Agile Scam – Abusive Comments… What To Do?

This is “my” blog – I write most of the articles, and it is owned by the business in which I am a major partner.  I recently was reviewing comments in the moderation queue and came across this “gem”:

This man is a scammer, agile snake oil only 600, what a bargain. Filthy scamming piece of crap, he’s probably stupid enough to believe his own s**t too.

I’m assuming this person, who is anonymous, is upset either about something I said here on this blog, or possibly something that I (or one of my colleagues) did while we were working with one of our clients.

Several months ago, I was also made aware of a posting about Berteig Consulting (and myself) on Ripoff Report.  I’m not going to link to it, but I will quote it here:

Our company undergoes Agile transformation. Our management decided to hire Berteig Consulting

- a bunch of charlatans spending hours talking absolute nonsense.

They promise sky rocketing performance because they teach us to ( than follows a great number of words with no meaning). We must reflect in Buddish manner, talk to each other, discuss obstacles, be truthful, play stupid games,…. They charge company big money for waisting employees time for endless meetings and providing us with useless information.

Honestly, these sorts of comments make me a bit sad, a bit down.  But here’s what I think about them.

The Agile “Scam”

Let’s make sure we know what we are talking about.  Agile is defined in the the Agile Manifesto.  If you aren’t familiar with it, please take a look.  Basically, the purpose of Agile is to find better ways of building software that are based in practice.  In other words, by people actually building software, and sharing their knowledge, experience and the values and principles that helped them do what they did.

The thing about values and principles is that they are a bit like axioms in formal logic: you can’t prove them.  They are a starting point.  So, if you read the Agile Manifesto and you happen to think that

At regular intervals, the team reflects on how
to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts
its behavior accordingly.

is “Buddish” (whatever that is, presumably Buddhist), and that being “Buddish” is bad or useless, then that is certainly your right.  I can’t prove that this principle of the Agile Menifesto is “right” or “correct” or “always the best thing evar.”  But I like it.  I think it’s good.  I believe in it.  So I guess I am stupid enough to believe my own s**t.  Except that it’s not my own.  I didn’t write the Agile Manifesto.  But I do fully support it.  And, without exception, I think that if work environments tried to put in place the values and principles of the Agile Manifesto, the world would be a (slightly) better place.

So is it a scam?  Well, if it is, I’m being scammed too.  I work crazy long hours, and although I make a decent living, I’m certainly not getting rich off this Agile thing.  When I think of a scam, I think of “get rich quick” or “lose 20 pounds in 20 days” or those sorts of things that promise unbelievable results with little or no effort.

Unfortunately, Agile isn’t like that.  Here is how I think of three Agile methods:

  1. Scrum: incredible results at the cost of incredible pain.  This is kind of like I imagine detox.  An organization is near death and needs to be revived so extreme measures (Scrum) have to be taken.  Requires significant outside help.
  2. OpenAgile: good medium-term results that require significant investment.  This is kind of like making a conscious change from a poor diet with lots of junk food to a good diet: takes discipline, but do-able with good encouragement and support.
  3. Kanban: modest long-term results with relatively low effort.  This is like deciding to change only one thing about your health at a time even if you have lots of health problems.  Lots of small wins accumulate over time.  Doesn’t require much outside help.

Of course, my descriptions of these are _vast_ simplifications for the purposes of discussing the Agile “scam”.  Do professional sports teams or Olympic athletes need coaches?  Probably most people would agree they do need that outside help.  Is coaching sports teams or athletes a “scam”?  Nope.  Not all coaches are good, certainly, but coaching is an essential (sometimes difficult) investment to get to that level of high performance.

Bad Agile

Of course, not all Agile transformations or adoptions are good.  The Agile Manifesto is not easy for most people, teams or organizations to truly embrace.  One of the most common problems I see is that an organization believes that it can have distributed or remote team members and somehow have effective communication among those team members.  This is just one simple example that comes directly from the Agile Manifesto:

The most efficient and effective method of
conveying information to and within a development
team is face-to-face conversation.

I guess, technically, the Agile Manifesto doesn’t out-and-out say that a team must be co-located, but boy-oh-boy does it ever make a difference.

And yet, doing radical collocation is damn hard for most organizations.  So lots of organizations try to adopt Agile techniques without collocation.  And, mostly, their results suck.  Or they try to do collocation, but totally botch it.

Any given principle or value of the Agile Manifesto has its own challenges.  And so most Agile implementations are distant echoes of the incredible results that some rare organizations achieve when they really get Agile.

My Track Record

As a consultant, coach and trainer, I sometimes wish that I could say that I have never failed, that I have never given bad advice.  That’s because in complex human systems, it is very very very hard to sort out cause and effect relationships.  If one of my clients fails to have a dramatic transformation is it because:

  • I gave bad advice?
  • Someone at the client subverted the transformation effort?
  • An executive didn’t support it enough?
  • Market forces destabilized the transformation?
  • The organization’s culture treated Agile as an invasion and fought it off?
  • Agile just wasn’t “right” for the organization?
  • Agile wasn’t adopted soon enough?
  • etc….

On the other hand, I couldn’t very well be a coach, consultant or trainer if I didn’t have a clue.  My colleagues, Paul and Travis (who are named in the Ripoff Reports article), and others whom I have worked with (Nica, David, Mike, Deborah, Christian, another Mike, Allistair, Holleh, yet another Mike,a Michael, and another Michael (wow!), Garry, Jim, Mark, Mary, Sanjiv, yes even another Michael, Julien, Brenda, Derek…) are all smart, experienced, sincere, helpful people… who all know what it takes to produce good results.

