Tips to Start Agile in a Hostile Environment

Although Agile methods are very popular (particularly Scrum), there are still many organizations or departments which may not yet have official support for adopting Agile methods formally.  In some cases, management may even be hostile to the concepts and practices of Agile methods.  If you are interested in Agile, you don’t have to give up hope (or look to switch jobs).  Instead, here are some tips to start using Agile methods even in hostile environments.

Regular Retrospectives

Some Agilists claim that the retrospective is actually the key to being Agile.  In some ways, this is also the easiest practice to introduce into an organization.  Start with “easy” retrospectives like “Pluses and Deltas” or “Starfish“.  These are retrospectives that can be done in 15 minutes or half an hour.  Try to do them with your team weekly.  If you are are a team lead or a project manager, it will be easy to include this as part of an existing weekly status meeting.  If you are “just” a team member, you might have to get some modest amount of permission.

So why would it be good to do a retrospective?  Because it’s a high return-on-investment activity.  For a few minutes of investment, a team using retrospectives can become aware of dramatic opportunities for improvement in how they are functioning.   Here are a couple more articles about the importance of retrospectives:

What’s an Agile Retrospective and Why Would You Do It?

What is a Retrospective?

Practice-by-Practice

Although I strongly recommend starting with retrospectives, sometimes that’s not the best way to start.  Myself, my first formal Agile environment, I started with the Daily Scrum.  Another time less formal, I started with Test-Driven Development.  In both cases, starting with a single practice, done well, led to adding additional practices over a relatively short period of months.  This gradual adoption of practices led, in time, to attracting positive interest from managers and leaders.  This is the practice-by-practice approach.  Start with a simple Agile practice that you can do without asking anyone for permission.  Make sure it is a practice that makes sense for your particular environment – it must produce some benefit!  If you are technical contributor on a team, then practices such as refactoring or test-driven development can be a good place to start.  If you are more business-oriented, then maybe consider user stories or one of the Innovation Games.  If you are responsible for administrative aspects of the work, then consider a Kanban board or burndown charts.

It is important to get the chosen practice done consistently and done well, even when the team is struggling with some sort of crisis or another.  If the practice can’t be sustained through a project crisis, then you won’t be able to build on it to add additional Agile practices.

Stealth Project

Sometimes you get an unusual opportunity: a project that is funded but hidden from the bureaucracy.  This can happen for a variety of reasons, but often it is because some executive has a pet project and says (effectively): “make it so”.  This is an opportunity to do Agile.  Since there is little oversight from a process perspective, and since the overall project has a strong executive sponsor, there is often a great deal of freedom on the question of “how do we actually execute.”  There can be challenges as well: often the executive wants daily insight into progress, but that level of transparency is actually something that Agile methods can really support.  In this case, there is no need to ask anyone on what method to use, just pick one (e.g. Scrum or OpenAgile or XP or Kanban or Crystal or…) and go for it.  Don’t talk about it.

The “just do it” approach requires that you have some influence.  You don’t have to be an influencer, but you need connections and you need charisma and you need courage.  If you don’t have at least two of those three, you shouldn’t try this approach.  You have to do things and get away with things that normally would get people fired – not because they are illegal – but simply because they are so counter-cultural to how your organization normally works.  Here are a few comments on Stealth Methodology Adoption.

Co-Conspirators

There’s nothing like working with a band of rebels!  If you can find one or two other people to become co-conspirators in changing your organization, you can try many lines of action and see which ones work.  Getting together for lunch or after work frequently is the best way to develop a common vision and to make plans.  Of course, you need to actually execute some of your plans.  Having people to work with is really part of the other tips here: you can have co-conspirators to help you launch a practice-by-practice Agile transformation, for example.

But, like any rebellion, you really need to trust those you work with in these early stages.  Lacking that trust will slow everything you do possibly to the point of ineffectualness.  Trust means that you have, for some time, a formal vow of silence.  Not until you have critical mass through your mutual efforts can you reveal the plan behind your actions.

