Tag Archives: Teams

Agile Work Uses Lean Thinking – Empirical Process Control

This is Part 2 of a 3 part series.
Part 1
Part 3 – not posted yet 🙂

Some work processes cannot be perfectly controlled nor perfectly defined. There may be non-linear interactions between steps in a process or there may be creative input from a human required. Processes with these qualities require empirical process control.
The basic attribute of empirical process control constitutes a continuous cycle of inspecting the process for correct operation and results and adapting the process as needed. A simple example of this is detecting impending failure of equipment by constantly monitoring the operation of that equipment. For Agile Work, the book Agile Software Development with Scrum provides an excellent chapter about this topic of Empirical Process Control.

In human processes like those to which Agile Work applies, the frequency of inspecting and adapting must match the needs of the process. Many projects occur in the context of constant change. This constant change makes long-term planning a wasteful effort. Rather, short-term planning with constant feedback provides a simple inspect and adapt cycle. This cycle can play out at different levels: daily for a team, monthly for a client of the team. The team inspects and adapts daily at the level of the tasks that it is performing. The client inspects and adapts monthly at the level of the team’s actual delivered results.

Both lean and agile methods claim to increase both speed and quality. Many people believe that there are four constraints in a system that can be controlled: speed (or schedule, or time to market, or process cycle time), quality (number of defects), scope (how much functionality), and cost savings (how much to spend on the work). Frequently, management believes that one has to trade off between these four constraints; spend more money, get more scope; lower quality, go faster. But in fact, lean and agile strongly support the idea that as you increase quality, you also increase speed… you just have to do it right.

In Agile Work, increasing speed and quality is done in three ways. First, increase the frequency and quality of communication among team members so that errors are detected early or avoided altogether. Second, drive the work with the creation and execution of automated testing. No work is done without a test in place to check if it is done correctly. This constant testing means that work is always defect-free and therefore very little time/money is spent on fixing defects. Third, eliminate wasteful work steps or obstacles to performance of work. This last one is difficult to do an bears closer examination.

Wasteful work is done in every process, no matter how efficient. Lean tells us that there are several types of waste in a manufacturing process. Those types of waste have analogies in Agile Work. For example, documenting something you plan to do instead of just doing it is wasteful. Another example is waiting while someone completes work that you depend upon. Any step or task that does not add value to the final product of an effort is waste. This standard is very high and most organizations have about 80% of their efforts going into wasteful tasks. An organization that has done an initial cut of wasteful work might stand at about 50% waste. The leanest organizations, such as Toyota, stand at about 20% waste.

Agile work eliminates waste in the form of barriers or obstacles that come up when a team is trying to go fast. Sometimes this is in the form of waiting for another group to do something for the agile team… an outsourced request for service. Sometimes waste is in the form of corporate standards or policies around documentation of work. The Process Facilitator role in an agile team has responsibility for working with the team and others to help overcome these obstacles.


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Is There a Single “Most Important” Agile Work Practice?

There are a few times that I have been involved with implementing agile pratices without management knowledge or direct support. In these cases it has usually been necessary to gradually introduce the practices. An unsupportive or apathetic environment cannot be changed instantly and big-bang introduction of agile tends to bring too much negative attention too quickly.

In reflecting on those experiences, as well as “normal” agile implementations, I have felt that there are some specific practices that can stand alone.

Self-Organizing Teams

The practice of a self-organizing team consists of frequent regular status meetings, face-to-face, reporting to the other team members accomplishments, work commitments and obstacles. Scrum has a very strict method of doing this on a daily basis but I have found it valuable to do more or less frequently depending on the team and its environment (generally any less than every second day is not enough). The team, or some assistant of some sort, tracks the barriers and works to resolve them quickly. Management, if it exists, must be contacted through trusted channels to assist with the removal of barriers. And stakeholders must be able to attend the status meetings or receive reports immediately after the meetings.

This single practice tends to have the ability to bootstrap the others. The identification and clearing of barriers provides a way for the team to practice all three Agile Work Disciplines (Empower the Team, Amplify Learning, Eliminate Waste). Reporting accomplishments to the other team members Amplifies Learning. Committing to work is empowering.

