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Scrum isn’t perfect

‘Scrum isn’t perfect’ is something I hear quite frequently, be it as an excuse not to stick to the few rules Scrum has or not to use it at all. The thing is though that no set of rules is perfect, but we’re used to stick to them anyway. So why not do that with Scrum as well?

American football

Let’s start with an example of imperfect rules that we stick to: sports rules. I’m a Seahawks fan and I watch all of their games. American Football has a lot of rules and a number of people are present to make sure they are enacted during the game. While these rules were made up over the years and based on experience, they are never perfect for every single scenario. Does that mean there’s a case to make for not sticking to the rules because they’re not suitable? Or should we just accept that that’s the rules are sometimes imperfect and roll with them? With sports, we usually accept them (perhaps not always happily, depending on which side you’re on).

Scrum

The thing with many Scrum implementations is that it has become acceptable not to stick to the few rules that Scrum has. Even though a team has usually made the choice to stick to them. The rules in Scrum were made up over the years and based on experience, just as with American Football. They were even changed over time when necessary (with the last modification being the addition of the Scrum Values), just like with American Football. But they are not adhered to, unlike with American Football.

What happens in American Football when you decide not to stick to the rules is anarchy. In Scrum that’s no different: the benefits from Scrum will exhibit themselves best as long as the few rules it has are followed. Not doing that is a disservice to your team, your organization and your customers.

Scrum isn’t perfect. It both has shortcomings and makes them transparent. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stick to the rules. Accept the imperfection of the rules and benefit from Scrum.

Culture should beat the system

As I have mentioned before, I work for an awesome company with an awesome bunch of people. With all this awesomeness it may seem at times that it’s just that: awesome. And it is. But like every company out there, we sometimes have our challenges. One that has surfaced lately is the balance between the system (the small set of rules that is supposed to keep us in check and healthy as a company) and our culture (which has suffered a bit considering our massive growth over the years).

The challenge

Like I mentioned, we have a small set out rules. One of these specifically is aimed at keeping us financially healthy as a company: the amount of turnover each consultant needs on a monthly basis. Simply put each consultant needs to generate 4 times their gross salary each month in turnover. As long as you comply to that simple rule, there’s technically nobody going to bother you how you invest your time.

Things are more complicated than that though. We don’t really care about individual numbers, for instance, unless there’s a significant, long-term issue. The accumulated numbers of a team are more important and that’s what counts. This means team members can compensate each other, which is great because people get sick, go on holidays, etc.

But the system also has one major flaw: it allows people to work just, say, four days a month, get their required turnover, and do nothing for the rest of the month. Add in the unlimited vacation days we have and you may see where this is going…

The solution

Okay, so we have to fix the system, because obviously somebody could really easily abuse this. Right?

No.

Fixing the system will only remove this issue right now and likely introduce another, it would take away freedom and it would likely introduce a whole bunch of rules making things more complicated. The system is actually fine, because it relies on trust, responsibility, entrepreneurship, teamwork, and honesty. But those things aren’t things that are secured in the system, they are secured in our culture.

We need to fix our culture.

We, as a team, have allowed this to get this far, into a situation where things seem out of balance. So we, as a team, need to have that conversation on how we use the system because our culture is the sum of the culture of each of the team’s members.

While that conversation may be hard, as it could very well involve having a tough conversation, it will fix the problem. But more importantly: it means we retain the immense amount of freedom we have, which allowed us to grow at the pace we have, which we appreciate as a team and which helps us whenever we need it.

Culture should beat the system, and if you focus on your culture and keep fixing it when things go the wrong way, it will.

Agile 2017 (Part II)

So, Agile 2017 is over. It’s actually been over for a while now, but I decided to wait a bit before writing this final blog post about the conference in order to share more learnings.

Closing keynote

The closing keynote was another highlight. Though a large amount of people had already left, there were still plenty around to fill the (very large) room and listen to Denise Jacobs. Banish Your Inner Critic 2.0 was a very open, honest and insightful presentation about the journey Denise has made linked to that inner critic inside all of us.

During the keynote Denise challenged the audience to think about their inner critic and share this with those sitting at the same table. It turned out to be comforting to know that everybody has that inner critic and we all faced the same challenge, a challenge we will have to keep facing, but for which there are plenty of things to do to overcome it.

