Imagining a Mature Agile Organization

Photo by dawn Brennan

Photo by dawn Brennan

Some coworkers and I were talking recently about what we thought a really mature agile organization would be like, and one of them had fun re-writing the lyrics to Imagine by the Beatles.  I enjoyed it so much that I had to share:

Allison Pollard

I am an agile coach working with 20 teams in a large enterprise, and I love to create communities for those interested in developing their agile instincts; I mentor project managers to become great Scrum Masters and coach managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results and an organizational community that provides sustainability for agile. I am also one of the organizers of the Dallas-Fort Worth Scrum user group which hosts monthly sessions with over 60 attendees and serve on the Dallas Agile Leadership Network board.

Great Project Managers are Different than Great Scrum Masters

Photo by Robert Higgins

Photo by Robert Higgins

When agilists talk about the differences between project managers and scrum masters, it often sounds like "scrum masters good, project managers bad."  I've attempted to explain the differences before, and I've gotten some criticism for it.  99u posted an article on Top 10 Characteristics of GREAT Project Managers that I think can help differentiate between the two roles, so let's look at their list and compare:

1. Command authority naturally.

The article elaborates that a great project manager doesn't need borrowed power to enlist the help of others and is valued by the organization.  Great scrum masters are servant leaders who remove impediments for their teams and organizations.  Rather than command "authority," I think they command respect.

2. Possess quick sifting abilities, knowing what to note and what to ignore.

Great scrum masters listen to their intuition and trust their instincts.  Listening and observing a team's interactions, they sense when there is conflict or confusion.  Most importantly, great scrum masters are not tied to their own judgments or interpretations; they frequently ask the team questions to foster a shared understanding and encourage the team to own decisions.  They also help protect the team from distractions during the sprint, so the team can focus on the sprint goal.

3. Set, observe, and re-evaluate project priorities frequently.

To me, the difference between a project manager and a scrum master is what they are focused on.  Project managers are focused on the project work, and a scrum master is focused on fostering a high performing team.  There are absolutely project managers who also foster high performing teams, and there are certainly scrum masters who work very closely with their product owners and teams to help them manage projects.  But what I experienced as a project manager who transitioned to a scrum master, and what I see for those I coach to make the same transition, is that we get triggered and revert back to some old behaviors--not just command and control behaviors, but also ones where we feel the need to understand details or reprioritize work for efficiencies or offer solutions.  The product owner is responsible for setting priorities in scrum (not the scrum master).

4. Ask good questions and listen to stakeholders.

Scrum masters do ask questions--powerful questions that push the team's thinking to create possibility.  They inspire and motivate and move the team closer to what they desire.  In fact, many of the questions that a scrum master asks might not be for him to understand better--it is for the team to gain a better understanding.  The scrum master is listening to what is being said and what is not.  He notices how in tune the team is with the product owner, stakeholders, and customers.  A project manager often asks questions to gain clarification for herself and for her project team.

5. Do not use information as a weapon or a means of control.

Scrum is based on transparency, and scrum masters also do not use information as a weapon or a means of control.

6. Adhere to predictable communication schedules

Scrum masters may uphold the team's sprint cadence and set some regular communications.  I've also noticed that great scrum masters are communicating regularly and don't wait for a meeting to provide information.

7. Possess domain expertise in project management as applied to a particular field.

Scrum masters need some expertise in scrum and may not need to know deeply about the particular field or domain their team is working in. When hiring a scrum master, experience in a given field is rarely a requirement.

8. Exercise independent and fair consensus-building skills when conflict arises.

Scrum masters expect constructive disagreement within their teams and facilitate conflict as needed.  Their goal is to help the team to process the conflict and come to a consensus.

9. Cultivate and rely on extensive informal networks inside and outside the firm to solve problems that arise.

This is a must in order for scrum masters to remove impediments.

10. Look forward to going to work!

I hope this is true for Scrum Masters too!  

Transitioning from a project manager to a scrum master is like learning to dance--some people pick it up quickly, and others take longer.  The dance is in figuring out when to teach, when to facilitate, when to coach, and when to mentor.  It is challenging, and I think that's what makes it interesting.  A project manager role is different from a scrum master role, and that's not to say that one is better than the other: they just have different expectations and responsibilities.

