Monday, December 5, 2016

Good Scrum Requires Organization and Improvisation

Good Scrum is like good jazz
The life of a scrum master is a daily adventure.  No two days are the same.  One day everything is going well and the next you are confronted with a production server meltdown.  You have tremendous responsibility but no authority to get anything done.  This week I want to talk about two skills you will need to develop to be successful, organization and improvisation.

As scrum master presides over a fluid and ambiguous environment.  Product owners want to succeed.  Finance people are tracking the money.  Your boss wants to know when you are going to push code into production.  To answer this and numerous questions which come up during your work day, you must be organized.  I keep file folders with information regarding each project.  Additionally, I insist that the product owner and the team keep the product backlog neat and tidy.

Use your source control and project management tools to the best of your ability.  It does not matter if you use Jira or TFS 2015.  These software products are designed to keep you organized.  If you want to be old school, use a whiteboard and post-it notes; as long as the information is accurate and readily available to everyone.

I like to use the “arms-reach” rule.  This rule states that any and all information about a project should be within arms reach of the scrum master.  So when your boss asks how the sprint is going, you can show them a burndown chart.  A developer might have questions about the I.P. addresses of a server.  You should be able to reach an excel spreadsheet or file folder in your drawer to return that information.  It will enhance your credibility with the organization and the people who work with you.

Finally, do what many people in the media business do; they keep a schedule file.  They have twelve folders for each month of the year.  They have additional folders for each day of the month.  When you need to do something date sensitive place, it in the correct month and date folder.  Each day you pull the current day's folder, and that provides you with an agenda fo what needs to do.  Once you get into the habit of doing this, you will wonder how you lived without it.  Once you get into the habit of doing this, you will wonder how you lived without it.  

The next skill I strongly recommend is improvisation.  Being able to respond to change over following a plan is a tenant of the agile manifesto and a great definition of improvisation.  In a typical day, a scrum master will reschedule a backlog refinement meeting to help a developer with SOLID development or they will spend time with finance people to explain the scrum process.  You need organization so depending on what happens the information you need is in “arms-reach, ” and you can change direction.

Improvisation does not mean making stuff up or bullshitting your way through your day.  It means addressing the unexpected with the correct response.  When humor is required, use humor.  When it is necessary to be firm, you will have to act.  It requires organization and mental disciple.  The way to develop those skills is by taking some improve classes or getting involved in organizations like ToastMasters.  There you will learn both public speaking skills and the ability to think on your feet which are key to improvisation.

So to summarize, to improvise you need organization.  Developing these two skills will make you a better scrum master.

Until next time.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Stop Treating people like Data Points

People are not data points.
I entered the technology business to try and make a difference.  I became an agilest because I spent too much of my time following the orders of damaged, neurotic, and mean people.  They were the kind of people who used their position of power for petty displays of superiority.   I knew there was a better way to lead others.  I knew there was a better way to get work done.  This is why I become an agilest.

Along with the spread of Agile, another trend cropped up in business.  This was the use of big data and algorithms to make decisions.  I trace the origin of that back to the book “Moneyball” and the story of the Oakland Athletics using data to improve the performance of the ball club without having to spend money like the New York Yankees.  Since then, the use of advanced statistical metrics has exploded in baseball.  What worked in professional sports was adopted into other businesses.

I call this neo-Taylorism after the business pioneer Frederick Winslow Taylor who authored the book, “Principles of Scientific Management”. Taylor did make the factory floor safer and faster but it also treated the people who did the work no differently than the machine tools or materials used to make the product.  The demands of Taylorism in business created a backlash and unions grew in strength and influence.

As our economy shifted from a manufacturing to a service economy, neo-Taylorism reared its ugly head in the cubical farms across our nation.  Customer service reps were measured on how long people waited on hold.  Sales people were judged on how many cold calls they made a day.  It was also used in human resources as Credit Scores were used to determine reliability.

This began to reduce people to data points rather than individuals.  It also gave professionals and people like me a bad name.   It is no wonder that professionals are held in such contempt in certain parts of the country.  When you see someone as an entry in a spreadsheet instead as a person and they are bound to view you with contempt.

This is why I don’t like to use metrics as a menu to set expectations for the team which works with me.  Instead, I like to use metrics to show how we can improve performance and how we did in the past.  I truly believe that once you use a metric as a quota it ceases to be useful.