The “Secret” Essence of Successful Agile

And, strangely, the essence of it is encapsulated in just a few basic basics:

Truthfulness (vs. hypocrisy, lies and deception)

Collaboration (vs. competition or individualism)

Service to Others (vs. greed and apathy)

and, ultimately, love between people.

So.  To those two people who felt they needed to spew out their hatred, their pain, or whatever it is that they are suffering from, I encourage you to contact me directly.  My email address and phone number are public.  I can’t promise to solve your problem, but I will give you love and whatever help I can extend.

 

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The Start of a True Team

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pragmatism, Fundamentalism and Transformation – the Three Modes of Scrum

Most organizations don’t get the potential benefits of Scrum.  In fact, I would guess that out of all the people who have come through my Certified ScrumMaster or Certified Scrum Product Owner classes, fewer than 5% have gone back to their organizations and seen the 4 to 10 times growth in productivity that Scrum can enable.

Why?

Pragmatism – Arrogance and Defeatism

Pragmatism as applied to Scrum is the approach of taking only the “good things that are possible for us” from Scrum and using those in a team or an organization.  This might mean doing the Daily Scrum meeting, but giving up on many of the obstacles raised there because they are too hard to overcome.  Another common example of this is creating a team of technical people who contribute time to the Scrum Team and possibly to other priorities instead of the idea of creating truly cross-functional teams with all members fully committed to the Scrum Team.

This pragmatism often results in some benefits: better communication among team members, shorter feedback loops with users and customers with the team, or a stronger focus on business value for the scope being worked on by the team.  It might amount, in practical terms, to a 15-25% productivity improvement.

But, really, it sucks, and it’s not Scrum.

For teams and organizations that are new to it (three years or less), this is like an individual going to a dojo to learn Karate and, after the first session, telling the Sensei, “hey, this was really interesting but I can’t stretch that way so I’m going to do the kick differently – don’t worry, it’s better than what I did before – let’s move on to other things that I can do!”.  In other words, it’s arrogant and defeatist.  Regrettably, a lot of arrogance and defeatism goes by the much more palatable label of pragmatism.

You can’t make up what you want to do and call it “Scrum”.  Scrum has a definition (which has changed somewhat over time) and if you do something different from the definition, please call it something different.

But please, don’t mistake my comments for a call to…

Fundamentalism - Inoculation Against Scrum

It’s less common, but some people go here.  They learn Scrum the one true way and decide that come hell or high water, they will make their team do it that way!  Scrum this way is rigid and cultish.  Nevertheless, done this way, Scrum can still have some (temporary) benefits, similar to the pragmatic approach.  The challenge here is that it’s not usually sustainable and the people who participate in this type of Scrum are often “immunized” against it.  They’ve had a bad emotional experience with Scrum due to the inflexible, intolerant approach to implementing it.  Justifiably, those people don’t want to repeat the negative experience and so they actively avoid Scrum or even bash Scrum publicly.

It really is a process very much like how our antibodies work in human health: we are exposed to a microbial disease which itself may temporarily succeed in propagating in our body, even long enough to get us to infect someone else.  But after our immune system fights it off, we are ready for the next attack, will recognize it and repulse it far more quickly so that it can’t spread.  Trying to spread Scrum by doing it as an invasive take-over of an organization is very likely to cause the same sort of reaction among the people in the organization.  And anyone who comes along a little while later, even with a much more appropriate way of doing Scrum will likely be quickly rejected by the long cultural memory of the Scrum antibodies!

So where does that leave us?  There really is only one option for doing Scrum, allowing it to flourish, and getting amazing long-term results:

Transformation – The True Potential of Scrum

Remember that Scrum is based on the values and principles of the Agile Manifesto, and that Scrum itself has five values:

  1. Commitment
  2. Courage
  3. Focus
  4. Openness
  5. Respect

Taken all together, these values and principles constitute the spirit of Scrum.  They are the belief system.  They are the energy behind the framework.  This means that as a team uses Scrum, it must recall these values and principles and try to put them into practice through Scrum.  Not just the team, but the team’s stakeholders also need to be aware of these values and principles and also try to put them into practice.

For example, if you are a functional manager for someone who is on a Scrum Team, it is tempting to ask that person to do work that is not actually part of the Scrum Team’s plan. This is a distraction and causes both the individual person and the other Team members to lose focus.  Losing focus delays or prevents the creation of a high-performance team.  Therefore, as a functional manager, it is much better for you to “cover” for your subordinate, not distract them, and in every way allow that person to focus on their work for the Scrum Team.

Transformation doesn’t come just from adopting a set of values and principles, nor does it come from using a framework of processes and artifacts.  Transformation requires love and passion.  Transformation occurs when all the members of the Scrum Team, and their stakeholders start to develop intense personal bonds and become passionate about the potential of using the Scrum tool.

I really like the “hammer analogy“.  When you first use a hammer, you will likely find it annoying and painful to use.  You hit your thumb, your muscles get tired, etc.  But after getting better at using it, you start to see its potential: the hammer is an elegant, effective tool.  In a small way, you love the hammer, in part because of the results you can get with it.  Perhaps you have experienced this if you have ever tried to finish an unfinished basement: after you successfully put up your first stud wall, you think, “wow, I love doing this.”  That sense of accomplishment gives you the passion to continue to use the hammer.  So it is when using Scrum…

you allow Scrum to transform you and your organization not the other way around.

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