Allison Pollard

I am an agile coach working with 20 teams in a large enterprise, and I love to create communities for those interested in developing their agile instincts; I mentor project managers to become great Scrum Masters and coach managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results and an organizational community that provides sustainability for agile. I am also one of the organizers of the Dallas-Fort Worth Scrum user group which hosts monthly sessions with over 60 attendees and serve on the Dallas Agile Leadership Network board.

What is the Future of Agile Coaching?

Photo by Vox Efx

Photo by Vox Efx

When I was growing up, I never imagined that I would become an agile coach.  I had no idea what that meant--it didn't exist.  I wanted to be an artist, a music teacher, a programmer, an interior decorator... I wanted to be a lot of different things over the years.  And now that I am an agile coach, I sometimes wonder what I'll be doing years from now.  Where is our industry headed?  Will agile coaching still exist?

If you look at the Agile Manifesto, it seems like agile will likely still be around in 10+ years.  I don't know if agile will be a "thing" or just the way that software is developed, without need for the label.  If that's the case, then agile coaching may move into regular consulting, mentoring, or coaching.  The coaching industry is also evolving as a profession:

What do you think we'll be doing 10 years from now?

Allison Pollard

I am an agile coach working with 20 teams in a large enterprise, and I love to create communities for those interested in developing their agile instincts; I mentor project managers to become great Scrum Masters and coach managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results and an organizational community that provides sustainability for agile. I am also one of the organizers of the Dallas-Fort Worth Scrum user group which hosts monthly sessions with over 60 attendees and serve on the Dallas Agile Leadership Network board.

A Retrospective on Listening (and Talking)

Photo by Britt Reints

Photo by Britt Reints

Do you know how to design a retrospective to be engaging, produce new thinking, and lead to clear actions for the next sprint?  I find it to be an exciting challenge to facilitate great retrospective, so much so that one of my friends refers to me as the “Retrospective Diva.”

This week I had the opportunity to design and facilitate a retrospective for one of my teams, and I wanted to share not just what I did but how and why.

Context

The team is working on a very large and important project, which has kept them feeling busy and overwhelmed.  In meetings, team members are often multitasking to keep up with the workload.  Talking to team members one-on-one, I found that they have ideas about how to address some of the project challenges better and feel like they talk about the same problems in retrospectives only to find that nothing changes.  Team members are ready to adopt changes, but there are some destructive conflict behaviors (both active and passive) that need to be addressed.

Defining the Retrospective Goal

After talking to individual team members about what they wanted to address in a retrospective, I found it difficult to identify a common theme.  I reflected on the situation more and realized that they were talking to their manager and me… and I wondered what it was like to not talk as a team about how things were going.  I recognized the indicators of unhappiness present in their body language and tone of voice, and I realized that they were too distracted in meetings to recognize what was being said and not said.  It was clear: the team needed to think about listening and talking more openly.

Designing the Retrospective Agenda

Now that I had selected the goal, it was time to outline the retrospective itself.  How could I provide safety for everyone to participate?  What activities should I use?  Where did the team need to look for future actions?

Set the Stage - 5 minutes

I would only have one hour for the retrospective, so I had to plan my time wisely; knowing how important it would be to have everyone participating, I wanted to engage them within the first five minutes.  In Set the Stage, I would explain the retrospective goal and how I selected it to gain their buy-in and approval to explore it for the hour.  To establish a light tone and invite participation, I decided to open with a quick show of hands--who liked to talk?  Who liked to listen?  Who liked to work alone so they didn't have to talk or listen?  I made sure to laugh as I said the last one.  

Gather Data - 10 minutes

As I thought about what kind of data I wanted to have the team reflect upon, I kept coming back to the question: what is it like to not talk as a team about how things are going?  I wanted them to recognize the differences between the open flow of communication and the communication they’d been experiencing.  The metaphor of a traffic light came to mind.

