Telling the Gorilla he’s naked is a mistake

CC0 Public Domain - PixHere.com

CC0 Public Domain – PixHere.com

I looked in the mirror and was greeted with a satisfied smile. I looked good, today. My salmon shirt was nicely set off by the patterned eggplant and chambray tie paired with it. With the advent of summer, I was going with a pair of light charcoal slacks and the fresh shine on my Clark’s caught the lights above the mirror.

I’d certainly come a long way from my early twenties. There had been a time when I was let go from a temp office job because I kept showing up to work in the same handful of shirts, which were always wrinkled (I was young, an iron was a luxury then). Not that I really could take credit for my polished fashion sense. The only real credit I could take was having the good sense to marry my best friend and trust in her. I still remember the first time she handed me a salmon colored shirt.

“It’s PINK! I’m not wearing pink, that’s so Miami Vice.” Her reply was “It’s salmon, it goes with your eyes.” She’s always known me well, I’m vain about my eyes and so I capitulated and wore the “pink” shirt. I came home that day and told her that I’d gotten at least a half dozen compliments on the shirt, from men and women. That was pretty much that last time I seriously argued with her on fashion.

“You’re not going to wear that, are you?”, rumbled an all too familiar voice.

I rolled my eyes. Was I not even safe in my hotel room?  I shot a dagger-filled glance at the 800-pound gorilla now lounging on the sofa, “The sign on the door says ‘Do not disturb’, Hogarth.”

He waved the branch of a plant I recognized from the hotel’s lobby. Hoping I wasn’t going to get charged for that, I almost missed his reply. “Oh, that, I ignored it, we both know you’re already disturbed.”

Given I was talking to an invisible gorilla I couldn’t exactly argue with him. So I focused on what he’d clearly come to torment me on. “You can’t seriously think there is something wrong with my outfit, can you? You may be smart when it comes to people interaction but I am not going to take a gorilla’s fashion advice over that of my wife’s.”

Dropping the partially eaten branch Hogarth held both hands defensively. “Even I’m not that dumb. She could dress a chimpanzee up and get him on the cover of GQ.” Which given Hogarth’s opinion of his cousin species, was saying something. “Absolutely nothing wrong with the outfit itself. “, he continued. “I’m just wondering if you wanted this consulting gig to be extended past the initial 90 days?”

I stared at him, in disbelief “What? What has my outfit have to do with my consulting arrangement?”

“The customer is always right, right?”

I nodded.

“So why are you telling the CEO he’s wrong because he’s not wearing a tie?”

The CEO he was referring was my current client. He was a brilliant guy and he made Zuckerberg look like the king of high fashion. I looked back at my reflection and then back at Hogarth. “But what about ‘no judgment’? I’m an agile coach, I’m always promoting ‘no judgment’ in the workplace.”

Hogarth gave an enigmatic shrug,  “well you don’t want to end up like Prince Manfredi, do you?”

“Prince Manfredi?” I blurted while my mind raced to catch up. Renaissance history, really? Manfredi was the young prince of the Italian city of Faenza. One of the many Borgia princes conquered Faenza yet chose not to sack the town and even took Manfredi into his court, well at first. Manfredi would end up arrested and turning up very dead a year later. His crime was being better looking, more charismatic and nicer than the Borgian prince. So he was killed.

How was this relevant? I was about to rail at Hogarth for his complete non-sequitur when my brain caught up with things. Was he really quoting Greene?

“Never outshine the master?” I asked Hogarth.

He nodded.

 

When you shout “The Emperor Has No Clothes”, he’s likely to fire you.

Robert Greene wrote the 48 Laws of Power in 1998. It’s reportedly favorite reading of some of the more reviled CEOs in recent history. With laws such as “Pose as a friend, work as a spy” and “Play to people’s fantasies” it’s not exactly high agile reading.

Unfortunately, I’ve found a need to be passing familiar with these laws working as a coach, helping enterprises companies. One of the laws stands out as being unfortunately correct all too often. It is the first law, and it bit me more than once. It says, “Never outshine the master.”

No judgment is a great concept to teach your teams. As an agile coach, I do my best to teach and live by Brene Brown’s advice that “My life is better when I assume that people are doing their best..” Agile teams work best with open communication, honest dialogue and an assumption of positive intent.

The thing is, as a coach, I’m often working in companies that are still deep in the morass of such wonderful advice as “Use absence to increase respect and honor”. This means that while I believe in no judgment and in assuming the best from everyone, the people I’m helping may not be in the same place.

This means, that while I’m trying to help an organization move to more productivity, by enabling healthier teams, I have to always be mindful to how what I am doing is perceived by those I’m trying to help. This is a deeper issue than just how you dress. Whether or not you wear a tie just serves as a good perspective to approach this agile pitfall.

First, you need to understand that I love to wear ties. I enjoy dressing nicely. Polished leather shoes, nice shirts, the whole nine yards. I get a lot of enjoyment from dressing nicely. It’s part of my professional image and I’m proud of it.

And it probably lost me at least one engagement and made others uncomfortable before I realized that “no judgment” is something organizations have to work towards, not be instantly dropped into. In one engagement, the senior coach pulled me aside and told me I was making the sponsor self-conscious. Unlike some sponsors and bosses I’ve had, this sponsor actually dressed fairly nicely. The problem was, I dressed even better (again, all credit does go to my awesome wife, the salmon shirt story is 100% true). I was outshining our sponsor.

In other engagements, I’ve faced the challenge of the “grunge” engineering teams. When the best-dressed person on the team is the guy in blue jeans and a t-shirt with no holes, even wearing a button down shirt and slacks can be a major barrier.

The absolute irony, which I think in part stems from agile practices coming out of software engineering, is I’ve seen coaches show up to a client in shorts, t-shirt and flip-flops, sit in a conference room with a tie-wearing CEO and the CEO doesn’t blink an eye at the casualness. You see, it is far easier to overdress than it is to underdress in agile coaching. A contradiction I’ve been struggling with for years.

What people wear to work, and how they can feel threatened by what you wear, gives us an excellent view into the change challenge. As an agile coach, I’m an expert in dysfunctions. I can spot a half-dozen usually in the first five minutes of the pre-engagement call. Companies hire me to be that expert in dysfunction. They want me to come in and fix them. The same way that they are fine with you wearing whatever you want to the office, as long as it isn’t a suit and tie. While I’m hired to find and fix dysfunction, if I go about it like the child in the “Emperor’s New Clothes” I’m going to find that I’m not all that popular. Just like wearing a tailored shirt and tie can make them uncomfortable, so can pointing out their flaws in brutal honesty.

The worst sin is when you make the people you are trying to help look bad. I worked with one client where they had someone internally working as a coach. This person was a good-hearted person who, unfortunately, had learned agile with a stilted command and control perspective. In less than a month I was able to take two brand new teams and get them to a higher level of engagement and productivity than this coach had done with teams in more than six months. Instead of being thanked, I was shown the door because I undermined the full-time coach’s credibility with his organization.

 

Understand your audience, create trust, consult carefully:

What this all leads back to is how you engage with your client or employer in those first critical days and weeks. It is all about taking the time to form relationships and create those bonds of trust. The same thoughts I laid down in the AgileConnection article “Building Team Relationships as an Agile Coach.”

Someday I hope people can again wear ties without it being seen as some threat to what other’s wear. Until then, I relish the days I can wear my flashy ties and recognize the days when I can’t.

 

Gorillas play with Legos: An Enterprise Scrum Simulation

By Alan Chia (Lego Color Bricks) CC BY-SA 2.0

By Alan Chia (Lego Color Bricks) CC BY-SA 2.0

 

Download Simulation Here

“Useless, useless, useless!”

I flipped through the pile of classroom feedback for the millionth time. I was hoping that maybe this time I’d see something different. And like the last 999,999 times, the results were the same. I’m not sure why I kept punishing myself. Except that maybe by trying to find a different answer I could postpone trying to figure out how to fix the real problem.

I guess it could have been worse, heck a lot worse. I was getting really excellent scores and feedback, on the majority of my class, was universally positive and upbeat.

