Wednesday, June 22, 2016

How to Get Agile Practices Adopted Anywhere

Adopting Agile is easy.  

You just need to gain the trust of organizations and departments by constantly delivering the highest value products with consistent tempo, be willing to take on changing requirements at any time and continually improve processes.  And you might want to ensure the team is working at a cadence that is sustainable and they have a work environment they love.

To facilitate the organizational evolution to a higher state of Agile, I’ve provided three different approaches to Agile adoption.

The Borg Approach

Borg Star Trek TNG HD

Do you remember one of the greatest threat to the universe in Star Trek the Next Generation: The Borg. They are the hive mind cyborg collective that is unstoppable in that they assimilate new technologies and they take over living organism (mainly humans) and attached all kind of cybernetic and robotic equipment and in the process the person’s brain is re-written to be compliant to the “Borg Collective”.  When the Borg would come in direct contact with humans, they would say in their icy cold emotionless synthetic voice, “Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.”

A leader in an organization who takes the Borg Approach, might come into an organization and say, “I’ve found a better way and it’s agile.  We will start doing agile.  There is a process called Scrum.  We will do that. Everywhere.”

The Cowboy Approach

Cowboy 016

In the wild west there were limited supply of law enforcement officers and a lot of sturdy rugged individualist who where homesteading.  As a result the interpretation of the law and execution of the law would sometimes fall to the individuals otherwise know as the Cowboy. You could say that the Cowboy was his own law.

A leader who takes this approach might say, “To hell with the rest of you, my group is doing agile.”

The Socratic Approach

Socrates Louvre

Socrates is one of my favorite greek philosophers. Socrates taught a method of learning that is still practical and effective in our modern world.

You might think of Socrates as the first Corporate Consultant.  If you’ve ever hired or worked with a consultant, they almost exclusively use the Socratic method.  Remember next time you hire a corporate consultant, you are paying them to use ancient mystic wisdom on you.

The socratic method in the simplest form is to ask questions of the learner that help him/her gain knowledge of a topic by making observations and employing reasoning to self-discover knowledge.

Consultant, “What is the biggest pain point in your current work flow?”

Company Person, “Well it’s pretty obvious to me that department X doesn’t talk to department Y.  If we could simplify the hand-off between X & Y we’d be a lot better off.”

Consultant, “Can you describe the hand-off scenario?”

Company Person, “Yes, but it’s complicated. “ [Spends 30 minutes describing the details]Thank you Socrates.

The Company Person might have just solved the problem as part of explaining it. 

By asking successively detailed questions, the socratic methods spirals in to find the core issues. Perhaps Socrates can be credited for a key piece of the modern day “Toyota Production System” and the use of the “5 why’s”.  Taiichi Ohno, architect of TPS, may not have known that he borrowed knowledge from the ancients, in essence the WHYs are a formalized socratic method.  Ohno’s full process, including the “5 Why’s” grew further into Kaizen, lean manufacturing and Six Sigma.

Double, triple, quadruple and quintuple (5 times) thanks to Socrates. 

Why all the Whys?

Asking why questions instead of giving answers enables you to go deeper into the problem space. Natural human tendency is to predict the answer.  We have a tendency to assume we know the answers.  It’s a nasty habit that is especially common in our inter-personal relationship and even in our evaluation of company processes.

In a morning meeting, a team mate snaps at you when you ask him about the progress on a piece of a project you are collaborating on.

Our human response is to ask ourselves, WHY is he so snappy.  The first answer might be, “he’s a jerk". This answer does not result in a positive outcome.  Too much ambiguity remains.  

Let’s say in this example, you actually go ask him personally about WHY he felt emotionally charged about the question from the meeting.  He might tell you that his 8-month-old daughter has a fever and he was up all night trading shifts with his wife.  

Resist the Urge to Assume

Within an organization it’s critical to re-train ourselves, our colleagues and our teams to double down and perhaps quintuple down when asking WHY.  

When we listen well in our organizations by asking the deeper questions, we begin to see the process problems instead of the personality or cultural problems.  Adding on multiple WHYs will challenge us to dig deeper than just our assumptions.  

Have you heard people stop at the first WHY and then create an entirely fictional story in their own mind about the incompetence of the organization or individual based on a single event or even a recurring organizational habit? 

When we stop at the first WHY and never explore further, it introduces frustration, animosity and finger pointing.

Asking “Why" Leads to Agile

For yourself and your colleagues (even your own family) creating the habit of asking WHY in successive increments  can be a catalyst for change.  The WHY habit will push assumptions to the sideline and bring solutions to the forefront.

