Category: Agile Musings

“We Need to Be More Productive”

A colleague attended one of the many “work remotely” sessions popping up everywhere. He heard

Timing rule of thumb shared in virtual how-to session today = expect that timeframes will grow by 25% during remote sessions. If your estimate is 60 minutes, expect it to actually take 75 minutes.

At *least* 25% more time is required to communicate via intermediated means, which even videoconferencing is. My experience suggests that time spent needs to *double* until and if fluency w/ new tools, techniques, relationships are ingrained. Even then bandwidth needs increase, and those are difficult to change rapidly and without incurring  considerably more monthly cost (I’m upgrading to business-class Internet service, which will more than double my charges, because I need it for my work and because I’m fortunate to be able).

Esther Derby posted a superb tweet thread that relates to this topic, and you really should take a look if you’re at all interested in the real-world situation of collaborating at distance:

In that thread, a poster replied that we need “much better performance levels” to survive the Current Crisis.

That’s not possible just because we want it or think we need it, . If we had all this “extra” ability to perform better in reserve, we would have already drawn on it or had it demanded of us. Instead, we all need to accept and embrace that a change is here.

Performance is a function of the person and the environment, Esther points out:

  P = f(p,e)

A sudden shift to a collaborator-at-distance paradigm hugely changes the environment and affects people’s abilities. Therefore, performance must drop. Embrace that, and let’s see where we go from there.


Mending Walls

Scrum is focused on teams. But who’s on the team? And how can others help?

Not too long ago, a manager told me, “It’s seems like you’re saying that Scrum separates me from my team. That doesn’t feel right, because I’ve worked hard to create an open atmosphere here.” And he had a point: the language we often use when talking about Scrum teams includes “protecting” the team, focusing on the people who have “hands on the keyboard.” We think we need to separate the Scrum team from their partners in the organization.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
– Robert Frost, “Mending Wall

That conversation reminded me of a time, years ago, when I was working with a team whose managers had asked me to help them learn how to deliver using Scrum. These folks worked in what some technology professionals might see as an extremely stable company; many people had been at the company for double-digit numbers of years. They worked together, celebrated together, knew each other’s families and kids. They knew a lot about being together before I ever came into their lives.

When it came to the time when we were forming the Scrum team – choosing who’d work on which team, who’d serve as ScrumMaster, and so on – we got a bit stuck. “I think I should definitely be on the team,” said Richard, who was the manager of most of the developers and testers who’d be working together. “I need to see what the team is doing.” Others piped up, remembering what we’d learned about cross-functional delivery teams, and offered that Richard didn’t have a delivery role; he was a manager.

The brand-new ScrumMaster, Amy, suddenly brightened. “Richard,” she said, what if you were a ‘team friend’? We’re going to have lots of challenges as we learn to work using this Scrum thing, and we’ll need all the help we can get. And friends are important: they care about you, they’ll listen, offer advice…they’ll pitch in and help you out when you’re in a tough spot. Sometimes, they’ll even lend you money!”

Amy had captured everything I’d wanted to say about supportive work environments and empowered teams. Our team was going to need friends to survive our learning and adapting times ahead. And so Amy made a poster labeled “Our Team Friends” and invited Richard to come over and sign in as our first friend.

When the poster went up on the team’s wall later that week, it quickly attracted attention from others whose work brought them into frequent contact with our team. “Can I be your team friend too?” they’d ask, in all earnestness. Amy would explain what our expectations were from friends, and to our surprise, one by one they happily signed their names.

Here’s the best part: we soon discovered that one of the team members had to be gone for two entire sprints, and the team felt shorthanded without him. Richard heard our concerns, and said, “Could I help? Could you use an extra hand?” The team was surprised at his offer, but quickly accepted it. Richard, like a true friend, backed us up wholeheartedly – he temporarily moved out of his office and onto a table in the team room and there paired with team members to deliver software, complete stories, and accomplish our iteration goal. Reflecting on Richard’s contributions at our retrospective a month later, we realized we couldn’t have done it without him. And the team felt that they had a real commitment from management to support them through this time of change.

