Tag Archives: Culture

Formula for Building a Successful Scrum Experience

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Under the right conditions Scrum can be a tremendous success story, but it often requires hard work to get there.  For new Scrum teams it means learning to fundamentally work very differently than they are used to, such as relying on a lot more collaboration, making and delivering on shared commitments and building a high degree of trust.  For existing Scrum teams it means constantly renewing the team commitment to each other, the cause, and to the Scrum framework.  This includes the rather painful practice of revisiting the fundamentals and ensuring any deviations from accepted processes or practices were for the right reasons and had the right results.

To have a chance at achieving high performance a new-to-Scrum team will not only need to just change their processes, but fundamentally change the culture and behaviour of the team and all of the supporting roles (that includes their leadership).  Meanwhile, a mature or well-established team should never assume they are high performance; they should always be checking (and rechecking) that they are still living the Agile values.

Needless to say this can become an extremely complex challenge!  To be absolutely clear, I’m not proposing there is a single formula or recipe that works, but I do believe certain criteria can dramatically improve your Scrum team’s chances of success.  To that end here are 10 tips (plus a bonus) that may help you focus your efforts towards building a successful Scrum team and experience.


1. Right Number of Team Members

Currently the Scrum Guide recommends that Scrum teams will work best with three to nine people (not including the Scrum Master and Product Owner).  Too few people on the team and you risk not having enough technical expertise and coverage of critical skills.  Too many people on the team and you may become challenged to truly collaborate effectively.  Remember, this is just a guideline and you may be successful with different numbers, you just need to be aware of the impacts and make sure the gaps are covered.

2. Appropriate Balance of Skills

Scrum teams really should be balanced and cross-functional.  Having all of the necessary skills on the team for delivering a complete solution (not roles, but skills) will encourage and support end-to-end thinking all the way from design to implementation.  This approach will result in a better solution and a superior customer experience, but it relies on whole team collaboration.  Note this does not mean individual team members need to be fully cross-functional, but what is important is that all the critical skills are represented on the team and each team member contributes their domain expertise towards the collective strength.

3. Propensity for Engineering Technical Ability

For increased chances of success, a Scrum team should leverage technology and engineering practices whenever possible.  Techniques, skills and tools that facilitate Agile approaches such as Continuous Integration, Automated Testing and Test Driven Development all make technical excellence, continuous improvement and truly being “Done” every Sprint a possible reality for a Scrum team.

4. High Team Member Allocation

Scrum team members should be allocated to as few different initiatives as realistically possible.  The more projects you are allocated to, the more task switching you may have to perform, the longer it will take to complete any one item, the thinner you will be spread and the less effective you will be.  In other words, people (and teams) should limit their work in progress as much as possible and focus on completing those things that truly matter most.  This is true for any framework, but it is particularly emphasized with Agile ones.  Note there is a slight but fundamental difference between being allocated to a team and being dedicated to a team – that is a topic for a future article.

5. Empowered and Knowledgeable Product Owner

Your Product Owner needs to be informed, available, business-savvy, knowledgeable, collaborative, and empowered to make decisions about what to build and what order to do it in.  They also need to be a strong negotiator and very capable at conducting business driven trade-offs.  In the end, a Product Owner needs to effectively communicate, convey and deliver on a clear vision to the Team and Stakeholders to ensure a useful solution is created.  Without empowerment, knowledge, and vision in a Product Owner the team will struggle.

6. Equitable Scrum Master

Having a good process is only part of the equation.  A good Scrum Master will champion and enforce that process, protect the team, encourage collaboration, highlight (escalate when necessary) and encourage the removal of obstacles, facilitate discussions, provide fair and constructive feedback, cultivate a culture of continuous improvement and learning, and work to help the team live the Agile values.

Remember that the Scrum Master has authority over the process but not over the team.  As the process champion the Scrum Master may sometimes even find themselves in a conflict between maintaining the Scrum rules and guiding the team as they discover the need to adapt practices to better align with their own needs and ways of working.  In that regard a Scrum Master should understand and embrace the servant leader role.  In the end, a Scrum Master needs to be the person that helps the team make decisions, but not the person that makes decisions for them.

