Working in Agile May Seem Risky at First….

The very first project I worked on in IT was “Agile”.  As a new-to-IT project manager (my background was in Business Strategy and Operations) I wasn’t quite sure what this meant so I poked around, did a little research and came to the (very wrong) conclusion that it was no different than what I was doing today… Except now everything the team was working on would be on a board and we would only have to a have a 15 minute meeting everyday to discuss it.  Bless my heart.

For many reasons, the project was NOT Agile.  The team worked an insane amount of overtime with requirements and NFRs changing at a break-neck pace.  Two weeks before launch everything was ready.  It was defect free (as far as we knew), environments were working (as far as we knew), the performance testing was successful (as far as we knew) and we were only waiting for “Go Live”.  About a week or so before launch the Business Customer walked into the room, congratulated the team on a job well done (10 months) and let us know we would not be launching into production.  Why?  The financial collapse happened and the products that would be offered would not be available to customers any longer.  The company could not take the risk.

This is one story I use to demonstrate the risk reducing benefits of Agile.  Had the team been running Agile, truly Agile, we would not  launch EVERYTHING into production on one day. We also wouldn’t have wasted – yes wasted – money for new Infrastructure, resources and consulting.  We would not, at the end of the project, only have a “good job” to show for all the team had accomplished.

  • Small, incremental releases would have told us environments were working as expected and minimized the risk of identifying problems too late
  • The developers, who had very different styles and approaches, would have HAD to align on working agreements and standards to ensure smaller releases would be successful and easier to maintain and build on.  I shudder to think of how challenging the application would have been to manage…
  • The business could have tested whether or not they could drive customers to the application, if it was useful to the customers, WHAT the customers really wanted and make informed decisions regarding their investment and their strategy.
  • The team could have worked in a thoughtful, sustainable way rather than the reactive death march way they were forced to operate in making for a happier team and, ultimately, a more productive team.
  • The application may have not been kept alive following the collapse but, the learning would have been there.  There would have been SOME value to the business and the customers generated.

Really, the list can go on and on.  Working in an Agile environment is less risky.  The business strategy is focused on delivering value.  If something isn’t valuable to the end-user, you know it quickly – not after months or sometimes years. This means the business isn’t wasting money and resources on non-value add efforts.  The team is able to respond to quickly to change.  If direction shifts following a sprint, the overall impact is limited to one sprints worth of effort.  Think about it.  When there’s a scope change 10 months into a 12 month project in waterfall, the ripple effects can be tremendous.  That’s no good for anyone.  Your architects and support can work ahead just in time rather than having to anticipate every need for the next couple years saving money and effort.  Who wants to build something that may or may not be needed?  When you release something into production that does cause a problem you’re not searching through a massive code base that took months/years to develop.  You can focus on two weeks worth, identify the problem quickly and limit the impact to your customers and the platform.  When you make small changes and something is really awesome you can build on that to maximize the value rather than focusing on other things that may not.  An organization can respond to necessary changes that will help to reduce call center volume which has exploded since some marketing or servicing change was introduced reducing the risk of attrition for both customers and the poor call center employees.

There’s another meaningful way in which Agile reduces risk.  People.  Employees are working on things which they know and believe to be value add to the company and their customers.  They’re empowered. They have business context.  They have support to resolve issues quickly.  They’re happy.  This means they will stick around!  You don’t have a staff of knowledgeable, hard-working and willing resources walking out the door b/c they’re micro-managed, overworked or putting an effort against something that may or may not, at the end of the day, make a difference.

Agile principles have people at their core.  When you focus on people, great things can happen.  When you focus only on the work….

You complete that sentence.  Thanks for reading!

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?

Be Like Water – A great insight from Ed Wehr

Ed commented on this post about being vulnerable:  and I absolutely loved it.  Since it was buried, I thought I would bring it to the surface and give it the visibility it deserves.  Thank you, Ed.

From Ed Wehr:

Change. In itself often can push us into being quite uncomfortable. Even unstable in a situation. Some people are only comfortable with limits on change. A difference meant for the environment versus one forced upon ‘me’ and sense of self. A human’s capacity for change is not infinite. This would be sensory overload. I have seen people shut down and not only stop processing because they couldn’t keep up with the information. Some may even put blocking mechanisms to shut out any more sensory input.
Change may be viewed as an attack, meant as one or not. Response to stimuli is natural. Within the context of communication however, there is an analogy I often use. Be like water. Fill the container you are in. The moment, the situation, the comment. Explore into it. Pour into it. Even when some feedback comes as surprising, and initially cut as a painful stabbing. If you visualize it however; a knife into water doesn’t cut, doesn’t damage. The water washes it as gently as any other thing. There is no pain, no scar left to the water- which reforms and seeks its level again. In agile the visibility we seek, could be akin to the clearness to the water. As with all agile – there is a very heavy burden to balance as appropriate. Visibility too, can sometimes be overboard. Feelings can be hurt. Which is why there is an art as well to giving criticism and feedback. A jab may have the intended response you want, but at what cost? How much disturbance? Some feedback can be taken in and absorbed, and some might make smaller ripples in comparison with larger priorities and situations. Rest assured though, there is some spark, some larger reservoir and unique talent that deep down everyone whom strives to improve. Exploring the hurt is an expression of developing a fearlessness and confidence with ourselves. .

