Category Archives: Organizational Design

NYC Salary History Ban – What Does it Mean?

On October 31st, 2017, the Mayor of NYC Bill de Blasio signed the new Law, prohibiting companies in New York City from asking, searching or verifying a job applicant’s salary history during the hiring process.  From now on, violation of this law, by any NYC-based employer, will be viewed as an “unlawful discriminatory practice.”
(Please, read more about the NYC Salary History Ban.)

Below are some potential, real-life consequences of this Law, as it applies to any employees-candidates and any NYC-based employing organizations:

  • If an individual has worked for a long time at the same company and, while there, has acquired a lot of practical experience/skill set, but unfortunately was not able to secure compensation that was a fair reflection of her capabilities/contribution, she may now seek an employment at another company with an increased self-confidence and without worrying that prior, unfairly low compensation, will be a low benchmark for her future offer.
  • If an individual is a self-starter/entrepreneur who has acquired a lot of knowledge/experience in ways, other than formal employment (e.g. self-paid study or research) and by doing so, has significantly increased her professional maturity, she may more confidently leverage these rightfully owned credentials , when negotiating a salary with her next employer.
  • If an individual’s goal has always been to remain as a hands-on contributor (she loved what she did, and did not want to lose her practical skills) and was never aspired to seek a promotional/managerial position – something that usually leads to higher compensation, she may do so more freely, without worrying that she will miss out on a “compensation-bargaining-chip”, at her next job interview.  This also means that employees will be more experience/knowledge-seeking and less promotion-seeking, as it is really an experience, not prior organizational position that define their true value.  (note: often, promotions are associated with loss of hands-on expertise, in favor of managerial/administrative responsibilities).
  • If an individual’s full compensation consists of base salary and discretionary bonus (the latter, often being too subjective, as it is based on individual performance appraisals, efficiency of which have been proven as ineffective for decades), with a bonus, representing a significant chunk of her full salary, she does not have to be concerned so much with her next employer, trying to count in only her base salary, as as a ‘benchmark’ , while making an offer.  This will also, hopefully, drive companies towards paying higher base salaries, and away from subjective bonuses.
  • Recruiting agencies and staffing firms will have fewer opportunities to ask unethical questions (“how much were/are you making at your prior/current job?”), something that is often delegated to them by companies’ HR departments, with the ladder not wanting to be directly associated with unethical behaviors.  Further, this may lead to more transparency and direct interaction between hiring managers and candidates.
  • Companies-employers would have to improve their vetting/interviewing/hiring approaches significantly, by incorporating validation methods and more reliable/objective assessments of candidates, to prevent under-qualified, low-skilled individuals (some of whom may have strong self-selling/negotiations skills and expertise with “talking the talk”) from slipping through companies’ doors and causing internal problems.  This may require conducting more practical tests, real-life simulations and hands-on exercises, administered directly by hiring areas and peers-coworkers. Further, this could also, reduce the amount of subjective/administrative, error-prone and often unnecessary screening processes, usually handled by companies’ departments that are least benefited from hiring high-quality candidates, and at the same time, most benefited from creating and administering actual processes.

In all the above situations, the main compensation-determining factors will be:

  • From an employee’s perspective: her professional competency, skill/mind set, ability to produce tangible results and deliver business value
  • From an employer’s perspective: ability to properly assess a candidate for what she is worth (not for what she was price-tagged in her past) AND clear understanding of how much an employer is willing to pay for a given job/to a given candidate

Lastly, does the new Law have any relevance to internal hiring situations (when employees move around a company)?  

According to the Employer Fact Sheet, the Law does not apply directly to internal re-employment (also, for most companies, employees’ compensation is transparent to hiring managers of the same company).

However….  There could be some indirect implication: NYC-based employers will probably realize that properly educated (know the Law) employees will have more confidence to ask for a more significant compensation increase, when they seek a new employment internally.  The new “compensation-bargaining chip” for employees will be their increased self-confidence and assurance that they will have a better chance of getting higher compensation elsewhere, irrespective of their current compensation, should their internal efforts not materialize.  As a result, to avoid losing good people to their competitors, employers will probably revisit their compensation increase standards, for internally transferred employees.

Addressing Problems, Caused by AMMS

For many organizations, Agile Maturity Metrics (AMM) have become a trusted way to measure improvements of agility at personal (individuals), team and organizational level.

However, it is not always apparent that AMMs are different from Agile Check-Lists (e.g. classic example of Scrum Check list by H. Kniberg) in ways that may actually lead to problems and dysfunctions:

Check-Lists are just a set of attributes that are usually viewed on-par with one another; they are not bucketed into states of maturity (other logical grouping could be applied though)

On contrary, AMMs usually place attributes in buckets that represent different states of maturity that follow one another, sequentionally.

With very rare exceptions (favorably designed organizational ecosystems), there are three potential challenges that companies face, when relying on bucketed AMMs:

1 – System Gaming: If achieving a higher degree of agile maturity is coupled with monetary incentives/perks or other political gains (for many companies that are driven by scorecards and metrics, this is the case), there is will be always attempts by individuals/teams to claim successes/achievements by ‘playing the system’, in pursuit of recognition and a prize.

