Scrum Values III: Today’s Episode — Focus

Once again, from the Scrum Guide:

“Everyone focuses on the work of the Sprint and the goals of the Scrum Team.”

In my post about commitment, I touched on the importance of setting our forecast for Sprint in accordance with the Sprint Goals.  In my post about courage, the importance of adhering to our Definition of Done made an appearance.  These things have something else in common.  To make both of these things happen, we need Focus.

In some ways, Focus is perhaps the simplest of the Sprint Values for us to consider.  In other ways, it is much more complicated.

The easiest way to think about Focus, is to look within the context of a Sprint.  During Sprint Planning, the team works with the Product Owner and selects what it will be working on within that Sprint.  In order for the team to meet that forecast, the team must focus solely on the selected work.

  • The team doesn’t work on anything that is outside of the Sprint Goal.
  • If someone makes a new request of the Development Team, the direct the requestor to the Product Owner, rather than diverting their attention.
  • When there is something that is preventing the team from making progress, they bring it to the attention of the Scrum Master, and resume work toward the Sprint Goal.

Going beyond just that, it’s easy to see other ways in which Focus is important to how Scrum makes us more effective!  The most effective way to get a User Story done is to swarm on that item.  When the team swarms on the one or two most valuable/important things in the Sprint Backlog and gets each to done before moving on, the team’s velocity skyrockets.  When we are focused on those one or two things, it’s much easier to spot the trouble areas and come up with a plan to deal with uncertainty.  Focus is what allows us to make sure all of our important ceremonies in Scrum fit within their time boxes.  We aren’t having meetings purely for the sake of having meetings, but we are concentrating on the task at hand.

Distilled into its simplest form, focus gets us to done and lets us become faster and more productive.

Part II
Part I

Scrum Values II: Today’s Episode — Courage.

Courage is an easy thing to understand.  It’s also incredibly hard for people to fully embrace when we are dealing with the Scrum Values.  As before, I want to start by looking at the one sentence in the Scrum Guide that applies:

“The Scrum Team members have courage to do the right thing and work on tough problems.”

There is it in a nutshell.  Do the right thing, and work on tough problems.  THere’s a whole lot more below the surface of that sentence, though.

When we talk about team members doing the right thing, there is an implied “even when it’s hard” at the end:

  • We have the courage to not revert to old habits when work is challenging.
  • We have the courage to not take shortcuts and get work done quickly simply for the sake of getting it done quickly.
  • We have the courage to ask difficult questions when we don’t have all of the information we need to build a product.
  • We have the courage to adapt to change.
  • We have the courage to trust the entire Scrum Team.
  • We have the courage to do everything in our power to meet our forecast and stick to the Definition of Done.
  • We have the courage to commit.
  • We have the courage to be honest about our work.
  • We have the courage to listen to what others on our team are saying, even when we don’t want to hear it.
  • We have the courage to fail, and the courage to admit it.

Some of the biggest issues I have seen with teams who are struggling with Scrum all come down to courage.  It’s very easy to fall back into familiar patterns, and even easier to point fingers when things don’t work.

The ceremonies of the Daily Scrum, Sprint Planning, Sprint Review, and Retrospective all require courage.  For Scrum to succeed, we must be able to talk about things that aren’t going well, and come up with ways to fix them.  We have to be willing to show the cracks in our armor to the team, and trust that the team will help us to overcome obstacles.

Showing work in the Sprint Review takes a huge amount of courage.  We accept that we might get feedback that we may not like, and we go into the meeting only prepared to show work that has met our Definition of Done.  We are not going to show our stakeholders (and each other) work that is half-finished and we are going to hand-wave past the incomplete parts.  We also aren’t going to show stakeholders a chunk of code they don’t necessarily understand; we will only show them work as our users will see it.

We are willing to have an honest discussion every day to inspect our progress toward our Sprint Goals and adapt our plan if we are off track.  We have a cross-functional team that is willing to jump into work they may know little about and get it done, as a team.  We are willing to be honest in our Retrospectives and discuss ways we can be a better team.  We do this without throwing our teammates under the bus, but are willing to share in our failures as much as we are willing to celebrate our successes.

Scrum takes a tremendous amount of personal and team courage.  The courage demanded by Scrum allows us to shine a bright light on every aspect of what we do, to look at it clearly, and always find ways to make improvements.

