Agile Board of Directors

Are you also wondering why you shall be Agile and your board of directors and the executive team is not? I wrote about Agile at the executive team last time, now it’s time to have a look at the board of directors.

There is no real reason why the board of directors should not act as an Agile team. Just the habit as most of the directors of the board are coming from the traditional companies and had never experienced it. The governance is important, but the usual committee structure presenting a report to the board each quarter doesn’t help them to react to challenges. I did this presentation at several different organizations, and I thought it might be useful to summarize the key points here as well.

Let’s start with an overview of what any Agile entity needs: Have Agile values of transparency, trust, respect, collaboration, and a shared understanding of a purpose so people are having the same goals. Simply be a great team, not just a group of individuals. But applying radical transparency, get feedback and collaborate is often very hard at this level. Not that it would not be useful, but it’s not going to be easy. Secondly, the board must be consistent with the organization. If Agile stops at the board level, it creates a gap within the organization and governance inconsistency and the whole organization will struggle. Finally, Agile boards are not just governance bodies, Agile boards of directors create a purpose-driven organizations, the sense of belonging which skyrockets organizations success. Having said so, it’s critical that Agile boards collaborate on the key strategic initiatives with the rest of the organization, which if you think about it is very far from filtering anything in and out of the board through the CEO. There are three principles of the Agile board of directors:

#1 Team over individuals and hierarchy

While traditional organizations are formed by stable departments and individuals, Agile organizations form communities build around the purpose. Internally there is usually a quite liquid structure to keep adaptivity and strategy focus in the nowadays complex world. It embraces the team as the key building unit and forms a collaborative network of teams. Similarly, the board of directors is a team which has one goal, even if internally there is a structure of the committees, each committee is a collaborative team as well where all the committee chairs and the board chair are acting more like facilitators then managers of the group. The board as a team is just a small part of the whole picture. We use the ‘team in the team’ concept in Scrum having a Development team being part of the Scrum team, being part of the product team once you scale, and such product teams being part of the entire organization which acts as a team or collaborative network if you wish, where all those pieces only stay together with a strong purpose which creates a common goal for everyone. The same way the board shall form a collaborative team with CEO, the BoD together with the CEO shall form a team structure with management and eventually the entire organization. Too much hierarchy kills the collaborative mindset and a team spirit. There is always going to be some hierarchy in the organization, but maybe the way of work may not be driven by the hierarchy – but the purpose, collaboration, having the radical transparency as a pre-requisite.

#2 Flexibility over fixed plans and budgets

The more are we responsive to changes through the collaboration, the higher need for adaptiveness is in the organization. Agile organizations are moving from year fixed budgets into the Beyond Budgeting principles. Valuing the purpose driven continuous planning over annual top-down fixed goals and plans.  You will see more voluntary based virtual teams over fixed departments or speaking about the board the committees. People are groping around the common cause instead of the fixed plan while the planning is a continuous inclusive process instead of a top-down annual event. Anyone shall be invited to join when they have something to add to the purpose of the event. Keep it transparent, inclusive, open. All that is an iterative process with regular feedback and an opportunity to inspect and adapt.

#3 Strategy over operational

The good board shall be focused 80% on strategy and significant business issues, 20% reporting. Nothing new, right? It’s the same old 80/20 rule which we often used in the Agile product ownership, organization in general or economy. The Agile boards are going through significant shift refocusing into strategic over operational. Don’t take me wrong, the governance is important. The same as the importance of the processes in the Agile Manifesto: “While there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more”. The same applies here. Reporting is part of the transparency. It shall almost not be even needed if the transparency is there as everyone can just see it. The board doesn’t have to meet to get a status. They shall meet to discuss, understand each other, have creative conversations, visionary sessions, give feedback. The boards shall meet frequently every 1-2 months (that’s their Sprint time), and focus on a communication and work between meetings. There is no need for reporting, all the documents shall be visible so you save a meeting for conversations about the direction. Similarly to the product environment, the shorter Sprints ends up with better understanding, feedback, and higher delivered value.