Conference highlights

The biggest highlights from the conference for me were, in no specific order:

  • The amount of people present that all wanted to achieve the same thing (a more agile, customer-focused organization) and were willing to share that with whomever they were talking to;
  • The vast amount of experience that was represented, both by speakers and conference visitors alike. If you’re in an Agile environment, this event is one to attend;
  • The variety of sessions was overwhelming, with 19 parallel tracks and all those topics to choose from the conference could have gone on for another week;
  • The openness of the people, with some willing to open up themselves beyond what would have been required in sessions, in order to let others learn from their experiences.

Closing

With the conference now over for about 10 days I’m still thinking about what an amazing time I had and how great it would be to go back there. Luckily, there’s videos of part of the conference available on the Agile 2017 web page (some content is only available to Agile Alliance members).

All in all, this has been the best conference I’ve been to so far and I hope to be part of Agile 2018 as well.

Agile 2017 (Part I)

This week I’m at Agile 2017, both as a speaker and as an attendee. Since I’m having such a great time I thought I’d share some of my experiences from the conference.

The conference

Agile 2017 takes place in Orlando, Florida this year and is a 5-day event with agilists from all over the world gathering to share experiences and learn.

I’d like to start off by highlighting what an open and welcoming conference this is. While I haven’t been to hundreds of these things, I have seen my fair share and Agile 2017 is unique in several ways. It’s a big conference to start with, with over 2200 people attending this year. Even with that large number of people, it’s surprisingly low-key. People are open to chat and mingle, are kind and show lots of respect. Finally, even though there’s groups of people from a large number of companies, they’re all very inclusive and open to others joining them. I’ve never before experienced this kind of atmosphere, not even at smaller conferences.

Major highlights

The major highlights from the conference so far were the keynotes from David Marquet and Jez Humble.

David kicked off the conference on Monday when he spoke about his experiences from his book ‘Turn this Ship Around’. It was an inspiring presentation about self-organization and leadership and engagement at every level of the organization.

Jez spoke about continuous delivery and while interesting to see up-to-date facts and figures (like that Amazon releases every 11.6 seconds on weekdays) most of it was familiar to me. Until he started with his bonus material: a 15-minute session in which he totally annihilated James Damore’s “manifesto” and highlighted some of the most important contributions women have made in IT. The audience was in full and total agreement, having given several rounds of applause and leaving some in tears.

Speaking

I am a speaker at this conference, which I consider to be a great honor. Wednesday afternoon (3:45pm) was my turn and even though it was the third day of the conference at the end of the day, a sizeable crowd showed up to my presentation. The presentation went reasonable well (I made some last minute changes which, at certain moments, made it a little uncomfortable for me as I had to look up what I had planned next), interaction was good and I got some great feedback to improve the presentation even further for future speaking opportunities.

After having lived to this moment for months, after it being over me and a colleague celebrated (he had become a PST – Professional Scrum Trainer – that day) with a nice drink in the bar. Major milestone reached, up to the next one!

Closing

The conference is still ongoing with at least two great sessions still coming up. The sponsor area has just closed, which is a shame really as it was a great place to meet people and talk about this, but with the conference party coming up later today there should be no shortage of opportunities to mingle.

Once the conference is over I’ll share part two, so stay tuned for that.

The adverse effect of version numbers

“We’ll fix that in the 2.0 release!” Sound familiar? To me it does, as I used to say this quite a lot up until a couple of years back when I got introduced to Scrum. Around that time I drew the painful conclusion that version numbers may have a very adverse effect: to draw any software development into a waterfall-like process and postpone the release of value.

The problem with version numbers is that they are abused for something they are not. They’re not targets, they’re not milestones, and they’re definitely not a reason to postpone delivering value.

I’ve seen a lot of situations where version numbers were actually hurting a product, postponing any release for long periods of time. The worst example I’ve come across is no release for 7 years (and counting), which is for a 2.0 release for an immensely popular VPS control panel. Until this date, any fix or improvement is being “moved to 2.0” only never to be heard from again. Another example is a product heading for a 2.0 release that never even made it and got thrown away in the end. That was, after a timespan of about two years and at least 20 2-week Sprints invested (think of how much that has cost!). In both cases, and I have to admit these are extremes, no value was delivered (yet).

