Organisation Agility

This category contains 6 posts

Tumbling off the peak of mount stupid – lessons in building a cross functional team

To mark the end of the year 2018, I spoke at Agile Vietnam. Speaking has always been a clarifying process and this year’s theme was especially apt – learn, unlearn, relearn. And this year has been a year of unlearning.


I came across the Dunning-Kruger effect in a meet up by an experience and humble agile coach. Like Yoda, the wisdom he shared has been so simple and enlightening. So this year has been falling, tumbling, stumbling down the peak of mount stupid, caught in the valley of despair, seeking for enlightening, learning, unlearning and relearning.

All agile coaches talked about it, to some extend. We should have cross functional teams that are stable and perpetual. And I’ve proven the power of such a team in previous years of coaching. What made this year so hard and so humbling?

While preparing for the topic for conference this year, I invited a coachee / colleague to co-speak with me. In truth, the preparation was more like a long overdue retrospective for the year. And while I coach, I also learnt so much from that experience.

So what’s so difficult about building cross-functional teams? – The human need to want to be understood.

Traditional Agile

Yes, agile has also gone through transition and so should we, if we want to remain agile. For a very long time, agility was about shortening the build test learn cycle to launch products / features faster to learn from it. We brought the product owner into the scrum team to help prioritise and focus the effort. We put on the shoulder of the product owner, the voice of the customer. And we assume that with him/her with the team, we will know the right things to build.

And this has worked for many years as the technology teams race through years of release cycles to achieve a shorter release cycles.

Age of Lean Startups

With the explosion of digital startups, small teams work tighter together to release products to the market at a speed where we can see a mobile app in app store in as short as 2 weeks. These companies acquired users through ease of use and acquisition. User experience, design came to the forefront as winning edge as users are more and more fragmented in their digital behaviour. Demographics no longer rule the user behaviour and interaction with digital channels.

Small, cross functional teams that included product / service design with development teams worked well together to achieve fast time to market, investment driven development.

The purposeful collision of both worlds

Many large organisations today wants to innovate. They also don’t want to “rock” the base. Very purposefully, I’ve seen the rise of innovation labs who’s sole job is to innovate and design new products and services. On the other end, they tried to “do” agile to reduce cycle time to achieve faster time to market on the existing. The problem is that while innovation lab operated independently to build and test, the discovery path can be anytime from 3 – 6 months or longer. And post discovery hand-off to delivery follows the traditional path of funding cycles. Finally, when it reached agile development teams, they have a very short time to realise it.

Incremental vs Iterative

The problem with the above is that development teams are working to release incrementally. There is still a phase gate between design and development. Even though we had built a cross functional team of development and testing to have shippable products at the end of the sprint, we still had to cross the design phase. That meant that problems with design can only be uncovered in implementation phase. If all design problems were already solved, we are still in an incremental development loop.

Exploration vs Implementation

For any idea to warrant time and effort, it has to create value for the organisation. These can be to acquire new customers, retain them, get them to spend more or provide review. An exploration phase is important to uncover the value and justify for the build. This phase must also review the feasibility to build them, the desirability in experience and the viability for the business. That’s what the innovation lab can help with – if the innovation lab is well connected to technical feasibility study and business owners to justify needs. But the dichotomy is that innovation wants to be free from constraints to imagine and so should they.

Hence, the design (user experience, visual and interaction design) requires exploration. And in this process, I see usability testing as a form of quality assurance for good design. The challenge is feasibility at the end of innovation cycle that can completely throw out exploration outcome or require such and effort to build that lowers viability for the organisation.

User Feedback vs User Acceptance Testing

At the end of a scrum sprint, we have sprint review. The review is to showcase the work and gather feedback. Even if the product owner was accepting work on a daily basis and even if the product owner is reviewing work with stakeholders on a daily basis, the work is still not being reviewed by real users. Acceptance testing is biased as the work was built based on requirements by the same people who created them in the first place. For real feedback, we need real users. This is when usability testing and user research adds value.

However, sponsored users are hard to come by readily. If we use traditional marketing efforts to recruit users, there will be a lead time and that meant that the sprint will have to planned in testing and integrate feedback into testing.

End to end cross functional teams?

Not so. (Well, at least for now) I experimented with exploration squads that are split into design squad and tech squad for the sole purpose of exploring an idea and working on a possible solution. And to support the release of the idea, delivery squads that are cross functional to include product owner, scrum master, designers, developers and testers.