Finally, keep in mind that the less fixed is the structure and the plan, there is a higher need for a good facilitation, as without it you might end up in the chaos.

Toxic environments

Building a great team is not that simple as it may look. Sometimes you are lucky and the team just forms without any effort, sometimes you are not and all you get is the group of individuals and all the effort forming a one unifying goal are failing. In such case, you may have a look at how toxic is the team environment. ORSC – Organizational Relationship and System Coaching describes four toxins (Blaming, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling) as they are present in every environment. The same as any other toxins, if you only have a little of them in your environment, everything is fine, but they can be very culture and team destroying if they become common. So how do we deal with them? The good reply to those toxins is positivity and curiosity.

Team Toxins

Let’s start with positivity. Interestingly, it’s very powerful. It works as a bank account. If your account balance is high, and you got a parking ticket, you are indeed not happy about it, but after all, nothing happens. You can still go to the restaurant for a dinner and pay the checks. On the contrary, your balance is low, you might end up eating just a plain bread every day. Quite stressful situation. In the same way, if your positivity balance is high, nothing can really spoil your day. No silly comments from your colleagues, no blaming can harm you. Again, you might not be happy about it, but you would take it easy and try to see it from the different perspective. Be curious. What happened that they are blaming? Maybe they are stressed, maybe they didn’t have a good sleep, maybe they had some troubles at home. Well, maybe there is a 2% right on what they say. Maybe there is a different perspective. Let’s try to understand the reasons behind it. What is the toxin really trying to say? What is the real issue here?

Positivity is a prerequisite. Curiosity is the way to limit the impact. If you have both, it’s easy to build great teams. So how about this. Next time you see someone blaming, being defensive, using contempt, or stonewalling, instead of reacting with another toxin you try to apply your curiosity and see the situation from different perspectives. After all, there is no right or wrong in the complex systems, everyone is right, but only partially as they say in the ORSC. Look at the things from the bright side. Make positivity and curiosity your friend. Toxins will disappear.

Agile at executive team level

Agile can’t stay just at the team level. Agile transformation only creates disturbance and gap between the management and employees. And the more Agile the teams are, the bigger the disconnect is. Managers feel lost, forgotten and start to be frustrated that those self-organizing teams might eventually not need them. Part of the problem is they’ve never been part of any Agile or Scrum team themselves.  They’ve seen them working, joining them for Reviews and listening to their stories, but that’s not the same. People need experience to understand a different way of work. You might still remember your first feeling, when someone told you that this Agile and Scrum will be great. “What?” you thought, this stupid process will never work – what if… At least I still remember how I felt several years back.

Agile Transformation disconnect

One important thing companies often forgot during their Agile transformation is how to get management on board. Managers deeply need their own experience with Agile and Scrum. They can’t just read about it. Otherwise you continue hear such funny remarks like “I got it, you are a team, you collaborate, but who is responsible?”, “We don’t need ScrumMasters, some developer can take it as a second role” or “We don’t need Product Owner, we have a product committee”. If you really mean the Agile transformation seriously, it’s time to change the way you implement it. It’s not just a different process decided by C-level executives and implemented without them noticing. It’s a significant change of the culture and mindset. So why don’t we start from the other side, forming the first team from executives. Let them experience Agile and Scrum. Make them feel the pain of being the group of individuals with their own goals, no common passion, no trust. Or no unifying purpose. Let them experience what the self-organization is about, how the cross-functionality works. Let them do their refinement, planning, standups, reviews, and retrospectives. It’s always fun. And the same way as such first pilot is painful and difficult for a product development team, it is even more painful for the executives. They would hate it. If they can, they would kick you out of the door. So be ready for that and have strong enough sponsor who understands that such painful experience is critical for the organizational success. It’s like any other exercise. Starting is difficult. We all are great at finding excuses why running today is just not a good idea. I will run tomorrow. Or when it’s the right weather. Actually, I don’t think I need to run, I’m just good without it. The other people need that, not me. Familiar? If you force yourself to start and develop a habit, it is fun and you would miss it if you skip that for even a day. The same with Scrum, the first time you experience the power of the true team spirit you never want to be back. No matter where you are in the company orgchart. It works the same way.

