Agile Layoffs – When Business is Bad, What Do You Do?

Agile methods and the culture behind them focus on teamwork, safe environments, motivation, technical excellence and lots of other things that are easy when business is good.  But when business is bad, and you simply can’t afford to keep everyone around, what do you do?

… UPDATE …

Interesting: this tiny post has generated a lot of traffic… but no responses.  Please feel free to offer suggestions or ideas or questions in the comments.

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Tips to Start Agile in a Hostile Environment

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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Rant about Commitment – One of the Scrum Values

The voting for re-introducing the five values of Scrum into the Scrum Guide is heating up with some great discussion (debate?).  One person, Charles Bradley is providing some interesting arguments about why “commitment” should not be included or even changed to a different word.  I have posted a response.  I strongly believe that the word “commitment” is the right word.  Here’s the first paragraph of my response:

Hi Charles, although I appreciate your concerns about the word commitment, there is still huge support for adding the five values back to the Scrum Guide, including using that “bad” word. I would like to present to you an argument for the use of the word commitment by telling a story.

 

A long time ago I had a really good friend….

 

Check out all the discussion on the five values of Scrum and please comment or vote (or both!)

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Minor Update: Seven Essential Teamwork Skills

I was recently checking my Google Analytics for Agile Advice and the article I wrote quite a while back in 2009 about teamwork skills is even more popular than the front page of this blog!  I took a look at it and made some tweaks including providing some good references for more information about each of the teamwork skills.  Take a look: Seven Essential Teamwork Skills.  The only hard one was to find a good article about “sharing” as a teamwork skill.   If you know of one, please comment so that I can add it!  I’ll even be happy to take a link to an article you have written yourself.

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The Real Agility Program – Execution and Delivery Teams

Execution IconIn a recent post, Mishkin outlined the Leadership Team component of the Real Agility Program.  While the Leadership Team track focuses on developing leadership capacity for sustained transformation, The Execution track focuses on launching and developing high-performance project, product and operational teams.  This track is the one that most of our clients use when they run Agile pilot programs and is a critical component of getting quick wins for the organization.

Groundbreaking works such as The Wisdom of Teams (Katzenbach & Smith), The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (Lencioni) and Drive (Pink) have served well to distill the essential requirements of high-performance teams.  Scrum, Kanban, and OpenAgile are proven frameworks that optimize the value of teams and create the necessary working agreements to help teams reach that high-performance state.

The Delivery Team track of the Real Agility Program creates new, cross-functional, multi-skilled, staff-level teams of willing individuals.  These teams are responsible for delivering value—business results and quality.  Individuals are committed to the performance of the team and the organization.  Teams develop the capacity to self-organize and focus on continuous improvement and learning.  A team is usually composed of people from various roles at the delivery level.  For example, and IT project team might be composed of people whose previous* roles were:

  1. Project manager
  2. Business analyst
  3. Software developer
  4. Tester
  5. Database developer
  6. Team lead
  7. User experience lead
  8. Intern

* These roles do not get carried into the new delivery team other than as a set of skills.

The track begins with establishing pre-conditions for success including executive sponsorship, availability of team members and management support.  Team launch involves a series of on-the-job team development workshops designed to enable the teams to create their own set of values, working agreements and high-performance goals.  Teams are guided in the creation of their initial work backlogs, defining “done”, estimation and planning and self-awareness through the use of a collaborative skills matrix.  The teams are also assisted in setting up collocated team rooms and other tools to optimize communication and productivity.

Qualified coaches assist the teams to overcome common issues such as personal commitment, initial discomfort with physical colocation, communication challenges of working with new people in a new way, management interference and disruptions and appropriate allocation of authority.  This assistance is delivered on a regular schedule as the team progresses through a series of steps in the Execution track process.  Usually, these steps take one or two weeks each, but sometimes they take longer.  A team that needs to get to a high-performance state quickly might go through the entire program in 10 or 12 weeks.  In an organization where there is not the same urgency, it can take up to a year to get through the steps of the track.

