into Delivery Groups.  A Delivery Group is composed of one or more Delivery Teams (up to 150 people) who work together to produce business results.  Key roles include a Business leader, a People leader and a Technology leader all of whom become Real Agility Coaches and take the place of traditional functional management.  As well, coordination across multiple Delivery Teams within a Delivery Group is done using an organized list of “Value Drivers” maintained by the Business leader and a supporting Business Leadership Group. Cross-team support is handled by a People and Technology Support Group co-led by the People and Technology leaders.  Depending on need there may also be a number of communities of practice for Delivery Team members to help spread learning.

At an organizational or enterprise level, the Leadership Team includes top executives from business, finance, technology, HR, operations and any other critical parts of the organization.  This Leadership Team communicates the importance of the changes that the Delivery Groups are going through.  They lead by example using techniques from Real Agility to execute organizational changes.  And, of course, they manage the accountability of the various Delivery Groups throughout the enterprise.

The results of using the Real Agility Program are usually exceptional.  Typical results include:

  • 20x improvement in quality
  • 10x improvement in speed to market
  • 5x improvement in process efficiency
  • and 60% improvement in employee retention.

Of course, these results depend on baseline measures and that key risk factors are properly managed by the Leadership Team.

Your Organization

Not every organization needs (or is ready for) the Real Agility Program.  Your organization is likely a good candidate if three or more of the following problems are true for your organization:

  • high operating costs
  • late project deliveries
  • poor quality in products or services
  • low stakeholder satisfaction
  • managers overworked
  • organizational mis-alignment
  • slow time-to-market
  • low staff morale
  • excessive overtime
    or…
  • you need to tame the Bureaucratic Beast

Consider that list carefully and if you feel like you have enough of the above problems, please contact us at tame.the.beast@berteigconsulting.com. or read more about the Real Agility Program for Enterprise Agility on the website.

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Comparison of the ScrumMaster, Product Owner, Project Manager and Team Lead Roles

Often in my classes, I’m asked for a clear comparison between the various traditional roles and the new roles in Scrum.  Here is a high level summary of some of the key responsibilities and activities that help highlight some important differences between these four roles:

ScrumMaster Product Owner Project Manager Team Lead
NEVER NEVER Assign Tasks YES
NO PARTICIPATES Create Schedule NO
NO YES Manage Budget NO
Remove Obstacles PARTICIPATES YES YES
NO Define Business Requirements PARTICIPATES NO
NO YES (Deliveries) Define Milestones NO
Facilitate Meetings NO YES YES
YES (process and people) YES (business) Risk Management PARTICIPATES
Organizational Change Agent NO NO NO
NO Accountable for Business Results RARELY (just costs) NO

Of course, there are many other ways we could compare these four roles.  What would you like me to add to this list?  Add a comment with a question or a suggestion and I will update the table appropriately!

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Agile Layoffs – When Business is Bad, What Do You Do?

Agile methods and the culture behind them focus on teamwork, safe environments, motivation, technical excellence and lots of other things that are easy when business is good.  But when business is bad, and you simply can’t afford to keep everyone around, what do you do?

… UPDATE …

Interesting: this tiny post has generated a lot of traffic… but no responses.  Please feel free to offer suggestions or ideas or questions in the comments.

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OpenAgile – Evolving Forward

“Truthfulness is the foundation of all the virtues of the world of humanity”

Many people can see some validity or value in this statement, but it may seem strange to them to incorporate this component into business practices or corporate culture. After all much of what is common practice does not reward or encourage those who choose to be truthful.

But as Bob Dylan so aptly put it, “the times they are a-changin’”.

The environment, our capacities as human beings, and our tools to interact with the world are constantly evolving and growing. Yet much of what we do today is based on assumptions about human nature arrived at hundreds or even thousands of years ago when we had less knowledge and understanding about the world and ourselves. Along with the rest of the universe we are evolving as a human species, as such it only makes sense that our higher understanding and knowledge inform our decisions and practices, so we can keep progressing forward.

OpenAgile recognizes the true nature of humanity and how it can work to create a remarkable world in every endeavour. Scientific discovery is revealing this truth about our nature as well, as the video below so wonderfully illustrates.

The Empathetic Civilization

Be Open, Be Agile, Be Free.