Unfortunately, executives are rarely going that way. There are two reasons. First, it is a painful journey. That’s why I’m not running every day. It’s not that bad that I would have to, right. The company is still fine. Not struggling enough. But maybe when that happens it’s too late to change. Second, most of the Agile Coaches need a day job. They care about 6+ months contracts. They are afraid of losing it if they would push too much. They often forgot that their job is not to please the customer, but to change them. Guide them through that painful experience with all the risks that they will not like it, and stop. Very often you hear from them “I know that this is not the way how it shall be but this is a corporation, you have to do it differently” so they still have PMOs, no Product Owners, weak ScrumMasters and not real teams either. It’s a much more painful experience for everyone involved then starting this fake transformation repeatedly all over again and again.

Agile Transformation bubbles

If you mean it, get a real Agile coach. Not a consultant. Find someone who would guide you how to do it. Not do it instead of you. Who would be with you once per Sprint / month / quarter. Do their intervention, show you the way where to focus next and let you exercise. Start with smaller pilots. The first Agile bubbles. The more bubbles you make, the better. Aim for our own experience and learning. Inspect and adapt. Don’t forget that your executive team forms one of the first bubbles. They have to learn in the first wave. If you do it that way, Agile mindset will grow organically and very soon you would be ready to share your own Agile success story and inspire the others.

Agile HR

Agile HR or if you want Talent Management as it is called nowadays turn the whole company around. It’s employees centric, delivering value to the whole organization. At a glance, not much had changed. We still need to hire people, take care of people growth, do some evaluations. Just the way we work changed significantly. So let’s go one by one to see the shift.

Hiring

Hiring process focuses not that much on skills, because skills could be learned, and will change depending on the business value priorities, and the team needs, but a person who is a good match to the company culture and the team. In an Agile organization people who can learn fast, are the starts. They can go to any cross-functional team and deliver value. We look for someone who has not a fixed mindset, is ready to change. Having said so, people are often not hired by HR and managers but the teams and the HR are only consulting and coaching teams in that process. The world of the fixed positions is over. All the recruiting agencies need to adapt as well. When we’ve been hiring, we involve team members and give them a strong voice in the process. We stopped looking for C++, Java, or C# experts, we were looking for passionate people who have energy, passionate about anything they did. We want to hear stories about what they love to do. Even if it was just a tiny thing they did over the evenings. We were transparent on how the work is going to look like, stressing the downsides, so they have clear expectations. Transparency is the key, so one of the great ideas is to invite candidates to join a team for a day. It’s like going to the date, getting to know each other better, get a sense on both sides how is it going to be.

One example of a very different interview is to ask the candidate to use a creative set of Lego bricks and visualize how it’s going to be once they joined the organization and have a conversation about the model. It’s something you rarely see in the interviews but it shows a lot about the candidates.

Evaluations

Evaluations and performance reviews changed significantly in Agile space. It’s less about reviewing, performance, and evaluation, more about development and vision of the future and growth. As the Agile organization operates internally in very short cycles, where through radical transparency and instant feedback through retrospectives the organization gets to inspect and adapt and solve any issues right away, we don’t really need classical KPIs as they are not supporting the adaptivity and flexibility Agile organizations need and missing a team aspect as well. As a first step, you can start with setting team goals, instead of individual ones. It will help. However, eventually, you need to redesign the whole concept from the scratch. The key focus is on coaching conversations, transparency, and candid feedback from your peers.