In theory for 2 week sprints, the first shippable product from design to deployable should be 4 weeks, 1 sprint for exploration, 1 sprint for build for a small, broken down idea. And that was when I tumbled down the slope of mount stupid.

Problem #1 – the hunt for perfection, in other words, “no rework”

Exploration has to be just exploration. The moment the idea becomes too big, it will miss out in synch and take a longer time than needed. And it’s hard to ask designers and architect to stop exploring and release what they have – that which they consider “not perfect”.

Exploring an idea and ideating is hard to be disciplined. Knowing the definition of done for an exploration is hard as exploration can turn into different corners and morph into different monsters.

In addition is the notion of “no rework”. That seemed to be a common mantra. No one wants to release or take on something that isn’t perfect and may incur future rework. Even I’m in conflict as to what is perfect to wait for perfection or releasing to reap value prior to perfection. Sometimes, perfection is so attainable that it would seem stupid to do something that falls short. Yet often, what we think is perfect is actually just another version of our thinking.

Problem #2 – the need to belong, in other words, “you don’t understand me”

Designers and developers and testers user different tools and language. While developers and testers are more attuned to each other from working in the same requirement. Designers and usability testing (as QA) are more attuned to their own language and ways of working. Putting them together becomes a trial of alignment and understanding.

When we have 1 or 2 designers in a delivery squad, they feel far from the rest of designers who are working on exploration and no one to spar off to discuss their work. On the other hand, it’s easier for developers when we have 3-4 developers and testers in the squad. Even the developers also felt the need to sit with other developers to discuss solutions and spar off ideas.

For this, chapters were created for the sole purpose of having people of the same kind role across multiple squads come together often enough to spar ideas and learn from each other. That works when there is support for this to happen and regular uninterrupted from to work together.

Learning Unlearning Relearning

Debating with my colleague and myself while preparing for the conference taught me something. I don’t think it’s a perfect solution but something I want to try to improve.

  • exploration team should be cross functional too. Design and tech to sit together to explore an idea with a product owner breaking down the idea into workable pieces
  • flow is not 1 directional. When exploration is completed and given to squad to delivery, if there are problems, they should be able to pass it back for problems to be solved.
  • exploration squad should also have capacity set aside for “defects”. Design (both ux and tech) defects should be able to absorbed into work.
  • delivery cross functional squad (design and dev) should be empowered to solve implementation problems as long as they don’t change original intent.
  • usability testing should be in both exploration and delivery squads so user experience is tested in each phase.

Things I would not change will be:

  • definition of done for both squads will be defined and adhered to.
  • no matter how much the initial resistance, cross functional teams is still a benefit and should sit together (as much as possible).
  • high level architecture should be a point of reference to understand solution implementation effort
  • high level user experience principles should be a point of reference to define design directions
  • real users are used in usability testing

Things I still struggle with and need more learning:

  • how to bring exploration and delivery in synch
  • how to account for effort in micro-exploration in delivery (PO & design effort to define requirements, 1 or 1.5 sprint ahead)
  • Are we still 1 – 1.5 sprint ahead?
  • how fast can we really be? Exploration is done 1 release ahead or exploration is part of release or partial? How should we know?

Looking back, this year has taught me much. I’ve always believed that having a goal and a clear objective will clarify the path. Yet this is hardly so in working with teams and people. It can only be achieved when we have a common goal. And achieving this common goal is a lifetime in learning.

Tumbling down the peak of mount stupid and crawling out of the valley of despair, I know fear is the impediment. The fear to see myself in the mirror and face up to failures, the fear to be vulnerable, the fear to let go of what I know for the unknown, the fear of the comfort of knowing and the discomfort of unknowing. But I know, to be a master of my practice, I have to conquer it.

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” – Yoda

“To be Jedi is to face the truth, and choose. Give off light, or darkness, Padawan. Be a candle, or the night.” – Yoda Thank you.



Building The Right First Team

Recently, I’ve been asked, why build cross-functional teams? And I have been asking, who do you consider as your first team? Almost immediately, I get a blank look followed by, “you mean the team reporting to me?”

It’s not a new concept, Patrick Lencioni wrote in “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” with a management fable to illustrate the first team concept. In agile, we create cross functional team and that team is the first team.

Recently, I’ve been entering into the beauty gadgets age. And I’m playing with this new research of how LED light is great for skin. When I bought my gadget, I remembered my science lessons on why white light is white when there are a spectrum of colours in light that we only see in a rainbow with water in the air separating the rays.