  • Green – Speaking honestly and fully what’s on your mind / hearing what is being said and how it is being said
  • Yellow – Guarded or cautious in what you say / hearing the words being said but distracted as a listener
  • Red – Not speaking at all or advocating strongly for your ideas / checking out or being closed to other ideas

To gather data, I described the red/yellow/green metaphor and gave each team member a piece of paper with a traffic light image on it.  They indicated on the paper which color best represented the last sprint for them and collected them; I shared the overall results on the whiteboard at the front of the room by putting a check mark next to the color indicated on each paper.  What did they notice about the results?  Were there any surprises?  

Generate Insights - 15 minutes

To generate insights, I wanted them to discuss in pairs what it was like to be in a particular color—red, then yellow, then green.  This way each person would be encouraged to participate and speak more openly.  Rather than let the pairs discuss all of the colors for a long timebox, I wanted to break it down into separate timeboxes for each color with some group sharing in between.  

Decide What to Do - 20 minutes

After reflecting on what it felt like to be in a particular color and what caused them to be in that place, the group could brainstorm options on how to get more green in the next sprint (decide what to do).  I made a note to myself to be prepared to ask questions so it would be clear what the actions are, who the owner is, and how the team would know they succeeded at the end of the sprint.  

Close the Retrospective - 5 minutes

To wrap up, I would recap the action items and how they would be reviewed periodically during the sprint and in the next retrospective, thank everyone for their participation, and invite them to give me feedback outside of the meeting.

Allison Pollard

I am an agile coach working with 20 teams in a large enterprise, and I love to create communities for those interested in developing their agile instincts; I mentor project managers to become great Scrum Masters and coach managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results and an organizational community that provides sustainability for agile. I am also one of the organizers of the Dallas-Fort Worth Scrum user group which hosts monthly sessions with over 60 attendees and serve on the Dallas Agile Leadership Network board.

Forget Goal-Setting; I Want to Declare Intentions

Photo by Nils Geylen

Photo by Nils Geylen

Do you define clear goals for yourself?  Set deadlines?  Create detailed plans? 

My life isn’t organized into milestones or outlined into actions.  I used to be more concrete in my goals and plan iteratively in my head how to accomplish them.  I was focused in my drive.  The process was: 1. Realize achieving X would make me more awesome.  2. Find ways to achieve X.  3. Work on achieving X.  4. Achievement X unlocked.  This method successfully made me more awesome. 

Over the last two years, I’ve been slowly changing my achievement mentality.  Now I have a vision and a purpose that I reflect upon, and I give more thought to how I want to improve my skills as ongoing growth.  I still push myself and, yes, overcommit myself; admittedly, I enjoy the thrill of testing my boundaries, finding creative ways of doing more, and possibly falling flat on my face at any time. 

I fear I’d lose my edge if I was expected make realistic commitments and be held accountable for them.  When I'm at my best, I dream big.  Huge, really.  I pick a direction, learn my options, and commit one day at a time.

With all of that in mind, it is a new year, and as a one word resolution, I want 2015 to be slower.  My schedule has been packed the last 2 weeks, and I already know it will be intense for the next 6 months as I go through Certified Professional Co-Active Coach certification to further develop my coaching skills.  My intention isn’t to have a slow year—that would be boring.  I want more breathing into life—more savoring of experiencesand an actual vacation because I didn't do that last year.  Professionally and personally, I want more moments that feel like this:

Allison Pollard

I am an agile coach working with 20 teams in a large enterprise, and I love to create communities for those interested in developing their agile instincts; I mentor project managers to become great Scrum Masters and coach managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results and an organizational community that provides sustainability for agile. I am also one of the organizers of the Dallas-Fort Worth Scrum user group which hosts monthly sessions with over 60 attendees and serve on the Dallas Agile Leadership Network board.

Being an Agile Leader in the Process of Change

Photo by rick

Photo by rick

In the process of change, have you ever felt like you’ve taken a step backwards?  Seen someone go back to old habits?  Watched teams lose their courage to change and stick with the status quo?

Change is hard.  It’s a process of growth that can be positive or negative. Watching a video of Virginia Satir talk about the process of change, I am reminded that the introduction of a foreign element can bring resistance.  And then the period of chaos.  Limbo.  The opportunity for catastrophic expectations.  That is when we need to breathe and find our place of centeredness.  Find a state of strength.  The old is not reliable, and our anxiety increases—this is essential for change.  If we breathe in this place, then we can find openness and experiment.  Practice and change.