7. Strong Executive Support

Leadership is the key to driving change and progress.  Executives and managers of Scrum teams need to nurture the environment, let go of the “how”, allow the team to learn from mistakes, and encourage and coach the growth of the collective team knowledge and overall experience.

Understanding the dramatic impact leadership has on a transitioning team is also very critical, as a single word or direction from the executive level can single-handedly affect (either positively or negatively) the team’s future behaviours and resulting successes or failures.  And without a true environment of trust built by the leadership, team members will often shy away from taking a risk to try something new or unknown.

8. Solid Partnership Commitment

There must be a consistent commitment and engagement from all parties in the organization towards adopting the Scrum framework, Agile methods, and thinking.  The initiative must be an open, collaborative experience and there must be complete understanding  and alignment by all parties in assuming the risks and rewards as well as sharing in the effort.  This includes not only business partners and their IT counterparts, but their leadership as well as all of the people and teams supporting an Agile initiative.

9. Reduced Team Dispersion

Co-located teams are more effective communicators and can sometimes experience increased productivity by up to 60% if situated together in the same room.  More simply stated, the greater the dispersion factor, the greater the challenge of collaboration.  Note that time zones are often considered the largest dispersion factor and can have a greater impact than geography.

Although it is strongly recommended that teams be co-located, it is not mandatory to success.  In fact, certain Agile practices have factors, tools and techniques inherent to them to help bridge some of the shortcomings of increased dispersion, such as a higher reliance on frequent collaboration and communication.  But to be clear, they do not replace the value of face-to-face conversation, they are merely a crutch to not having it.

10. Consistent Education and Coaching

To ensure consistency and a shared understanding, whole teams (including the business, IT, and their leadership of executives and managers) should receive a common skills development and education experience in proper Agile Thinking, the Scrum Framework, aligned practices and mindset training.  Coaching should then reinforce this new knowledge and encourage appropriate behaviours to turn these new practices into habits.  Indeed, learning should be a continuous cycle and endless journey towards excellence, and Scrum leverages this through frequent retrospection and continuous improvement.

11. The Right Attitude!

Mutual respect and caring are the cornerstone to the team’s success and it needs to be integral to their culture and beliefs.  Not just saying but living the belief there are no heroes or scapegoats.  Everyone, including the business, executives, team members and leadership must collaborate and share in celebrating the successes as well as accepting responsibility for setbacks and failures.

Everyone must have the right attitude and commit to not only DOING as needed by attending the ceremonies or following the process and practices but truly wanting to BE part of the solution by willingly changing the way they think, work and collaborate.


At the end of the day your goal should not be to become Agile or Scrum savvy.  Instead your real goals and outcomes should align with achieving the key benefits of Agility, and with what Scrum offers.  These should include (but are not limited to) increased customer satisfaction, faster delivery of value, improved feedback loops, adopting a continuous improvement mindset, improved employee morale and increased employee retention.  Scrum is just one of the many tools or approaches you may choose to get there, but it is certainly an important one to consider if these outcomes align with your goals.

For Scrum to be truly successful at your organization, you must dramatically transform your very culture and business approach.  To be clear, this is not easy to do but the rewards are well worth the effort.  By embracing such a transformation, the adopted change in behaviour, beliefs and practices should result in a more successful Scrum experience and a higher degree of satisfaction for both your customers and employees.

Can you think of other success factors that might help your Scrum team succeed?  There are lots, so feel free to reach out and share them below.


Thanks to Photographer: Chris Potter for this awesome photo.

Sourced from stockmonkeys.com | Flickr Portfolio

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Article Review: Thinking About the Agile Manifesto

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Often times, as I’ve been researching about agile methods and how to apply these to create real and sustainable change in an organization, I come across reference to the Agile Manifesto. I list it here today for those who are new to the field or who are getting back to the roots after trying a few things with different-than-expected results. It is an instrumental document. The values and principles listed here truly do shape the way agilists think and operate and to some degree or another the results appear to be better than before this founding document was introduced. So here is my “hats off” to this remarkable item which plays a pivotal role in cultural transformation.

