Jennifer Fix / Digital Strategy / July 2nd, 2014

Being Scrummy: Is Your Agile Organization Agile?

Inspect. Adapt. Evolve. These are the core tenets of Agile development, but to be truly Agile these principles must apply to not just the work your team produces, but the team itself.

At 352, we strive to continually become smarter, better and stronger than we were yesterday (just when you thought you’d steered clear of a Kanye reference). Much of that evolution is driven by the Agile methodologies we use; just like we’re iterating on the products we launch, we’re regularly assessing our workflows and evolving to tackle challenges and roadblocks.

Our industry is entering a new generation of Agile where some of the traditional practices (yes, I just used “traditional” and “agile” in the same sentence – stay with me) are now being refined to better meet the needs of our ever-evolving industry. In a word, our agile methodology needs to be, agile.

I started chewing on this concept after a session from ALM Chicago on being a better Scrum Master. The speaker, Benjamin Day, shared about innovative ways to approach Scrum ceremonies to garner more value. I know what you’re thinking: We can innovate Agile? Sure we can.

mind-blown-classic

Mind. Blown.

And that’s when I was reminded that a core principle of Agile is a commitment to People over Processes. After mulling this over with my fellow SMs, we determined there could be great value in new approaches to what would thusly become our traditional Scrum ceremony formats (there I go with that word again).

Before we jump into improvements for your Scrum activities, a word of caution: change is good and healthy, but not change for change’s sake. You implemented particular Scrum ceremonies for a reason, and the wrong type of change can take you down a problematic path. Adjustments should only be made to garner more value from your ceremonies, not to avoid the discipline required for Scrum to be successful.

The Daily Standup

The traditional daily standup is the bedrock of an agile process, and it’s simple for a reason. The three questions (What did I do since last standup? What will I do until next standup? Are there any roadblocks?) aren’t an inherently bad format, but can grow stale and, in turn, fail to answer the only question your PO really cares about: “What’s the status of the work?”

As an alternative, teams can “walk the board.” This means sitting in front of your sprint backlog and walking through all of the stories; have the team discuss the status, the contributors, the dependencies, the roadblocks, etc. This is powerful because it keeps the team focused on the work at hand and provides a visual representation of story progress.

You can even try your hand at having team members assign themselves as “Story Owners” who are responsible for ensuring the progress of individual user stories and for holding other team members accountable for the work on those stories.

The above concepts were a bit revolutionary for my team, so we opted for a blend of tactics. We still answer the three questions, but as each team member discusses his progress we identify the story on the board and follow along as the work is described. This allows us to maintain our record of work-in-progress while ensuring that we stay out of the weeds and focused on the current sprint’s work.

Retrospectives

The standard retrospective is also built on questions. We get our Pluses by asking what went well and our Deltas by determining what needs to change. Identifying necessary change is useful, but a few extra steps can yield significant improvements.

First, discuss a few strategies to make actionable Deltas and then vote on which Delta is most important. The Delta with the most votes become next sprint’s focus, and each team member writes the goal down (on actual paper with an actual pen – I know, we’re revolutionaries), and keeps it near his workspace. The physical note reminds everyone to focus on the goal each day of the sprint and to keep their fellow team members accountable.

Of course, if you just don’t care for the standard retrospective, you can take an entirely new approach: the timeline review. The team takes stock of each day of the sprint — from planning to closeout — by discussing progress and documenting any obstacles, achievements and stray comments. With these notes in hand, discuss any overarching trends and outliers

The timeline review offers exceptional detail on the sprint, but unless your team members keep a diary or have eidetic memories, it’s relatively unlikely the team will recall day-to-day Pluses and Deltas in such detail.

Tip of the Iceberg

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Image: Ansgar Walk

These suggestions are certainly not the only options to try, nor are they remedies for whatever ails your agility. Before you consider any changes to your current ceremonies, it’s best to talk with your team, determine areas for improvement and implement changes together.

At 352, we readily seek advice from other teams to see what is working and what isn’t. Seeking advice from healthy teams or from the Scrum community can yield positive results for any team – whether healthy or hurting. In short: inspect thoughtfully, adapt wisely and evolve powerfully.

Image credit: Paul Englefield CC BY 2.0

  • Mike

    Great advice, Jen! Even on the marketing side – where we’re not quite as deep in Scrum practices – it’s been really important to continually assess how we approach things, especially our standups.

  • Christopher Burns

    Our team tries to post the major take-away in a public place and revisit it sometime mid-sprint… but having each person write it down and keep it in a prominent location on their desk, that’s a really great idea to keep things fresh in everyone’s mind.

    • Jennifer Fix

      Posting the sprint goal in a public place is a great idea as well! We’ve tried that as well and sometimes we switch back and forth. We’ve also started posting the goal at the top of our standup prenoting doc

      • aaronbdixon

        Maybe a feature to be added to flare?

        • Jennifer Fix

          Great idea!

  • mikewcohn

    Nice post, Jennifer. I believe that if a team has stopped improving, the team is no longer agile. Agile is about continuous improvement. If a team ever stops trying to improve (thinking they are “good enough”), they have stopped being. So, good job on keeping your team seeking improvements.

    I’m a big fan of changing up the daily standup–I often have teams switch from person-by-person to story-by-story. It often makes people talk more than once in a meeting (if they work on more than one story) and, as you point out, it does help the product owner see what progress has been made.

    • Jennifer Fix

      Thank you for the feedback, Mike! I absolutely agree with you. Not only do I consider a team that isn’t growing to not be agile (and an individual for that matter), but I’ve also found that generally speaking, if you’re not working towards improving yourself, you generally don’t just plateau, you start to fall back on old habits as you lose your momentum.

      And so I say it, I really enjoy the Mountain Goat resources and have used them consistently with my team and fellow Scrum Masters. Thank YOU for all of your insights.

      • mikewcohn

        Thanks for your kind words about the resources on my site.