Foundations of Excellence

I was thinking about the concept of becoming excellent at something.  My son is a budding artist.  He and I had a conversation a few months ago about talent or aptitude.  I said to him that I felt that aptitude is only latent: you need to put effort into something in order to expose your talent.  He was concerned that he didn’t have any aptitude because he had to work so hard to become better at drawing.  I compared him to myself and my brother, Alexei: when we were growing up, we both put a lot of effort into drawing.  Quickly, I fell behind my brother in skill.  He clearly had aptitude.  But he also put in a lot of effort into exposing that talent.  I was reminded of all this because my son is struggling with math.  He has aptitude, but he hasn’t put much effort into it.  I was wondering why?

Then I realized that aside from aptitude and effort, two more things need to be in place to achieve excellence: willingness and confirmation.

Willingness is the internal drive, usually motivated by an unconscious set of factors, but sometimes also coming from a strong conscious decision.  Willingness can come from unusual combinations of circumstances.  I was extremely willing to learn mathematics in my youth.  This came from two experiences.  One, in grade 2, was when my teacher told me that I shouldn’t be learning multiplication (my dad had taught me while on a road trip).  I was upset that I shouldn’t be able to learn something.  Then, in grade 3, I had a puppet called Kazir (a gift from my babysitter who told stories about space adventures with Azir and Kazir the Baha’i astronauts).  I brought Kazir to school one day and while doing math problems, I pretended that Kazir was helping me.  Suddenly I found math easy.  These two events plus a few others contributed strongly to my desire, my willingness to learn math.

Confirmation is the set of environmental factors that helps keep us on a path of learning.  These environmental factors are sometimes mimicked in the corporate world with bonuses and gamification, but these are really distant shadows of what confirmation is really about. Confirmation is when the stars align, when everything seems to go right at just the right time, when the spirit inspires and moves you and the world to be, in some way, successful.  The trick about confirmation is that success is not usually about monetary success.  It’s usually about social, relational or even sacrificial success.  As an example, when I was in grade 7, I was chosen with a small group of people in my class to do accelerated math studies.  This was a great honour for me and was a confirmation of my interest in math.

In organizational change, and in particular in changing to an Agile enterprise, we need to be aware that excellence requires that these four factors be in place.  Aptitude is, to some degree, innate.  We can’t trick people to have aptitude.  If someone is just fundamentally bad at a certain thing, despite vigorous educational efforts, then that person likely doesn’t have the aptitude.  Effort is about both having time and resources, but also, then about willingness.  And willingness, in turn, can only be sustained with confirmation.  Too much discouragement will break a person’s willingness.  The Agile enterprise requires a great number of skills and abilities that are not normally part of a person’s work environment prior to attempting to adopt Agile.  Keeping these four things in mind can help people in an organization to reach excellence in Agility.

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Real Agility Program – Recommendations (Assessment and Playbook)

Recommendations IconWe have already written about how Leadership and Delivery Teams operate in a Real Agility Program.  It’s time to look at our Recommendations component: getting started on the right path for Real Agility.

Recommendations = Assessment + Playbook

In the assessment portion of the Recommendations component, we gather information about the current situation at an organization.  This includes everything from detailed practices, processes and tools, to strategies and organizational culture.  This assessment work is designed to help everyone understand the organization’s current gaps, and what strengths it has that will best support it to cross those gaps to Real Agility.  The Assessment includes an online portion, an on-site portion and an off-site portion.  The assessment work naturally leads to the development of the playbook.

The online assessment requires that each person throughout an organization complete an online survey about corporate culture.  It includes three major sections: existing challenges, sense of urgency, and level of teamwork.  This cultural survey is the foundation of understanding how to be successful with Real Agility.  Managers and leaders are also asked to complete an additional questionnaire about the current environment at the organization.  This includes high-level information about the structure of the organization, client and vendor relationships, and staff.  Additional surveys may also be administered to understand other aspects of the organization.  For example, in an organization that is struggling to use Scrum, we will often use the Scrum Team Assessment.

The onsite portion of the assessment combines in-person interviews and workshops with staff and managers.  Interviews explore aspects of the corporate work environment in more depth and include questions about familiarity with Agile methods, and obstacles that people might see to adopting Agile.  The workshops gather data around current challenges and strengths, success criteria for projects, situational analysis for teams, and existing metrics (or lack thereof).  Typically we need a meeting room committed to our consultants for doing interviews.

