Stories, Story points and Velocity

This topic keeps appearing constantly in my current contexts, but also on LinkedIn. But why?

Below I’ll try to mention some possible reasons why this is happening. Although I’ll mention them separately maybe they are not fully separated – there might be some connection between them. In a way, I would like to emphasize that, in a certain moment and context, one predominates.So:

  1. The desire to learn about these (stories(1), story points(2), velocity(3)) :It might happen that someone might want to learn about these concepts because of her/his own discoveries/investigations/curiosity and trying to make a sense of the reality, which might be contradictory – though I have doubts that there are lot of people asking this without being influenced by the points I will specify bellow.
  2. Dominant thinking: now this is the trend. Try to speak with someone and do a planning without using the notion of story, story points and velocity. For example look at FDD, you can do this without those notions. In FDD, this is articulated in a different way. For Scrum actually these(stories, story points, velocity), as Alistair Cockburn rightly said, are barnacles(3) (look at Scrum Guide, but also Scrum Plop). Sometimes, it seems, is dangerous not to go with the dominant thinking, if applicable.
  3. Trainings : Here I do not speak about the trainings made by the best in the industry (by best I mean Uncle Bob, Jim Coplien, James Bach, Michael Bolton, Alistair Cockburn, Ron Jeffries, Ward Cunningham, Dave Snowden, etc. I could mention more, but you get the idea). I want to emphasize those trainings made by some people which only know some phrases and that’s it. That kind of people, that are not capable to express and teach their students the bounded applicability of those techniques – for them is best practice to follow and that’s it. So: bad trainings;
  4. Target(s) : I think this is the most dangerous reason. Is about the Goodhart’s law: ”Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes”(4). I am amazed of how many anomalies are generated by this. So, some people want to learn more, but they do not understand, I think, that those things((stories, story points, velocity)) are used in a perverted/wrong way, or maybe they understand, but they need an ammunition to attack the targets.
  5. Tools(jira, redmine) : There are tools which entice managers to ask for things because they can generate beautiful graphics with them. I would say that, in a way the tool (or bad manager who thinks only linearly) dictates how things gets done, not people. I think these kind of managers equate agility with these tools …, which is sad. Just think about aggressive/subtitle micro management or think about handling a project just by using estimations and nothing else or that desire for predictivity – well these tools offer “support” for this and many other things. So: bad using of tools.

Conclusion: If I would have had to give a short and fast answer, probably I would have said about the possibility of anomalous/pervert/not ok context. I’m well aware that is possible that I’m influenced by certain biases I have.


(1) Ron Jeffries, “Essential XP: Card, Conversation, Confirmation”, https://ronjeffries.com/xprog/articles/expcardconversationconfirmation/

(2) Ron Jeffries, Google group conversation about why story points were invented, https://groups.google.com/forum/#!msg/scrumalliance/ag8W8xtKQs8/4cOpyt8Jgr0J

(3) Martin Fowler, “XpVelocity” , https://martinfowler.com/bliki/XpVelocity.html

(4) Alistair Cockburn,“Core scrum, barnacles, rumors and hearsay, improved version”,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AuUadPoi35M

(5) Dave Snowden, “The Strathern variation”, http://cognitive-edge.com/blog/the-strathern-variation/

How to make people hate the idea of estimations

Once in awhile the topic of estimations pops out in my activity. I said once in awhile because I am thinking to a special kind of way to do estimations or better said how the idea of estimation is put on the scene in some contexts.  This topic I have had it in my mind for a long time, which became obvious again these days.

So:

1. Usually, when you ask people whether certain items can be made in a sprint ,people can say, maybe, also after some calibration, a clear answer like: “Yes, we think is ok for this sprint to do these” or “Yes, it makes sense to have those items for this sprint”. This means that although not explicitly, but implicitly, an estimation is being made.

Notes:

–  Let’s suppose that some unknowns were already clarified because of some spikes/investigations done a priori;

– “calibration” is an important word[1];

But, and maybe I am wrong,  the same people when asked in detail(hours/points in the sprint) they will not feel comfortable with the estimation and with the meeting(s), because of doing this. I think this happens also because humans are messy[2] and is ok.

What is not so ok, I think, is why to ask more specific estimation detail, for a sprint, when already the team said those things can be made in the sprint, and of course with the information they have for now is the maximum of work they can accept as a team?

There are some possible answers I can think of:

– maybe someone wants control in the sprint( maybe the managers of the manager of the project impose on him , or lack of trust, or outsourcing context where client  paying by day involuntary triggers this need or because he/she knows that the setup of the team is not ok(let’s say the competency of team members)).

– I saw how tools like Jira entice some managers to ask these things;

– they do not understand why sprints/iterations were created;

2. Then are those estimations when getting a project and it has to be finished in, let’s say, 6 months. And the estimations “must be ok, they must not be wrong”. So, we have an initial “must be ok” estimation. But then after 4 sprints again a new estimation is done – of course I imagine people joy to do that because the estimation wanted to be done, strangely, must be “ok”…

So that kind of project is being managed in a way by the “must be ok” estimations, if I can say so – just to make me clear: I am speaking about ( and I am influenced by Alicia Juarrero[3] ) using estimations as a placid background, like an equilibrium structure, like an indication of stability( small deviations around equilibrium).

