Monday, October 26, 2015

Some things every scrum master should say.

A scrum master should be like Gimli
As a scrum master, it is easy to get enveloped in gloom and doom.  You are removing impediments, trying to change the corporate culture and learning to work with people who think you are crazy.  Sometimes, I think that jousting with wind mills might be an easier line of work.  This week I want to talk about a few simple things you can say which will make being a scrum master a little easier.

Why Not?  

Many times a software developer will say something can’t be done.  It is your job to say, “Why not?”  Challenge people to defend why something can’t be done.  If they say it is process then ask them what the process is.  If they say they have not worked with a technology before send them to training.  If they are not getting cooperation from a product owner then it is up to you to escalate it to upper management to get that situation corrected.

More often you will get to the bottom of a deeper problem. For instance, someone said that we could not make improvements to software because the database was using outdated technology.  This spawned an entire project as upper management was alerted to the problem and decided to allow the team to fix it.  It took over ten months but now that development team is working with an up to date database.  The business is thrilled because the software is working ten times faster.  Upper management is happy because a series of customer complaints was eliminated and the developers are happy because we cleaned up a pile of technical debt.

Let’s try it out.

Software engineers love to argue.  They argue about technology.  They argue about politics and they love to argue about pop culture.  This means that most of your time with the developers is going to be spent listening and adjudicating arguments.  At this point of the day you are supposed to say, “Why don’t we try it out.”

Instead of arguing about technical issue, conduct an experiment and compare the results side by side.  We are software engineers, we should act like engineers from time to time.  Compare third party controls with each other.  Marissa Mayer when she was at Google famously ran fifty a/b tests to determine which color blue generated more click-thrus for an ad.  Microsoft is constantly testing new formats and ways to try and improve its product.  Even, Chevy is conducts testing to find out how it can improve its automobiles.

Experimentation is necessary and important as software developer.  You need to try new ways of doing things and try out new ideas.  Otherwise, you will become intellectually stagnant and become eclipsed but others who are willing to grow and develop.

What are we waiting for?!

Many people are afraid to take initiative.  The reason why is that they have been discouraged from doing so since grade school.  Too many people have been trained to ask for permission instead of doing what is right.  This type of conformity used to work but now it is an obstacle to meeting customer needs.  So when action is necessary, ask “What are we waiting for?!”

Asking this question provides a sense of urgency to the situation.  In addition, it helps the team outline obstacles and challenges early.  This way when development gets under way the team already has some mental preparation for what they need to do.

This isn’t an exhaustive list but try these phrases out and see if they help inspire your team and clear up conflict.

Until next time.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Fighting the Corporate Immune System.

The game of business can be crooked.
One of the most interesting things to come out of biology over the last century has been something known as the Gaia hypothesis.  The theory says that living things interact with non-living things in such a way that a whole ecosystem behaves like a living organism.  It has a lot of criticism in the scientific community and if correct could upset our ideas of natural selection. What makes it appealing to most people is that it conforms with our notions of belonging to an organic whole of life having a purpose on the planet.

If you could apply the Gaia hypothesis to an entire planet in theory you could narrow the focus to a work place.  This week, I want to talk about the immune systems that organizations develop when you are trying to lead change.  I stand by my assertion that the modern corporation is the last vestige of feudalism in contemporary society.  Notions of human dignity, intellectual growth, and making a difference are quickly subsumed by the petty power games of executives, the demands of shareholders, and the peer pressure of the others who share your cubical space.

This is a challenge for agile professionals because continuous improvement and accountability are major threats to executives who see their command and control structures threatened by people in taupe blazers.  The modern business has four major defense mechanisms.

Quid Pro Quo Behavior – 

This phrase means tit for tat.  It is often used during sexual harassment training to describe a sexual favor being traded for bit of career advancement.  For the agilest, this means that people in the organization do favors for each other and in doing so create a currency.  This currency is bartered around the organization and it used to get work done and cover up malfeasance or laziness.  As long as the Quid Pro Quo behavior is not discussed or exposed it will continue.

Social Networks – 

Spending time with people develops bonds.  Friendships with develop and they become a kind of armor against people who want to change things.  A project manager with a close friendship with a department head can get away with plenty of bad behavior to subordinates.  The relationship cultivated will trump the duty of the department head to hold that individual accountable.  So pointing out the misconduct is really threatening your credibility as a person to that department head.

Not invented here – 

Plenty of organizations consider their processes to be unique to their businesses, so anyone who suggests that accounting behaves the same way regardless of the product produced will be treated like a heretic.  Worse these people might be treated like someone “…who isn’t being a team player.”  To suggest that methods of doing things have been tested and true in other organizations, is undermining the uniqueness and authority of the organization you work with.  The change agent will be cut off and eventually removed.

Tenure –

In some organizations the only way to get ahead is to stick around and put up with drivel until someone retires and you are promoted in that person’s place.  What this does is encourage group think and lack of risk taking because the way you move up the organization ladder is to avoid calling attention to yourself.  Thus, the least innovative, curious and creative people make decisions.  It is the reward of the bland and boring.

So this week think about these four pieces of an organization’s immune system and how as a change agent you can work around them.

Until next time.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Drivel in Your Office

It looks cute and adorable but the by-product
of a bull and grass might be cluttering up your office. 
It is good to be back on the blogosphere.  I took a week off because a combination of personal and professional pressures made it hard to get anything done.  I have been finding it difficult to do any writing of a meaningful nature.  This week, I want to talk about the little things that add up and make you miserable in the office.

One of the common things office workers describe in great detail is called the spiral of rage.  In short, little annoyances pile up which are outside your control.  An office printer low on ink, combined with no coffee at the coffee pot, an irritating co-worker and unrealistic deadline pressure combine into an explosive and combustible mixture where you are a helpless passenger in your angry body.  We tend to trivialize these emotions and call them first world problems but to people in the cubical near you they are very real.

These problems impact productivity and the happiness of the people in the office because they illustrate the lack of control, empowerment, and authority they have earning a living.  They can’t pick up a phone and ask for help because there are too many layers of corporate bureaucracy between them and the person that can fix the problem.  What makes this more maddening is that the person who can fix the problem is a few desks down but is powerless to help without an e-mail from someone at the corporate office.

I call these situations “drivel” because it sounds sophisticated and it is more professional than the term my father uses for the by-product of grass and a bull.  In Harry G. Frankfurt’s essay “On BullS#%t”, he says that “drivel” is not lying but rather the use of language to obscure.  The contemporary office is filled with “drivel” and it is up to us as scrum masters to deal with it so our people can concentrate on work.

I find that most “drivel” is caused by the toxic mix of lack of authority and the devious application of authority by others.  For instance, that co-worker who can’t help fix the problem is overworked with numerous requests so they use the e-mail from corporate as an excuse not to help.  That person may also use that alibi to spend some time looking up train sets online or day-trading stocks.  The situation makes you feel equally powerless to do your job.

Another situation comes to mind when I was an entry level programmer at ServiceMaster.  Robert Pollard, the CEO, had just asked the office to go to business casual.  He still wore a bow tie to work.  Many of the executives continued to ware dress shirts and bow ties.  When promotions were announced, the executives who wore bow ties were advanced over those who did not.  It was a sick game of copy-cat but the message was loud and clear.  If you wanted to advance in the organization you needed to ware something other than business casual.

So “drivel” instead of shipping product guides your business.  It is aggravating but it is something that every scrum master needs to deal with and I am looking forward to hearing from other scrum masters about how you deal with it.

Until next time.