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Agility Commitment Foundational Values Scrum

Stop Using Scrum as a Weapon

Do we ruin Scrum by overthinking it?

I played clarinet from fourth through twelfth grade. The manner in which I was taught was, to me, extremely disagreeable — a ruthlessly judgmental and competitive environment, with overly serious and intense teachers, brought about to weed out anyone who wasn’t 100% serious about playing as perfectly as possible in an overpopulated New York Metropolitan Area student music scene.

I was very good, but I was unhappy. Mistakes were frowned upon at an early age. The training was intense, intellectual, demanding, and even demeaning. Music should bring joy, but performing it was decidedly joyless by the time I left high school. I haven’t picked up the instrument since.

I still adore music, but not as a performer. Today, I enjoy it as a listener. There are many musicians I admire, both alive and deceased, but one who has long caught my ears and my mind — and who I have had the fortune to see in person many, many times is the great bass player Victor Wooten.

Please take five minutes to watch Victor share something that, upon its debut in 2012, made me cry with both disappointment and joy:

This is such a profound point. How I wish I had learned music that way!

But Scrum — ah, Scrum. Can we learn it that way? Why do we tend to treat Scrum as having essential rules that can never be separated or broken, even while learning it? Plenty of otherwise fine Scrum practitioners will let people have fun in the classroom, but once students proceed to apply Scrum in the real world, things change. This is just wrong.

If we can practice personal point kaizen via “One Small Step Can Change Your Life,” then we certainly can practice Scrum sloppily and joyfully as we learn it. I think we would all be better off if we made an effort to introduce Scrum in the form of something I’d like to call Relaxed Scrum.

Here’s an interesting way to introduce Scrum to a group of the uninitiated. I’m describing an in-person exercise, but you can easily translate it to a virtual world. At the very top of your teaching:

Ask your class to write down the missing word in the following sentence:

Initiatives that have _______________ are the ones that are best suited to being managed with agile practices like Scrum.

Have them write their answers and pass them to you.

Once you have them in-hand, read each answer aloud.

Next, ask the class to have a discussion about these answers, to pick one, and have them elect one individual to deliver the final answer at the conclusion of their deliberations, much like a jury.

With work and maybe a little luck, they will arrive at the answer: uncertainty.

You will have just demonstrated Scrum in the most elemental way possible: an uncertain start; an iterative trial-and-error exercise in the middle; and a completed sentence at the end. Your audience will have applied transparency, inspection, and adaptation. And, they will develop a first-hand appreciation for the significance of the very sentence they worked to complete. Scrum — Relaxed Scrum — doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.

A colleague of mine recently responded to his early Scrum training by noting that Scrum is really all about psychology…it’s about finding a way to unshackle the mind when it is paralyzed about the uncertainty of a task that lies ahead. A truer observation could not have been made. It’s really that simple, and if you make it more complex than that to the uninitiated, you will be as happy practicing Scrum as I was practicing clarinet.

When was the last time you read the Scrum Guide? In its fully-documented form, with a cover, a full-page table of contents, very wide margins, generous 12-point type, large repetitive footers, and a full-page end note and acknowledgements, it’s only 19 pages. You can read the bulk of it in about 20 minutes.

One of the most overlooked sentences in that guide is “Scrum is not a process, technique, or definitive method. Rather, it is a framework within which you can employ various processes and techniques.”

Isn’t this an invitation to play?

As you read the Scrum Guide, you will read the core values (commitment, courage, focus, openness and respect). If you were to create a Venn diagram of Scrum values with Progressive CIO values, there would be one overlap: commitment.

In my experience with Scrum (both Formal and Relaxed), commitment is the single most important value to focus on. You can do just about anything you want, so long as you make and keep commitments.

Relaxed Scrum is playful, and encourages learning by applying rules conveniently and selectively:

  • We can have a single Sprint where we commit to do some research (one or more Spikes), without having to have a real Product Owner. Such a Sprint might not have a formal backlog — it might just consist of one thing to do. This Sprint might not even have Daily Scrums, and yet it might even wind up resulting in a final release.
  • We can have a Sprint with no Daily Scrum at all. If a team is communicating well and communicating regularly, the intellectual exercise of a quality Daily Scrum might get in their way of feeling the liberation that Scrum should provide, especially early on.
  • We can have a Sprint with no Retrospective, most especially if things are already flowing well.
  • We can have a Sprint with no monolithic Sprint Review at the end, if people have mini-reviews as they roll along.

I am sure you can think of your own rules! The only things you really need to implement Relaxed Scrum are: 1) a problem you commit to work on; 2) time to do the work; and 3) a commitment to review the work at the end of a period of time. If you are able to find a subsequent problem to work on at the end, then you are cooking with gas!

