Monday, November 11, 2019

A Year in the Life of a Scrum Master

Sharpen the saw, regularly.
Any scrum master worth their weight in salt, should take time out of their busy careers and take stock.  The book, “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” calls this practice “sharpening the saw.”  It is a chance to review the successes and failures of the recent past and see if you have gained any wisdom along the way.  I do not do it as often as I should.  The last year has been a crazy ride, and I want to share with you a few things I have learned.

A year ago, I left LSC communications. I was profoundly unhappy and filled with rage and contempt.  During my fifth anniversary, my manager joked, “Ed has been dragging this organization kicking and screaming to become more agile.”  I was an effort I was often fighting by myself. I was self-medicating with alcohol and over-eating to deal with the stress.  I was also making below-market rates for my profession.  I took the first opportunity offered to me to leave.  Three weeks later, I was cast aside like a used piece of facial tissue.  It was a valuable lesson.  If an offer is too good to be true, it probably is.

In the first quarter of the year, I worked for a non-profit which wanted to become agile.  I was hungry for a fresh start.  I let my hunger blind me to some distinct realities.  The organization was not serious about agile.  The firm would not hire or appoint product owners.  The managers would not share power with their teams.  Finally, my immediate manager wanted me to shut my mouth and maintain the Jira board rather than coach.  The second lesson learned, do not let hunger blind you to a no-win situation, which will further stunt your career.

I would spend the summer months looking for work and keeping my spirits up.  I could not have done it if I did not have the support of my friends, my family, and an understanding girlfriend.  Jobs come and go, but when you die, the only people who will mourn you are the people who loved you.  It is doubtful your boss or the VP of engineering will show up unless you neglected to check your code back into source control.

Finally, when I had a new opportunity, I set aside my preconceived notions and took time to learn about what works for my client.  It is not a mistake that the creator gave each person two ears and one mouth.  We need to listen to others with a frequency of two to one.  Learn the names of your colleagues and their children.  Find out how to make coffee that everyone in the office will drink.  Learn where the pain points exist and find out if you can fix them.  Share the values and principles of the agile manifesto and then be an example for others.

Plenty of things can happen in a year.  I feel like a different person. I am older and a touch wiser.  I want to bring that knowledge to other software developers and agilests.  I am grateful you are along for the ride.

Until next time.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Emotions are Intentional on Your Agile Team

Existential thinkers have plenty to say about emotions.
I have been busy working on a large project.  My life has become a dull whirlwind of train rides, conference calls, and e-mail chains, which never end.  The days tick by as we draw closer to our deadline.  Everyone is feeling the pressure.  As the scrum master and coach, I have to maintain a semblance of grace under pressure.  If I do not the team will continue to careen out of control, and the project will fail.  I have talked about emotions plenty of times on this blog.  Today, I want to discuss the intentionality of emotions and what it means for your teams.

I have been reading plenty of philosophy books on the train, and I have become intrigued with post-modern and existential philosophy.  In particular, the trio of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus.  Two of these writers earned the Nobel Prize in literature.  The third gave birth to contemporary feminist thought.  The three of them survived the horrors of the great depression and the Second World War.  In the aftermath, they were authoring a philosophy centered on individuals and the life choices they make.  Instead of grand narratives of history like Marx or Hegel, existential thinkers wrote about freedom and opportunity.  The existentialists spend time discussing psychology.  Each of them pushes back against the leading theories of psychoanalysis and attempt to provide a better way to discuss emotions.

As psychoanalysis grew in popularity and respectability, people began to accept many of its presumptions about human nature.  A central hypothesis was the concept of the “unconscious mind.”  The unconscious was a mental black box where we kept our repressed memories, emotions and irrational portions of ourselves.  Therapy could help us unlock some of the mysteries of the unconscious, but it would never be able to untangle the numerous tangled threads of repression, trauma, anxiety, and emotion each of us possesses.  If someone was easily angered the psychoanalysis would say there was nothing to be done because emotions are part of the unconscious mind and it will require extensive therapy to address the complicated issues causing the anger.

Existential thinkers reject this extreme version of the unconscious mind. To an existentialist, humans do have a conscious mind and an unconscious mind, but the unconscious is not a black box that cannot be understood.  Instead, the unconscious mind contains emotions, memories and hidden elements of behavior but instead of them obeying irrational processes they are rational and intentional depending outside stimulus.