Some teams have done only this single agile practice and seen great improvements in productivity, morale, and stakeholder satisfaction. However, there are some pitfalls that must be acknowledged and dealt with.

Pitfall: Speculative Work

The team can tend towards speculative work if there is no strong representative of the stakeholders. This does not always happen since most people are sincere in their desire to “make a difference”. However, if as a team you adopt only this practice and find yourselves doing lots of “what-if?” or “wouldn’t it be neet if…” or “what exactly is our purpose?” discussions, then you need to find some external stakeholder support for your effort.

Pitfall: Failing to Deliver

In many organizations, failure to deliver is an endemic problem and a self-organizing team will break through and start delivering. However, failure to deliver can also become a cultural mindset for an organization or group. A self-organizing team must maintain a goal (not a plan) for itself, and that goal must include delivering something valuable. Again, finding an external stakeholder to support the team’s efforts can help to avoid this pitfall.

Pitfall: No Barriers

Sometimes a team will get into a habit where no new barriers are being exposed. This can often happen when the progress in the work becomes steady and is recognizably better than it was before. The team falls into a “local optimum”. In this case, the team needs a fresh way to view their work. This can happen in a number of ways: a crisis, an external observer, or a change in environment among others.

Do you have experience with successful but incomplete agile implementations? I would love to hear of other experiences and opinions about this.


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Agile, the Adult Educator and Ethical Considerations

A review of Tara J. Fenwick’s “Limits of the Learning Organization: A Critical Look” (article found in Learning for life: Canadian readings in adult education).

This article is a critique of learning organization literature (as presented in the works of Peters, Senge, Watkins, Marsick, Argyris, Schon and others). I chose to do a review of it because learning organization literature can and does inform the work of Agile practitioners. The writer, Tara Fenwick, offers a critique of this literature as an academic and practitioner in the field of adult education. Even though the language and tone of the article is judgmental and at times affronting to the corporate trainer audience, it is never-the-less challenging and valuable because she raises interesting ethical questions that can serve as cautions against potential trends that can distort agile practice. I will summarize her argument in the some of the areas most relevant to Agile practice.

Fenwick’s summary of the model of learning organization found in the literature, is an organization that: “creates continuous learning opportunities, promotes inquiry and dialog, encourages collaboration and team learning, establishes systems to capture and share learning, empowers people toward collective vision and connects the organization to its environment.”

The following is a summary list of some of Fenwick’s critiques:

Who’s Interests are Served
Although the learning organization literature holds great promise for a more humanitarian and egalitarian workplace, it has the potential to distort learning “into a tool for competitive advantage” and in turn, exploit people as resources in the pursuit of profit. To explore this idea she asks a valuable question: “Who’s interests are being served by the concept of learning organization, and what relations of power does it help to secure?” She argues that learning organization literature tends to serve the interests of educators working as trainers in organizations and managers interested in their own self preservation.

How Learning is Defined
Learning, in learning organization literature seems to be defined as that which benefits the organization, all other learning falls into the dysfunctional category. This perspective negates other ways that people create meaning and learn and potentially causes a person to become “alienated from their own meaning and block flourishing of this learning into something to benefit the community.”

Assumptions about Learners
The learning organization literature subordinates employees by seeing them as “undifferentiated learners-in-deficit”. Educators and managers are the architects of the learning organization while employees are busy “learning more, learning better and faster” trying to correct their knowledge deficit. In the learning organization workers become responsible for the health of the organization without the authority to determine alternative ways to reach that health. The fear of being left behind in a quickly changing market environment is used to create anxiety and fear as motivations for learning. All of these factors serve to put serious limits on the potential of people to learn in the work environment.

Diversity and Privilege Overlooked
Perspectives of race, class and gender -which research has shown affects the way people learn and collaborate- are lacking in the literature. Fenwick challenges the notion of achieving a democratically ideal situation for open dialog -that the learning organization literature calls for- when all people in the work place do not “have equal opportunity to participate, reflect, and refute one another” (for example because of the status of ones job, character, gender, class, age etc.)

