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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.

Figure1

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.

Figure2

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.

Figure3

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.

Figure4

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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@martinaziz
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The Perfect Agile Tool – 12 Key Features

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The Perfect Agile Tool doesn’t yet exist.  In my training and consulting work, I often have strong words to say about electronic tools.  Most of the tools out there are really bad.  Unfortunately, JIRA, the most common tool, is also the worst that I know of.  (Actually, the only tool worse than JIRA for an Agile team is MS Project – which is just plain evil).  Some Agile tools do a bit better, but most fall far short of a good physical task board (information radiator).  I am often asked to evaluate and / or partner with tool vendors to “bless” their products.  Here is what I am looking for before I will consider an outright endorsement of such a tool.

Features for a Perfect Agile Tool

This list is roughly organized in order of features which do show up in some tools to those which I have never seen or heard of in tools.

1. Skeumorphism: Cards and Wall

The tool should display the current work of an Agile team in a way that is immediately recognizable as a set of note cards or PostIt’s on a physical wall.  This includes colours, sizes, etc.  Most people will type to enter data so fonts should be chosen to mimic hand-printed letters.  Every aspect of the display should remind people of the physical analogue of the tool.

2. Live Update

As team members are using the tool, all updates that they make should be visible as immediate updates to all the other team members including typing, moving cards around, etc.  There is no off-line mode for the tool.  In fact, if the tool is not receiving live updates, it should be clearly disabled so that the team member knows there is a problem with the information they have displayed.

3. Simple or No Access Control

Most Agile methods strongly de-emphaisize or even disallow traditional roles and encourage self-organizing teams.  This means that fine-grained access control to different features of the tool should be eschewed in favour of extremely simple access control: everyone can do anything with the tool.  (It actually helps if there is no “undo” feature, just like there’s no easy way to erase Sharpie written on a note card.)

4. Infinite Zoom In/Out

When you are using cards on a wall, it is easy to see the whole wall or to get up close and see even very fine details on a single note card.  Although it does not have to be literally infinite, the wide and tight zoom levels in the tool should be at least a few orders of magnitude difference.  As well, the zoom feature should be extremely easy to use, similar perhaps to the way that Google Maps functions.  Among all the other features I mention, this is one of the top three in importance for the perfect Agile tool.

5. Touch Device Compatible

This seems like a super-obvious feature in this day and age of tablets, smart phones and touch-screen laptops.  And it would take the cards on the wall metaphor just that extra little way.  But very few tools are actually easy to use on touch devices.  Dragging cards around and pinch to zoom are the obvious aspects of this feature.  But nice finger-drawing features would also be a big plus (see below)!

6. Size Limit on Cards

For techies, this one is extremely counter-intuitive: limit the amount of information that can be stored on a “card” by the size of the card.  It shouldn’t be possible to attach documents, screen shots, and tons of meta-data to a single card.  Agile methods encourage time-boxing (e.g. Sprints), work-boxing (e.g. Work-in-Process limits), and space-boxing (e.g. team rooms).  This principle of putting boundaries around an environment should apply to the information stored on a card.  Information-boxing forces us to be succinct and to prefer face-to-face communication over written communication.  Among all the other features I mention, this is one of the top three in importance for the perfect Agile tool.

7. Minimal Meta-Data

Information-boxing also applies to meta-data.  Cards should not be associated with users in the system.  Cards should not have lots of numerical information.   Cards should not have associations with other cards such as parent-child or container-contained.  Cards should not store “state” information except in extremely limited ways.  At most, the electronic tool could store a card ID, card creation and removal time-stamps, and an association with either an Agile team or a product or project.

8. Overlapping Cards

Almost every electronic tool for Agile teams puts cards in columns.  Get rid of the columns, and allow cards to overlap.  If there is any “modal” behaviour in the tool, it would be to allow a team member to select and view a small collection of cards by de-overlapping them temporarily.  Overlapping allows the creation of visually interesting and useful relationships between cards.  Cards can be used to demarcate columns or groupings without enforcing strict in/out membership in a process step.