Value should be delivered very frequently, regardless of a version number. Bugs or defects should be fixed immediately and should never be postponed until a “version number release” or any other value release, because they are negative value. All a version number should be is a label on something that has been achieved in the past, like the time in which you’ve ran half a marathon or like velocity: an indication of what has been achieved in the past.

Version numbers are actually very useful if used properly, because they allow you to keep track of different versions of software, a document, or something else. But if you make them more than just a label or an indicator of something achieved int he past, the very frequent and adverse effect is that the delivery of value gets postponed.

The American Dream at Prowareness

I am in the very luxurious position to work at an amazing company called Prowareness. Prowareness is a company where you can make your ‘American Dream’ come true and I’d like to tell you more about that.

A short while ago I read a book in which the American Dream was explained in a very short and concise way: the freedom to pursue the ultimate individual happiness (whatever that may be). Two weeks later I was listening to a speech from our CEO regarding the growth of people within Prowareness. He wants Prowareness to grow and to keep growing. When asked why, he didn’t give the answer most people would expect (which was money). He explained he wanted to provide a platform or a movement in which individuals could grow, because the growth of an organization’s employees will accelerate the growth of the organization itself. So individual growth was the ultimate goal for organization growth. Followed by money, of course.

To me this is having the American Dream incorporated in Prowareness. Prowareness provides people with the freedom to pursue their ultimate individual happiness and Prowareness provides you with the tools and needs for that.

A great example of that freedom is the principle of Vision Groups. Every four weeks on a Tuesday afternoon all Prowareness employees gather in Delft and get one assignment: to not work for the next four hours. Instead, they get to spend time on any topic they’re passionate about. They get time to innovate, to explore, to talk to colleagues, to create new products, and most of all to learn. The effort spent on a Vision Group may eventually result in participation in a Dragons’ Den where people can win an investment of up to €25,000 in their vision. One of these visions has resulted in a new organization (under the Prowareness Group umbrella) called DevOn after having won the Dragons’ Den.

Naturally, we are not limited by the Vision Groups. We can spend time on personal growth whenever and wherever we want; the Vision Groups just provide a platform. There’s plenty of opportunity to grow and explore their our personal dream (for example by speaking at events or attending the monthly Guild session at Prowareness). The only limit is usually time, or sometimes imagination, but there’s people willing to help with that as well.

My American Dream is the American Dream and right now I’m pursuing that dream at Prowareness by taking the steps to expand Prowareness to the USA.

Why you should train your contractors

As an Agile coach I’ve had the chance to observe a number of organizations in both small and large training settings. With several of those organizations I’ve observed the same problem: the unwillingness to invest in their contractors and thus having them absent from trainings. Even if those people are part of the same teams as the organization’s own employees that are attending the training. Sometimes the contractors were literally sitting outside the room the organization’s own employees were getting trained in.

The people that attend the training often don’t like this either. They realize more than anyone how important it is to have the entire team aligned, be it on terminology, mindset or something else. They are the ones that have to do the work, they are the ones that a certain performance is expected from, and most importantly they are the ones that are going to be delivering most value.

A training is often a sizable investment for an organization as trainings don’t come cheap. On top of the cost of the training itself there’s the cost of not having those people at work during the day(s) of the training. For contractors these costs could be  considerably higher compared those of the organization’s own employees. But should the focus be on cost, or on return on investment? Isn’t it more important what the training will  bring the organization rather than solely what it costs? Why isn’t the focus on what value the training will add?

A strong argument I always see against training contractors is the idea that organizations have that such an investment will be an investment in a different company (namely the employer of the contractor). I think they couldn’t be more wrong. Those contractors work for them right now, meaning that’s where they’ll add value. That’s where the ROI of the training will end up and so the organization benefiting most from training contractors is the organization currently hiring them.

An organization’s growth is often linked to the growth of its employees and/or contractors. If people stop growing, either on a personal or a professional level, so will, eventually, the organization. In other words: not enabling that growth can be interpreted as deliberately holding the organization back, not training your contractors (as well) is a disinvestment.

So I would urge anyone who’s in a decision-making position related to trainings taking place at an organization to please also includes any contractors: train teams, not people.

