OpenAgile – Evolving Forward

“Truthfulness is the foundation of all the virtues of the world of humanity”

Many people can see some validity or value in this statement, but it may seem strange to them to incorporate this component into business practices or corporate culture. After all much of what is common practice does not reward or encourage those who choose to be truthful.

But as Bob Dylan so aptly put it, “the times they are a-changin’”.

The environment, our capacities as human beings, and our tools to interact with the world are constantly evolving and growing. Yet much of what we do today is based on assumptions about human nature arrived at hundreds or even thousands of years ago when we had less knowledge and understanding about the world and ourselves. Along with the rest of the universe we are evolving as a human species, as such it only makes sense that our higher understanding and knowledge inform our decisions and practices, so we can keep progressing forward.

OpenAgile recognizes the true nature of humanity and how it can work to create a remarkable world in every endeavour. Scientific discovery is revealing this truth about our nature as well, as the video below so wonderfully illustrates.

The Empathetic Civilization

Be Open, Be Agile, Be Free.

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The Rules of Scrum: Your Product Owner is truthful about the condition of the product (its value scope and costs)

The Product Owner has the most recent and important information about the value and cost of the product being delivered. This information can greatly serve the team by allowing them to understand the product’s current state and how this affect where they will be going in terms of the vision of the product. If the Product Owner is able to carry this out then the team will have relevant information that will aid them in their decisions and execution of the product. If this is not carried out then the team will be in the dark – they will make poor decisions and struggle with the feedback given by the stakeholders since they have no transparency into the reality of the product.

For more information about Product Owners, visit the Scrum Team Assessment.

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The Rules of Scrum: I am truthful about the internal quality of my product (technical debt)

Scrum relies on the truthfulness of Team Members to allow for transparency about the internal quality of the product.  Internal quality is primarily related to the technical aspects of the product: its design, its architecture, lack of duplication in the code, and the level of coverage of the product with automated tests.  Scrum relies on the professionalism of the Team Members for the proper implementation of this rule. Being upfront, transparent, and truthful about the internal quality of the product allows for the Product Owner to understand how much time and effort the Team will allocate to improving the internal quality of the product and how much will be allocated for new features. This also gives the ScrumMaster an opportunity to connect with stakeholders who may be able to help remove technical debt and waste that is continuing to exist.  If Team Members are not truthful about the internal quality of the product, over time the system will become more cumbersome, more complex, and more painful to improve. This will also lead to a culture of hiding problems, which diametrically opposite to the intended use of Scrum: to uncover problems and allow us to solve them.  Another downside is that morale will begin to decrease as Team Members care less about the quality of their work. This, of course, will ultimately lead to external quality problems that result in customers being unhappy and looking for someone else to work with.

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Agile Outside of Software

The manifesto for agile software development (http://agilemanifesto.org) consists of 4 basic values:

1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools?
2. Working software over comprehensive documentation?
3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation?
4. Responding to change over following a plan

I’ve been thinking about how this manifesto applies outside of the world of software, for which it was originally created. These concepts are so engrained into various agile methodologies, which these days don’t explicitly refer to software any longer, that it begs the question: how does a team apply these four values to their work outside of software development; specifically, what would replace delivering ‘working software’? The other three values translate more fluidly to differing spheres of work. For example, whether in the field of business, sales, medicine, etc. placing greater value on all the items on the left over those on the right will produce a transformed culture and working environment. But what does ‘working software’ translate into in these various realms? Particularly relevant for non-profit organizations, the next possible question would be: what if we are not creating a ‘product’ or something that is ‘shippable’? What I’ve found to be the methodology which most aptly addresses this question is OpenAgile.

On its website: www.openagile.com it is noted that: OpenAgile is a learning system designed to help individuals, teams, and organizations build capacity for rapidly delivering value to their stakeholders. Rather than the focus being on a product, the aim shifts to learning and value. Yes, the ‘product’, if there is one (software or other), is important, but now there are even greater possibilities for the use of agile outside of software.

Though almost deceivingly simple, the principles animating OpenAgile are extremely profound. Through practicing the core foundational principles of truthfulness, consultative decision making, and systematic learning (through reflection, learning, planning, and action – all in light of guidance) the potential ability to ‘deliver’ something valuable is extraordinarily enhanced. Indeed, the greatest value could even be the learning that has taken place from the team or individuals themselves, the changed culture now animated by consultation engendering collaboration rather than competition, the regular and ongoing practice of truthfulness in a team resulting in accelerated transformation (potentially also allowing for that team to be more committed and driven to delivering a ‘product’) and the creation of a space where continual learning is the hallmark.