9. Rotatable, Foldable, Rip-able Cards

Increase the fidelity of the metaphor with physical cards on a wall.  Rotation, folding and ripping are all useful idioms for creating distinct visual cues in physical cards.  For example, one team might rotate cards 45 degrees to indicate that work is blocked on that card.  Or another team might fold a dog-ear on a card to indicate it is in-progress.  Or another team might rip cards to show they are complete.  The flexibility of physical cards needs to be replicated in the electronic environment to allow a team to create its own visual idioms.  Among all the other features I mention, this is one of the top three in importance for the perfect Agile tool.

10. Easy Sketching on Cards… Including the Back

Cards should allow free-form drawing with colours and some basic diagramming shapes (e.g. circles, squares, lines).  Don’t make it a full diagramming canvas!  Instead, allow team members to easily sketch layouts, UML, or state diagrams, or even memory aides.  The back side of the card is often the best place for more “complex” sketches, but don’t let the zoom feature allow for arbitrarily detailed drawing.  Lines need a minimum thickness to prevent excessive information storage on the cards.

11. Handwriting Recognition

With Siri and other voice-recognition systems, isn’t it time we also built in handwriting recognition?  Allowing a team member to toggle between the handwriting view and the “OCR” view would often help with understanding.  Allow it to be bi-directional so that the tool can “write” in the style of each of the team members so that text entry can be keyboard or finger/stylus.

12. Sync Between Wall and Electronic Tool

This is the most interesting feature: allow a photo of cards on a wall to be intelligently mapped to cards in an electronic tool (including creating new cards) and for the electronic tool to easily print on physical note cards for placement on a wall.  There is all sorts of complexity to this feature including image recognition and a possible hardware requirement for a printer that can handle very small paper sizes (not common!)

Key Anti-Features

These are the features that many electronic tools implement as part of being “enterprise-ready”.  I’ll be brief on these points:

No Individual Tracking – the team matters, not who does what.

No Dependency Management – teams break dependencies, tools don’t manage dependencies.

No Time Tracking – bums in seats typing doesn’t matter: “the primary measure of progress is working software” (or whatever valuable thing the team is building) – from the Agile Manifesto.

No Actuals vs. Estimates – we’re all bad at predicting the future so don’t bother with trying to get better.

No Report Generation – managers and leaders should come and see real results and interact directly with the team (also, statistics lie).

No Integration Points – this is the worst of the anti-features since it is the one that leads to the most anti-agile creeping featuritis.  Remember: “Individuals and interactions [are valued] over processes and tools” – from the Agile Manifesto.

Evaluation of Common Agile Tools

I go from “Good” to “Bad” with two special categories that are discontinuous from the normal scale: “Ideal” and “Evil”.  I think of tools as falling somewhere on this scale, but I acknowledge that these tools are evolving products and this diagram may not reflect current reality.  The scale looks like this, with a few examples put on the scale:

Perfect Agile Tool evaluation scale with examples

Plea for the Perfect Agile Tool

I still hope that some day someone will build the perfect Agile tool.  I’ve seen many of the ideal features listed above in other innovative non-Agile tools.  For example, 3M made a PostIt® Plus tool for the iPhone that does some really cool stuff.  There’s other tools that do handwriting recognition, etc.  Putting it all together in a super-user-friendly package would really get me excited.

Let me know if you think you know of a tool that gets close to the ideal – I would be happy to check it out and provide feedback / commentary!


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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”.

Dec17-368b

Martin Aziz
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@martinaziz
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Link: Meeting Check-Ins

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Very nice article called Why I Always Start a Meeting with a Check-In.  From the article by Ted Lord, senior partner, The Giving Practice:

The greatest benefit of working in a group is our diversity of viewpoints and approaches; groups hobble themselves when they don’t continually give attention to creating a container of trust and shared identity that invites truth-telling, hard questions, and the outlier ideas that can lead to innovation

One antidote to over-designed collaboration is the check-in.


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Pitfall of Scrum: Focus on Scrum Tools

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Many organizations try to find an electronic tool to help them manage the Scrum Process… before they even know how to do Scrum well! Use team rooms and manual and paper-based tracking for early Scrum use since it is easiest to get started. Finding a Scrum tool is usually just an obstacle to getting started.