Recently, I went back to singing. And I remembered my training in the choir as an alto, the melody is great for sopranos and altos had the un-fun game of singing off the melody. And everyone else accompany the melody to make the chorus sound great.

And I return to my point on first teams. Any organisation can’t survive with only just finance, only just customer service, only just sales, only just operations, only just technology. Whenever I ask the question, “who do you consider as your first team?” I can almost be certain to tell if the organisation is built on foundations of cross team integration and collaboration by the answers I get.

So why is it so important? Why do I get so worked up when people ask me, can’t we just have design squad, front-end squad, back-end squad, API squads?

Let’s start from the board room.

When the leaders in the board room is a team of cross functional team, each leader is representing his/her agenda from his/her lens. Each voice has to be clear and strong to represent the interest of investors, employees and customers with the operational areas of their business. When the views are clear and considered, decisions made are considered.

What It Is Not

A compromise – it is not about compromising each party’s stand. That is the spirit of win-lose.

A balance – it is not about balancing each party’s desire. That is the spirit of democracy and political pull of votes weigh in.

A compromise and finding balance is always precarious when forces hit and we try to do all by multi-tasking.

What It Is

Prioritise – it is about timing the needs and considering what needs to be done first. And priorities are broken down (like user stories) so we don’t get blocked by a chunky priority and lose sight of others.

Focus – it is about focusing on what’s right for the time. And the focus gives each priority a time to build and test and realise it’s potential but not so long that it becomes cross-eyed.

And small priorities focused in a short time span can provide data for pivot because there is a time to look far and look near.

Real World Agility

In the real world, it’s often hard to form first teams. So many times, personal agendas and turf takes over. So many times, survival instincts and prides take over. So I ask, “what is the right thing to do?”. It’s the hardest question to answer. What’s right, in whose eyes?

So I say, all things considered, a beautiful constraint, what is the most beautiful thing we can do with all the constraints we have? When all things are truly considered, any decision can be made and acted on with confidence of best intentions. We run it, test it and learn from it.

And I will always say, the past can only inform us, it cannot determine our future. What we know today will always be more than what we knew yesterday. Keep learning and doing.

Agile Coaching@Scale – A Case Study

It’s been a while since I posted. This post was 4 months overdue (very sorry to people who were waiting on slideshare). As a reflection of 2017, I had spoken at Agile France in December 2017 on agile transformation, a case study of my work in Asia. Mid 2016 – Mid 2017 was a trying year and possibly the first time I combined change management, HR and agile in 1 single assignment. On reflection, I used Agile France speaking opportunity to synthesise my learning. And honestly, if I were not selected to speak, I was not sure if I would have taken time to reflect and retrospect. (Yes, very un-agile of me.)

Unplanned Work

I was starting a coaching assignment in a bank and the original ask was to coach a few teams on agility. Most agile coaches will be familiar with this. Coaching a few teams in a large network of people meant that you can only be as agile as your system and lowest denominator.

Working up the hierarchy of problems, I met with the leader of the group who had also recently joined. His support for agility is not only unwavering but involved. And this began the journey to transformation.

The System Within The System

The group consisted of over 500 people who later grew to 700 people of largely contractors and project work. This meant contracting and re-contracting every 6 months with a break of possibly 3-6 months in between that made up a financial year. And they were supported by back end systems belonging to another unit and waterfall in their approach.

Sounds familiar? This is your typical agile sandwich, front and back of value stream in waterfall and agility in between. End to end cycle time of 18 months. Agility within those short 3-4 months of development. Here’s the composition: 6 months business approval and requirements writing, 3 months to recruit and kick off, 3-4 months of development, 4-6 months of SIT, UAT, release and deploy. That’s if nothing changes. (Budget, workforce, market, stakeholders). In today’s world, I’d say pretty utopia to expect no change.

Ca Se Fait Pas (We Don’t Do This…. Or Do We?)

If I had continued coaching as I intended, coaching 3 teams for 3 months, it would have taken years or a large team of coaches to get this many people to agility. And by the time I’m done with 3 teams to move on to another 3, they would be so frustrated by the hampering of the entire system that they would have reverted to waterfall or worse still, some hybrid of waterfagility (my new word) that combined the worst of both worlds because it’s way easier to pick up bad habits then form good ones.

In truth, I did it for 3 months before I realised that it’s not going to work. Every problem I solve for the 3 teams I was coaching was the problem I had to solve at platform level. So this was what we decided together, we will not try to perfect agility. We will take a release by release approach. That meant, everyone will be on the journey together and agility will be like a product release, release, learn and pivot, release, learn and pivot.