The four key values are:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan

Personally, I find the first one the most meaningful of all. When we value individuals and interactions over process and tools we are truly improving in leaps and bounds in creating collaborative environments which are continuously improving.

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Pitfall of Scrum: Problem-Solving in the Daily Scrum

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The Daily Scrum should not be used to find solutions to problems (obstacles, impediments) raised. Instead, keep the meeting very short and have those problem-solving conversations afterwards with only those who are interested. The ScrumMaster facilitates this meeting to keep it on track. The Daily Scrum is timeboxed to a maximum of 15 minutes, but often should be even less. With a good physical task board, a Daily Scrum can often be done in less than a minute simply by each team member pointing at the pieces of work they are working on.

From the Scrum Guide:

The Development Team or team members often meet immediately after the Daily Scrum for detailed discussions, or to adapt, or replan, the rest of the Sprint’s work.

In other words, don’t have those discussions during the Daily Scrum! The Daily Scrum is essential to creating transparency and implementing the Scrum value of Openness. The three questions of the Daily Scrum are effectively:

  1. What did I do since the last time we checked in as a team?
  2. What am I planning to do before the next check in time?
  3. What impediments, if any, are preventing us from getting our work done?

Each member of the team takes a turn and answers those three questions. This doesn’t have to be completely stilted, but it should be Focused (another value of Scrum) and efficient so that the need for other meetings is minimized. Accomplishing this takes some practice. The ScrumMaster helps the team to keep the timebox, but at first, a team might have challenges with this.

Struggling with the Daily Scrum

There are a some common reasons that a team might struggle with wanting to problem solve in the Daily Scrum:

  • One team member doesn’t know what to do next and it devolves into re-planning right there and then. A quick suggestion or two is probably fine, but it is a very steep slippery slope. A team can easily get into the habit of always doing this! The ScrumMaster needs to be vigilant about recommending that the discussion be taken up after the Daily Scrum is concluded in order to avoid this pitfall. This suggestion will be common when a team is first starting out.
  • One person mentions an impediment that someone else knows how to solve… and a third person has a different idea of solving it. In this situation it is much better for interested team members to just simply indicate “I have an idea for that,” and let the Daily Scrum continue. Then after the Daily Scrum those people have a quick discussion. This avoids wasting the time of everyone on the team with something that is only interesting to a few.
  • An individual doesn’t seem to have anything to report and other team members try to elicit more information. This should really be something that the ScrumMaster or the team’s coach should take up with the individual. It may be that there is an impediment that the person is uncomfortable sharing openly with the whole team. There is a subtle pitfall that may be revealed here: that the team does not have the safety to self-organize.
  • Disagreement about what to do next. This type of problem is the hardest to deal with because many people will feel that disagreements need to be resolved before any action can be taken. A good ScrumMaster will actually encourage competing ideas to be attempted. Learn by doing instead of by argument and analysis. This is the fundamental shift in culture that Scrum is attempting to put in place: an empirical approach to work rather than a defined approach.

Just beware: yet another pitfall (although not common) is to decide that the Daily Scrum shouldn’t be daily because it is taking so long. Unfortunately, making this change will often just make the meetings even longer until they devolve back into weekly status meetings reporting to the team lead!!! Remember that it’s not Scrum anymore if your team doesn’t meet together daily.

Ultimately, if a team is struggling with the Daily Scrum in any way, this is a valid topic for discussion in the Sprint Retrospective.

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

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

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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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Another Agile Article on Slashdot – Andy Hunt has Failed, not Agile

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For reference, here is the link to the article on Slashdot called Is Agile Development a Failing Concept?

This article will generate lots of great discussion, but most of it will be ignorant.  My biggest problem with this is that one of the authors of the Agile Manifesto, Andy Hunt, has asserted that Agile just isn’t working out.  My opinion: Andy has failed to have the necessary patience for a decades-long cultural change.  This is a lot like a leader at Toyota saying that lean has failed because 50 years after they started doing it, not everyone is doing it properly yet.  One organization that I know of has been working on changing to Agile for over 10 years and they still aren’t “done”.  That’s actually okay.