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Humor – A Typical Project Launch Meeting

One of the things that I love is how many great videos there are that show the ridiculousness of a lot of corporate behaviour.  This video is a hilarious (and painful) look at one aspect: the way we treat our experts.

Of course, I don’t mean to say that we should never be sceptical.  Rather, sometimes we just have acknowledge reality: there is no magic to make a red line with a green marker.  The role of the expert is to clarify reality to others through their knowledge and experience.

When I am doing CSM and CSPO training, I often am faced with people who want to know how to make high-performance teams with distributed team members.  They are often looking for some sort of magical solution.  This is an example of not being willing to face the reality that distance makes communication slower, less effective, and less likely to happen at all.

I’m sure all of you have interesting experiences of being the expert in something and your audience pushing you to find the magical solution… share your stories in the comments please!

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The Start of a True Team

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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The Rules of Scrum: Your Product Owner is knowledgable about the product and the business

The Product Owner’s job is to be the customer or the customer proxy. He needs to know the most current information about the product and the business that the team is working in. If this is the case, then the Product Owner is able to make relevant choices about the product and will be able to answer the questions of the team. If this is not the case, then he will have to find someone else for the answers (which will cause waste), make up the answers (which will likely guide the team in the wrong direction), or fail to give the team what they need.

To learn more about your Product Owner, visit the Scrum Team Assessment.

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Reflections on Agile Business Leadership

From push system to pull system thinking

One of the disconnects holding teams back the most in an organization embarking on an Agile transformation is the lack of will and perhaps understanding of vision on the part of the business. The required shift in thinking is from a “push system” to a “pull system”. Historically and still culturally, most organizations, even those claiming to be ‘Agile’ are very much push systems. The business folks in client services – VPs, Directors, sales people, etc. seem to make time (deadline) commitments to clients on behalf of teams and then the teams are given the deadlines to finish the work. Sometimes, the deadlines are decided on in consultation with particular individuals on the teams and very rarely, if ever, with the actual teams themselves. In any case, the fact that the business is almost entirely deadline-driven is the centre of the push system. Deadlines push or drive everything else. Deadlines are fixed and often considered non-negotiable. Deadlines are a taboo subject – it is considered a waste of time to even discuss them because they just don’t and won’t ever move. The general attitude is that if we try to move deadlines, we put the entire business at risk because our clients will drop us and turn to one of our competitors who claim to be able to promise and keep deadlines. If we lose our clients, we lose business, we lose money and it potentially puts us all out of jobs. What this exposes is not only a push system driven by deadlines, but a culture that is actually driven by fear. The not-so-implicit message is that if you miss a deadline, you might lose your job, so you had better do whatever it takes to not miss the deadline. Or else. Push and pull systems and mentalities are like oil and water – they don’t mix. In Agile, there is no place for fear of failure. Rather, teams must be allowed to fail (miss deadlines) and learn from their failures (plan better).

Why quality, not time/cost or scope is non-negotiable

The “make the deadline or else message” is couched and clouded by other talk. The main excuse is to blame the client, as noted above. “That’s just the way our clients work, the way the market works”. Of course, such an excuse contains a kernel of truth. Without a true understanding and embrace of Agile, the idea of not meeting deadlines and the perceived consequences can be truly scary. Generally, there is an understanding from the business that the productivity of teams may drop somewhat as they progress through the storming stage. What this translates into is a difficult discussion with clients around delayed delivery. It is tolerable in that it is temporary. “Once the teams get up and running, we can go back to meeting our deadlines, and even be able to deliver early because Agile is supposed to be faster.” But the benefits of truly adopting Agile are much more powerful than this.

Understanding the true business value of Agile

What needs to be understood is the true business value for investing in Agile processes and practices – how it may add cost and time to the initial development Cycle, but how it saves both the business and the client tremendously on technical debt and support long-term. This needs to be understood and championed by the business in order for the organization to become liberated from its enslavement to the push system mentality. At the heart of such a mental liberation is the wholehearted adoption and commitment to the Agile/Lean principle that quality is non-negotiable. The investment in Agile processes and practices is essentially an investment not only in quality, but in continuous quality improvements towards the goal of being able to frequently deliver products of increasing relevance and quality (value). The ability to ship frequently allows for sustainable growth. All of this is made impossible by the deadline-driven push system mentality/culture of fear.

