Category Archives: agile

Scrum for One

My customer is a team of one, which means that by the Scrum Guide he can’t be “doing Scrum”.  Whatever.  Scrum still has a lot to offer in his situation.

"Same procedure as every year, James."

My sächsische (Saxon) friends introduced me to the traditional New Year’s programme Dinner for One, in which elderly Miss Sophie’s loyal manservant James, due to personnel constraints, must attend to every detail of her 90th birthday party himself.

Last month, I visited a customer to perform NWC’s first official Scrum Health Check, a new offering I stole adapted from my colleague Martin’s blog post (“Are you doing Scrum? Really?“).  I sent lots of advance-prep materials and brought a beautifully-crafted checklist that I planned to use to determine their Scrum baseline.  But all that went out the window when I arrived onsite and found that my customer was a Scrum Team of One!

And then I tripped over a tiger

Me: First question.  Do you have Development Team(s) of 6±3?

Customer: Um, no.  There’s one other guy, sometimes, but we had this re-org and he reports to another manager now so… yeah, it’s pretty much just me.

Me: All righty!  Our Scrum Health Check is finished.  You are not doing Scrum.  Now, let’s talk about how you can use Scrum to make your… er, team… most effective in your situation.

And that’s what I’m about with Scrum.  Instead of throwing the entire Scrum Guide out the window, we kept it around and talked all day about the other Scrum practices my customer could use: in particular, we identified an ordered backlog and proper structure and focus for the biweekly Sprint Planning and Reviews/Retrospectives, to provide transparency and improve management buy-in.  These were his most urgent needs and we both agreed that Scrum could help—that’s why he picked it in the first place!

"Well, I'll do my very best!"

I consider myself fortunate to have arrived on the Scrum consulting scene right at the time when Scrum is making changes to become less rigid, less religious, and more widely useful (without diluting the structure that makes it so effective).  It would be a stupid waste (for all of us) to turn my customer away from Scrum just because he isn’t canon.

Scrum Renaissance

Are you sick and tired of rigidity and attitude in the Scrum community?  Me too.  So is Scrum.org.  Let’s get over it together so we can get some work done.

Stuff has been brewing in the Scrum world this autumn, and two big events aligned last month: the Professional Scrum Trainer global meetup followed by the ALM Summit.  I’m not a PST (yet), but the impact of the meetup was unmistakable as fired-up PSTs stormed the Summit and they and Scrum.org rolled out both conversations and official sessions with some of the new messaging around Scrum.

My PST colleague Martin is tackling a number of the substantive changes in his blog (“Are you doing Scrum? Really?” and others).  I think he captures well what I’m most excited about: the new language and the new approach do a lot to undo the rigidity and religious warring around Scrum.

To me, the first big hint of changes to come was when David Starr joined Scrum.org back in July.  In his announcement, he pointed out that he’s “more pragmatist than zealot” and wrote favorably about a long list of practices that many folks in the process community have made out to be “competitors of” or “incompatible with” Scrum for some reason.  I know David’s been involved in the Scrum.org world for a long time, but it struck me as potentially a big deal to have him officially on board.

Bringing a measure of tolerance to the process wars

In October, we got more evidence from Scrum.org that change was coming: “Scrum is Open for Modification and Extension“.  A coder might initially say “open to extension, closed to modification”, so it’s interesting to think about why they didn’t.  It’s gutsy for Scrum.org to put itself out there as willing to change the framework itself in response to community feedback.  Modification is formalized, which means it does not seem to be an invitation for immature teams to pick and choose and throw out and make up practices willy-nilly and call them “Scrum”.  I’m interested to see where that goes.

It had a good run

That brings us to the really big news: the death of Scrum But.

I have no doubt that Scrum But, as a concept, was intended to be helpful. I know this because I just finished co-authoring a slide deck built entirely around Scrum Buts: why your rationales are legitimate reactions to the difficulties of Scrum practice and should be heeded, and why a more thorough understanding of Scrum principles is almost always a better solution than a Scrum violation.  I am certain I was trying to be helpful.

Seriously, in the space of two weeks I went from “the trouble with your Scrum But deck is that you keep refusing to spell it with two Ts” to “you’re gonna have to throw out that Scrum But deck”.  Two weeks!  Is this a Renaissance or a Revolution?!