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Announcing the Agile Advice eBook – Finally Ready!

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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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Book List for Enterprise Agile Transformations

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Leaders of Agile Transformations for the Enterprise need to have good sources of information, concepts and techniques that will guide and assist them.  This short list of twelve books (yes, books) is what I consider critical reading for any executive, leader or enterprise change agent.  Of course, there are many books that might also belong on this list, so if you have suggestions, please make them in the comments.

I want to be clear about the focus of this list: it is for leaders that need to do a deep and complete change of culture throughout their entire organization.  It is not a list for people who want to do Agile pilot projects and maybe eventually lots of people will use Agile.  It is about urgency and need, and about a recognition that Agile is better than not-Agile.  If you aren’t in that situation, this is not the book list for you.


These books all help you to understand and work with the deeper aspects of corporate behaviour which are rooted in culture.  Becoming aware of culture and learning to work with it is probably the most difficult part of any deep transformation in an organization.

The Corporate Culture Survival Guide – Edgar Schein

Beyond the Culture of Contest – Michael Karlburg

The Heart of Change – John Kotter


This set of books gets a bit more specific: it is the “how” of managing and leading in high-change environments.  These books all touch on culture in various ways, and build on the ideas in the books about culture.  For leaders of an organization, there are dozens of critical, specific, management concepts that often challenge deeply held beliefs and behaviours about the role of management.

Good to Great – Jim Collins

The Leaders’ Guide to Radical Management – Steve Denning

The Mythical Man-Month – Frederick Brooks

Agile at Scale

These books discuss how to get large numbers of people working together effectively. They also start to get a bit technical and definitely assume that you are working in technology or IT. However, they are focused on management, organization and process rather than the technical details of software development. I highly recommend these books even if you have a non-technical background. There will be parts where it may be a bit more difficult to follow along with some examples, but the core concepts will be easily translated into almost any type of work that requires problem-solving and creativity.

Scaling Lean and Agile Development – Bas Vodde, Craig Larman

Scaling Agility – Dean Leffingwell

Lean Software Development – Mary and Tom Poppendieck


These books (including some free online books) are related to some of the key supporting ideas that are part of any good enterprise Agile transformation.

Toyota Talent: Developing Your People the Toyota Way – Jeffrey Liker, David Meier

Agile Retrospectives – Esther Derby

Continuous Delivery – Jez Humble, David Farley

The Scrum Guide – Ken Schwaber, Jeff Sutherland, et. al.

The OpenAgile Primer – Mishkin Berteig, et. al.

Priming Kanban – Jesper Boeg

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Real Agility Program – Leadership Transformation Team

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One of the main components of our Real Agility Program for enterprise Agile transformations is the Leadership Development track.  This track is a series of monthly leadership meetings with one of our consultants to help them establish their Leadership Transformation Team.  This team is based in part on the concept of a guiding coalition from John Kotter’s work (see “Leading Change“), and in part on Edgar Schein’s work on corporate culture (see “The Corporate Culture Survival Guide“) as well as our own specific experience on successful Agile transformations in organizations.

The very first thing, of course, is to establish who should be on the Leadership Transformation Team.  There are six major categories from which the team must find representatives:

  1. The Executive Sponsor, for example the CIO
  2. Business Management, for example an SVP of Sales or Product Development
  3. Process Management, for example the head of the PMO or Compliance
  4. Technology Management, for example VP of Technology or Development
  5. Human Resources, for example a Director of Staff Development and Training
  6. and Apprentice Agile Coaches / Agile Champions

In total, the number of people on this team should be no more than 12, but smaller is better.

Once established, this Leadership Transformation Team must execute on three core responsibilities in perpetuity:

  1. Urgency and Vision: constant, strong, repetitive, prominent communication of the reasons for change and a high level view of how those changes will happen.
  2. Lead by Example: use of an Agile approach to run the Leadership Transformation Team’s work – we recommend OpenAgile for the process, but Kanban may also be used.
  3. Empower Staff: focus on removing obstacles by making structural changes in the organization, helping staff master standard Agile processes and tools, and eventually, creating innovative Agile approaches customized for the organization.