Except for my Scrum simulation. Arguably the core of my class, it was absolutely lacking in feedback, positive or otherwise. In dozens of feedback forms, when I asked the attendees to call out three things they liked, my Scrum simulation was never mentioned. If I was going to be a world-class agile instructor, I needed to get my core exercise out of the doldrums. Even negative feedback would have been helpful. Then at least I could work to address it. From first hand conversations about the best I was getting was “Meh, it tied things together all right.”

“Meh!… A lousy meh”

“Stirring praise, absolutely stirring!”

And my day just couldn’t get any worse. “Go away, Hogarth. This time you honestly can’t help me.”

Of course my gorilla ignored me and ambled over to my office’s small meeting table. “Oh, yeah, sure, sure. This instruction stuff is hard. All that making sure you cover all the points, keep them engage, ensure retention”. He set a small plastic tub on the table.  “I won’t bother you at all, just needed some place to assemble my LEGO Gorilla Escape, the Reckoning set.”

I almost let him suck me in, almost. I knew if I asked him any questions he would turn it into some deep dive into my psyche, examining how my brain was like a box of unsorted LEGO or something like that. Instead I went back to trying to solve my problem. How was I going to fix my Scrum simulation. Grabbing post-its I started doing some brainstorming.

Thirty minutes later I sat back with a disgusted sign. It was no use, my mind was blank. I was just hitting my head against a solid….

“Wall!” Hogarth said. Startled, I looked over at him. Using LEGO he had assembled a castle wall, complete with turrets and a parapet wide enough for a paperclip to march down like a toy soldier.

I rolled my eyes, “Hogarth, do you have to make something for everything I say?”

My gorilla was already building something new, an infinity symbol. “Well, it’s hard not to when these things are so versatile and not too mention fun. I mean you could do almost anything with them.”

Do almost anything…

Oh, of course.

Once again my gorilla had led me down the merry little path into the gaping maw of truth.

 

Who doesn’t love playing with Legos?

Lego Scrum Simulation for Enterprise is an interactive exercise for teaching the Scrum fundamentals. Useable either stand alone or as part of a larger class, students learn by doing. This ensures a much higher retention of knowledge than traditional lecture based question and answer instruction.

The simulation is heavily founded on Susan Bowman’s 4C training model. It seeks to get the students deep into the doing right away. In the course of the simulation they end up learning or reinforcing the majority of the Certified ScrumMaster course requirements. When included in an agile training class, it forms the Concrete 4C for the entire class, while itself walking through the 4Cs during the simulation.

Why LEGO?

An engineering director once told me “show me an engineer who doesn’t like playing with LEGO, and I’ll fire them.” While meant strictly in jest it does sum up “Why LEGO?” in an incredibly brief manner. I can count on one hand the number of adults I’ve met who when left alone with a pile of LEGO won’t start building something. They are incredibly tactile, highly engaging and the possibilities of combining bricks is effectively limitless (no really). They are also culturally universal. When I used the basic Scrum Simulation (based on the XP Game), I found students who didn’t have a clue how to blow up a balloon, or the first idea of where to start with folding paper hats. Rolling dice, something I grew up doing, is not second nature to everyone. LEGO, on the other hand, takes a second to learn and is as inviting as you can get.

What does “For Enterprise” mean?

As I went from learner to instructor of Scrum I learned how it fit with the students I taught. A vast majority of my employers and clients have been high-tech, software focused organizations. These organizations have many things in common, among them being a high-level of Technical Debt and an underlying set of dependencies that make building new technology often like a game of Pik-Up sticks.

As I crafted the LEGO simulation I wanted to address these issues as part of the simulation. Most of the simulations I’ve experienced were very focused on the basic Scrum mechanics, with an assumption on a single team doing all the work. By bringing in the concepts of Technical Debt and Dependencies, I gave my students a starting foundation for applying Scrum in their work.

Mechanics

The simulation leverages the well-used model of compressed sprints. During the course of the three-hour simulation the teams will go through four complete sprints, from refinement to demo. This includes tracking their progress on burn-up/burn-down charts and doing planning forecasting.

The concept of the simulation is that the team is building a city from LEGO. They are responsible for everything from the roads up and must plan their layout and deal with potential resource limits (there are only so many 1×2 45° Roof Tiles in your LEGO bin) along the way.

Story Cards are two sided, with the front including the title and story details. The front also has a business value assigned in dollars and an empty box for the team to put in their level of effort estimate. The reverse side has the acceptance criteria for the story.

Technical Debt is expressed via disaster cards. In a shameless borrow, from the SimCity game series, teams get a disaster card at the start of Sprints 2-4. Like any Technical Debt, they can choose to ignore it and suffer the monetary impact, or they can take time to fix it.

Dependencies are played out through the use of roads and intersections. Nearly every story requires it to be built on a road (commercial or residential) and roads are limited in length so require intersections to piece them together. There are also acceptance criteria that dictate how far apart some buildings must be, which in turn drives the need for more roads.  When the product owner is proposing stories to the team, the team has to look at the criteria and let the PO know if a road or intersection will be required. Sad is the team that builds a perfect University and then forgets to put it on an appropriate road.

Available Creative Commons:

All my material is available for download on my Resources Page. It is shared under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 (CC BY-SA  4.0). I ask that you credit me if you use the materials and if you make modifications to the simulation, those modifications are not monetized.

I would love to get any feedback on your use of the simulation. It will help me to continue to improve and expand the simulation.

I will continue to expand this simulation, over time. I felt, though, that it was high-time I put it out for general consumption.  I realized, that after sitting on this for over a year,  I was falling into the “has to be perfect” trap of writers and not following the principles of “get it out, get feedback” of agile. For example I am releasing the Facilitator Guide without complete facilitation notes.

Go, have fun and create many awesome agile learning moments with LEGO!

 

Variations

Scaling: Probably the most commonly asked question I get is, “what about where all the teams are building to a common map?”. This request comes from the desire to see how teams would scale working on the same code base. I absolutely love this concept and once I sort out individual team model more, I intend to look into a Scaled Lego Scrum Sim.

Pre-Built: I’ve demonstrated the simulation at over a half-dozen conferences and meetups. With a short time format, I can’t run through the entire simulation. What I do is start the teams with a blank map scape for Sprint 1 and then skip them to Sprint 4. I pre-build Sprints 2 and 3 and hand these out after Sprint 1. I also give them sprint data for the two middle sprints, so they can update their information radiators. This allows people to experience the full extent of the simulation in a short time period. In the future I may explore this as more than just a demonstration and possibly a way to deliver the module faster.

Credits and Attributions:

The Lego Enterprise Scrum Simulation is based on the Scrum Simulation by Agile Learning Labs (AgileLearningLabs.com), which is in turn based on the XP Game created by Vera Peeters and Pascal Van Cauwenberghe (http://www.xp.be/xpgame.html/). It also draws inspiration from the Lego Scrum Simulation by Alexey Krivisky (http://www.lego4scrum.com).

 

The Gorilla argues that Healthy is more important than “Agile”

banana-1949166_960_720_Pixbay_CCMy world was running like a well-oiled machine.

I looked over my dashboards, flipping through tabs with a gleeful joy as I saw everything in its proper place. We had ten teams running good and proper Scrum by the Book™. All the standups were in a neat little cascade every morning, allowing myself and management to go from standup to standup like doctors making their morning rounds. Everything was being tracked and we had metrics for every little aspect of the project and product. I was seconds away from instant knowledge of any project we were working on.

All in all our transformation to agile was going supremely well. I couldn’t be happier.

“What’s that line there going down?”

Okay, I’d be happier if I didn’t have an 800 pound, invisible gorilla as a conscience.

I turned to face my gorilla. “Hogarth, it won’t work this time. Everything is going brilliantly.” I waved at the dashboards, “see, on time, on budget, etc. etc.”

The hulking form of Hogarth leaned over my shoulder and looked at my monitors for a few moments. Finally, he shrugged and looked at me. “For now…”

I goggled at him, “Can’t you ever be happy? Quit borrowing trouble from the future.”

Hogarth waved at my screens, “speaking of happy, isn’t the team happiness going down across the board?”

I grumbled to myself. A dozen metrics and he picks the only one that doesn’t look good. “Hogarth, we’re shipping more stuff than ever and it’s higher quality. More importantly, the agile transformation is a textbook rollout and working by the book™.

“So process is more important than people? I thought agile was the other way around?”

I blinked. Blinked again. Looked at Hogarth. Looked back at my screens.