2 – Attribute-to-Maturity Level relationship is conditional, at most: Placing agile attributes in maturity buckets implies that attributes in higher-maturity buckets are always more weight-carrying than attributes in lower-maturity buckets. However, this is not always a fair assumption: weight/importance that every organization/team places on any given attribute, while defining its own maturity, is unique to that organization/teamFor example, for one team, “…being fully co-located and cross-functional…” could be much more important than “…having Product Owner collocated with a team…” For another team, it could be the other way around.

3 – Correlation between attributes is not linear, at system-level: Regardless of buckets they are placed in, many agile attributes are correlated systemically and impact one another in ways that are not apparent, until system modeling techniques are applied.  For example, placing “Scrum Master is effective in resolving impediments”attribute in a maturity bucket that comes before the maturity bucket with “…Organization provides strong support, recognition and career path to Scrum Master role…” attribute, dismisses the real cause-and-effect relationship between these two variables, misleads and sets false expectations.

To avoid the issues described above, it would more advisable to treat every identified agile attribute as a system variable, on-par with others, while assuming that it has upstream and downstream relationship with other system variables.  In many situations, instead of spending a lot time and resources on trying to improve a downstream variables (e.g.  trying to understand why it is so difficult to prioritize a backlog) it is more practical to fix an upstream variable that has much deeper systemic roots (e.g. finding an empowered and engaged product owner who has as a right to set priorities).

Below, is the list of agile attributes (a.k.a. system variables) that are logically grouped (check-list) but are not pre-assigned to levels of maturity (all flat).   Some examples  of suggested system-level correlation between different attributes are provided (cells are pre-populated).

Please, click on the image to download the matrix to your desktop, amend the list of attributes if you feel that your situation calls for modification, and then use “Dependency on Other Attributes?” column to better visualize system-level correlation between the attributes are of interest to you and other related attributes (some examples are provided).

10/13 – LESS TALKS: MEETUP – Working LeSS Brings Great Results (Case Study)

Tonight -a  great presentation by Malik Graves-Pryor of Natoma Consulting, as he shared how his company leveraged LeSS to achieve  stunning results, while facing challenges and learning lessons.

Malik’s Summary

At the Thursday October 12, 2017 NYC Large Scale Scrum Meetup, Malik Graves-Pryor shared his company’s LeSS case study, “Web and Mobile Applications Agile Transformation”. He covered the extensive issues the company faced at the beginning ranging from only 1-2 releases a year with hundreds of defects, and how they transformed over the course of several months to an organization that released monthly, and then continuously, with low defects and high customer satisfaction and engagement.

The discussion covered the merger of the Sales and Product Management Pipelines, adoption of technical practices leading to a DevOps-focused culture, how to take the necessary steps to build trust and cooperation within the organization, as well as the road-map they used to iteratively migrate the organization to continuous integration and deployment.

The interactive discussion spanned two hours with attendees raising questions and issues about the case study, as well as correlating them with their own challenges and aspirations.

Presentation deck is available at  Natoma Consulting website for download.

 

What Should Agile Leadership Care About?

Agile frameworks (e.g. Scrum, Kanban, XP), individuals’ roles & responsibilities, processes & tools, metrics & reporting, burn-up charts, estimation techniques, backlog prioritization, agile engineering practices, agile maturity models etc. – all of them are important attributes of a typical agile transformation.  However, NONE of them are first-degree-of-importance system variables that are responsible for transformation success.  Most of them, are good superficial lagging indicators of agility but they are all corollary (secondary and tertiary) to another much more important system variable.

What is the most important system variable that defines a company’s agility?  It is Organizational Design –  the most deeply rooted element of organizational ecosystem that defines most of system dynamics.

When organizational leadership decides to take an organization through an agile transformation journey (it could take years, sometimes), it [leadership] needs to acknowledge that real, sustainable agile changes are only possible if deep, systemic organizational improvements are being made.  For that, leadership needs to be prepared to provide to its organization much more than just support in spirit, accompanied organizational messages of encouragement and statements of vision.  Leadership must be prepared to intimately engage with the rest of an organization, by doing a lot of real “gemba” (genchi genbutsu (現地現物)) and change/challenge things that for decades, and sometimes for centuries, have been treated as de-facto.

What does it really mean for leadership to engage at System Level?  First, it is important to identify what a system is: what are a system’s outer boundaries?  For example, one of the most commonly seen mistakes that companies make when they decide on “scope of agile transformation” is limiting its efforts to a stand-alone organizational vertical, e.g. Technology – and just focusing there.  Although this could bring a lot of local (to IT) success, it may also create unforeseen and undesirable friction between the part of an organization that has decided to change (IT) and the part of an organization that decided to remain ‘as is’ (e.g. Operations, Marketing).  For example, if Scrum teams successfully adopt CI/CD, TDD or other effective engineering practices that enable them deliver PSPI at the end of every sprint, but business is not able to keep up with consumption of deliverables (too many approvals, sign offs, red tape) then the whole purpose of delivering early and often gets defeated.  Then, instead of delivering to customers soon, in exchange for timely feedback, teams end up delivering in large batches and too far apart on a time scale.

A successful Agile Leader must treat an organization, that is expected to transform, as a sushi roll.  Just like seaweed alone does not provide a full spectrum of flavors and does not represent a complete, healthy meal, one single department (e.g. IT) is not sufficient enough to participate in agile transformation efforts.  Other organizational layers need to be included as well, when identifying a slice for agile transformation experiment.  A slice does not have be too thick. In fact, if organizational slice is too thick, it might be too big to “swallow and digest”.  But still, even when sliced thinly, an organization must include enough layers, to be considered as a ‘complete meal’.