Part I

Scrum Values I: Today’s Episode — Commitment.

That’s a huge word that carries a lot of weight.  It’s also a word that has had a shift in definition – as it relates to Scrum – in recent times.  So what, exactly, do we mean when we are talking about commitment?

For a long time, commitment meant “I am going to do everything it takes — working 9 days a week, 27.5 hours a day if necessary — to make sure this gets done exactly on time and exactly as described by the requirements.”  For some people, this is still what it means, being on call non-stop, never being able to disconnect, even on vacation, and putting that commitment above all else.

That’s not how this works.  That’s not how any of this works.

Go back to the Scrum Guide for a minute, open it in a separate window or tab.  Got it?  Now search for the word “commitment” in there.  As of the November 2017 update, there is exactly one place you will find it, and that’s in the Scrum Values.  Further, the Scrum Guide states:

“People personally commit to achieving the goals of the Scrum.”

That’s it.

Commitment doesn’t mean we have no life and pull out every single last stop to get everything done exactly as commanded by some arcane (and likely out of date) requirements document.

  • It means that everyone on the team is dedicated to helping the team succeed.  The exact work that will be done within a Sprint can and will change as work is underway, but always with the end desire of achieving the Sprint Goals.
  • It means that if we are behind, the Development Team will sit with the Product Owner and have a conversation to make adjustments to the work in the Sprint so that an increment of working software is done when the Sprint ends.
  • It means that the Product Owner leaves flexibility in his or her Acceptance Criteria so that the team has room for negotiation.
  • It means that the Scrum Master is actively listening and responding to the needs of the team.
  • It means that we are going to do our best, but recognize that if we fall short it will not be for lack of effort.

Organizationally, it means that we empower our Scrum Teams, and give them the resources and flexibility they need to be successful.

When the team sets their Sprint Backlog, we should stop talking about commitment – as it relates to the old way of thinking – and recognize that we are talking about a forecast. Things may change as we get more clarity on any or all user stories in a Sprint.  Things may be moved out, or be added, to allow the team to still meet the Sprint Goal.

That doesn’t mean the team failed to meet its commitments, it means they are being truly Agile.

Bringing the Scrum Values to Life – A Tale in Five Parts.

Scrum Values

One of the best things that happened to the Scrum Guide in the last two years was the introduction of the Scrum Values.  These two very simple paragraphs shine a huge light on things that are crucial to the success of Scrum.  I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about each one, how they impact what we do each day, and want to look at each one in turn.

  • Commitment
  • Courage
  • Focus
  • Openness
  • Respect

Quoting from the November 2017 Scrum Guide:

When the values of commitment, courage, focus, openness and respect are embodied and lived by the Scrum Team, the Scrum pillars of transparency, inspection, and adaptation come to life and build trust for everyone. The Scrum Team members learn and explore those values as they work with the Scrum roles, events, and artifacts.

Successful use of Scrum depends on people becoming more proficient in living these five values. People personally commit to achieving the goals of the Scrum Team. The Scrum Team members have courage to do the right thing and work on tough problems. Everyone focuses on the work of the Sprint and the goals of the Scrum Team. The Scrum Team and its stakeholders agree to be open about all the work and the challenges with performing the work. Scrum Team members respect each other to be capable, independent people.

Two paragraphs.  Lots of information to digest.

Rather than writing one large post on why these are absolutely critical, I will take them one at a time – one per day, starting next Monday – and dive into what how each one of these Scrum Values is so important.  These aren’t just words that we can consider and forget, they are imperative in how we create highly collaborative, highly productive teams.  

It’s worth pointing out right here that I actually wrote this first post after I drafted all of the ones that will follow.  One of the best parts of examining each of the Scrum Values, to me, was examining how each one relates very strongly to the others.  Considering each individually, it becomes clear how all five are tightly connected, and provide crucial pillars upon which Scrum is built.

This should be fun!

Shhh… the strength of silence


Picture this:  Your team (or someone on the team) comes to you looking for help.  You are asked a question.  What do you do?

You answer it, right?  That’s the normal response.  By nature, we want to help others (well, most of us do), and that means answering their questions, and sometimes even rolling up our sleeves and helping with the actual work.