“Umm…”

 

Healthy beats “agile” any day

In 2010 I started working for the Branded Products Group of Hitachi GST (now part of Western Digital). This group was responsible for taking the world-class Hitachi hard drives and putting them into consumer grade products. Or as I liked to say, “We’re building the kind of stuff you’d see on a shelf at Best Buy.” I was brought in to set up and run a program management office with a goal of establishing some predictable product release schedules. Hitachi itself had a massive Six Sigma, multi-year lead time, product lifecycle. Whereas the Branded Group was a recent acquisition that still was operating in what I call the Startup Chaos Lifecycle.

It was my first experience with consciously implementing agile practices and I have proudly held it up as an agile transformation example in the years since. When you look at the raw numbers you certainly can’t argue my efforts were successful. When I joined the company Branded was struggling to ship four projects a quarter. When I left, less than eighteen months later, the group was on track to ship over thirty projects in the quarter. A highly successful benchmark.

The question is, was it agile?

I wasn’t running Scrum or Kanban for the projects. Even in the small software team, our attempts at Scrum were highly questionable. We had weekly status meetings, not daily standups. We planned projects in an upfront planning cycle and stuck to them often despite reality telling us to stop. Our teams were operationally siloed instead of cross-functional. Almost everything you think of as “classically” agile was probably not being done. The transformation was certainly not Scrum, not Kanban and possibly not even Lean.

So was the organization agile?

Who cares…

It was healthy, it was producing rock-solid products, it was producing more per quarter than ever before and the teams had the best morale they’d ever experienced.

I absolutely believe that Scrum(XP), Kanban (and the new models emerging from both) are some of the best ways to develop products. And at the same time, I recognize that sometimes the organization is not going to be ready, able or willing to move to these agile frameworks.

Organizations, however, are ready to focus on healthy projects. Faster communication cycles will let us know if we’re off course earlier. Closer communication with the customer means we know if we are really delivering them the value they care about. Being flexible in our planning, instead of blindly marching off the cliff when we see the “Bridge Out” sign. If the organization is still writing big, upfront design documents or shipping on a yearly cadence, that’s fine, so long as they are putting a focus on the health of the project and teams.

And really, that’s what big letter Agile is about. It’s four values and twelve principles that tell us how we should work together on the delivery of a product. I’m constantly inspired by something Dr. Kevin Thompson said, in a Waterfall vs Agile panel many years ago. He was challenged that you “wouldn’t build a nuclear reactor using Scrum, would you?”. Kevin responded with “No, I wouldn’t use Scrum. I would, however, use the values and principles of agile in running the project.”

Having healthy projects is more important than the specific frameworks or methods we use. And following the values and principles of agile, even in a “waterfall” project is going to lead to healthier teams and more success.

Agile isn’t about going faster, so say yes.

Source: WikiCommons

Source: WikiCommons

“So I’ve had a great idea.” Mr. Huggle wandered into my office on one of his unannounced visits. He had a magazine rolled up in his hand and was using it like an orchestration baton. “We’re going to go agile so we can be faster!” he announced triumphantly.

Oh dear Snowbird, he’d read another article in CIOs-R-Us magazine. On the one hand my heart had skipped a beat at the mention of agile. Might I finally be able to bring my Agile PMO out of the shadows and really effect a proper transformation? On the other hand, he’d used the “go faster” catch phrase. The article he’d read was probably written by some big five consulting firm who knew as much about agile as I did about astrophysics (less than none).

“That’s great, boss.” I began tentatively. “But I’m not sure that’s the actual goal of agile, though. If you read the manifesto…”

Huggle waved dismissively. “Manifesto? This isn’t some revolutionary movement. It’s a business process implementation. The guys at McLoiterson explained away that who-ha right away.” He waved at the rolled up magazine. “I’m going to get on the phone with their sales people today and see about getting some help in for us.”

He got up and started leaving my office. Pausing he turned around to ask “Say, you know something about this agile stuff already, right?”

I nodded, mutely.

“Great, why don’t you come up with an initial plan for how we can go faster first. No reason to pay pricey consultants if we can do it ourselves.”

And with that, he was gone.

I buried my head in my hands. It was my fondest dream and my worst nightmare all at the same time. How in the world was I going to convince Mr. Huggle that agile was about so much more than speed? That is was actually not about speed at all?

“No buts about it, and time to get to work,” said a voice from the dark corners of my office. Hogarth always managed to be elsewhere when Huggle came by. But clearly, he had been close enough to hear the conversation.

I looked up as the imposing shape of my personal gorilla loomed out of the darkness. “No buts? I thought you told me to never use that word?”

Hogarth flashed a brilliant smile, “Precisely…”

 

 

 

The Manifesto Doesn’t use the word Fast Even Once!

Like a bad penny, the “Agile lets us go faster” meme pops up again and again. The concept that we will go faster if we just adopt this agile thing is naturally enticing, so it’s not surprising to see it constantly coming back up. What managers or executive doesn’t want the lure of shipping their products faster?

Now, If we were just facing hopeful leadership we could tackle this in the normal manner. Unfortunately, I’ve started seeing this pop up in the words and writings of some notable voices in circles of better business, better development, and agility. No, I’m not going to call any of it out specifically. In retrospective it’s not about who did it, it’s about what can we do better next time?

So let’s do that. What can we do about this trend? How do we address the reality, that no matter what we seem to do, the conversation always comes back to “agile makes us faster, right?”.

“Yes, And”

The trains already left the station, folks. We are not going to separate “Agile” from the perception that it’s about “Going Faster” or “Shipping Faster”, or any other implications of agile and speed. That ship has already sailed and we are not going to get that horse back in the barn, so there is no use crying over spilled milk.

So let’s stop trying and instead focus on the power word “and”. Back in 2012, I wrote “The Agreeable Gorilla: The Power of And.” In this blog, I go on at length about the improvisation exercise of using “Yes, and.” More importantly, I caution against using “But” in pretty much any conversation.

That’s what I come back to again for this conundrum. We won’t change minds, especially if we keep insisting “But agile isn’t about going faster, it’s about…” Pretty much people tune out right after the “But agile…” part.

So instead let’s try some of these things…

“Yes, and in order to realize that speed you need to focus on making strong teams.”

“Yes, and we need to set up your systems so they can support that speed.”

“Yes, and if we get the coding faster, without improving how we test, we won’t be able to release any faster.”

We all know that you can go faster with agile. Sure, faster is not always what you need to be doing. And sometimes it is far better to go with the popular flow and use the enthusiasm of the “going faster” people to channel the organization towards healthy and sustainable agile.

The not so secret ingredients of the Gorilla Coach Cookbook

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

“I don’t understand, it was a textbook implementation! I should have been able to do it with my eyes closed. ”

For once, I was talking to my gorilla willingly. Well not so much willingly. It was more I had no choice since the only other “person” in my home office was Hogarth. Of course, Hogarth didn’t seem to be listening. He was more intent on the garden just outside my window. I could almost see him cataloging the various plants. The long and hungry look he gave the ancient wisteria was troublesome.

Oblivious to this, I continued my rant. “I did exactly what they asked for, I executed letter perfect to the book. We had scrum rolled out to all twenty teams in record time. Heck, you couldn’t walk ten feet in their office without running into an information radiator.” Noticing Hogarth was not paying attention,  I turned to glare at him. “You’re not helping me at all!”

Hogarth reluctantly tore his gaze away from the garden view. “Why do you need me, like you said it was a textbook roll out. What do you think caused the failure?”

“What do I think?…” I stared at him open-mouthed. “If I knew I wouldn’t be talking to you now would I?”

Hogarth just kept looking at me.

“Fine!” I threw up my hands. “Let’s see. The first problem I noticed was the timebox kept getting broken.” I waved my hand at Hogarth, “That wasn’t it though, they actually had existing SLAs and agreements in place that supported interrupting the teams.”

“Existing processes you say?” said Hogarth. “How might you have learned about them?”

“I did learn about them!” I grumbled. “I just didn’t learn soon enough.”

Hogarth nodded. “Uh huh… Tell me what was it you wanted me to do again?”

Was he serious? “Damn it, Hogarth, I want you to listen to me. Just listen, don’t try and fix the problem. Don’t be the damned expert, just listen so I can work this out…”

My words trailed off to nothing. Hogarth had done it to me again.