My job is to help people develop their agile instincts.  To help them breathe and find their place of centeredness amidst the chaos of change.  To help them discover their motivation.  From Characteristics of Agile Organizations:

It takes a lot of strength to practice Agile at the individual level during a period in which it is not practiced, and might not even be recognized, at other levels. This kind of strength is the acid test for the Agile leader. Having the courage of their conviction is what ultimately leads to successful organizational transformation. Such success is not guaranteed, more often than not it takes a lot of time, and it might wear down an Agile leader who is forced to struggle for a prolonged time without witnessing immediate results. It is, however, this kind of strength that differentiates the Agile leader from the follower.

As Satir said, “Using my power to help people grow is different than bossing them.” 

Allison Pollard

I am an agile coach working with 20 teams in a large enterprise, and I love to create communities for those interested in developing their agile instincts; I mentor project managers to become great Scrum Masters and coach managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results and an organizational community that provides sustainability for agile. I am also one of the organizers of the Dallas-Fort Worth Scrum user group which hosts monthly sessions with over 60 attendees and serve on the Dallas Agile Leadership Network board.

Embracing Silence as a Tool

Photo by Evan Moss

Photo by Evan Moss

For those who don’t know, the photo is a reference to Doctor Who, a British sci-fi show that I enjoy watching.  It's a picture of the Silence; their existence is a secret because anyone who sees them immediately forgets about them after looking away, but retains suggestions made to them by the Silence.  Do you remember what it was like to have silence in your life?

I watch a lot of TV.  To be more accurate, I multitask frequently with a TV on in the background.  I like the noise.  But as this video* shows, silence can be powerful:

I sometimes carve out time for silence when I really want to savor something I’m reading or want to inspire creativity.  What does silence do for you? 

*Thanks to @coridrew for sharing this video with me

Allison Pollard

I am an agile coach working with 20 teams in a large enterprise, and I love to create communities for those interested in developing their agile instincts; I mentor project managers to become great Scrum Masters and coach managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results and an organizational community that provides sustainability for agile. I am also one of the organizers of the Dallas-Fort Worth Scrum user group which hosts monthly sessions with over 60 attendees and serve on the Dallas Agile Leadership Network board.

More Clever Ways to Practice Listening

Photo by gfpeck

Photo by gfpeck

Ever feel like the world is trying to get your attention by putting certain messages in front of you?  The world is trying to teach me to listen.  

I came across a TED video on 5 ways to listen better and procrastinated in watching it.  In fact, I didn't watch it at all the first time I decided to press play--I listened to it while driving.  And I listened to it a second time during the same drive.  Later I watched it with distractions in the background once I got home.  Finally, a few days later, I watched it in a quiet living room.  Now I'm posting about it, aware of the rain falling outside that provides a comforting and gentle background noise.

Watch to learn 5 ways to practice listening:

Allison Pollard

I am an agile coach working with 20 teams in a large enterprise, and I love to create communities for those interested in developing their agile instincts; I mentor project managers to become great Scrum Masters and coach managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results and an organizational community that provides sustainability for agile. I am also one of the organizers of the Dallas-Fort Worth Scrum user group which hosts monthly sessions with over 60 attendees and serve on the Dallas Agile Leadership Network board.

A Clever Way to Practice Active Listening

Photo by Hina Ichigo

Photo by Hina Ichigo

How often do you listen intently to what someone else is saying without thinking about your own reply?  Or thinking about something else entirely?  I find it hard to focus sometimes, and in our world of constant interruptions and updates, I am probably not the only one.  In an article called How to Radically Improve Your Life with Just 1 Hour a Week, I was excited to find a new idea of how to practice active listening: Actively listen to a top podcast.

What a clever idea!  A way to practice active listening without the temptation to respond, which will help develop your ability to focus.  Once you're able to listen intently to podcasts, doing the same during conversations will be easier.

I did something similar last year when I realized that I was multitasking at home by watching TV and doing tasks on my computer; I wasn't being very productive or allowing myself to relax, and I had time to do both if I separated my activities.  I picked one show that I would not allow myself to multitask during, and I had to put down the laptop and ignore the urge to check emails on my phone.  By doing so, I noticed more--the character development, the foreshadowing, the use of colors and costumes... I had forgotten how rich Mad Men could be!

