You’ve heard all these comments right? But have you noticed the tone of voice? The context in which they are said?
In my experience people say these things in a guilty way, what they mean to say is:
“They don’t do Scrum so much as Scrum but we don’t do it the way we should”
“We don’t do Scrum by the book, we changed it, we dropped the Scrum Master, we flex our sprints, …”
“We follow SAFe, except we’ve tailored it by dropping the agile coaches, the technical aspects and …”
“We do a mix of agile methods, we don’t do anything properly and its half baked”
“They call it agile but I don’t think they really understand what agile is”
Practitioners aren’t helped by advisors – coaches, trainers, consultants, what-not – who go around criticising teams for not following “Brand X Method” properly. But forget about them.
I want to rid you of your guilt. Nobody should feel guilty for not doing Scrum by the book, or SAFe the right way, or perfect Kanban.
Nobody, absolutely no person or organization I have ever met or heard of, does any method by the book.
After all “agile is a journey” and you might just be at a different point on the journey right now. To me agile is learning and there is more learning to be done – should we criticise people because the haven’t learned something?
All these methods offer a price fix menu: you pay a fixed price and you get a set menu.
In reality all agile methods should be seen as an à la carte menu: pick what you like, mix and match.
In fact, don’t just pick from the Scrum menu or the SAFe menu, pick across the menus: Scrum, XP, Kanban, SAFe, LeSS, DaD, whatever!
And do not feel guilty about it.
My agile method, Xanpan explicitly says: mix and match. Xanpan lays out a model but it also says change things, find what works for you, steal from others.
The only thing you can get wrong in agile is doing things the same as you did 3 months ago. Keep experimenting, keep truing new ways, new ideas. If you improve then great, if not, roll-back and try something else.
Testing isn’t, or shouldn’t be, about finding bugs. Type-1 Testing is about ensuring you can go to Type-2 Testing and get some useful feedback. Customer feedback is the really valuable stuff: does your product address the need you saw? Is there more to do? More value to be got? – and does the value delivered justify the cost of doing it?
When I’m being honest it is kind of hard to argue with them, it is certainly “obvious” to me. But at the same time agile is not obvious, or rather, the opposite of agile is also obvious. For example,
Agile says: obviously, you don’t know the future so don’t plan and research too far into the future. Non-agile thinking says: obviously, failure to plan is planning to fail, obviously you need a plan of action, you need to plan for the future.
Agile says: obviously, people work best when they are self-motivated and given a say in what they do. Non-agile says: obviously, people are lazy and will do as little as possible, therefore someone needs to manage them.
Agile says: high quality makes it easier to change in the future, obviously. Non-agile says: obviously, quality is an endless quest, there is no point in polishing something which isn’t important, 20% of the effort gives 80% of the reward so don’t do any more.
Agile emphasises the here and now, the soon, obviously requirements can be handled just-in-time, so live for today. Non-agile says: if we don’t think about the future we will obviously duplicate work and incur additional costs.
And my own entry: obviously, software development as diseconomies of scale therefore optimise for lots of small. The opposite is equally obvious: economies of scale are what makes modern business – and the cloud – successful so exploit them
There are a number of obvious examples that go with that:
Agile says: obviously we should test every change and new feature by itself to avoid the complications of interacting changes. Non-agile says: obviously full test runs are slow and expensive so bundle work together and test it on mass.
Both agile and not-agile are obvious. What you consider obvious depends on your starting point. Once you start thinking “agile” a lot of things become obvious. But if you are not thinking agile then, if you are thinking some other model, then the opposite is also obvious.
Some would term this “An Agile Mindset”. However I don’t want to do that, I find the idea of “an agile mindset” too nebulous. I also note that most of the people I hear talking about “an agile mindset” seem to clinging on to some piece of holy lore which I consider not very agile and they believe is totally agile (the project model and upfront requirements usually.)
Instead I find myself going back to Theory-X and Theory-Y. In general people fall into one camp or the other. If you, your philosophy on work and life, align with theory-Y then all the “agile is obvious” statements above are indeed obvious. Conversely, if you generally follow a theory-X philosophy then all the non-agile statements are obvious.
