Monday, July 26, 2021

Find the Right People to Begin Your Agile Journey

I spent time away from work to be with family on the Alabama coast, and I am glad to be back.  Taking time away from projects is a healthy way to recharge and discover new perspectives mentally.  Unfortunately, it creates a backlog of work that you need to sift through when you return to the office.  While I was sorting through my e-mail to achieve the elusive inbox zero, it occurred to me agile is becoming more mainstream.   

When I joined the reformation, 2009, it was composed of misfits and developers who saw the old way of doing things as needing significant change.  Today, I talk with executives who ‘want’ agile.  The secret of agile being a better way to manage complicated projects like software development is now public knowledge.  As this information spreads, business leadership struggles to find people who can make it happen within their organizations.  Today, I will discuss the struggle to find good and great agile professionals. 

Speaking from my own experience, I had the zeal of a newly converted person and still look back at my embrace of agile as my “road to Damascus” moment. Early converts to agile and scrum were enthusiastic. We gained experience working as scrum masters, product owners, and developers.  Now, we are looking for the next steps in our career training and leading others to be agile.  

For business leaders new to agile, people in my cohort of agile practitioners are a large pool of labor, but the front-line scrum masters and product owners are scarce. The challenge is how do you find people to fill those roles. Often they have to train people internally or hire outsiders at a premium.  The challenge is how do you find good people to fill those roles.  

The first thing you must do is take an unflinching look at the organization’s culture.  Is conformity valued over results or delivery?  If it is, it will be hard finding internal scrum masters or software developers.  Agile professionals are iconoclastic and have an entrepreneurial streak.  Suppose the organization is crushing these traits out of the workforce. In that case, they will not spontaneously come to life because you rename a project manager or business analyst a scrum master after a two-day training course.  

Like people who resolve to lose weight or quit drinking, an organization needs to take small and concrete steps to transform.  The agile wannabe leaders must find scrum masters from outside the firm willing to buck the organizational status quo to get things done.  It also means abandoning micromanagement, rewarding people willing to question established ways of doing things, and creating psychological safety so people can try new things and make mistakes.  These are not easy things to do and could take years to complete successfully.  

Where leaders have an advantage is recruiting product owners.  There are plenty of people inside your organization with business knowledge and tenure.  They are the people who know all the secrets in the organization, and they make perfect material for craft product owners. Before you send them off to training, make sure they are empowered to set priorities and say 'no' to others in the organization.  Finally, make sure the new product owners are doing the job full-time. Product Ownership requires undivided attention to write stories, communicate with customers, and measure value delivered to the organization.  If you expect them to handle accounts receivable while acting as a product owner for the new accounting system, you deserve failure.  Pair these people up with an experienced scrum master or coach, and you have a recipe for success.  

Finally, look for people who are stoic and realistic.  The contemporary business world produces toxic people; either they are so optimistic it is alienating or so hostile they act like cancer on their work. Find people who are willing to look at a negative situation and say, “Wow, this is broken, might as well get started and fix it.”  If you find people like this and place them in positions of responsibility, your ability to become agile has a reasonable chance of success.  In the words of agile coach Michael de la Maza, “There are no solutions, just countermeasures.” Find people willing to implement those countermeasures.  

Finding good talent will be a significant challenge as we attempt to rebuild the global economy in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Agile is not something you can buy off the shelf and magically implement at your organization.  It will require organizational change, people willing to take risks, and finally, a commitment to being uncomfortable and hold oneself accountable.   

Agile is not easy, and your first step on your journey is acknowledging that you need the right people to help you make the trip successfully. 

Until next time. 

Monday, July 12, 2021

The known-known of Donald Rumsfeld and agility

I took some time away from the blog to be with family and friends during the American Independence celebration.  Unlike George Packer's stereotyping of the professionals like myself, I am intensely patriotic, which made it pleasant to watch fireworks and listen to a marching band.  I encourage people to take time off.  It allowed people to set work aside and concentrate on the family and friends we neglect during the workweek.  While I was away, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld died.  His passing made me want to reflect on his leadership style and what that means for the people left behind.  

I'm not particularly eager to write about politics on this blog.  There are better voices about the subject on both the liberal and conservative end of the spectrum.  I also feel that if I am going to contribute to the conversation of making life better for others, I feel that concentrating on project management, agile, and business culture are areas where I can provide meaningful insight. I used Rumsfeld and his quotation about ambiguity and uncertainty to discuss what scrum masters should be looking for when they join an organization.  You can read the original post here.  