HR Biased

I’d admit, I have a people biased. That meant that I start most transformation with an organisation structure and development lens first. We formed teams first. It’s also what I found required for agile, we simply cannot function with project teams with large groups of people. The only difference, we form 65% full teams and as multi-discipline as possible to start with. Cross function teams comes later through resilience building.

Every initiative (I threw out the word project, along with many others like off-string, in-house) started with forming teams, inception and scrum. Every squad has to have a PO, BA, Scrum Master, Developers and Testers. Everyone was dedicated except PO and Scrum Masters who can be dedicated to 2 teams. Every squad has a name. And I cross checked names religiously to find no repeated names in 2 squads. (Imagine 15 names x 20-30 teams and long Indian names.)

With the roles defined, it also meant I could coach by roles. Every week, I spent 1h with all scrum masters and 1h with POs and BA in coaching sessions. We started with basics then moved on to more complex issues.

Tooling & Compliance

I believe in forming good habits at the start but not all at the same time. I was strict with the squads, they didn’t have to do everything, but some things were compulsory and non-negotiable from the start. Jira-Confluence was the chosen tool and everything had to be there. Since they were distributed teams, Jira is the source of truth for the work to be done. Although inception material can be on post its etc.

Quite early on, we tackled the problem of documentation. It wasn’t easy to change the way requirements were written and kept reminding everyone that we can be more compliant when documentation is actually what was built even though they were just in time.

Coaching @ Scale

There is no way humanly possible to ensure 500-700 people were coached. And there was no way I can attend all the ceremonies. Thankfully, we also didn’t start everyone together. On average, we have a new squad forming every 2 – 3 weeks. So while the next one is getting ready for inception, I focused on starting 1 “properly”. Let’s say cleanliness has degrees, there were dirty corners, hidden trash but overall, the house was neat and mostly clean.

There are 3 indicators I use religiously to know if the squads were having problems:

  • scrum masters, POs, BAs missing weekly coaching sessions. When they don’t come for the sessions, they would send apologies due to conflicting meetings etc. It usually meant they have not been caught up but were caught up in a bad cycle.
  • burn down starts to look like a burn up and then sudden dip end of sprint or not at all. Since everyone had to use Jira and I was strict with estimation standards and use of issue types, it was easy to see burn down charts of all the teams. Just from the burn down, I can usually tell if the team was over committing, not slicing down work, bullied by PO, skipping their ceremonies or sprints.
  • scrum of scrums had the same issues repeated more than once. Since every week, scrum masters synch on issues and report out impediments, it’s also my opportunity to know where there are problems.

Every week was a habitual meeting with leaders 1-1 sessions. These 1-1 sessions combined with observations on team performance was how we know what problems to tackle first and predict what might come up.

As a coach, I used all my consultant cards to tackle the rest of the system including:

  • business stakeholder requirements – I think a scrum master actually recorded me saying that this release can only take x points, it cannot take x++ and played it back to business. And x was a stretch leaving no room for unplanned work, full capacity and assuming component teams behaved.
  • component teams and code drop – they can be as waterfall as they want but we will negotiate to death for weekly package and if not fortnightly and if not monthly.
  • vendor teams to be co-located – finding seats and having ceremonies in the same location if they were in the same city / country
  • audit and compliance – I kept asking, who’s rule is this and dig as deep as possible to the rule writer to have a conversation.



In truth, I think I could have written a book just on the experience and learnings. I would probably not have 1 coach but have 2-3 and work as a team.

And in deeper truths, some coaches will this way of coaching without finesse, a bit of brut force. Some were appalled with the elements I used that looked like SAFe, some were puzzled by the lack of framework, and some were upset with some non-agile elements.

And I would still say, what’s the minimal viable version of agility? And iterating as we go.



#SGSIN Open Space Sharing – PO & Scrum Master, Grow Your Own

In the recent scrum gathering 2017 in Singapore was a day of open space. Open space was initially created and practiced by Harrison Own who also wrote a book called Open Space Technology, that was initially in his paper on organisation transformation. In the scrum gathering, Dan Mezick facilitated the open space. Dan wrote a book called Open Space Agility that focuses on using open space format for the adoption of agile.

The power of open spaces in an organisation is in its self-organisation format. It directs people to voice up and voice out towards a common theme or compelling problem they are trying to solve.