Perhaps surprisingly I find people can flip, and be flipped, from X to Y. What is more difficult is getting people to unlearn behaviours and actions which they acquired with a theory-X mindset. Even if some element of theory-Y (and agile) is now obvious people need help to learn the new way and let go of the old. Some people can do this by themselves, others need help – or at least help speeding up the change.
Yes, thats part of my job as an Agile Guide. Sometimes just talking (and reflecting on recent events) helps. Sometimes exercises (or process miniatures they are sometimes called) help. Sometimes it is by experiments, exposing people to others can help as well – so conferences, user groups.
Rarely do people change because they went on training and were lectured too, but good training incorporates talking, reflection, exercises, etc. Such training is less training and more about practicing the future.
Obviously, my training is like that: I aim to make my training courses a rehearsal for future actions. Actually, while I “sell” training I prefer to think of it as a rehearsal or kaikaku event – kaikaku events also call a “kaizen blitz”, they are big change events from the people who brought you kaizen, more on them another time.
So when someone I’ve worked with turns around and says “Agile is obvious” I take it as a sign of success. They no longer seem agile as something strange, it is normal, it is onbvious.
A couple of weeks ago I gave a private presentation to an organization entitled: “The Business Case for Agile in 2020.” Actually, it surprised me a bit that in 2020 people still wondered what the business case for agile was but that probably says more about my arrogance and the agile bubble I live in.
Anyone who keeps a keen eye on Linkedin might have noticed I recently changed my job description to Agile Guide. I feel “guide” more accurately reflects what I do: part coach, part advisor, part teacher.
I work as a consultant – a hired gun – but “consultant” is a very vague term and covers a lot of ground. Plus a lot of people in the technology industry have a very negative view of consultants. I’ve been known to share that view myself so while consultant might be an accurate description it was also vague and open to misinterpretation.
Many people consider me an Agile Coach, and I have worked as an agile coach. However – as I’ve written before – this too is a conflicted term. Most of us who go by the title “agile coach” like to talk about helping people help themselves, unlocking the individual, respecting the individual as the expert, and so on. I agree with a lot of that and I do it. Sometimes.
I also know what professional coaches do and I don’t feel I’m one of them. I have a lot of respect for real coaches. Such coaches put their own opinions second and I don’t. I am prepared to tell people the way I think it should be – they are free to ignore my advice but I’m prepared to say it.
Thats why I also regard myself as part teacher: not just direct training sessions (which I do) but also one-on-one and in small free format group sessions.
So what title should I use?
I’ve struggled with this for years. My epiphany came a few weeks ago: Agile guide. I help others to get more agile, coaching is one tool but so is direct advice and teaching.
Hadn’t others thought of “Agile Guide”. So I checked out LinkedIn myself. One person. Someone I respect, someone I call a friend: Woody Zuill.
I checked in with Woody and his thinking parallels mine.
So I’m an Agile Guide – I help individuals, teams and enterprises become more agile in a digital world.
Part coach, part advisor, part teacher, plus thinker and route finder. I use skills of coaching, teaching and consultancy.
Who knows, maybe, it will catch on. After all, as Woody pointed out, we have both changed the world already.
The picture above is a time-value profile: it shows how value changes with time. It is a graphic illustration of cost of delay.
A fine wine might increase in value over time but most things – think product, project, feature or just story – decay with time. Having something today is worth more than having it next week.
I invented Time-Value profiles – although I’m happy to acknowledge Don Rienertsen’s influence. I’ve included time-value profiles in many presentations and courses (they are a key part of my value workshop) but oddly, while I’ve mentioned them in this blog before I’ve never described them. So here goes…
Imagine we want to build a feature for a product. Naturally we ask: “what is this worth?”
Money is the obvious way to measure value but strictly speaking money is not itself valuable – unless you happen to want small colourful pieces of paper or decorated lumps of metal. Money is a store of value. The value of money is not the money itself but what you can exchange the money for. And because money can be traded for a wide variety of things, which are themselves valuable, money is a useful medium for comparison and measurement.