Scrum But is dead.  Long live the Scrum Curve!

The Scrum Curve: no buts about it

I stole this from Martin because it’s awesome and it’s a much more useful way to illustrate the point that matters: Scrum isn’t a boolean, it’s a continuum.  Teams may be doing Scrum to greater or lesser degrees.  Yes!  There is room for variability in practices that we can still call Scrum!  Now, instead of clucking (get it?) at teams for being “Scrum But”, we can help them refine and improve their Scrumminess to improve their performance. Instead of all or nothing, we can fully support incremental adoption and growth over time, including extension practices (like from Kanban) that working together take teams to Scrumfinity and beyond.

Update: It’s a good day for a Renaissance!  By delightful coincidence, Scrum.org rolled out their new front page today.  I’m excited to be engaged with what’s coming next!

Just look what they found space for!

ALM Summit: devgrrrl Evolution

I’m working on a blog post wrap-up of the 2011 ALM Summit experience, so today I did a little bit of white-glove research in the archives.

I can’t find archaeological evidence of my attendance at what was then still called p&p summit in 2006, but I know I was there because that’s where Peter Provost & Michael Puleio gave their “Agile Talk on Agility” which blew my mind and changed the way I do software and public speaking and made me a loyal Summiteer for life.

I did, however, find some real treasures: my p&p 2009 and 2007 (!) adventures in liveblogging.  They’re essentially my scribbled notes, so a lot of the actual content is completely unintelligible now, even to me, but they provide a window into my growth as an attendee and as a professional in this field.

Even at the time I was writing them, I knew perfectly well that those blog posts were an outlet for my insecurities as a dev and a #devgrrrl, so you’ll see lots of that in there (see also the posts in between, from TechEd 2008).  If you read them in chronological order, I think you’ll see a growing level of experience and confidence.

I switched to livetweeting the rebranded #almsummit in 2010.  By then, I was fully aware that the great value I get out of conferences isn’t the received wisdom from a speaker in a lecture hall and never has been and I’m not sorry.  (See also: my college, with an average class size < 20 and a high degree of informal access to faculty.)  In 2006, 2007 and 2009, it was clear that I learned more by talking with colleagues about the previous hour during the 15-minute coffee breaks than I did in the hour itself.  That’s why I always worked so hard to recruit a good group to come with me.  The other big change in 2010 was that I quit being afraid of the broader community, and I put myself out there to engage with them.  Maybe the interactivity of the Summit’s little Twitterverse helped: I started to see that highly skilled professionals struggle with the same issues as I do, or even struggle with issues my team had already, in our way, solved.  I even got retweeted!  In other words, I might have something to contribute!

Plus, I was thrilled to witness the impact of the community’s livetweeting on the entire 2010 Summit.  We stopped talking about Agile in a waterfall way (top-down, planned in advance) and started actually putting Agile Talk About Agility into practice (self-organizing, continuous feedback)!  It was like our collective lightbulb moment!  And, as Agile techniques are wont to do, it left me feeling smart and empowered.  I can do this!

The other big event in 2010, not recorded anywhere, was my chance meeting with Linda from Northwest Cadence during one of the aforementioned coffee breaks.  We hit it off, which set some slow-moving wheels in motion throughout 2011 and landed me where I am today.  It’s a good thing I’m not (too) afraid of the ALM community any more, because I’m up to my neck in it!

Stay tuned to the Northwest Cadence blog, where I’ll talk more about making the transition from acolyte to Platinum Sponsor at this year’s Summit…

Underpants Gnomes in Kanban

… or, no good joke goes unpunished

Kanban offers a lot of potential for targeted, specific, incremental change, but you will need to have or create a problem-solving culture to avoid stalling out.

Earlier this year I made the wisecrack around the office that my problem with Kanban is, it feels too much to me like the Underpants Gnomes:

  1. Visualize work
  2. ???
  3. Process improvement!

Northwest Cadence just got cheekier. You're welcome.

Steven, who thinks I’m funny, ran with it just a bit.