The culture of most technology companies is to solve problems with technology. Sometimes this is good. However, it can go way overboard. Two large organizations have attempted to “go Agile” but at the same time have also attempted to “go remote”: to have everyone using electronic Scrum tools from home to work “together”. The problem with electronic Scrum tools is three-fold. They

  1. prevent the sharing of information and knowledge,
  2. reduce the fidelity of information and knowledge shared, and
  3. delay the transfer of information and knowledge.

Scrum Tools Prevent Information Sharing

Imagine you are sitting at your desk in a cubicle in an office. You have a question. It’s a simple question and you know who probably has the answer, but you also know that you can probably get away without knowing the answer. It’s non-critical. So, you think about searching the company directory for the person’s phone number and calling them up. Then you imagine having to leave a voice mail. And then you decide not to bother.

The tools have created a barrier to communicating. Information and knowledge are not shared.

Now imagine that the person who has the answer is sitting literally right next to you. You don’t have to bother with looking up their number nor actually using a phone to call. Instead, you simply speak up in a pretty normal tone of voice and ask your question. You might not even turn to look at them. And they answer.

Scrum tools are no different from these other examples of tools.  It takes much more energy and hassle to update an electronic tool with relevant, concise information… particularly if you aren’t good with writing text.  Even the very best Scrum tools should only be used for certain limited contexts.

As the Agile Manifesto says: “The most effective means of conveying information to and within a team is face-to-face communication.”

Scrum Tools Reduce Information Fidelity

How many times have you experienced this? You send an email and the recipient completely misunderstands you or takes it the wrong way. You are on a conference call and everyone leaves the call with a completely different concept of what the conversation was about. You read some documentation and discover that the documentation is out of date or downright incorrect. You are using video conferencing and its impossible to have an important side conversation with someone so you resort to trying to send text messages which don’t arrive on time to be relevant. You put a transcript of a phone call in your backlog tracking tool but you make a typo that changes the meaning.

The tools have reduced the fidelity of the communication. Information and knowledge are incorrect or limited.

Again, think about the difference between using all these tools and what the same scenarios would be like if you were sitting right beside the right people.  If you use Scrum tools such as Jira, Rally* or any of the others, you will have experienced this problem.  The information that gets forced into the tools is a sad shadow of the full information that could or should be shared.

As the Agile Manifesto says: “we have come to value: individuals and interactions over processes and tools.”

Scrum Tools Delay Information Transfer

Even if a person uses a tool and even if it is at the right level of fidelity for the information or knowledge to be communicated, it is still common that electronic tools delay the transfer of that information. This is obvious in the case of asynchronous tools such as email, text messages, voice mail, document repositories, content management systems, and version control. The delay in transfer is sometimes acceptable, but often it causes problems. Suppose you take the transcript of a conversation with a user and add it into your backlog tracking tool as a note. The Scrum Team works on the backlog item but fails to see the note until after they have gone in the wrong direction. You assumed they would see it (you put it in there), but they assumed that you would tell them more directly about anything important. Whoops. Now the team has to go back and change a bunch of stuff.

The Scrum tools have delayed the communication. Information and knowledge are being passed along, but not in a timely manner.

For the third time, think about how these delays would be avoided if everyone was in a room together having those direct, timely conversations.

As the Agile Manifesto says: “Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.”

Alternatives to Scrum Tools

Working in a team room with all the members of the Scrum Team present is the most effective means of improving communication. There are many photos available of good team rooms. To maximize communication, have everyone facing each other boardroom-style. Provide spacious walls and large whiteboards. Close the room off from other people in the organization. Provide natural light to keep people happy. And make sure that everyone in the room is working on the same thing! Using Scrum tools to replace a team room is a common Scrum pitfall.

Scrum Tools - Labelled Team Room Photo

The most common approach to helping a team track and report its work is to use a physical “Kanban” board. This is usually done on a wall in which space is divided into columns representing (at least) the steps of “to do”, “in progress” and “done”. On the board, all the work is represented as note cards each with a separate piece of work. The note cards are moved by the people who do the work. The board therefore represents the current state of all the work in an easy-to-interpret visual way. Using a tool to replace a task board is another variant of this common Scrum pitfall.

This article is a follow-up article to the 24 Common Scrum Pitfalls written back in 2011.

* Disclaimer: BERTEIG is a partner with a tool vendor: Version One.