Note: I am assuming that a project is not in an obvious state, it can be also in complex situations.

Conclusion:

Estimations – in a way or the other – we use them. We use them implicitly or explicitly or deduced and in various forms( relative, time, distributions…) and it makes sense as a concept.

I think that the estimations, more often, are being used by managers in a wrong way, for example like a pressure consciously/unconsciously/unknowingly. And this is actually the problem. Maybe this is happening because of the mechanistic way of their thinking or lack of knowledge or … They choose the wrong metaphor, they do not deal with a refinery/factory, but with an ecology.  Also, probably at least what I saw, most of them do not take a look at what psychology, neuroscience have to say about this and adapt their actions.

I do not think is ok to encourage the dichotomy ProEstimate and No Estimate, I think here is a continuum between them.


(1) Adrian Lander, “Linked In discussion”, https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:6426405267491164160

(2) Dave Snowden, “Humans are messy”, http://cognitive-edge.com/blog/humans-are-messy/

(3) Alicia Juarrero, “Safe-Fail, NOT Fail-Safe  ”, https://vimeo.com/95646156

Forming a team, an agile perspective

I’m seriously concerned about this topic because I see the disastrous effects of its bad handling every day.  It’s not enough to put some people together and ask them, usually in a perverse, detached and manipulative way, that no matter the difficulties encountered, they should make it work because this is what professionals do – in a way this is like an abdication of the job a manager should do rigorously. I know it’s hard, damn hard, I made my share of mistakes …

I wrote about this topic before.

But this time I would like to recall two important perspectives, from the agile world, that unfortunately seem to be ignored:

1. Early this year a nice interview(1) with Jerry Weinberg was published. In it, he described one method to form a team:

“…We put together teams. What I recommend is people put together their agile teams by what I call incremental consensus. You start with one person who you feel has the personal qualities. Stop emphasizing very soon with what I read about is people emphasizing: you got to have the most skilled coder and you can put all the best coders together and then you have an agile team. Now you find someone who has got these personal qualities: they know how to communicate , they’re willing to communicate, they’re willing to admit their mistakes and learn. And you start with that person. And you say: okay now among all the people we have available to us who would you like most to team up with to do a good job; you understand the agile principles. And they choose of course… it’s one person so it’s a consensus and the person has to want to be on it … Now you have two people. Now you say to them: okay now come to an agreement on who else you’d like to have. If you started with the right person the process goes on and they put together a team that really does well; and they take awhile to learn but they can learn the skills, technical skills, more easily than they can learn the personal skills, the people’s skills as we call them…”

In 2016, after a horrible month of solving some issues, with a delicate suite of products, I realized that this is the time when the core problem could be solved. It could be solved because the key persons were prepared to allow the kind of work I had in my mind for almost 2 years. In that terrible month, I have worked with some wonderful people to fix the problems. I knew that the kind of work I wanted to do needed special people. Even before I spoke with the management, I spoke with each of them separately. I told them what I had in mind and the persons I wanted to do the work with. I needed their green light regarding the work that needs to be done, their future colleagues and if they were willing to join the team. I left them time to reflect on all those things. In this time I talked with no one else. After several days we spoke again, separately, and each of them gave the green light. Then I spoke with management and it was hard…but I was determined, if one of them could not join the new setup, I would not take in charge that new project/product. I wanted from each of the future team members their consensus. And as Jerry Weinberg said, it was not only about the technical skills of these people, it was much much more. Please watch the Jerry Weinberg interview.

2. Scrum Plop(2) – I am amazed that so many Scrum people, from my circles, are not aware of this. It’s about patterns that show and help on how to implement Scrum.  If Scrum guide seems abstract and hard to be decoded, well these patterns help a lot in making sense on how to implement Scrum. There is a pattern called Stable Teams(3) which accurately articulates the problem and also gives a solution:

“…Keep teams stable and avoid shuffling people around between teams. Stable teams tend to get to know their capacity, which makes it possible for the business to have some predictability. Dedicate team members to a single team whenever possible. Members of Stable Teams get to know each other. The team members experience each other’s work style and learn how much work they can do together. A Stable Team grows in familiarity and consistency of meeting mutual expectations and starts developing a Community of Trust…. what is often forgotten when measuring a team’s velocity is that the only way that a team can get to know their velocity is by having the same team members over a longer period of time…”

Trust is a key/serious/important word. Trust takes time because is arising from people interactions over a certain period of time. You cannot create a roadmap or a checklist on how to build trust within a team.

Since I mentioned Scrum above, it is important to also mention 2 important related details about it:

– an important detail, also applicable to teams, is about competence(4)/skill/mastery/expertise. Although this is an aspect that is not explicitly specified in the Scrum guide, it is a sine qua non condition for Scrum to work;

– management plays an important role when forming the team. Not an easy thing to do. But after they’ve formed the team, they should trust them and let them accomplish their mission(5).