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Comparison of OpenAgile with Scrum

OpenAgile is similar to Scrum in many respects. Both are systems for delivering value to stakeholders. Both are agile methods. Both are frameworks that deliberately avoid giving all the answers. So why would we choose OpenAgile over Scrum?

The most important difference is in applicability: Scrum is designed to help organizations optimize new software product development, whereas OpenAgile is designed to help anyone learn to deliver value effectively.

OpenAgile is an improvement over Scrum in the following ways:

  1. More effective teamwork and team practices, in particular the Consultative Method of Decision Making, and
    applicability over a larger range of team sizes from a single individual on up.

  2. Recognition of the individual capacities required for effective learning, namely Truthfulness, Detachment,
    Search, Love and Courage. Scrum acknowledges a separate set of qualities, but does not show how they systematically connect with the requirements of a Scrum environment.

  3. Systematic handling of more types of work beyond just “new artifacts” and “obstacles”. In particular, OpenAgile includes calendar items, repetitive items and quality items and acknowledges their unique qualities in a work
    environment. OpenAgile also provides a framework to include additional types of work beyond these five.

  4. Improved role definitions based on extensive experience.

    1. There is only one role defined in OpenAgile (Team Member) vs. three defined in Scrum (Team Member, ScrumMaster, Product Owner).

    2. There are multiple paths of service that allow Team Members and Stakeholders to engage with an OpenAgile team or community in different ways. There are five paths of service: Process Facilitation, Growth Facilitation, Tutoring, Mentoring, and Catalyst.

    3. The Process Facilitator path of service is similar to the ScrumMaster role with the following major differences:

      • is not responsible for team development
      • is not necessarily a single person, nor is it a required role
    4. The Growth Facilitator path of service is similar to the Product Owner role with the following major differences:

      • is responsible for all aspects of growth including value (like the Product Owner), and individual and team capacity building.
      • is not necessarily a single person, nor is it a required role
  5. Integration of principles and practices from other methods. Two examples suffice:

    1. From Crystal: creating a safe work/learning environment.

    2. From Lean: build quality in, value stream mapping, root cause analysis, standard work.

  6. OpenAgile allows interruptions during the Cycle. Scrum has the concept of Sprint Safety. This makes Scrum
    unsuitable for operational work and general management.

  7. The distinction between Commitment Velocity and other uses of the term “velocity” used in Scrum. Commitment Velocity is the historical minimum slope of a team’s Cycle burndown charts and determines how much work a team plans in its Engagement Meeting.

  8. Flexibility in the length a Cycle. Scrum requires that Sprints (Cycles) be one month in duration or less.
    OpenAgile allows a Cycle to be longer than that and instead provides a guideline that there should be a minimum number of Cycles planned in the time expected to reach the overall goal.

  9. The Progress Meeting in OpenAgile does not require people to take turns or directly answer specific questions.

  10. Avoiding conflict-oriented models of staff and management (Chickens and Pigs in Scrum).

  11. Terminology changes to be more clear in meaning and applicable beyond software. A comparative glossary is
    included below.

Another major difference between OpenAgile and Scrum is how the community operates. OpenAgile is an open-source
method that has a specific structure for community involvement that allows for continuous improvement of the system. Scrum is closed. It is closely managed by it’s founders and this has led to challenges with the method becoming dogmatic. OpenAgile is meant to constantly evolve and grow.

Comparative Glossary between OpenAgile and Scrum

OpenAgile Scrum
Cycle Sprint
Cycle Planning Sprint Planning and Sprint Review
Team Member Team Member or “Pigs”
Process Facilitator ScrumMaster
Growth Facilitator Product Owner
Work Queue Product Backlog
Work Queue Item Product Backlog Item
Cycle Plan Sprint Backlog
Task Task
Work Period Day
Progress Meeting Daily Scrum
Learning Circle w/ steps Inspect and Adapt”
Delivered Value Potentially Shippable Software
Stakeholders Chickens”
Five Types of Work:

New, Repetitive, Obstacles, Calendar,
Quality

- no equivalents -

User Stories, N/A, Impediments, N/A, N/A

Consultative Decision Making - no equivalents -
Sector / Community - no equivalents -

References on OpenAgile:

http://www.openagile.com/

http://wiki.openagile.org/

References on Scrum:

http://www.scrumalliance.org/

http://www.scrum.org/

“Agile Software Development with Scrum” - Schwaber and Beedle

“Agile Project Management with Scrum” - Schwaber

“Scrum and the Enterprise” – Schwaber

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Aspects of Truthfulness

I had a fantastic discussion this weekend while on a road trip with my colleague David Parker.  We talked about the different aspects of Truthfulness.  This is what we came up with.

Honesty

Are you perfectly honest?  Is every statement you make factually correct to the best of your knowledge?

Behaviors that are not honest include: hyperbole and exaggeration,  sarcasm, falsehoods, omissions.

Honesty is the quality most obviously associated with Truthfulness.

Integrity

When you make a commitment, do you keep it?  Are your deeds an accurate reflection of your words and thoughts?

Behaviors that erode integrity include hypocrisy, unreliability, lateness.

Transparency

When someone wants to know something can they find it out from you?  Can you provide simple proof of your words and deeds?

Behaviors that prevent transparency include stonewalling, passing the buck, verbal diarrhea, and the use of esoteric or inappropriate jargon.
Serenity

Do you accept that the unexpected is natural?  Have you given up trying to control your environment?

Things that block serenity are anxiety and worry, reactionary anger, backstabbing, and manipulation.

Humility

Do you accept that others have wisdom, knowledge and experience that you don’t?  Can you admit both the possibility of being wrong, and the fact of being wrong?

There are many things that prevent the development of humility: taking offense from comments about yourself, your ideas or your actions, insisting on your way, vanity, boasting, and even ostentatious self-deprecation.

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Report average velocity and fail 50% of the time

The question of “expected velocity” and long-term planning has come up at more than one client. A recent client conversation got me thinking, however, questioning how to interpret velocity when estimating and plotting a roadmap based on a current backlog of features. Assume, for a moment, a backlog of story-pointed features, and 10 good iterations (consistent team, no odd occurrences that would affect velocity). Mathematically average velocity (well, a mean really) is a 50/50 proposition for any subsequent iteration. Some organizations don’t find this level of confidence acceptable. What velocity should be reported as expected for iteration/sprint planning and roadmap forecasting, and how should it be used?

Context

Interpreting velocity, before anything else, requires some context. An agile organization that sees estimates as hypothetical might find this article is of less use. In fact, a good question is whether estimation is even a value-added activity. For this post assume an organization that sees strong value in estimation and planning.

Culture

The biggest piece of context is to know the organizational culture. This is important in two respects, and both of these cultural factors are important because they impact how Velocity is understood within the organization.

What is Failure?

First is the meaning of failure in the organization. Is failure to deliver what was committed to by the planned date considered a failure of the team, or is it simply a fact to be understood and accounted for in future planning? Even in Agile organizations, the former is often true and a hard habit to break. If not delivering to expectations is considered failure and has negative consequences, then that means that estimation is being treated not as estimation, but as prediction and contract. Velocity is therefore a commitment, and should therefore be used conservatively.

Consistency or Speed?

The second item to know is whether consistency and predictability of delivery is of a higher strategic value than the actual rate of delivery. This is often un-stated. Usually people want fast and consistent delivery. The truth is that you can get consistent, or fast software development, or a balance between the two. Lack of trust is usually a strong motivation to encourage consistency over speed, or a history of quality problems, etc. In this case, as well, Velocity is more of a boundary than an indicator.

Emotional Loading in Estimation (or why not Low-ball?)

If estimation is seen as binding, contractual, or limiting, then additional emotions get overloaded. Trust, promise, and betrayal are words used in such organizational cultures. Distrust is usually a strong factor, especially between silos (business vs. technology, company vs. project management vs. customer, etc.). So when people are asked to give estimates, even using agile-friendly mechanisms such as story points, there is usually a process of cementing that estimate into a part of an accountability model, so estimates start to get conservative. People are then accused of low-balling, others are accused of irrational expectations… we’ve all seen this. The language clearly becomes one of contention and blame. Even the term low-balling is often an outright pejorative term for estimating too conservatively.