Note: A great example of treating an organization as a sushi role, while making it more agile, is Large Scale Scrum (LeSS) adoption.

So, what are some key focus areas that every Agile Leader must keep in mind, while setting an organization on agile transformation course?

  • Location strategies. Geographic locations.
  • HR policies (e.g. career growth opportunities, compensation, promotions)
  • Budgeting & Finance
  • Intra-departmental internal boundaries and spheres of influence
  • Organizational Leadership Style
  • And some other areas that historically have been considered as …untouchable

All the above listed areas are defined by Organizational Design and can be better understood through self-assessment, done by organizational leaders at all levels.

Agile Organization, as a Sushi Roll

When we ask an experienced Scrum developer what defines a good User Story, the answer we hear almost immediately is that “…every user story must be INVEST-able…(taken from B. Hartman’s post)”.

When we further elaborate on “INVEST” part, we hear that splitting user stories should be done Vertically (along features), not Horizontally (along components or applications layers).  Why is the latter condition so important? Because when split vertically, and cross-cutting through multiple components, a user story has a much higher chance of representing a potentially shippable product increment (PSPI).  Delivering, UI/UX alone, or business layer alone, or database alone, does not present value to a buying customer.

Frequently, we hear the analogy of a sushi roll, when describing story slicing: “…every User Story must represent thinly sliced sushi roll that provides taste and flavor of multiple layers (caviar, seaweed, rice, tuna, avocado, etc)…


…Now, imagine an organization that is undergoing agile transformation.  Predominantly (statistically), transformation efforts stem from Technology, where agile improvements come in the form of introducing good engineering practices, such CI/CD, TDD, unit testing, test automation, automatic deployments, etc.  But technology alone, is just one layer of an organizational sushi roll.  Sure, just like seaweed alone, it may be tasty enough for starters, but without adding additional flavors, it is not a complete, healthy meal.

Other organizational layers need to be included as well, when identifying a slice for agile transformation experiment.  A slice does not have be too thick. If organizational slice is too thick, it might be too big to “swallow and digest”.  But still, even when sliced thinly, an organization must include enough layers, to be considered as complete meal.

What are some of those layers?  Let’s consider a few:

Business & Operations:  it is imperative to have real customers intimately involved in agile transformation efforts and making them closely aligned with technology partners. This requires identifying and providing a strong support for some key agile roles, such as product owner, stakeholders and SMEs.  Often, this requires organizational realignment and changes to sphere of influence.

HR:  Subjective monetary rewards that are based on individual performance assessments and fueled by invisible internal competition among employees, must be discontinued, in favor of incentives that promote teams’ collective ownership and performance.  An organizational slice that wants to become more agile will have a much higher chance for success if HR policies were genuinely supportive of the initiative of the efforts.

Budgeting & Finance: For agile teams (Scrum, Kanban) that use adaptive planning and iterative development, and continuously have their work re-prioritized by business, it is imperative to have flexible budgets (“flexible spending”).  By unlocking a rigid budget corner of what is known as Project Management Iron Triangle (budget, scope, timeline), technology dramatically increases their chances to do research or conduct new experiments, if an opportunity presents itself (often, unexpectedly).  There is also a higher chance that more Scrum teams would be built out faster, if budgets were flexible and not done as ‘budgets against the wall’ (‘the world ends on December 31st’) – more flexibility to acquire new talent.

Real Estate & Facilities: Having agile teams co-located under the same roof is a huge win: e.g. Scrum team dispersed around the globe is not as good as Scrum team placed on the same floor. (Note: Please, do not confuse a single Scrum team spread thin across multiple locations with multi-site Scrum product development, when many, whole teams are collocated but separated from from peers-teams by geography).

However, putting a team on the same floor is not sufficient.   Interior design must be supportive of team collaboration and dynamics: ‘caves & common’ (read A. Cockburn about XP), information radiation techniques (lots of whiteboard space, flip-charts), breakout areas, extra space to accommodate extended user community during sprint reviews, etc. – is all required.  It is unfortunate but common to see so-called Scrum team members sitting in a long single row, next to each other, spear-headed by a line manager (usually, a window seat), all joining a daily stand-up call by phone (while sitting!) and ‘reporting on status’, while staring at an electronic story board on their respective monitors.  Agile teams don’t want that.


As a summary, please consider the following quote that describes sushi-roll-like organizational design in Large Scale Scrum (LeSS), by C. Larman:

“Who are the Judges?” Who Decides on Who is Gonna Coach?

Lets kick off this post with the quote from another recent discussion that generated a number of strong comments from experienced professionals:

“…as long as companies remain complacent and reliant on outlived staffing/head-hunting approaches, cold-calling techniques, and ineffective HR-screening processes, performed by people that poorly understand the essence of an agile coaching profession, while trying to procure cheap “agile” resources or treat seasoned professional coaches, as “requisitions to be filled”,  a coaching bar will remain low, and companies will be getting EXACTLY  what they have paid for: coaches-centaurs (p.17)…”

 

To summarize, the purpose of the above referenced discussion was to increase awareness about implications of ineffective coaches and coaching that exists in abundance today.  Here, lets look at some root causes why this problem exists.

Who Defines the role of Agile Coach?