 

You have to be agile to be successful in agile

Note: This blog is based on the article I had published on AgileConnections.com in January of this year. 

The problem with the classic playbook model is it follows a fairly standard set of steps. Sure, you might alter the timing a little, the overall process though is pretty much set down. No, it’s not as bad as that call center script the agent used on you last week. However, it can still lead to pretty upset customers as you try and roll out something that doesn’t work for them. “But I was just following the plan” isn’t going to save your engagement.

Even reaching all the way back into my project management days, I realize that I understood this unconsciously and managed to suppress that unconscious knowledge time and again in order to “follow the process” like I had been trained to do.

Perhaps it was my background in 1990’s era computer game technical support, where every customer’s problem was just a little different or just plain common sense that drove that not listened to, subconscious realization. It would take a decade of project management and a good five years of agile coaching before I came to the conscious understanding that it wasn’t the process, it was the ingredients.

Think of each customer like an episode of Iron Chef (America or the original Japan). Your judges (customers) are different every time. The live audience (additional stakeholders) will have a different energy. The secret ingredient (unique challenge) is always different. And your sous chefs (team) might even change from challenge to challenge.
What is almost always a constant though, is your pantry (tools) and basic kitchen appliances (core process frameworks). Having a strong mastery of these cooking basics allows you to assemble ingredients in unique ways and cook them to meet the needs of the customer.

What are my “Go To” ingredients and kitchen appliances, we all have them? Bobby Flay is going to reach for BBQ of some kind. If Michael Symon doesn’t use bacon at least once we think he’s ill and Mario Batali was sure to reach for some kind of pasta. You could also count on the blast chiller and ovens getting used in every episode.

So what do I always reach for?

Three ingredients and two appliances.

Three “Go To” Ingredients

Organization-wide education

Education is a key to any transition. I’ve learned that education normally needs to happen early, and it needs to be organization-wide for it to be most effective. If teams are trained differently on what agile means, it can lead to what essentially amounts to language barriers. Educating everyone at once leads to shared understanding and support. You can read my Agile Connections article for more on my Education First recommendations.

Observation phase

The principle here is “Do no harm.” When you first start an agile transformation, be it as a new hire or in a new project, you are almost always an outsider. You need to build trust before you can make a difference. The best way I’ve found to build relationships and trust is through asking questions and listening. Until you understand, you can not help guide change. I delve more into building team relationships in this Agile Connections article.

Engagement phase

This phase is what most people think of when they think of an agile transformation: the agile coach rolling up his sleeves and diving in to help individual teams. Doing hands-on facilitating with one-on-one coaching is a vital part of a transformation.

My key component for a successful agile transformation is to focus on one thing at a time. After engaging with the team, it’s typical to come away with a dozen observations as well as the team’s own reflections from their retrospectives. When faced with a huge list of things that can be “improved,” it can be very easy to start tackling it all, but you should fight that urge.

In agile, we coach teams to focus on one user story at a time, and it’s no different for improvements, impediments, and blockers. Start a team backlog for things the team wants to improve. Have them pick only one thing to work on at a time, and when they reach that goal, move the “story” down the backlog.

Two Key Appliances

Inspect and adapt cycle

One of the most underused agile tools is the retrospective. We tend to limit retrospectives to the team level, focusing only on the previous sprint. If you replace the tires on your car and ignore all other maintenance, it won’t matter how great those tires are—eventually, the car will stop running.

Retrospectives need to move beyond the team to the entire organization. You must apply the principles of continuous improvement to all levels of the organization on a constant basis.

And remember, inspect and adapt are two separate steps. We can be really great at finding problems, then do poorly on fixing them. Without the follow-through, inspection is pointless. You need to create an organization-level impediment backlog that is tracked and managed by the leadership team.

Assessment & Self-Supporting Metrics

People in any organization have a driving need to know how they are doing. In the case of an agile transformation, we always want to know two things: When will we be done, and is this agile thing working? To this end, metrics provide a vital service to the health and well-being of an organization and some kind of organizational assessment tool tells us if the transformation itself is being successful (You can be shipping tons of new value and still be failing).

With metrics, as I advocated in my previous blog, “Metrics: The third rail of agile adoption” you need to have interlocking metrics so you don’t fall afoul of Goodhart’s Law and have the teams gaming the system to satisfy leadership’s desire for some imposed goal. Using metrics responsibly is also vital. I give detailed advice on the responsible use of metrics in this article.

For organizational assessment, be consistent. If you measure one car in miles per gallon and the other in feet per second, you just end up confusing things. A common set of assessment tools allows everyone to track to the same understanding. I delve more into how to pick a good assessment strategy in this Agile Connections article.

The Cookbook doesn’t care about Frameworks

One thing I want to make sure to call out. Everything written here is totally agnostic of what frameworks or methodologies you are putting in place. Whether you are using Scrum or Kanban, SAFe or LESS, or whatever my go to things don’t change. Think of these frameworks and methodologies like the set of an Iron Chef. I don’t care if I’m in LA or New York, inside or outside. At the end of the day, I’m still going to reach for the same core ingredients and tools to roll out whatever agile framework is best for the customer.

Am I an Iron Agilist?

Okay, I have my “go to” ingredients and appliances, so what?  Plenty of challengers have faced the Iron Chefs with a “go to” approach and failed.  Am I winning any Iron Agiist competitions?

Well in one of my most recent agile transformations I have close to two years of data showing the before and after of their agile transformation. In a twenty team transformation, the overwhelming majority of teams saw thirty percent or more improvement in predictability, reduction in cycle time, and increase in velocity. They all also saw strong improvements in organizational maturity and happiness.

The biggest change always happened after education. After a team had gone through one of my two-day training, they always saw a marked improvement in their metrics.

Oh, one last thing. You know how every Iron Chef tries to use the Ice Cream maker and it almost always fails (trout ice cream anyone?). Be on the lookout for your agile ice cream maker. For the longest time, my ice cream maker was the C-Suite. I had to learn how to work with them to advance as an iron agilist.

 

Metrics: Third Rail of Agile Adoption

“Am I good or what?” The question was, of course, rhetorical, I was alone in my office. I

Photo Courtesy of: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bike/

Photo Courtesy of: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bike/

couldn’t help it though, I was pleased as punch and nothing was going to ruin my great mood.

“Or what?…”

Not even an 800-pound invisible gorilla.

“Go away, Hogarth, you can’t ruin my mood today. I’m on top of the world.”

Ignoring me, Hogarth ambled into my office. Spotting my new fichus, he plopped himself down and tore a branch from the tree. Around a mouthful of leaves, he asked: “So, agile adoption going well?”

His question instantly dispelled my annoyance at his assault on my plant. “Yes, yes it is.” I turned the monitor around so he could see. “Just look at these velocity trends! Every team is hitting or exceeding their velocity targets and we’re only three sprints in. It’s absolutely fantastic!”

Hogarth leaned in and intently studied the flat screen display. “Impressive. That’s got to be one of the fastest velocity growths I’ve ever seen. What did you do differently this time?”

“Hey, I’m just good. Awesome training, great coaching. Oh, and I bet the incentive program really helped out.”

Hogarth cocked his head to the side, “Incentive program?”

I leaned back smugly, “Oh, yeah. If the teams hit the velocity goals then they get a cash bonus and we’re going to hold a huge party at Humdingers Resort.”

Hogarth nodded, making some appreciative sounding grunts. I’d finally gotten to him. He was speechless.

After a long gaze at the monitor, he turned to me and gave one of his brilliant white smiles. “Sounds like a real Goodhart moment.”

It was my turn to cock my head in confusion. “A Goodhart moment?”

My gorilla nodded at me, “Uh huh. A well known British economist has an economic concept named after him. The layman’s version of Goodhart’s Law states, ‘When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.'”

I looked at Hogarth. I looked at the velocity reports. I looked at Hogarth. “You mean…”

He nodded, “Yup, those velocity metrics are about as useful as wheels on a speed boat. They look good spinning, but they are not really doing anything.”

 

Metrics- Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.

“Metrics are not bad, managers using metrics improperly is bad.” was a quote I sent out on Twitter (@JBC_GC) during Agile Open Northwest 2017. The session was “Why do metrics get a bad rap?” and it was a lively conversation with some surprising outcomes.