One example of a radical change you can use is the team-oriented feedback. You give each person on a team or organization (yes, it scales) a certain amount of money to give away. Let say $100, and ask them to distribute it to the colleagues. The only rule is you can’t keep it. If you think about it, the message you got by receiving $0 it’s much stronger feedback then anything your manager can ever  say about your performance. Indeed, we need a lot of coaching to help people understand and handle what’s going on, but in general, that’s a good thing. If you scale this to the whole organization it’s even more fun, as the managers get such instant feedback as well as the employees.

Talent management

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article we are speaking more about talent development then HR. What motivates people? How do we grow talents? How do we support them on their journey? How can we help them to be successful? The answer is coaching, support them to create their own development goals, grow their interest, empower them, raise their awareness about themselves. Not surprising, but how many HR are taking such a support role and how many of the companies take it as process and governance role.

Example of such coaching conversation for the people growth could be using a few categories which are strategic for the organization right now to frame the conversation. Firstly, you need to make people aware of how the coaching scale works, that it’s very different from evaluation, it doesn’t have to grow quarter to quarter and that there is always a better way of doing things, and that this tool shall help them to identify their potential and find ways how they can grow to support the organization. As a next step, you let people rate themselves on a relative scale 1..10, where 1 = not good at this area, and 10  = I’m great at this. They need to be able to compare themselves with the other people around in the organization, explain how it would be, when you are 2 points above the level you are currently, what would be different once you get there, what would it mean to the organization, what is currently in their way, etc. All of those are good coaching questions. No magic. It just works like a magic 🙂

My Team – The World Dimension – The #ScrumMasterWay Concept

The world dimension of #ScrumMasterWay concept represents three levels ScrumMasters shall operate. The first element is called My team. Though the time and energy ScrumMasters spend on each level differ based on the team or organizational culture and maturity level, they have to be present at every level to keep an eye on changes. If you do it right, and your organization is not too dysfunctional with people actively fighting against what you build at My team level, you shall be ready to move to the next level in about six months.

Level 1: My Team

The first level of #ScrumMasterWay concept is My team. Being ScrumMaster at My team level feels like being a team member. They look at things from the development team perspective: Explain different Agile practices, facilitate Scrum meetings, help to remove impediments, coach the team, and make the team great. If people are only aware of the existence of this level, we often hear that ScrumMaster can be a team member at the same time, or it can rotate, or it shall not be needed at all after some time. They are all huge misunderstandings of the ScrumMaster role.

#ScrumMasterWay - My Team

My team level is a great start. If you do it right, it will help you to demonstrate the success of Scrum, and show you a way to the next level of addressing product success, and building an Agile organization. If you do it right, the team becomes not only cross-functional, and self-organized, but high-performing as well. The team will be significantly better that anything you ever experienced before. More productive, always improving, proactive and taking over the ownership and responsibility for the overall goal.

You can’t skip this level, as this is something tangible, something which helps you to demonstrate success. Something which helps you to taste Agile for the first time. And get feeling how it shall be. The first Myself dimension will help you to address My team level and prevent you from falling into assistant or mother of a team. You are done when you build the great team from the group of individuals. You recognize it with a high level of energy, positivity, and activity in the team. Team members will be happy to go to work, they will enjoy it, and take other team members as friends.

State of Mind – Myself Dimension – The #ScrumMasterWay concept

Let’s continue with the next element of ‘Myself’ dimension. As we already said in the previous blog posts, each element of this dimension represented by a dice which you can roll every day or Sprint and choose the aspect you are going to take. The third dice is for choosing the approach – State of mind. The approach you take is important and can completely change the result you get from addressing the different situations. For every situation, you can choose one of the following aspects: observe, facilitate, coach, remove impediments, teacher and mentor, and increase positivity.

Observe

Start every situation with observing. There is no rush. Then choose any of the following approaches, address the situation by facilitation, coaching, teaching and mentoring or increasing positivity and return back to observing to see how it landed. If it works, you can continue with the selected approach, if not it’s time to change. Keep in mind that you work at system level and systems are complex by nature so hard to predict their reaction. You have to inspect and adapt.