The urgent need for slack

One of the first things that a team needs in order to focus on continuous quality improvements is slack so that it can learn to learn. The first goal of the business leadership should be to facilitate scope and deadline slack for the team. This goal should also be fully and visibly championed by the business leadership. In order to develop the capability to facilitate slack, the business needs to gain knowledge around the purpose and importance of Agile processes and practices and be able to articulate a strong business case for them. The business leadership needs to develop the skill of educating the team, management and business leadership on the long-term benefits of an Agile transformation – the transformation from a push system to a pull system. The key stakeholders and business leaderships need to possess the courage to engage in difficult conversations with management and clients who may be upset by the short-term pain of delays and missed deadlines and protect the team from continued attempts to push work into the team. Perhaps above all, the business leadership needs to develop an attitude of learning – a humble learning posture that allows for the setting aside of preconceived notions, fears and prejudices around what it means to be a good business leader. A leader possessed of this posture demonstrates a learning attitude by stressing first and foremost the importance of creating slack for the team to learn to learn. It is a common pitfall for inexperienced business leaderships and stakeholders to expect Agile to provide solutions for their push system woes, woes that include the broken trust of clients from consistently broken (unrealistic, dreamt-up) deadline promises and the crippling effects of technical debt (the fallout of the former – when scope, time and cost are fixed, quality is compromised).

If the business leadership, with the support of the Process Facilitators and the Transformation Team, is able to foster the organizational will to create slack for the teams, then the teams will have the space they need to truly focus on continuous quality improvements. This is a critical milestone on the path to realizing the true, measurable benefits of Agile. Although the support of others is needed, the business leadership is in a unique position benefitting from an intimate relationship with both the needs of the business as well as the daily life of the team.

Why the business leadership needs to own the process

The first way that the business leadership creates slack for the teams is by championing the process. In OpenAgile, like all other Agile methodologies, there are key features of the process the purpose of which are to give space for new teams to begin to make the often seemingly inconsequential, yet ultimately critical first steps towards continuous quality improvements. One of the most obvious of these features is the Agile team meetings. In the early stages of team development, organizational understanding and will, the OpenAgile meetings (particularly the Reflection and Learning aspects of the Engagement Meetings in OpenAgile) can easily be discounted as an obstacle preventing the team from getting the “real work” done. What is often forgotten under the pressure of deadlines is the fact that in order for a team to be able to learn to make continuous quality improvements, it needs to develop the capability of systematic (frequent & regular) inspection and adaptation of the way that it works. It is easy to save on the short term pain of perceived non-negotiable deadlines (meeting deadlines at all cost = success) by compromising on investing in the process, especially when the team is still learning to learn and the effectiveness of the meetings is not yet apparent. When the team and the organization have an expectation of Agile as something that fits into the push system and allows for a team to function better within such a system, it can be hard to understand how spending time in a kind of meeting that the team doesn’t seem good at yet can be of any value. This is where the business leadership needs to stand firmly behind the process. The team needs the meetings – the space to reflect, learn and plan – in order to learn to become more effective at making continuous quality improvements – a critical feature of an effective pull system. Without the meetings, the team will never develop this critical capability and as a result, will never become an Agile team. Instead, the team will revert back to getting the “real work” done with all of the quality problems crippling the organization and which led to the decision to adopt an Agile framework in the first place.

Why the business leadership should care about burn-down

Another key feature of the process for the business leadership to understand and champion is the concept of burn-down as represented by the burn-down chart of an Agile team. Agile doesn’t care about how much work the team gets done. It assumes that the team is doing valuable work and getting things done – in other words, that the team is managing itself and working towards its goals and commitments. There are no tools in Agile for an individual, least of all the business leadership, to measure and manage how much work the team is getting done. Agile acknowledges the reality that real (sustainable) productivity cannot be forced on any team. Instead, a team grows its productivity at a sustainable pace when it is given enough slack to do so. The team makes a plan at the beginning of the Cycle based on what it understands about its capacity, works towards that goal throughout the Cycle and hopefully delivers valuable results at the end of the Cycle. By learning to apply the process of continuous improvement, quality and productivity go up hand in hand. That is the essence of the pull model. Through all of this, the team manages “how” it gets work done. The productivity of a team can be measured, but the burn-down chart is neither an appropriate nor effective tool for measuring the productivity of a team. Instead, burn-down provides one specific measurement and ONLY this one measurement: WORK REMAINING (in order to achieve the goal/commitment of the current Cycle). It does not and cannot tell you how much the team got done and even less so the whys and hows of the output and productivity of the team during the Cycle.