I’ve had a lot of success with the healthy use of team metrics. I’ve used the afore mentioned Goodhart’s Law as a conversation starter on the good use of metrics many times. And despite my success with team metrics I had never really articulated, to myself or others, what the disconnect between team metrics and management’s desire to set goals on those team metrics was. Turns out it is rather a simple thing.

Managers don’t actually care about metrics. They care about success.

Managers want to know if the product will ship on time or with the promised features or with the promised value, or all of the above. They end up using team metrics because it’s all they have. And in the classic square peg in a round hole scenario, they were hitting the square peg with the hammer to make it fit.

And how’s that worked out for us? Even in the well run agile project, the ability to tie team estimates and metrics to actual shipping dates is a highly mixed bag. We are horrible at estimating, to the point that the #NoEstimate movement is gaining traction through being right. This, however, is not a rant about how bad we are at estimating, using no estimates or even bad metrics. It is instead a look at what we can do about this disconnect between Team Metrics and Management need.

Step 1: Recognize managers need better forecasts, not better metrics.

Step 2: Stop using Team Metrics for forecasting.

Step 3: Give managers the tools to let them forecast.

 

Step 1: Recognize managers need better forecasts, not better metrics.

The best use of metrics is “as a lagging indicator of if we might want to talk to the team and see if they need help.” This is the coaching advice I give to management and teams, usually shortly after quoting Goodhart’s law. Metrics will not tell you when a team will get done without the risk that the metric will run afoul of the wisdom of Mr. Goodhart.

Just as you want to know if you should pack an umbrella tomorrow (or wear sunglasses, or get your snow blower ready), management wants to know if the project will be successful. A totally and perfectly valid request. Only you don’t use team metrics for this. Even when metrics are used as the source data, they are still being used to forecast. We look at velocity trends to estimate when a team will be done. That’s forecasting, not metrics.

Step 2: Stop using Team Metrics for forecasting:

Performance based on incentives doesn’t work. When we try and use metrics to drive performance we get Goodhart’s Law. The example I like to give comes from the book Freakanomics.

To summarize: India was having a problem with cobras. To address the problem the government came up with a great idea. They would give a bounty on every cobra head turned into the government. The program was a rousing success, just not in the way the government intended. People started raising cobras just so they could collect the bounty. In short order, India’s cobra problem was even larger than before the bounty was put in place.

If you tell a team they must make a March 15th release date. They will very likely hit that date or come really darn close. And then the company ends up dealing with bugs for the next five years. “When a measure becomes a target, the measure is no longer valid.” If you’re struggling to get your message heard, you might try showing them Dan Pink’s RSA Animate video to reinforce that knowledge skill teams don’t work best from incentives, they work best from Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.

Of course, not everyone is going to listen, even when they pay us for our advice.  Which is why I advocate limiting the metrics used and make them interlocking. Game one metric and the others will react in the negative. My four metrics are based on Jeff Sutherland’s three recommended metrics and a fourth I’ve had a lot of success with. They are:

  1. Cycle Time
  2. Escaped Defects
  3. Happiness Metrics
  4. Planned to Done Ratio

If you game cycle time so it’s really short, quality will almost certainly suffer. Let quality slip and you see an increase in cycle time and escaped defects. If planned to done is too high, then quality is probably suffering. And if metric 1, 2 and 4 are all really great and happiness is suffering then you have a strong indicator that you’re burning out your team.

Step 3: Give managers the tools to let them forecast.

This one is really easy. Stop reading my blog and go to FocusedObjectives.com. Troy Magennis has crossed the streams of mathematics, classic project management forecasting and agile to come up with a tool that allows managers to forecast when a team(s) or feature(s) will either be done or if it will hit the desired schedule.

 

I’ve seen this tool in action and heard stories from several users of Troy’s Forecasting approach. With this tool, the managers no longer need detailed metrics from the team. They can build forecasts based on as little as a half dozen data points, which can even be made up for initial forecasts. With just cycle time data points, you can run massive Monte Carlo simulations to get 80-90% accuracy on your forecasts (note, anyone who claims 100% accuracy is also gaming the system, or in denial).

 

So keep team metrics focused on improving the team. Give management their own tool for forecasting schedules and/or capacity. Then watch as the results of this is the teams getting, even more, work done, with greater predictability, and greater happiness.

Just say “No” to Gorilla Debt in your Teams

By ccPixs.com

Debt Free by ccPixs.xom

You’d think with the amount of time I spend hitting my head on my desk it would have a permanent dent by now.

My most recent forehead abuse was brought short by the one thing I hated more than coaching a team that thought they we’re already perfect. The deep, rumbling bass of my personal gorilla cut through the sound of my head hitting the desk. “The SPFA called, they are filing a restraining order against you for furniture abuse.”

I blinked and looked up at the hulking form of my conscience in physical form. Why couldn’t I have a little cricket like Pinocchio? It would be so much easier to lock him in a jar and toss him in the ocean. “The SPFA?”

Hogarth  nodded, “Yep, the Society for the Prevention of Furniture Abuse. Their motto is ‘Desks Have Feelings Too’.”

“Go away Hogarth, I’m busy.”

Hogarth broke a branch off the nearest office plant and plopped into a chair next to my desk. “Pretty sure, destroy desk with forehead isn’t the most important thing on your backlog. What’s up?”

I sighed, he wasn’t going to go away so I might as well get this all over with. “The team didn’t take into account planned vacations and the product owner used their expected velocity to promise a feature to sales. Half the team was out and the other half was almost totally consumed by blocker bugs.”

Hogarth asked, “Didn’t they have this issue the last three months ago?” 

I nodded.

“And I seem to recall it was raised after the first sprint, over six months ago. Right?”

I nodded again.

“Well,” Hogarth said. “Sounds just like that problem you had with the original login server not being able to scale beyond 1000 simultaneous logins.”

“Don’t be silly, Hogarth”  I snapped. “You know very well we already fixed that issue two sprints ago.”

Hogarth was smiling, I hate it when he smiles like that, it usually means I’m about to be setup. “That’s right, we did didn’t we? How is it we took care of that?”

I didn’t know where he was taking this and I couldn’t just leave it alone, “We identified it as Technical Debt. We put it into the product backlog and worked with the product owner to prioritize it alongside new feature work.”

Hogarth nodded, “So we had  a problem with the product architecture, we recognized it and put it into a backlog with everything else to be prioritized?”

“Yes!” This was starting to get annoying since he was just reviewing what we all knew. Where was he going with this?

“So where is the backlog for the problems with the team? ” Hogarth asked.

Backlog for the team’s problems, like we do for Technical Debt?  Team Debt?

And he’d done it again…

 

Team Debt is just as destructive as Technical Debt

If you have any doubt that we are worried about the effects of Technical Debt, just Google the term. I get just over one million hits when I do. With the concept of agile development now considered in the mainstream, for software development if not all product development, the recognition that we can’t build our way out of technical problems with new features is taking firm hold. While how we approach it may still be an area of wide debate (TDD, BDD, dedicated legacy teams, rip and replace architecture, etc.) we are coming to a fundamental agreement that we need to slow down and deal with the problems we’ve created before we can speed up and build the next wave.

What about our teams though? It can be very easy to forget that agile is not just a new product lifecycle process (PLC). We have been so ingrained that PLC process is about what we are building that we often forget that agile is as much about “who” is building something as “what” we are building.

“Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done” –Principle 5  of the Agile Manifesto

Team Debt is the term I use to describe the impediments, issues and blockers that prevent the team from improving. Where testing and product usage will generally uncover your products Technical Debt, it is the Team Retrospectives, manager one-on-ones and coaching observations that will uncover the Team Debt. On the whole, something we are getting pretty good at doing in most agile organizations. Thanks to Scrum, we have built in the concept of the retrospective at the end of every sprint which gives us the mechanism to uncover our impediments.

Of course knowing the problem is only half the battle. We see this with Technical Debt all the time. Sure we know that our infrastructure can’t handle over a 1000 simultaneous logins, or that our core server has legacy code no one even remembers who wrote. We’ve known this for years and we’ve never done anything about it because we were too busy build the next new, wizbang, feature instead.

So just as we need to put Technical Debt into our product backlog and actually prioritize it to be fixed, we need to discover, track and address Team Debt.

