Category Archives: Team Dynamics

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.

Diagnosing Challenges in Scrum

When people go to the doctor’s office, they often complain of superficial manifestations of a problem (i.e., “chief complaints”) that don’t present any serious concerns, but in reality, are indicators of a much more serious systemic illness.

I’ve come to the conclusion that we in the Scrum field are also dealing with a similar type of scenario.

For those of us who have been coaching for a while, it’s probably a common experience to have a team member or a manager come to us with what appears to them as a “key problem,” but in reality, turns out to be a symptom of a much more serious underlying dysfunction.

On June 1, 2015…(read more from the original post)

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:

LeSS “Construction”: What is it like?

[also, cross-posted on less. works]

Large Scale Scrum (LeSS).  It is the framework for scaling agile development, done by multiple teams, as they work on same product and work for a single Product Owner.   In order to be effective, LeSS requires organizational descaling that means simplification/flattening of organizational design.

What is Organizational Design?  To understand it better, let’s look for analogy in construction industry.  What is required to erect a building? In our analogy, we shall stay simple: bricks (foundation block) and cement (connective material that holds bricks together).

Imagine two buildings: Building A and Building B.

Building A uses brick as its main foundation block.  In fact, when looking at the building’s facade, the most prevalent object, caught by a naked eye, is a brick.  Bricks are positioned next to one another, with just enough cement in-between to glue them strongly together. There is no excess of cement anywhere: the connection layer is very thin/lean.

Architectural design of building A is simple and flexible: the structure is flat (one-story high) and it sits on strong foundation, also made of brick.   Because of its design, architectural adjustments are possible in various sections of the building, independently, with little additional labor.  Due to such modular structure, the building can be expanded laterally, just by adding more bricks to the wall.  Of course, due to its flat structure, the building is also very stable and can withstand a strong wind, flood or an earthquake: practically nothing can be shaken off or washed off the building.

When waste is produced inside the building, it becomes noticeable immediately. Waste disposal is also very simple: it does not require complex chutes or automated waste ‘packaging’ systems.  Waste removal can be mostly done manually, by building residents.  Any necessary supplies (e.g. food, water, furniture, other materials) can be easily delivered to any building area, without the need of advanced technology or mechanics.

Finally, building inspection and maintenance is a very easy process, because of flat structural design: foundation, walls and floor assessment – all can be performed with a naked eye; corrections can be done timely and efficiently.

This is what building A looks like:


Building B is made of a very few bricks and a lot of cement in-between that holds bricks together. In fact, the ratio (by weight) of bricks-to-cement is very low.

Architectural design of building B is rigid. It has many floors, with top floors made primarily of cement.  The building represents a heavy and monolithic structure, and although it also sits on brick foundation, as building A, the bricks are widely spaced with lots of cement in-between.  This means that the overall weight of building B is dangerously high (foundation can crack).  The building’s expansion limit, to accommodate growing occupancy demands, is low: it cannot be easily extended (scaled) horizontally with a couple of extra bricks added to the side, because the bottom brick layer would require multiple horizontal cement layers added on top – to follow the originally intended building design.  If additional cement layers are added on the top of foundational brick layer this will further increase risks of foundation cracking.

Waste disposal is a serious issue for Building B.  While waste can be relatively easy removed from the bottom floor (it is also not in abundance there) and, to some extent, from top floors (by taking it to the roof and using a waste removal chopper 😊), there is a huge amount of waste that gets accumulated at middle floors – and it sits there.  It is extremely challenging to remove this mid-section waste and what building management does from time to time, is ordering for this waste to be moved from one floor area to another (the building is very compartmentalized).  Sometimes, waste gets moved to floors above; sometimes – below.  This creates an illusion of waste removal. But waste remains.

Delivery of supplies and food to Building B occupants is a real challenge, especially if elevators are out of order.  This makes occupants angry and frustrated and sometimes they turn onto each other; become competitors and rivals.

Finally, building inspection and maintenance is a nightmare for Building B.  Many living units are out of compliance with building codes, but violations (and violators) are hard to identify and remove because true facts are well concealed and numbers are gamed by building occupants.

This is what building B looks like:

Large Scale Scrum requires organizational design that is analogous to the construction represented by Building A.


In LeSS:

Team represents the main building block (a brick). Selected team representatives (developers) and mentors-travelers–ensure effective coordination/connection between teams.  There are no additional roles required for coordination.  Cross-team events are minimal (Overall Product Backlog Refinement, Sprint Review, Overall Retrospective).