So the question “what is this worth?” may be answered qualitatively (“a vaccine is valuable because it saves lives”) or quantitatively (“a vaccine is worth $10 trillion because it allows life to return to normal”). In order to compare competing opportunities and valuations, and in order to draw a graph, giving value a numerical quantity helps greatly.
A time-value profile shows quantitive value over time when value is measured numerically: maybe in hard money like dollars or yen, or an abstract measure like business points, wooden dollars or Atlantic shillings (I just invented that but it works).
The graph starts today: we say “If we had feature X today it would be worth 100,000 shillings”. Maybe it is worth 100,000 because that is what a customer would pay for it, or maybe because we could sell 100,000 units at 1 shilling each, or so on.
But we don’t have X today. “If we get feature X next month it will be worth 90,000 shillings.” One month delay, one month late to the customer, one month later on Amazon, costs 10,000 shillings.
“If feature X is 3 months away then it is worth less than 50,000 shillings.” And so on.
Now, the unit of value – dollars, francs, shillings, wood – is of little important. Sure $1,000,000 is very different to ₽1,000,000 (Russian roubles if you don’t know) but as long as you don’t mix currencies the actual currency is unimportant.
What is important is the shape of the curve and, especially, where abrupt changes happen. Look again at the graph above: between months two and three there is a sudden drop in value. That has scheduling implications.
Once you start to think about time-value profiles then it becomes obvious that value is a function of time and we need to understand what that function looks like for any given work – project, product, initiative, feature, story, just anything in fact.
It should also become clear that the question “how long will it take to build X” needs to be inverted: “how long have we got to build X?”, “how much of X could we build?” or “in the time we have what could create something to satisfy need X”
And then “how much of the available value can we capture?”. Having X might be worth 100,000 but having a half of X might still be worth 50,000 more than not having X.
As I’ve written before: to any given problem there are multiple solutions. Engineering is not about creating the best possible solution, it is about creating a solution within constraints – as my widgets exercise shows.
Not that I wish to ignore costs – and effort estimates – but they are secondary, and the subject of another blog. I’ll write more about this, and perhaps put something into a workshop, in the meantime my value workshop is the best place to find out more.
“Gee, I really wish I could be that type of Product Owner.”
His comment made me smile. He nicely summarised much of the argument in Art of PO. The book makes a case for an expansive product owner – one with product management skills and business analysis skills; a product owner who looks to improve value over the short and long run, and for product owners with more customer empathy and marketing skills than code empathy and technical skills.
Many of the Product Owners I meet aren’t really owners of the product. Rather they are “Backlog Administrators” and as such the industry is creating another problem for itself.
Over the years the product owner role has been diluted, so many product owners are not really owners of their products. Instead their role is limited and constricted. They are judged on how many features they get the team deliver, whether those features are delivered by some date or whether they have met near term goals of doing the things customers – or internal users – are complaining about.
In other words the whole team is a feature factory: requests go in and success is measured by how many of those requests reach production.
Sure that is one way to run a team, and in some places that might be the “right” way to do it (a team dedicated to addressing production/customer issues perhaps.)
Unfortunately agile is prone to this failing because of the sprint-sprint-sprint nature of work. The things in front of you are obviously more valuable than the things that are not. The people shouting at you today obviously represent greater value than those who are sitting quietly asking nicely. And both groups can mask bigger insights and opportunities.
Hang on you say: Is this the same Allan who has argued against long term planning? And against analysis phases? The Allan who always argues for action this day?
Well, yes I am that Allan. And I agree that I regularly argue that teams should get started on coding and limit planning and analysis.
But that doesn’t mean I’m against these things, it only means I’m conscious of the diminishing returns of planning; and I know that what is technically possible frames not only the solution but the problem – because often we can’t conceive of the problem until we see how a solution might change things.
Teams need to watch out for the “bigger” questions. Teams need to take some time to thing long term. Time needs to be spent away from the hurly-burly of sprint-sprint-sprint to imagine a different world. Dis-economies of scale may rule but there still needs to be consideration of larger things, e.g. jobs to be done over user stories.