For the most part, organizational understanding of a coaching role is weak.  Definitions of a coaching role that flow around, suggest that companies are still confused about what coaches do.  Definition of a coaching role is frequently lumped together with the role of a project manager, team lead, business analyst, Jira/Rally/VersionOne administrator etc. While some of these other roles, could represent potentially relevant past experience for a coach, lumping all of them together in one all-inclusive role description, delimiting them by a commas or forward slashes 😊, is ironic, to say the least.  Many of these “ace pilot/submarine captain/NHL star” roles create a conflict of interest not just for people that step into them but for everyone else who gets affected by interaction.  Very often, inaccurate definition of a coaching role leads to inappropriate behaviors by a coach, such as attempts to seek authority and organizational power, exhibition of command & control behavior, competition with people being coached for ownership of deliverables, monetary incentives and other perks.

Once a poorly-defined coaching role description hits the street, it enters a vicious cycle – reinforcing feedback loop.  (described in detail here ):

(Note: the above illustration excludes other system variables that may have effect on the variables and variables’ relationships shown above).

This vicious cycle usually leads to one inevitable result: over-time (usually months; sometimes a few years) companies realize that agile coaching did not bring about enough sustainable organizational improvements, as it was expected.  This further leads to two outcomes, both of which dependent of senior leadership vision and goals:

  • Companies seriously re-assess their own initial actions, acknowledge mistakes made, and then improve coaching standards and elevate the bar in favor of real, experienced coaches
  • Companies, try to water down mistakes they have made, trivialize a coaching role for a lack of it’s benefit and, and by doing so, further reinforce the loop above
Who Really Makes Decisions and Why?

Rarely, senior executives take an active role in a coaching hiring process; exceptions exist but they are rare (usually,  exceptions are seen when things become very urgent – page 14).  But even when they [executives] do engage in the process, it is usually more the act of a formality, to ensure that a hired person “fits the culture”. Of course, and very ironically, one of the key expectations from an experienced coach should be to challenge an organizational structure (both, at enterprise and team level), and since culture is corollary to structure (Larman’s Law # 5), the latter would change (would be challenged) as well.  But this is not something that too many senior executives would like to hear.

For the most part, a hiring process is delegated to first- and sometimes second-line management, as well as internal agile champions that oversee and own agile transformations.  While Larman’s Law # 1, historically, has defined the attitude of middle management towards fundamental changes that challenge a status-quo, the recently added Law # 4 neatly describes “contribution” by some internal agile champions.  And while exceptions do exist, trends and statistics speak louder.

Let’s imagine the process by which an organization wanted to hire an agile coach (as employee or consultant – no difference):
In this process, the interviewers – are individuals described in Larman’s Law # 1 and # 4.   On the other hand, an interviewee, is a seasoned agile coach, with long enterprise- and team-level track record: she is a system thinker, dysfunctions challenger, a real organizational change agent.

Impact on a hiring process by Larman’s Law # 1-type Interviewers:

At an interview, a coach-candidate meets with first- and/or second-line managers that also expect that a coach will report into them, when she joins a company.  During a discussion, interviewers hear from a coach certain things that coaches usually bring up, uninhibitedly:

  • Simplified overall organizational structure, where developers receive requirements and communicate on progress, by interacting directly with end customers, not middle-men
  • Flattened team structure, where developers self-organize and self-manage. Overall reduction of supervision and resource management, in favor of increased autonomy, mastery and purpose, by individuals that do work
  • Harmful effects of individual performance appraisals and subjective monetary incentives, especially in environments, where team commitments and team deliveries are expected

Unsurprisingly, the biggest question that many interviewers walk out with, after interviewing such a candidate is: “What will my role be like, if this coach is hired and brings about above mentioned organizational changes?

 

Impact on a hiring process by Larman’s Law # 4 -type Interviewers:

Knowledge and experience of a coach-candidate supersedes that of internal agile champions and process owners.  Some of the discussions a coach elicits, and answers provides, by far exceed expectations (not to be confused with a term used in a performance appraisal process 🙁 !) of her interviewers.  Some suggestions and ideas shared by a candidate are a great food for thought for senior executives but not at a level, where Larman’s Law # 4-type coaches are authorized to operate.  Interviewers clearly see that a coach-candidate, if on-boarded, soon may become a more visible, influential contributor than the interviewers themselves.   A coach may also bring about some organizational turbulence that will take out of comfort zone some individuals that are resistant to changes.

What are the odds that this experienced coach-candidate will be given a “pass”? What are the odds that she will be even given a chance to speak to senior executives involved in a hiring process, to attempt to influence them,  to open their eyes, to offer a deeper system perspective on a situation, to make them think and talk about the forbidden?

Slim-to-none. 

And this is one of the ways, in which organizations that are complacent about agile improvements, shoot themselves in a foot: they very effectively disqualify qualified agile coaches and by doing so, reinforce the feedback loop illustrated above😉.

You Get What you Ask For: Agile Coaches-Centaurs

Why are there so many troubled agile “transformations”?  We frequently hear the following answer: “because companies lack senior leadership support”.  True.  And let’s not trivialize this: without strong and genuine support by senior leadership (beyond slogans and “support in spirit”), without selecting a deep, systemic approach to problem resolution, companies can only expect localized, peripheral and, most likely, short-term improvements.

But is there anything/anyone else that can be conveniently held accountable for failed agile transformations?

How about ineffective agile training and coaching?  [Note: If you are interested in learning more about some of the most common challenges with agile training, please visit this page.  This post is about coaching .]