(For a real-world example of what this can look like, refer back to the two-part post: There Are Two Sides… / …To Every Commitment.)

As we grow to appreciate Scrum more — and as we jam with professionals — we will slowly get better and learn the value of its finer points and common practices. But we should not take ourselves so seriously en route! As Victor Wooten pointed out, we can laugh at mistakes, and even embrace them.

The point here is —

If your organization is not working to apply an agile practice like Scrum — Relaxed or otherwise — in some form, one of two things is happening:

  1. You have no uncertainty in your business
  2. You are missing something very powerful

In the case of item number two, if you are avoiding the power of doing something like Scrum because you are intimidated by it, then do everything in your power to think this way rather than this way.

As we proceed on our journey together, you will come to see that I am very fond of agile methods, and of Relaxed Scrum in particular. Relaxed Scrum happens almost organically in a culture that shares the foundational values we discuss on The Progressive CIO:

  • Vulnerability: An ability to admit something you did that was wrong, turning the shame into learning.
  • Humility: Remembering that we are human and learn from mistakes.
  • Empathy: When we seek to understand other viewpoints, we get the best of all possible worlds.
  • Patience: We are willing to put the time in to get to whatever is right even if we are unsure how long it will take.
  • Compassion: We understand that helping others on an uncertain journey requires us to be active in how we reach out to help them.
  • Curiosity: We are eager to learn new things.
  • Commitment: We know that doing something is hard, but doing nothing achieves nothing and actually prolongs our difficulties.
  • Willingness: We want to push ourselves forward to do something to effect change.

The three pillars of Scrum are underpinned by these values:

  • Transparency: A combination of vulnerability, humility, commitment, and willingness
  • Inspection: A combination of vulnerability, humility, empathy, curiosity, commitment, and willingness
  • Adaptation: A combination of empathy, patience, compassion, commitment, and willingness

If you create an environment with our eight values, you will have the essence of Relaxed Scrum without any other rules! Most critically, you will invent your own way to apply the principles of Scrum across a wider variety of initiatives. So why not find your own way of getting there…and do it with a playful spirit, with as few rules as possible?

Discuss this specific post on Twitter or LinkedIn.

🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Icq0LlvtEy0.

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Commitment Foundational Values

…To Every Commitment

What two commitments were made the morning that Stuart and Al got into their little argument?

Most people are able to see that Al made a commitment (albeit reluctantly) to Stuart to put some numbers together. This is the type of tangible commitment that we are used to talking about, and the type we criticize when it doesn’t occur. That’s the easy part of this little exercise.

But in my experience, comparatively fewer people are able to see that Stuart also made an important commitment that morning: the commitment to review what Al did.

Why do you suppose this is so often overlooked?

While Al did something that was very obviously active, what Stuart did in return was comparatively passive. It doesn’t require any obvious action other than to listen or receive the active work of others, so it’s nearly invisible. Yet, Al would have been unable to meaningfully follow through on his commitment if Stuart didn’t follow through on his.

This might remind you of the old thought experiment, “If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound?” If nobody is there to review your active commitment, does it even matter that you did it?

It’s actually quite hard to think of any commitments that are not dual-sided in nature. Even a successful surprise party involves a passive commitment on the honoree to be at a given place at a given time. The party would fall apart if he or she didn’t show up. I hope you are beginning to see how easily overlooked these passive commitments can be.

Did you ever do a difficult chore or errand that went unnoticed? How did you feel? I suspect that you probably felt a little like Al would have if Stuart had cancelled the 1:00 meeting.

Have you ever worked in an environment where people perform their assigned commitment, but at the agreed-upon review time, the customers who committed to review the outcome change their minds and try to reschedule? There is no reliable path to progress if this pattern prevails.

Yet, this happens all the time…and the fact that people are familiar with the feelings associated with the dismissal of passive commitments can actually make it easier to discuss. Whenever you make a commitment to do something and are unsure about people being around to review it, get vulnerable and discuss the anxiety that you have about the possibility that there will be nobody there at the end to “listen for the tree.” Ask everyone in your group to discuss the variety of things that could get in the way of a review of the outcomes, and ask what their anxieties are about their own ability to watch and listen to the results.

If you wish, simply share the Stuart and Al story to illustrate the point. Have everyone identify both the active and the passive commitments that are required for success for the initiative at hand.

Just as importantly, recognize and discuss the difference between a commitment-driven culture, and a promise-driven culture.

When we promise something, what do we expect to happen if that promise is broken? Surely, some form of flagellation (perhaps even self-flagellation) will take place, with an attendant apology and other consequences. Promises merely set us up for failure mode. This is typically counter-productive.