Since agility is centered around change and change requires knowledge and knowledge require asking questions, the natural outcome of asking iterative questions would be agile behaviors.

It’s really about listening, learning and experimenting with discipline.

Ask WHY a lot 

Make sure when you ask WHY you are inquisitive and not vindictive or judgmental.  That means that your tone of voice and body language need to reflect the desire to learn.

Look to answer the WHY questions for your customers and others throughout your organization.  If you are the agile leader, serve, set the example and be a solution provider.

What is the biggest hurdle you currently face with adopting agile in your company?  Please leave a comment.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

4 Tips to Solve Communication Issues With Geographically Distributed Agile Teams

The workforce has gone global.

Geographically distributed teams are the norm.

There is a vendor I work with that provides 24/7/365 support for our systems.  The vendor’s workforce is distributed across at least 3 continents.  Most of the people work from home and use teleconferencing tools to communicate with clients. 

Where I work there are 2 main locations and 2 time zones. People are geographically split about 50/50 between the two locations.  In addition, some team members are contractor who work at yet a different sight.

Beyond that, several people have work at home agreements on particular days of the week, which increases the remote workers by a factor of two. 

How does a high performance software organization run smoothly with so much distance between members of the same team?

Remote teams face challenges

The management team has done several experiments to create an environment that supports good communication for the distributed teams: 
  • Team Chartering - creates work agreements and alignment on roles, goals and team norms
  • Accessibility - among team members enables fast communication
  • Common Tools - create a development environment that is efficient for everyone
  • Team Space - enhances shared vision, shared information, space for brainstorming and information radiators showing status of work and possibly changes in priorities

Team Chartering - The Key to High Performance Interaction

In the book Decisive, Chip Heath and Dan Heath describe some interesting decision making tactics for hiring.  One experiment was run for a call center where turnover was very high.  The experiment consisted of a new interview process that actually walked the candidate through a very difficult support call with a customer. In contrast with a normal interview that talked about “a good work environment, great benefits, and growth opportunities,” this new interview style set the expectations about how difficult the job would be.  This interview techniques primed the candidates to expect some hard to handle customer calls and also weeded out those people who were not capable of handling difficult customers.  As a result of this interview evolution dramatically reduced the turnover at the call center.

The act of priming people’s expectations is the core to solving conflict and communication issues before they occur.  See the article “Solve Conflict Among Team 
Members Before it Starts,”  for a detailed discussion on how Team Chartering helps set expectations and align work agreements among team members.

Accessibility - The Grease that Keeps Team Running Smooth

When teams are co-located they just talk to each other as a part of the fluid motion of their development work.  Teams members that sit near each other have an amazing productivity because they get stuck and then unstuck within seconds.  

One person finds a difficult piece of code.  He turns around and asked his colleague about the problem.  She responds with a piece of advice or provides context for the code.  He says, “OK. that makes sense. I think I got it.”  Problem solved.

When individual team members have specific knowledge areas they are especially critical information conduits.  

Fluid communications among team members is key to make sure everyone is aware of what others are doing. 

Many teams use chat room applications to keep the information flowing.  Slack and HipChat are two of the most common.  

Use a chat app and keep teams sharing information constantly no matter how many locations are involved.

Common Tools - Experiment, Adopt, Mentor

My favorite home improvement tool is my Dewalt Cordless Impact Driver/Drill with Quick Release Chuck. I keep a long philips head screw driver bit and a few drill bits in the case along with the tool.  I can quickly replace electrical outlets sockets, hang pictures and install bathroom accessories in a flash.  Or I can build a deck or a garden gate. I don’t carry screw drives AND a drill, I carry my combo tool and get through things fast.

Tooling can increase performance for anyone and can create a new speed limit for your team.

All teams need to experiment with different tools.  And adopt new tools when experimentation shows substantial performance gains.

The team member who has experience with the tools must then mentor others in the best practices.

No matter whether you are close in proximity or far away, all team members need access to the common tools and the common repository of software libraries, scripts and build machines.

Team Space - Shared Space = Shared Information = Shared Success

The best thing about a team space is the information radiators that provide a constant focal point.  An information radiator can be anything from white board drawing to matrix of sticky notes to an LCD screen that shows up-to-date information about the current development status.

For remote teams, a single team room is not possible.  You might have a team room for each site.  Consider the case where every person is in a different location.  In this case, you would need a virtual team which can be constructed using Wikis, video and teleconferencing, and possibly a virtual whiteboard or shared creative space.