Are you looking to increase your active listening skills in 2015?  I'm curious to hear more ideas on how to practice.

 

Allison Pollard

I am an agile coach working with 20 teams in a large enterprise, and I love to create communities for those interested in developing their agile instincts; I mentor project managers to become great Scrum Masters and coach managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results and an organizational community that provides sustainability for agile. I am also one of the organizers of the Dallas-Fort Worth Scrum user group which hosts monthly sessions with over 60 attendees and serve on the Dallas Agile Leadership Network board.

Providing Safety as a Coach, Facilitator, or Scrum Master

Photo by Washington State Department of Transportation

Photo by Washington State Department of Transportation

Have you ever been in a meeting where you could’ve heard a pin drop because it was so quiet?  Where people were not saying what was on their minds?  Why does that happen? 

Hint: it’s usually related to a lack of safety in the room

Where does safety come from?

Someone once told me that my competence provided safety to the people I coach—a lovely thought, and I can see truth in it.  My experience and knowledge allow me to provide teaching and mentoring, as well as reassurance that you’re not stuck with the status quo.  And I also see where my expertise occasionally makes others feel less safe—afraid that they will be caught doing something wrong or breaking rules.  In those moments, it’s as if I embody someone’s own conscience.  Safety has something to do with how you show up and create the environment, and it is also dependent on how others show up and interact within the environment.

I’ve seen the silent meetings occur when the facilitator ignored the group dynamics and neglected to create an environment for everyone to freely share opinions.  And I’ve also seen the silent meetings happen despite a facilitator doing just about everything in his control to foster a judgment-free environment.  Sometimes people aren’t ready to open up.  Skilled facilitators work hard to help people share and participate in meetings, and sometimes people are not ready for that right away.  Perhaps “getting real” is uncommon, either for the individual, the team, or the organization.  It can take time for folks to feel comfortable voicing their opinions; the facilitator must provide the safe environment at every opportunity so it is there when they are ready.

The art of providing safety

From June to October, I spent some of my weekends building a trebuchet with friends for the annual DFW Trebuchet Toss Off.  It’s a fun activity, and I enjoy being part of a team that builds something tangible (far different from my day job!).  This was my third year participating, and my role is that of Safety Czar.  Because honestly I’m not much of a builder, and I can’t carry much physically, but I do pay attention to group dynamics and making sure that those who are about to use a power saw are wearing safety goggles.  We had a lot of challenges this year with our trebuchet, and my schedule didn’t allow me to be at every build. I feel like I didn’t really fulfill my role this year.  I noticed when certain people were disengaged during the builds where I was present, and I didn’t do much to pull them into the active conversations.  I didn’t take a strong enough stand against some of the physical safety issues; while no one was really hurt, we did cause some damage that could have been prevented.  That doesn’t feel good. 

Coaches regularly see the places where people become uncomfortable—whether it’s the person who isn’t ready to face the real transformation that lies ahead or the team that isn’t ready to take the next step.  The coach stays with them in the moment and uses her skills to deepen the learning and forward the action.  It is not easy to do.  In fact, it can feel exhausting.  Listening intently, asking questions with curiosity, acknowledging and championing the strengths you see, and challenging old thinking… all in service of the person/people you are coaching.

I think that’s the key to providing safety: acting in service of them.  A Scrum Master assigned to a new team can facilitate an amazing retrospective and draw out the introverts if he acts from a place of serving the team as a whole.  A coach can ask hard questions of a team and provide a reality check if she acts from a place of serving the team.  If you act from a place of right/wrong, us/them, waterfall/agile, or win/lose, then safety is lost.

Allison Pollard

I am an agile coach working with 20 teams in a large enterprise, and I love to create communities for those interested in developing their agile instincts; I mentor project managers to become great Scrum Masters and coach managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results and an organizational community that provides sustainability for agile. I am also one of the organizers of the Dallas-Fort Worth Scrum user group which hosts monthly sessions with over 60 attendees and serve on the Dallas Agile Leadership Network board.