The responsibility rests with the Product Owner.
They own the product the way I own my house: I have to pay the mortgage and I have to change blow light bulbs but I also need to think: how long will the roof last? Will we build an extension? When will we rebuild the patio? And where am I going to put a car charging point when that day comes?
I don’t take those decisions in isolation, I don’t spend lots of time on them and I don’t let them get in the way of work today. But spending a little time thinking about them, and I may well leader on the discussion. Taking a little time to think through out how things might fit together (don’t do the roof until after the extension is built) has benefits.
And so many Product Owners aren’t doing that. Worse still their organizations don’t expect them to. Maybe they see an Architects doing that, or a Product Manager – or maybe nobody does.
The thing is: the Product Owner is the OWNER.
Managers and architects are hired and fired as needed. The buck stops with owners.
Many organizations have got this the wrong way round. The Product Owner role is diluted and individual Product Owners emasculated.
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Last year I was coaching a team. One of the big problems the team faced was excessive work in progress – and tendency for developers to start new work when they hit a blockage. Eventually, with the help of the Product Owner who saw the problem too, we starved the work pipeline. The team actually ran out of work. We saw this as a great success. It had never happened before and meant we could really focus and prioritise work.
Unfortunately, this happened when the two of us were not instantly available. You can argue that we should have been instantly available. Or that people should have made more of an effort to contact us. Or that we should have left a secret stash of work to do. Or that the team should have self-organized to fix the problem. That is easy in retrospect but really, I still don’t see it as a problem.
A few hours without work? I see it as a momentous moment, the start of something great.
But that is not how others saw it. The team, the Product Manager, another Agile Coach on site, and anyone these people could tell were quick to tell us how awful it was: “the team ran out of work.” Word spread quickly that the team had run out of work. My name was dirt.
Doing good by one group isn’t always seen as good by others. When you work as an agile coach conflicts occur daily. But some are bigger and more persistent than others.
For most of the last 10 years I’ve mainly worked as a “drop in” coach (“light touch” I like to call it). I visit clients for a short period of time, talk about improvements, problems, solutions, give directive or non-directive coaching and don’t return for days or weeks. I’m not the same clients every week, maybe I drop in a few days a month and talk to people.
Last year was different, I spent almost all of it with one company, mostly embedded in one team as an official “Agile Coach.”
Comparing these two approaches to coaching has left me with a lot to reflect on. In particular I found a number of conflicts which troubled me, I’m not sure I ever worked these out and I’m sure others find the same things. So I’d like to share…
Responsible to the team, accountable to the organization
I was lucky, it was one of the team members who called me in but it was the bigger organization that was paying my fees. While I felt responsible to the team I was accountable to the organization.
That organization wanted things and expected me to deliver: they wanted a team which performed better (delivered more stuff and more value!) They wanted the team to share common practices and ceremonies with other teams.
For the organization I was the bringer of change to the team. But I could only do that if I was accepted by the team. That limited my ability to push through changes. Even if nobody else saw that conflict I felt it every day.
At one level team did want to change but they also wanted the organization to change and I had very little power there. Both sides, the team and the organization had no-go areas. More conflict.
The organization restricted my ability to do things I thought would improve the team. Things the team accepted would help: like spending money on training. So I was bearer of bad news to both sides: one side saw me asking, then arguing for money while the other saw me failing to deliver.
That organization also expected me to operate within the organization: join coaches meetings, sign up to shared coaching goals, complete team assessments, etc. None of these things were necessarily bad in their own right but it meant I had two masters: the team and the organization.
When push came to shove I prioritised the team but I know some coaches who prioritised the organization. I know some team members mistrusted their coaches because they believed their coach would put the organization first.
Honouring self-organization but creating change
So an agile team is self-organizing. That gives them the right to self-organise to work exactly as they do today. Self-organization gives them the right to not change anything – something I wrote about way back in Changing Software Development.
But, almost by definition, the (agile) coaches role is to bring about change, to help the team do better. Conflict is inevitable.