The offsite portion of the assessment is used for us to evaluate and analyze the survey, interview and workshop results.  We also use some time to review any relevant documentation such as process templates, org charts, governance requirements, etc.  We may also use some of this time for follow-up phone calls or emails to clarify aspects of the assessment results.  Finally, this offsite work is also where we do the bulk of the development of the recommendations in the playbook.

Several aspects of our assessment are based on the OpenAgile Catalyst Assessment Tools which are open-source and can be found online.  We also have a number of proprietary tools.

The playbook maps out a path to a successful Real Agility transformation.  It is a road map that helps leaders, managers and team members make good business decisions as they strive for Real Agility.  The playbook aids the organization to effectively and appropriately launch Real Agility teams: management teams, project teams, and operational teams.  The Real Agility Program playbook includes analysis of the assessment results, recommendations for work that the organization can do on its own and suggests outside assistance that enhances Real Agility results.  Two critical questions that are answered in the Playbook include:

  • What Agile method or methods should we be using and why?
  • What organizational change approach should we take and why?

We deliver the recommendations in the form of the playbook and an executive summary slide deck in an iterative and incremental fashion so that stakeholders can give us early feedback and so that we can adapt our assessment agenda as we go along.  The recommendations include ideas about organizational structure, staffing, governance changes, departmental relationships, tooling, and many other aspects of how an enterprise can best become and Agile enterprise.

Following the Recommendations in the Real Agility Program playbook results in huge time-to-market improvements, 200% (or better) productivity boost for delivery teams, and extremely satisfied customers and staff.

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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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Professionalism and Agility

Recently, I have been reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. Fascinating reading. In this book, Mr. Gladwell chronicles some of the backgrounds of top professionals in artistic, sport and business endeavors. He tried to determine why these individuals/groups have accomplished so much in their lives and why they are in the top of their profession. Tiger Woods, Bill Gates and the Beatles are a few of the many professionals he examines. There should be no doubt in your mind that Tiger Woods is the top golfer, Bill Gates is a very successful entrepreneur, and the Beatles are a prolific band.

Please forgive me Mr. Galdwell if I summarize and distill your findings into a few short sentences. The answer is 10,000 hours. Each of these individuals or groups put 10,000 hours into their chosen profession before they arrived at the top. They viewed their professions differently, were passionate about what they did and behaved differently when learning their profession. I am not suggesting you need to work for 10,000 hours before you are successful. I am suggesting if you adopt the same methods they do, you will increase your chance of success.

As I observed these top professionals, I began to see similarities in a number of areas. They seem to share a comfort in their ability to grow and develop. I am not sure they set out to be the top but they certainly thought they would overcome what life threw at them and they trusted their own capacity to excel. I have found that giving yourself a steady message of what is possible helps you deal better with life and to overcome all the negatives around us. As an example, I seldom read the newspaper or watch the news, for this barrage of negative messages affects my outlook of what is possible. It seems to me that these top professionals insulate themselves from negative messages as well.

Next, they have incredible self discipline skills. They practice their profession with passion. They don’t believe in luck as much as they believe in hard work. This is where the 10,000 hours come into their development. They are constantly practicing to improve and master their profession. The top professionals did not achieve their position through luck, they attained the position through hard work.

To summarize, their methods are to be positive about your ability to cope with the future, give yourself positive messages, be disciplined about mastering your profession and be prepared to work hard to achieve the position of the professional.

There is a quote I like that was told to me by a businessperson from Jamaica. When asked his view of life, he said “I refuse to be held hostage by circumstances!” The top professionals choose their future and are agile as they cope with what life offers.

It seems to me another reason why these individuals are so successful is that they were very agile in their approach to life. They created their future rather than follow others. Through their own personal agility they made the right decisions to gain a top position in their chosen profession.

So the question I have been wrestling with is this: If they can be the top, then why not me? What is holding me back? Well, if you have ever spent time with me, or read any of my books, you would know the answer. The only thing holding me back is me. Can I get better? Yes, I can. Can I work harder? Yes, I can. Can I be more successful? Yes, I can. Can I be more agile in my approach to life and its challenges? Absolutely yes!

So how about you? In these troubled economic times, we have an opportunity to re-invent ourselves. The best way to survive and thrive from our current situation is to build the future we desire. Rather than expending a lot of energy worrying about your current situation, you should be taking that energy and using it to take charge of your future and build a new reality. Approach whatever life throws at you with agility. I believe success is a choice. Make good choices and everything is possible.

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