This leadership support is a critical success factor for an Agile Transformation.  One of the first steps in our program for this team is to help with the creation of the team’s plan for the transformation.  This plan can be derived from an number of sources including assessment work, but includes a number of standard items that must eventually be addressed for a successful transformation.  At a high level, these include:

  • Hiring, performance evaluation and compensation
  • Reporting relationships
  • What to do with project managers, business analysts, testers and certain middle managers
  • Key metrics and processes for measuring progress
  • Technology and physical environment
  • Vendor relationships and contracts
  • Compliance, regulation and documentation

Many of these items are multi-year change efforts that need to be closely guided and encouraged by the Leadership Transformation Team.

One final point about the Leadership Transformation Team needs to be made: the work they do must not be delegated to subordinates.  If something is part of their three core responsibilities, it must be handled directly by the members of this team.  Therefore, the team members need to allocate a significant percentage of their time to the effort.  Usually 20% is sufficient to get started.  The proportion may wax and wane slightly over time, but if it gets too low, the Leadership Transformation Team will lose touch with the transformation and the risk of it going bad increases substantially.

See also our article about the Recommendations component of the Real Agility Program.

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The Rules of Scrum: I live the values and principles of the Agile Manifesto in my team

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The Agile Manifesto is the founding document of the Agile movement.  It can be found at http://www.agilemanifesto.org and if you haven’t read it, it is strongly recommended!  Living values and principles is an act of striving for excellence.  There are no mechanisms in Scrum to force people to live the values and principles of the Agile Manifesto. Scrum relies on individual team members to strive to develop an understanding and practice of Agile values and principles in and of their own volition.  If Team Members do not live the values and principles of the Agile Manifesto in their team many other things will take priority such as creating a complex document.  The team could think of Scrum as a tool for project delivery, without really working to change the culture of their organization.  Since Scrum empowers individuals and makes obstacles visible, if the team doesn’t live the Agile Manifesto principles then they may be disconnected from the roots of Scrum and make it a lesser version of itself, sometimes known as Scrumerfall (where you blend some elements of Scrum with other elements of waterfall which provides little to no benefit).

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Another Great Article by Mike Caspar

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Many of you have heard that Scrum does not solve problems… it just exposes them!  Mike Caspar has written a great in-depth article about why Scrum exposes problems (and why this is good!) with lots of great examples.  I like his concluding remark:

Scrum does not have answers for not following Scrum.

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Agile: Cheating at Work

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I just finished reading an excellent article about a UCLA prof who, for his game theory class, allowed the students to cheat

I strongly recommend reading this because this points to one of the big cultural barriers to using Agile methods effectively: we are focused on individual performance instead of the outcomes of a group (team) of people!

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Agile Outside of Software

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The manifesto for agile software development (http://agilemanifesto.org) consists of 4 basic values:

1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools?
2. Working software over comprehensive documentation?
3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation?
4. Responding to change over following a plan

I’ve been thinking about how this manifesto applies outside of the world of software, for which it was originally created. These concepts are so engrained into various agile methodologies, which these days don’t explicitly refer to software any longer, that it begs the question: how does a team apply these four values to their work outside of software development; specifically, what would replace delivering ‘working software’? The other three values translate more fluidly to differing spheres of work. For example, whether in the field of business, sales, medicine, etc. placing greater value on all the items on the left over those on the right will produce a transformed culture and working environment. But what does ‘working software’ translate into in these various realms? Particularly relevant for non-profit organizations, the next possible question would be: what if we are not creating a ‘product’ or something that is ‘shippable’? What I’ve found to be the methodology which most aptly addresses this question is OpenAgile.

On its website: www.openagile.com it is noted that: OpenAgile is a learning system designed to help individuals, teams, and organizations build capacity for rapidly delivering value to their stakeholders. Rather than the focus being on a product, the aim shifts to learning and value. Yes, the ‘product’, if there is one (software or other), is important, but now there are even greater possibilities for the use of agile outside of software.