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

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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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A Conference Call in Real Life (youtube)

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I’ve started to show this video in my public CSM classes (see sidebar for scheduled courses) as part of the discussion about why co-location for Agile teams is so important.  The video is a humorous look at what conference calls are like.  Probably the most notable part of it is the fact that on a conference call you can’t see people’s body language and facial language which are important cues for efficient communication:


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The Rules of Scrum: Your Product Owner is allowed to communicate directly with any stakeholder of the team

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The Product Owner needs to be in contact with all those that are invested in the work of the team (aka stakeholders). These stakeholders have information on the marketplace, the users’ needs, and the business needs. The Product Owner must be able to communicate with each of these individuals whenever the need arises. If this is possible, the entire Scrum Team will have the most up to date information that will aid them in their execution of the product. If not, the team will have to wait for information and/or guess which will cause confusion, blame, distrust, and unhappy customers.

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


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The Rules of Scrum: Your ScrumMaster is allowed to communicate directly with any stakeholder of the team

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It is the ScrumMaster’s job to remove the Scrum Team’s obstacles that occur through all levels of the organization. To do this properly the ScrumMaster must be able to connect directly with all stakeholders of the team including those outside the organization. This direct communication aids in addressing identified obstacles with the appropriate individual or group. Without the ScrumMaster being allowed this direct communication, he will have to deal with a third party which may distort the information and/or be unable to convey the importance of removing an obstacle or addressing a need. The ScrumMaster is like a catalyst that should be able to set ablaze those individuals that are interacting or connecting with the team either directly or indirectly.

To learn more about ScrumMasters, visit the Scrum Team Assessment.


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The Rules of Scrum: I attend every Sprint Planning meeting in person

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This rule of Scrum aligns with the Agile Manifesto principle “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.”  In-person attendance of all Scrum Team members allows for the plan to unfold with minimal communication overhead and for the team to keep the meeting within the short time-box.  In-person attendance also allows the team to effectively collaborate in the work of creating the plan. The efficiency and effectiveness of the Product Owner’s presentation of the Product Backlog is optimized as well as the Development Team’s ability to collaboratively assess and select what it can and will accomplish in the Sprint. It also allows for everyone to be clear about the Sprint Goal and why the Development Team is building the increment. In-person attendance also allows the Development team to efficiently and effectively come to a decision as to how it will build the increment of functionality. In-person participation of all team members also increases the likelihood that the team will create the right design for the increment.  If even one team member attempts to attend this meeting by any other means, either by phone or even video conferencing, efficiency and effectiveness of the planning becomes compromised. Compromised collaborative planning yields compromised collective ownership. The successful delivery of the Sprint Goal requires full commitment on the part of the whole team. Lack of in-person participation increases the likelihood that the team will fail to deliver on its Goal because the planning will lack effectiveness. People are prone to estrangement from hazy goals reached through ineffective planning. In-person planning, therefore, is paramount to succeeding with Scrum.


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Communication at XKCD

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The comic strip at XKCD today is brilliant.  It takes a bit of effort to follow it, but the punchline is brilliant.  Communication is tough.  How does this apply to agile teams?  You be the judge! (PS.  XKCD is a great comic for geeks, but sometimes nsfw.)


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Five Tips for Distributed Agile Teams

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Actually, this is six tips because my first tip is really about deciding to use distributed teams…

Some in-house studies that I have been privy to have shown 2-1 or 3-1 productivity difference between good co-located teams and “good” virtual teams. Creating a true, high-performance virtual team is incredibly hard emotionally, incredibly time-consuming, and costs a lot in terms of tools and travel. If this is being done for convenience of the team members or for cost savings, it’s a bad idea. The only good reason to have distributed teams is if there is a compelling strategic reason that trumps the hit you will take financially and morale-wise. (That was tip “zero”.)

That said, it is worth trying is to create an environment as close as possible to what you would get with a co-located team. To do this, here are some things to try:

1. Set core hours (at least 3 contiguous) every day when everyone on the team, regardless of time zone, will be at work simultaneously. If you have a globally distributed team, this will mean that some team members will have to make an ongoing personal sacrifice to be available. This sacrifice should be compensated financially. Avoid rotating the core hours in the mis-guided idea that it is better that everyone is uncomfortable some of the time vs. some being uncomfortable all of the time. It is much easier for a team member to get used to a consistent schedule and although initially there will be discomfort for some team members, they will (relatively speaking) get used to the new schedule.

