Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Be a Flashlight

As the year ends, I thought I would like to stand back and review why agile is so powerful. Using an agile approach manages many of the challenges we face in the delivery of software. By following a simple set of principles and processes we can improve our chances of success.
The reason agile works is it focuses on adding the business value the customer wants based on her priority under an iterative delivery approach. It does this in a predicable manner without overworking the team. Progress is monitored using a small set of reports and frequent demonstrations of completed software.

The team remains productive because regular short meetings monitor progress and identify roadblocks. A switch from a Command and Control approach of a typical project manager to a more Self-Governing style improves productivity. The project manager role moves from a director to a facilitator.

The term Agile Coach has started to gain popularity. I prefer this to Scrum Master because my experience in the real world has shown me a mix of Kanban, Scrum and Extreme Programming is typically required.

So how can a team be Self-Governing? How can a group of people get the right thing done without being told what to do?

I believe most people want to feel good about their work and want to do the right thing. What causes most people to deviate from this is frustration and a feeling of despair. When people just show up for work and do what they are told, even when they know it does not make sense, productivity and quality suffers.

I view the job of an Agile Coach is to “Be a Flashlight”. Shine light on areas that “smell” and ask pertinent questions.  The reason this works is it affects aspects of human nature both positive and negative and leverages success. Let’s take a look at some of them next:
  • Being Told What To Do – People do not like to be told exactly what to do. This is especially true with programmers. These creative people want room to grow their craft. By providing direction without being a micro-manager, people will be more motivated.
  • Shared Accountability – Everyone moves off track from time to time. What typically causes frustration is when this occurs and the team feels nothing can be done about it. We need everyone to feel they can ask any question about anything. By asking these questions we shine light on uncomfortable areas. When a mistake is made, the person who made the mistake is accountable. Now this is not blame. Over time the team learns that mistakes are inevitable and eventually everyone will make one. We identify the error, correct it and move on.
  • We are in this together – People respond and engage when they feel they are part of a larger thing. It is bigger than just the individual.
  • Peer Pressure – people do not want to look stupid. They want the respect of their peers and their bosses. The complete transparency of agile causes everyone to know what is going on without having to point fingers at individuals.
  • We always did it that way – when people feel they are trapped and helpless in a situation that will never change, they come to work, do their thing and go home. Both productivity and quality suffer.
It is the job of the Agile Coach to work through project challenges. Agile has process and guidelines to handle all of this. We will explore some of these next and highlight how being a flashlight and asking questions rather that giving orders manages the human nature in all of us.

Business Value

The whole team knows it is all about business value. We build features that add the most business value early. It is the job of the Product Owner to place the features in the backlog in the proper order.
The Agile Coach watches the backlog and looks for “smells”. She may say to the Product Owner
“I seem to remember that we discussed moving the forgot password feature later in the backlog but I still see it in the next sprint. Did something change?”
Just asking this question shines light on a situation and it will work itself out.

Daily Standups

Each day there is short meeting where each person reports progress and impediments. Everyone on the team knows this meeting happens and each day they report progress. The progress is reported to the team, not to a command and control project manager.
This meeting exercises all of the human nature points we discussed. Peer Pressure will cause people to be motivated to get their tasks completed. Openness and transparency causes people to raise issues when something is an impediment. When one team member has a problem and is helped out by another team member we see we are all in this together.
When a person reports the same progress on a task for a while and begins to run late, the Agile Coach may ask
“ May I help you on that task in any way, you seem to be struggling with it?”
There could be many answers to this question. Again by shining light we will get a solution and the team figures it out.


We deliver a set of features that meets the definition of "done" in short periods of time. The team agrees to the following:
  • Definition of done
  • Length of iteration
  • Features to be included in a given iteration
  • New features can always be added, but not to the current sprint
The important thing is that the Team agrees to these things. It is the job of the Agile Coach to facilitate this agreement. If the team does not agree, most of the power of agile is diluted. The job of facilitator is critical. When the team does agree, things are easy. Let’s look at some examples.
The Product Owner says:
“I have a hot new feature we need to add to this sprint, please add it and let me know the effect”
The agile coach says:
“We agreed to two week sprints. We are 5 days into this sprint. Is it possible to wait 5 days for the new feature?”
Normally, requests like this come out of anxiety. The product owner was probably pressured by her boss to get this feature in right away. The boss may not even know the project is agile. Your job as an agile coach is to help the product owner, so her answer aligns with what the team agreed to. You may need to talk to her boss and explain why we need to wait five days and explain the disruption the request will cause. The agile coach helps the product owner in dicey situations. Normally, the Product Owner will see the logic of waiting and will agree.
During a standup meeting the Agile Coach Says:
“Thank you everyone for your updates. I noticed that there are no impediments, which is good. However, I notice we are above the ideal line on our burn down chart. Are we still confident that we can complete the features we all agreed to at Sprint Planning?”
A person from the testing team says:
“Well if the login feature is completed on Thursday, that only gives us one day to test it and my estimate was two days”
The agile coach continues the dialog, asking probing questions until the team discovers a solution.  The coach uses her analytical and negotiating skills to probe in areas the individual team members do not readily see.

Some Good Information

In closing out the year, I wanted to pass on three links that provide very useful information and an excellent book on learning to be an agile coach.
Coaching Agile Teams, by Lyssa Adkins is an excellent book for anyone who wishes to become a better agile practitioner. I use Lyssa’s tips and practice her advice every day. A link to Lyssa’s Blog is available at .
An excellent video on Scrum is available by a vendor who sells the agile tool OnTime. I am not typically one to recommend a specific tool without understanding more about the given situation, but I can recommend the video Scrum in 10 Minutes. It is one of best short descriptions I have seen on Scrum.

I just learned about this video today after reading about it in an agile group on Linkedin. It is titled Agile Project Ownership in a Nutshell but really covers the agile philosophy as well as I have seen anywhere. You are also left with a very good diagram.
There is an excellent roadmap to all things agile hosted by the Agile Alliance. This clickable map is presented in the format of subway station stops.

You may find this excellent resource at the Agile Alliance web site here.
Finally, I want to wish everyone a great 2013.

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