Make IT Easy

The first job I really loved and had fun in was challenging, crazy, frustrating and awesome.  I used to think about that time a lot and wonder why it was so amazing.  The people were wonderful.  The work itself was good.  What really made it stand out was we all – about 150 of us – had a purpose.  Our CEO had a vision.  It was almost a rallying cry and we all were working towards achieving it.  And we did.

In the transformation I’m working on now, it would seem obvious that everyone would know the vision but, I bet if you asked 20 of us separately, you would hear themes rather than a unified, consistent no-doubt-about-it response.

I LOVE the idea of having a rallying cry for this huge, enterprise-wide effort.  I want a three word sentence to sum up what we are doing.  To me, it’s simple.

Make IT easy.

Make delivering value easy for our teams.

Make it easy for our customers to interact with us.

Make it easy for our teams to make good, informed decisions.

Make it easy for stakeholders and management to get the information they need.

Make it easy for people to learn.

Make it easy for people to challenge.

Transformation is hard.  Change is hard.  Making it easy is hard but, that’s our job. We need to make it easy.

You can’t focus on how far you have to go. Focus on how far you have come.

It doesn’t matter what kind of journey you’re on, focusing on the goal can be discouraging.  I have fallen into this trap myself.  In the midst of the transformation my company is going through, if I only looked at how far we still had to go, I might not show up to work.  When working with teams, I have thoughts on the ultimate goal for the team and can get impatient with the amount of time they are taking to get there.  This isn’t good for me but, it’s especially not good for the team.  As a Scrum Master, I have an idea of where I want to go and the kind of coach I want to be and there’s always so much to learn that it can be overwhelming.  I mean, will I EVER be there?  If I look back at where I started, I am there.  I have modified the end goal along the way.

Take some time to think about where you were when you started.  Reflect on what you have learned on the way and how you’re incorporating it now.  Celebrate the successes you have.  I guarantee you have more than you think.  Do this with your teams too.  Have them reflect on where they were when they first got together and assess where they are now.  It’s quite a motivating way to spend some time and, let’s face it, a little motivation never hurt anyone.

No matter what journey you’re on, keep your eye on where you want to be but, don’t forget to reflect on how far you have come.

“Fail fast” = “Learn fast”

When people start saying “We learned” instead of “We failed” you’re on to something awesome. Some people have a reaction to the word “fail” that isn’t positive and may create a boundary to learning the concept you’re trying to teach. So, change the language. Learn FAST! Every attempt at something new – big or small – results in learning. From making attempts or trying experiments, you will find things that are good and some that are not so good. The point is you try something and you learn. As long as you’re open, you will learn. As long as you learn, you will get better.

When you stop experimenting or trying you.just.stop.

Who wants to just be stopped?

Coaches! I’m talking to YOU

I know some amazing, wonderful and inspiring coaches.  I value them and am better for knowing and learning from them.  Then….there are “coaches”.  These people are not really coaches. They’re imitations.  In the spirit of keeping it positive, let’s review what coaches behavior should look like.  I would also like to take a moment to thank them for, once again, teaching me what NOT to do.  I guess I should also apologize.  I’m sure this will make some unhappy.  It’s not meant to.

Let’s begin shall we?

1.  Coaches will support the team on their journey rather than berate a team for “doing it wrong”.

2.  Coaches will coach individuals individually rather than in front of the team.

3.  Coaches will notice when a team member has disengaged and do something about it.

4.  Coaches will be humble.  It’s ALWAYS a learning experience for everyone.

5.  Coaches will apply the rules they ask teams to follow to themselves.

6.  Coaches will coach rather than pontificate.

7.  Coaches will enjoy guiding you rather than lecturing you.

8.  Coaches will remember what it was like before they called themselves “coach”.

9.  Coaches will not call themselves a coach until they deserve it.

10. Coaches will leave the Scrum Master alone so as not to muck up what she’s got going on with the team.

Enjoy the view from up there, guys.  It’s a sure thing you’re going to fall and you’re so high up there, it’s going to hurt.  Ouch!


That’s what you MUST do when you’re trying to get a gigantic organization shifted to Agile because there’s nothing about it that’s easy.  Not.One.Thing.  If you’re involved you need to be upbeat, positive, encouraging and CONFIDENT.  You need to be able to recognize the small successes and understand how it fits into the larger plan.  You need to stay in the present and look back to see how far you have come and not get bogged down in how far you have left to go.  And, in those moments of doubt you will surely have, you need to be able to hide it and hide it well.  You have to be the person who energizes people.  When others are feeling discouraged and spent you have to find a way to re-energize them.  You have to find a way to create viruses like you.  It’s exhausting and challenging but, you must continue to believe.  For those moments of doubt you can’t shake off yourself or those times where something just shocks you, you need someone else who gets it too.  Someone to commiserate with but, feed you energy and remind you to be confident and carry on.  If you don’t have one of those people, find him or her now and let the person know that’s what you need.  Otherwise you will bring her down too making the journey that much harder.  Just don’t forget to believe.