 

SAFe: Scaled Agile Framework – or is it?

Last week I’ve had the pleasure of taking part in a Leading and Implementing SAFe course. During this four-day course I would be introduced to the Scaled Agile Framework, learn how to implement it, and learn how to share it with others.

To summarize the outcome of course in just one line: it sucked.

How is SAFe a framework?

To me, a framework is a light-weight set of boundaries within which there is a lot freedom to do as one sees fit. If you see the SAFe Big Picture you’ll understand my initial skepticism at the term ‘framework’. Nonetheless, I was looking forward to having my skepticism rebuked and to learn how to see and use SAFe as a framework. All this in order to be able to better help organizations that need scaling scale.

Whether organizations actually need scaling or a scaling framework is an interesting discussion. I think that if you need scaling you should first look at your products and your architecture. Self-organizing teams with the help of a clear vision and a good architecture can get a long way.

Unfortunately, the way I interpreted the way SAFe was put down this week was as a methodology. These are small selection of some of the concerns I have after having taken the course.

Let’s start with the roles: Release Train Engineer, our “facilitating” Super Scrum Master; Release Management, the Super Product Owner of the Release Train; System Architect, who together with the RTE and PM act like the steering committee of the Release Train (also, drawn above the teams, like hierarchically superior). All set and ready to go, all required.

The format in which work should be sent to the teams is also set for you: User Stories coming from Features or Enablers, coming from Epics; Enablers that are used for work supporting other User Stories or Features; and if you open the Value Stream level there’s something called Capabilities as well. Additionally, there’s a selection of templates available for most of these items to fill out. All having been done during the course and available from ScaledAgile’s website for your day-to-day use.

My biggest concern, however, was the ‘Agile Release Train’. Calling a Release Train ‘Agile’ when the recommended time-box is 10 weeks is beyond me. Sure, teams could release more frequently (and I quote, because of “individuals and interactions over processes and tools, and stuff”). But once you’ve seen the monstrous PI planning board with all its dependencies between teams you may wonder how that could ever happen.

In other words: my skepticism was not only not rebuked, it was definitely reaffirmed and has even worsened.

SAFe the way I would have liked to see it

If SAFe really is a framework, I would have loved to see it like that. Perhaps with a various complementary practices that would make it work for specific scenarios, in which alternatives to certain practices would have also been discussed.

The power of SAFe to me is keeping synchronized across teams and Release Trains in a larger organization, in which each release train is an independent part of the organization focusing on a specific product or value stream. There would be direct contact between the customer(s) and the teams in each release train, where each release train would have their own tools and practices to handle how work comes in. Whatever works for the teams should be the practice, not whatever someone else tells them to.

I love the end-of-increment Inspect and Adapt opportunity, but without all the practices that SAFe introduces and without the compulsory interval of 8 to 12 weeks. It’s great to inspect and adapt with a bunch of teams working on the same product or value stream, serving the same customers. Just like the PI planning: a high-level “planning” event which can be used to identify dependencies and remove them on the spot. I’d call it PI refinement rather than planning and I would never give commitment to finishing a list of work or reaching certain objectives for the next 10 weeks. I’d be doing my customer a disservice in nailing down what we’re going to do for 10 weeks rather than giving them the opportunity to take a different course at a shorter interval. But I like the synchronization nonetheless.

I’d have loved to see SAFe as an enabler for Agile at scale, because that is what organizations need. Practices come from experience and that’s where coaches come in: to help an organization find a practice that works from them, in which there is multiple practices to be compared. That is what SAFe (or any other scaling framework) should enable.

Closing

Looking at this constructively, I see SAFe as an intermediary step for very large and very traditional organizations towards true agility. I think it’s loads better than sticking to a waterfall-approach and if an organization implements SAFe the way I heard it, they’d be far better off.

To reach true agility you’d need to take a lot of additional steps. Mostly you’d need to experiment, see what works for your organization, your teams, keep inspecting and adapting and changing things if they make more sense. And to me, that’s the danger of a methodology over a framework: it makes things fixed rather than up for change. Whereas a framework should give you those boundaries in which your organization can shine.

A response to ‘Agile does NOT work!’