I wished that I’d remembered Amy’s idea when I was working with that recent team and its involved, supportive manager. But it’s not too late for them, nor for your team. Consider inviting the support, understanding, help, and trust of those “outside” your delivery team. Make more friends, and try to keep them. And don’t forget to invite them to the post-sprint celebration at the pub!

Let Your Fingers Do the Tossing

pixellated-walking-fingersI just threw away all of the telephone books.

For years, they’ve been delivered to my doorstep, from a few different companies. For years, I’ve unwrapped them and placed them on a high shelf. For years, I’ve never touched them. Why, oh why, have I bothered to waste time and space for all those years?

Because losses loom larger than gains.

I first saw that phrase in Chris O’Leary’s brilliant, one-page distillation of the the forces behind successful innovation. Chris points out that “people find the threat of loss to be far more motivating than the promise of gain.” And I see this every day as I work with teams that are trying to get better at doing what they spend their days doing, delivering business value to their customers through software.

“Change? Sure, that sounds like a good idea. There are lots of things wrong here. Wait…I need to do stop doing that? But I’ve always done that. Why? It’s the right way. Results? Well, yeah, when we do that, it doesn’t always work, but that’s just because Dave over there isn’t thinking things through when he…”

Change is what we want other people to do. But the rule is this: if you want to engender change in a group dynamic, go first. Be the change you want to see in the world. Charity starts at home—wait, that’s a different maxim. But you get the idea.

So I no longer have telephone books at hone. What’s next? The land-line telephone’s already gone; maybe I drop the VoIP service I got to save my long-time phone number? Stay tuned and see.

Waiting Is the Hardest Part

runners startingIt’s right there in Tom Petty’s song: “Waiting is the hardest part.” But Tom got it wrong: starting is the hardest part.

Everyone from Alexander Pope to Elvis points out that fools rush in while wise folk wait (Elvis gets right to the point, while Pope takes considerably longer). And who could fault a team, timid ScrumMaster, or tentative manager for sounding the depths before diving in and doing what needs to be done?

Well, Ron Jeffries can. In his book and presentations, Ron says don’t wait—start reaping benefits (and revenue!) early by getting working product into the market now, before your competitors do. My colleague Skip Angel exhorts teams to “just do it.” And my own experiences with watchful waiting have shown me the rear end of many opportunities that didn’t just knock once, but found another door when I was slow in answering. So why do so many of us, knowing what we do, still hesitate to start, whether it’s start a sprint, start a project, or start telling the truth.

Maybe it’s because we’re afraid.

I was listening a week ago to a presentation Diana Larsen gave at SolutionsIQ when I suddenly sat up straight. “We only learn at the uncomfortable edges,” she said, and I was launched back into a time a few years ago when I was working with a team to deliver a functional overhaul of a B-to-B e-commerce Web site.

The product manager and I (the program manager) wanted to use Scrum for the project, but the development manager, who managed all the members of the team, was reluctant, and insisted on using what had worked for him before. What had worked before was a mish-mash of upfront planning, seat-of-the-pants estimating, and Microsoft Project-assisted project tracking. The tracking wasn’t really tracking, though; each time something didn’t happen as predicted, Project just kept telling us how much faster we’d have to work to hit the non-moving deadline for delivery).

The three of us were responsible for providing input to an executive dashboard that expressed the status of projects using the familiar red-yellow-green traffic lights. Each week, we peered intently at the Project sheet, which the dev manager had printed out on three sheets of paper that he taped together. After a handful of week, we knew that the project had drifted into red territory. Each week, the dev manager said that he thought that, with a little more effort and a bit of luck, we could get back on track. Each week, we were willing to believe something that we wanted to believe. And so each week, all three of us agreed to ignore our misgivings and doubts and delay reporting the project status as red. Until one week, more than half the way into the project, something happened.

Stay tuned to hear the rest of the story.

The Bright Side

smiley faceNot all of us naturally have the gift of helping people recognize and resolve dysfunction and impediments without, um, peeving people off. When serving a team as a ScrumMaster, it’s easy to turn into a harping kvetcher. When management and team members both start changing their paths when you walk down the corridor, you know it’s time to find a more effective approach to your job.