Now that Rumsfield is gone, it is time to take a serious look at his leadership style.  Secretary Rumsfeld is a formidable person; he graduated from an Ivy League institution, completed a Navy ROTC scholarship, and was a member of the house of representatives for three terms.  You do not accomplish those things unless you are intelligent and rugged.  I will also point out Rumsfeld is a fellow Eagle Scout.  

One thing that stuck out for me when I review his biography, he was a naval aviator and did not see any combat while he was flying.  He understood the reality of being a naval officer but never had shots fired at him by a communist in a Mig.  He also never commanded sailors at sea.  In most areas of his life, he had tremendous authority with little responsibility for the outcomes.  It is a crucial hallmark of his life in public service and private business.  It transformed him into an individual with tremendous arrogance and a shallow understanding of things unrelated to his advancement.

It drove Rumsfeld to fits of anger when asked about his motivations or influences.  Someone could not question him because he assumed he was always right.  Soon, Rumsfeld was surrounded by people who could not say no because their careers depended on making the boss happy.  It created a bubble where regular inspection and adaptation to changing circumstances became impossible.  Numerous generals risked their careers to point out flaws or nuance to Rumsfeld's decisions.  One general, Eric Shinseki, was relieved of duty when he pointed out the occupation of Iraq would take more soldiers than the ones involved in the actual invasion.  

The most prominent example of Rumsfeld's leadership style is the Freedom-class Littoral Combat Ship or LCS.  The U.S. Navy requires large crews of specialists to operate their combat ships.  Professions diverse as plumbers, mechanics, and fuel technicians keep the Navy afloat. Vessels have specialization with some sweeping for mines. Others are missile cruisers designed to shoot down enemy aircraft, and aircraft carriers are floating airports that could project American power anywhere in the world.  It is expensive in both people and money to operate a giant navy.  The LCS would work with a fraction of the crew, hi-tech computer systems, and a modular hull which allows the ship to be reconfigured in port depending on its mission.  It was the brainchild of Rumsfeld.

It became apparent the LCS was a bad idea.  Crew members would shift from cooking meals to operating weapons.  The goal was to allow the U.S. to have a bigger military punch with fewer sailors and ships.  The reality of the situation was a mess.  Since none of the sailors assigned to an LCS had engineering experience, no one checked the engines for oil levels or seawater contamination.  The modular system never worked in practice, and LCS ships spent more time in port than at sea.  Finally, the vessels broke down when on duty and were towed to port because no one on the boat could do repairs at sea.  The Navy learned plenty of lessons about the LCS; they were reluctant to act on those lessons because it was Rumsfeld's idea, and even though he was gone from the department of defense, his shadow loomed large over the project.  Currently, the U.S. Navy is planning to retire the LCS Freedom-class, considering the program a failure.  

Based on his biography and papers, Rumsfeld comes off as a traditional leader who never wanted to hear bad news and expected his ideas to be implemented magically by the people he was supposed to serve.  People who were not obedient to Rumsfeld and his ego would be swept aside as he moved forward with stubborn persistence.  It is the mindset of a naval aviator who never had someone try and shoot him down.  The entitlement and arrogance are clear to see.  

Toward the end of his life, Rumsfeld published his "rules" for successful leadership.  If you followed his process, you would achieve greatness.  The funny thing about technology and reality is it humbles your greatest ambitions.  I doubt he ever learned that lesson, and it is up to coaches and scrum masters to remind leadership not to follow Rumsfeld's example.  

Until next time.

Monday, June 28, 2021

Don't Estimate Spikes

One of the principal values of agile is individuals and interactions over processes and tools.  Each organization is different, so how they do agile is going to vary.  Coaches should be sensitive to this reality.  Unfortunately, as people learn how to practice agile at an organization, they often let old biases and ways of doing things obscure how they continuously improve.  It is at this point a coach steps in points out they are doing something wrong. So today, I am taking some time to correct a gross misunderstanding.  