For distributed teams, the next best thing to information radiators in excellent video tools that can show the details of a white board drawing.

A fall back option is a shared creative space such as

And the minimal situation is a tool  to show the content of a product backlog and status of teamwork.  A spreadsheet would be the simplest implementation and a web application like Trello, JIRA, Rally or VersionOne would be the most comprehensive solution.

Simple audio communications will not be enough to keep a team in sync, there must be a conduit for sharing the vision, backlog and progress of the teams works.

Remote Teams Have Challenges

There is no doubt that remote teams are challenged by many more obstacles that co-located teams.  The ability to push information between team members is much more difficult over the phone or via video or even with agile project management web application.

The ability to see the attitude of a teammate instead of just hearing a voice can create friction because telephone communication can miss more than 55% of the content.  To be precise communications breaks down to 7% verbal, 38% vocal, and 55% visual.  

On a conference call you get the verbal and vocal, but sometimes the connection isn’t great and that erodes communications even further because it frustrates either one party or the other.  If the connection creates a broken voice or static or echo it’s infuriating for everyone.

If you are faced with managing a geographically distributed team give them every advantage that you can by helping them set expectations about how they will work together (Chartering).  Also provide the best available messaging/chat and video/audio conferencing (Accessibility). Make sure you give the team the best tools (Common Tools) and create the best shared space (Team Space) that you can so information flow will be easy.

What is your biggest struggle with your remote team?  Please leave a comment.

Also, if you find this information useful please share on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Linkedin or another spot that enables you to help others.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Solve Conflict Among Team Members Before it Starts

Remember those weird times in junior high when you were the go-between for two people who were attempting to be girl-friend/boy-friend or perhaps there was a conflict that needed resolved and notes needed to be exchanged.

The two people who had the most to gain or lose would invite a 3rd party into the equation to pass along notes or information because they were not capable of  communicating face-to-face.

I can remember one time when I was involved in a relationship-defining event between two good friends.  I was their letter courier.  One of them would have some emotional trauma about their relationship and they would tell me and with their permissions I would tell the other.  Or one of them would write a short letter, explain their underlying emotions to me and I would delivery the note with some hints about how the other person was feeling.

This was heart wrenching for not just 2 people, but 3 people. This practice extended the force field of emotional pain beyond the 2 people and brought in extra’s to help the drama fester.  It was horrible and in this case resulted in a heart wrenching breakup.  One of my friends was a pretty massive weight lifter and the whole episode melted this rather hulking guy into a puddle of tears.

Office Conflict

In 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey, write, “The cause of almost all relationship difficulties is rooted in conflicting or ambigous expectations around roles and goals. Whether we are dealing with the questions of who does what at work, how you communicate with your daughter when you tell her to clean her room, or who feeds the fish and takes out the garbage, we can be certain that unclear expectations will lead to misunderstanding, disappointment , and withdrawals of trust.”

Over the course of your time in the office you are likely to experience criticism. One of the sharpest pains I feel is when someone not in the room is being belittled.  When this happens I feel a strong need to stand up for the absent person and to provide perspective about the situation.  This can help, but it often does not solve the root mis-alignment of roles, goals and expectations between colleagues.

In the event multiple team members seem to be frustrated with another team or person, it’s time for teams to come together and sort out their problems together so they can be on the same page.

Just like in junior high story, there needs to be an intervention, except this time there is restoration and not a break up.

Enter Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing

In 1965 Psychologist Bruce Tuckman introduced the team development concept of Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing.
Forming storming norming performing
Other’s have added onto this concept and re-name the phases over time, but essentially there the stages of team development involve some amount of conflict, posturing and finally resolution and performance.
The emotional energy and conflict in the Storming stage eats away at productivity and in some cases key patterns of behavior can linger if Storming and Norming fail to results in a common purpose, goal and shared working agreements.


”..participants form opinions about the character and integrity of the other participants and feel compelled to voice these opinions if they find someone shirking responsibility or attempting to dominate. Sometimes participants question the actions or decision of the leader as the expedition grows harder…”  - Rob Chatfield, Leadership the Outward Bound Way.


“Resolved disagreements and personality clashes result in greater intimacy, and a spirit of co-operation emerges” - Rob Chatfield, Leadership the Outward Bound Way.


“With group norms and roles established, group members focus on achieving common goals, often reaching an unexpectedly high level of success" Rob Chatfield, Leadership the Outward Bound Way.

As a team leader or project manager you want teams to accelerate through Storming and Norming and jump into Performing as quickly as possible.  