Last night at the ALM Summit, we had a great breakout (“Open Space“) session at which some serious agile luminaries held forth on the theories underpinning both Scrum and Kanban and process improvement in general.  Steven outed me and my joke, so now I think the heat’s on.  Can I unpack this idea and turn it into real learnings, or was it just a cheap shot?

Well, let’s put the obvious out there first.  Although Kanban does literally mean just “visual card” or “visual board”, Kanban in the context of software development process improvement doesn’t just say visualize work.  That’s only the first step.  There are supposed to be other steps after that.  Right?

Aren’t there?

This is where, for me, we start to run into issues.  I’m not being theoretical or cheeky here.  In my former organization, my team ran Scrum (-but) for 2.5 years; another nearby team made the decision from the executive level to implement “Lean-Kanban” instead.  They expressly agreed with something I’ve heard Kanban proponents advance as a strength: unlike Scrum, they could adopt Kanban without changing any of their existing process.  (They seemed awfully excited about that.)

They got great, in-depth training (which they kindly invited me to sit in on).  The following week, huge Kanban boards went up to visualize their entire portfolio.  The first thing they “learned” (unnecessary quotes because everybody on the team already knew it) was that they were massively overloaded: at least three times more work underway than they could possibly complete on time.

When a 12-person team’s Kanban board fills all the walls, floor-to-ceiling, of a 40-seat conference room, it’s covered in 3×3 post-its, and each team member needs four to six laminated South Park avatars to identify all the work they’re doing at any one time, they don’t need a high-priced consultant to tell them where the dysfunction—sorry, “opportunity”—is.

And how’d they address the dysfunction?  As far as I know, they didn’t.

Why not?  Honestly, I don’t know.  Kanban calls for teams to limit work in process (WIP) and it’s a fairly obvious next step in this case, in some form.  I know they learned about limiting WIP, because I was in their training classes.  It was easy for my friends on the dev and BA teams to blame upper management and stakeholders for failing to act, but I don’t know if they really fought for WIP limits or just rolled over.  I’m certain no one at any level sought out or embraced the pain of significant change.

A year and a half later, the Kanban-wallpaper was still up, and the team still said they were “doing Kanban”.  At a local Lean-Kanban conference, I got a chance to sit down with some of them during a break and asked how the process was going for them.

“It’d be fine if the BAs would quit dragging us developers into their ATDD meetings.  It takes up all our time and we can’t get enough code written.”

“Hey!  What do you expect when you’re so slow delivering code that we have nothing to UAT?  We don’t have anything else to do but work on future requirements.”

I gather that they still haven’t implemented WIP limits, at least not properly, and they’re not managing their queues in or out.  We’re sitting at a Kanban conference and these attendees are still near the point of food fighting because they’ve decided the dysfunction is each other instead of their process.

And that’s why I think the Underpants Gnomes are not just a one-liner in Kanban, but a real risk that should be taken seriously and planned for.  What happens when…

  • the team doesn’t know how to find the root cause of a dysfunction?
  • the team can’t agree on what the dysfunctions even are?
  • the team identifies a dysfunction, but doesn’t know how to solve it?
  • the team tries to solve a dysfunction but just replaces it with another?
  • the team’s organizational culture doesn’t support problem-solving?
  • the team isn’t empowered to make the changes they think are needed?

A team full of highly motivated problem-solvers with great communication and teamwork skills will probably get good results with Kanban, but honestly aren’t they all too busy building carbon-nanotube space elevators while curing cancer?  Or writing the book on process improvement?  Seriously, teams that natively possess awesome diagnosis and problem-solving skills, are they even having this conversation?

... and it's a Big Visible Display, too!

The rest of us need to pay attention to the Underpants Gnomes when we’re getting started in Kanban.

What’s your plan for Phase 2? Can you do it on your own or do you need help getting there?

Note: if you are/were on the team I’m talking about and I’ve gotten any of the story wrong, please send me additions or corrections or perspectives so I can update!

Agile Project Planning: The Cake Is a Lie

We cling to old-fashioned long-term plans because they are familiar and we think they provide certainty, but they don’t.    We shouldn’t sabotage Agile by trying to bolt on a (dishonest) long-term plan; we should understand and embrace what we’re getting in place of the plan.

