Viewing Posts by Christian Bisson
Will the Real Agile Please Stand Up?
By Christian Bisson
It appears as if “agile” has become the buzziest of buzzwords. But are organizations using it correctly? As I’ve evolved towards agility in the last several years, I’ve come across many job descriptions that claim and demand agility. Sadly, the term is often only used to lure people in.
Today, the younger workforce expects agility in certain industries. But when the term is used as a buzzword rather than in its true meaning, that can lead to problems later on.
So, how do you spot the difference between real agility and yet another buzzword? Here are a few things to look out for in organizations:
Analyzing job descriptions is one of the fastest ways to spot anti-agile patterns before you invest any time in interviews. These descriptions will often use words that actually go against what you would expect from an agile organization.
For example, if you look at the scrum master’s job description, you may find traditional project manager responsibilities, such as: “create project plan,” “coordinate team,” or even “responsible for the product backlog.”
For other roles, such as a developer, you will see all the standard requirements about programming languages, architectural experience, etc., but the description will fail to mention anything about being on a multidisciplinary team, a self-organized team or anything you would expect from an agile team.
Another description to watch out for is the typical “can work in a fast-paced environment” mandate, which is more often than not code for “lots of overtime” and goes against having a sustainable pace for teams. You may risk joining a chaotic work environment and delivering poor quality work because of all the demanding deadlines.
Prioritizing work at an organizational level is key to being able to deliver value and avoid waste. And those priorities must be communicated to teams in a timely manner so they can plan their sprints properly.
If this is not the case, you will notice that sprints are not respected and always change, the work delivered does not bring value to anyone, and the word “urgent” is repeated every single day.
Some organizations struggle with this but are working toward getting better. Here are a few behaviors to look out for:
A well-powered team that is set up for success will deliver value. But if the team is expected to execute without any discussion with upper management, then you may be in a traditional management type of organization instead of an agile one.
Pay attention to things like:
To be fair, lots of organizations simply misunderstand agile and its related lexicon, and might not actually intend to lure anyone through outright manipulation. But there are many that do, and those are the ones to look out for. Chances are, if they are being misleading in order to attract people to work for them, these organizations will act similarly to keep talent working for them—and not necessarily in the best of circumstances.
How do you see “agile” being misused in organizations?
The Misunderstood Scrum Master
By Christian Bisson
Inspired by The 8 Stances of a Scrum Master (a great read if you haven’t done so already), I want to focus this article on a few of the “misunderstood” stances of the scrum master.
Recently, I asked colleagues to share what they think a scrum master does, and the answers revolved around organizing scrum events (secretary) or note taking (scribe). It’s even expected that they make sure the office has coffee (coffee clerk).
Although there is nothing wrong in helping the team with any of the above—especially when it’s a brand-new team figuring out everything from setting up their work station to getting to know each other—there is a line between helping and not fulfilling your potential as a scrum master. This is important for you as an individual, but also for the team in the long term (even if they don’t know it).
So how can we fix this?
As a scrum master, you have to factor in everything when making a decision about whether or not to do something for your team. So, if the team is used to you doing a task and all of a sudden you stop, this might have a negative impact.
On the other hand, it might be what they need to break bad habits. If you do stop doing it, the team will have no choice but to do it themselves. However, in this case, you should warn the team or give them a heads up that you will stop by the next sprint, for example.
If you are new to the team, or the whole team is new, you might have the opportunity to simply never start doing a given task in the first place. Although it seems counterintuitive to “not help” the team, you’ll avoid creating any habit that will affect them in the long term—and will be challenging to break.
In this case, you should explain to the team that it’s everyone’s responsibility to handle these tasks and to build good habits from day one.
I personally did this with note taking a few years ago. It was challenging at first, but now I go to meetings without any apparent ways of taking notes, making it obvious that I won’t be doing it. (I do have my phone in case something important comes up that I need to note for myself, of course). Now in meetings, I’ve gone from the note taker to being able to focus on facilitating the meeting and help the team get the best out of the conversation.
It’s quite challenging to avoid all the “misunderstood” stances of the scrum master, but we have to do our best to be true to the real value scrum masters can bring to teams.
What misunderstood stances have you fought against? How have you tried to combat them?
By Christian Bisson
When I was asked to write about a project that inspired me in the last 50 years, I didn’t have to look back further than last year. That’s when I had the chance to act as scrum master for a newly formed team.
We had seven weeks to build software from scratch that would be demonstrated at a conference and used by hundreds of people. Since the conference was centered on artificial intelligence, it was mandatory that our demo used AI. Our idea was a game where the player spelled words using real sign language. The game was displayed on a television hooked up to a camera, which filmed the player’s hand.