The Impediment Backlog

Here, at AOL (Yes, AOL, they  are still around and doing cool stuff in 2016),  I’ve been experimenting with the concept of creating an Impediment Backlog. Just as the product has a backlog of everything we want to do with it, we need a backlog to track the issues impacting the teams. I’ve started coaching my teams to create an impediment backlog and include items from it into their Sprint Planning right alongside items from the Product Backlog. I’m also advocating for the creation of an Organization Impediment Backlog where we track cross and multi-team issues that cannot be solved at the team level.

By making the issues visible and putting them into the same formats as our Product Backlog, we can more easily understand and fit them into our day to day processes. If it looks like a duck, and we’re in the business of making ducks, then it will fit right in. If it looks like a fork and we’re in the business of making ducks then we’re likely to ignore it.

Ask me in a few months how we’re doing, it’s an experiment in the making.

How Agile Coaches are Like Vampires?

Dracula

By Screenshot from “Internet Archive” of the movie Dracula (1958)

For the love of!!!” I bit off my oath before it could move into not safe for work territory. Resisting the urge to slam the door I walked into my office. It had been another banner day in the world of agile coaching and I was ready to collapse into my chair so I could drown my sorrows in Facebook.

 

“Shhhh…. this is the best part”

I did a double take as I realized my chair, heck my entire desk was occupied. With his size gargantuan feet propped up on my desk, Hogarth the Gorilla was watching a video on my monitor screen.

“Hogarth, what the heck are you doing?” Only after speaking did I realize I probably didn’t want to know the answer.

“Watching a movie” he said. His hands were crossed over his chest so only his finger moved when he pointed to the screen and continued, “Bloody revenge of the Nosferatu Clan, awesome 1930’s era flick.” Turning his head towards me ever so slightly he then asked “How’d the coaching go today?”

“Huh, what?” I was thrown by his sudden change of conversation and quickly forgot all about his misuse of my computer as I recalled my day. Tossing myself into the guest chair I sighed, “Lousy, absolutely lousy.” I started ticking off my fingers. “One of the teams is in a tailspin after a disastrous planning meeting, to which I was not invited.” I ticked my second finger, “Another team can’t get anything done in a sprint and seems to think they don’t need to do retrospectives they just need to work harder, and they won’t listen to any of my advice.” I ticked a third finger, “I held a story splitting workshop for the scrum masters and product owners, only no one showed up. Too busy they say.” I started to raise a fourth finger when Hogarth raised a hand to stop me.

You know?,” Hogarth began. I knew this lead in. His next words were going to be some brilliant epiphany that even though I’d want to deny it, he’ d be right. I just sipped my coffee, waiting for the gorilla to drop.

“Agile coaches are really a lot like vampires.”

“What?” I spluttered coffee across the desk in my shock. There was no way this was some brilliant epiphany. Hogarth had finally cracked. “How on earth is my job like that of a blood sucking soulless demon? I am not an attorney!”

Hogarth waved to the monitor screen. On it the vampire was thrashing about in an open doorway unable to reach his intended victim who was only just inside the door. “Vampires have to be invited in.”

Invited in? Hogarth was relating me to an evil creature of the night and how it couldn’t cross the threshold of your home if you didn’t invite it. As long as you didn’t invite it, it was powerless to do anything.

Oh…

And once again, Hogarth had hit the crux of the issue.

 

How are Agile Coaches like Vampires?

  1. We have to be invited in.
  2. Our greatest power lies in influence.
  3. We need blood to survive.
  4. A stake through the heart destroys us.

We have to be invited in: Fans of 90’s era Buffy the Vampire Slayer will know this one very well. Vampires can’t cross the threshold of your home without your permission. So long as you don’t invite them in, they are stuck outside throwing taunts and jeers at you.

Whether you’re consulting or a full-time coach, if you don’t have an invitation you are not going to be effective. Something you learn in life coaching is that success requires something akin to a ‘rules of engagement’ with your client. You can’t just show up and start telling them what to do.  If your coaching client doesn’t want your help, or doesn’t want it in a certain way, no amount of talking or prodding is going to make you successful.

It’s the same thing for agile coaching. Even if the CEO personally hires you, and anoints you as the holy expert of agile, if you don’t get buy in from the teams, you won’t be effective at all. You can’t force yourself on the teams, you have to make yourself valuable to them. Start by asking questions, gathering feedback and observing what is happening with the teams. The act of doing this will help to build trust with your teams. You won’t be able to do anything without that trust.

Our greatest power lies in influence:  If you ever watched the 1990’s Dracula, with Gary Oldman and Keanu Reeves (You can be forgiven if you didn’t ), there was a big emphasis put on this aspect of a vampire’s power. And no wonder they have these power, when sunlight kills you, holy objects burn you and common garden herbs make you recoil, it’s hard to use the direct approach to get to your victims. So vampires use their mental powers to lure their victims into their deadly embrace.

Like the vampire, the agile coach can’t bull their way through a transformation. In order to be effective, they need to use personality and influence. We’re talking about “soft skills” here. You know, those things that have been made fun of for the last three decades, only suddenly now people are realizing they really matter (thanks to influencers like Sinek, Pink and Gladwell). The agile coach has needs to ask what the team think instead of trying to tell them. You have to let the team find the answer, not push it in their face.

We need blood to survive:  Okay, bit of a stretch so stay with me. Vampires need life force to survive. They get this through the blood of their victims.

Agile Coaches need energy as well, the energy of interaction. If we are locked away in a tower, with no interaction, we are not effective, we will fade away. If a motor is not used, it will stop working.  Having really smart coaches sitting in some central office, writing blogs, giving remote advice and the like is a waste of good assets and won’t make your teams better.

A stake through the heart destroys us:  Well, yeah wouldn’t a stake through the heart kill you too?

So yes, Agile Coaches are a lot like vampires. We need to look to be invited, we need to build trust with the teams, we need to be a light in the dark and we need to wear sunscreen outside.

Have you invited your agile coach in lately?

What kind of Agile Gorilla should I hire?

Snow PlowHint, the answer is yes…

“Arrrrgghhhh” I let my head fall to my desk with a resounding thud.  I let the momentum of the bounce  carry my head down again, and again, and again. Honestly I’m surprised my desk hasn’t broken with the number of times my head and it have come into repeated and violent contact.

I honestly don’t know how Don Quixote was able to tilt at all those windmills. After months of tilting at windmills I was utterly wiped out. It seemed every time I made a little progress, something would come along and drag me back into the quagmire of command and control  planning cycles.

“How on earth am I supposed to engineer an agile transformation when  no one in the organization even knows what agile is?” I muttered into the darkness of my office.

“That’s your problem” came a reply from out of that darkness.

I sighed. Just what I needed, as if trying to swim against the tide of anti-agile wasn’t enough, now I had to deal with my 800-pound gorilla conscience telling me just what I did wrong.

Looming out of the darkness, I could just make out Hogarth’s outline. “What now, Hogarth? Can’t you see I’m busy denting my desk?”

He gave a nod as he settled onto the edge of my desk. The desk gave a groan of protest, which Hogarth ignored instead producing a branch of bamboo from somewhere. The only bamboo I knew of in the office was in the CEO’s office and I cringed to think of what worse could happen to me if the CEO found out my gorilla ate his plant. “Relax” he said, waving the bamboo at me. “Bamboo plants over-night from Amazon prime.” He pointed at the spot where my head had been impacting the desk, “so problems with the agile transformation again?”

I leaned back with a sigh, “Yes,” I rubbed my face, “they know they want to go agile, but they haven’t the first clue what it is and every time I try and suggest something I get pigeonholed back into my little box. I can’t make any progress because they haven’t even gotten started. Resistance to change is high. I don’t know what to do.”

Hogarth shrugged, “not much now. It’s what should have been done before you even got here.”

I looked at him confused, “Huh?”

“Before you can pave the road, the path must first be found.”

I glared at my gorilla. He had a knack for pulling just the right quote from history to make his point and I’d been burned enough times by this that I was learning to ask before snapping. “Okay, who said that?”

“I did,” Hogarth said with a certain amount of smugness.

I blinked. He’d done it to me again. Just when I thought I had this whole invisible, conscience gorilla thing figured out he’d done it again. Then I stopped and blinked again. Realization dawned on me. He’d done it twice.

“The path must be found…” I muttered.