Conclusion:

Every time I think about this subject, I think about families. Look at families, at how delicate  things can get sometimes, because family members can’t get along with each other. And it’s not like this problem can be easily solved by a parent, for example, by just saying: “hey, you are brothers, you are supposed to get along”. Some will say, when speaking about team members, that it’s not about friends or family members. And I say “Exactly. It’s even harder and it’s not that easy to impose things”. So, I imagine that for some managers it’s easier to pretend that they don’t know things/techniques  on forming a team, and then use some fancy words and clichés to “solve it”, thus tossing the effort they should have done onto the shoulders of other people. But the reality has its own style to deny certain approaches/ideas/opinions.

What was a surprise for me is that it can be really really dangerous to desire having a Stable Team. The surprise was even bigger that the danger came from people which actually, at least declaratively, supports and promotes Scrum and agility.


(1) Jerry Weinberg, “Agile for Humans #26: Agile Impressions and Errors with Jerry Weinberg”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_AOoSnhE-8

(2) Scrum Pattern Community, Jim Coplien – Product Owner for the Scrum Patterns effort, http://www.scrumplop.org/

(3) Stable Teams Pattern, https://sites.google.com/a/scrumplop.org/published-patterns/product-organization-pattern-language/development-team/stable-teams

(4) Jim Coplien, “Ten things scrummers do wrong”, https://vimeo.com/42772592

(5) Alistair Cockburn, “Core scrum, barnacles, rumors and hearsay, improved version”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AuUadPoi35M

Crystal (Clear) – Part 3

This is the third part of this series and is about the seven properties of Crystal(1)(2) applied in our context narrated by one of the team members, Alexandra Vasile, so:

“After working in the context of this project I realized that for sure the context on which I worked before, which claimed to be agile/scrum, was out of track. They reversed individuals and interactions with processes and tools.

Our work was to create a tool which helped all the other teams. We needed to move fast, to respond prompt to the unplanned things that appeared, take care not to disturb the others work.

Crystal has the following seven properties. I will come across them and discuss each related to this specific situation:

  1. Frequent Delivery – our work was delivered everyday in the test platform, and was tested by us and by the other teams which used that code. Every month, our code was included in the production delivery. This helped us to have a quick feedback regarding our work and in case of problems we could respond fast. At the begining of the month we did not have the whole picture of what was going to be delivered, at the detail level, we only had the direction of the changes. In a way, problems which occurred on production helped us a lot because it aid more to rafinate our decisions, priorities and daily work. Almost each time a bug appeared everything stopped and we tried to fix it. There are rare the occasions when we postpone one bug for more than a month.
  1. Reflective Improvement – This thought exercise did not happened because a protocol was in place. If it was a protocol, for sure, I did not felt it. Is like common sense prevailed also here. It just happened without too much hassle. We stayed and reflected on 2 occasions: when a bug appeared in production or when the monthly release was done to production. Everytime a problem occurs, we all discussed, sometimes very nervous, tried to find a solution/way to improve and not to make the same mistake again.

If I think better and try to make associations with past work, we had dailys when we took the coffee, but for sure were not those kind of dailys were reporting was done.

  1. Osmotic Communication – It seems this was a critical point in our physical setup. In other occasions/projects although we were collocated actually it did not matter because conversation happened almost exclusively on Skype, so strange. The fact that we stayed in the same office, with the business expert, closed to each other helped us.  We communicated frequently between us, we knew what the others were doing. We didn’t need special meetings for that. We intervened when we heard a discussion between the other team members and shared our opinion/knowledge/piece of advice – we helped each other. This aids us a lot.

We had a Skype group shared with the client. We put on the Skype group, as a profile image, an italian police car and agents from DIA, for us it was a way to say “ok, no fooling around”.

  1. Personal Safety – We felt safe in the team. We didn’t had fear to make a mistake. Our team lead encouraged us a lot, he told us is ok if we also do make mistakes because we learn from that – who didn’t work, didn’t make mistakes. We helped each other, between us it wasn’t a competition. If someone made a mistake, nobody putted him/her on the wall, on contrary it was helped to find a solution. Another thing very important was that we trusted each other. That’s why it’s very important how the teams are build, because if you are in a team where you are not trusted this implies in a way that you don’t have trust in the other team members either. And when you don’t feel safe you will never do your best.
  1. Focus – The team was built specially for this project. It was a very important premise from the beginning that the persons involved will have to work full time on this subject, no part time work or partially involved. It was very important because the work needed to be done involved full concentration. We set from the beginning some premises and we all knew the final scope.
  1. Easy Access to Expert Users – The business expert, the one which envisioned the tool was with us. Also the members of the team knew the sub-parts of the product. When we had some unknowns we knew who were the persons to ask.
  1. Technical Environment with Automated Tests, Configuration Management, and Frequent Integration – Since almost most of our work involved repairing and fixing existing code we needed these changes on the test platform as soon as possible.Without knowing, the other teams by testing their product indirectly tested also our work.