Sure you say “its a question of motivation … the coach needs to create the motivation to change and do better” and I would agree, but, even in creating that motivation one is creating change, one is intervening. Which brings us nicely to….
Leading without authority
Agile coaches lack authority – if they had authority they would be managers, I’ll blog about that in future. In a way not having authority is liberating, one can’t use the whip no matter how much one wants to! But it is also difficult.
The organization, and the coach, wants to create change but without authority even the smallest changes can become massive efforts. When the team is divided themselves, or even when one team member objects to implementing a change becomes like wading through treacle. That can be demoralising for the coach.
Yet a little authority can go a long way in pushing through change and overriding objections.
And on occasions I did reach for authority, but that creates a conflict within oneself as a coach: was I right to do it? am I honouring the team? the team members? am I creating a learned dependency?
Accepted while pushing the unpopular
Nowhere is that conflict clearer then when pushing through an unpopular change in the face of opposition – even minority opposition. As a coach one risks loosing future changes because, most change the coach “initiates” is done with the acceptance of the team, pushing through an unpopular change – even with a majority, even with leadership support – risks future acceptance.
One is constantly asking: how far can I take this team right now?
And: if I take them too far will they trust me tomorrow?
And, most of all: am I right to do this?
Hardly a day pasted last year when I didn’t agonise over these questions. And as I write this I imagine one of those teams members reading this and saying “Huh, and you got it wrong.”
Who gets the credit?
As a coach your job is to make others perform better, but really, only they can perform better. You can’t make them, you can only help them. The final decisions rest with them.
So who should get the credit? – surely it is them, they made the change, they did something different.
That creates an inner conflict. It also creates a conflict with the organization: why should they keep me employed? After all I didn’t make any difference, they did it.
We know the value of positive praise and acknowledgement, but when there is nobody to praise you, when the team don’t recognise the coaches role (which can be hard if the coach is doing a good job) then one becomes demoralised and that saps ones strength to carry on.
As people we need acknowledgement, as a human we all have needs. But the coaches role so often demands that we forego acknowledgement, praise and recognition.
This isn’t an exhaustive list of the conflicts I’ve encountered and hopefully as you read this you can see solutions – I can myself! But what I want to say is: these conflicts exist, I’m sure other coaches have them and even when there are solutions those solutions need to be applied.
Living with these conflicts can be hard, mentally and emotionally. Burnout happens to coaches.
And organizations get fed up with coaches who don’t deliver change, don’t turn up to non-team meetings, keep asking for money, don’t crack the whip or exceeds their (none existent) authority.
Is the product owner role impossible to fill well?
Do we set product owners up to fail?
Have you ever worked with a really excellent product owner? Someone you would be eager to work with again?
The lack of really outstanding product owners isn’t the fault of the individuals. I think product owners are asked to do a difficult job and are not supported the way they should be. Worse still, in many organizations the role of product owners is misunderstood, they are seen as a type of delivery manager when in fact they are a type of product owner.
There questions have been on my mind for a while, next month I’m giving a new presentation I’m Oredev in Malmo – and which coincides perfectly with the publication of my new book The Art of Agile Product Ownership (funny that). So by way of preview…
1. Skills: the kind of thing a product owner learns on a Certified Scrum Product Owner course are table stakes. Yes POs need to be able to write user stories, split stories, write acceptance criteria, understand agile and scrum, work with teams, plan a little and so on. While necessary such skills are not sufficient.
The bigger question is:
How does a product owner know what they need to know in order to do these things? How do they know what customers want? How do they know what will make a difference?
Product owners need more skills. Some POs deliver products which must sell in the market to customers who have a choice. Such POs need to be able to identify customers, segment customers and markets, interview customers, analyse data, understand markets, monitor competitors and much more. In short they need the skills of a product manager.
Other POs work with internal customers who don’t have a choice over what product they use, here the PO needs other skills: stakeholder identification and management, business and process analysis, user observation and interviewing, they need to be aware of company politics and able to manage up. In other words, they need the skills of a business analyst.
And all POs need knowledge of their product domain. Many POs are POs because they are in fact subject matter experts.