If product definition widens and more developers are included, another team can be formed and positioned laterally to existing teams – just like a brick.  Should product definition become too wide and the number of required developers exceeds 50-60 people (8 teams), another product area can be identified (new independent module, made of bricks).  Now, LeSS becomes LeSS Huge.  The only additional coordination that would be required in LeSS Huge is between Area Product owners and Overall Product owner – for strategic planning of Potentially Shippable Product Increment (PSPI) at the end of every sprint.  In both, LeSS expansion from 2 to 8 teams, and LeSS Huge expansion beyond 8 teams, there is no need for additional coordination that is different from what is described above (no extra cement needed to keep bricks together).  Also, in LeSS Huge, when one Product Area expands and another one shrinks, moving the whole team from one area to another, does not require expansion or shrinkage of any additional “supportive” organizational layers.

By design, LeSS foundational structure is very lean: flat, fungible and cross-functional.  There is no waste or overhead with roles, responsibilities, events or artifacts.  Everything is very minimalistic.  If any waste is generated in LeSS, it has practically nowhere to hide.

Because there is so much transparency in LeSS, waste is seen immediately.  Any findings of waste or any other required improvements to individual teams or LeSS framework, can be effectively done in Team Retrospective or Overall Retrospective, respectively.  Thanks to its flat organizational structure, LeSS (and LeSS Huge) don’t have to worry about waste removal from additional organizational layers – they [layers] just don’t exist.   There are fewer layers that sit between LeSS teams and LeSS Product Owners and these layers are much thinner.

What happens with LeSS organizational structure during rough times: slow down in business, increased market competition? Arguably, because LeSS is so lean and there is continuous learning, it is much less likely that LeSS people will be displaced. LeSS is also more likely to withstand other types of reorgs and shake-ups because LeSS has very few moving parts, loose pieces or weak links.

Organizational designers that support LeSS think like building architects that want to build strong, reliable, easily-maintainable, low-waste, cost-effective and long-lasting structures!!!

Many thanks to all LeSS Trainers, Coaches and Practitioners building reliable structures 😉.

Signed: ____________The Organizational Building Management 😉

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.

Applying LeSS Thinking to Basic Scrum

As per Scrum Guide, “…Scrum is a framework for developing and sustaining complex products… It [Scrum] is lightweight, easy to understand and difficult to master”.  The guide talks about basic Scrum, or Scrum by one cross-functional team that works for only one Product Owner, on one single product.  The guide also mentions situations when multiple Scrum teams must work on the same product backlog and share the same Definition of Done (DoD) – an example of scrum scaling.

Large-Scale Scrum (LeSS), is a product development framework that extends Scrum with scaling rules and guidelines, without losing the original purposes of Scrum.…”.  Some of the hallmarks of LeSS are:

  • It is the framework that requires organizational de-scaling (simplification), to scale basic Scrum
  • It is the framework that strongly relies on effectiveness of organizational design and system dynamics of multiple organizational layers, departments and spheres of control
  • It is not merely a group of teams doing their own Scrum, while working for different product owners and supporting different products. Rather, it is a group of teams (2-8) that works together, synchronously, on the same product and serves the same product owner.

It is worth stressing the last bullet point above:
Frequently, novice agile adopters mislabel scrum implementation by independent and unrelated teams, as “LeSS”. Sometimes, they are genuinely mistaken. But there are instances of intentional LeSS terminology overload. In either case, inappropriate use of LeSS terminology creates asymmetry between LeSS guidelines and rules, on one hand, and reality of teams’ working dynamics – on the other.

Another prevalent misconception about LeSS (and more on this later in this post), is that LeSS postulates are ONLY applicable in large scale settings. Some, less experienced agile practitioners feel that if an organization implements Scrum in its basic form only, without attempts to scale, the facing organizational dysfunctions that are vividly exposed by LeSS, could be avoided. This is a mistaken belief: LeSS principles can be used to improve basic Scrum as well. Practically, any organizational dysfunction that is exposed by LeSS, also presents a challenge for basic Scrum, but perhaps, in a form that is not so obvious, and with a manifestation that is not so disturbing. In a way, LeSS serves the purpose of “dysfunctions amplifier/magnifier” that allows seeing more clearly, at scale those things that may not be as obvious at single team level.