 

Should I hire an Agile Contractor, Agile Consultant, or Agile FTE Coach?

In my last blog, “To FTE or not to FTE” I looked at the Consultant, Contractor, FTE question from the point of view of the Agile Coach. Here I want to discuss it from the hiring company’s perspective. What are the pros and cons of hiring different types of agile coaches?

Full Time Agile Coach: A paid employee of the company, the Full Time Agile Coach is in for the long-haul. They are directly invested in the long-term well being of the company, often in the extremely measurable form of stocks and options. While still relatively uncommon, there are several notable companies using full-time coaches to help their scrum masters and scrum teams. As I write this I’m working  for AOL as one of four internal coaches. Salesforce.com has a large agile coach team to support its 1500 plus scrum teams. Other companies I know that have used full-time coaches at some point are Twitter, Lending Club, Fit Bit and General Electric.

Benefits of hiring a Full-Time Coach:  It is an oft stated truism that you are never truly done with an agile transformation. It’s an ongoing journey that never ends. And if your journey is never truly over, having a full-time coach means you have someone helping you no matter when or where you are in your journey. Think of it this way, when the Denver Broncos won the Superbowl, in Feb 2016, did they say “Oh we’re the best now, we don’t need our coaches anymore?” Not likely, while sports team coaching staff may change, what doesn’t change is the need for them. Having the full-time coach means you always have access to this critical resource. Something else you gain is organizational knowledge. There is only so much you can learn about a company in the common 30-90 day consulting arrangement. Your full time coach knows the people, the process, the history and where all the minefields are. They don’t have to “come up to speed” and have plenty of time to build strong relationships.

Downsides of hiring a Full-Time Coach:  The downside to a Full-Time coach is that being part of the system impacts their ability to effect large-scale change. Unless your agile coach is a vice-president or higher role, with a big army of directs, they rarely have the positional / role authority to make changes. This leaves them working from within the system on their influence power. This can slow down change and if you are just starting out, can make it very hard on the coach and the company. Often to the point of the transformations failing and the coach looking for a new job. When this happens, it is not usually not the coaches fault.

Consultant Agile Coach: The hired guns of the business world. The have deep expertise and a broad background of knowledge gleaned from many clients and past jobs. The consultant’s job is to come in, solve the problem and then ride off into the sunset while you murmur “who was that masked coach?”.

Benefits to hiring an Agile Consultant: They are the expert. You hire them because they have a deep well of knowledge on your problem. They know how to fix pretty much any problem you may have and thanks to the “hired gun” aura, they can actually get the problems fixed. Even the lowest tier consultant carries the authority equal to a director (a manager of managers) and often has the aura of authority to go all the way up to the CEO and direct what should be done. When you need something done and done fast, hiring a consultant is often the most expedient solution.

Downside of hiring an Agile Consultant: Eventually your hero-for-hire is going to leave. And that is usually a fixed schedule event. It’s the rare consultant who stays until the work is done (scope driven). So just like your average product release, they have a fixed schedule and way more features than they can ever hope to deliver. This requires the consultant to work fast to get everything done. And like in software, when you work under a pressure deadline, they will often end up sacrificing quality or documentation. When the consultant rides off into the sunset your implementation may be incomplete, have undetected flaws, still have organizational resistance or lack the education hand-off needed to sustain the change. I know of many agile transformations that were initial successes and then slid back into their old waterfall ways because they lacked a sustaining force.

Consultants also come in two major flavors, Independent and “Firm”.

The independent consultant is a sole proprietor business, sometimes with a support staff and sometimes not. They can also range from the small name shop up to a “named” agile thought leader. When you hire an independent you know you have their attention. If you hire one of the “names” you also get their specific expertise, which is often what everyone else bases their work on (If you hire Jeff Sutherland, you know you’ve got the expert on Scrum theory). However the Indie is also always going to be partially unfocused. They always have to be sourcing their next client. Even with a support staff, you often need the consultant to make sales calls to close deals. For the smaller independents, they can be a great choice for a small company getting started.

Hiring a “Firm” means you are often getting the combined knowledge of the whole organization. Even if only one coach shows up, that coach has the backing of their firm and can tap into the tribal knowledge.  Three of the most notable firms that fall into this category are SolutionsIQ, Leading Agile, LeanDog and Thoughtworks. Other Firms are more like a talent scout, finding really good independent talent and connecting them with the best fit. cPrime and Agile Transformations are a great example of this type as they work with many independent coaches, while also having an internal practice org that supports them.  Hiring a Firm comes with a lot of benefits on the engagement, however they can often be more expensive than the small indie coach. Though likely less expensive than one of the “named” independents.

Contractor Agile Coach: The hourly agile coach. Like the brilliant coffee aficionado, working behind the Starbucks counter, their knowledge and skills are often not seen or used because of the perception they are just a “temp” or the “hired help”.  Added to all the other issues, contractors have plenty of rules around them so that they never really one of your employees and rarely have support from a parent company like a consultant.

Benefits to hiring an Agile Coach Contractor: There isn’t. Companies that hire contractor coaches are losing out on nearly all the benefits of either the FTE or the Consultant. The only real value comes in the lower costs and being able to source them from contract firms (there are several that either specialize in agile or do a lot of agile business). However, you get what you pay for. While scrum masters as contractors works out okay, coaches as contractors is bad for the coach, bad for the business and I’m not aware of any successfully sustained successful transformations with a contractor coach.

Downside of hiring an Agile Coach Contractor: You get what you paid for. Contractors are usually considered “Staff Augmentation.” This puts them into the org structure like an FTE, only they generally end up at the bottom of the social and role power pecking order. Coaches need to have stability or authority to operate and get neither as a contractor. As Nancy Reagan used to say “Just say no.”

So… (Conclusion)

Let’s get the hard and fast out of the way. Never hire an agile coach as a contractor. While this is an excellent tactic for a Scrum Master, for an agile coach you are getting none of the benefits and all the of downsides possible. It may save you money and it may be easy. And you will get exactly what you pay for. Every company I’ve heard of, that tried to use contractor coaches to work an agile transformation, has not only failed to make any real change, they have burned through multiple coaches and gotten  a poor reputation in the agile community.

So then, Consultant or FTE Coach? 

Both…

My belief and recommendation is that for a successful agile transformation to take hold in an enterprise company, one must take a little from column A and a little from column B.

Start by hiring a good enterprise-class agile consulting company. Bring them in to help you find your path and get you on it. They will have the ability to overcome the institutional inertia and get the transformation rolling. Part of their transformation work though is to set you up for success once they have left. Before they leave they need to help you raise up an internal resource or bring in an external resource to carry on as your full-time coach.

The full-time coach (or coaches) will then carry forward using the inertia of the agile consulting firm. They will keep the transformation on the rails and act as the guides whenever things start to get lost.

By combining the authority change-agent power of the consultant, with the stable expertise of the full-time coach, you will greatly enhance the chances you will be successful in the long run.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gorilla asks: “To FTE or not FTE? That is the question.”

Or why I choose to be a full-time coach.Monkey-Yorick

“Explain to me again why we’re going to be renaming projects ‘missions’ and our teams are now ‘squadrons’?”

My boss waved his hand vaguely, “It’s the new consultants we brought in. Bunch awesome hot-shots. Their workshop was totally eye opening. I mean the military has been running fast projects for decades. Why didn’t we think of it sooner?”

‘Because we’re a data processing company with absolutely zero to do with the military’, I thought.

“Anyway,” he continued, “I think we should roll their recommendations out. You’re the coach, what do you think?”

What did I think? I tried to fathom the depths of his question and failing that I went with the obvious. “Well it’s hard for me to say. I didn’t go to the training so all I have is this promotional flyer you just handed me.”

My boss nodded gravely. “Yeah, that was unfortunate. But you’re a contractor so the company can’t send you to training.” He clapped his hands on the desk, and pushed himself to his feet. “Tell you what, spend some time Googling it and give me an assessment tomorrow. I’ve got to get to the strategy planning meeting.”

I started to open my mouth only to have my boss wave me to silence. “I know, I know. It would be so much easier if you could be in the meeting. Confidential company data and all though. I’ll brief you on what you need to know tomorrow.”

And with that he was gone, leaving me in his office staring at the flyer of some consultant, who I didn’t get to talk to, that I was supposed to give my opinion on how to implement. I buried my head in my hands and contemplated becoming a beat farmer.