Fenwick sheds a clear light on where the good philosophies of the learning organization are found wanting. The Agile community can benefit from asking some of the same ethical questions she asks in relation to our work. Her critique is a good challenge for Agile practitioners. It challenges us to:

  • Continue to strive for higher levels of ethical excellence in our work
  • To consider issues of power in our work
  • To become conscious of how we use our own power
  • To give thought to what voices are included / excluded in the creation of the learning organization
  • Pay attention to how we motivate learners
  • How to foster collaborative environments that are conscious of the privileging of some over others
  • Think about who decides what is valuable knowledge and learning and how that affects the knowledge creation process

Reflecting on these issues will go a long way to contributing to the development of agile practice.

The full text of an old version of Fenwick’s article can be found here.


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Agile Coach/Mentor Job Description (Process Facilitator)

Given the Agile Axioms and Disciplines then an agile coach or mentor should have some really specific experience and capabilities. This list constitutes a first attempt at a job description.

Continue reading Agile Coach/Mentor Job Description (Process Facilitator)


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Agile Infrastructure Projects – Lessons Learned

I’ve worked as an agile coach on three infrastructure/maintenance projects in a row. One was a software/hardware upgrade, one was implementing agile for a defects/enhancements team, and my most recent was a data warehouse decommissioning project. In all cases, the interesting part for me was taking the basic principles of agile and applying them in a way that works when not doing new product development. Here are some lessons I’ve learned:

1. Figure out what is going to deliver value (usually cost savings). In the case of infrastructure projects, one is usually focused on cost savings. Find a way to tie your work items directly to cost savings. You need a good financial model to do this. Mary and Tom Poppendieck talk about this a little in their Lean Software Development book. In the decommissioning program, there was a very explicit dollar cost associated with disk space and cpu utilization. Every user/MB decommissioned saved a measurable amount of money. As well, it allowed us to easily prioritize our backlog.

2. Focus project/program organization more on Lean principles than agile. A good understanding of queuing theory will go a long way to helping with throughput. In a team doing defects/enhancements work, the small pieces lend themselves well to certain types of streaming through the team. Iterations are not necessary to chunck work. Instead, iterations become checkpoints solely for process reflection.

3. Technical infrastructure projects can benefit greatly from automation. Test automation including test generation can sometimes be possible. Automating parts of a regularly repeated process that is used for every work item can be extremely beneficial for increasing speed. In the case of the decommissioning effort where every database table needs to be considered separately and where they all go through the same process for decommisioning, there are many opportunities for automation. The project/program/team can invest in doing this automation to great benefit to NPV.

4. The basic axioms (We are Creators, Reality is Perceived, Change is Natural) and disciplines (Empower the Team, Amplify Learning, Eliminate Waste) still apply. Even though it is not “new” product development, the creativity of people is essential for problem solving, and finding ways to do the work faster. Stakeholders still need to have their perception of reality acknowledged, and the teams still has to do constant checking to make sure they are on track with that perception. And of course, things are always changing including priorities, our understanding of the work, resource availability etc. Having an empowered team makes short work of many obstacles, but that wouldn’t happen without an explicit acknowledgement that we have to constantly be learning and eliminating waste. Teams get better and better at these disciplines over time.

I would be very interested to hear other peoples experiences with infractructural/operational projects.


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Tools Versus Capabilities Approach To Agile Training

Which approach is most valuable in training that fosters collaborative work for the purpose of optimizing the performance of an organization: a tools / methodologies approach or an inner capabilities approach? The typical orientation that most organizations take is often external and rule-based. This consists of creating methodologies, rules, boundaries, systems and processes to enhance collaboration.

These external approaches ultimately fail to have a lasting effect on people and the culture of the organization because they don’t address change at the level of habits of mind. People then work in the new structure with the same patterns of behaviour. Behind this kind of surface approach to change are assumptions about human nature. At worst this consists of a belief that people are base (greedy, selfish etc.) by nature. At best that people are fundamentally good but cannot improve except through external measures. It is true that we need external systems and structures to give expression to our inner capabilities, to test, foster and develop them in action. However all the investment that companies make in tools, systems, methodologies are obviously not enough. We need both external and internal approaches to training people in collaborative processes. Systems and tools provide only a framework that then need to be filled in with character. At the core of Agile there are disciplines (such as Empower the Team, Amplifly Learning) without which the methodologies would have no life. The practice of the disciplines fostered by the development of inner capabilities infuses life into the Agile methods and at the same time the methods act on and reinforce the inner practice of the disciplines.