How about this situation:

You’re facilitating a Retrospective for your Scrum Team and you ask them a question. Nobody answers.  Maybe your question was too hard, or they aren’t comfortable providing the answer, so you wait a short amount of time and start talking again, either giving them the answer, leading them toward the one you have in mind, or changing the question to make it easier.

So what if I were to tell you that might be the wrong thing to do?

As a Scrum Master, one of the most potent tools you have is silence.  Keeping your mouth closed is easy, but it’s also one of the hardest things to practice and teach yourself.  I had to fight every instinct to learn this one, and I still find I need to catch myself on a regular basis.  Being quiet takes work!

But here’s the thing: When you become comfortable with your own silence, you allow your teams to grow.  When a question is asked — whether in a team discussion or in a one on one setting — don’t answer right away.  However long you think is a good pause before you answer, wait three to four times that long.  Let the silence get uncomfortable, and read the energy of the room.

Don’t focus on the fact that you aren’t talking, focus on how people are reacting.  Read their body language and listen to what they are not telling you.  You will naturally start to come up what your answer might be – resist the urge to do so!  Keep yourself actively listening through the silence.  Shift all of your attention from your instinct to speak and keep it completely on your team.  Make eye contact, smile, and let the silence hang.

When you do this, one of two things will happen:

1) You give yourself extra time to compose your response and make sure you and giving the right answer (or asking a better question), should you choose to do so.

More often, however…

2) The person will provide their own answer, or someone else on the team will, allowing you to stay in active listening mode and feeling where your input is actually needed!

We don’t like silence. Most people will instinctively try to fill the silence by speaking up, rather than letting that awkward, uncomfortable silence linger.  You will be surprised at how often they will answer their own questions, or at least come up with a more insightful question than the one that was originally asked.

Your knowledge, experience, and insight is important to the team.  Your silence can be even more important.  In that awful silence, they have the opportunity to stretch out beyond their comfort zone and to grow.  The trick lies in knowing how long to let that silence hang, and when they really do need some of your sage-like wisdom.

Growth happens in those uncomfortable moments.  I’ve joked with my teams more than once that when I see they’re in that uncomfortable space, I cackle with glee on my commute home.

Silence is powerful.  Make it a part of your toolbox and see where it gets you!

Dancing through chaos and how to avoid the Coaching Death Spiral


First things first.  This entire post was inspired by an even better one by Stephanie Ockerman.  If you don’t already read her blog, you need to fix that right now.  She offers amazing insights and is an incredible voice for Scrum.

If you just left this page to go read everything in her blog, I don’t take offense.

She describes a pattern early in her post that really got me to thinking about my own coaching style and where things can go wrong.  I call this the Coaching Death Spiral, but feel free to come up with whatever better name suits your purpose.

In short, here’s the Death Spiral pattern:

  • We enter a coaching event with some degree of expectation and things don’t go quite as expected.
  • Because things are not what we thought, we doubt ourselves; not sure if we are asking the right questions and saying the right things.
  • Once that doubt sets in, we overthink everything.
  • We become so involved in our own heads, that we aren’t actively listening anymore.
  • We now start missing important cues in tone, body language, or even in the actual words someone is saying
  • Effective coaching has stopped; we’ve lost the person we are supposed to be coaching.

You can see how each step in the spiral feeds off the one before it, and that once you start down this path, it can become very difficult to escape.  I’ve done this, and I’m quite confident in saying that I will likely do it again, even knowing what’s happening.  We’re human, and these things happen.

What’s really important is to recognize what can happen, and think about how we avoid it in the first place.

It all starts with those first two lines.  If we go into any coaching event with some preconceived expectation of precisely how things will unfold, we set ourselves up for failure.  No matter how things go, the fact is that we won’t always ask the right questions, or have the just exactly perfect thing to say at any given moment.  Every single coaching conversation is different, even when you’re coaching the same person on something you’ve coached them on previously:

  • The context for that conversation has changed
  • It’s a different time of the day
  • One (or both) of you didn’t get a good night’s sleep, or hasn’t had enough coffee yet.
  • There’s a bad moon on the rise

Whatever the circumstances might be, there is always something different and unique about every single coaching event.  Going into coaching with any kind of fixed agenda simply isn’t going to work, because you don’t have all of the information you need until you’re well into the event.  It’s okay to have some thoughts in mind, but those might not actually be what the person you’re talking to needs in that moment, and sticking to your talking points could lose the person just as quickly as getting sucked into the Death Spiral.

