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Keith Nottonson: The Agile Lifestyle

A model for organizational behavior that enables agile

by Keith Nottonson, 2014-July-14

I am a ScrumMaster.  Regardless of the job titles I've had in Product, Program and Engineering, I am a ScrumMaster at heart.  Why?  Because I like and am good at helping people find better ways to work and agile practices such as Scrum are very useful tools to remove organizational obstacles and improve our day to day.

I first became a ScrumMaster at BabyCenter.com in 2005.  The VP of Engineering was recovering from back surgery and read Ken Schwaber & Mike Beedle’s Agile Software Development with Scrum. He returned to work with a stack of books, handed them out, and twenty of us went to Ken Schwaber's Certified ScrumMaster class.  I was the ScrumMaster on the pilot team, and then a ScrumMaster on a second team, and another team, and another, until I was what the next VP of Engineering referred to as the uber-ScrumMaster.  And so began my agile lifestyle.

I have witnessed several agile transformations over the last 10 years.  Each time, I relearn ‘teams doing Scrum’ is not an agile transformation; it is teams doing ‘Scrum.’  An organization’s real move to agile occurs when the other parts of the organization begin to change themselves in response to the agile teams.

I believe agile starts with teams, though it is just the beginning.  Whether the agile transformation happens by teams choosing to go agile over the course of years, like Yahoo, or teams going all in together, like Salesforce, agile begins with teams.  The larger the scale, the more teams, the more people involved, the greater the need for change across all levels of leadership. A move towards agile eventually demands executive commitment. After all, this is a lifestyle change.

Creating Space

To embrace the agile lifestyle, a critical role of management is to create space for the teams.  Space for the teams to learn, to practice, to get better together.  Whatever the preferred agile system is, it is necessary for the teams to have time to learn.  There must be ample time in the system to inspect and adapt, and everyone in the system must be willing to inspect and adapt. The faster all the participants learn to play together in this amazing collaborative game, the more likely the organization is to benefit from Agility.

Creating space involves respecting team boundaries provided by time-boxes and their value to the team and the rest of the organization.  To give teams the space they need, managers need to understand the rhythm of daily standups, reviews, and retrospectives.  If a team is running two week iterations, it may not be helpful to ask them for weekly updates. Or perhaps teams are asked for status updates, but no one ever attends a single sprint review.  Go to a sprint review, the sooner the better.

"I think when you're a manager you play or the way that you play, is because of the players that you have." - Juan Mata

Learning what teams can and cannot do, and understanding the ways in which the agile patterns they have adopted enables them to learn, share their insights and progress, will help the entire organization evolve into a more responsive organism.  There are many people who can help an organization do this.  If you need help, find yourself an agile lifestylist.

Shape

Once the teams have established their patterns (e.g. daily standups, reviews, retrospectives), everybody, particularly management, needs to focus on shape. 

In world football, shape refers to the organization of players on the field.   Shape is neither a rigid relationship nor an arbitrary one, rather it is the ability to know where somebody, or something, will likely be.  Good shape allows teams to move freely within a few understood constraints.  

"[A team's] style of play is related to an idea, not to a geographic positioning on the pitch." - Juanma Lillo, pioneer of the 4-2-3-1 formation in soccer.

Shape in software development can be improved with cadence, automation and visibility.

Cadence is the rhythm of the teams, and the set of all the teams, and their dances too.  Cadence can be seen in sprint cycles, deployment cycles, quarterly goal setting activities.  Each organization has a different cadence and that’s okay.  Whatever the cadence, the cadences need to be known, nested and balanced.  If management does not know or understand the cadence of a particular shape, management may disrupt the feedback loops inherent in those shapes, causing the system to become unbalanced, totter and breakdown.  After all, cadence is the beat to which the organization dances.

Automation is a key component of keeping shape.  Automation is the rhythm to help us dance.  Good automation allows teams to take chances, to go faster, to have trust every time they do a build or a deploy.

It is up to management to provide the time and support for automation to occur.  Management may need to invest in a set of skills the teams do not have, such as the variety of skills represented by DevOps – the automation of the test and deployment process as a single continuous process. Time spent automating now removes all the time of doing something manually later.  Automation – done maintainably – is also a hedge against newness and attrition of your players.

Now on visibility: Teams need to provide visibility to their customers and stakeholders and to management and other teams.  Part of the agile promise to management is providing true visibility into what the team is doing. Visibility is a handshake with management.

One of the most impactful ways to accomplish visibility is to deliver quality working software every iteration.  Other forms of visibility result from team whiteboards and information radiators, reviews and retrospectives, and product metrics that management reviews frequently.

Visibility provides a foundation for the trust required to permit managers to stop micromanaging and to start “macromanaging” - providing the leadership necessary to foster team growth.  We want to get from a sprint backlog to a product metric pretty darn quick and we cannot do this without management’s understanding and support.

Style of Play

Cadence, visibility, automation.  Necessary but not sufficient.

The agile lifestyle will truly blossom when the organization finds its style of play.

"Play will be to the 21st century what work was to the industrial age – our dominant way of knowing, doing and creating value.” - Pat Kane

An organization’s “style of play” has three important components - transparency, flow and fun.

Visibility is what the team “owes” management. Transparency is what management returns back to the team.  Whereas visibility is about being seen, transparency is about being heard: it is a commitment to share everything that can be shared to help teams make timely, high quality decisions.

Transparency does not necessarily mean everything is shared in real-time, but rather, that most things are shared in a timely matter, through group debriefs, Friday afternoon question-and-answer sessions, emails from executives - transparency needs to be a core tenet of the organization.  Of course, not everything can be shared whether for legal or financial reasons, yet what can be shared should be shared sooner rather than later.  As best as management can, they must share early and they must share often.

Flow may be the holy grail of agile systems.  Mark Twain the ScrumMaster might have opined “From what I’ve been able to discern, flow is a simple state where everybody is mostly happy.”  If an organization can maintain cadence, get automation in place, and demonstrate both visibility and transparency, the organization can attain some semblance of flow. Heraclitus, the ancient Greek ScrumMaster, might have declared “You can never be in the same flow twice.”  As I have said earlier, in the context of visibility, one wants to get from a sprint backlog to a product metric as quickly as possible.

Achieving flow is, in a sense, the end result of agile transformation: it is the tangible outcome, yet flow depends on all of the other things that I have mentioned.

As for fun, done right, the agile lifestyle should all morph into fun. And when it’s fun, it doesn’t feel like work.  

“A person's maturity consists in having found again the seriousness one had as a child, at play.” - Friedrich Nietzsche

Conclusion

Ultimately, successful agile implementations are about trust. Trusting teams through visibility, trusting people with transparency.  Trusting the automation to take giant steps forward and fast.  Trusting the cadence and the time-boxes, trusting people will be present and authentic at the stand-ups and the retrospectives.

Space and shape lead to trust. Trust leads to flow, and flow in turn begets fun. A group of people who trust each other - that’s my definition of a team.  And regardless of the size of an organization, by creating space and trying to keep shape, they will develop a unique style of play all their own. 

The agile lifestyle is not something to take lightly, nor is it free and easy.  In fact, the agile lifestyle is something difficult to achieve, but we can do it if we want.  Let’s play.

Keith's bio can be found on his LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/keithn

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