So to my friend in the agile community, please continue to measure the performance of your teams.  Just do not use those metrics as quota’s because if you do everyone being judged by these metrics will game the system to make them better than they actually are.  If we are going to measure performance and be agile we need to treat people like individuals rather than points of data.  Otherwise, we will suffer a backlash of our own.

Until next time.

Monday, November 21, 2016

In order to change you need to listen.

Change begins with listening
One of the biggest obstacles to change is an organization is status quo thinking.  People develop routines and when those routines are challenged there is a push back. It happens in politics.  It happens in business.   It even happens in sports.  Being a scrum master means being a change agent.  This week I want to talk about fighting resistance to change.

At the turn of the century, one of the most popular books in the business community was “Who Moved My Cheese.”  In it, the authors tell the story of two mice “Scratch” and “Sniff” who live in a maze and discover the cheese has been moved to a new location.   The one mouse staves and the other learned to adapt to the change.  I have always been a bit of a cynic about this book.  I saw it as a happy talk way of accepting cram downs, corruption, and unfair treatment.

Now I am a scrum master and  many of the people I work with are like the mice in that book.  When asked why they do certain things they lock up in paralysis of say, “…that is how things were always done.”  Man people I have met in business are content to settle into comfortable routines.  The mental laziness of not questioning how things are done is preferable to existential nausea caused by asking if there is a better way of doing things.  In dysfunctional organizations, these lumps of human clay are often promoted and continue to enforce these dysfunctional practices.  Soon if becomes obvious to everyone that to get ahead you have to keep your head down, your mouth shut, and not make any waves.

This is even harder in large and bureaucratic organizations because people are protecting turf in the organization.  Leveraging cloud services like Azure is inevitably going to run into resistance from network teams because it takes control away from them and puts it in the hands of developers and business people.  Automated builds and continuous integration are good things but regulatory compliance becomes a committee of “no” for these improvements to the organization.

This kind of intellectually lazy resistance to change makes me crazy.  When confronted with this kind of thinking, I get angry.  After a particularly bad day someone I respect pulled me aside and said, “…you need to listen more.”  I was taken aback.  Listen more? Why should I listen more?

It took some time to sink in, but I am beginning to understand what he was thinking.  When change comes to an organization, people are fearful or what will happen to them.  I need to listen to those fears and way those concerns.  I need to listen to what is working and what isn’t working.   Change for the sake of change is just as damaging as doing nothing.  Changes must be responsive to the situation you are in rather than a reason for being.

I need to listen more.  The best reformers were people who listened and made others willingly join rather than those badgered.  The truly fervent are the most devoted.  Ther fervent are also alienating and if I want to lead change the last thing I need to be is alienating.  I need to listen to others and alienate them less.

I get angry and discouraged many times as a coach and scrum master.  Change is a difficult process.  Leadership is lonely.  The good news is that leadership and change done properly can improve the lives of others.  The struggle is worth it.  Resistance to change can be defeated and the most powerful tool is listening.  I should give it a try.

Until next time.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Reflecting on Why a Scrum Master is a Commander.

The aftermath of the U.S. Election has rubbed a lot of nerves raw.  I did not expect these results.  Between bouts of sleeplessness and eating comfort food, I did a lot of reflection.  I thought about what I stood for and what it means to the others around me.  I am scrum master and a servant leader.  I have spent the last twenty six years of my life attempting to reach this point.  During my dark night of the soul, I recalled the words of Former Secretary of State Collin Powell who said, “Command is Lonely.”  This week on my blog, I want to talk about how a scrum master is often in command.

The scrum guide is ambiguous about the authority of a scrum master.  It is very clear about the responsibilities and expectations of the role.  The agile community has filled in some of the blanks with talks about a scrum master being a servant leader.  I have written about this myself.

Over the last year, through a few successes and countless failures it has occurred to me that to be a scrum master is also about being in command.  It isn’t the typical command many of us think.  There is no barking of orders and obedient subordinates fulfilling those orders with the predatory efficiency of ants.  It is a different kind of command.  The kind of command where when things go wrong everyone turns to you.  Powell fought in Vietnam so he knows a few things about when things go horribly wrong.  This is why command is lonely.  When the metaphorical bullets are flying and you have situations which could cost money, careers, and lives; it is up to you to lead.

For a scrum master, that means staying up late with the development team when they are deploying code after hours.  It means being a calm head when others are panicking.  It means listening to others even people you find abhorrent.  It means many things and nothing at all because being a commander is not an official title bestowed by someone else.  It is earned.