Probably some will say the same things could have been done in other ways. What was nice is that we were able to see another unknown face of agile in this case was Crystal. Our scope was to move fast, to deliver quickly the work which was needed, because without this tool, which we made, they spend more than 90 days to have some things done, which now with the tool are ready in ~20  minutes.”


(1) Alistair Cockburn, “Crystal Clear Applied: The Seven Properties of Running an Agile Project”,  http://www.informit.com/articles/article.aspx?p=345009

(2) Alistair Cockburn, “Crystal Clear: A Human-Powered Methodology for Small Teams: A Human-Powered Methodology for Small Teams”, https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/0201699478

Crystal (Clear) – Part 2

In the previous post I tried to describe the why, in this second part I try to describe the context and some particulars.

The vision/direction

The vision of this project was borned because of a pain. Pain experienced by a lot of people trying to make the software work for a new certain type of client. People from all levels of the company were involved. The existing product we speak was formed by 3 big sub-products. This meant that integration between the 3 sub-products had to work. We knew about this problem for some time, but usually people react when there is a great need or a pain. So I waited for this occasion, all the other efforts being useless, to rise the idea that it can be solved and all this integration setup to take ~20 minutes.

The team formation

In those difficult moments, from the start, the right technical persons were being chosen to make the integration work for that new client. After a month of big presure the problem was solved and it was decided that we should make the project. I asked for those initial persons. I did not said: “Please give me one person from project A, another one from project B, and one from Project C”. When I spoke with the responsible for each of the sub-project, I asked them for the specific person. I emphasized the fact that I need those persons, by saying their full name, and that is not a coincidence that is about them. I wanted to show the importance of each of the person needed.

A team is not formed by choosing randomly/available/free people, not at all … is much more difficult.

Before going to speak regarding the possibility to have a new project I spoke which each of the persons which I wanted in the new team. For me it was clear that no other person would qualify, so the project would have been with them or not at all. I wanted to have their approval and permission. I have said to them no platitudes or pseudo-motivation stuff. I say this because otherwise I would have consider that I would tell bullshit and offend them and that is not an option for me. They agreed and so the work to form the team started.

It was not easy, but in the end, the desired team was formed: 5 persons. The respect between us, at least what I felt, was enormous. I realized again that once the right people are in place then we can concentrate on the nasty things from the outside. At least we knew that no problems would occur from inside and I was right. I am amazed of how much energy is lost on trying to solve internal problems just because the team is formed in a careless way, a lot of energy is lost and not on solving the real problem(s).

In all this a wonderful person from the client helped us a lot.

Strategy

We knew what we wanted to do grosso modo. We begun the discussions between us, in Crystal parlance I would say it was the  “Reflective Improvement”. There are many details which can be said regarding how we defined the strategy and documented it to offer vizibility, but one thing I remembered vividly is the technique named “Advocatus Diaboli”(1) which helped us a lot. We knew from the start that the colleague, playing the devil advocate, intention was not to hurt us, not at all. Actually he was more like the guardian angel and this from the moment when that pain begun.

Although we had the strategy, we knew surprises will occur, we realized from the beginning that we will meet those unknown unknowns(2).

Also we decided to use a different style of reporting to show our progress and we used the Parking Lots diagrams from FDD(Feature Driven Development) – we wanted to see better the forest from the trees and also to avoid possible anomalies with the current techniques involved with story points – a future blog post will be done regarding this.

Robustness vs Resilience(3)

We knew we couldn’t tackle an important subject and repair code without causing problems/bugs in production. There were too many instabilities we had to deal with. Even if a  problem would have occured in production, we knew we would have to solve it as soon as possible, to recover fast. This way of thinking helped us not being paralyzed/rigid in our approach. What I can say is that is strange when one team focus on resilience and all the others on robustness(actually was rigidity), still we did not gave up. On each occasion I had, I tried to emphasize the need to concentrate on resilience not on robustness.

The Seven Properties of Crystal(4)(5)

For me these properties were like constraints in the complex adaptive systems. But I let one of the team members to describe these properties in connection with the project, in the next post.


(1) “Devil’s advocate”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devil%27s_advocate

(2) Dave Snowden, “The Origins of Cynefin”, http://old.cognitive-edge.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/The-Origins-of-Cynefin-Cognitive-Edge.pdf

(3) Dave Snowden, “Risk and Resilience”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Hhu0ihG3kY

(4) Alistair Cockburn, “Crystal Clear Applied: The Seven Properties of Running an Agile Project”,  http://www.informit.com/articles/article.aspx?p=345009

(6) Alistair Cockburn, “Crystal Clear: A Human-Powered Methodology for Small Teams: A Human-Powered Methodology for Small Teams”, https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/0201699478

Crystal (Clear) – Part 1

Recently I saw a video from an agile conference(1). I have looked at the video because of two persons appearing in that video: Dave Snowden  and Alistair Cockburn. Dave Snowden is co-author of DSDM and Alistair Cockburn is creator of Crystal methodologies(2). In that agile meeting, where the term agile was coined(3), these 2 methodologies were represented also.