In a conference like scrum gathering, I have often found the intent diluted in practical use but heightened with cross pollination of ideas. Before I share the topic I attempted at the conference, let me briefly explain this. In a conference on agile with people from various stages of the adoption and interests, it is very difficult to have a compelling topic that is focused enough and specific enough in context for depth of discussion. At the same time, with the variety of background of participants, it becomes a unique market space where ideas can be shared as a form of sampling. Instead of the depth of ideation outcomes from an open space in an organisation, it becomes a breadth of possibilities everyone can take back to explore further.

With that, I attempt to explain how my session morphed into something I had not expected nor intended.

In my previous article on scrum gathering after thoughts, I mentioned that I had an idea to talk about product owner and scrum master with my friend and fellow agile coach in Japan on a bus. (I encourage bus rides, it creates incredible conversations like the kind we have in cars.) The compelling problem has been this:

With every agile adoption, the consistent talent issue is the need for new skills and competences to operate in the new ways of working. The most marked initial challenge are roles of product owner and scrum master. They didn’t exist in the company before agile adoption, there aren’t that many in the market place. So what can organisations do? And how can they scale when the recruitment of these roles are not at pace with the transformation?

I had used a few methods to help organisations where I coached to tackle the problem. Using my past HR and talent management background, I had always approached this topic with “grow your own” over hiring.  And I wanted to find out what other people had done, gather new ideas. That was the intent of sharing the topic.

At the gathering, 2 things happened. I presented my topic and someone else wanted to present a similar topic so we combined our sessions. During the session, my co-chair wanted feedback on a training program that he is promoting to the market. Alarm bells went off in my mind as I hadn’t planned on being part of a sales pitch. (By the way, open space market place shouldn’t be a sales opportunity.) So very awkwardly, I tried to check the audience temperature and needs. And we asked the audience if they wanted to continue with feedback on the training programme or play a simple game I use to uncover the competences of PO/SM.

And very lucky for me, my co-presented stepped back from his topic and recommended mine.

So here’s the thing, I had not intended to have a session on the techniques I used but I was happy to share. And more importantly, it was by a sheer coincident and divine intervention that I brought my competency cards to the conference. I grabbed it from my desk in the morning while walking out, thinking, I’ll use it to show an example of what I did as part of the sharing / conversations. I almost walked out of the door without and something made me run back to my desk to grab it. That was what happened. I think I just winged an openspace session with no prep at all. For better or worse, I think the people at the session didn’t realise it.

Alright, here’s the real deal. In the rest of the this article, I’ll explain in better coherence what I shared at open space.

The workshop topic / technique: Co-creation of competences for PO/SM

The purpose: To co-create competences of product owners and scrum masters and a peer mentoring program to help them develop their skills. To create a strong chapter and/or guild of each role for continuous learning and scale.

Participants: Product owners, scrum masters, with team, leaders (optional) See variation below.

The materials: Any existing competency program used in the organisation. (I used Gallup’s strength finder strengths in the session).

Variation to the workshop: It can be for any role. The important thing is for people actually performing the role and/or working with the role to participate. This can be agile teams, leaders or HR. Although I tend to think HR is the consumer of the outcome not the contributor.

Example: Product Owners Competency Workshop

Set up: In a very simple version of this, only POs are participants of the workshop. A set of competences are used and there is no level to the competences, just the name and description. Each competence is written on a card. I used Clifton’s strength finder that has 34 strengths, hence 34 cards. (You can buy the book and take an assessment to find your strengths).

Round 1 – Individual Assessment

Participants are handed a set of cards each. They have to select the top 5 strengths they consider to be essential for a product owner.

Round 2 – Consensus workshop

All participants take the 5 strengths they had individually selected and pick them out from a new deck that will their common deck. Each different strength is represented by 1 card only no matter how many people picked them. You will end up with the minimum of 5 (if miraculously everyone pick the same one) or 34 (if everyone picked a different one and all the strengths are selected).

To gather consensus, you can use wall planning technique or MoSCoW method. The idea is to get to a final 5.

Note 1: For wall planning, you line the cards in order of importance starting with 1 and then add the next one left or right to the first card and so on. To the left is most important, to the left least important. The left most 5 is selected.

Note 2: For MoSCoW, the must have pile should only have 5.

Note 3: You may ask, why 5, not 6 or 4 or 7. You can have more or less but too little and the role is too singular in strength, too broad and no one can embody them. To do 5 well is usually the tipping point.

