Tag Archives: Practice

Practicing (subversive) Scrum: you CAN do it!

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photo by V. Senyk
photo by V. Senyk

by Jerry Doucett and Valerie Senyk

So you’ve taken Scrum training, received your industry certification, and perhaps even experienced being a Scrum team member. In your heart you believe Scrum is the right tool and approach for you, and you believe your current organization and your customers could really benefit from Scrum practices.

However, for whatever reason your organization is either hesitant to consider Scrum or outright believes it’s a bad idea. Perhaps there was an experience with a poorly executed pilot. Perhaps your leadership see it as being too risky.

What do you do?

This article explores how you could subversively practice ScrumMaster-ing in your workplace without getting into trouble or breaking the rules. Ssh…we won’t tell!

Before you even begin strategizing, you need to ensure that what you do aligns with the Scrum values, namely:

 

Doing Scrum subversively will certainly take considerable courage, focus and commitment on your part. Be aware you will be challenged to respect the existing organizational culture and norms, and they may push back on your efforts.

You also need to acknowledge that the very act of being subversive means you are not being completely open and transparent that you are practicing Scrum to the extent possible.

Or you could tell your workmates, “I’ve had this terrific training in Scrum and could we try a few of the techniques to see how they work?” Then introduce something as simple as time-boxing or holding retrospectives with your colleagues.

You will also want to ensure what you do is harmonious with Scrum Theory and the pillars of empirical process, which are:

1. Transparency 2. Inspection 3. Adaptation

Normally, one could say there’s a direct conflict between being transparent and being subversive. Keeping this in mind, it is imperative you be absolutely transparent on the actions you are taking and what the specific goals, outcomes or learnings are that you hope to achieve.

However, given the circumstances you’ll likely choose to not explicitly use Scrum terminology and language to describe what you are doing. In other words, describe the practices and activities that you are implementing or recommending, express their benefits and what you hope to accomplish, but don’t explicitly call them by their Scrum name.

As for Inspection and Adaptation, those approaches should be perfectly aligned with your intent to try to help your company become a learning organization. That means you will need to park your ego at the door and accept the results. If your learning shows your subversive Scrum activities do not provide the benefit you are aiming for, you will need to stop them regardless of whether you think they should work or not.

Let’s explore some activities and practices you may want to tactfully consider to help your organization benefit from Scrum (without actually “doing” Scrum).

1. Lead by Example

As someone that appreciates the values of Scrum, you should aim to educate others and provide them with a similar understanding. That means practicing them in how you show up and in everything you do, even explicitly calling out certain actions when they are a prime example (and of course, whenever it is appropriate).

This does not mean preaching! Instead, it could be sharing your thoughts about something when contributing to a decision, or simply pointing out when and how something that aligns with the values contributes to a better team, a better experience, or a better solution.

Leading by example also means being human and honest when mistakes are made or when failures occur. This can be particularly risky in an organization that has not embraced Agility, or where failure is frowned upon. That is where you need courage, and a commitment on your part to hold improvement of the work your organization does above your own individual career needs.

2. Communicate More

Make a concerted, conscious effort to communicate with your team and partners more. For example, get up out of your seat and spend more time in informal face-to-face discussions rather than sending e-mails or chat messages.

Perhaps you can have short, informal meetings with just the team either daily or several times a week to see what has been done, what still needs to be done, and what challenges the team is facing. The key here is to keep it mercifully short, focus on what needs to be done to move work forward, and define actions to address issues. Then always follow up and make sure the actions are being pursued and progress shared with the team.

3. Be Open And Transparent

Although you may consciously choose to not use the proper terminology and language of Scrum, the key is to always be honest about what it is you are trying to do, why it is important, and what the desired outcomes are.

To this end the goal should never simply be to have teams adopt Scrum. The goal should be to become a learning organization that “learns about learning”, constantly tries to improve, delivers value faster, and applies new knowledge in the best possible way. Scrum may be a fantastic catalyst for that, but there are many other approaches that will achieve similar results.

4. Use Better Meeting Practices

Another approach to consider is improve meeting experiences by time-boxing and defining specific scope for each meeting. Setting a time limit and specific outcomes for a discussion helps create a sense of urgency, manage expectations and focus the conversation on the most important topics. The facilitator will need to enforce these constraints if you really want to be successful, otherwise you lose the effectiveness of the practice.

5. Have One or More Key Stakeholders Empowered to Make Product Decisions

This may be a considerable challenge in organizations where there is little appetite or understanding about Agile practices and Scrum, but do what you can given your authority and influence. If possible, try to have a single voice (key stakeholder) defined as the person with the final authority on the product or service that your team is delivering. Then, work with that individual to set them up for success by connecting them with the other stakeholders, perhaps facilitating discussions with them, and showing the key person(s) effective techniques for prioritizing and rank-ordering the work that is being asked for.

6. Limit Efforts to What Matters Most

One practice that is important to apply, but often difficult to master, is focus. Limit work and discussions to the most important tasks and activities, and request that other discussions on lesser-important work be delayed. Always try to focus the conversation back to what is currently the most important work.