“Hey,” the voice was deep and earthy “was that your boss I just saw walk into a conference room with those Fly Right Consultants?”

Oh my day couldn’t get any worse. Not only was my own personal gorilla here to torment me, he was telling me even the consultants get to go to the meeting I should be running. “Go away Hogarth, I’m not in the mood.” 

“Yeah well how do you think I feel. You try explaining to the security rhino why you need a security pass when you’re just the figment of a contractor’s imagination. You’d think a fellow hourly guy would have some sympathy for my plight.”

I hadn’t sufficiently tuned out Hogarth and what he said pierced into my brain, jumping me into action. “Holy …., I forgot to put in my time card!” I started to jump from my chair only to be stopped by Hogarth’s massive hand in front of my face.

“Don’t worry, I turned it in for you this morning?”

I blinked. “This morning! It’s 6:00 pm how can you know how many hours I worked today?”

Hogarth gave a dismissive shrug. “It’s not like that matters, you know they’ll only pay you for forty hours no matter how many you actually work.”

Not for the first time I came to the conclusion that being a contractor sucks.

 

Agile Contractor, Agile Consultant, Agile Coach, the continuum

There are several paths to becoming an agile coach (leader, champion, guru, insert your adjective of choice).  The most common path starts first with being a scrum master and then moving up into being an agile coach. A less common path is doing program management in an agile organization and moving from there into agile coaching.

What about once you are an agile coach? What then? How will you collect your paycheck? What is your place in the organization? As I see it, there are three paths one can take as an agile coach. Coach, Consultant, Contractor. Let’s review how these work, their pros and cons.

Full Time Agile Coach: A full time coach is perhaps the rarest form of agile employee you will find today (2016). While full-time scrum masters are not uncommon, the coach is more often a consultant or contractor with a sharply limited engagement. And I see this as a tragedy. The full-time coach is perhaps the most effective and cost-efficient solution a company will find.  Sure, being a full-time coach does not offer the short-term satisfaction that consulting does. What it does offer is stability, trust and the ability to make real changes.

Benefits of being a Full-Time Coach: Longevity and trust. As a full-time coach you are not under the tight time windows so often imposed on consultants. And being full-time means you have the time and position to build trust with your teams, manager and company. In a good company (life’s to short not to work for good companies) you have the time to get to know your teams and build up relationships and trust before you start getting into the deep work of agile coaching.

Downsides of being a Full-Time Coach:  You’re in the system. When you are inside of a company, reporting into the management structure and working within the politics, you lose a certain amount of authority and power. You can’t call on the “hero for hire” aura to push through your ideas. You may know the exact right thing that needs to be done. That’s great, now you have to convince  your management. It can be a frustratingly teeth gnashing feeling to know and not be able to do. You also have to get used to change moving slower. Your company isn’t losing you at the end of the contract and working hard to push everything through.

Consultant Agile Coach: As a consultant you can feel like one of the Magnificent Seven (either the Samurai or  Western version). You are hired for your specific expertise and when you come into an organization your word carries a voice of authority that can sway the course of CEOs much less the rank and file employee. You need to speak that authority fast though and you need to make it stick because you won’t be around for long.

Benefits to being an Agile Consultant: The “Expert” aura. Companies pay good money to hire consultants. Something about investing lot’s of money in you means you’re listened to; given access to people, meetings, and information; even given a certain amount of authority to make changes.  It’s a really big advantage. It is however pretty much your only advantage.  Yes, it is common for consultants to know a lot and have a deeper set of experiences than your average Full-Time or Contract Coach. This is not a benefit though, it’s just a recognition that currently the consultant space draws a high percentage of the top tier coaches. The other advantage of being a consultant is shared with contractors, that being “control of destiny”. A consultant, particularly the independent consultant, gets to pick and choose their clients and can choose to work or not work. A full time coach doesn’t get to say “I don’t like this team, I’m not working with them.” A consultant can do this (though if they do it too often they find their phone stops ringing).

Downside of being an Agile Consultant: The agile consultants are heroes, therefore they are expected to work miracles. The miracle they are usually expected to work is to make a difference in a vanishingly short time window. Ninety days in not an uncommon duration for a consulting engagement. Ninety days is a brutally short time window to get anything done in. In, The Ninety Day Gorilla, I talk about how a full time employee should practice the mantra “Do no harm” in their first ninety days. For a consultant the money often runs out by the time ninety days are up and if they haven’t made some kind of impact, they won’t be asked to come back again. Worse yet, the client will talk to their friends and those friends are no longer potential clients. If you can’t hit the ground running, cure world hunger, make the client happy, all in three months, consulting may not be for you.

Consultants also come in two major flavors, Independent and “Firm”.

The independent contractor is the ultimate in self-determination. They hang out their shingle on the power of their name alone. You hire that one person and bring them in for their expertise. If you’re lucky and wildly successful (Jeff Sutherland, Joe Justice, Mike Cohn) you can afford a staff to help you. Otherwise you are coach, bizdev, bookkeeper, scheduler and receptionist all in one.  You’re also always chasing the next paycheck. Even while helping profitable client A, you’re actively working to land client B, D and C.

“Firm” consultants work for a larger organization. In agile some of the big names are SolutionsIQ, Leading Agile, and Thoughtworks). Agency consultants have some more security than the independent and much more than the contractor. If you’re good, the firm will take care of you. You will probably get benefits, bonuses and a certain amount of immunity from the “what’s my next gig?” panic. You might even end up on “bench time” where you are being paid to do mostly nothing (write training, blogs, help with BizDev).

Contractor Agile Coach: Where as the Consultant is hired “hero”, a contractor can often feel like they were picked up at the local “Henchmens ‘r Us” outlet. A contractor is hired as an hourly employee that works within a company’s normal organizational structure. They are contracted through an outside agency who issues their paycheck and benefits (if applicable). They report to a manager within the company they are contracted to. Thanks to past legal cases, contracts are always for a fixed term so as to not ever imply the contractor is an actual employee. Depending on the company the max term usually ranges from twelve months to two years. Since this is not a fixed law, smaller companies tend to pay less attention to this and I’ve seen five plus year contractors at post startup, pre-IPO companies.

Benefits to being an Agile Coach Contractor: Honestly, not a lot. Like an independent consultant, the greatest benefit is you are in total control of your destiny. You interview with a “client” on your own merits. You decide when to work and when not to work. The advantage over independent consultant is that the contracting agency handles all the pesky paperwork for getting paid, benefits and the like. If you’re not ready to hang out your own shingle and don’t want to work for an established consulting firm, this is the greatest path of independence you can find.

Downside of being an Agile Coach Contractor: You’re getting the short end of the FTE and Consultant sticks. Contractors are considered “Staff Augmentation”, so they are treated as part of the organization they work for. They report to a company employee and are almost always the “junior” person in any department. Staff Augmentation means you don’t have the aura of being a hired “expert”.

And as a contractor you have the same fixed time window of a consultant. Last year I interviewed with one of the old enterprise players in Silicon Valley (you know the companies that were the big guns until Google and Facebook came along and Apple started their “i” wave of products). They were trying to engineer an end-to-end agile transformation of a core business unit. Only they were looking to hire an agile coach on a three month contract and expecting significant results in that three months.

So without the mantle of “expert” given to a consultant, a contractor has a doubly hard time being successful in the short time window given. That company I interviewed with last year is on something like their seventh agile coach contractor and no closer to real change than they were two years ago.
So… (Conclusion)

I’ve worked as a contractor, a consultant and a full time employee. While few would support contractor as the preferred way to earn a paycheck, the “Consultant or Full-Time” question is common.

For me the answer has become clear. I find it much more fulfilling to be a full-time coach. I’m not saying I won’t consult again in the future. What I am saying is that being a full-time coach I believe is the best combination of pros and cons of all the options.

Of course an even bigger question is what should companies hire?

You’ll have to wait until the next blog for that answer.

This blogs is a prequel to my upcoming Agile Coaches Playbook series. This blog is specifically inspired by my session at Agile Open Northern California on Oct 9 and 10. Special thanks to Mike Register, Sam Lipson, Ravi Tadlwaker, Arielle Mali, Eric Johnson, and Gautam Ramamurthy for their great contributions.