When looking at this video I noticed one remark, made by Alistair Cockburn, which made me sad, he said: “…….is like Crystal Clear, completely irrelevant…”. Is it irrelevant? For me and my team members surely was not. We have applied Crystal, recently, 2 times:

  • A project started at the end of 2016 and ended in February 2018;
  • A project lasted for 3 months at the beginning of 2017.

I noticed that is hard to use a way of working which is different than the dominant way of working, in this case Scrum – but I think this would have happened also if dominant methodology would have been something else,  because is about people, not methodologies. I noticed that some people, calling themselves Scrum Master or fully devoted to Scrum, if I can say so, were disturbed by this and I do not understand why. I say this because Scrum has its roots also in Toyota Production System, in this sense I try to imagine a great line manager  or a Kami-sama(4) who will avoid learning/investigating/exploring/experimenting something just because “that’s how things are”…

But let me tell you why Crystal proved useful to us:

-it helped us to respond promptly in a multi-ontologic(5) space → we had the properties ( frequent delivery; reflective improvement;  osmotic communication; personal safety;focus; easy access to expert users; technical environment with automated tests, configuration management, and frequent integration)  as guidance then techniques followed;

-It was like a cognitive activation that allowed us to be agile, but also to be pragmatic and solve the problems we had. And yes they, my team, realized they can be agile by other means;

-It helped us to face that volatility is needed ( well actually will appear unannounced)  sometimes in projects, although the trend -in my circles – is against volatility;

-it helped me to think at the granularity(5). I mean how things (techniques, events, formalities) combine. With Scrum, on how was applied and enforced upon on us, we saw we were like paralyzed ( all was very rigid like being strait-laced. What mattered was velocity and predictability. Things were done but without the knowledge of why. We had to put stuff in sprints because we had to fill in those sprints and a lot of energy was lost with that.We were trying to  solve something, but is not that we had clear list of the things to be done; it was about creativity, investigation, experimentation, observation. Yet we knew that at the end of each month things, important things, had to be delivered. Delivered, and as far as I was concerned without useless pressure and fully aware that those things will/might fail and they failed, and it was/should be ok to fail; but things went ok also because of those preceding failures among other things. A short answer would be that people respond to something  based on patterns of the recent past experiences, whether good or bad )

-I like to say that it also solved a sociological problem. In a way, Scrum is becoming ironized, unfortunately, especially Scrum Masters – as I said is about people and how prepared they are and even more their desire to be prepared. Members of my team have had very bad experiences with that kind of Scrum and begun to doubt the religiosity which surrounds it.

I was very proud, that in a monthly meeting, when a presentation was made regarding the ways of working, Crystal was there – in a list of 8 or 10 projects. I think 50 people saw the Crystal in that slide. And when I had the occasion I spoke about Crystal.

Those lines above were written when the big project was in danger of not “receiving the final acceptance”. I was calm because anyway our work was in production already, each month our work was delivered in production and things were ok. And if things were not ok we responded fast. Is important to make this note, because usually the description of something differs depending on the outcome – in this case the outcome was  rather a sad one. The lines above were reviewed by all the team members. And finally, things are ok, it seems.

Crystal is relevant for me, and it was for my team. Each time an intern is assigned to me I’ll take care they will know also about Alistair Cockburn, Jim Highsmith. So maybe Alistair Cockburn work is not lost, for me it matters – I know I am just one person but I am :).

In the next post I’ll detail a little bit the how.


(1) AgileByExample 2017: Discussion panel, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WTZlLBUo1gE

(2) Alistair Cockburn, “Crystal methodologies”, http://alistair.cockburn.us/Crystal+methodologies

(3) Manifesto for Agile Software Development, http://agilemanifesto.org/

(4) Craig Trudell,  Yuki Hagiwara,  Ma Jie,”Humans replacing robots herald Toyota’s vision of future”, http://www.livemint.com/Companies/B53nQRpNGDTrVMYrcD1RBK/Humans-replacing-robots-herald-Toyotas-vision-of-future.html

(5) Dave Snowden, “Multi-ontology sense making; a new simplicity in decision making“   http://cognitive-edge.com/articles/multi-ontology-sense-making-a-new-simplicity-in-decision-making/

(6) Dave Snowden, “Granularity”, http://cognitive-edge.com/blog/granularity/

Do Scrum Masters/Agile Coaches need a technical background? – Part 2

In the first part I gave a short answer to this question. I have also wrote here  and here  about the nature of the Scrum Master.

Now I’ll try to give the long answer:

A person asking this question lives in a certain context. In that context, certain events pop up, events that trigger this kind of question. Different answers might appear, answers that are based on premises. Sometimes, those premises are not made explicit, because not everything which is implicit can be made explicit.