For example, you are in a retrospective, and some stories did not get completed.  The inability to get work done becomes the main topic of the retrospective.  Two developers are upset by the discussion.  An existentialist would say this is natural because the two developers did or did not do something which caused the sprint to fail.  The feeling of anger, disappointment, or anxiety is a logical and rational response to failure.  If you are a good enough coach or scrum master the team should be able to express those emotions healthily.  One developer should be able to admit they are struggling writing automated tests.  The other developer should be able to confess that they do not have time to help the other developer improve their testing skills.  In a condition of psychological safety and openness, the team can work out how they can avoid failure like this in the future.

The scrum master should ask “What” style questions instead of “Why” centered questions.  When someone is angry, ask, “What is making you feel this way.”  It is less judgmental than asking why.  Ask people what they are going to do to change and what they can do when they feel angry or upset.  It is not easy, but it guides you and the people on your team to take ownership of emotional behavior.  It means that emotions are still irrational and exhausting, but the reasons we have them are not.  To the existentialist, a feeling serves a real need in each human.

As a scrum master and coach, it is up to you to understand emotions and how they are natural and rational responses to real situations.  It is up to you to ask questions about what is triggering emotions instead of why emotions are triggered.  Finally, a coach or scrum master needs to help others take ownership of emotions instead of dismissing them because emotions affect the team and the individual struggling to express them.

Until next time.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Grateful for the Agile Coaching Summit in Chicago

Left to Right: Ben, Me, and Mara.
A big challenge for any scrum master or coach is the feeling that you are alone in the organization you are leading change.  Cultural inertia, fixed mindsets, and the pressure to deliver have a way of draining a person of enthusiasm and devotion to the agile reformation.  Professionals like us need an opportunity to recharge our batteries and spend time among like-minded individuals.  The Agile Coaching Summit at the Guaranteed Rate headquarters in Chicago was one of those opportunities.

If you are an agile professional, there are plenty of opportunities to interact with others.  Social media features countless user groups for agile professionals.  Two significant conferences begin and end the summer, offering learning credits and a chance to rub shoulders with others.  The Agile Coaching summit in Chicago is different.  The Agile Coaching summit in Chicago is different.  It is more intimate with room for about 150 people.  Skill levels from new scrum masters to hardened coaches leading enterprise change at Fortune 500 companies are present.  What unites all of us is a desire to make a difference at our organizations and our devotion to agile.  It is a great mix, and it is why I attended the inaugural meeting and why I went this year. 

In a change of pace, we had not one but five keynote speakers.  Some were coaching language, others spoke about positivity, another was an improvisation coach talking about coaching conversations; finally, we learned about generational differences in the workplace.  It was upbeat, positive, and informative.  All these speakers spoke about the skills necessary to be successful leaders, listeners, and coaches.  Not a single one was an agile specialist.  The focus on these areas creates an impression that agile coaching is more about coaching others for success than agile.  It was a necessary pallet cleanser for a great conference. 

Saturday opened with coffee and breakfast and quickly moved into in-depth learning sessions.  I was busy learning about a wiki book imitative while others were discussing “agile fakes.”  Later sessions included conversations about how executives undercut agile, and it is always good to learn how to perform Kata experiments to change behavior.  The best part of this gathering is to see old friends and to meet new ones.  People swap war stories about creating organizational change.  We catch up on each other’s children, careers and personal lives.  I even spent time bantering about smart lights and how to set them up in a new house. 

Sunday is usually a laid back affair, but there were great sessions about coaching teams versus one on one coaching.  We had conversations about dealing with difficult team members and discuss product ownership.  It was a great weekend, and I strongly recommend it next year.  Many thanks to Emilio B. Perez and the folks at Guaranteed Rate for a successful summit and I look forward to ACS2000.

Until Next time.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Scrum depends on leadership.

Leadership is hard.
The global economy is filled with challenges.  The economic cycle of boom and bust.  Trade wars and political uncertainty dominate headlines.  Workers are flexing their muscles to retain the wages and benefits which kept them in the middle s class.  The agile reformation is in the middle of this environment.  We are striving to make business saner, sustainable, and satisfying.  It is hard work.  Often we are struggling with status quo thinking and the demands of the market place.  We test scrum masters and coaches daily.  The principle test is the leadership skills we bring to work each day.

The scrum guide has evolved over the years to discuss the changing role of the scrum master.  We describe scrum masters as servant-leaders with the ability to influence others without having real authority.  I have written numerous times about servant-leadership.  I am a big fan of people like Dwight Eisenhower, Harvey Milk, and Creighton Abrams.  I am also impressed by academic thinkers like Gilles Deleuze and Albert Camus.  What all of these people have in common is deep intelligence and the ability to overcome obstacles to accomplish great things.