Gretchen Rubin makes a familiar but often forgotten good point recently in her blog: there are different ways of looking at a given situation, and some may be more palatable and effective than others. A frequent result of your good work as a ScrumMaster is exposed dysfunction in your team or company, but there’s no reason to rub people’s faces in it. With a little imagination or attitude adjustment, you can make your point in a way that’s effective instead of demoralizing, while avoiding becoming a Pollyanna or sweeping problems under the rug.

My favorite example of this approach comes from a performance review written by the best manager I ever had. Summarizing the primary accomplishment of my last six months, a technical manual that I’d researched for five months and written in one, she wrote, “Michael’s guide to system management is the best manual on the subject we’ve ever seen. One can only imagine how good it would have been if he’d started writing it earlier.”

Lately, I’ve been particularly aware of how, in response to a positive suggestion or idea offered by another, many of us start by saying, “The problem is…” We lead with the negative, hardly the way to make our conversational partner feel good about their idea or our interest in it. There’s always time for the challenges to surface and be identified, but perhaps that time isn’t seconds after we first hear the idea.

Agile teams spend a lot of time dealing with “the problem,” in retrospectives, in pairing sessions, in planning meetings, in raising impediments. This is why it’s so important to identify and celebrate successes frequently, but there’s no need to wait until success is obvious. Create environments where success can thrive, by focusing on what’s good and encouraging more of that.

Now that I think of it, that’s how you brew good beer. When the sweet wort enters the fermentation vessel, it has lots of wild yeasts (from the air) and brewing yeasts (from you) in it. The trick to getting good beer is to encourage the brewing yeasts to grow and work faster than the wild yeasts. The good pushes out the bad, or if I’m going to be more facilitator-y about it, the useful prevails over the not useful. I’m told you grow a nice lawn the same way, but I know more about fermenting beer and Scrum teams than I do about gardening.

Two Steps Forward


I’m old enough that I spend some time looking back at a distant and immutable past. Forget the sundry poor personal decisions I’ve made; no one could get older without accumulating a sack of those. I wonder more about the large amounts of time I spent doing things at work that didn’t work. 

Why would I do that? I was getting paid, after all, and I was reputed to be smarter than the average bear. But more often than not, I found myself falling into one (or both) of two traps:

  •  Doing what I was told to do
  •  Thinking I couldn’t do what I knew was right

Wait, you’re saying – that’s what you’re supposed to do at work. So I used to think, and who could blame me? We get taught the first from birth, and learn the second sometime before entering the working world, or soon after.

But now that I’ve spent nearly a decade immersed in agile, I realize that  there’s no way that I can do a good job for my employer or client unless I ignore my upbringing. And that’s a problem since I can’t always do that, and I’m sure I’m not alone.

No matter what role you’re playing in an agile process, you need to do at least two things:

  •  Listen to what others are saying.
  •  Decide, along with your teammates, what’s the right thing to do.

It doesn’t hurt a bit to work for people who can deal with, or even welcome this kind of behavior.

As luck would have it, agile methods depend on this kind of behavior and others like it.

But this kind of behavior requires large amounts of something that not all of us, and perhaps for the reasons noted above, bring to work with us every day.


Condemned to Repeat the Past?

It seems – at least to me – unlikely that I’d be moved to write a post by learning that O.J. Simpson, thirteen years to the day (!) after being acquitted of murder, was convicted of kidnapping and robbery. My first thought was this: it may take a while, but as Shakespere said in The Merchant of Venice, “at the length truth will out.”

Tell me if this sounds familiar. You’re on a project, you come to a milestone, a crossroads in the schedule, you take stock of where you are, and suddenly comes that feeling: you’ve been here before. And last time, it wasn’t fun when you arrived at this point. How could you have ended here again, after all you learned last time?

If you’re on a team, maybe it’s even worse – you’re not the only one who remembers the past, now that you’re facing a present that looks just like that ugly memory. Sure, I could have missed the signs we were heading towards ruin, but all of us? Isn’t this why I work in a team, so that my teammates can save me from myself?