So what is the purpose of burn-down and why should the business leadership even care? If it can’t be used as a tool to measure the productivity of the team (in other words, if it can’t be used to manage the team) then what importance can it possibly have? These are typical questions of teams and individuals that are coming from a traditional project management, i.e. command & control, i.e. “push” system mentality. Understanding the purpose of burn-down depends on the ability to make the shift from the push system paradigm to the pull system paradigm. In a push system, burn-down is nice but somewhat irrelevant. For an organization committed to an Agile transformation (towards a pull system of self-managed teams) it is an invaluable launch pad for powerful conversations that live at the heart of continuous quality improvements.

Commitment to the business requirements come from the Agile teams

When a team decides on a plan for a Cycle of work, the plan is a commitment. This is a critical step in the Agile process. It is only after a unanimous commitment from the whole team that the team begins to work on the plan. If any individual team member feels hesitant about the work in the plan, tasks and potentially even Value Drivers should be removed until everyone is comfortable making a commitment. When the business leadership is telling a team what the plan is, then it is not the team’s plan and therefore it cannot be a team commitment. This is not only an inappropriate use of authority, it is also breaking the Agile process. Moreover, when a plan and therefore a commitment is forced onto a team, the team cannot be held accountable for failure. Worse yet, the team will never learn to plan. If a team is not able to plan, then it is not able to make commitments. If the team is overwhelmed by an overly-ambitious, management-forced plan, it will not learn to evaluate its capacity and apply that knowledge to long-term planning and project estimates. It will not learn to make meaningful quality improvements and reflect on its progress. It will not learn to self-manage or self-organize. The purpose of burn-down is to establish commitment velocity. In other words, the amount of work that the team can truthfully expect to complete during the Cycle when it is making the Plan. The difference between the number of tasks in the Cycle Plan and the number of tasks remaining at the end of the Cycle gives the team its commitment velocity. Commitment velocity is always based on minimum historical velocity. The team uses commitment velocity to make a Cycle Plan containing no more than the number of tasks represented by its commitment velocity. This allows the team to spend just the right amount of effort and time on planning and allows the team slack to focus on the truly Agile work of learning and continuous quality and process improvements. Over-planning, especially when it is wedded to over-committing or even worse, non-committing (a common push system mentality pitfall forced onto teams by the business leadership) leaves the team in a state of dependent on daily micro-management and can completely halt the progress of a team. Not to mention that this is a flagrant violation of Agile values (truthfulness, responding to change over following a plan) and principles (sustainable development). Such compromises to foundational Agile values, principles and processes may produce desired results in the very short-term, but the long-term costs can be crippling to teams and organizations. The wasteful activity associated with team dependency on micro-management is what often leads organizations to the accumulation of technical debt that places them in dire competitive disadvantage and desperate need for Agile transformation in the first place. If an organization misses out on this golden opportunity, teams can become demoralized and innocuous to the Agile practices and the promise of an Agile transformation can quickly erode.

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Scrum is about Business – Mike Caspar

Mike has written another great blog post, this time about Scrum and the relationship to business… the need! to talk about business when using Scrum.  Mike has really presented some important concepts about the big picture of Scrum as a catalyst for exposing problems that you have…. and that usually those problems are hidden and hurting your business!

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What is Scrum good for?

I have worked with a lot of people, teams and organizations over the last 8 years helping them to adopt Scrum and I have seen some interesting patterns about where Scrum works well and where it doesn’t work so well. I wanted to share my observations to see if they correlate with what other people are experiencing.

So first off, I want to describe what I mean by Scrum working well:

  1. Teams using Scrum are obviously high-performance teams whose business results are at least 4x that of normal teams.
  2. The organization in which Scrum is being used experiences a change in culture to become more team oriented, more value oriented, and more customer oriented.