This means each day as a scrum master, I have to earn my command.  I have to put in the effort to work with my development team.  I have to make sure that I am doing the best as I can to help the team improve.  I have to be able to work with people I disagree with better.  Other people are counting on me and need me to be an example, I will be a better example.  Not only do I need to know the agile manifesto and its principles but I need to practice what I preach every day.  I have to listen more and talk less.  Command is hard and it is going to be lonely.

Doing these things is not going to be easy but if I want to change the business culture of my company or found my own then I need steel myself for the hard work.  It is going to be a struggle but nothing worth fighting for should be easy.  Even in darkness we can find resolve and purpose.

Until next time.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Complexity is not cool

Complexity does not help.
One of my biggest frustrations as an agile coach, scrum master, and software developer is how blithely business people think complexity is a good thing.  I do not refute that contemporary society is complicated and that living and working in global economy is challenging.  That does not mean that business people have a right to make this situation more complicated because complexity hides inefficiency, corruption, and stupidity better than any conspiracy theory could imagine.  This week I want to talk about simplicity and why it is important in agile and business.

This week the Harvard Business Review came out with a great article about the bank crisis of 2008 and how eight years later we still haven’t recovered from it.  At the heart of the article was the thesis that career specialists in an industry don’t make good decisions.  Worse, career specialists suffer from three characteristics which hurt their industry: hubris, blinkered vision, and lack of foresight.  With these three traits it was only a matter of time that these experts created a situation which nearly ruined the global economy.

I run into these situations all the time.  I remember having a discussion with an executive which sold medical supplies to nursing homes.  We were talking about how we set prices for our customers and how we do the accounting.  I was given a lecture about how our business was different from a traditional “retail” business because the products were going to nursing homes.  I remarked that the rules of accounting have not changed in 100 years and that everyone learned accounting from the same textbooks in college.  I was told that I had a bad attitude and that I should adjust the accounting system to meet the needs of the business.  Shortly, I left the company.  It was clear it was the kind of culture which used complexity hide misconduct.

Another instance was a company president who could not purchase an MSDN licenses to make sure all of his software was upgraded.  They would rather pay for a license here and there.  This meant the office had versions of office ranging from 1995 to 2003 and applications could not communicate with each other.  It was a nightmare that could have been solved if someone picked up the phone and purchased a license for the entire office.  Instead, it was easier for someone to go to the office supply store and pick up another shrink wrapped box of software which they would have to integrate with the rest of the office.  A complicated problem could be solved with a simple phone call but leadership choose complexity over simplicity.

According to the principles of the Agile Manifesto, simplicity is the art of maximizing the amount of work not done.  This means as the agile coach and as a scrum master, I spend a great deal of time asking if we really need to do something.  I spend plenty of time trying to find the simplest path to a solution.  I also say no to plenty of requests.  It isn’t easy but if you are going to reduce complexity at the office someone needs to be smart enough to say, “I don’t understand this, and because I don’t understand it, I can’t make it work.”

Until next time.


Monday, October 31, 2016

Everyone has a bad day.

Everyone can have a bad day
Everyone is entitled to a bad day.  We live in an imperfect world where directions are not followed, colleagues don’t have the same sense of urgency, and the printer is out of toner.  It is worse for agile teams because they are expected to deliver at the end of each sprint and a few bad days can pile up into a failed sprint. As a scrum master it is up to you to accept bad days and help you team avoid future ones.  This week on my blog the emotional work necessary to make it through to bad times.

Each agile team depends on a scrum master.  It is part of the scrum guide and is a necessary to help teams improve.  When the team is having a bad day it is particularly important the scrum master is around to listen team member’s vent.  Listening is one of the most important skills of a scrum master.  It will help you diagnose problems with the team and learn about the obstacles which are creating that bad day.  Some of the issues are interpersonal, in this way it is up to the scrum master to play therapist and counselor to the individuals having problems.

This work is hard and emotionally draining.  Some of this work can be futile.  One employee spent most of their time not doing work instead of completing projects, it drove me insane.  If they spent as much effort doing what was expected as they did attempting to avoid work they would have been a valuable team member.  Instead, deadlines were missed and the morale of the remaining team was brought down.  I spent much of my time doing HR work documenting this individual’s malfeasance and senior leadership could not or would not remove this individual from the development team for cause.  It would take the entire team turning over and a series of layoffs before this individual would be let go.  It took three years to manage out a bad team member from a scrum team when it should have been a matter of weeks.

