Monday, August 27, 2018

Talk to People Instead of E-Mailing Them!

Instead of sending an e-mail pick up the phone.
I have been a business professional for a long time.  I have been working in technology for two decades.  In that time, the world has changed radically for good and ill.  What has not changed is the time suck which is e-mail and how it is cancer for many organizations.

E-mail is as old as the internet.  Before the creation of the World Wide Web, the most common use of the internet was swapping files and sending e-mail.  Business organizations saw the utility of the application and used it as a means to create a way to cut down on the number of business memos.  What happened is the creation of a flurry of messages through companies as people used the tool to improve communication.  With the advent of e-mail and voice mail systems, managers hoped the worker bees in the cubicles would not ignore important information.  According to my experience, the cobra effect raised its venomous head.

The information did move more smoothly, but it created an incredible amount of noise which drowned out the necessary information. Instead of business goals; office gossip, invitations to lunch and memes began to clutter up inboxes.  The torrent of information became a tsunami as network systems were tuned to send SMTP messages.  Today, every file dropped into an FTP folder, or work item changed in JIRA or help desk ticket created generates an e-mail to provide you with a friendly reminder.  Today, a business professional has to act on hundreds and thousands of e-mails – daily.

The ocean of e-mail both trivial and critical is overwhelming.  It has created the inbox zero phenomena and a perfect storm of professional apathy.  All e-mail has the same relative importance, so it is easy to ignore messages equally.  Managers have used the folder routing features of Outlook and GMail to ignore inquiries and information from subordinates skillfully.  Help desk people with a particular form of sloth will ignore complaints for days.  The ability to use email as a tool of deflection seems, to me a credible reason why productivity has been relatively stagnant over the last decade.

What makes e-mail so insidious is that it is a written record of the conscious and unconscious mind of an organization.  An e-mail gives an employee an alibi creating the impression they spoke up about important issues even if management ignores that information.  Sexual harassment and gossip exist in the company e-mail database like an improvised explosive device waiting to dismember.  Finally, criminal and unethical behavior are spelled out for prosecutors and the journalists to expose.  It is why the e-mail database for Enron is still used by software companies to test e-mail products.  The criminal conduct and general idiocy of the Enron organization live forever.  Technology, human resources, and public relations professionals use the Enron e-mail database as a simulation of what might happen in an actual corporation.

To me, e-mail is not a tool for clear communication but a device for obfuscation.  It is the written equivalent of snowflakes coming together to create a blizzard of awfulness.  Individuals compensate with text messages sent between private phones, executives and other essential people having multiple phones to have conversations.  It is critical information being harder to share and keeping secrets for personal gain.  Finally, business professionals spend three to five hours each business day according to Forbes monitoring and authoring e-mails.  I think this is crazy.  Instead of helping customers, innovating the business or solving problems we are doing ticky-tacky work monitoring e-mail.

One of the agile principles says that face to face communication is preferable to other forms of interaction.  So my warning to any scrum master or agile coach is to pick up the damn phone, call people, and speak to them.  Get up from your desk and walk over and talk to people rather than hide in your office.  Use video conferences and insist that everyone turn on their camera so that we can read body language and know they are paying attention.  A lousy organization is not going to change if we insist on doing the same thing redundantly.  It is time to reconsider e-mail and how we use it.  It cannot hurt to try.

Until next time.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Product Owners deserve Healthy Ownership.

Spending quality time with Alex Sloley
I have been working as a scrum master for the last five years.  What I have discovered over that period of my practice as a coach and scrum master is that product ownership is the weak leg of the triad of Scrum roles.  We spend plenty of time making scrum masters and developers better, but we still struggle with the purpose of the product owner.  I suspect this is because as a former technical professionals scrum masters and developers speak a similar language.  Product ownership is different in experience and expectations.  It is why it is the weak leg because it is so radically different to slinging code.  It is why I want to talk about “healthy ownership” on my blog this week. 

The notion of “Healthy Ownership,” was constructed when I attended the Agile Coaches Retreat in London this summer.  I had just finished a contentious sprint planning session before getting on a plane to England where a product owner questioned the estimates of the development team.  It was a gross breach of the social compact of agile.  The product owner protested, “They did something similar last sprint, I thought they would be faster this sprint.” Typically, I do not want to drink bourbon at the office, but at that moment I was sorely tested. 