People Managers Play a Pivotal Role

Months ago I had a realization in our transformation that we had neglected an important piece in our Agile transformation.  People Managers.  We paid attention to Scrum Masters, BSAs, Developers, Testers and everyone else BUT the People Managers.  At some point in the future I will reflect on the learning from this experience and I’m willing to be this will be in the top 3.

There’s a great deal that changes for the People managers.

  • Their people are in teams now – accountable and committed to their team. Not their manager.
  • The team is responsible for and owns the “how”.
  • The escalation path is different and (most of the time) no longer involves the manager.
  • The team is empowered.  This means they make decisions.

All of the above can feel very foreign and uncomfortable for a manager.  Particularly those who have a difficult time trusting the team.  It’s made even more difficult when the manager isn’t on board with the transformation to Agile and is resistant to the very idea of the major change in approaching work let alone the change to how they manage.

Let’s complicate this by having a matrixed organization.  Think of a 7 person team where no more than two people report to the same person.  Now, imagine that 3 of the managers are not on board with the transformation.  What does that look like?  It’s ugly.

  • Managers pull the team member out to work on other projects limiting the velocity of the team.
  • Managers disagree with the team approach and cause churn by making this known and questioning it.
  • Managers don’t reward the team member for their team contribution and success.
  • Managers can’t empower their team member to make decisions.
  • Managers don’t know what to do and so they look for something to do.

In a nutshell you have a hampered team, a hampered transformation and, I’m willing to bet, unhappy people managers.  So, what do you do?  Honestly, I don’t know the entire answer.  I know what NOT to do.

  • Don’t assume your people managers know why the transformation is happening in the first place. Make sure the what and the why are clear.  People need a goal to rally around.  Managers and non-managers.  Make sure the vision is communicated and, more importantly, shared.
  • Don’t assume your managers know how Agile works.  I hear, from many managers, that they know what Agile is.  They get it.  If they’re saying that the odds are good they don’t.  TRAIN YOUR MANAGERS!!  Then, get them coaches.
  • Don’t wait when you hear from teams the impact their managers are having.  Listen and take action.

So, I could have said that in a more positive way but, I didn’t.  Look at how powerful this group is.  Imagine how much they can help push the transformation.   They are in a unique position to influence up and down.  Harness that power.  Leverage the knowledge they have to solve some of the systemic issues your organization is facing as it implements Scrum.  Leverage the voice they have to the executives to help clear the way for the teams.  Teach them how to work with the direct reports in a different and collaborative way.  Help them walk the walk so the team members will too.

Remember that, above all else, Agile is a mind shift.  It’s a difficult one to make but, there’s a group of people who, if approached right, will make the shift much easier.

Overcoming Fear and The Power of Influence

Don’t you love it when there’s a reward to, what you feel is, taking a risk?  I do.  Regardless of the outcome, whenever a risk is taken, there is learning to be had.  Learning is a reward in itself but, it’s really cool when the risk you take could be a catalyst for real, positive and tangible change.

As I’m journeying through this transformation I’m identifying opportunities for the organization.  Most of these fall into my “soup”.  There are a few here and there which fall into my influence and even less which fall into my control.  The ones I can control are easy.  I take action.  The ones in my influence I have to put more thought into whether or not I should use my (limited) influence and what the best approach might be.  And, there’s a risk.  Putting my neck out there to influence means my neck is exposed.  My approach may be off, the timing might not be right OR perspectives may be so different I actually lessen my ability to influence.  This time it worked.

I have said before that one of the most critical aspects of an Agile transformation is the culture shift.  We are DOING Agile but, we’re not really BEING Agile and the teams have done all the heavy lifting they can and, let’s face it, they’re tired.  I thought it was time for the heavy lifting to occur elsewhere and I wanted to leverage the people who have the best opportunity to really effect change – Managers.  People Leaders.  Some refer to this group as middle managers.  Regardless, they are in a great position to drive change.  They can influence up and down.

I researched the topic and found the “People Leader” Yoda and set about collaborating with her to craft workshops for some of our heavy influencers.  I was able to get the buy in and secure the budget and today was the first workshop and WOW!  The group was engaged!  No laptops.  Everyone showed up and on time.  The conversations were powerful and the “Ah Ha!” moments were many.  There’s momentum to address some of the challenges we have in our culture to enable these teams to be empowered, self-organizing and self-managing.  There’s a realization of their role in this transformation and the power they have.

The influencers have been influenced and I’m bullish on the future results.  There’s so much potential.  The next challenge…..Keep the momentum and energy going.

This was, by far, one of the most rewarding days of my career.