Below are the six big topics (LeSS “Hexagon of Values”) that are always brought up in LeSS discussions. Lets take a closer look and see if they still retain their relevance in basic Scrum:

Feature Teams over Component Teams

From LeSS perspective:

From a stand-point of a paying customer, feature-centric product development is the most effective way maximize business value.  Feature teams can perform this work best, since they are able to operate across multiple application components, independently and autonomously.  Component teams cannot do the same. A component team is focused only on one single application domain that is not shippable (marketable) on its own, if viewing from a standpoint of paying customer.  Trying to fake LeSS, by putting under the same wrapper multiple component teams, creates a large amount of handover and other procedural overhead before a release.  For example, if eight component teams (max. # in LeSS) work only on respective single component items, pulling them from the same backlog, there will be a lot of component integration required, before a product becomes truly shippable (PSPI).  This will either, at best, consume a lot of teams’ capacity at the end of each sprint, or will require an additional “hardening” sprint before going to production (at worst).

How is this applicable to Basic Scrum?

It is not uncommon to see single component team that pretends ‘doing scrum’, by introducing scrum roles, artifacts and events to their work model.  At a glance, it may appear that a team does what other scrum teams do – it sprints, but the goal of scrum: to deliver PSPI – is still absent.  The impact of such faking, on the ability to meet a product owner’s goals may not be as strong and obvious, because delivery expectations from a single team just are not as high as expectations from 8 LeSS teams.  (Another word, from a standpoint of time & resources spent and humans involved in performing work, a single component team that pretends ‘doing scrum’ would have an easier time to justify to a product owner and stakeholders ‘why’ their end-of-sprint deliverable is not shippable: justifying ‘undone’ work by 3-9 developers of basic scrum is just easier than justifying ‘undone’ work by 50 developers of LeSS).  However, the core underlying problem still exists in basic Scrum: a sprint deliverable is not PSPI. 

Component Mentorship over Component Ownership

From LeSS perspective

There is a distinction between Component Ownership and Component Mentor-ship:

Component Owner  – is an individual (sometimes, a group) that has unique privilege to work on a particular application component.  If any other team needs to make modifications to a given component, they must delegate this work to a component owner.  Rarely, these ‘private code policies’ are justified by external regulatory requirements or internal audit needs.  More frequently, such ownership is due power retention and sphere of control ambitions of certain individuals/groups, both being secondary to internal organizational politics.

On the other hand, Component Mentor – is an individual that has a lot of work experience with a particular component, but instead of becoming a bottleneck to component-specific work, he teaches others how to do the same.  Effectively, a component expert becomes a teacher of “how to fish”, instead of a giver of an “already caught fish”.  With such approach, any feature team, over time, becomes proficient at working on any application component, without being dependent on a component owner: each component becomes a shared property; no more someone’s private and protected domain.

By giving up the privilege to be the only person who can touch an application component, an application mentor should not lose his organizational value: instead of being a single-contributor/performer he now becomes an educator and advisor – the role that is much more scalable in large organizational settings. This empathizes another concept (below) that is strongly advocated by LeSS trainers and coaches: Job Security should not be confused with Role Security.

How is this applicable to Basic Scrum?

Perhaps, the most important distinction in basic scrum is that for a single-team operation, the benefit of having experienced and willing to share their knowledge with others, component mentors, is not as obvious.  Also, an organization may have a hard time to justify designating a component mentor, per component, serving a stand-alone and unrelated to others, scrum team.  But even for a single team that does basic scrum, the problem still remains: not being able to work directly with certain application components will continuously lead to having external dependencies on other teams/individuals, and therefore, will put at risk the ability to deliver PSPI at the end of each sprint.

System Optimization over Local Optimization

From LeSS perspective:

There is strong contrast made between Local Optimization and System (Global) Optimization.   Any single-specialty department (UI/UX, BA, QA, Dev, DB) is ‘locally optimized’. This means that people within each department might be very busy and work hard to complete a series of tasks that ONLY they can do.  The opposite is true too: a group of single specially workers can perform ONLY a subset of tasks that their skillset allows.  While from their own (local) perspective, they work very devotionally and produce a lot of output, from a stand point of a paying customer, the overall outcome is still low.  False perception of local efficiency by single-specialty workers does not directly translate into system efficiency: individual ‘local progress’ does not add up to system progress.  A classic example of local efficiency could be over-production of comprehensive BRDs by Business Analysts (BA), way ahead of development efforts: while from a stand point of BA, lots of great documentation is produced and signed off, from a stand point of a paying customer, much of this work may become obsolete (projects are delayed, priorities change, budgets get cut, etc) before implemented in code.

How is this applicable to Basic Scrum?

