This Old House – Agile Edition

When you’re transitioning to Agile, there’s a lot going on all at once.  It occurred to me  it’s similar to home renovation – a really, really big home renovation.  Personally, I LOVE old homes.  I love going to see them and, one day, I want to buy one and fix it up.  Sometimes, I walk into a house and while I’m oohing and aahing my husband is groaning.  He’s groaning because the houses don’t generally meet any criteria he has for a home.  I’m oohing because I can see the potential a house has.  All you need is some imagination, good bones and time.  That’s what an organization needs to create a great environment for Agility too.

IMAGINATION:  To begin, you need to be able to ooh and aah instead of groan. You need to be able to see what is possible for teams, management and your users.  If you don’t have imagination absolutely everything about the process will frustrate the hell out of you.  You can’t hire someone to “take care of it” for you or oversee it.  Nope.  You need to be willing to be architect, general contractor and all the subs.  If you have imagination and can envision what it will look like you have an open mind.  An open mind is necessary because everything you thought you knew about “how your house was built” is going to get thrown out the window.

GOOD BONES:  There are some things that just need to be in place.  It’s no good and not practical if you have to bulldoze the house and start from scratch.  You need smart people who are willing to opt in and give Agile a serious go.  You need managers who are way more into the products their company produces than they are into their “turf”.  These managers must also understand how to support, motivate and develop people.  You need a culture of drive and commitment.  You need a business who will look at the business differently.  You need a company that invites people to opt in instead of mandates.  OPEN MINDS are essential.

TIME:  It took a long time to build what is, arguably, good enough.  To change, grown, learn and be great you need time.  You know the saying “Rome wasn’t built in a day”?  An Agile transformation doesn’t happen overnight either.  This renovation is going to take time.  Since you know that, you also need to know to be patient.  Also, you should know that you will never be “Done”.  You will always and you should always look for things to improve on.

In my vision of a great Agile environment there are spaces for teams to work together, as a whole team and places to pair or collaborate with a smaller group.  There’s technology available for distributed teams to use.  People laugh!  Anyone walking by can see what the team has going on and how awesome they are.  There’s some corporate furniture around but teams can put their own identity on their spaces too.  There’s a wall for anyone who wants to put an idea up to try and others can join in the effort.  Directly opposite is another wall that celebrates the successes and failures (learning) from the efforts of these self-organizing teams.  The environment is safe for everyone to be open, honest, disagree and try anything they think will be for the good for the team, the company or the user.  This safe environment also has a hum – there’s energy and people are genuinely happy to be there and be a part of it.  There’s also an endless supply of post-its (all colors & sizes), sharpies (all colors), magnets and flip charts.

As with any major project, you’re bound to hit some snags.  That’s OK.  It’s all part of the adventure.  You have no idea what you will learn along the way and the creative solutions you will find.  The time, thought and care you put into creating this environment will be huge.  If done well, at the end, you have teams of completely happy and motivated individuals.  You have a safe environment where learning, trying and trying more is encouraged.  You have users who are loyal and more than satisfied with the products you are producing.  All this because of the environment.   There’s no need for razing the house to get to the land.  Keep what’s good and useful, ditch the rest and strive for the perfect environment.

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All Pain and No Gain

In an Agile transformation we all focus on getting the teams set up, training them and get them working in Scrum (or whatever).  Then, you have these teams going and you see some improvement but maybe not the BIG BANG improvement  you thought you would see.  So, you start looking into what the teams are doing.

Are they having stand up? – CHECK!

Are they doing Sprint Planning? – CHECK!

Are they having Retros? – CHECK!

Are they using a Scrum board and burning down daily? – CHECK!

Is it effective? – Ummmmmmmmm

The thing is, the tactical parts of Scrum are in place to teach the teams how to think and work differently.  A team can only get so far with the tactical elements alone.  In order to realize the benefits of Agile, a team needs to shift their mind set and so the all the people outside of the teams.  The tactical part of Agile is easy.  It’s the Cultural part that’s really difficult.

If teams are having challenges breaking down the work into small enough increments, you may be able to address it with some training and hands on guidance during planning.  However, if the business cannot think differently and insists or MORE it may be that the team isn’t empowered to break it down smaller.  Or, maybe, in demo, stakeholders are critical of the “little” the team has ready and pressures for MORE.

If teams aren’t continuously improving and having their retros, it could be that the team needs some instruction/coaching on what continuous improvement means.  Maybe the Scrum Master isn’t leading effective retros and needs some help there.  Or, maybe, the team isn’t given the time for retros because of some outside forces insisting they do something differently.  Maybe the Scrum Master doesn’t have time to learn how to be a Scrum Master because they’re busy writing status reports, going to status meetings and completing documentation for an organization that hasn’t embraced Agile yet and relies on Project Management artifacts and methods.

I’m staring to think an Organizations transformation doesn’t start with teams at all.  I think it starts with everyone else.  Scrum and Agile are easily applied to any type of work.  The Agile values and principles are also applicable to any type of work.  Maybe the teams should be left alone until everyone else understands how to work in this way.  In focusing the effort outside teams first, the culture shift could start with those who have the ability to stifle or supercharge the teams.  Once everyone outside the teams are ready for the teams THEN the transformation can begin.