Read “Fearless Change”

I can’t recommend this one enough!  Read “Fearless Change” by Mary Lynn Manns and Linda Rising.  This is a “patterns” book.  It is a collection of techniques that can be applied to help make organizational changes, where each technique has its own unique context of use.  Lots of research and experience have gone into the creation of this book and it is a classic for anyone who wants to be an organizational change agent.  Patterns include basics such as “Do Lunch” to help build trust and agreement with your ideas for change or “Champion Skeptic” to leverage the value of having systematic, open criticism of your change idea.

Don’t Call it “Agile”

This isn’t really a “tip” in the sense of an action item.  Instead, this is a preventative measure… to prevent negative reactions to your proposals for change.  The words “Agile” or “Scrum”, while they have their supporters, also have detractors.  To avoid some of the prejudices that some people may hold, you can start by _not_ calling your effort by those names.  Use another name.  Or let your ideas go nameless.  This can be challenging, particularly if other people start to use the words “Agile” or “Scrum”.  By going nameless into the change effort, people will focus more on results and rational assessment of your ideas rather than on their emotional prejudices.

A minor variant of this is to “brand” your ideas in a way that makes them more palatable. One company that we worked with, let’s call them XYZ, called their custom Agile method “Agile @ XYZ”.  Just those extra four symbols “@ XYZ” made all the difference in changing the effort from one where managers and executives would resist the change to one where they would feel connected to the change.

Get Some Training

Okay, some blatant self-promotion here: consider our Certified Real Agility Coach training program.  It’s a 40-week program that takes about 12 hours/week of your time for coursework.  The next cohort of participants starts in June 2015 and we are taking deposits for participants.  This training is comprehensive, top-notch training for anyone wishing to become an organizational change agent focusing on Agility.

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Evolution of a Scrum Diagram

Over the many years that I have been teaching Scrum (since 2005!), I have had a diagram of Scrum as part of my slides and/or handouts.  The diagram has gone through several major and minor changes throughout that time.  Here is the progression from oldest to newest:

First Attempt

This diagram was used in some of my earliest slides when I first started delivering Scrum training.  It is bad.  It is woefully incomplete.  But, here it is:

01 Scrum Process Diagram

Second Diagram

I knew the first one was bad so after not too long, I created this next diagram as a supplement that was meant to show the whole Scrum process all in one page. Similar to other Scrum “cheat sheet” style diagrams. I used this diagram until about 2008 when I got some very good feedback from a great trainer, Jim Heidema.

02 All of Scrum Diagram

Third Try

The changes I made were small, but to me, significant.  Changing from a “mathematical” language of “Sprint N”, “Sprint N+1″ to a more general language of “Current”, “Future” was a big deal.  I really struggled with that.  Probably because I was still relatively new to being non-technical.

03 All of Scrum Diagram

Diagram Four

This fourth diagram made some minor formatting changes, but most importantly added “Backlog Grooming”.  It’s funny how long I talked about grooming in my classes before realizing that it was missing from the diagram.  I used the previous diagram and this diagram for a couple years each before making a rather major change to create the next one.

04 All of Scrum Diagram

Fifth Go

A couple years ago I realized that I wasn’t really talking about the Scrum values in my classes.  I started to introduce them in some of my other handouts and discussions, but it still took a while for me to reflect those values in my diagram.  I had also received a lot of feedback that having two Product Backlogs in the diagram was confusing.  Finally, I realized that I was missing an opportunity to use colour more systematically.  So, a major reformatting, systematic colour coding and the addition of the Scrum values was my next change.

05 All of Scrum Diagram

Branded Diagram (ug.)

In a rush, I added some logos to the diagram. Just made it gross, but it’s badness, combined with feedback about said badness, actually inspired a major change for the next version.