Manifestation of local optimization, also being a direct result of single-specially (component) work, is frequently seen on basic scrum teams that lack T-shaped developers.  For example, non-technical business analysts and manual testers, will be, most likely, focused on ‘writing stories’ and producing manual test cases, respectively, way ahead of sprint development.  For example, is not uncommon to see BAs, attempting to ‘clarify’ user stories by adding to them a lot of conventional, contractual documentation (e.g. BRDs) that leads to reduction of communication with a product owner and stakeholders during sprinting; this introduces elements of mini-waterfall in scrum.

Job Security over Role Security

From LeSS perspective:

Any person should have a job and be capable of making living.  Offering job security to each employee, should be one of the most important goals for any organization. However, job security should not be equated to role security.   Gradual changes of needs in any particular role, could be a natural process that follows bigger industrial changes: modernization, computerization, robotization, etc.  Efficiency an overall system organization should not be sacrificed for preserving specific roles that no longer bring value.

One of the most common role changes discussed in LeSS is the role of Project Manager (usually, first-line PM).  Scrum requires self-organized and self-managed teams that take full responsibility for their own work and interaction with customers.  Everything is done by a team that performs work: work estimation and assignment, ownership and information sharing, communication and reporting.  Historically, all of this has been handled by a project manager.  Shifting all these responsibilities to a team, makes PM feel underutilized, sometimes annihilated.  In environments, where teams no longer require tight managerial control, managers may have to re-focus on removing organizational challenges that teams face and cater to teams everything, what is required, to optimize team work.

It is critical that any organization that reevaluates its existing roles, also takes a close look at existing job families and employee career paths.  If an organization suspects that some employees might be displaced due to changes of roles and responsibilities, it must provide other alternatives for people: education, training, internal mobility to other parts of an organization, etc.

How is this applicable to Basic Scrum?

The need to provide job security for potentially displaced workers in basic scrum settings is no less important than in LeSS.  Business analysts and manual testers should be given an option to move into scrum teams and learn additional skills.  In basic scrum, unlike LeSS, where there is a much stronger need for addressing and resolving organizational impediments, it could be less obvious how a first-line manager of a single scrum team can be fully occupied, with removing impediments, as this is usually Scrum Master’s responsibility (in basic scrum, at single team level, impediments may also be not as systemic).  In such cases, line managers should be given an option to move to another part of an organization, where traditional development is still practiced.

Narrow & Deep over Broad & Shallow

From LeSS perspective:

When it comes to large-scale agile adoptions, it is very easy to develop a false assumption that bigger is always better.  Some organizations are trying to jump on a bandwagon of agile-mania and claim early victories (this is often caused by ill-defined motivation and bonus schemas that praise people for achieving certain fabricated goals, e.g.: by ‘rolling out agile’ to a very large part of an organization.  Such attempts of broad coverage also lead to shallow impact: organizations are able to demonstrate short-term superficial (sometimes, fake) results but there is not enough momentum to ensure continuity and long-term success.

It is always much better to focus on a narrow part of an organization, by extrapolating it from a larger organizational construct, and improving organizational agility, by going deeper into organizational structure.  In LeSS, the recommended size of an organization (at least, on technology side) is about 50 people.

How is this applicable to Basic Scrum?

This concept is probably not as applicable to basic scrum, as other concepts mentioned so far.  ‘Breadth’ of implementation implies wide organizational areas and involvement of many people.  Basic scrum is not as concerned with horizontal span of efforts because, by definition, a scrum team is  only 3-9 people.

Owning over Renting

From LeSS perspective:

When it comes to making decisions, organizations and teams should look for ways to develop their own approaches, instead of ‘copying & pasting’ solutions of others.  Relying on professional trainers, is a great way to learn from expertise of others, in classroom settings.  Leveraging help of professional coaches, is another, longer-term, way to mature, through self-discovery, experimentation, inspection and adaptation.

Organizations and teams should be striving to own their own decisions and take responsibilities for successes and failures.  On occasions, trainers and coaches may lead by example (e.g. mock-up a behavior of a specific agile role), share lessons learned from prior engagements, but this is not done to encourage customers to copy/paste approaches and styles.  Ultimate decisions should be always made by those that will live with those decisions in a long-term.

How is this applicable to Basic Scrum?

In basic scrum, just like in LeSS, teams are expected to leverage what they have learned from trainers and coaches, to gain autonomy and become owners of their decisions and solutions.  Through frequent inspection and adaptation, teams that work in basic scrum should be able to ultimately modify their processes, as needed.  Logically, it would be also expected that a coach who assists team (s) that use basic scrum, coaches ‘himself out of work’ sooner than a LeSS coach, since organizational design challenges have much more severe impact on LeSS team that on basic scrum teams.