…There is a vicious cycle that hurts so many companies (can be also considered as a self-inflicted wound):

initially, companies set a low bar for coaches, based on poor understanding of a coaching role  low quality coaches are hired (most of them are not even coaches, but rather people that have mastered agile jargon and know how to impress HR and uninformed hiring managers) weak coaches (most of whom have minds of conformists, not challengers) cannot effectively guide companies to fix systemic weaknesses and dysfunctions  teams and departments  don’t really improve; rather create a superficial appearance/illusion of progress (often, to impress senior management)  companies lose faith and stop seeing value in coaching → companies start trivializing a coaching role  companies decide not to spend more money on high quality coaching cheaper, even less effective, coaches are hired (or internal, misplaced people are refurbished into coaches, overnight, as per Larman’s Law # 4) initially, low-set coaching bar, is lowered even further…and so on….

Graphically, it looks something like this:

As a result, what was initially meant as a strategic organization- improvement effort, now takes on a form of just another system-gaming change management fad that ultimately leads to a failure and responsibility/blame-shifting.

What are some of the reasons why the above happens?  Here are some suggested reasons:

  • Companies don’t understand the essence of agile coaching role: it is viewed as another “turn-on switch” management function
  • Leadership does not feel a sense of urgency (p. 14) to make changes and exempts itself from being coached: people are too busy and too senior to be coached; they find coaching trivial
  • Certain organizational pockets are genuinely resistant to/feared of changes that can be brought about by real coaches (as per Larman’s Laws 1 – 3)
  • Market over-saturation with unskilled recruiters that hunt for low-quality coaches and contribute to the above cycle: this further lowers a company’s chances to find a good coach
  • This list can be extended….

Who is responsible for initiating this vicious cyclic dysfunction?  Does it really matter if we identify guilty ones?  Maybe it does, but only, as a lessons-learning exercise.  What probably matters more is how to break out of this cycle.  Where to start: discontinue low-quality supply (coaches) or raise a bar on demand (by companies)?  Usually, demand drives supply and if so, for as long as companies remain complacent and reliant on outlived staffing/head-hunting approaches, cold-calling techniques, and ineffective HR-screening processes, performed by people that poorly understand the essence of an agile coaching profession, while trying to procure cheap “agile” resources or treat seasoned professional coaches, as “requisitions to be filled”,  a coaching bar will remain low, and companies will be getting EXACTLY  what they have paid for: coaches-centaurs (p.17).

Big question

What should companies be looking for when hiring a coach?”

An organization should be looking much father and beyond of what is typically presented in a resume or a public profile of a candidate: usually, a chronological list of an employment history or a long list of google-able terms & definitions,  popular jargon or claims of experience in resolving deep, systemic organizational challenges with Jira configurations 😊.  Much more attention should be paid to the following important quantitative characteristics of a coach:

Coaching Focus: What is an approach and/or philosophy to coaching does a coach have?  This will help a company understand an individual mindset of a coach.

Coaching Education AND Mentorship: What active journey through education, mentorship and collaborative learning in coaching and related activities over significant period has a coach taken?

Formal Coaching Education: What has contributed significantly to a person’s coaching journey, including courses on topics of facilitation, leadership, consulting, coaching, process, and other related activities which have influenced a person’s coaching practice? Such education may not have to be degree-related (training and/or certification from any recognized institution could be sufficient).

Coaching Mentorship & Collaboration: How a coach developed a skill/technique or received guidance to a coaching approach and mindset?  Respect and recognition of mentors – matters here.

Informal Coaching Learning: What important topics outside of Agile/Scrum literature have impacted a person’s coaching philosophy?  This increases chances that a coach is well-rounded, beyond standardized book learning.

Agile Community Engagement & Leadership:  Does a coach engage in agile user groups, gatherings, retreats, camps, conferences, as well as writing, publishing, reviewing, presenting, facilitating, training, mentoring, organizing, and leading agile events?  An active participation and leadership in the agile community is a good demonstration that a coach has not developed herself within a unique organizational silo, by self-proclaiming and self-promoting, but rather has diverse and ‘tested’  industry experience.

Agile Community Collaborative Mentoring & Advisory: Does a coach mentor or advise other individuals (not for pay) on how to increase their competency or development?  Is a relationship on-going, purposeful and bi-directionally educational?

Coaching Tools, Techniques and Frameworks: Does a coach develop awareness and understanding of tools, techniques and frameworks while engaging with organizations?  Has she customized or developed anything that was client/engagement-specific?

In addition to quantitative characteristics , here are qualitative characteristics of a good coach:

Coaching Mindset
  • How does a coach react when an outcome of coaching was different from what she had desired? In the past, how did a coach address this situation?
  • How, based on clients’ needs, a coaching mindset had to change? In the past, what compromises did a coach make? What was learned?
  • What new techniques or skills did a coach learn, to meet a client’s needs?
Coaching Competencies
  • Assess – Discovery & Direction
  • Balance – Coaching & Consulting
  • Catalyze – Leadership & Organizations
  • Facilitate – Focus & Alignment
  • Educate – Awareness & Understanding
Coaching Specialties
  • Lean / Kanban
  • User Experience / Design
  • Scaling Agile / Enterprise Agility
  • Technical / Quality Practices
  • Organizational Structures
  • Lean Startup
  • Product / Portfolio Management
  • Organizational Culture
  • Learning Organizations
  • Non-Software Application
  • Business Value / Agility
  • Technical / Product Research
  • Multi-Team Dynamics
  • Organizational Leadership
  • Organizational Change

[Note: The above, is based on guidelines provided by Scrum Alliance application process for CTC and CEC.]