I’m blogging this from 35,000 feet, almost entirely just because I can.  I’m coming home from two things I’ve wanted to do for a long, long time: [1] travel on business and [2] get paid to talk.  Yes, it was as good as I hoped!

Plus I got two states I needed!

Before

After! (It is ON, North Dakota.)

Anyway, tomorrow I’m slated to deliver the inaugural session of our “Scrum-damentals” Coffee Talk (free! register at scrumdamentals.eventbrite.com!) and I’m taking advantage of Alaska Airlines’ in-flight wi-fi to put my personal touches on an awesome slide deck created by our in-house Scrum Authority, Martin.  Scrum-damentals will cover common Scrum adoption challenges and the dreaded ScrumButs.  One of the Buts that Martin wrote up is the tendency to try to do long-range scope and release planning in spite of the Scrum directive to plan only the next 3-ish Sprints in any detail.

In fact, this is one of the clearest commonalities between Agile and Scrum.

And my former team did it.  I helped.

So why’s that bad?  We know upper management is often uncomfortable with Agile, and a little release planning is necessary to keep them happy, right?  What’s the problem?

This:

THE CAKE IS A LIE

When we succumb to pressure to project-plan, we’re giving upper management false hope.  We are lying to them.  We know it.  They probably know it, too.  We have absolutely no way of predicting accurately what we’re even going to attempt to deliver in a Sprint a year from now, much less what we’re going to accomplish in that Sprint.  It’s insulting to everyone’s intelligence to pretend otherwise.  And we, the team, participate in our own downfall when we play along.

In tomorrow’s Coffee Talk, I’ll cover some strategies we can use to push back against the demand for the plan.  Bottom line: we have to speak up and we have to educate our upper management about the benefits of Agile.  When they start to understand how much they gain by doing Agile honestly and transparently and fully, they’ll have a much easier time giving up the dream of the delicious cake.

See?

How Flexible Should an Agile Team Be?

There are different tricks to balance skill sets on a team for long-term performance.  Relying on pure “generalists” isn’t the only option.  (Some folks think Scrum demands this, but it doesn’t.)

In a recent blog post my colleague Steven asks the question, “Do Teams of Cross Functional Individuals Hide Dysfunctions?”  This grows out of some conversations we’ve had around the office about the intended meaning of “cross-functional” and whether it’s a virtue or a vice.

When I joined Northwest Cadence, which as we’ve established was not so long ago, I found earlier training materials referring to the need for “generalists” in Scrum, and some diagrams showing how team members might shift to other types of tasks during a Sprint.  But since my formal training in Scrum has been more recently, I recalled that the Scrum Guide calls for the team to be “cross-functional, with all of the skills as a team necessary to create a product Increment” (emphasis mine).  As I read it, this means the Development Team should have all the skill sets represented that it needs to complete the work of the Sprint, but it doesn’t say a thing about every team member needing to possess every needed skill, or even multiple needed skills.  (What if what the Development Team really needs in a Sprint is a specialist?)

Anyway, around the office we’ve started making the semantic distinction between “cross-functional individuals” (generalists) and “cross-functional teams” (generalists or specialists or a combination of both who provide in aggregate the needed mix of skills).

In our Scrum vs. Kanban Smackdown on Friday, Steven and I dug into the issue a bit more, and he mentioned that while single cross-functional individuals are less productive than specialists, he found it curious that the opposite is true in teams: teams of cross-functional individuals are more productive than teams of specialists.  (Source: Capers Jones, Applied Software Measurement.)

Fantastic Four's Mr. Fantastic, a.k.a. Stretch

It seems to me that there’s a delicate balance to be achieved between focus (preventing context-switching) and flexibility.

Particularly in Scrum, it’s critical to have a cohesive team, and one of the strengths in Scrum is that the team learns to work together more efficiently over time.  A Scrum team’s membership should strive to stay stable.  But given that the Product Backlog and the Sprint Backlog’s contents are variable, how can the team maintain a stable membership while ensuring it has all necessary skill sets for any work that may be thrown at it?

In Kanban, of course there’s no prescribed process: the first step is to visualize the existing flow of work, identify bottlenecks, and then address bottlenecks to promote flow. Again the question is, how should the team address them, especially over time as a variety of development items enters the work stream?