As Agile champions (coaches, facilitators, practitioners) we must invest energy on fostering -through modelling and coaching- the development of inner capabilities. The Agile community will benefit from an identification of core capabilities required and a deep exploration of how to foster their development in individuals, teams and organizations.

Although it is our nature to organize in groups and we may have much experience with collaboration, we nevertheless live in a culture of contest and individualism. Out of this culture comes a set of belief systems which are so deeply rooted in our lives that we are not fully conscious of them and their affect on us. These belief systems cannot change easily through the introduction of external structures alone.


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Personal Philosophy of Adult Education

The following is my approach as an educator to my work in community and organizational development. I have come to this understanding mainly through experience, a great deal of mentoring and study.

Please note that when I use the term “teacher” in this document I also mean consultant, mentor, coach etc. The term “student” is also interchangeable with organization or community. The term education is interchangeable with organizational or community development consulting.

Validation: a starting point

Education should start from, affirm and validate the experience, insights and knowledge of the individual. This is a foundation for education that honours and respects the student. Recognizing the nobility of the student allows her an active role in her own learning. The role of the teacher is to facilitate learning by drawing on the experience of the student, to build on that experience through the acquisition of new insights, knowledge and skills.

Learning must be self-directed. The teacher may have a number of wonderful things to teach, but if the student does not believe that they are relevant to her, she will not be engaged. This is especially true for teachers who are working in communities that they are not a part of. The teacher must engage in careful investigation in order to understand the situation of the student, which includes attentive listening, as well as a genuine interest in the needs of the student, before proceeding along any line of instruction. Taking her cue from the students, the teacher must work with the individual / group to create a learning environment in which everyone takes responsibility for their own learning. In this kind of environment the teacher is not an expert and does not do the students’ learning for her. The teacher can use questions to assist the student to understand, instead of delivering answers. The teacher should also encourage an environment of learning that recognizes mistakes as part of the learning process. The learning environment should create in the student a hunger for the acquisition of knowledge, insights and skills beyond the direct experience with the teacher.

Encouragement: the key to self-directed learning

Once the experience of the student has been validated and her needs established, education should be challenging but not obtrusive and challenges must be presented with respect and encouragement. Encouragement versus excessive criticism leads to individual initiative instead of paralysis. The natural result of an encouraging and challenging learning environment is self-discipline and self-correction instead of external discipline (control) and constant external correction.

A transformative, holistic approach centred in humility and service

The learning environment should foster humility in both the student and teacher. Most contemporary approaches to education are materialistic; the student pays, studies, receives a degree, becomes an “expert”, etc. The whole educational experience, from the teachers to administrators, cultivates in the student a sense of self is that is based solely on the expertise and knowledge gained. The “Expert” attitude in the community development environment is often not useful because the work in the field is so complex. Many stakeholders have keys to the process, as a result, the “expert” attitude devalues the knowledge of others and tends to taint the path to solutions with conflict and ego. Another consequence of the expert mentality in the community is dependency; people are divorced from the solution to problems that they all contribute to and to which they all hold the keys. Instead of drawing on the knowledge of the stakeholders, the expert renders her own knowledge most valuable which in turn causes them to discard volition and succumb to a state of perpetual dependency on one expert after the other. Community members or institutions are robbed of the ability to play a central role in their own lives as a direct result of being robbed of opportunities to play central roles in the decision-making process of their community.

With humility at the centre of all learning, the purpose of education becomes transformation. We learn so that we, our communities and our institutions can improve and change for the better. Also as learning is applied to community efforts, individual capacity unfolds and is developed. Learning for its own sake is valuable, but learning for positive social change, makes the acquisition of knowledge, skills and insights relevant and engaging in the face of community development challenges. Learning then becomes intimately connected with action and is corrected and refined through action. This infuses a powerful sense of purpose and meaning in the learning process, especially as successes are realized.