While running some risk of sounding self-serving (very much NOT! the intent here) : please, be mindful and responsible when you select guidance-level professionals in your agile journey 😉.

Grassroots of Modern Command & Control Behavior

Examples of Command & Control behavior can be historically traced back into centuries, to the periods of dictatorship, imperialism, monarchy, feudalism and even further back, to more primitive social systems.  However, for the sake of this discussion, let’s refer only as far back as Industrial Revolution of the last century.  Back then, workforce predominantly consisted of low-skilled laborers that performed routine, mundane physical work and managers-supervisors that were responsible for setting goals, assigning responsibilities, monitoring progress and praising-penalizing workers, based on individual performance of the latter (using “carrots & sticks” approach).  This type of management was a classic example of what is known as Taylorian Management (Frederick Taylor), according to which, there had to be clear delineation between individuals that performed work and individuals that controlled/managed work of others.  This type of human relationship in work settings was also later described as Theory X Management (Douglass McGregor), and it suggested that managers needed to use totalitarian and repressive style to ensure tight control over workers, because the latter would otherwise not work hard and efficiently enough.

…Fast forwarding to modern days…

Today, we still have many examples of Command & Control behavior that shape relationships among people in modern organizations.  This happens even in situations, where organizations have workers that are very highly skilled and intellectually advanced.  More frequently, this is seen in organizations that are at Laloux’s Orange state of maturity or lower.

While in part, modern Taylorian Behaviorism can be explained by long-lasting “cultural inheritance” that hopefully will wear off over time, it would be interesting to look closer at some specific root causes of modern-days Taylorian behavior.

Although not exclusively, the examples below, are more frequently observed between individuals that are related to each other by hierarchy (boss-subordinate).

Insecurity about own job. Worries about own career growth.

A manager does not feel secure about his own position.  This could be caused by company reorganization (e.g. merge, acquisition, flattening) and a manager feeling that his role may be reduced or eliminated.   This fear of becoming dispensable could be worsened by realization of personal incompetence and/or lack of professional knowledge.  This is frequently seen in situations, where managers, as they have progressed the hierarchical ladder, have given up their hands-on skills and became peoples’ managers.

Misunderstanding roles of other people

A manager does not keep up with evolution of roles and does not understand purpose/importance of some new roles that have emerged in a workplace.  As a result, a manager tries to “map” new roles to old roles and apply the same yard-stick to measure and manage a subordinate.  His own lack of understanding could be frustrating to a manager and, therefore, make him feel defensive in discussions of roles and responsibilities of his subordinates.

Compromised self-esteem and desire to protect own Status Quo

While being a part of a larger organization, a manager might be getting a significant portion of mistreatment, in the form of command & control behavior, from his own superiors.  This is where the desire to protect his own status quo and not to look defeated in the eyes of his own peers and sub-ordinates kicks in.  There is a growing need for self-redemption and the urge the relieve a built-up psychological stress.

Note: All three examples of the root causes of Command & Control behavior above, usually result in a manager becoming passive aggressive and seeking ways to discharge negativism onto others.  Typically, “others” come in the form of a manager’s own subordinates, with the latter becoming defenseless recipients of mistreatment.

“I am Great” competitive stance “Tribal Stage 3” (D. Logan)

With the attitude of “I am great and you are not”, a manager perceives himself as someone who is smarter and greater than his subordinates.  The person that acquires a managerial position, that is sometimes is just a result of skillful pursuit of a new vacancy (e.g. due to reorg, force reduction) and/or experience to navigate organizational political terrain, feels the need to demonstrate his superiority to others.  To continue being perceived as a super-star and to stay in a spotlight of all events that can further multiply his glory, as well as to be able to claim someone else’s credit (delivery, innovation, invention) as his own, a manager wants to keep his subordinates “at bay”, to prevent their independent advancement and autonomy.

Individual resentment and animosity towards other people

While not very common and rightfully speculative, there are situations when outside-of-work relationships or individual perception outside of working environment, define the relationship between a manager and subordinate.  Broken friendship, unsuccessful romantic relationship, differences in personal values, norms or beliefs – all can impact professional relationship at work.  A manager, who has an upper hand, may leverage his superiority to repress a subordinate, in retaliation to work-unrelated matters.  On top of being unprofessional, this behavior could be also viewed as “non-sportsmanship-like conduct”. 

I am Expert” distrusting stance (distrust in competence of others)

This could be viewed as the least “harm intended” manifestation of command & control behavior.  This is more commonly seen in situations, where a manager still has sufficient hands-on expertise (e.g. technical lead) and can-do work.  Viewing himself as a “super-doer-expert”, a manager usually prefers to “shut the door” and resolve all problems on his own, instead of trusting his subordinates to collaborate and come up with shared decisions.  A manager-doer prefers to make single-handed decisions, while controlling actions and interactions of other people, in a fear that someone’s failure will be perceived as his personal failure.

Below is System Modeling diagram-example that illustrates relationships Command & Control behavior with the reasons described above and some additional system variables that impact system dynamics.

05/26-28: Scrum Coaching Retreat | Kiev, Ukraine

2017 Scrum Coaching Retreat in Kiev  is in the books!!!  The event has brought together a few dozens of agile coaches and trainers from nearby and far away.