I remember when, sitting in Ken Schwaber’s Certified Scrum Master class, I first saw his slide warning about the challenges we’d face as intrepid Scrum Masters when we returned to work:

  •  The era of opacity
  •  The tyranny of the waterfall
  •  The illusion of command and control
  •  The belief in magic

The belief in magic.” I sat bolt upright in my chair, realizing that I’d spend years and years (and years) again and again believing, or hoping, or praying that what I could see coming somehow wouldn’t come.

“Sure, last time things didn’t work because of a, b, and c, but this time, things will be different,” I’d think. “Next week, we’ll catch up” (after six successive weeks of not catching up). “This time, QA will discover the really bad bugs at the start of testing” (instead of near the end). And “this time, no one will get sick,” or “we’ll be done before Christmas for sure.” “If I can just spend one more day trying to fix this bug, I’m sure I’ll get it done.” “It’s been two weeks, now – that kidney stone is sure to pass tomorrow and Paul will be back on the team pairing and testing.” You have your own list, don’t you?

I’ve been compiling an new list recently, and it’s even more horrific.

  • “We’ve been writing tests throughout the project, but here at the end, it’s crunch time, so let’s speed up by dropping tests.”
  • “Yeah, pairing works pretty well, and it means we don’t have to do those code reviews, but heck, we can work twice as fast if we split up and work alone.”
  • “But we have to work longer hours until we get done; we won’t keep this up forever, just until we get over this hump.”
  • “Well, if we get the code feature-complete, we can use the QA period to find and fix the bugs before ship.”

I want to believe,” we think. In the end, perhaps, we’re thinking no more clearly than Mr. Simpson, that we won’t get caught this time, that what doing is “right.” Magic tricks. done right, are awfully convincing. It’s a short hop from the willing suspension of disbelief to knowing self-delusion.

Agile 2008


I got to go to Agile 2008 in Toronto, joining over 1500— well, here’s (more or less) what I wrote for my employer’s monthly newsletter on the subject, complete with frothy prose and terminal exclamation point:

In the first week of August, Agile 2008 drew over 1500 agilists and curious folks to downtown Toronto to enjoy the humidity and hundreds of sessions on everything from “The Coach as Music Producer” and “Pairing With The Stars” to “Beginner’s Mind” and “Writing Agile Haiku.”  (If you follow the links, you’ll find the original session abstracts, some slides, and even some post-facto reviews.) This year’s conference was twice the size of Agile 2007, and featured more opportunities for learning, interaction, discovery, eating, and drinking than any group of fourteen people could manage … but try we did, the intrepid contingent from SolutionsIQ.

It wasn’t hard to find us or each other among the three floors and five halls the show covered, thanks to the red-banded fedoras and all-black getups we all wore throughout the week, keying off our “Agile Noir” theme. 

I’d fill this space three times over talking just about the sessions that were fantastic, notable, worthwhile or amazing. Tom Perry’s and Dhaval Panchal’s talk on swarming behavior in nature and its parallels in Agile practice received wild raves, and Mickey Phoenix and Chris Sterling both had devoted followings before and after their presentations. SolutionsIQ speakers and moderators were everywhere every day, and they played a significant role in the Agile philanthropy project that was among the many in the ample area provided for open-space or do-it-yourself presentations. 

Those who attended the Thursday night banquet were treated to “Uncle” Bob Martin’s fabulously funny keynote address in which he, with quite serious intent, called for adding to the Agile Manifesto a fifth element valuing “craftsmanship instead of crap” in software production. 

It’ll take us weeks to digest, sort out, follow up, and act on the prodigious quantities of information absorbed and connections made in four days’ time. It’s fortunate indeed that it’s a full 50 40 (or so) weeks before Agile 2009 in Chicago!


The conference used a novel system for reviewing submitted sessions and talks: look, for example, at the entries for my workshop and one of my favorites done (twice, by popular demand, by the inimitable David Hussman). You, too, can discover links like the ones sprinkled throughout this post through the miracle of keywords and Google … or you can just buy me a few beers and hear me read from my notes and riff on my recollections.