Facilitate

Almost every situation can be addressed by proper facilitation. You can prevent conflicts by keeping the discussion in the problem space and prevent the situations when people takes it personal. Facilitator you shall be neutral. It’s their agenda, you only take care of the discussion flow.

Coach

Coaching can help when the other approaches can’t. Coaching will raise awareness and grow the interest to learn or change. It will start thinking process and creativity. Through coaching you can help team to reach the next level and become great team.

Remove impediments

This approach is actually a trap for ScrumMasters. Way too many ScrumMasters takes this approach as a destination and become assistants or mothers. Instead, you can help team to identify impediments by proper root-cause analysis and help them to solve the impediments by themselves.

Teacher, Mentor

ScrumMasters shall be the subject matter experts with hands-on experience from Agile and Scrum environment. This approach is about sharing the knowledge and experience so people understand the purpose of individual practices, Scrum framework and Agile.

Increase positivity

Finally, increase positivity. Celebrate success. Search for short wins. The more positive the overall team and company environment is, the higher chance they have to become great high-performing team and bring overall organizational a success.

How to make great Sprint Review

Scrum Reviews have been for a long time left out of our focus. Teams and ScrumMasters are asking how to improve Sprint planning, Standups, Retrospectives, but most of the time there are no real questions related to the Sprint Review. So how to make the Sprint Review great? Firstly let’s review the goal of this meeting which is to get feedback on our product. So no status of done vs. not done Product Backlog Items has any space here. No slides with any Burn-down or Burn-up charts, no velocity comparism.

The Sprint Review shall show real working product to our customers so they can give us a feedback. Yes, to the customers, not Product Owner (note that customers are all stakeholders, users, people who pay for the product, simply anyone both internal and external who has any expectations from that product). Showing the product to Product Owner makes no sense as he is part of the Scrum team and collaborated on the solution during the Sprint.

We don’t present technical solution, but business value delivered and we let team members take the opportunity to show that they did and get the applause :). However, if in some rare cases you happen not to get that enthusiastic feedback, and your customers get angry for any reason, the Product Owner makes himself visible and protects the team. After all it’s his responsibility to understand the customer well enough so those misunderstandings won’t happen.

Your Sprint review is great if you …

  • Show the real product
  • Let users experience it
  • Don’t have any presentation / slides / status
  • Development team is presenting
  • Invite real customers / users
  • Product Owner is most of the time quiet and doesn’t need to interfere

Sprint Planning in 30 minutes

How much time takes your team to finish Sprint Planning? To my experience it could be anything in between of above mentioned 30 minutes and full day. If you are closer to the second option and it feels scary, annoying, waste of time for you, let’s have a look at few recommendations how to cut it out into 30 minutes.

First, let’s see how to run the Sprint Planning itself. I recommend Product Owners to come to the Sprint Planning with physical cards for each User Story. They quickly introduce them, answer questions if needed and then let the team choose out of them. Don’t bring the exact ordered list; let them freely choose from the cards. There are two reasons for that. First, you maximize work done as they can organize themselves in a way they are most efficient, and at the same time there is higher commitment as well. Second, you build a trust between team and Product Owner. You trust them they will choose the right User Story which brings the highest value at the moment. Once the team select the User Stories witch they believe they are able to finish within the next Sprint and put them on Scrum board, Product Owner and Scrum Master can leave and let the team finish the Sprint Planning. During this second phase team will collaboratively split the selected User Stories into maximum one day tasks and revise the Sprint Backlog commitment. After 30 min they are done, have full board of cards and can start working.

If that still feel unbelievable, let’s have a look to the preparation. There are three key recommendations you should do in order to make your planning fast and meaningful. First is for Product Owner. 2-3 days before the Sprint planning let the team know what are your priorities for the next Sprint, so they can have a look and prepare themselves, ask questions, etc. Second is proper Backlog Grooming. The goal of Backlog Grooming is make sure the team understand Product/Release backlog (i.e. all User Stories, Super User Stories, Epics and vision). At this time team do the estimations and help Product Owner to split User Stories which are too big, or add Acceptance Criteria. Once understood, they are ready to be planned to the Sprint.