Round 3 – Self Assessment with Peer calibration (we didn’t do this at the open space but I talked about it)

Each participant has a flip chart paper on the wall and they draw a radar chart frame with the scale 0 – 5. On each of the lines, they should write the 5 strengths they had selected in round 2. For each of the strength, they should score themselves on a scale of 0-5 on their effectiveness in displaying and/or exercising the strength. 0 is not at all and 5 is highly effective.

After they had scored themselves, they form groups of 3 to discuss their scoring and explain their idea of the scale. Eg, what does a scale of 3 means for that strength.

Repeat this for several rounds, each time swopping members to have better calibration of their scale.

After a few rounds, they can rescore themselves.

Note 1: Self assessment should be an honest assessment of their own strengths and effectiveness. Hence, the workshop space should be a safe space where their managers are not present and these are not being used for KPI and promotion purposes. The intent at the beginning of the workshop has to be clear.

Note 2: Depending on the maturity of the group, the set of competences and self scoring can be skewed but usually, they can recalibrate through the conversations. The importance is to have the conversations and have as many rounds as possible for discussions on their scoring and scale.

Round 4 – Peer Mentoring

To close off, participants will find peer mentors and mentor their peers for each of the strength. They will indicate the person they are mentoring (where they score high) and the person they will be mentored by (where they score low).

Typically, participants can end up mentoring multiple people in 1 or 2 strengths where they are better at. Each participant should have at least 1 mentor for each strength they want to improve on.

Note 1: Participants may often choose their “friends” or people they are familiar with as mentor or mentee. I often encourage seeking people they had not worked with or in their social circle.

Note 2: Mentoring events should be specific and regular. So I encourage agreement up front on the cadence (when and how often) and how they will have the session. (where and what goals).

Closing Note

This exercise is best conducted every 3 – 6 months in the beginning of the agile journey and 6-12 months along a more mature agility path. This way, the competences created are just in time and relevant to the context and their abilities. With maturity, the competences or strengths selected will often change and the scoring will be more calibrated.

The facilitator should be someone outside of the team(s) and is not performing the role.

Use of Outcome

There are various ways the outcome of each workshop can be used. The most immediate outcome is for the group to have common understanding of the strengths required for the job and have a peer support system to help them grow.

The outcome can also be shared to identify potential people who can perform the role along with an understanding of the responsibilities of the role. (For this, it’s best left to another conversation and post.)


After thoughts on scrum alliance #SGSIN

This year, with everything that was happening, major transformation at client’s, changing jobs and the french election (yes, I was worried for a while), I didn’t propose any topic. Not that I would be selected to speak but a proposal to speak at the conference is always a self-reflecting exercise to crystallise my thinking and a report card of sort of my learning since the last topic. It was also more appropriate to say, I couldn’t put into words what were brewing thoughts in my mind.

On a bus with a fellow coach from Japan to go shopping (of all things), we started talking. If you have conducted training to people who speak a different language than yours or tried to learn a different language, you would find out very quickly 2 things, 1) how to say what you want to say in shorted possible sentence and as clearly as possible 2) you have no understanding or baggage on the language (hence, sarcasm is lost on me, wouldn’t understand the double meaning).
While cutting through all my jibberish in the mind, trying to explain my frustration in coaching this year, I found myself getting from 1 aha moment to another. And that was how I came up with 3 topics I’m excited to share and wanted to propose at the open space. I managed 2 at the open space for which I will share in separate articles.

  • Scrum masters and product owners – How to grow your own using HR competences program?
  • Agile coaches – how do we find continuous integration with others to grow in our craft?

The 3rd one was about the top 8 things to focus on in the first 10 weeks of agile journey. While on the very long bus ride from west coast to orchard, I rattled on about 5 and couldn’t quite work out which other 3 would be more important. I wanted to ask the audience to help me during open space but decided there were far more interesting topics to attend than to occupy a slot. So I conceded.

Coming back to my aha moments and learning a different language. Learning all these languages wasn’t just for fun (it’s actually not that fun to be in a class, loss for words, especially for me) but it was for me to relate to people in different cultures better and become more efficient in communicating. I learnt about their food, language and culture so I can see their perspective. Agility was about doing things the way it should be, really. Getting to the market faster, learning to do things better and of higher value to the people who uses them. Isn’t that what we wanted when we first started?

Secondly, because I came from a long history of change and talent management & aquisition and not from technology, I didn’t learn agility with the “baggage” of someone who had worked with it and then taught it for years. I had to learn “why” and logic in structure unlike a kid who has learnt to speak a language from birth. And that’s how I learnt agility. I didn’t have to unlearn things, I learnt it in 2010s when the world has started digitisation.