I’ve heard some people say that failure to pass through Storming will just delay the inevitable Storming to another day and cause the team to repeated regress before they can push through to Norming and Performing.  

In order for the team to establish the “norms and roles” the team must do the work of internalizing the goal(s)  and coming to some agreement on how they will interact with each other and the world around them.

Agile Chartering to the Rescue

Best way out is through

When creating a new team I want to provide some acceleration to get through storming and norming and into performing as quickly as possible.

My typical approach is two part meeting. First, define the problem that needs to be solved using, “Project Chartering” and then define the working agreements for the team using, “Team Chartering.”

Project Chartering provides an answer to WHAT.  
  • What are we building? 
  • What is the customer expectation? 
  • What are the key features? 
  • What are the milestone?
Team Chartering provides the HOW.  
  • How will we the team build this (What process)? 
  • How do we communicate with the business and marketing?  
  • How does the team delivery a solution to the customer?  
Admittedly there are a number of WHAT questions to ask in Team Chartering, but these WHAT questions are centered around the tactical working agreements and the teams process.
  • What should I do if I know I’m going to be late to team meetings?
  • What should I do if I reach a blocking issues?
  • What is the definition of done for our work product? (e.g. code reviewed, function tested, regression tested)
  • Who is responsible for moving an item to ‘Closed’ on the Scrum Board?
  • What should I do if I have a serious technical concern with an implementation?
  • Etc.
Some of these question seem pretty trivial. However, these are the kind of things that people stumble over in intra-team relationships.  I typically have a list of 50 questions that are both trivial and tough.

The length of chartering event depends on how many people are involved in the project.  Typically 6-8 hours is typical duration for combined Project/Team Chartering. If the team travels to a common location for a kick-off, book a day for this adventure and come armed with questions that the team needs to answer.  If the team is remote, you need to conduct this exercise with an online collaboration tool.  One of my favorites is Realtime Board (

The time investment might seems high for a meeting with a lot of people, but this concentrated time results in outstanding team performance.

I’ve seen an unintended A/B test in my own work environment where one team was chartered and other was not.  The chartered team demonstrates higher collaboration with internal members and external stakeholders and delivers high output than the non-chartered teams.

You could say it’s just the people. I’ve seen too many examples of good people on non-performing teams that result in bad outcome and average people on good teams that result in outstanding outcomes.  

There is a high correlation between success and good team process. For a team to be effective the roles and goals and norms need to be well defined. 

You either let the team struggle to define the roles, goals and norms, or you can prime the pump and race through storming and norming and shift the team into performing.

Is there conflict or disagree on your current teams?  What is the biggest issue?

Please add a comment or send me an e-mail with the ‘Contact Steve’ tab.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Improve Agile Meeting Productivity 2x-5x

Let’s say your personal productivity is awesome. Perhaps it’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good. You have habits that are working well. Perhaps you’re waking up, getting some exercise, reading, and working on your big goals.  At work you may even have your e-mail inbox under control.

But your work environment is chaotic and your meetings are wasteful. See if you find anything familiar in this typical scenario.

Example of a Wasteful Meeting

Meeting Idea

Your boss says, “Let’s decide how to create an architecture for the next generation of our software product. I’ll schedule a meeting to discuss the architecture.”

Don’t get alarmed yet, but NEVER have a meeting to DISCUSS something. Only have meetings to DECIDE something.

Meeting Invite

The meeting announcement goes out saying, “Future Architecture Discussion.”

The body of the meeting says, “Let discuss the future architecture of our application that will support the upcoming requirements.”

Now you should be a little alarmed. This meeting is not looking like a good use of your time because there’s no definitive deliverable. 

Meeting Time

The meeting time arrives and all the very opinionated, smart, capable, driven, and highly effective people arrive in the room and take seats around the table. For the purposes of this (nearly historically accurate) example, let’s assume there are 6 people attending the meeting.

If everyone arrives roughly on-time, you have already saved many minutes of the start-stop-restart cycle.

When the meeting host settles down in his or her chair WITHOUT a note pad and only a cup of coffee in hand, you should begin to raise the alert level to DEFCON-3.

This style of meeting will result in NO MINUTES and possibly NO DECISIONS. 

Meeting Flow

During the meeting there is a flurry of different topics that come up.  The meeting starts with architecture, but shifts subtly to some interesting topics:
  • What if the marketing guys have got it all wrong?
  • What if the CEO won’t fund the architecture?
  • What if the current application technical issues cause the team to spend 50% of their effort fixing bugs instead of creating the new architecture?
  • Etc.
These are interesting but they’re enticing, emotional, and USELESS in regards to the architecture discussion. 