For me, this question activated multiple dimensions in my mind: Scrum, Scrum Master, XP, XP Coach, technical background meaning, agile coach meaning, team maturity, processes/management, complexity, utopia/ideal. So:

– Scrum Master, as it is defined in the Scrum guide(1), doesn’t have any activities regarding technical stuff that need to be made. The SM has to take care of how Scrum is applied, and make sure it is made according to the Scrum guide, so no technical background is being mentioned;

– Scrum wants to be a more general purpose framework for developing (complex) products. For example, regarding software products, Scrum does not address anything regarding  technical aspects nor does it prohibit any such aspects – actually it borrowed a lot from XP;

– XP(Extreme Programming) came with the idea of a coach(2) first, even before the scrum master was defined(*). XP was designed especially for software development work. It contains specific technical activities connected in a special way. It’s not like one chooses a technical activity at the expense of another one;

– A coach in XP had to defend the process, but the process is quite different: the coach must help the team maintain the disciplines(pair programming, refactoring, metaphor, continuous integration…). This position would be a rotating one meaning that the coach needs to be someone who knows how to apply what he defends, not just by using words/encouragement/…;

– XP has the same non-technical “protocol” as Scrum;

– Maturity of the team: This is an important detail. Reality seems to give us lots of surprises, challenging ones. This means that an immature team can pose difficult challenges. If the team is mature enough then SM/Agile Coach is no longer needed or is only partially needed, so in the rest of the time, he/she can help other projects or do actual work in the same project;

– Agile Coach: This is, for me, a very abused title. I’m sure that there are damn good agile coaches out there, but most of the time, I only see fake/charlatans/unprepared/naive agile coaches. When I read Agile Coach, I thought of XP, because this role is explicitly mentioned there. Now I know that not everyone can be like the agile signatory guys, or like the grandfather of agile Jerry Weinberg, or like Allen Holub, or like Jim Coplien, … but they do raise the bar for a person calling himself/herself an agile coach. I cannot accept that an agile coach doesn’t know about the work of all the people who were there in Snowbird in 2001;

– Process, management: It seems that in management, after so many years of agile, there is a tendency to put process first and people second, when it should be the other way around( of course ontology matters, but what I see is that there is always a single and identical ontology approach). In Scrum, the role of a SM can be filled in by anyone, I say this having in mind that this role is not so restrictive/specific/targeted like for an XP Coach. I am so tired to see/hear this scenario: “As long as a person is able to speak about processes/platitudes/nonsense, but in a very well masked way, that person is good enough to be a SM. The discourse is not aligned with the aptitudes.” → unfortunately, because of this, SM became, at least in my circles, ridiculed.  I am very well aware that the problem is not Scrum but how it is applied. Maybe all this is deliberate, I mean why “sacrifice” a good developer, when some unskilled, but good with processes person can be put as SM/Agile Coach.

Moreover, SM are actually in management position, seen as PM – if this is ok or not is a different story, but it is happening;

– Complexity: XP and Scrum offer different conceptual boundaries. This means that also actions will differ.

– Technical: For me, initially, technical referred to the programming stuff beneath a software project. But, maybe, the “technical” word is actually about:

  • what SM/Agile Coach can do to help actively(within a specific task or story) the team in their work;
  • how to get the information directly via his/her skills;
  • special work without which things would not be ok, but which is very close and very important to programming, like testing(Rapid Software Testing).

This means “technical” might be translated as being aware of the technicalities of each discipline in delivering the needed work.

– Utopia/Ideal: There are too many discussions about the ideal situation, ignoring the crude reality/present. Maybe the focus/managing should be on the present, the situated present(3), and this might influence what a SM/Agile Coach should actually do, instead of doing just what is prescribed in some guides. If this means being proactive, go beyond what he/she knows, have initiative, try to understand the details of the work of his/her team, do some work on the project then why not…

Conclusion: What I have tried is to show the multiple dimensionality of this problem. It’s not easy: we have history, methodologies, management, processes, reality/multi-ontology, utopias, expectations.

We have to see beyond a certain guide, or  methodology, or situation. A SM/Agile Coach has a special role/meaning/importance in and for a team. The “Master” title means mastery, leading, experienced, great, cognoscente; a “coach” means teaching, training….We need to face the reality and see what works and what doesn’t and respond accordingly. How can a SM/Agile Coach respond to the multi-ontologies if he/she is not prepared? Yes, I am raising the bar because I saw too many clown SMs or Agile Coaches that follow a certain recipe and respond with platitudes and say “that’s it, my job is done”.

So, Does a Scrum Master/Agile Coache need a technical background?

I would say yes, among other things. Can I accept the fact that there can be exceptions ? Yes, but I hope that the SM/Agile Coach can really make up the lack of technical background with other skills.

(*)Update February 25, 2018: I made a mistake above in the sentence “XP(Extreme Programming) came with the idea of a coach(2) first, even before the scrum master was defined. ” . → Thank you Jim Coplien for your feedback:

Well, no. Scrum had the ScrumMaster role in 1994. Mary Rettig was the first ScrumMaster and it was at Easel Corporation.