Though almost deceivingly simple, the principles animating OpenAgile are extremely profound. Through practicing the core foundational principles of truthfulness, consultative decision making, and systematic learning (through reflection, learning, planning, and action – all in light of guidance) the potential ability to ‘deliver’ something valuable is extraordinarily enhanced. Indeed, the greatest value could even be the learning that has taken place from the team or individuals themselves, the changed culture now animated by consultation engendering collaboration rather than competition, the regular and ongoing practice of truthfulness in a team resulting in accelerated transformation (potentially also allowing for that team to be more committed and driven to delivering a ‘product’) and the creation of a space where continual learning is the hallmark.

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Teams, People and “Resources” – The Culture of Agility

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

In an Agile culture, it is considered rude to refer to people as “resources”. People are not fungible – you cannot just take any old developer and plug them into any old project. Skills, personalities, likes, talents, potential all are so dynamic and unique for each individual person. So any management theory (including traditional project management) that treats people as “resources” like oil, gold or computers, is making an unjust simplification at the expense of the people working in the organization.

Yet organizations need to be able to plan where to spend money, and certainly the people working in an organization are often one of the largest costs. From a financial perspective, from a business perspective, it makes sense to somehow treat people costs in the same way as other operational costs… and this often leads to dehumanizing people to the point of treating them like resources.

So how can these legitimate organizational needs for budgeting mesh with the equally legitimate approach of Agile to treating people as unique actors be merged? It is actually quite simple, but the ramifications are deep: treat TEAMS as resources. Teams become the fundamental building blocks of an organization. Teams move from project to project or program to program or operation to operation. There is still a need to support the individuals in an organization, but it is done in the context of teams.

An Agile team is cross-functional, but also constantly learning. Individuals on the team learn skills based on their own interest, but also based on the needs of the team for redundancy, parallelism, and expansion of capacity to take on new, more challenging work. Cross-functional teams can more easily (and more sanely) be compared for their value to the organization by looking at things such as their ability to produce finished product/services, their flexibility in serving the needs of the organization, and the quality/consistency of the work they produce. Teams can compete in a healthy way by striving for excellence in delivering value to the organization, whereas often competition between individuals can be quite unhealthy.

From a budget perspective, teams are easy to manage: each team has a fully loaded cost based on salaries, space, equipment, etc. The cost is (or can be) relatively stable or grow predictably, and can still be handled operationally. As well, unlike individuals, it is much easier to treat a whole team as a fungible unit: you feed work to teams based on their availability rather than based on a detailed analysis of their skills/capacities/allocations.

In Agile organizations, teams are resources, people are not.

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All you need is a bit of patience. Just be consistent in your message.

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

As many who have tried know, an Agile Transformation in a company is not always an easy process.  Although most people at first are keen to participate in the idea of “changing” the company culture and working environment to “something better”, many do not realize how much work it can actually be.

For some of you, you will be fortunate enough to be in an “Agile” environment already.

Perhaps you are using OpenAgile, or Scrum. You may be using a unique variation such as the Pomodoro technique.

For those of you that are new to the idea of Agile Processes, no matter what your flavor of framework or tool, there is something you will not be able to avoid.  Politics.

There is no getting around this.  Agile transformations are about change in an organization and not just change in one small section of the company.

Although many Agile teams start as “pilot projects”, even in such small situations, the effect on the departments or culture at the “edges” of even the smallest teams can start to cause ripple effects in an organization.

The first secret is to acknowledge and accept that this is going to happen.  Life will be easier for you this way. The job of any one assisting with an Agile implementation is to provide honest information and advice to help those who will be directly or indirectly impacted.

Don’t think you will be able to just hide in development and not be noticed.  Be prepared with slides, web site links, and open to talking about your processes and ideas with anyone who wants to know.  You must be transparent and open about what you are trying to accomplish.

OpenAgile for instance is defined as a “Learning System” because it deals with the realities that no one can work in a bubble and that more than just the “development team” needs to be involved in Agile practices for them to work.  The entire organization will be learning with you.

Scrum has a well defined set of guidelines to follow in regards to the development process and is ideal for new software development projects.

Lean is a more gentle approach to changing an organization in small, progressive steps.

Don’t kid yourself.  No matter how small the changes will be, there will be resistance from someone, somewhere, from where you least expected it.