Other times you have members of your team who are whiny, entitled, and unable to follow directions.  The project management tool is too complex.  People are not returning phone calls and they can’t get work done on time because they won’t work more than forty hours.  When you attempt to coach these individuals they have an alibi for their behavior and ignore your direction.  These are people who are not good enough to keep and they too good fire.  You are going to spend most of your time working with these individuals.

Sometimes, I have to let down the mask of command and let the team know that I am sick, tired or angry, otherwise it will come out in a spasm of unprofessional behavior.  I am constantly on guard of mansplaining to a co-worker.  Sometimes it gets to the point where I have to say, “I am very angry with you and in order to be professional with you I have to walk away and cool off.”  It isn’t pretty, but for me it is necessary if I am going to do my job properly.

Sometimes I skip lunch with my team members so that I can collect my thoughts.  Other times, I leave the office to take a walk or go to the barber shop to try and improve my attitude.  The point is you cannot always be upbeat and inspirational every working day of your life.  You are allowed to have bad days.  This might explain why psychotherapists always have a professional therapist to speak with.  Dealing with all that mental illness and human suffering takes an emotional toll and they need to speak with somebody who understands.  I wish there was a service like that for scrum masters.

So don’t worry.  You are allowed to have a bad day.  What you are not allowed to have is that bad day effecting your long term effectiveness or your team.  Take time out to unwind and de-stress.  Walk away from situations which trigger anger and remember that the scrum team needs you in order to be successful.

Until next time.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Hero's journey is no substitute for a product

A hero's journey is not a substitute for a product.
Each entrepreneur goes through a sort of hero’s journey.  If they are lucky, once that journey is finished they will emerge out of the other side stronger, wiser, and accomplishing something amazing.  It is no secret the technology world uses the language of science fiction and fantasy.  That is why a company which becomes extremely profitable it is called a unicorn.  As an agilest and entrepreneur, I convince myself that I am lucky and smart enough to aspire to this status.  It is the story I tell myself.  In the dark moments, it is what keeps me going.  This week, I want to talk about when story telling crosses the shadowy line from inspiration to deception.

Carl Jung, one of the founders of psychoanalysis, articulated the idea the human species has a “collective unconsciousness.”  This collective unconsciousness is the common characters or myths humans use to describe themselves.  The collective unconsciousness also describes what the human species aspires to become.

Joseph Campbell then built on Jung’s work in 1948 with his book, “The Hero with A Thousand Faces,” which talks about the similarities between the mythologies of western and tribal cultures.  Roman Gods were compared with the traditions of Native Americans and Australian Aborigines.  The similarities were too hard to ignore.  We had academic proof that the human species has a common story telling tradition.

Now that this knowledge was out in the open it did not take long for others to exploit it.  One of them was a University of Southern California graduate, who just has a hit film entitled “American Graffiti.”  The other was a technology entrepreneur who cultivated the image of a mystic shaman while he sold music players and later phones.

To be successful, a company needed a story and a heroic figure to pitch that story to the media and client.  It was a way of cutting through the clutter and getting the message out.  That lesson was not lost on Elizabeth Holms who dropped out of Stanford to found her company Theranos.   She created an image which was a frittata of Hitchcock’s icy blond, Steve Jobs techno shaman, and the elegant intelligence of Meryl Streep.  Her story was simple, she was going to change the world making blood testing affordable and less invasive.  She was smart enough and stubborn enough to found a company and make it happen.

The technology press swallowed the story hook, line and sinker.  Soon she was featured in press write ups, on television promoting her company, and receiving millions of dollars in venture capital.  I will not go into the details of Theranos and the fraud they committed.  Vanity Fair Magazine has already done an outstanding job on that front.  Suffice to say, Elizabeth Holms had a good story to sell but didn’t have a product.  Her blood testing tool was nothing but fantasy.

The lesson here is that every story should have a grounding in reality.  You cannot change the world with your products if your products do not work.  The rumpled engineers have to build something before the myth makers in sales and marketing come along.  Telegenic good looks and a story are not a substitute for business acumen and a product.

Anyone who grew up during the stupid and giddy time of the bubble should have known how this story was going to end.  They chose to ignore it and suspend disbelief because the story was good.  Instead of a hero’s journey, what the public got was a true crime story of fraud and greed.
It is a sobering lesson for an entrepreneur and consumer.  I hope that we are smart enough to recognize it before it happens again.

Until next time.