XP didn’t even exist until quite a few *years* later.

(1) Scrum Guide, http://www.scrumguides.org/scrum-guide.html

(2) Robert C. Martin, “The Agile Team”,  https://cleancoders.com/episode/clean-code-episode-50/show

(3) Dave Snowden, “Managing the situated present”, http://cognitive-edge.com/blog/managing-the-situited-present/

Do Scrum Master/Agile Coach need a technical background? – Part 1

Short answer: I try to see/imagine how things work in other industries/jobs that imply building something. For example: army, surgery, accounting. I suppose for each of them, there are some processes/methods that are put in place. But there are also very important technical aspects. Of course, what technical means in the army is different from what technical means for surgery – but I think the technical part matters. So would it make sense for a person, with an important and distinctive role in the team, to have no technical knowledge? Probably not…Answers to similar questions already exist in other jobs/domains, that are much older.

A longer answer will be published in a future post.

Being agile without noise

This evening I remembered how I begun to work and how I made sense of agile. These vivid memories appeared because I saw a person with whom I worked in those days.

I don’t recall, while working there, the word “agile” being pronounced. It was one year and a half after the agile manifesto was signed. I remember now that I saw on the company’s site a page with text and a nice simple image describing the agile stuff, but in a personalized way! I was searching the web site of the company not because I was being told to do it, but because I was curious of what was on their site.

There, in those days, in the day to day work, in a discussion you would have not heard remarques like:

“we are agile”;
“we do scrum”;
“I am a scrum master”;
“I am an agile coach”;
“As a scrum master or agile coach I would…”;
“this is not agile”;
“this is waterfall”;
“ yes we are agile … we have sprints”;
….
The person I speak about, I think is one of the best professionals I have worked with. I tried to imagine his response on the question “Do you work agile?” or something similar. I think it would have been like asking Morihei Ueshiba if he knows about martial arts. I think his response would have been a smile. A smile letting you know that you started with the wrong question.

At that moment in that firm there were 3 persons like him. These professionals were complete, if I can say so – they were the top of the seniors: good programming skills and knowledge, mentorship, working with requirements, working with the client directly, handling people,… — they were one of a kind.

I saw this guy handling in one day: ColdFusion, C# and C++. And it was so natural to him. I said C# because I went to him with my work which was bad. He asked me  “Why did you do it like this?”. I tried to give him an explanation and I remembered he said stuff, but he saw hesitation/doubt/lack of knowledge/stupidity in me. He took the keyboard and begun to work in my code. He was, in that moment, in a lot of pressure because he had other stuff to finish. I was so impressed on how he begun to program and explain. It was guiding with facts/attitude not just words or platitudes.

You would have gone to these guys and you could have not tricked them with a simple discourse/speach or induce them in error with charm or platitudes.

For them was so natural to be in that spirit. They made no hassle about it. It was like it was written in the manifesto and I did not had the sensation of rigidity in the approaches we made at that time. We made daily and I did not realize I made daily, it was so natural…

I am glad and so lucky that I understood from them how…well you got it.

Conclusion: I think Jerry Weinberg was right when he said that “Agile methods will be successful if and when we stop seeing them as anything other than normal, sensible, professional methods of developing software.”(1)


◎ Image from http://alistair.cockburn.us/Shu+Ha+Ri

(1) Gerald M. Weinberg, “Agile impressions”, https://leanpub.com/jerrysblog

What a Scrum Master should or should not do

In my circles, I see lots of confusions/discussions regarding what a SM should or should not do. I already wrote before about the need of a SM for a project. Sometimes I feel this role is trivialized, that is being used as excuses of not doing things.

“Most arguments seem to be about conclusions, when they’re really about premises”(1) . So the premises:

● Beside the role as a SM or PO, it might happen that the organization will consider the SM or PO also in a position of middle management (PM, TL). But the discourse regarding PM/TL is changed a little bit: The PM/TL has to take care the project is OK, whatever that would mean…

This might contradict the Scrum thinking/philosophy, but this is another story. The idea is that we have to deal with this reality and acknowledge it.

● The Scrum Guide describes SM relation with PO, team and the organization. The Scrum guide might seem simple, but actually I feel it as a rather exceptional condensation of a lot of information. Take for example just the word “facilitation”, I think days can be spent only on treating and understanding this word.

I have some, let’s say, rhetorical questions:

– Shouldn’t a, good, really good, not mediocre, SM understand PO work in order to help him? By this I mean, maybe, to acquire skills of PO. The better the SM understand the PO, the better SM he becomes because he’ll be able to be more helpful for PO (and subsequently for the team);

– Should the SM help the team by removing impediments and creating high value products only by ‘organization means’ and by encouraging them(being supportive)? Where is his personal touch? By ‘organizational means’ I mean that the organization should help the SM no matter the problem, of course via standard tools/ways of working to solve the problems. SM should be creative, be autonomous and adapt solutions to the specificity of each project.