The participants came from different backgrounds and focus areas but due to everyone’s extensive experience in self-organization and self-management, got the show on the road very quickly.  After a short round of self-intros, each participant introduced a few topics that they wanted to discuss. By using a combination of dot-voting and affinity clustering techniques, the group came up with a handful of key topics that everyone wanted to deep dive into.  The group broke up into four teams, with each team picking one high-priority topic – to be worked on in consecutive three (3) sprints.

The team I joined (“Happy 7”) picked up the topic “How to influence decisions of senior management directly, from the bottom of organizational pyramid”.  The team consisted of experienced ScrumMasters, Team-level and Enterprise-level coaches.

The problem statement that defined our team’s effort was:

“There are so many instances, of challenges and obstacles that teams face, are not being heard at the top of a food chain.  And even when they are heard, often, original messages get distorted and lose urgency, as they travel up through multiple “translational” layers.  What can be done to fix this problem?  What techniques could be used to effectively segregate impediments that are local and can be resolved by teams and the ones that are systemic/organizational – and must be aggressively escalated upward?” 

The problem above has direct dependency on organizational design, specifically, on its thickness: the number of organizational layers between working teams (on one hand) and senior leadership/paying customers (on the other) – is a well-recognized challenge today.

Our working group has identified the following organizational design scenarios that define dynamics and human interaction in modern Product Development:

  1. Development teams and Product Owner belong to the same organization and end-Customer is positioned internally
  2. Development teams and Product Owner belong to the same organization and end-Customer is positioned externally
  3. Development teams represent Vendor-company and Product Owner represents Client-company and relationships between Vendor and Client are based on:
    • Out-staffing model – when a vendor provides human assets (developers) that are then owned by a customer, from management perspective, whereas legal ownership (e.g. insurance, taxes) is still by a vendor
    • Out-sourcing model – when an entire project gets outsourced to a vendor and a paying customer has no or minimal interaction directly with human assets (developers) that do work (most of communication flows through Engagement Management)

Interestingly, since many of our working group members had a lot of experience with #3 option above, the primary focus of our discussion was about how to bring closer senior leadership of paying customers and agile teams of delivering vendors, closer together, despite multiple “anti-agile” organizational layers that frequently reside in-between the former and the latter.

The ultimate result of our brainstorming was the invention of a non-commercial, collaborative game that was given the name of Influence Poker.

Our game’s purpose was:

  • To identify challenges that delivery teams often face
  • To classify challenges, based on origin, severity and implications
  • To discuss potential ways of resolving and/or escalating challenges
  • To ensure resolution ownership and transparency on its progress

Note: The initial contributors to the game creation were: Serhiy Lvov, Kiryl Baranoshnik, Artem Bykovets, Alexander Karitsky, Mark Summers, Jonas Mann and Gene Gendel .

The most serious organizational design challenge, when a paying customer engages with a vendor-company, is seen with an out-sourcing model.  Here, no matter how agile/robust technology teams are, their ability to deliver effectively is hindered by:

  • Involvement of Delivery Manager (usually, placed on a client site) who owns a relationship with a customer, serves as a single filter-channel of communication between a customer and teams, makes commitments and furnishes progress reporting on behalf of teams. The same person also streamlines feedback from a customer back to teams and frequently assigns work to team members.  This is usually accompanied by micro-management and command and control behavior.  The situation can be further worsened by the presence of Vendor Management function (customer side) that enforces SLAs, SOWs and other formal contracts between a customer and vendor: this just adds additional tension to a relationship and moves further apart end-customers and delivery teams.
  • Weakening of Product Owner role – the importance of this critical Scrum role gets downplayed, because a customer company no longer sees value in direct communication with technology teams.  Instead, Delivery Manager is treated as a single person, responsible for project delivery.  This dramatically narrows all communication media that are used in Scrum (holding events, sharing artifacts).

The above two challenges are inter-related through a positive feedback loop: the less disengaged Product Owner becomes, the more pivotal the role of Delivery Manager becomes.  The opposite is true too: strengthening the role of Delivery Manager, leads to further “excusing” Product Owner from stepping into the game, as Scrum requires.  This is a viscous, de-stabilizing loop that continuously weakens Scrum.

Please, look out for the Influence Poker.first official release that is coming soon! It may greatly help your teams visualize their organizational problems and discover potential workable solutions.

Note: For attendees and participants, here are additional shortcuts:

Sprint Length: Who Decides? How? Why?

What is the best Sprint length?  Who decides on Sprint length? Are there any exceptions?  What are some of the most common mistakes people make, when making decisions about Sprint length?

Let’s start from grassroots and answer the following basic question: “What is Sprint main goal?”  And while looking for an answer, let’s refer to the Scrum Guide, where the goal of each sprint is clearly described as “…increment (a.k.a. PSPI = potentially shippable product increment) that must be in usable condition and meeting DoD (Definition of Done)”.  From the Scrum Guide perspective, it is also clear that while being potentially shippable, an increment does not necessarily have to be shipped.  Why is it so? For PSPI to be shipped, it must also represent MMP (Minimal Marketable Product) and the decision about what is marketable comes only from Product Owner and it is based on several factors, including long-term strategy and economics.

(Note: End-of-Sprint deliverable, sometimes, is also referred to as MVP (Minimum Viable Product) and is described well by Roman Pichler here.)