So now I can describe where I have observed Scrum to work really well:

  1. When an organization (or team) is in deep trouble and willing to admit it adopting Scrum seems to be a catalyst for creating a new culture, process and team environment where getting out of trouble is possible. This is Scrum for Crisis. The “willing to admit it” part is extremely important as I have worked with two organizations where the “deep trouble” part was obvious to me as an external person, but in both cases management and staff did not seem willing to admit the depth of their crisis and in both cases Scrum failed to act as a catalyst to get them out of trouble. In this use of Scrum, sometimes resolving the crisis then leads back to complacency and Scrum fades away.
  2. Small growing organizations that have no existing formal processes for development can use Scrum as an effective way to maintain their high-performance without getting burdened in bureaucracy. In this case, it is important to note that they are _already_ in a high performance state and their struggle is to maintain that while at the same time growing. I’ve worked with quite a number of small organizations where all they need is the CSM (plus maybe one or two days of coaching) to adopt and maintain Scrum. I have also worked with small organizations that were _not_ already high performance and Scrum has not typically worked to bump them up to a high-performance state.
  3. Pure new product development where a single strong Product Owner can be identified who has the authority to make product decisions independently of anyone else (including product budget decisions). By “pure new product development” I mean that neither the individual team members nor the team as a whole have any responsibilities outside of the product work – there is no “fractional allocation” or “resource levelling” across projects or products. The strong Product Owner is critical to success with Scrum and must understand the principles of Scrum as well as the mechanics of being a Product Owner.

I have also seen Scrum be inappropriate and not lead to the results I mentioned above:

  1. Management teams. It seems like Scrum could or should work for management teams, but it appears that managers have too much of the following problems to be able to use Scrum:
    – operational responsibilities (non-creative, non-problem-solving work)
    – urgent, legitimate interruptions (e.g. an escalated customer issue)
    – real commitments to events or projects that are calendar based (e.g. a management off-site)
    – ego: they don’t want to follow an apparently rigid process or they are always happy to make exceptions for themselves
    Again, one might imagine that Scrum _should_ work to help resolve these issues, but unfortunately I have never seen it able to do so in this context.
  2. Small teams/projects. Scrum is too heavy for teams less than 5 people or for projects shorter than 2 months in total duration. Those numbers aren’t meant to be hard and fast, but when I’ve seen small teams/projects attempt to do Scrum they _always_ end up breaking lots of the rules partly because they can and partly because they must. That said, some folks have created “Personal Scrum” and other variants. I’m not sure if we as the Scrum Alliance officially recognize/endorse those variants.
  3. Purely operational work. There just isn’t enough creativity/problem-solving to make the Sprint an appropriate process element, nor the Product Backlog an appropriate organizing mechanism. I have seen some operational environments get some benefit from doing regular retrospectives, but just doing retrospectives is not Scrum in my book. My experience with Kanban is still a little limited, but it seems to be an appropriate approach for these environments.
  4. Organizations where there is very little need to change. I’ve spent some time working with big profitable banks to adopt agile and without exception, they just can’t wrap their minds around the need for Scrum… because they are already so successful as a business. The general attitude is that Scrum is popular therefore we will call what we are doing “Scrum”, but it really isn’t. It’s Scrummerfall and Scrum-Butt wrapped up in the terminology of Scrum. They will adopt some Agile practices and get very modest benefits. I have seen minor improvements in team morale and minor improvements in quality and productivity, but certainly not anything near to what is possible for improvements. When we do assessments in this type of environment, we see Value Stream maps with waste at the 80-90% level so there is huge room for improvement… but it just doesn’t happen.

Scrum can definitely transform the world of product development. It can definitely act as a catalyst to get teams and organizations out of crisis. But that isn’t the whole world of work. I’m also concerned about the idea of using Scrum for general project management. There might be some good practices that are part of Scrum that would also be valuable in general project management (e.g. regular retrospectives, daily team meetings) but that doesn’t make Scrum a general project management framework.

I don’t claim that any of the above observations are “correct”. That’s partly why I am sharing – I would love to have a good discussion here about this because I think it is critical for us as Agilists to be able to answer this question well when we are asked: “what is Scrum good for?” – particularly since Scrum is by far the most popular Agile method.

I would love to hear other people’s observations about where Scrum works well (as I have defined “well” above) vs. where it either is only a modest improvement to existing approaches or where it might even not work at all.

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Comparison of OpenAgile with Scrum

OpenAgile is similar to Scrum in many respects. Both are systems for delivering value to stakeholders. Both are agile methods. Both are frameworks that deliberately avoid giving all the answers. So why would we choose OpenAgile over Scrum?