2. During core hours, use a good video conferencing tool (e.g. Office Communicator), in an always-on state for all team members – be in the same space at the same time. Cameras should be set up so that it is possible to see an individual’s facial expressions, yet also to allow that person to move around and still be in-view. The video conferencing tool should have good full-duplex audio so that no one ever gets cut off because someone else is louder.

3. During core hours, all team members agree to forego the use of headphones or anything else that would prevent them from instantly being aware of something happening with any of the other team members. Again, for some people this might be quite a sacrifice. The idea is that communication is paramount for agile teams and anything that isolates one team member from another will hinder communication.

4. Have a live update task tracking tool that all team members use. (Most agile team management tools that I am aware of do not work because you have to refresh to see updates. Cardmeeting.com is a decent virtual wall that has live updates.) Any task-switching should be visible on this tool either through a color change, an audible cue, or a movement. So if I complete a task and start on a new one, everyone else should notice this immediately even if I do not actually say anything. The team members should get in the habit of using this tool even outside core hours.

5. Have a second (or third) monitor for every team member that is dedicated to the always-on communication tools (video conferencing, task tracking). These always-on tools should _never_ be covered by anything else. All the real-time communication tools are useless if they are not constantly visible. If your team members currently have two monitors, then get them a third for these tools. There should never be any excuse for a team member to hide these tools.

Basically, these suggestions are designed to maximize the quality, bandwidth and minimize the latency of communication among the team members. If you have a distributed team, and you try these things, please let me know how it works for you!


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The Seven Core Practices of Agile Work

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Agile Work consists of seven core practices. These practices form a solid starting point for any person, team or community that wishes to follow the Middle Way to Excellence.

Self-Organizing Team

Any group of people that wish to be an Agile Team need to take the initiative to determine for themselves how they are going to work (process) and how they are going to do the work (product). The term “team” really applies quite broadly to any size group of people that are working together towards a common goal.

Teams go through stages of development as they perform their work. The most important result of team development is the team itself, and not the specific skills and abilities that the individuals learn.

If the team is part of a broader organization, that organization must give the team the authority, space and safety to learn to be self-organizing. The organization’s leadership is responsible for determining the “why?”, some constraints on “how?”, and then letting the team respond to the need as best as it can.

Also Known As: Whole Team (Extreme Programming), Cross-Functional Team (business management).

Deliver Frequently

Agile Work uses short fixed periods of time to frame the process of delivering something of value. Each of these iterations or timeboxes is structured so that the team or group actually finishes a piece of work and delivers it to stakeholders. Then, the team builds on what has previously been delivered to do it again in the same short amount of time.

The sooner that valuable results can be delivered, the more value can be obtained from those results. This extra value is derived from opportunities such as earlier sales, competitive advantage, early feedback, and risk reduction.

There is an explicit tradeoff: the shorter the time to delivery, the smaller the piece of value will be. But, like investing in one’s retirement account, the earlier you start, even with small amounts of money, the better off you are in the long run.

Also Known As: Sprint (Scrum), Iteration (Extreme Programming), Timeboxing (generic), Time Value of Money (accounting).

Plan to Learn

Every type of work is governed by a Horizon of Predictability. Any plan that extends beyond this horizon of predictability is bound to fail. Agile work uses an explicit learning cycle tied in with the planning of work to accomodate this inevitable change.

First, a goal is required. This goal can be long-term. Teams using Agile Work then create a queue of work items to be done in order to reach this goal. Each iteration, some of these items are selected, finished and then the queue is adjusted. The changes in the work queue are based on external factors, and learning that the team does as it goes.

One of the most effective methods for the team to learn about how it is doing its work is the retrospective. After each delivery of results, the team holds a retrospective to examine how it can improve.

Also Known As: Inspect and Adapt (Scrum), Kaizen (Lean), Adaptive Planning (generic).

Communicate Powerfully

A team needs to have effective means of communicating, both amongst team members and also to stakeholders. To Communicate Powerfully, a team needs to prefer in-person communication over distributed communication. Synchronous over asynchronous communication. High-bandwidth over low-bandwidth communication. Multi-mode communication over single-mode communication.