Principle-based approach facilitates ownership

Education should cultivate a sense of personal ownership in the learning process and community life. Fostering a sense of personal ownership comes with educating students to have a mature perspective about their own learning as well as the changes they desire to implement in the community. It involves helping students learn the capability of ‘becoming’ the change that they want to see, as well as finding positive starting points in desperate situations and building on them. A mature outlook demands that students have a principle-based approach to problem solving versus a rule-based approach. Education then becomes not only a process of acquiring knowledge but centred on capacity building for individuals, institutions and groups. Fostering the development of capacities needed to overcome obstacles also requires a principle-based approach, embodying principles such as perseverance, human rights and dignity, building unity in diversity etc.

Integration and balance of methods essential

Education should be methodical and balanced. It should aim to acknowledge, validate and employ different learning paradigms: those of science, spirituality, culture and the arts. Systems of education that value science above the arts or spirituality are destructive to the individual and community as they create an imbalanced view of the world and rob people of a diversity of perspectives and tools that they need to face complex challenges. An educational program should strive to address the mental, emotional, spiritual and physical needs of students and not focus too much on merely one dimension of life. This is especially important in communities that have experienced extreme marginalization (colonization, oppression) where healing and wellness must play a significant role in the learning process.

Modelling Change

A key ingredient to success in transformational education is the example of the educator. As people, naturally we do what we know and what we have experienced. In order to change our patterns of behavior we need to begin having fundamentally different experiences than what we have known. The educator must be able to assist in the creation of such experiences. To do this she must be capable of modelling what is being taught and through constant critical self-reflection strive to exemplify in every action empowering ideals.

Summary

Learning and education are indispensable to all community efforts for positive change. The job of an adult educator is to assist individuals, the community and its institutions to adopt a posture of learning. This begins with working with the experience of the student, fostering self-directed learning and follows as the teacher interacts with the student to challenge and assist her to new levels of learning. With humility at the centre of all learning efforts, dependency on “experts” can be replaced with volition and independent decision-making. The potential of the individual further unfolds as she applies her learning to service to the community. Attention to capacity building and cultivating a sense of personal ownership -in the process of learning and community building- deepens the experience and truly engages the student in taking an active role in the development of her life. Utilizing all systems of learning in the education process ensures balance of methods and helps cultivate the infinite and diverse capabilities of human potential. Ultimately the success of an educator rests on the degree to which she is able to model the change she is fostering.


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Process Facilitator Role

I’ve been thinking a lot about the roles on Agile Work projects. Here is a possible “mission statement” or definition for the Process Facilitator:

The Process Facilitator is a person who is both experienced with Agile Work and trained as a facilitator. The Process Facilitator acts as a coach to the team to monitor the process, foster the understanding of the Agile Work Axioms, the development of the Agile Work Disciplines and adherence to the Agile Work practices. The goal of the Process Facilitator is to assist a team to become “performing” so that they are able to actively and independently persue continuous learning and improvement.

Also Known As: Scrum Master, Coach, and previously referred to as the “Process Owner”

Continue reading Process Facilitator Role


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The Role of the Process Owner

The following is an edited version of a post to the Scrum Development Yahoo! group made by Dave Barrett (CSM) (used by permission):

The ScrumMaster (Process Owner) role itself doesn’t automatically imply any degree of authority, although at times it does help when you need a little clout to clear some impediments or to negotiate with other departments. More than that, the ScrumMaster role does carry a responsibility to provide some leadership to the team. Even a self-organizing team needs leadership!

So I would say that it helps if the ScrumMaster has a little bit of
seniority over the rest of the team, it also helps if the ScrumMaster
approaches the role as a coach and leader, rather than as a supervisor.

On paper it looks like the ScrumMaster only has a few tasks:

1. Chair the Scrums, and make sure they happen each day. (The self-organizing team’s regular status meetings.)
2. Chair the Sprint (Iteration) Review and Planning meetings.
3. Produce the burndown chart. (An information radiator used to indicate the amount of work left in the product work item list and in the iteration work item list.)
4. Do the team’s “paperwork” – publish the Sprint Backlog (product work item list) once it has been set and so on.
5. Clear impediments brought up during the Scrums.

In reality, the ScumMaster needs to do a lot of other things. There’s all of the leadership stuff, keep the team happy, productive and motivated. There’s the political aspect, keeping other groups and
departments happy and out of the team’s hair. As the in-house “expert” on Scrum, you need to referee on points of procedure and theory. Often you need to champion Scrum within the organization.