Earlier this year, I wrote about a particular type of product backlog item known as a spike.  It is a helpful way to plan work where the team is uncertain of how to proceed.  A manager instructed a colleague and his team to provide estimates for spikes during sprint planning.  When I learned about this, my danger sense started throbbing like an infected paper cut.  A spike is not estimated.  People who ask for estimation on spikes are misunderstanding their purpose.  

A spike allows the development team to perform research and analysis.  If they do the job appropriately, at the end of the sprint, they will have a prototype, code which is proof of concept, or more user stories that they can correctly estimate.  The team is learning how to do something; to ask them when they are going to know it is foolish.  Imagine a high school teacher demanding a student estimate how long it will take to learn how to perform equations with two variables when they do not understand what they need. As a result, the student feels pressured and resistant to learning.  Software developers will do the same, or they will give the manage lip service to make them go away.  

I understand why some managers want estimates for everything.  These managers do not know any better and hate dealing with uncertainty.  It is a direct by-product of traditional project management training.  Waterfall project management depended on people knowing how long it would take to perform a task. For example, a concrete slab can be poured and cure in 72 hours.  If a project required four concrete slabs, then the math is four times 72 or 288 hours.  Thus, a project manager could estimate it would take twelve business days to get the concrete finished for the project.  

The approach does not work for creative activities like software development, marketing, or business processes.  All of these activities have too much ambiguity and lack easy answers.  Asking someone to guess how much it will take to do something they have never done before is insensitive. These managers desire to have control over a situation they have little understanding or influence over the outcome.  A manager is asking for believable fiction rather than the messy reality we exist.  

Let me repeat, do not estimate a spike.  It does not add value to the customer.  The development team does not know if they can solve the problem, and management will treat the estimate like a quotation instead of fiction.  

People wanting to find some predictability for the team can choose a different approach.  Instead of asking the team to estimate a spike, count the number of spikes in a sprint. For example, suppose a team completes forty story points in a sprint; when they spike the sprint, they only complete thirty points.  Thus, a manager can deduce the spike took up ten points of intellectual capacity from the team.  People who use a “no estimates” approach can subtract the number of spikes in a sprint from the number of stories attempted.  Both methods to spikes concentrate on problem-solving instead of providing estimates with dubious value.  

Leading a large project is challenging on the best days, so I understand why managers want to estimate spikes. Still, it is not going to provide value to the customer, and it is going to generated meaningless data, which is going to hurt decision making. Moreover, it is more painful than an infected paper cut. 

Until next time. 


Monday, June 21, 2021

Integrity and Agile make a difference.

Being a coach and scrum master is one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.  I have worked with many great people, and I had received plenty of support from total strangers when life at the office was painful.  We are a diverse and unruly bunch of misfits who think we can change the business world one project at a time.  The last eleven years since I discovered agile changed me for the better and helped me find a purpose.  We talk about plenty of topics in agile: from servant leadership, being authentic to how to write a good user story. Still, we don’t talk about personal integrity and why it is so essential for the success of the agile reformation.  I want to correct that oversight.  

The author C.S. Lewis said, “Integrity is doing the right thing when no one is watching. “  It is a strange concept in business because we judge people on how they impress their superiors or how much revenue they generate in an amoral world which is concerned about profit; notions like character and integrity get lost in the daily hustle.  

What gets missed in the conversation about business and amorality is that to lead others effectively, business people must have a type of personal integrity that makes others want to follow them.  Leaders do not lead because they have a title or authority.  A person becomes a leader because others connect with them and wish to follow.  The secret sauce to leadership is personal and professional integrity.  

Borrowing from C.S. Lewis, I define integrity as a code of conduct you follow in public and private spheres.  You treat others with respect at the office and home.  Someone with integrity will never ask someone to do something they would not do themselves.  When your staff is working late, you are with them, providing moral support.  It is not an easy way to conduct your life, but it is fulfilling.  

People with integrity win the respect of others and the hatred of those who are lacking.  A person with integrity acts as an example for others to follow.  When they make a promise, they keep it.  Those with integrity move through the world with a quiet poise that others will notice and does not require constant self-promotion.  

Having integrity saves careers.  After a business meeting, select scrum masters in the organization were not performing their duties and billing their hours to the firm.  Within a week, these scofflaws were gone, and the remaining people granted more influence in the organization.  People see who is doing the work and who is skating by on good looks and charm.  When times are tough, people with integrity are those others want around.  