The coaches for this Execution track also help management to resist and overcome the strong urge to manage the problems of the teams for them.  In order to develop through the stages of team development, teams need to be effectively guided and encouraged to solve their own problems and chart their own courses towards high-performance.

The goal of the Execution track of the Real Agility Program is to help the team go through the stages of forming-storming-norming and set them up to succeed in becoming a high-performance team.  Of course, to do this requires some investment of time.  Although the Execution track is meant to be done as on-the-job coaching, there is a 5% to 20% level of overhead related to the Real Agility Program materials themselves.

See also the article on the Recommendations component of the Real Agility Program.

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Updated: Agile Estimation with the Bucket System

I have added a pdf download of this article about Agile Estimation with the Bucket System.  It’s just a handy, nicely-formatted document that can be used for quick reference.  It is now part of the materials I give out for my Certified ScrumMaster training classes.

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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.

- – - – - – - -

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.

- – - – - – - -

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

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Announcement: Agile Coaching Patterns Wiki

Coaches for Agile teams and organizations is a growing profession.  I’ve been coaching for a long time, and I’ve used/invented/learned-about many different techniques or interventions for coaching in the context of Agile teams.  I have recently started a Wiki to capture some of this information.  (Originally, I was hoping to write a book, but I don’t have the time to do it on my own or even to coordinate a multi-author effort.)  This is an open invitation to participate in the wiki.  I won’t make it fully open (like wikipedia), instead, it will be by invitation.  Connect with me on LinkedIn and mention you would like to contribute, and I will set you up with an account… and then you can go nuts :-)  If there end up being several contributors, I’ll make a block on the front page for links to contributors and/or their organizations.

Check out the Agile Coaching Patterns wiki.

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The Rules of Scrum: Your ScrumMaster uses the Retrospective to help your team improve its processes and teamwork

The Sprint Retrospective is a key meeting where the team discusses how to improve. Like the other meetings in Scrum, the ScrumMaster is responsible for ensuring it occurs and that it is well-facilitated. There are three main purposes of the Sprint Retrospective: honestly review how the last Sprint was conducted in all aspects including skills, relationships, processes, environment, culture and tools; discover the key aspects of the previous Sprint that need to be carried forward or improved; and, plan how the Scrum Team will improve the way it does work. This meeting aids the team in inspecting and adapting the entire use of Scrum and how the team is progressing as a team. The Sprint Retrospective is a check point that helps the team to know its current state, compare to its desired state, identify gaps, and take the needed steps to improve. This meeting is also where the ScrumMaster challenges the team to look deeply at itself and its process without fear. When a Scrum Team fails to hold and participate in this essential meeting, the team is likely to become a Scrum Team in name only without the spirit of Scrum – and therefore lose many of the far reaching benefits that many other Scrum Teams have experienced.

To learn more about using retrospective to help your team improve its processes and teamwork, visit the Scrum Team Assessment.

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The Rules of Scrum: I do not track my hours or my “actual” time on tasks

Scrum considers tracking the time individuals spend on individual tasks to be wasteful effort.  Scrum is only concerned about time when it comes to the time boxes of the Sprint and Sprint meetings.  Scrum also supports sustainable development, which implies working sustainable hours.  When it comes to the completion of tasks, the team is committed to delivering value.  The tasks in the Sprint Backlog represent the remaining tasks that the team has identified for delivering on its committed increment of potentially shippable value for the current Sprint.  The tasks themselves have no value and therefore should not be tracked.  Scrum is only concerned about burning down to value delivered.  Time spent on individual tasks is irrelevant.  What if I track my hours or my “actual” time on tasks?  This promotes a culture of “bums in seats” – that it is more important for people to be busy at any cost instead of getting valuable, high-quality results.  This also promotes bad habits such as forcing work into billable hours even though it is not.  Overall, time tracking in a Scrum environment does much harm and can undermine the entire framework.