Because, until the culture starts changing – in earnest – an organization is really just going through the motions NOT transforming.

Thoughts on Exiting a Team…

I’m off to a new adventure!  While exciting, it’s also just a little bit nerve-wracking.  What makes leaving one place for another difficult is when you truly love the people you work with and the work you are doing.  I find myself doing quite a bit of individual retrospection on all the people I have been fortunate enough to work with and how they have each influenced me in some way.  I also think about the skills and experiences I want to take with me and how I can improve on them in the future.  Finally, there’s thanking everyone for the opportunity to be a part of their lives and allowing me the opportunity to learn from them and grow.  It’s somewhat sad to be sure but, then, I also think about how my exit really won’t have an impact – in a good way.  The people and work I leave behind will continue on as smoothly as ever.  It’s like water….maybe there’s a little ripple on the surface but still whole and filling up the container just as it should.

It Is What It Is?

Admittedly, I have said this phrase far more than anyone ever should.  And, it’s not a positive phrase either.  It smacks of complacency and disengagement.  It means you KNOW something is wrong and feel powerless to change it or, really, even try.  On one team, I said this phrase so darn much I wrote it on the back of one of those Long John Silvers pirate hats and wore it so I wouldn’t have to say it.   When you hear this phrase, the response should be “Why?”.   When something wrong is so ingrained in the culture that “It is what it is” becomes an acceptable response, it’s time to find out why it is and make it isn’t.  I know that last sentence makes no sense but, I’m certain you get my meaning.  Listen for this phrase and hone in on it.  If nothing else it starts a dialogue about “It” and maybe gets others questioning, searching and, I dunno, solving IT?

So many options….so little time. What to do? PRIORITIZE

So often I am amazed at how much I learn with regards to Agile that applies to my own life.  Most recently, prioritization was front and center.  I had a difficult and personal decision to make and I was truly struggling with what to do.  I was torn and, frankly, I didn’t want to decide.  I wanted to have it all!  ( Now if that doesn’t sound like some Product Owners and Business Stakeholders I don’t know what does.)

I reached out to someone I thought could help and, what do you know, he did!  How I got to meet this mentor is a great story which I’ll save for another time.  Anyway, his guidance was to sit down and not focus on my decision.  Instead I was to focus on my longer-term vision.  Now, I will say my vision is still a work in progress, so don’t think you can just bang out a vision in 10 minutes and be done with it.  Once I had the vision (in pictures ONLY) he said to put words to it and really think about what was non-negotiable, open for discussion and nice to have.  Then, take the opportunity I was considering and compare it to the vision and the words.  I did as he suggested and my decision was clear!

In delivery, when you know your long term objectives or vision, it’s MUCH easier to prioritize all of the cool things you could possibly do.  If the vision isn’t clear, well, you could spend a lot of time, effort and energy on something that won’t bring you closer to your vision and that’s not OK.   It’s not OK for the team, for the users OR for the business.  If you’re not spending energy on things that bring you closer to your vision, the odds are good you’re spending it on things which will (likely) take you further from it.  The true waste is you won’t know until you’re so far away and it will be harder to to get back on track.

It is a little shocking, when I think back on all the teams I have worked with, how many times I have heard “We HAVE to have EVERYTHING!”.  Funnily, in our own lives we know having it all isn’t generally possible but, in work, it can get dangerously close to normal.  And, how is that acceptable?  It shouldn’t be.  There should be uber-clear goals a company is trying to reach and the things they are trying to do should enable getting closer to the goal.  A Product Owner who doesn’t understand the vision will not be able to explain the context to the team.  This means it will be ridiculously challenging for the team to work quickly and efficiently.  Without context, the how becomes guess work.  If the Product Owner doesn’t understand the vision, there’s not a snow balls chance he will be able to effectively prioritize leading the team to work on things that aren’t valuable.

As a Scrum Master insist on the Product Owner reviewing the vision with the team.  Allow for an appropriate amount of time to ask questions.  Encourage the team to understand the thinking behind the prioritization and to challenge and suggest things to be considered by the Product Owner. This is the environment to strive for.  Mutual understanding and benefit. Understanding the vision and fostering this type of relationship with the Product Owner is powerful.  It’s powerful enough to allow a team to take off and deliver amazing things.

It still hurt to make my decision.  I really, really wanted to give it a go.  It wasn’t the right opportunity at this time in my life and I was able to be at peace with it.  Of course I want it all.  Who wouldn’t?  That said, knowing the context of how that one “thing” fit into the larger picture was critical to me.  Understanding the product vision and the resulting prioritization is one of those concepts where everyone will nod their heads and say they get it but, do they?  Do you?  We need to focus on the right things so we are always getting closer to the vision and doing amazing things.  As close as we possibly can anyway until we’re satisfied.

Commit and don’t look back

We talk a great deal about commitment in Agile.  Generally, in IT, we’re afraid to commit.  When you commit it could mean you put yourself and your team on a death march.  There’s no such thing as a guarantee or sure thing but, there is such a thing as commitment.