Angela Dugan, the Chief People Officer at Polaris Solutions, said at an after-hours meeting, “Do your job the best you can and let them fire you if they have a problem with that.”  It is a bit of wisdom that has remained with me during my career and the best definition of Integrity I can find in the business.  Imagine if every business person conducted themselves in that manner and how much better it would be.  It is a lofty goal and one I hope others with integrity will pursue with me. 

Until next time. 


Monday, June 14, 2021

Remembering Larry Blankenship

I have been part of agile reformation since 2009.  I evolved from a voice in the wilderness to part of a growing cohort of professionals who make the world of work better. Unfortunately, this week our tribe got a little smaller.  Larry Blankenship died from a heart attack this week. I am feeling compelled to honor the man and his work.  

Larry, like many of us, came to the agile reformation as a frustrated technology professional.  Projects were long, painful slogs, which ran over budget and demanded superhuman efforts. So naturally, when someone suggested a better way, people like Larry gravitated toward it.  He preached a common-sense approach to agile and development.  He was mid-western friendly with deep insight into engineering and human nature.  You could count on him for some humor and a subtle jab if you started acting smug.  

He represents a common theme among the people I know online and in-person related to the agile reformation.  Each of us has a deep devotion to making work feel less like drudgery and more like a vocation.  We are intelligent people who have discovered that many problems in technology are not technology problems but human issues which need addressing.  

Larry epitomized that mindset with wisdom, kindness, and a wry sense of humor.  The agile community is going to be less interesting without him.  Fortunately, more people are coming to join and carry his memory forward.  

Goodbye Larry, we will miss you.

Monday, June 7, 2021

SAFe is More Agile Than You Think

People who work in the agile world have two common characteristics.  The first is we are deeply committed to making work more sustainable, satisfying, and sane.  We also have strong opinions about how to make work better.  Like any other growing movement, you have a few splits between various camps about multiple practices.  I have spoken about the gulf between the no-estimates crowd and other agilists.  I also pointed out that the agile community often ignores the agile manifesto's admonition to put individuals and interactions over processes and tools.  Today, I will step into the debate between those who hate Scaled Agile Framework or SAFe and those who are more nuanced. 

Background –

I was exposed to SAFe when I attended training with Andrew Keener in 2017.  Agile worked on small to medium-sized projects, but a big challenge was getting it to work on a considerable scale.  Projects with thousands of developers and collaboration between numerous specialties, including hardware, mainframe, and legacy data systems, did not fit neatly into either scrum or kanban.  SAFe provided the answer with two key innovations.  

The first was the concept of a release train which made it possible to take numerous agile teams and coordinate them. Groups part of the same "train" would inspect and adapt merging code and sanding off the rough edges to create working solutions.  The other innovation was called product increment planning or P.I planning.  P.I planning is a series of meetings where the product owners and scrum masters would collaborate to eliminate dependencies and plan.  To coordinate these activities, SAFe created three new positions; a release train engineer, a program manager, and a software architect.  SAFe also provided a means for executives, and the rest of the organization to collaborate with release trains without interfering with the work.  

Backlash –

As SAFe grew in popularity, it spawned a backlash in the agile community.  Soon, SAFe had a reputation in agile circles similar to Nickelback in rock music circles.  The cool kids did not think it was good that this music and agile scaling technique became popular.  It spawned a backlash.  The web contains plenty of blogs and Twitter threads filled with earnest and lazy criticism of SAFe.

The best article about the criticism came from Gianpaolo Baglione, who pointed out that most of the criticism of SAFe fell into ten familiar categories.  I recommend you give it a read.  Many of the lazy arguments against SAFe are personal attacks on its authors or pointing out that it creates unnecessary layers of bureaucracy.  I have heard many of these arguments firsthand, and I want to acknowledge the more credible criticisms versus the lazy ones.  

Nuance –

I believe SAFe is an imperfect solution to the real problem of scaling software projects.  Being unable to deliver large software solutions hampered the Affordable Care Act's implementation and had deadly consequences for Boeing.  It provides a valuable starting point for managing massive projects.  I believe SAFe has three principal shortcomings; customer focus, poor leadership, and the P.I. sprint.