Sprint Length and Release Economics

Speaking of economics, lets recall the relationship between Transaction Costs (Shipping) and Holding Costs, also described in “The Principles of Product Development Flow” by D. Reinertsen.  By analogy, if applied to Scrum product development, ‘batch size’ would represent a volume of PSPI and ‘cost’ would represent all combined efforts, associated with  production deployment (e.g. integration, end-user training, marketing announcements, etc.).

How does this relate to Sprint length?

While each Sprint is supposed to produce PSPI, it is only Product Owner’s decision ,when to release it (MMP), depends on finding a “sweet spot” between the two types of cost: Holding and Transaction, or if spoken, in software development terms, costs of code deprecation/aging and costs of deployment. On the graph above, it is illustrated by the lowest point of Total Cost curve and it is responsibility of Team and Product Owner to determine what it is.

Corollary to having both strategy and economics changing over time, release frequency may change as well.  It would be natural to assume that sprint duration and release frequency are related too.  Indeed, the need to release more frequently may lead to sprint shortening, and vice versa.

Are there any other external factors that may influence Sprint frequency of a single Scrum team?  The most classic example would be Scrum by multiple teams that sprint together (e.g. LeSS, S@S): develop the same product, for the same Product Owner, and share the same a backlog.  While release economics principles would still apply, the situation with scaling may become more complex if multiple teams are tasked to select a shared cadence.  One assumption comes to mind immediately: if multiple teams sprint together (synchronously), then their shared PSPI (overall output) will be more substantial (“voluminous”) than that of a single team, and from a Product Owner’s point of view, may sooner merge the gap between PSPI/MVP and MMP (more about factors influencing Sprint length below).

In other situations, e.g. in non-scaled settings, individual Scrum teams could be dependent on other teams (Scrum, Kanban, Waterfall groups, etc), separate organizational domains or external vendors that operate on their own cadence.  In such cases, product backlog refinement and sprint planning becomes even more challenging.  As a result, sprint length, as well as frequency of scheduled production releases may be impacted.

Who Ultimately Decides on Sprint Length?

Just like any other decision about Scrum team dynamics, the decision on sprint length belongs to a team.  Nobody should be deciding how to structure or manage work, on behalf of people that actually do it.  Neither Product Owner, nor stakeholders, nor management, nor anyone else.  Teams that are new to Scrum may experiment with sprint length at the beginning, while trying to optimize to conditions that are very specific to a team’s dynamics.  The best time to self-assess and decide if sprint length should be changed is during a retrospective, when decisions about process improvements are made; and it is done by majority voting.  Only in rare cases, when a team has a difficulty to reach consensus, ScrumMaster , who owns Scrum process and plays the role of an arbitrator in retrospectives, can step in and help a team make a choice.  This should happen rarely, as frequent lack of consensus might be a sign of deeper team dysfunctions.  Initially, during team formation, and before ScrumMaster is elected, Scrum/Agile coach may help team with sprint length selection.  Mike Cohn describes his personal experience in a similar situation here.

Factors to be considered while selecting Sprint length?

As a rule of thumb, sprint length should not be shorter than 1 week and should not be longer than 4 weeks. If there is a strong reason to make sprints shorter than 1 week (e.g. could be driven by production release frequency requirements), Kanban, instead of Scrum, could be considered, since it offers, on demand and almost instant, release capabilities.  On the other hand, extending sprint length beyond 4 weeks may lead typical challenges of waterfall (sequential work, silos, hand-overs).

Statistically, anywhere between 1 and 4 weeks, a team should be able to establish a steady and healthy cadence to do product development.

Shorter sprints do have certain advantages:

  • More frequent sprint reviews and retrospectives – shorten feedback loops that allow applying improvements to product and process development, respectively.
  • Shorter sprints require lighter sprint planning and, subsequently, reduce the risk of going too deep into a product backlog and selecting items for a sprint that do not meet DoR (Definition of Done) and are not INVEST-able.

Shorter Sprints may also bring some potential challenges:

  • For example, the ratio of time spent on sprint preparation and process management to time spent on actual product development could be high – too much procedural overhead.
  • Additional important prerequisites must be met, before moving teams to shorter sprints. For example, if a sprint becomes too short (e.g. 1-week) and there is no full test automation and no TDD, then a team may have a difficult time, keeping up with testing: after completing a few sprints, as  the amount of code base increases, manual testing will fall behind. As a result too much work may fail DoD by Sprint-end. 

Relationship between Sprint length and Scrum Maturity

It would be reckless to claim that there is a direct cause & effect relationship between sprint length and maturity.   Some research indicates (some was done by Jeff Sutherland) that for as long as a sprint is under 1 month, there is no strong and immediate correlation between sprint length and performance. But anything beyond 4 weeks lowers performance and introduces elements of waterfall dysfunction to a team’s dynamics.

What is, by far, more important than sprint length is sprint length consistency.  While in early stages of sprinting, it is normal for a team to experiment with sprint length, if length “juggling” continues into later sprints or happens ad-hoc, it could be viewed as a sign of deeper problems.  Some teams falsely believe that by periodically extending a sprint they will be able to get more work to Done state.  Thinking more systemically, this is a false assumption, as cadence- and task-switching, especially done by multiple  teams,  can significantly lower overall output.  Further, inconsistent sprint length will lead to difficulty of sprint planning, unstable velocities and unreliable long-term forecasting.