This doesn’t happen only in agile environments, and project managers in traditional PMBOK frameworks have long factored risk into “contingency budgets”. Interestingly, however, if a Project Manager were to factor risk into the task estimates, they’d be “low-balling capacity,” yet if they were to factor it out and layer it on top of the project work, it’s “contingency budgeting” (At least in a few experiences I’ve had). Either way, someone’s adding a factor for uncertainty, based on the need to predict conservatively or liberally or somewhere in between.

That’s the point of the article: how can Agile projects use velocity to estimate as conservatively (or liberally) as is appropriate?

An average is a 50% chance to succeed (or fail)

Velocity is not a constant. It’s a set of instantaneous values on a curve, with instances being iterations. That means that it varies, and is therefore only meaningful statistically. So how do you reasonably use velocity statistically, and improve confidence? One way is to stop delivering against “average” velocity.

A lot of coaches use average velocity over the previous N iterations. This is not helpful for all sorts of reasons, if estimation is a commitment. By definition, average (well, actually a mean, but they’re close) is a 50/50 proposition. If you report the average team velocity (assuming it’s accurate), then about half the time the team will be under and about half the time the team will be over, statistically. So basically an average is a crap shoot, when taken in any given instance. It’s can only be good in the long run. For this to work, the long-haul has to include permission to fail and a lot of trust. Teams need to be able to go miss dates but will sometimes exceed dates and it should all wash out in the end. In organizations such as I’m describing, that trust isn’t there, so. Additionally, if the language of commitment is around meeting instantaneous iteration commitments (as opposed to delivering high-quality customer value as quickly as is sustain-ably possible) then you aren’t playing the long-game, you’re playing a very short-game.

Simulate Velocity, not work

In a PMI training course I took when I was at Sun Microsystems, we were nicely informed that two point estimates of tasks are a perfect way to fail half the time, per the above logic. One point estimates are just idiotic. Three point estimates were better. We simulated with a monte-carlo algorithm and found a curve and a distribution, and then determined a confidence level yadda yadda. Well, we’re trying to avoid wasting a lot of time estimating up-front, but one way to start representing velocity properly is to do the same kind of statistical modelling done in traditional product management, only simulate velocity, not work items.

In this approach, you take the last N iterations (say 10). Determine the maximum velocity (optimistic) and the minimum velocity (pessimistic), and then the mode (the velocity value that seems to occur most frequently). Then you do monte-carlo simulation so you get a statistical pattern. Now, you actually can determine an answer based on confidence. If you want to be right with an 80% confidence, you pick a velocity where 80% of the simulated runs were successful. (Note – there are a paucity of excel templates to do this math automatically, and often they are for sale. It would be nice to have a few functions with arbitrary distributions based on min-max-mode to help this along.)

It’s not perfect, and it’s a potentially huge amount of administrative overhead. Elsewhere I’ve referenced blogs that entirely oppose any estimation at all, but if you are gong to, then working statistically with simulation is the only way to take small sample numbers meaningful.

Commitment Velocity: Low-Ball as a policy.

Another approach, one perhaps controversial, but taught by some Scrum trainers is to pick the lowest historical delivered velocity. This is a commitment-based approach, on the assumption that building trust around consistent delivery is critical to building sound relationships where product owners and teams can safely state their needs and get things done with a minimum of contractual behaviour. By taking the minimum, you force a low-ball capacity, which means you can have high-confidence of success after a few iterations. You have, likely, after a while, some spare time on your hands. Teams can then choose to pull more work in (without adjusting their commitment velocity), work on “technical debt”, improve their skills, etc. A team could raise their commitment velocity in certain inflection points in the project. A new team member is added that provides a necessary skill not previously available, and after a few iterations the team is consistently hitting a higher number, but this is a careful process to ensure that they are committing, and if they don’t make their new number, it goes down to what they got accomplished.

Indemnify teams’ learning

An arguably healthier option, if you have built enough trust, is to simply indemnify a team from failing to meet the estimate. Since you’re doing mathematics on actuals to generate an expected future number, everyone can acknowledge that past behaviour is no guarantee of future behaviour, and simply use it for capacity planning. In this case, estimation is actually estimation, not commitment or contract. The team is expected to be ahead sometimes, and behind sometimes. The upside of this is that a lot of extra time isn’t spent playing with fictional numbers. Teams are spending their efforts on delivery as quickly-yet-sustain-ably as they can, and the organization treats them as trusted professionals in this. The temptation to assume you can predict the future is seen as folly, and the estimates are used to guide overall direction, not to make outward customer commitments.