I brought this and other examples of bad behavior to the other coaches.  I pleaded with them for help. Others had similar challenges and solutions.  The truth was they did, but no one had come up with coaching techniques that would help them rectify the situation.  Like any other self-organizing group of individuals, we came up with a team to address this situation.  We had numerous people with different perspectives from former developers to project management professionals who were attempting to instill professional practices in their organizations. 

We had three goals: 1) open dialog between team members, 2) increased empathy between team members, and 3) collective ownership of outcomes.  It was not going to be easy.  We did discover that we could combine coaching techniques to gather information and come up with scenarios for common pain points.  From there we could collect data and try to inform and persuade others on how to approach situations.  It is not a script or prescriptive but more like a way to practice common coaching techniques with common problems on agile teams.  It is not perfect, and we are still forming approaches, but for the rookie coach or scrum master, it acts as a safety net.

Flash forward to the Agile 2018 conference, and I heard other people discuss their challenges in getting buy-in from product owners and developers.  It is why I am grateful for Alex Sloley and his discussion about transplanting the brains of product owners and scrum masters.  By shifting the roles of a scrum master and product owner, we get to “walk a mile in someone else’s moccasins.”  The product owner understands the challenges of the scrum master and developers while at the same time the developers and scrum master understand the challenges of the product owner.  It was a nice juxtaposition, and I will use the term “backlog coaching” in my practice for the rest of my career. 

So to me, “healthy ownership,” means putting yourself in another person’s situation and understanding the unique challenges they face.  It means that it may be necessary to do a “brain transplant” or less drastic measures for people to understand what is going on in the development process.  Product ownership is the weak leg of a scrum team, but it is because coaches and scrum masters do not pay enough attention to the role and how to make it better.  It is why I am going to be spending more time with my product owners and walking a few miles in their moccasins.  With a little luck, I will reduce the stress on my development teams and improve the performance of my product owners.

Until next time.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Looking back at Agile2018

Spending time with fellow
 speakers Michele Sliger and Erika Lenz
This year is a personal and professional adventure for me.  I journeyed to the Scrum Alliance coaches retreat in London.  Last week, I was a presenter at the Agile 2018 conference.  Each of these experiences has made me a better scrum master and agile coach.  Now, that I am back home and have a more stable schedule; I will be blogging on a more regular basis.  This week a few take-a-ways from the #Agile2018 conference.

Data and Metrics-

The Wednesday keynote was Troy Magennis who spoke passionately about data and agile.  He proposed that agile professionals find a better way to present data to others and that data should inform decision making rather than reinforcing existing prejudices. 

He also provided data showing notions of teams being smaller than nine people may be counterproductive in larger projects.   He pointed to studies where groups of eleven to nineteen people are less efficient by a fraction compared to seven to nine-person teams.  He then argued that fewer handoffs between teams would make up for this difference.  It was provocative, and I look forward to people testing out his thesis. 

Presenting for the first time. 
The conference featured numerous presentations on metrics and data in agile.  I believe the use of quantitive data rigor in project and business management is a good thing.  For the remainder of the conference, numerous sessions covered the use of data and metrics in Agile. 

Outcomes are better than output-

The Agile Alliance with its speakers unwittingly created a theme for this conference.  The idea was outcomes of real features and progress are more important than outputs of stories, unit tests or story points.  Countless presentations emphasized working code delivering real-world value.  My presentation about the Cobra Effect reflected this dynamic as well.  When we measure outputs, we get perverse incentives.  When we measure outcomes, we get a better perspective of performance. 

Facilitation and Radical Candor-

The life of an agile coach or scrum master is a life of responsibility without any authority.  It is paramount to successful organizational change coaches develop superhuman skills of persuasion and facilitation.  I attended several sessions on how to be more credible and persuasive.  Many of these sessions pull from the insights of Kim Scott, a former Google Executive, who authored the book, “Radical Candor."

I learned plenty of valuable lessons at #Agile2018, and I look forward to the next conference in 2019 in Washington D.C.  I better start working on my presentation outline. 

Until next time.