I recently read a blog post on LinkedIn from Oleg Vishnepolsky from DailyMail Online and Metro.co.uk stating that ‘Agile does not work’ and ‘And never did’. The blog contains some interesting statements and asks for responses. Well, here is one:

1) Short-term thinking that results from following short iterations and daily stand-ups

Where does this short-term thinking take place? Who does it? What have you tried to change that?

I think you do want your development teams focusing more on the short term when it comes to what value they should deliver rather than on the long term. That doesn’t mean the long term isn’t important though, and being agile doesn’t mean you should forget the long term either. It means you should use the frameworks, tools, and methodologies that allow you to respond to an ever-changing world.

In fact, long-term is quite important in order to be agile. You need to focus on quality and prevent technical debt. You should invest in test automation. You should focus on creating the right amount of documentation (be it code documentation, infrastructure as code or something else). You should invest in gathering and sharing knowledge. Those are all examples of the long-term thinking required.

If someone doesn’t think about these things, I’d say they’re doing themselves and their company a disservice. You should help them understand why these things are so important, especially when you want to be agile, and help them keep focus on them as well.

2) Architecture that often times can not be deployed piecemeal

What kind of architecture are you talking about? What challenges are you facing when trying to deploy your architecture? What’s the relation of this to being agile?

One could argue that delivery and deployment aren’t the same thing. I’ve seen cases where entire work-flow systems were being replaced and in certain cases that wasn’t being done one piece at a time, simply because it was either too costly or too complex. That doesn’t mean those teams didn’t work iteratively and didn’t go get feedback as soon as possible. It just meant the final deployment to production was postponed to such time where the work-flow could be implemented as a whole.

I do believe that there’s only a certain number of situations in which piecemeal deployments, for software, are extremely hard or impossible. But in order to do piecemeal deployments your application or architecture does need to support it. In most cases I’ve seen, piecemeal deployment is hard because the architecture isn’t right in the first place.

3) Complex infrastructure in production that is supposedly continuously getting deployed over. If you are Facebook, you can afford automation. Can you ?

What kind of deployments are you talking about and what is blocking you from doing them continuously? What makes your infrastructure so complex you can’t deploy continuously? It could be your infrastructure isn’t ready for continuous deployments yet.

But yes, I believe every company can afford automation. Because every company that I’ve seen that doesn’t invest in it pays the price in the long term. They struggle rather than grow and have to invest in automation along the road anyway, but at an increased cost.

I would like to note that deployment should be a business decision. While you’d want your bug fixes out ASAP, I could imagine not wanting to change your functionality continuously. It’s perfectly legitimate to do some deployments every X weeks and introduce them properly to your users. I’ve had a company offer customers the option of either continuous deployments or one every 6 months. Those that chose the 6 months were still involved in the development effort and gave feedback frequently, but they only got the changes after they had prepared their staff for it.

4) Business expectations that they do not need to give you any requirements and that they can change their mind at any time.

I’m especially curious where this one comes from? How are development teams expected to deliver value without having any requirements? How are they expected to focus when they can change direction from second to second? How could the business be expected to be less involved when the development effort needs them to be more involved?

In my opinion the business has the responsibility to talk to development teams and explore the requirements together. Naturally they can change their mind at any time, but a proper preparation may prevent changes of mind down the road. Because changes of mind are often the result of questions being asked too late or too little, as new insights lead to new solutions. If you don’t have a transparent situation to begin with, how are you expected to inspect and adapt to that situation properly?

Closing

Yes, Agile is being used as a buzz-word and yes, there’s probably some Agile Coaches whom are in it for the money rather than to achieve true agility as meant by the Agile Manifesto. That doesn’t mean agile isn’t good or dead or whatever. Agile isn’t easy. Being agile isn’t easy. I do believe it’s the right option and the right way forward, but it takes time and continuous investment in order to be and remain agile.

A note to the author of the original blog post: my questions are genuine and I’d be more than happy to discuss these topics with you.

WebHostScene is live!

WebHostScene is live! It’s a website I started recently when I found myself needing to write a tutorial and to write about web hosting. There’s not too many content on it yet but that will definitely change over time.

Having WebHostScene means I’ll obviously spend less time blogging here. No worries though for those few of you that do like to read my occasional ramblings. They will still appear ever now and then!

For now, please enjoy WebHostScene and I’d love to get your feedback on it!

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