It’s chaos, I know.

To quote directly from Stephanie’s amazing post: “We must be willing to dance in this moment.”

I LOVE this.  And Stephanie, if you’re reading this, thank you for that line because that’s the one that inspired me. 

You are going into a coaching event with someone — whether one on one, or in a group setting — and you don’t know what’s about to happen.  Putting time aside to work with someone is no different than putting your name on their dance card at this point.  You’ve got time on their schedule reserved, and the dance begins:

  • When the conversation starts, the musicians have begun to play..
  • Take your partner and start to dance.
    (Not literally. It might be weird. Unless you actually work in a dance studio.)
  • You don’t know what the band (or DJ) is going to play next, just as you don’t know where the conversation is going to go.
  • You know you want to keep dancing with this person, so you adjust.
  • During any given dance, you don’t know exactly what you’re going to do, you just know you’re going to move together and share that moment.
  • You will take cues from your dance partner.  Sometimes you will lead, sometimes they will lead, and it will all work out great.
  • Those cues might be verbal, they might be from making eye contact, they might be in how they are actually moving.  All of these things are important.
  • The dance can create an emotional connection.  Don’t shy away from this!
  • You may be tired when you finally stop, but it was worth every minute.

Be in the moment.  Enjoy the dance, and pay attention to what your dance partner is doing.  Listen to everything they say, and more to the things they don’t.  All of these things will give you important clues on what that person wants or needs from this time.

Be there with them.  Take your cues from everything the person you are coaching is telling you.  You don’t have to get it perfect every single time, but you do need to be in the moment with them, and willing to take them out onto the dance floor and spin around a few times.


Exposing our faults, and learning to embrace the pain

I recently heard the following statement:

“Scrum does not solve your problems, it exposes them.”

That simple statement is incredibly profound, and it struck me immediately.  Read it again and let it sink in.

That simple sentence cuts right to the heart of things. Too many times, I hear from teams that they wish they had a finalized design before they start coding, or a fully defined architecture and detailed plan for the next several weeks.  I have seen crestfallen looks, heard audible sighs, and witnessed eyes rolling when I have to gently break it to them that these things just won’t be happening.

That’s not how any of this works.

Scrum works not because it’s a magic bullet that will suddenly make everything in your dev shop perfect.  It works because it shines a light on where the problems are and empowers you to make the corrections that you need.  It gives us, as a Scrum Team, opportunities to continuously inspect our progress and make adjustments.  It encourages all of us to try things, and gives us space to fail.  In fact, a certain amount of failure is a good thing.  When we look at all of the Scrum ceremonies (Daily Scrum, Planning, Review, Retrospective), we see a chance in every single one to make changes based on the empirical evidence of how the team is performing, and the challenges they are facing.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy.

We aren’t comfortable seeing our problems and facing them.  Our instinct is one of preservation, and you’ll see team members get defensive when the weak spots are made visible.  I’ve seen all of these things happen:

  • Members offer excuses for why something went wrong, rather than working on solving it.
  • People wish we could “do things the old way”.
  • Team members get angry, or worse, throw another member of their team under the bus to protect themselves, because they feel like there is a risk in being anything less than perfect.
  • Your coaching skills will be tested to their utmost.

I can say, from experience, that there have been moments when I’ve been tempted to just walk away from the hard work because I feared confrontation, or had reached the end of my rope with someone who just didn’t seem to get it.  Scrum exposed MY problem, and I was able to step back, reflect on what was actually happening, ask myself the 5 whys, and come up with a way to work through the issue and get everything back on track.  I can honestly say that I am a better Scrum Master because of it.

This was HARD.  

Seeing team members going through the same thing – team members you work with every day and have a professional relationship (if not a true friendship) with – is no easier.  Because we care about our teams, we want to protect them from all of these issues.  In truth, we aren’t doing them any service by shielding them from themselves! Yours is the voice of reassurance.

Fortunately, we have plenty of tools at our fingertips to help us with all of these things…