The important thing to remember is what your goals are. The goal of the framework is an open and honest discussion between all those involved in your organization and general culture shift to a blameless, team based shift in thinking.

However, what is the real goal here? Happy customers, happy employees, and therefore, a profitable, progressive organization.  You must remember the purpose is not to make teams, but to make a good product for the customer. Sometimes, you may find it hard to remember.

I recently read The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization (Collins Business Essentials) by Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith. It clearly explains, with examples, how an organization with the courage to change their culture can really benefit from an overall culture shift towards Consultatative Decision-Making and team work based approaches.

Consistently, companies who simply “say” they have teams under-perform those that actually “just have teams”.  One type of company has them by edict or decree, and the other just has them because the culture is that way.  The ones with the naturally team based cultures do much better financially. Hmm..interesting.

Change is usually started by some kind of need to change because things aren’t working out “the old way”.

Buggy software, unhappy customers, late releases…Whatever the pain, the results are always a “desire to change”.

Those who have the courage to admit they need to change, should be applauded.  If you are new to Agile and reading this, please pat yourselves on the back for having the courage to learn more.

Now, it should be “easy” to stay on the path if you keep at it.  The act of Starting is the first big step. Congratulations!

One thing you will find as you proceed is a continual list of “it won’t work because of this”, “it won’t work because of that”.  But, hey, you’re not selling snake oil here.  You’re talking about people in an organization taking control of their work and working together for the best solution possible for the company and it’s customers.  Keep it simple.

Agile processes are just that … Processes..  They are not there to replace common sense. Agile is not a silver bullet to cure a company’s culture.  That part of things is still a human thing and will take time.  Please don’t think of Agile as a cure for a bad culture.  It is simply a way to help the culture to change.

To me at least, what is important is a consistent message.  I believe this is the key to helping an organization to be an Agile one.

Let’s take the Daily Scrum (for Scrum teams).   I worked with a company where the Daily Scrum was considered a waste of time and a nuisance for those involved (at first).

The daily scrum is a quick recap of where everyone on the team is.  For more information about the Daily Scrum, just do a quick search.  There is an abundance of information about it.  Try the Scrum Alliance for definitive information.

At this company, the owners and senior managers considered the scrum to be a nuisance. The senior developer of the team found it to be a hassle.  Then, after a few weeks of doing daily scrums, any team member could be asked by someone passing in the hall what was going on and that person could easily tell them what the status of the project was.  There are many other advantages to the scrum, but that’s not what this article is about. Maybe another time.

When I first started at this company, there was a weekly “developer meeting” which at first was the only way to exchange information.  It was generally 2 hours/week.  The team was now doing daily scrums and having small “mini-chats” (for lack of a better word) occasionally when needed.  Team members knew from the Scrums what was going on and who needed help with what and then self-organized to solve their problems and arranged “mini-chats” as needed to help each other out.

The “weekly 2 hour developer meeting” just became a thing of the past.  The team just stopped having them.

Waiting until the end of the week was far too cumbersome for something they could get from a 10 minute scrum and occasional “mini-chats”.  The team had unknowingly switched into a mode where they practiced regular consultative decision-making and regular re-assessment of their situation.

Then a remarkable thing happened.

One day, I was in a meeting, and the senior developer who at first was reluctant, banged on the window of the board room I was sitting in for me to come to the 10:00 AM Scrum which was 2 minutes away. I excused myself from the meeting and returned approx. 13 minutes later. The owner of the company said “Why do you do those daily meetings.  They are such a waste of time.  You have that big Developer Meeting every Friday”.

My response was “I’m sorry, but we don’t need to waste our time with that big 2 hour meeting every Friday anymore… We haven’t needed them for a few cycles now”.

What a remarkable experience!  In one quick step, and after considerable pain, not only was it evident that the senior developer embraced the Agile Scrum Meeting, but also the owner who was previously unsure suddenly came to realize that the team was far more effective than he knew and he hadn’t even noticed the shift.

The developer culture had changed to a more team based one without his knowing. All team members knew what was happening and Expected to be kept in the loop from now on.