On occasion you may even want to point out times when plans were well-defined in advance but ultimately changed a lot when the actual work was in progress. This indicates the waste in planning too much up front and in constant task-switching. When done in conjunction with time-boxing this practice becomes a little easier.

On a macro scale, when possible try to limit development to smaller chunks of end-to-end deliverables. In other words, deliver small things often all the way to completion as much as possible (e.g. to a staging environment). Then show the outcome and deliverable to stakeholders and customers, explaining that although the final product may not be done, this is specifically to get them something fast and gather feedback.

7. Reflect on Learning

When possible, ensure that reviews of completed work happen frequently. Ensure the outcomes, functionality and value is shown and that learning (for the product as well as the methods) are part of the discussion.

Without becoming intrusive, seek stakeholder feedback frequently and informally. Then, be willing to demonstrate an ability to pivot plans based on that feedback.

As a team, hold informal retrospectives of how you worked together. If the term “retrospective” is contentious, consider calling them something else such as a debriefing or a reflection.

8. Visualize and Display Work

Have your own personal backlog and list of current activities visible at your desk. Use post-its to represent all work that you have on your plate, and ensure it is always up-to-date. Prioritize the work items you have coming up, and visually represent this as a rank-ordered list of things that you have to do.

It won’t take long for people around you to notice what you are doing and ask about it. Use this as a great opportunity to educate others on the values of transparency and focus.

9. Keep Your Team Size Appropriate

If you are on a particularly large team, see if it is possible to split that large team in to smaller groups. The benefit is more face-to-face time and interaction across the new team, an increased sense of belonging and commitment to the new team’s purpose, and it should also be easier (in theory anyway) to get decisions made and increase alignment.

The challenge will be finding a logical way to split the teams to mitigate dependencies of people, skills and products, and ensuring the new teams can still collaborate with one another. Geography might be a good way to split the team if you are distributed, but you would need to ensure all the skills to deliver the solution exist on all new teams.

10. Push for Automation

If you are in a development environment where tools, automation and engineering practices are not currently being used, and they could be of value to your organization, then start investigating whether it is possible. Tools and automation are not cheap nor are they easy to implement, but they dramatically encourage you and your teams to collaborate better and they enable the adoption of Scrum practices such as fast delivery of value.

Final Note

Be confident that your own creativity may help you unlock ways of practicing Scrum methodology without disrupting your organization’s practices.

You may or may not be able to implement all of the above actions but, as one Agile Coach likes to say, “it’s all about how YOU show up, how YOU are.” In the final analysis, your example, your enthusiasm, your courage will be the best you can offer.


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Practice Courage: Move Beyond Planning Into Action

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Courage is required to move beyond planning into action. The amount of courage correlates to the attachment we feel to our plans and the attitude we have about failure. Risk-averse/plan-heavy environments are discouraging — risk-tolerant/experimental environments are encouraging.

Are you stuck in planning mode?

I was coaching Product Managers working for a demanding Chief Product Officer. Not only demanding but also visionary yet particular, energetic yet moody, instinctual yet empirical, intensely focused yet integrally involved in all aspects of business — he led the creation of a multi-billion dollar product so these traits are evidently effective. The Product Managers faced intense pressure.

When I met the group, projects underway by the engineering teams were all in the name of optimization or reliability of existing features. New product ideas had been shelved and Product Managers felt paralyzed in a pattern of planning and analysis. The more they planned, the more they became attached to their plans, the more they were disheartened when the CPO rejected their plans, so the more they would plan.

To break from that pattern, I petitioned hard for a four-day hack-a-thon so the whole product development organization could self-organize and feel encouraged to try new things. With mere *minutes* of up-front planning, teams started testing new product ideas in a safe-to-fail setting.

The results were powerful. The barriers to action had dissolved and within months the company could announce new features and previously-shelved product ideas were underway.


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Practice Focus: Send Less Email & Close Slack

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Very few people are paid to chat or write email: executive assistants and lawyers mostly.  Everybody else is paid to do other work like write code, build things, solve problems, or transact with customers.  Think about what you’re actually paid to do, then do that and only that.

If the Slack channel side-bar represents your definition of “collaboration”, stop! If you need to communicate with others while doing your work, do it face-to-face whenever possible or by phone & video. To be clear: Slack channels may be good for announcements but quickly digress as water-cooler drivel and those chatbots are sorry excuses for actual event logging. Perhaps it’s reassuring to be reminded that there’s nothing in Slack (or Yammer/HipChat/Asana/Jira/Trello) more important than the work you’re actually paid to perform.

If your “Sent Items” folder is a CYA repository, stop! If it’s necessary in your organization to CYA then document your activity in a personal journal and stop involving other people in your CYA habit.

If your Inbox is your to-do list, stop!  Use sticky-notes, a hipster PDA, or a calendar.


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Updated: The Best Agile Practices to Implement Now

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This article which lists three high-ROI practices has been updated with new images and a few other minor fixes:

The Best Agile Practices to Implement Now


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Best Agile Advice Articles – Ten Year Anniversary!