Really, I don’t see a huge difference between the roles of Project Manager and Scrum Master. Semantics mostly. Project Manager almost seems to imply a “command and control” approach, Scrum thrives best
without that. I wouldn’t make a junior programmer a project manager, nor would I make him a Scrum Master.


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Harvard Business Review Article

I highly recommend this article on Collaboration Rules. Great stuff in there about developing teams, developing organizations and how important communication and trust are to doing so. The article draws examples from and compares the open-source development and maintenance of the Linux kernal and the operation of the Toyota Production System.


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Using Agile Work Practices to Develop a Seminar

I’ve been working on developing a Agile Work Seminar to introduce teams to agile work. I’m using some Agile Work practices to develop it.

Iterative Delivery and Adaptive Planning

The seminar is going through drafts. Each draft will actually be delivered to a team. The first time through all the material was done at a small software consulting company five days ago. As a result of feedback from the people who participated, a revision will be made to the seminar… and then it will be delivered again (probably the next time will be in early September). This process allows me to refine the contents and presentation of the material.

Over time, I will be able to use Adaptive Planning to modify the contents and qualities of the seminar as circumstances change.

Test-Driven Work

I have set up criteria for the presentation in the form of an outline and learning objectives. The outline describes the major topics that must be directly covered such as the Agile Axioms or Corporate Culture. I have also set up “soft goals” such as that the seminar must include theory, history, practice and criticism of Agile Work. My first iteration met the outline tests, but did not meet the soft tests explicitly. The next version will.

Appropriate Metrics

This is an easy one: the success of this project will be its acceptance in the marketplace by having teams willing to pay the price for this seminar and then recommending it to others.

The Other Practices

Because this is essentially a one-man job, the other practices such as Self-Organizing Team and Maximize Communication are not as applicable.


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Trust and Small Groups

A while ago I posted the story of a student film project using agile practices to create a documentary. One interesting observation made by the instructor is that trust among the group developed in an interesting fashion.

At first, the group self-organized by try to work in groups of three. However, when plans were made to get together (for example to film an interview), often, one of the three people would cancel. Probably, that person considered two people to be enough to do the work.

After noticing this pattern, the group decided to perform work in pairs. This made the commitment to working much stronger and eventually led to a more trusting work relationship.

I have also observed this pattern in other situations. Pair programming, pair writing, pair designing, pair problem-solving… all of these behaviors seem to arise naturally in a self-organizing team.


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Agile Work Roles

There are three simple roles in Agile Work. All other roles, titles, duties or responsibilities are not part of Agile Work.

Continue reading Agile Work Roles


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The Transparent Society

The Transparent Society, an essay by David Brin is an excellent statement about the possibilities and challenges that technology presents to us as a society. What is interesting about this paper is that it presents a possible society that is very similar to some of the goals in establishing an agile environment: open communication, accountability, free access to information and status, and close collaboration.


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Generalizing Specialists

The term “generalizing specialists” has come to mean an individual who has a particular area of deep expertise but also has experience in a large number of other areas that may not be directly related to their core area. This type of person typically has strong talent in their specialty but also has a generally strong talent for learning new skills and ideas quickly. The origin of the term seems to be in the software industry referring to programmers who can do other software-development related tasks.

In self-organizing teams, a generalizing specialist is a more valuable team member than a pure specialist. The pure specialist often has an attitude that they should not need to do work outside their specialty. This can be destructive to the team’s morale. On the other hand, the generalizing specialist is willing and able to learn new skills – to stretch as the needs of the team change. And since change is natural, this is an essential attitude for team members.

However, we are usually trained, and strongly encouraged to have a deep specialty. This approach to education and training is a natural consequence to the typical organizational model for work and society. Therefore, if a team is converting to agile work methods, people need to be coached to stretch themselves and learn new things. For some people, particularly those who already have multiple hobbies outside work, this is an easy transition to make. For others, it is a very difficult transition. In some extreme cases, this may call for the removal of someone from the team. (Note: I have never seen this myself and I only mention it with great reservation. I strongly feel that only those who could be called “ill” will be so incapable of changing their way of working. For other recalcitrants, it is usually a matter of motivation.)

Other terms that are similar to “generalizing specialist” include “craftsperson”, “renaissance man”, and “polymath“.


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