Don’t be mindless

There may be other approaches, I’m sure. The agile community is certainly not short of people who love this topic and can talk for hours on “proper” estimation. The point of this post is merely to point out some options, and ask you to look at your organizational culture, team culture, customer culture, the meaning of terms like commitment, failure, success, consistency, speed, etc. As you understand the culture, balance consistency vs. speed, trust, and other factors to choose a method of estimation that meets your goals. Don’t do estimation based on your own, internal cultural assumptions, as you may have developed or been taught techniques that are useful when and where they were taught, but may no longer be so. Or maybe they weren’t so useful then either. Regardless, this because estimation cuts at the heart of the dialogue between producer and consumer, and establishes parameters for that discussion, it’s critical that you think your choice through.

[Christian also blogs at http://www.geekinasuit.com/]

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The Importance of Questions

I’m currently doing some coaching work with Regina, a new project manager working with a small team of web developers at a community development organization in Toronto.  We had our first session last week. Regina was having trouble getting started on a particular project and I shared with her some of the Agile methods of creating a prioritized Cycle Plan, breaking it down into small tasks, etc.

Regina seems to be finding Agile methods helpful in general, but there was a special kind of interaction that we had around removing an obstacle that was particularly interesting for me.  It had to do with an email she received from Peter, a developer working on one of the websites she’s managing. Regina shared a concern that she didn’t know some of the technical terms Peter was using.  So I had her read through the email and form questions around the points she wasn’t clear about – i.e., “what are buttons?” and I wrote them down as she was speaking.

I then suggested that she compose a reply email containing the same set of questions.  Regina’s eyes opened wide and she exclaimed, “Oh yeah – that’s so obvious!”  I went on to mention that another option would be to go and do some research on her own but that there were some valuable advantages in asking Peter directly, particularly in terms of team-building, that may not be as immediately apparent as asking the questions solely for the purpose of having them answered.  Here are a few:

First, it’s a way forRegina to remind Peter that she does not have a technical background and that he should not assume that she is familiar with web-lingo.  Second, it also reminds him that she is a different person from the last manager he was working with and subtly reinforces that it’s important that they get to know each other as two individual human beings and learn to work together effectively.  Third, and perhaps most importantly, it gives Peter an opportunity to help someone else on the team learn something new, and by doing so, contribute to the culture of learning on the team.  Fourth, and perhaps most obviously, it promotes open lines of clear communication on the team.

(Of course, if the team was colocated, which it is not, lack of communication would be much less of an obstacle!)

Asking questions in the interest of learning makes it visible to others that you don’t know everything.  For some people, this presents a dilemma.  What makes it a dilemma is that asking meaningful questions is something that many people aren’t able to do well.  The ability to ask meaningful questions is a learnable skill requiring the capabilities of truthfulness, humility and courage.  Such capabilities – let’s call them moral capabilities – can themselves be developed through conscious, focused effort.

Someone in the position of a newly hired manager, or a veteran manager with a new team, who lacks these capabilities may feel that it is important to present to a team a persona of all-knowingness.  But, of course, this is false and the truth of one’s degree of knowledge and capability, or lack thereof, soon becomes apparent anyway.  Clearly, this person needs to do some honest hard work to develop some humility, but truthfulness and courage are still often major factors.

Or maybe you’re the kind of person (like Regina) who just doesn’t want to bother anyone.  In this case, humility is not necessarily lacking, but truthfulness – and perhaps most of all courage – may need some attention.  Concepts around moral capabilities deserve much more elaboration, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll leave it at that.

To sum it up, if you are open and clear in the way you ask questions, people will tend to appreciate it and will trust you more in the end.  Moreover, it can have a transformative effect on the environment of the team.  When your team members realize that you are not afraid to ask questions and be truthful about your lack of knowledge in a certain area, it will encourage them to be more truthful about their own capabilities.  Not to mention that most people feel good when they are able to help others.  When your team members feel safe to ask for help and free to help each other, it is empowering for everyone.

Asking meaningful questions, therefore, is an essential aspect of learning together, and nothing is a more powerful contributor to the success of an organization than a team that learns as a team.

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