Commitment means you will give your all.  Your absolute best.  You will do this for your team and yourself because you take your word seriously AND you want to give and be your best.  Beyond yourself, you will commit to always learn and improve.  You commit to holding yourself and your team mates accountable.  You commit to succeed and fail as a team – one entity.

Really, it’s no different than life. Personally, I have had to make tough decisions based on whether or not I felt I would be able to give my best and commit.  The times I have not listened to myself, I have found myself to not be “all in” and it hasn’t been a great experience.

To commit, you need to have heart and passion.  It has to be about more than you.  It can be intimidating but, it’s so worth it.

Value is POWERFUL for people and work

In the last week I have been hit hard by the reminder of how powerful value is.  There are two instances I want to highlight.One is related to people and the other related to stories.

VALUE YOUR PEOPLE

It’s important as a Scrum Master, a people manager or a leader to show the people you work with and for that you value them as a person and for the work they do.  When a person feels valued, they are motivated.  And, I know, everyone is motivated by different things.  For some, it’s money.  For others, it’s recognition.  There are many things a person may be motivated by but, all people need to feel valued.  If they don’t, they disengage and that isn’t good for anyone.

You need to find out what is unique in the people you are surrounded by.  It doesn’t matter if you manage them, lead them or work for them.  Identifying what makes an individual special is powerful…for them.  You can find ways to build on it, leverage it, showcase it and help the person shine.  When you make someone feel valued, they will return it with awesome performance and, even better, loyalty.  If you’re not investing thought like this into your people, please, take some time to do so.  Have a conversation.  Find out what they’re passionate about.  Discover what they’re good at doing.  Learn about what they want to learn about.  Invest in and value people and the dividends are endless.

VALUE STORIES

People want to be valued and they want to work on things that are valuable.  In a SAFe release planning event this week teams had identified the features they were delivering and broken them down into stories.  In SAFe, teams then specify their release objectives.  It’s a layman summary of multiple stories which, Product Management then values on a scale of 1-10.  Keep in mind teams are working in priority order so, the initial thought is their focus is on the right features.  When you break a feature into stories and specify exactly what the objectives are for the release, what happens is amazing.  A conversation with a group of Product Managers and the team takes place and, often, a high priority feature has objectives associated with it whose value is mixed.  We’re all about delivering value right? Here’s an example over-simplified:

EPIC – Build  house

Feature – Build Front Entrance (priority = 1)

Feature – Build a Deck (priority -2)

Objectives –

–  Complete deck to hold more than 6000 lbs. – 9

–  Complete steps to front porch – 10

–  Complete front porch covering – 4

–  Paint front door – 1

– Complete rails around deck – 8

– Build grill bump out – 2

When you look at it, there’s more VALUE in completing items associated with the lower priority feature.  Good to know for a team.  Very enlightening to Product Management.  Awesome conversations and understanding generated between delivery and the business.  All is all, just goodness.

In summary, there’s power in focusing on value – for the people and the work.  See what you can do tomorrow for people.  Make someone’s day.

It’s coming together…EVEN FLOW

I’m going through an exercise at the prodding, encouraging and challenging of an unexpected mentor.  You think you know what you want and what’s important to you until you start drawing/mapping/putting words to it.

What’s important to me?  As I see it right now?  Even flow.

Family <-> Profession

Learning <-> Teaching

People are ever-present and at the center of it all.  From a work-perspective, I will always be a Scrum Master.  Why?  Because the Scrum Masters focus is all about the team.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a delivery team, a team of Scrum Masters, a team of managers, a larger corporation seen as a team, a team of family or a team of friends…..It’s all about the team.

If there’s a need by some to put a coach label on me then OK but, here’s the deal:

  1. It’s all about people for me
  2. I’m learning as much as the people I am fortunate enough to work with and know
  3. I want to give back as much as I receive
  4. Games for good – not for personal gain

And there it is again….Even Flow.

I’m still working through it all and always will be.  Every time I think I have it, I move the target.  And, that’s probably how it should be.

What’s wrong with having a paper trail?

A friend of mine did an informal poll today:

If you need three pieces of information quickly, what’s your preferred method of getting them?

a.  Phone call

b.  IM

c.  e-mail

What’s missing from the options?  Face to face communication didn’t even make the cut!  The people who responded generally preferred e-mail and IM due to having a paper trail to CYA.  Seriously.  I get it.  I do.  The difference for me now is perspective.  Why the need to CYA?  Why not EYA and own it?  If a paper trail is necessary, the problem isn’t anything other than the culture that exists is one where covering your ass is necessary.

Channeling someone else here…..  that just makes me sad.

You can’t part time a new team…

Recently, there was a suggestion made that a Scrum Master need only dedicate 25% of his time to a team.  I disagree.  I really, really disagree.  Even if the team members are experienced Agile team members, there’s forming that needs to happen and they need to find their groove.  If they’re not experienced Agile team members, then 25% certainly won’t cut it.

MAYBE when a team has been together and is in that high-performing place, a Scrum Master need only devote 25% of their time but, I still question it.

So, tell me, what do you think?