Alert raised to DEFCON-2.

Meeting End

Near the end of the meeting, people begin to look at their watches saying they are have another meeting to attend. Nothing has been written down.

Like nuclear war, once the missiles are launched it’s too late to rescue this meeting. Raise the alert status to DEFCON-1 - Maximum alert.

Is There Another Way?

The example above is likely to resemble some of the meeting norms where you work. Inefficient and ineffective meetings might be a cultural norm, but it’s not the way it has to be. 

With a little attention at each step in the meeting process you can improve the effectiveness and increase the collaboration in your daily meetings.

Meeting and cultural norms

Example of a Productive Meeting

Meeting Idea with a Deliverable

The boss suggests that you gather the technical leaders and determine the next steps in the architecture evolution. She says, “Can you get with the team and develop a roadmap for the architecture?”

You’re empowered to create a ROADMAP. This is the deliverable from the meeting.

Meeting Invite With a Purpose

You think for a few minutes and decide on the goal for the meeting. “Create and record a roadmap for application architecture with a 5-year horizon.” 
In addition, you come up with a rough agenda.
1. Review the marketing requirements
2. Record highest risk items
3. Create a list of architecture changes necessary to meet the business goals.
A meeting invite with a purpose can result in 2x improvement because it primes the brains of all the participants to think about the problem ahead of time.
With a goal, you can take your 2x productivity to the bank by shrinking your meeting length by half.  

With a goal and agenda, you could find a 3x impact.  A meeting that normally takes an hour could take 20 minutes.  The meeting ends when you’ve reached your defined goal and know how to get to the goal with a written plan.

Meeting Time With a Prompt Start

Depending on the business norms in your company you’ll experience very different meeting norms: for example, habitual tardiness to meetings. One way to shift business norms is to start on time.

In one meeting I hosted the attendees arrived on time, but were quite talkative about numerous subjects. In order to move the meeting forward, I said, “I can make your Friday shorter if we start on the review right now.” And then we got down to business.

Meeting Flow With a Plan

When it comes to meetings, there’s nothing like a good plan. A colleague  quoted once, “Never attend a meeting that you don’t control.” Perhaps that’s a little extreme, but I would say you should always have a plan for the meetings you host, including slides and/or a facilitation plan.

At the minimum I create Powerpoint slides to keep the meeting focused on a specific outcome. When you have a representation of the goals, people have a much easier time keeping their focus. 

Meeting Flow With a Turbo Charged Plan

Since people are very visual and actually engage with more energy when standing, consider using sticky notes or a whiteboard. Sticky notes are especially effective because they can be moved and re-arranged easily during a discussion.

Copy paper and blue masking tape are also very useful if you have information prepared before hand.  

To increase the effectiveness of sprint grooming or planning meetings I often print out sprint backlog titles to tape to wall. Then I have the team create a task breakdown using sticky notes that are placed in order under the backlog item. I use the Post-It Plus application to take a picture of the the wall.  The application recognizes eat individual sticky and exports the sticky notes in several formats. Excel is useful when I have a large quantity of notes. I then get the notes transcribed.

Meeting End With Closed Loops

At the end of the meeting you should have the following.

1. Actions recorded
2. Decisions recorded.

No matter what kind of meeting you’re holding, the end game must conclude with decisions and actions recorded.

When You Need a 5x Strategy

Under normal meeting circumstances a goal and agenda are sufficient to succeed. But sometimes a meeting deals with highly emotional or widely debated topics that need a 5x strategy. Without a 5x strategy, you’ll lose hours of time and potentially create even more tension.

Productivity of 5x is possible and realistic when you come prepared with a detailed facilitation plan that includes well planned activities. The plan should include strategies and activities for:
  • dealing with peoples biases (mental or emotional baggage) 
  • effective brainstorming
  • taking large quantities of creative input and move it towards a decision
  • keeping the level of engagement high so that the participants keep their energy and intellect focused on the topic
  • engagement during the meeting with boundaries
  • any needed follow-up
The article “You Can Have Better Agile Meetings” provides a overview facilitation flow. 
If collaboration attempts fail and the emotions or topics remain unresolved, the most common alternative is to call in the higher authority to resolve the issue.  

This is a weaker approach that could result in temporary solution, but with a high probability that the parties will find “insurmountable issues" with the top down decisions as soon as the slightest obstacle is encountered.

Conversely, the gains from a 5x strategy can achieve a lasting consensus and full buy-in from your team members.

Please leave a comment about the most debated topic that needs to be solved in your work place?