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The Rules of Scrum: No member of my team reports to me

Inside the Scrum Team, including the Product Owner and the ScrumMaster, no individual should report to any other individual.  The team reporting structure should be flat.  This does not necessarily mean that all Team Members are peers in the org chart.  For example, one team member could be quite senior, and another quite junior.  However, for the Scrum principle of self-organization to work effectively, individual Team Members should have no concern about what their “boss” wants them to do.  Instead, within the Scrum Team, there should be a completely safe environment for individuals to volunteer for tasks, raise obstacles, provide candid feedback to any other Team Member, and have a mutual sense of commitment to the work of the team.  If the Scrum Team is absent of reporting relationships then it has a much higher chance of becoming a high-performance team.  If there are reporting relationships within the Scrum Team there are often significant obstacles to full openness and self-organization and this, in turn, will significantly hamper the performance of the team.

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The Rules of Scrum: I never tell any other individual team member which task to work on next

All tasks done by individuals on a Scrum Team must be chosen voluntarily.  If one Team Member, in any way, tells another Team Member what task to work on, this breaks the principle of self-organization that is essential to creating a high-performance Scrum team.  Team leads, project managers, functional managers and other people in roles of authority to assign tasks must give up that authority completely when it comes to the people on a Scrum team.  This self-organizing behavior allows individual team members to consider their own talents, capacity, interest, motivation etc., when choosing a task.  All of those inner conditions are not as well known by other people and so assigning tasks tends to be sub-optimal.  When a Team Member considers those inner conditions about him or her self, and also takes into consideration the needs of the team, an optimal task choice can be made.  If someone in a position of authority does assign tasks, it creates a habit of deferring to authority which quickly destroys any possibility of a high-performance team developing.

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The Rules of Scrum: I attend every Sprint Retrospective Meeting in-person

The Sprint Retrospective meeting supports the Scrum value of Openness and the principle of inspect and adapt.  This rule of Scrum also aligns with the Agile Manifesto principles “at regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.”  In-person attendance of all Scrum Team members allows for the fullest level of openness among Team Members which in turn is necessary to use the Retrospective to find improvements in how the team functions.  If even one team member attempts to attend this meeting by any other means, either by phone or even video conferencing, efficiency and effectiveness of the openness and inspect and adapt becomes compromised. Compromise on these principles yields compromised collective ownership of improvement efforts. Lack of in-person participation increases the likelihood that the team will fail to implement improvements because the openness and inspect and adapt will lack effectiveness.  This, in turn, hinders the team from reaching a high-performance state.

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The Rules of Scrum: I attend every Sprint Planning meeting in person

This rule of Scrum aligns with the Agile Manifesto principle “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.”  In-person attendance of all Scrum Team members allows for the plan to unfold with minimal communication overhead and for the team to keep the meeting within the short time-box.  In-person attendance also allows the team to effectively collaborate in the work of creating the plan. The efficiency and effectiveness of the Product Owner’s presentation of the Product Backlog is optimized as well as the Development Team’s ability to collaboratively assess and select what it can and will accomplish in the Sprint. It also allows for everyone to be clear about the Sprint Goal and why the Development Team is building the increment. In-person attendance also allows the Development team to efficiently and effectively come to a decision as to how it will build the increment of functionality. In-person participation of all team members also increases the likelihood that the team will create the right design for the increment.  If even one team member attempts to attend this meeting by any other means, either by phone or even video conferencing, efficiency and effectiveness of the planning becomes compromised. Compromised collaborative planning yields compromised collective ownership. The successful delivery of the Sprint Goal requires full commitment on the part of the whole team. Lack of in-person participation increases the likelihood that the team will fail to deliver on its Goal because the planning will lack effectiveness. People are prone to estrangement from hazy goals reached through ineffective planning. In-person planning, therefore, is paramount to succeeding with Scrum.

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

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

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