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Agile Advice was started in 2005.  In ten years, we have published over 850 articles (an average of just about 2 per week!).  Here are some collections of the ten “best” articles.  I hope you enjoy looking back at (or discovering for the first time!) some of the things that have made this such a great joy for me.

Ten Most Popular Agile Advice Articles

  1. How Two Hours Can Waste Two Weeks (75,000+ visits)
  2. The Seven Core Practices of Agile Work (25,000+ visits)
  3. Eight Barriers to Effective Listening (17,000+ visits)
  4. Seven Essential Teamwork Skills (17,000+ visits)
  5. 24 Common Scrum Pitfalls Summarized (15,000+ visits)
  6. Mentoring and Coaching: What is the Difference? (14,000+ visits)
  7. Wideband Delphi Estimation Technique (14,000+ visits)
  8. The Pros and Cons of Short Iterations (13,000+ visits)
  9. Three Concepts of Value Stream Mapping (13,000+ visits)
  10. Agile Work and the PMBoK Definition of Project (11,000+ visits)

Ten Most Commented Upon Agile Advice Articles

  1. 24 Common Scrum Pitfalls Summarized (19 comments)
  2. Agile Becomes Easier with Useful Tools (12 comments)
  3. Important Words about Scrum and Tools (9 comments)
  4. The Skills Matrix and Performance Evaluation on Agile Teams (9 comments)
  5. The Definition of Done is Badly Named (8 comments)
  6. How Two Hours Can Waste Two Weeks (7 comments)
  7. Agile is Not Communism (7 comments)
  8. Agile Tools vs. Agile Books (6 comments)
  9. The Decline and Fall of Agile and How Scrum Makes it Hurt More (5 comments)
  10. The Planning Game: an Estimation Method for Agile Teams (5 comments)

I also want to acknowledge that there are a number of other contributors to Agile Advice besides me (Mishkin).  These contributors are all experts, all have great experiences, and all are fantastic people to know.  I’m grateful for their contributions since they have all made Agile Advice a better place to browse!

Five Most Frequent Contributors (of Articles, besides Mishkin)

  1. Paul Heidema (34 articles)
  2. Travis Birch (24 articles)
  3. Christian Gruber (19 articles)
  4. Mike Caspar (16 articles)
  5. Shabnam Tashakour (13 articles)

Plans for the Future – Five Top Ideas for Series

  1. Essays on each of the Values and Principles of the Agile Manifesto
  2. Summary articles of several Agile methods including Scrum, OpenAgile, Kanban, Crystal, XP, and others
  3. Real Agility Program case studies
  4. Reviews of other scaling / enterprise Agile frameworks such as Disciplined Agile Delivery, Large Scale Scrum, Enterprise Scrum
  5. New guest articles from thought and practice leaders.

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Tips to Start Agile in a Hostile Environment

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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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Cultivating a Learning Culture

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I’ve recently joined Berteig Consulting Inc., and we are wrapping up our first cycle as a new team. The last two weeks has been an extraordinarily rich experience for me in a multitude of ways.

The time I’ve spent reviewing various online and published Agile reference materials, thinking deeply about the concepts in the Agile Manifesto and Principles, studying some in-house materials and portions of different books about agile coaching and retrospectives has been really useful to my deepening in the concepts surrounding the framework of Agile. Even more helpful though has been the fact that I have had the opportunity to complement this reading and studying with action and engagement with our clients, and that our team has been so open to the reflections I’ve shared and has shared their own. Previous experiences have taught me that familiarity with resources and guidance, without practical application, can be limiting and create an over-intellectualization of concepts that, when divorced from action, can create an artificial version of reality, and that makes me even more appreciative for the time I’ve been able to spend interacting with clients and thinking about what I’ve been reading about and how this would be applicable to their teams.

Our team regularly articulates and works to apply concepts we think are foundational to growth and transformation, such as truthfulness, consultation, and agility in thinking and action at the individual and group level. I’ve found that our ongoing communication in our team room and reflection throughout the day has been instrumental in creating a space that is open and forward moving for us.

I’ve also realized a lot of factors have contributed to the culture of learning we are continually developing in our team, including our openness and honesty during progress meetings, our efforts to use consultation as a guide and instrument when we’re trying to make decisions, the actions we take to complete a task, and our readiness to respond to change. I think we’re also all really aware in our team how important our approach to the process of learning is. I’ve found this manifested in different team members in different ways: experienced ones practice coupling expertise with humility, others display incredible levels of patience and servitude to the team, still others animate the group with high levels of joy and kindness.

We also each seem to have a very conscious appreciation for the new culture we are trying to create within our team, which will help us in accompanying other teams to develop as well. Personally, I am continually striving to transform my actions to reflect what I learn through each experience each day and feel that the individuals on our team are doing the same. We increase our understanding of how to transform our own actions and those of the team as a unit as we apply what we are learning simultaneously to areas and interactions beyond ourselves. From what I’ve seen so far, transformation is a key concept with every team we are engaged with, and I think that we can contribute to that process a lot more if we are also always trying as a team to do the same.

The spirit of collaboration I have experienced within our team and with our clients has been really uplifting to me and for that I thank each of you, my collaborators, for your contributions and all that we have been able to do and learn together.


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