That was how I came to talk about my frustrations and how I came to those topics. Being at war with what it was and reinventing what is becoming and always, coming back to good practices and habits that just work (at it’s purest form). I sincerely believe we just can’t be not agile but we have to keep reinventing our practices to achieve the why.
I love scrum, in it’s simple list of events and artefacts is an opportunity to invent practices to meet the objective. It never ends because the “why” is true. Agilists have to keep reinventing and improve. It is our cause and or being. 

I like the story Peter Berhens told at the closing, in an environment to be the best, you have to fight to have a place in agility. It’s not a given or a mandate. And I think that fight is to be constantly better in our delivery, constantly clearer in our objectives, constantly sharper in our understanding.
When I returned to my team this week, a scrum master came up to ask my opinion on something. I asked him, what he thought. He said it smelled a little bad and I said, well, if it looks bad, it smells bad, it probably is bad. Abandon and rethink.
We have to hone our gut feel, sharpen our senses, learning about the newest and clarifying it for use. When you look at it, we’ve been living in distortion from what it should be. Yet in a conference like this, how do we absorb so many things to find crystallisation of thought. That’s why I think, I’ll be reflecting for a while, distilling and adapting till it is not gooey in my mind. I shall be seeking clarification for a while.
Quoting Pete: You’re (I’m) not done!

I want to build a SWAT team for agile transformation

This last year, I was deep into agile transformation in an organisation as an agile coach. On the eve of my handover, I had realised that much has been done and yet much more to be done. When I surveyed my body of work, I had also realised that the transformation had taken a direction with my background in organisation structure and human resources. And I was keenly aware that I had not been able to reach deep pockets of agility in other areas outside of my specialisation. It has been a while now since I talked about a SWAT team. On retrospection of my work, I knew that this is what I want to do going forward. Build a SWAT team for agile transformation. A special weapons and tactics team focusing on helping organisation be agile.

Let’s assume I don’t have to reiterate the benefits of agility. So many people have done that. But in case of any doubt, let me summarise by saying, there is no technology or business agility. An agile organisation that has a strong learning quotient to learn from the market and react accordingly cannot be agile in 1 area and completely lagging in another. That will be like saying, I need a strong right arm and the rest of my body can be waning. Physically, I am not possible you have isolate a part of the body to be strong while the rest is weak and lethargic. So I go back to systemic change and change that impacts all level. And this is why I think 1 person can’t do it all and neither can 1 type of person.

In Europe, I’ve often seen and was part of the agile community formed by individuals. Most agile coaches are independent and operate independently. That or they were engaged in-house as part of a group of agile coaches. There were various models of engagement and I had also experienced them myself. One time, I was hired as an independent change consultant, another, I was hired as a scrum master / agile coach. Some of the people I knew were hired as agile coach to coach a few teams, others as trainers. Often what I see (not always) is a fragmented market of demand and hence a fragmented market of supply. And the type of demand changes from medium to large organisations. The small companies are usually inherently agile and lean from entrepreneurial background. For medium to large companies, sometimes scaled agile is used to create some order in process.

In Asia, I have started to see some similar trends. Companies look for agile coach, trainers, scrum master / agile coach. Before I generalise further, I think I can say that there is a growing trend towards adopting agile. (For good or bad reasons.)

So what has all these got to do with SWAT?

Let me first lay out a few common observations and challenges to overcome in an organisation that is starting to think about agility.

  •  Business Cases – There is usually an investment accountability process for any product release. This means long research and requirement writing to finalise a strong business case for investment and a funding process that follows.
  • Project / Phase Approach – Large requirements are broken down into phases for delivery and usually, there is no respiration period to learn from the market if they were playing catch up. And teams delivery each phase can be made up of different people.
  • Silo Functional Organisation – In a project or product delivery, the people writing the business case, detailing the requirement and then explaining to technology team are independent functions not belonging to the same group. And there is hands off in the process.
  • Large and Non Stable Teams – Each silo function is probably a large group of people (over 10). For delivery groups, it is a large group of people gathered together for 1 project and they may or may not work on the next project together.
  • Lean and Cost Saving Infrastructure – Development environment is shared and there is no or little automation to handle multiple releases and shorter development cycles.

So it is not uncommon when a company thinks about trying agile, they use a project as a test bed and hire an agile coach to coach this project to see how that works. And then the next project and then the next. It would be ok but usually with a systemic environment that is not conducive, the initial team that experienced success will probably hit a break wall very soon. And when teams are formed for a project, the team building is gone to waste when they join other project teams and work with new people.