The agile manifesto says that customer collaboration is superior to contract negotiation.  If you look at the infographic on the SAFe website, it is tough to find the customer and relate them to the release trains.  I also notice that many conversations on agile teams are focused on meeting the goals of the release train rather than the customer.  I think more emphasis should be on the customer instead of less.  We should adopt the same attitude toward the customer which NASA did during the Apollo program.  Everyone, including the janitor who cleaned the bathrooms, said they were working on putting people on the moon.  When they crop up, conflicts should center around how the customer would be affected instead of personal agendas.  Once the focus is back on the customer, most agendas fall away.  

Next, we need to expose poor leaders within organizations and hold them accountable.  Instead of credible action, people who provide lip service are corrupt in many institutions, and SAFe is just as susceptible.  I remember being told by a Vice President that I could not discuss our challenges with DevOps with other departments because he did not want the "dirty laundry" of I.T. exposed to other groups.  I took a vow of silence instead of being transparent with others.  I left the company, but the V.P. still has his job, and the company filed for bankruptcy and laid off half of its people.  I consider this poor leadership and lack of transparency to be a factor in the companies failure.  Agile and SAFe have numerous feedback loops to fight poor leadership, but it requires people to set aside the status quo and commit themselves to something greater than themselves.  SAFe is nominally part of the Agile reformation, and so it is necessary to inspect and adapt everything in the organization to make things better, especially leadership.  

Finally, SAFe has what is called a P.I. iteration.  While leadership, scrum masters, and product owners prepare for the next increment during product increment planning, the development team coordinates to make sure code is ready for release.  It is supposed to be a training and development period.  In reality, the P.I. iteration is a frantic rush to release with plenty of "crunch time" and late nights making sure everything works.  SAFe must recognize that the development cohort must embrace software artisanship and DevOps if hundreds and thousands of people work on a project.  Otherwise, P.I. week is nothing more than a glorified hardening sprint, a severe anti-pattern in agile.

Conclusion –

The use of SAFe as a scaling method in business is imperfect.  It is up to people like me to help make SAFe behave more responsive and agile.  Let us start from the agile manifesto to make sure everyone is practicing the values and principles of agile.  SAFe needs more customer focus, and poor leadership needs exposure as part of the inspection and adaption process.  Finally, SAFe needs to do a better job embracing DevOps and software artisanship.  

Even though I'm not too fond of Nickleback, I am still open enough to listen to a song when the situation requires.  Scaled Agile Framework is not Nickleback, and with the work of skilled coaches, it can be a better tool if we are honest about the framework's shortcomings.  

Until next time.


Monday, May 24, 2021

What sustainable pace looks like

I own my own home.  It is a fantastic privilege but comes with plenty of responsibility.  The most considerable responsibility I face is maintaining the property and making improvements to make the home more livable for my family.  This week, after weeks of permits and negotiations with my neighbors, I had a fence installed.  It looks great, but one of the additional benefits is the installation crew taught me a valuable lesson about agile and sustainable pace.  

The principles of agile emphasize development should be sustainable.  Unfortunately, no one can agree on what a sustainable pace looks like in real life.  Business people often think technology is magic and created overnight.  Engineers and developers know the truth; software development takes time, concentration, and tremendous mental energy.  So when the principles of agile discuss sustainable pace, what exactly do they mean?

One morning, I learned what sustainable pace looks like in practice.  A crew of four people comes to my house with over 250 feet of cedar fence.  The foreman reviewed the outline with me.  He laid out string to show me the perimeter, and with one final check with me, everything looked good, and he began installing my fence.  I immediately noticed something about the crew; they did not have a sense of urgency about what they did.  The team dug the post holes at what I thought was a leisurely pace.  Each crew member took a break to drink water, and when it was lunchtime, they all stopped what they were doing and took a full hour lunch.  

Over the day, my yard had the fence installed.  It looked great and met my definition of done.  No-fuss.  I understand installing a cedar fence is quite different from writing enterprise software, but the work crew taught me about sustainable pace.  Here is what I learned.

  • Take breaks – people get thirsty and need to rest; let them.
  • A steady pace is better than being rushed – It is less stressful and reduces mistakes.
  • Take lunch – The work will be there when you get back.
  • Double-check the work before starting – It never hurts to make sure you understand what you need to do.
  • Pay attention to quality -  The rest will take care of itself.  

More project managers should watch a fence installation crew work; they might finally understand what is meant by sustainable pace.

Until next time.