05 All of Scrum Diagram - Branded

Newest Diagram

Literally just a week ago, I was showing my brand-new branded diagram to a bunch of people who really care about design and UX.  The very first comment when I handed out the diagram was: “wow, you can really tell this wasn’t done by a designer!”  Well, that got me thinking deeply about the diagram (again).  So, here is my newest, latest and greatest (still not done by a designer) version of my Scrum diagram!

06 The Scrum Process

The Future

I would absolutely love constructive feedback about this latest diagram. Of course, if you like it, please let me know that too! The thing I like about this is that it is a way of looking back at almost 9 years of my teaching history. Continuous improvement is so important, so I welcome your comments! If you have your own diagrams, please link to them in the comments – I would love to see those too! In fact, it would be really cool if a bunch of people could make little “Evolution of a Scrum Diagram” posts – let me know if you do!!!

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Project Lessons Learned vs. Sprint Retrospective – 17 Points of Comparison

Another fantastic article by Mike Caspar: Sprint Retrospective vs. Lessons Learned (a Generalization)

Mike says:

Consider reviewing these differences in your environment to determine if you are getting benefit from your Sprint Retrospectives and following their intent.

 

Here are a few other Agile Advice articles about Retrospectives.

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Retrospectives: A Quick Random Retrospective Generator

Thanks to my good friend Deborah Hartmann Preuss for showing me this great tool: Retr-O-Mat – Inspiration (and Plans) for Agile Retrospectives.  It’s a great way of generating a plan for your retrospective if you’re feeling a lack of inspiration!  Includes all five stages of a retrospective: set the stage, gather data, generate insights, decide what to do, and close the retrospective.

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The Rules of Scrum: I attend every Sprint Retrospective Meeting in-person

The Sprint Retrospective meeting supports the Scrum value of Openness and the principle of inspect and adapt.  This rule of Scrum also aligns with the Agile Manifesto principles “at regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.”  In-person attendance of all Scrum Team members allows for the fullest level of openness among Team Members which in turn is necessary to use the Retrospective to find improvements in how the team functions.  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 openness and inspect and adapt becomes compromised. Compromise on these principles yields compromised collective ownership of improvement efforts. Lack of in-person participation increases the likelihood that the team will fail to implement improvements because the openness and inspect and adapt will lack effectiveness.  This, in turn, hinders the team from reaching a high-performance state.

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Important Words about Scrum and Tools

Ken Schwaber, the founder of Scrum, has a blog.  In it, someone mentioned that Scrum is changing.  Ken responded:

If you change the Scrum framework you just simply aren’t using Scrum and are probably canceling some of its most important benefits.

Thank you Ken!  I wholeheartedly agree.  Every CSM class I teach, I emphasize the complete nature of Scrum as a single tool, not a collection of tools.  Learning Scrum is about learning the tool, not learning how to pick and choose pieces of a tool.  Let’s explore this metaphor of Scrum as a tool.

Consider a hammer.  A hammer is ideally suited for pounding nails into wood.  It has two parts: a head and a handle.  If you take the parts and use them separately, they can still be used for pounding nails into wood… but they are very ineffective compared to the hammer (although better than using your bare fist).  It is non-sensical to decompose the hammer and try to use the pieces separately.  However, a hammer is not suited to other purposes such as driving screws or cutting wood.  It’s perfection is not just in its form, but also in its proper application.  A hammer works through a balanced combination of leverage and momentum.

Scrum is like a hammer.  It has parts (daily Scrum, Sprints, ScrumMaster, etc.), but taking the parts and trying to use them separately is… you guessed it… non-sensical.  The parts of Scrum combine to be an extremely effective tool for new product development.  Just like a hammer, there are things you wouldn’t want to do with Scrum such as manufacturing or painting a wall.  (We might not all agree on the limits of the use of Scrum… that’s something for another article.)  Scrum works through a combination of pressure on the organization and “inspect and adapt” (continuous improvement).

Please.  Don’t modify Scrum.  If you must change things about Scrum, please stop calling it Scrum.

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