I think there’s no simple answer, but I have a few ideas, and I think they’re potentially equally applicable to Scrum and Kanban.

  • Swap Out Team Members.  I think this is a non-solution for both Scrum and Kanban.  If we weren’t trying to build more effective teams, we wouldn’t be here, right?
  • Balance the Backlog.  Items in the backlog or queue should already be right-sized and should represent standalone stakeholder value.  If the team works from a consistent Definition of Done, then it should be possible to figure out what skills are needed to deliver a particular item – and to break down an item if any stage of its delivery is too big for the team’s capacity.  However, this won’t always be perfectly possible: for example, some features may lend themselves to more test automation, while others demand more manual test, and these call for different skill sets on the team.
  • Negotiate.  In Scrum, the Product Owner and the Development Team work together to select the Sprint Backlog and they don’t always have to select the stakeholders’ highest priority items.  If it makes sense, they can pull a different mix of items into the Sprint to keep the workload balanced to the team’s capacity. Similarly, a Kanban team can pull new work into the work stream for any reason at all, and can choose to pull items that balance better with work already underway. However, this must not be used to mask dysfunction, especially because it risks taking the team too far afield of the stakeholders’ priorities.
  • T-Skills.  Team members who have needed depth in a few areas, but breadth and willingness to help out in others (“T”), can give the team the flexibility it needs to accommodate shifting Work In Process loads.  I think this is what most people really mean when they say “generalists”.  This can be effective when role-based bottlenecks are occasional and temporary.  However, this must not be used to mask dysfunction; if team morale is affected or the team resists seemingly reasonable calls to “swarm”, that’s an indication that their willingness to flex is being overused or abused.
  • Expose the Pain.  If the team’s skill sets are out of whack due to external constraints, it may be to the team’s advantage not to solve or compensate for this problem.  Instead, making the effects of the imbalance transparent to decision-makers and stakeholders may be what’s necessary to get a real lasting fix.
The Incredibles

Elastigirl rocks, but she still values her team.

In all cases, the entire team needs to be involved in and accountable for the solution, and as you see from some of the ideas above, the solution may need to start well before the work hits the dev/test phases of the team’s process.

WWKD?

My Scrum knowledge was out-of-date.  The new Scrum guidance is streamlined to essentials and I like that.

Last Friday I was privileged to serve as a guinea pig for my colleague Martin‘s Professional Scrum Master course.  The afternoon prior, he asked me and my colleague/classmate James to read the Scrum Guide and take the Scrum Open Assessment, specifying that we should score at least 75% on the assessment to show our readiness for the level of the course.  James did exactly as asked, posted a fine passing score, and thoughtfully generated this blog post which instantly became the most-viewed in Northwest Cadence blogging history.  Meanwhile, I flunked the assessment and wrote a blog post about how my new USB adapter has googly eyes.

Not the best student, me.

On Friday it was time to double down, literally.  As a practice run, Martin condensed the two-day course into one long day.  With only the three of us, we had lots of opportunity for discussion and debate as we worked through the PSM material.  Martin’s insights, having used this stuff in the real world, are invaluable too.

Mid-morning, our new social media guru Laura asked us to live-Tweet or Facebook our thoughts about the course… a request she may swiftly have come to regret, as we were feeling feisty and immediately began Tweeting helpful suggestions such as marketing “WWKD?” beaded bracelets.  (Hmm… chicken & pig Bandz!  Calling patent office…)

At the end of the day, we took me up on my (frankly self-defensive) suggestion to use our prior scores as a baseline and take the Open Assessment again to see how Martin’s teaching had helped us to improve.  Both of us had higher scores, but if mine is to be believed, Martin’s definitely the best Scrum instructor out there:

My score on the assessment, after a great class

Didn't just ace it... did so in 4 minutes, 49 seconds

No, I didn’t cheat.  Yes, I’m kind of one of those annoying good-test-takers.  (Which, as with SAT and the like, should not be confused with “knows the subject matter any better than a non-test-taker”.)