The most important difference is in applicability: Scrum is designed to help organizations optimize new software product development, whereas OpenAgile is designed to help anyone learn to deliver value effectively.

OpenAgile is an improvement over Scrum in the following ways:

  1. More effective teamwork and team practices, in particular the Consultative Method of Decision Making, and
    applicability over a larger range of team sizes from a single individual on up.

  2. Recognition of the individual capacities required for effective learning, namely Truthfulness, Detachment,
    Search, Love and Courage. Scrum acknowledges a separate set of qualities, but does not show how they systematically connect with the requirements of a Scrum environment.

  3. Systematic handling of more types of work beyond just “new artifacts” and “obstacles”. In particular, OpenAgile includes calendar items, repetitive items and quality items and acknowledges their unique qualities in a work
    environment. OpenAgile also provides a framework to include additional types of work beyond these five.

  4. Improved role definitions based on extensive experience.

    1. There is only one role defined in OpenAgile (Team Member) vs. three defined in Scrum (Team Member, ScrumMaster, Product Owner).

    2. There are multiple paths of service that allow Team Members and Stakeholders to engage with an OpenAgile team or community in different ways. There are five paths of service: Process Facilitation, Growth Facilitation, Tutoring, Mentoring, and Catalyst.

    3. The Process Facilitator path of service is similar to the ScrumMaster role with the following major differences:

      • is not responsible for team development
      • is not necessarily a single person, nor is it a required role
    4. The Growth Facilitator path of service is similar to the Product Owner role with the following major differences:

      • is responsible for all aspects of growth including value (like the Product Owner), and individual and team capacity building.
      • is not necessarily a single person, nor is it a required role
  5. Integration of principles and practices from other methods. Two examples suffice:

    1. From Crystal: creating a safe work/learning environment.

    2. From Lean: build quality in, value stream mapping, root cause analysis, standard work.

  6. OpenAgile allows interruptions during the Cycle. Scrum has the concept of Sprint Safety. This makes Scrum
    unsuitable for operational work and general management.

  7. The distinction between Commitment Velocity and other uses of the term “velocity” used in Scrum. Commitment Velocity is the historical minimum slope of a team’s Cycle burndown charts and determines how much work a team plans in its Engagement Meeting.

  8. Flexibility in the length a Cycle. Scrum requires that Sprints (Cycles) be one month in duration or less.
    OpenAgile allows a Cycle to be longer than that and instead provides a guideline that there should be a minimum number of Cycles planned in the time expected to reach the overall goal.

  9. The Progress Meeting in OpenAgile does not require people to take turns or directly answer specific questions.

  10. Avoiding conflict-oriented models of staff and management (Chickens and Pigs in Scrum).

  11. Terminology changes to be more clear in meaning and applicable beyond software. A comparative glossary is
    included below.

Another major difference between OpenAgile and Scrum is how the community operates. OpenAgile is an open-source
method that has a specific structure for community involvement that allows for continuous improvement of the system. Scrum is closed. It is closely managed by it’s founders and this has led to challenges with the method becoming dogmatic. OpenAgile is meant to constantly evolve and grow.

Comparative Glossary between OpenAgile and Scrum

OpenAgile Scrum
Cycle Sprint
Cycle Planning Sprint Planning and Sprint Review
Team Member Team Member or “Pigs”
Process Facilitator ScrumMaster
Growth Facilitator Product Owner
Work Queue Product Backlog
Work Queue Item Product Backlog Item
Cycle Plan Sprint Backlog
Task Task
Work Period Day
Progress Meeting Daily Scrum
Learning Circle w/ steps Inspect and Adapt”
Delivered Value Potentially Shippable Software
Stakeholders Chickens”
Five Types of Work:

New, Repetitive, Obstacles, Calendar,
Quality

– no equivalents –

User Stories, N/A, Impediments, N/A, N/A

Consultative Decision Making – no equivalents –
Sector / Community – no equivalents –

References on OpenAgile:

http://www.openagile.com/

http://wiki.openagile.org/

References on Scrum:

http://www.scrumalliance.org/

http://www.scrum.org/

“Agile Software Development with Scrum” – Schwaber and Beedle

“Agile Project Management with Scrum” – Schwaber

“Scrum and the Enterprise” – Schwaber

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