Leadership is hard.  In the words of General Collin Powel, leadership is pissing people off to get things done.  It is uncomfortable.  Leadership is upsetting comfortable structures to achieve greater success.  It is emotionally taxing and a job that follows you around even when you are outside the office.  It is a skill that must be cultivated and rehearsed regularly. 

The alternative is a catastrophe.  People who are concerned with their advancement at the expense of others are toxic in an organization.  Those people will game measurements to make themselves look more effective than they are.  They will withhold support for others unless they can receive some benefit.  People work with these kinds of leaders not because they want to but because they have to do it.  Organizations succeed or fail based on the leadership skills of their people, and poor leadership will kill and organization.

By now, you realize that I feel strongly about this subject.  I have spent my entire career working with many different people.  Some were inspirational, and others were more interested in their success than others.  I prefer the company of inspirational people.   This week my leadership was challenged twice.  I was helping a professional team release software, and I had to perform agile assessments on other teams.  The common thread through these experiences is that good leadership was obvious to see, and lousy leadership was more deceptive.  Be on the lookout for these corrupt leaders; they will harm your business. 

Until next time.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Necessity and Urgency for the Scrum Master.

Necessity Matters.
Last week, I discussed prioritization and why it matters.  I received plenty of feedback and I want to devote extra time to the topic.

It has been my experience that the further one advances in the company the more people struggle with prioritization.  I blame this on individuals who have never had constraints on time, money, or energy placed in positions of authority.  I also suspect sales and marketing professionals advance into the executive ranks faster.  These individuals are trained early in their careers that “no,” is just one obstacle in the way of an eventual yes.  When they become responsible for operations or essential projects, “no,” has a very different meaning.  Unable to deal with shortages of people, money, or time they lash out or resort to deception to get things done.  It is an ugly state of affairs, and it will destroy the morale of a project team.

When I face this situation, I remember the 1999 movie, “Three Kings.”  The film features Ice Cube and George Clooney as gulf war soldiers who decide to steal a shipment of Saddam Hussein’s gold during confusion surrounding the end of the first gulf war.  The film has one moment which sticks out for me, and that is a monologue by Clooney’s character.  He asks his fellow soldiers what is essential.  After listening to several wrong answers, he says, “Necessity is the most important.  We need to know what is going to get us to the next moment and do that.”  When a ship is leaking, fix the leak.  When a house is on fire put out the fire.  Other issues can wait until the immediate crisis is over.  I have used this approach for five years, and I have seen its effect.  If you are in a staff meeting ask, “Is it necessary?” and if the answer is yes then inquire why it is necessary.  Eventually, people in the organization will start asking the same questions.

Some organizations have a culture of firefighting.  Jimmy Leppert observed these organizations are so focused on short term results they do not have time to focus on growth or excellence.  To get anything done, you have to become an arsonist to create a sense of urgency.  To reduce the “fire risk,” take away flammable material from the organization like technical debt and outdated software.  Next, take responsibility away from the “firebugs,” in the organization; people who create a crisis to get things done.  Finally, encourage fire safety with good engineering practices, automated testing, and code reviews among the team. 

People use urgency and necessity interchangeably.  Do not use these words for is a means to upset the process of prioritization in an organization.  It is arson burning down the business.

Until next time.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Helpful Tips Setting Priorities

Being a white-collar professional is a mixed bag.  With a few clicks of a mouse or the stroke of a pen, construction projects begin, or new markets born.  It is also suffering through bad coffee, office politics, and people who enjoy humiliating others.  It is a load of responsibility without much authority and being separated from your family to provide them with opportunities you never had.  As a professional, it amazes me to see who rises through the corporate food chain and who flounders.  It feels like the worst moments of high school when you thought you were not smart enough, cool enough, or pretty enough to matter to anyone else.  Those who do rise to the top often depend on the invisible people to manage the business and keep the global economy spinning.  One of the most critical skills of keeping the company moving forward is prioritization, and I would like to discuss it.

Roland Pilcher, in his excellent book about product ownership, talks about how every backlog needs prioritization.  Over my career, I am amazed by how many people in positions of leadership have never been forced to set priorities.  I blame this state of affairs on business cultures who are afraid to say “no” to executives.  It is the creation of a fantasy world where anything is possible, and the only limits are money and ego.