But let’s get serious for a moment.  The questions that tripped me up the first time were, in fact, meaty and interesting.  Scrum has evolved and simplified in recent years.  Before joining Northwest Cadence, I spent nearly three years on a reasonably effective Scrum-but team (which I guess really does make me a Scrum-but Master), and as I spent the day learning new insights about the Product Owner role and its responsibilities, the Scrum Master role and its limitations, I recognized so many nifty little practices – some we used, some I wish we’d used – that either solved or might have solved real issues we faced in the wild.

My favorite part, by far, is the way in which well-defined roles in Scrum empower the development team.  Martin recently posted about the Rolled Up Newspaper Method of bringing developers around to Scrum.  I understand it makes me a filthy tree-hugging hippie, but I don’t believe in the rolled-up newspaper for dogs or developers.

As it happens, I train my dog at Ahimsa in Seattle, an amazing place with fantastic results, run by a rock star genius mathematician who left academia to train dogs and their owners to get great results using positive methods that empower the dog.  Hmm!

(Those who know how much I adore my dog, and how much I adore my former development team, won’t blink at the comparison of developers to dogs.  Also, Martin started it.)

My lovely little dog, peeing outside like he is supposed to

Dogs, like developers, can be trained to pee outside using exclusively positive methods.

For at least the last three years, I’ve said that if developers understood how much Agile, and specifically Scrum, helps them with problems they care about, they’d demand it. That’s exactly what I did, although I understand that as a “developer” I’m a bit of an odd duck.  (Odd pig?)

Anyway, here are a couple of specifics I find intriguing:

  • I like the way the Product Owner has absolute control over the Product Backlog and its sequencing.  I like how “prioritization” has been changed to “ordering” to emphasize that it isn’t just the stakeholders’ priority or preference that drives the sequence: any number of other criteria may be used, and the Development Team is free to negotiate with the Product Owner on this matter.  The Product Owner is accountable to the stakeholders for satisfactory results, let’s say for delivering value, but the stakeholders don’t control the details of how this is accomplished.  I like how this gives the Development Team opportunities, e.g., to propose knocking out valuable low-hanging fruit, or to request re-sequencing to smooth out architectural or infrastructure dependencies.  A strong, positive relationship between the Product Owner and the Development Team (and the stakeholders) will yield great results and a better quality of life for developers.
  • I like how the Scrum Master’s job is to get the hell out of the Development Team’s way.  I like the emphasis on Servant Leadership in this role.  Over and over again, Scrum training questions and scenarios beat this point into the student’s head: the Scrum Master doesn’t solve problems or make decisions.  The Scrum Master only preserves the Development Team’s autonomy and provides them with any structural assistance needed for them to solve the problems or make the decisions themselves.  This is exactly what we devs say we want – hire us to write great code, then leave us alone while we do it.

On my former team, I was simultaneously Scrum-but Master and Technical Lead.  This was ill-advised for at least two reasons: Dev Team members shouldn’t have titles, and my combo-role seems like a conflict of interest.  But looking back on it, I can see the beginnings of some really nice practices: as Lead, I had the opportunity to participate directly in Product Backlog grooming throughout each Sprint, giving the team’s technical feedback on complexity, dependencies, and quick wins.  Two successive Product Owners were great to work with and did a great job of synthesizing technical recommendations with our stakeholders’ priorities – no small feat, considering how stakeholders proliferate and conflict with each other in higher ed.  Even struggling with Scrum-but, we did some amazing things as a team and delivered some really cool software in the federal compliance space.

  • I like the way Scrum is a framework, within which the Scrum Team has total freedom to write PBIs, decompose requirements, and develop, test and deliver software in whatever way works for them.  It doesn’t prescribe the SDLC: it fosters an environment in which an SDLC can happen reliably, because they can adapt and grow one that works well for them.  In this sense I’m seeing similarities to Kanban but with a lot more structure.  I don’t mind structure and neither do developers generally, if it’s a good one!

I came to Northwest Cadence expecting to be a defender of Scrum-but, which might yet occur, but for the moment I’m really fascinated by the framework itself, straight up.  I’m excited to dig in and put my public-sector experience to work with a more diverse clientele. I have some cool things I can teach already, but test scores notwithstanding, I also have a lot to learn.

Look for me to test and grow these Scrummy ideas in our upcoming public events!  I haven’t heard back yet on my idea for a bracelet giveaway…