Or you could wait for my next post, where I’ll extract from my trusty notebook my collected quotations from the conference.

Obligatory Feel-y Content: it felt good to be at the conference  among friends and role-models old and just-made. There you go.

UPDATE: If you want to get a feel for Agile2008 without having been there, check out Mark Levison’s
huge list of links.

Honesty, Resistance, and Conflict

I started, a month ago, writing a blog that was about agile and feelings and how they intertwined for me. Seven days later, my close friend died, after a very long battle with illness and, sometimes, with life.

It turns out that I have feelings about that.

For a long while, I wrestled with whether that was something to write about here. It’s become apparent to me that if I don’t write about that, there’s nothing else I can write here.

For some of you, this might be the time to skip ahead to the next post, which is more likely to be all about agile. I do promise, though, that this one has more than just the minimum Obligatory Agile Content, to invoke a newsgroup meme from long ago.


Whenever I was with my friend, with the occasional happy exception, resistance and conflict were a part of what happened between us. That’s an odd foundation for a friendship, and a dynamic that often sees friends drift apart.

That didn’t happen with us. Why?

My friend had decided, ten years ago, that she was going to be my friend; this was long before I wanted that to happen. I am, like many of us, resistant to changes, even those that might be good for me. And so, for two years, I resisted. I was cordial; she brought me lunch when she went out to get food. I was standoffish; she invited me to group gatherings after work and Easter celebrations. I was reserved; she was effusive, funny, larger-than-life. And persistent.

One day, and I don’t know what made that day different than the hundreds that preceded it, I stopped resisting. I said yes. And we became friends. I don’t know why, but I decided that what I would bring to our friendship was honesty: I resolved to always always — be honest with her.

There’s a reason that people often use “honest” and “brutally.” All-honesty-all-the-time is a tough thing to pull off, but even tougher to put up with.

Still, I, she — and we — persisted. There were periods where we argued, or fought, or sulked, or withdrew into our respective corners. I remember some of those apart-times as being — I’m being honest here, just as I promised to always be with her — wonderfully relaxed and happy. It was so much easier to go on with my life without the drama, without the conflict, without the burden of being honest even when, and especially when, it hurt. We’d always come back to some middle ground where we could, and did, deal with each other, and be the friends we were.

The last night my friend was alive, I visited her in the hospital. I’d like to tell you that the time we spent together was peaceful, loving, and mindful of the short time that remained. I can’t.


Whenever I think of agile approaches to making software, I think of resistance and conflict. I like to think that those aren’t what I bring to the table, but who knows? If those things are there when I am, maybe I bring them. And regardless of who brings them, they’re there, and they can’t be easily ignored.

I like agile because it fits how I want to live my life. I want to be honest; I prefer being direct; I value hearing what people really think, and want to know what they feel. I like working with others to get great things done. And to a greater extent than anything else I’ve used in the decades I’ve been at that, agile approaches give me more of all that in my working hours.

Once there was a small team in a startup company that needed someone to help them accomplish their goals. They picked me. Together, we learned how to work and be agile, and we shipped software. One day, I remember finishing a standup and slumping slowly to the floor — it had been a contentious meeting. Sitting there, I realized why I wanted to be working beside and with these people — they wanted to work beside and with me, even when the reality of our working together resulted in contention, resistance, and conflict. We could have retreated to our corners, backed away from our principles, stopped working on working together.

Our working relationship succeeded, not in spite of our differences or disagreements or conflicts, but because we brought all those to the table along with our talents and passions and energy. There were times when you couldn’t tell which was which — it all just was what we were, and how we were, and it was what we were willing to work with.

Working with people who “get along” feels better than when there’s discord and disagreement. To me, agile feels right because of the commitments teammates make to each other: we’ll be honest, we’ll be transparent; we’ll work together for a while, them look at what we do and make changes where we think they’ll help. Those aren’t hard to endorse and encourage.

Good agile teams also make a commitment that’s less explicit, and every bit as essential: to stick together, to value everything that each of us brings to the table, to find unity in our differences. Sometimes, it’s not that easy to see what’s right in front of us.

You can bet we’ll visit some of these ideas again in the months ahead.