The results of failing to communicate powerfully include wasted time for waiting, misunderstandings leading to defects or re-work, slower development of trust, slower team-building, and ultimately a failure to align perceptions of reality.

The single most effective means to communicate powerfully, is to put all the team in a room together where they can do their work, every day for the majority of the work time.

Some types of work do not lend themselves to this approach (e.g. creating a documentary video), but every effort should be made to improve communication.

Also Known As: Visibility (Scrum), Whole Team and Team Room (Extreme Programming), War Room (business management).

Test Everything

Defects are one of the most critical types of waste to eliminate from a work process. By testing everything, by driving all the work of a team by creating test cases to check the work, a team can reach extremely high quality levels. This ability to prevent defects is so important that only an executive level decision should be considered sufficient to allow defects into a work process. Quality is not negotiable.

In Agile Work, removing a defect is the only type of work that takes priority over any new features/functionality/production. If the end result desired is to maximize value, then removing defects is an important means to that end.

A team has an ethical duty to discover new ways to effectively test their work. This can be through the use of tools, various feedback mechanisms, automation, and good old problem-solving abilities.

Also Known As: Canary in the Coal Mine (Scrum), Test-Driven Development (Extreme Programming), Defects per Opportunities (Six-Sigma).

Measure Value

Since Reality is Perceived, it is important for an agile team and organization to have a clear method of describing and perceiving what is important for the organization. Measuring value is a critical method for describing and perceiving what is important.

A single metric can be used to drive all the measurement and goal-setting and rewards in an organization. All other measurements are secondary and must be treated as such: limited in use and temporary.

There are many things which are easier to measure than value. It is often easy to measure cost, or hours worked, or defects found, or estimate vs. actual… etc. However, all of these other measurements either implicitly or explicitly drive sub-optimal behavior.

Also Known As: Measuring Results (Scrum), ROI (business management), Economic Driver (Good to Great), Running Tested Features (Extreme Programming).

Clear the Path

Everyone in an organization using Agile Work takes responsibility for clearing the path, removing the obstacles that prevent work from being done effectively. Clearing the Path doesn’t just mean expedient, quick fixes to problems, but rather taking the time to look at an obstacle and do the best possible to remove it permanently so that it never blocks the path again.

In the Agile Work method, the Process Facilitator is the person who is responsible for tracking obstacles and ensuring that the path is cleared. To do this, the Process Facilitator maintains a Record of Obstacles.

Clearing the Path is sometimes painful work that exposes things we would rather not deal with. As a result, it is critical that people build their capacity for truthfulness and work to develop trust amongst each other. Building a capacity for truthfulness is not something that can be done by using an explicit process.

Also Known As: Removing Obstacles (Scrum), Stopping the Line (Lean).


Remember also, that these practices must always be viewed and implemented in the context of the Agile Axioms. These axioms provide a check to ensure that the practices are not being applied blindly, but rather applied appropriately to the given situation.


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Collocate the Team

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Collocation of the team is used to improve communication efficiency and to allow the team to learn to be more collaborative. Perfect collocation would have all stakeholders and work performers in the same work space (e.g. a large room) during all working hours. This level of collocation is not usually possible, so adjustments are made.

Collocation reduces wastes associated with waiting, movement, and inefficient communication. Collocation increases learning and feedback and assists with team empowerment.

Collocation can present challenges to people used to working on their own. For these people, a careful consideration of how to accommodate their working style is important, but more important is helping them to understand the need for and benefits from collocation. As this understanding grows and as the team starts to produce noticeable results, most people start to enjoy the close working environment.

When perfect collocation is not possible, consider part-time collocation, video conferencing, having a decision-making proxy represent the stakeholders, getting rid of closed offices, moving into open or shared work spaces or collocating part of the team.

I typically hear a great deal of positive feedback from teams that were previously not collocated after they come together in a common space. For example: “I don’t have to spend hours dealing with email anymore – it takes a few seconds to lean over and ask a question and get a response.” “Meetings that used to take half an hour to organize on people’s calendars now happen spontaneously.” “I can work much more efficiently because the people who I need to collaborate with are right there. No more emails, phone calls, scheduling, and pestering.”


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