How the SM will really coach the team in self organizing and cross functionality if it does not participate in the current work? Should encouraging with platitudes be enough? Bringing others to do it? Hmmm….Maybe encouraging without facts and actions will have a small impact.

What I want to say is that, maybe maybe, we need to consider that a SM should be also technical. By technical I mean a developer or a tester(I belong to the Rapid Software Testing testing school just to be clear what I mean by tester) or …, so she/he can take info not only from others(like horoscope)  and numbers(we are mature people still)(4).  I think I would phrase it more generally that they should be with the “skin in the game”.

Yes is possible to have the non-technical SM…but…but…this will be helpful, for SM, as rather than rely entirely on the input of the others, SM will be able to make his/her own assessment based on his/her experience and validate it and not take it for granted.

I saw that in delicate situations where a project must be saved a good multi-skilled SM is being put into play, when the others kind of SM are being let aside maybe because is safer…

I feel there is a tendency to put as SM people with no or little experience/knowledge but with good discourse…. – that’s why I am tough! I try to imagine a surgery team in a hospital organized by Scrum, then the SM for that surgery can be the physiotherapist? Just to be clear: Scrum is good, but in the proper boundary.

● Tuckman model(*) of team formation and development. The situational leadership model is changing depending on the stage the team currently is in. So it might be directing or coaching or supporting or delegating. So within the same Scrum team the tactics of SM might or should change.

● Last, but not least, I think is imperiously needed to be aware of the “multi-ontology sense making”(2). I like that this invites us to transcend the type of system we are in. Scrum, in Cynefin(3) parlance, is at the boundary between complex and complicated. But a dynamic of project/situation will not always stay in a certain type of system. What if suddenly from complicated the type of the situation will change between chaos and complex. What should a SM do? Stay and use the techniques/tactics for which Scrum is designed? Shouldn’t try to adapt and consider the appropriate techniques/tactics/measures of action for the corresponding type of system? Ok, it will no longer be SM by the book, so?

 

So, I hope to see more SM’s:

○ who are very well prepared;

○ that stop using platitudes;

○ that know about Nonaka work ( even if they my not agree with some of his work );

○ who know the work of Jim Coplien (dailys are his idea/inspiration from Scrum; and the technical book he wrote “Lean Architecture: for Agile Software Development” is great);

○ who stop trying to be pseudo-psychologists;

○ who understand that to be a coach/mentor requires preparation, lot of it;

○ who understand that agile does not equal Scrum;

○ who dare to ‘dirty’ her/his hands and to help the team by working effectively in the project, of course, making use of the skills they have when she/he thinks that the benefits of this action are bigger than the possible disruptions;

○ who will have no problem to let another one be SM and she/he be a simple member of the development team, at least temporary;

○ who will realize that she/he is Master not after a few days of training, but after years and years of work and preparation;

○ who understand the job of a developer and the job of a tester, and then realize that you cannot switch one with another with the excuse of self-organization;

I know there are other schools of thought and is ok. I accept their opinion, but this does not imply that I also agree with them. Context matters a lot.

(*)Update February 27, 2018:

I indicated Tuckman model because in the agile world is a very known model. My intention was to show that a team is not in a single state at all, but on the contrary.

I reviewed the original paper where Tuckman wrote about this. Actually this model is not proven. In the initial paper “Developmental Sequence in Small groups”(5) he reviewed the existing literature regarding  “dealing with developmental sequence in small groups” and he suggested  “fruitful areas for further research”. So is a “statement suggested by data presented and subject to further test”.

Ten years after the original paper was published another one was published, “Stages of Small-Group Development Revisited”(6), in order “to examine published research on small-group development done in the last ten years that would constitute an empirical test of Tuckman’s hypothesis”. In the conclusion is stated that “It is noteworthy that since 1965 there have been few studies that report empirical data concerning these stages of group development…There is a need to supply statistical evidence as to the usefulness and applicability of the various models suggested in the literature”


(1) Michael Bolton, “Testing, Checking, and Changing the Language”: http://www.developsense.com/blog/2009/09/testing-checking-and-changing-language/

(2) Dave Snowden, “Multi-ontology sense making; a new simplicity in decision making“   http://cognitive-edge.com/articles/multi-ontology-sense-making-a-new-simplicity-in-decision-making/

(3) Dave Snowden, Mary E. Boone, “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making” https://hbr.org/2007/11/a-leaders-framework-for-decision-making

(4) James Bach, “No KPIs: Use Discussion”, see comments, http://www.satisfice.com/blog/archives/1440

(5) Bruce W. Tuckman, “Developmental Sequence in Small Groups”, http://dennislearningcenter.osu.edu/files/2014/08/GROUP-DEV-ARTICLE.pdf

(6) Bruce W. Tuckman Mary Ann Jensen, “Stages of Small-Group Development Revisted”,   http://openvce.net/sites/default/files/Tuckman1965DevelopmentalSequence.pdf