The key is, keep doing it ! Be consistent.  If you’ve implemented a standard Agile practice, stick with it.

Be realistic though. There will be people who consider it to be “stupid” and there will be people who don’t want to participate.  As a new implementor, NEVER humiliate anyone in the process.  Simply encourage open discussion and ask everyone to contribute.  At first, people will be shy or nervous about this.  Over time, it will be the norm to participate.

The point is that as time passes, people and things change. The new processes will become Common Place and not so foreign and people will start to appreciate the fact their opinions are important and they have an impact on the bottom line of the company and the customer.  This is what drives people to be happy and succeed.

Then, with a bit of luck and perseverance, someone in a different department will say “Hey, I think that seems like a good idea. Tell me more”. “Do you think this Agile stuff might work in sales?” might be the kind of question you suddenly receive.  Do yourself a favor and be prepared for this with some links to a few Agile Methodologies at-hand!

This is your opportunity to introduce the new “culture” into a different part of the company.

With a bit of patience, others will come on board.  It will be a great experience for you once you have others helping out.

The day will come when someone will try and remove an Agile process somewhere in the organization and team members will lobby for their cause.  This is the day you will know…  I have succeeded with step 1… Getting started !

From here forward, it’s just a matter of consistently trying to improve things one cycle or iteration at a time, and watching things get better for the customers, employees, and of course, the stakeholders.

If I can give one last bit of advice.  Please do a bit of research before implementing something.  Ideally, you want the teams to come up with how to do their daily work, not yourself.  Let any process be the team’s process, not yours. Of course, if you have a new team to Agile, you will need to help them get started.

Consider your job as one of just guidance and coaching. That will work the best.

Review your environment carefully before deciding about methodology and do some reading or contact a coach about the differences. Should you be using Scrum, OpenAgile, XP, Lean, etc? Think about it carefully.  They have different levels of organizational change and are for different applications.  Use Wisely. :->

If you’re courageous enough and have an experienced Agile team, why not ask the team which Agile Methodology will work best for them?  I personally enjoy learning something new all the time. :->

Mike Caspar, CSM, OpenAgile Certificate Holder, ATPL

References :

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Assessing an Organization for an Agile Transformation Plan

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

Myself, Paul Heidema and a few other people we work with have now participated in several assessments of organizations who are either looking at adopting agile methods or improving existing use of agile methods. We have developed several tools for running these assessments. The following things are critical to the assessment process and the results we get:


The success of an agile transformation is primarily driven by connection that transformation makes with the existing culture of the organization. We know that doing an agile transformation includes cultural changes. The critical piece is understanding the culture so that you can determine what in the culture supports agility and what in the culture is going to hinder agility. A culture that focuses on individual accomplishment and freedom will not support agility well, while a culture that supports doing the best possible thing for customers will support agility. Of course, any given organization will have a mix of cultural aspects that both support and hinder agility. There are a number of methods for examining culture including an excellent corporate culture workshop described in the book “The Corporate Culture Survival Guide” by Edgar Schein.

Value Stream Mapping

A high level value stream map is an excellent tool for identifying both an overall need for improvement by making the current state of affairs visible, as well as pinpointing where big improvements can be made quickly. More often than not, when we do an assessment for an organization, we are finding that the efficiency of their process is at about 20-30%… in other words, 70-80% of all effort is expended on wasteful activities. This level of waste is often surprising for stakeholders. And of course, making that level of waste visible is a large motivator for the kind of continuous improvement that agile methods such as OpenAgile and Scrum make possible.

Agile Practices

Of course, even if an organization is not doing agile officially, there are often existing practices that can be considered part of the overall umbrella of agile. A comprehensive assessment that rates a team’s or an organization’s level of use of agile practices gives a good picture at a very practical level of what things you can build upon. For change to be successful, a significant factor is to tie new practices to existing practices. This is a great way to do this. There are lots of lists available of agile practices. We publish one fairly comprehensive list of agile practices on the Berteig Consulting site (it’s near the bottom of the linked page).

There are of course many other things that are done during an assessment, but these three form an effective foundation for any agile transformation plan.

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