For an organisation convinced and committed to transform itself, I think it requires a pace that allows for sustainable momentum of change. But there is an initial stage of transformation that will be institutional followed by sustainable pace. That is when I think we need a SWAT team.

And these are the special weapons and tactics that will be needed in different order and combination of sequences. And it will be a tall order to expect an agile coach to embody all of these to help an organisation transform. And a team works together to focus on these areas to achieve the initial transformation before going into a sustainable mode.

Organisation Design Change

Teams have to be formed to create stable and dedicated teams. In existing context, this is not easy as each person can be involved in 2-3 projects that can finish at different times. They will need to be transitioned to form teams to start working together. Some of these roles may not even exist in the organisation chart and incumbent HR may not be able to support the creation of these profiles let alone the hiring of these people.

In tight labour markets and where labour laws are strict with strong unions, attrition, work contracts are common issues during this transition. Acquisition of external skills will also be difficult in particular skills area. In response, the design will have to have elements of transitioning, skills upgrading and development.

Product Driven Change

Where projects govern the way things are delivered, products thinking will have to take over to make way for stronger product integrity and innovation. Product driven thinking will mean a stronger focus on product performance and delivery where most valued. It will also require stronger design thinking to ensure products can be delivered incrementally in response to value driven in each delivery. To achieve the “cheaper” in a “faster and cheaper” agile delivery, it has to do with doing less and delivery more value to customers. Targeted delivery ensures each delivery enhances the product in a way the customer desires. And when objectives are achieved, stop developing the that area to focus on other areas of value. But this means better business domain knowledge, stronger design thinking and focus on innovation and market response.

Process Change

A waterfall or handoff type of process can be entrenched in the decision making process. For this to change towards agility without losing accountability will require process change to review both. When we lose the long business case and requirement gathering stage in place of agile delivery to build-test-learn from the market place, we need a different process of communicating requirements and account for investment. Often, this also means a process of “testing” and “learning” that may not be in place or as strong as the “building” and releasing process. Without it, the organisation will only be releasing in shorter spurts of time that may not also end up to be more expensive to support these frequent release.

Budgeting & Financing Change

Budgeting and financing is an integral part of process change but deserves a space on its own especially in large public organisations with stakeholders and shareholders to answer for. Inherent in any agile delivery is a shorter decision making cycle coupled with shorter release cycles so the over response to the market is shorter. Traditional funding and budgeting model is anything but short as it calls for scrutiny in investments and upfront accountability to ensure the money spent will deliver the said outcome. To move away from upfront promise to outcome driven accountability, the budgeting and financing process will have to be continuous and more frequent, as many as the release cycles intended.

Engineering Change

To respond to agile delivery, the engineering practice will have to change. Shorter delivery cycles requires teams to work at a sustainable pace but consistent. To ensure quality development that can be released “any time”, test driven development practices, test automation, code quality will have to meet those standards among others. In a longer release cycle, teams can handle a sudden surge of activities near release date where late nights ensued and adrenaline pumps high. With regular but shorter release cycles, the quality will have to ensure releases are smooth and each release doesn’t become a mayhem but just a regular exercise.

Infrastructure Change

There is almost always a need to change infrastructure to support agility. This can mean creating possibilities of automation to support the releases, newer technologies and transition to these technologies. It can mean cloud, different supporting systems and many more. (And this is where I am lost.)

So you see, I can’t do it all. I am your organisation design change and process change person. And I wished I had a design thinking person, a devops person, an XP person and a beyond budgeting person to come together and form a SWAT team.

In my dream, my team will study the state of the organisation and chain up the changes so each organisation design change is hooked up to the right process change and the right engineering change and etc. And each change is dosed at the right amount for that organisation to create the different layers of transformation. And we will work at the leadership level to create systemic change to the environment so the teams can work in a fail fast fail safe environment while delivering products they and customers love.

And the SWAT team will only apply our expertise where required for the areas required for “just in time” change. While one organisation is going through transformation, another organisation can be sustaining change. And the SWAT team can be an agile coach for those sustaining change and come together to SWAT through a transformation. And the SWAT team is stable, we know our strengths and we cover for each other when we are applied. We have all the ego in the world and yet none with each other. We push each other to be better. We fight, we work, we build. We are the best together and can stand on our own. (Now, I’m getting really idealistic.)

It changes nothing. It changes everything. I want to build an agile transformation SWAT team.

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