That is a lot of skills for any one person. How many product owners have the right skills mix? And if they don’t, how many of them get the training they need?
2. Authority: Product owners need at least the authority to walk in to a planning meeting and state the work they would like done in the next two weeks. They need the authority to set this work without being contradicted by some other person, they need the authority to visit customers and get their expenses paid without having to provide a lengthy explation every time.
3. Legitimacy: Product owners need to be seen as the right person to set the priorities. The right person to visit customers, the right person to agree plans and write roadmaps. They need to be seen as the right person by the organisation, by peers and, most importantly, by the development team.
Authority and legitimacy are closely related but they are not the same thing. While the product owner needs both the lack of either results in the same problem: people don’t take their work seriously and other people try to set the agenda on what to build.
Unfortunately Scrum contains a seldom noticed problem here: product owners are team members, they are peers; the team are self organising and are responsible for delivering the product. (There is an egalitarian ethos even if this is only Implicit.)
But Scrum sets the PO as the one, and only one, who can tell he team what to do.
There is a contradiction.
4. Time: Product owners need time to do their work – which is a lot, just read that skills list and think about what the PO should be doing. And don’t forget the PO is a human being who needs to sleep for seven or eight hours a night, may well have a family and a home to go to.
When does the product owner get to do all of this?
Leave aside the question of where you find such people, or whether our companies pay them enough and ask yourself: do product owners get the support they need from their companies and teams?
So often the PO ends up in conflict with the company about what will be built and when it will be delivered, and they end up in conflict with their team about… well much the same issues every planning meeting.
Think about it: do we ask too much from our product owners?
Do we set up product owners to fail?
I’d love to hear your opinions, comment on this post or drop me a note or leave a comment.
As regular readers might know I’m working on a book called The Art of Product Ownership to be published by Apress later this year. One of the chapters is entitled “Why have a Product Owner” and a few days ago a bunch of ideas crystallised into this…
The aim of the Product Owner is to increase, even maximise, the business value delivered by the team as a whole. The Product Owner does not so much create value themselves as increase the value created by others.
Think of it like this: if the team randomly selected work to do and delivered it to customers then some value would be created. (For the moment I’ll ignore the scenario where that work detracts from the existing value.) The aim of the PO is to ensure the work done creates more value than a simple random selection. The greater the difference, or delta to use a mathematical term, between random selection and an informed selection the better.
The general hypothesis is that intelligent selection of work by a skilled Product Owner will result in both more value being delivered and an increasing delta between intelligent PO selected work and randomly selected work.
This difference the value added by a Product Owner. I like to call this difference the Product Owner Delta.
Now in real life work is seldom randomly so Product Owners are not competing against random selection. In some cases the alternative to a designated Product Owners is someone else: a senior developer, an architect, a manager or someone else. In such cases this person is taking on the Product Owner role. They may not have the title, the aptitude, the skills or official position but when work is selected by one person they are de facto the Product Owner.
In other cases the alternative to the PO might be selection by consensus on the team, or a sub-set of the team. Now it is entirely possible that such a group could outperform a single Product Owner in selecting work – especially is they have market and customer knowledge, some analysis skills, time to do the background research and so on. In some cases this works, for example think of a small start-up staffed by software developers creating software development tools.
However, in some cases selection by committee might be inferior to a random selection. Imagine a team which has never met a customer, argue about what to do, duck key decisions and never say No to any request. Its easy to image a dysfunctional selection committee.
There is more to increasing the Product Owner Delta than simply selecting the highest value items. Timely selection can help too. If decisions are not being made, or committees are spending a long time making decisions then having one person simply make those decisions in an efficient, timely, manner can increase the delta.
Time has another role. Because of cost-of-delay simply selecting the highest value items at any one point in time does not maximise the value delivered. Time Value Profiles (see Little Book of User Stories or my presentations on value “How much? When?”) expose this and need to be another tool in the Product Owners repertoire.
And of course, the Product Owner Delta is not the only reason to have a Product Owner in the team, but it is probably the main reason.
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