To summarize it, if you are not able to do such fast planning, improve your preparation (team time to prepare, grooming, pre-planning) so the planning is here not to investigate new functionality but to confirm how much we can make. Doing that, you gain motivated team who is not wasting time at never ending planning, better reliable Sprint plans and higher backlog quality as you are not pushed to do splits and changes at the last moment. Start step by step and continuously decrease your time needed. It’ll go much faster than you would imagine.

Online Scrum Board

I belong to the Agile crowd who believe the physical board is very much useful and can’t be easily substituted for any online board. Let me give you a few reasons.

5 reasons why not to use electronic board

  1. We are *still* limited by the screen inches and no electronic board gives you good overall Sprint visibility.
  2. No electronic card takes pride in your handwriting, so the ownership of the whole board is much closer to “someone else’s problem”.
  3. You can’t touch it, move it, or throw it away. It’s annoying how many fields in the *average* system are required to add a task. It’s a tiresome to crumble tasks to one day activities.
  4. It’s hard to draw on it. There is no creativity. It’s just reporting by definition.
  5. Regardless of the ability to share, usually the ScrumMaster controls the board during Standups. Not any team members.

To make it simple, to organize yourself as a Scrum team you need very good visibility of what is already done, what is in progress and what still needs to be done and who is currently working on which part. As there are no assigned User Stories to any team member, every individual is responsible for finishing Sprint Backlog. To be able to organize your daily work yourself as a team, you might need a flexibility – depending on where you are you might decide to distinguish tasks by colors, next time by shapes, then you start tracking dots per day, and the next time tear the task if it get blocked or anything else. You can start right away, and stop any time it suits you and there is no need to win over your system.

To make it clear, I’m not suggesting now your overall backlog should be at the board even if there are companies who work only this way. However, for this time of being I’ve been focusing on Sprint commitment, and simple tool which helps team to synchronize themselves. So keep your *future* – the User Stories – in the system, keep Sprint tasks and team synchronization be driven by physical board not connected to any system, and then link back any commit or important note back to your User Story in the system so you have a history and traceability.

And yes, I understand that some teams might not be at the same location, and can be spread over the world. So if you have such situation, still you might prefer flexible tool which gives you a good visualization. There is no ideal tool like that, but there is one I learned from some of my distributed teams. You can see the picture of that board below. It’s easy to use, it gives quite good overview as well. And yes, I can come up with hundreds of improvements, but I still like the simplicity of this solution. You can try it here.

Scrum Board

Scrum Master is Not a Secretary of a Team

I’ve been wondering why so many teams believe that Scrum Master is here to draw burndown charts, prepare reports and be the only point of contact for the team, whenever anyone wants anything from them. They maintain the board, write cards, and prepare all you can imagine. And the team works ok, but surprisingly they are not at all self-organized. Such Scrum Master role is quite boring. But that’s not what was intended by the role of Scrum Master. I guess the reasons for that are coming from two different motives.

Firstly, Scrum Masters are often missing the real experience with Scrum, teamwork and self-organization. They are in a new role and want to succeed in it. They biggest fear is they would not be useful to the team, and team would not appreciate their work. So they try to do their best to make their work visible for everyone. Be helpful. The biggest Scrum Master’s trap is to be locked in the position of caring mummy who is scared to let her grown up kids go their way. But in such case you will never get real Scrum team.

The other reason comes from one of the Scrum Master responsibilities – to remove impediments. It’s the only responsibility which seems to be easy to do for starting Scrum Masters. Seems to be. Unfortunately, that often comes with huge misunderstanding. The goal of the Scrum Master is to build self-organized team which in the ideal theoretical world means “do nothing”. In other words, Scrum Master is here to help a team to find solutions to their problems, not to solve problems oneself. Nonetheless, most of the beginning Scrum Masters are eager to help, happy to do any work needed if it helps their team. And they don’t see that by doing it they are destroying the team.