People who do not hear “no” often enough cannot set priorities, so it is up to others to teach them how. I have created a grid to help evaluate how to address priorities.  The Y-axis is importance with the high being very important and the low being trivial.  The X-axis is the urgency of a task from mission-critical to inconsequential.  Any work can fall onto the plane and based on where it lands determines how you are going to take action.


Mission Critical and Important - 

Anything which threatens the survival of the business or costs money falls in this category.  Consider it like the e-commerce site is down or your boat in the middle of the ocean is sinking.  You need to stop what you are doing and address it now.

Less Critical but Important - 

These are things which will improve the business and increase profits.  It could be an update to the company website which has full social media integration.  It might be the addition of a more powerful engine on your fishing boat.  Whatever the issue, speed to market means you should do it before your competitors do.

Need to have Items - 

Items which are less critical than the things above which are not time-sensitive are called need to have issues.  These items will generate profit, but they can be scheduled based on budget or staffing priorities.

Nice to have Items - 

When something is neither trivial or essential and it is neither mission-critical or inconsequential, it is known as a nice to have priority.  Things like changing the color scheme of a website or streamlining an ordering process fall into this category.  Fit these tasks in when time allows.

Egoware - 

In large organizations, some people have a tremendous amount of authority and the self-esteem to match.  These individuals look at priorities which may not be essential and give them urgency.  Often it is to satisfy personal preferences rather than business needs.  In the software business we call this kind of development Egoware.  Any organization which fulfills the construction of egoware is toxic, and executives, scrum masters, and coaches should work to eliminate it from the organization; otherwise egoware will choke out the more important work at the firm.

Willful Ignorance - 

The organization is often blind to these issues, which are essential but treated as inconsequential.  For example, a top salesperson is using his expense account to cover gambling losses.  Another example is a toxic person with a history of sexual harassment stalking the office.  In both cases, the organization is looking the other way and treating these risks as inconsequential.  Eventually, they will pay for this inattention, and the problems become more prominent and the financial dangers more considerable.

Things which can wait - 

If something is trivial and inconsequential; it can wait.  Often, we get ideas, or the business comes up with suggestions.  If they are not urgent or essential, they can linger for another day.  These items sit at the bottom of the backlog or project plan. If something can wait it should have “shelf life.”  After sitting in the “to do,” pile for a certain amount of time, it should be reviewed.  If the idea can deliver value it should be moved to the nice to have priority.  If it does not, then it should be scrapped to make room for other ideas.

Peter Drucker, the famous business consultant, said, “First things first, last things never.”  If you take a look at this chart it should be easy to determine what matters what can wait.  You can spot things which are dangerous or dysfunctional to the firm.  Following this approach will make you more competent than many executives at big companies.

Until next time.

Monday, September 16, 2019

We need to teach the agile reformation

Everyone in agile is an educator. 
I have a love affair with teachers.  My Aunt was a teacher and an elementary school principal.  My first wife was a teacher, and my current romantic partner is a teacher.  I owe my career and success to teachers who invested time and energy on me.  Teachers are the glue which holds society together, and without them, the world would collapse into a puddle of ignorance — teachers mater.

I some respects, I have become a teacher myself. I have spent the last few decades of my life learning software developments and project management.  Now I am sharing my knowledge with others and helping make business better one project at a time.  Being a scrum master and agile coach means you have to be a teacher.  The Agile manifesto and principles of agile are a foundation of a massive ecosystem of learning about how to make work more sustainable, satisfying, and sane.  It is a calling, just like teaching.

The world of agile is continuously changing. After the creation of the agile manifesto, we did not know how to scale agile to larges organizations; software testing was not part of the conversation, and many though it would only work with technology.  Today, thanks to the contributions of thousands of people we have solutions to those challenges.  We use agile in Human Resources, Education, Marketing and Finance.

To me, the reasons are clear why agile is growing.  The emphasis on transparency, inspection, and adaptation prevents organizations from being dogmatic about how they do things.  It is a pragmatic approach which makes an effort to deal with the chaotic nature of the contemporary world.  It is also a world view seen through the lens of engineering, where people fix problems and discover solutions.  Finally, it is an optimistic approach to the world where we make small and steady continuous improvements one sprint at a time.

The agile reformation is not entirely unicorns and glitter.  People are resistant to changes, and large organizations are notoriously hard to transform.  I have suffered numerous personal and professional setback in this field.  Every reformation has a counter-reformation.  Still the hard work and dedication to teaching others how to do things a better way is what keeps the movement going forward.  My love affair with teachers began when I was a child.  The love has grown stronger as I have become a coach in the agile reformation.

Until next time.