A commitment means we will do everything in our power to do what we say we plan to do.

In a commitment-driven culture, if we fail in our commitments, we do not beat ourselves up! Instead, we follow another commitment: the commitment look at why we failed. We then consider what we can change as we move forward.

Promise-driven cultures quickly grow tiresome because they are essentially fear-based. Commitment-driven cultures are sustainable, because they embrace the idea of continuous improvement.

As a leader, you already know that nothing moves forward without commitments. What will you do to boost your awareness of their dual-sided nature?

Discuss this specific post on Twitter or LinkedIn.

🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pbn6a0AFfnM.

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Categories
Commitment Foundational Values

There Are Two Sides…

Would you agree that it seems hard for people to keep their commitments?

(Based upon the fact that Alex Sheen’s “Because I Said I Would” is a worthy organization with a passionate message that truly resonates around the globe, I certainly hope you agree that this is a very real issue for us all.)

Why do you suppose that is the case?

Humans make commitments with good intent. We seem to have a hard time, though, grasping what it’s going to take to follow through on that commitment. Unexpected things happen. Conditions change. We discover things we didn’t consider. The list goes on.

And we all know this sort of stuff happens. So why do we make commitments?

To be nice, and to express good will. It’s nicer to say yes than it is to say no, and we generally do not aim to displease.

I’d like to ask you to explore something that many people probably haven’t: Think about how you feel at the rare times when you resolutely commit to not doing something. “I am not going to go skydiving on this trip.” “I am not going to go out drinking on Saturday nights anymore.”

Why do you suppose that it feels at least a little bit (if not a lot) good to make that sort of commitment?

As with so many things, it’s all about control.

When we make a commitment to not do something, we typically have taken complete control over the situation. Only we can change the outcome (by changing our mind). On the other hand, when we make a commitment to do something, other people start to have control, and that is when things get sticky. At a minimum, we become beholden to the others with whom we have made the commitment, and that can induce…anxiety.

I once consulted for a small company that had a President (Stuart) and an Engineer (Al) who weren’t getting along.

One morning, Stuart informed Al that he had a call at 2:30 PM with a client to review the financial results of the work the company had done, and Stuart needed Al to put numbers together for the call.

Mind you, Al was a little like Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory: intellectually high-caliber, but socially awkward. Al could not contemplate doing anything without all things literally and logically discussed and considered.

Al: “That isn’t possible. I need at least two weeks to get those numbers together. I need more information.”

Stuart: “Well I know you can calculate the numbers well enough given the information that we have.”

Al: “I cannot be sure of that. I need to get numbers from the external systems, some of which are not yet in final form, import them into our systems, write code, test the code, validate the information, send to our QA team for verification….”

Stuart: “I think you have enough information to do what I need for this afternoon.”

Al: “I do not. I need to get numbers from the external systems, some of which are not yet in final form, import them into our systems, write code, test the code, validate the information, send to our QA team for verification….”

Stuart: “Al, please. You have enough to do what I am asking for. I don’t need this to be as perfect as you think. I need these numbers for this afternoon.”

Al: “I do not. I need to get numbers from the external systems, some of which…”

There were a few more back-and-forth motions like this; the very sort of thing the phrase ad nauseam was made for. At this point, I stepped in:

Me: “Al, what can you have by this afternoon?”

Al (pointing to Stuart): “Not that!”

Me: “Al, why don’t you put together whatever you can by 1:00 PM, and let’s all get together at that time to review it. OK?”

Stuart: “Sounds good to me.”

Al: “OK, but it’s not gonna be what he is asking for.”

Me: “Just try.”

A few hours went by. Lunchtime passed, and we got together at 1:00.

Al shared the numbers with us. He explained that he had to make a whole series of compromises, and began uttering a litany of disclaimers.

Stuart looked over the numbers. What do you think he said?

Stuart: “Perfect!”

What do think Al said in return?

Al: “But that’s not really what you were asking for this morning. I cannot be sure those numbers are totally accurate…”

Many of you reading this blog might recognize this story as a powerful lesson in Agility. Indeed, I have shared this story countless times in teaching how Scrum or Agile practices look, even without formal methods. The lesson of Agility is to try to figure out something small enough to do to help us get better control over our ability to deliver. But this dialog is especially useful in illustrating how Agile approaches require commitment in order to be successful.

In doing this, I like to ask my audiences the following question, which I now ask you:

What two commitments were made the morning that Stuart and Al got into their argument?

Ponder that for a few days. I’ll reveal the answer in my next post.

Discuss this specific post on Twitter or LinkedIn.

🎹 Music for this post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qx6_0Do0qGQ.

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