The hand’s position was then recognized and matched to a letter of the alphabet. The player received points based on the speed at which he was spelling the words displayed on the screen.
We had a great team composed of two developers, a designer, two AI researchers, a product owner and me (scrum master). Our small, dedicated team would empower us to deliver the software we needed to build from A to Z.
Although concerned about the short time available, everyone was motivated and excited to build this amazing software, knowing the visibility it would get.
Since the scope wasn’t fully defined and the user experience was key, we needed to deliver usable increments to test. We needed a framework that would allow us to deliver quickly and adjust to the requirements as they were refined. Scrum was the obvious choice, even though most of the team was completely new to it. The majority of the team came from a software background, so they knew what it was on paper. However, for the AI researchers, it was completely unknown.
Many start off with the team they need, but then obstacles come their way and prevent them from moving forward. These could be anything from unavailable stakeholders to people being pulled off the team to poor requirements.
However, in this case, it was everything you would want from agility/scrum:
It was amazing to see the collaboration when we needed users to test; after a quick Slack message to everyone in the company, we would suddenly have a lineup of people available to play the game.
When I think back on our success, all I remember are the people working together to create something great. It wasn’t even about being “agile.” For the team it was, “Let’s get this done!” and for everyone who supported us, it was “Let’s help our colleagues!” There was nothing more, nothing less—exactly how it should be.
I’d love to hear about the most inspiring project you’ve worked on in your career. Please share below!
by Christian Bisson, PMP, PSPO, PSM
In agile, users are everything. So it only makes sense that users—anyone who will use or interact with your product—should be a team’s main focus. In order for the product to be viable, whatever is produced must bring them value.
But it’s perhaps too easy to forget users when you build your backlog. We often jump too quickly to features, assuming “the users will use this.” But what if we took a step back? Consider taking the following steps:
First, for whom is this product intended? Identifying a target audience will help you determine who you’re building for.
For example, if you expect users who aren’t tech-savvy, then you need to be mindful of how complex the interface or even the wording are throughout.
It’s important to describe these users. One common practice is to create “personas,” which are fictional characters that represent the users. These will help you better understand your audience.
Now that we know our audience, what are they trying to achieve? Instead of jumping from personas to features, stop and think about their goals.
Are they trying to purchase something online? Are they trying to fetch information? Are they trying to plan a trip? The answers to these questions will shape your direction.
We know who is trying to achieve what. The next key step is to define “how” the users are going to achieve their goals.
Let’s assume the user wants to purchase a toy. That user will most likely need to:
Let’s keep it simple. We can extrapolate that this user might be interested in items related to this item, or many other scenarios, but for now, the above is our user’s steps.
Once this is clearly defined, it is much simpler for:
I’ve seen too many teams skip these important steps. Often, people are so quick to execute what is instructed by managers, or by assumptions from the team, that they forget to think about who they are building the product for. The user, of course, will ultimately decide the product’s success. That’s why it’s so important that our product brings value to users.
What do you do to focus on users? How do you verify if you are bringing value to them? Share!
By Christian Bisson, PMP
I recently had the privilege to participate in the 9th Montreal agile coach gathering. Along with meeting great people and having a chance to exchange ideas with them, I had the opportunity to learn about “liberating structures”, a concept developed by Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless.
Liberating structures are 33 alternative structures for facilitating meetings, work sessions or retrospectives. Unlike conventional structures, such as status reports or presentations, liberating structures are meant to distribute control of the conversation so that all participants are part of shaping direction. This ultimately helps everyone work together while feeling more in control. According to Lipmanowicz and McCandless, conventional structures are either too inhibiting or too loose and disorganzed to achieve this.
Within your organization, liberating structures can be used to organize and facilitate work sessions, retrospectives or other types of meetings. These structures range from simple and fast exercises to those suited for more structured and longer meetings, giving a diversified toolset for various circumstances.
One evening during the 9th Montreal agile coach gathering, everyone gathered into small teams, picked one of the liberating structures randomly, and took 25 minutes to understand and discuss it with the objective of presenting it to everyone else afterward within a three-minute timebox.
Our team picked “critical uncertainties”, which makes you focus on essential and uncertain realities, and then plan strategies according to different possible futures. Among brainstormed ideas, you need to identify the most robust strategies (i.e., the ones that would work with the most possible futures). You can then plan action items based on what was discussed.
Another one that caught my interest is “1-2-4-all.” It is simple and can be used in so many circumstances, yet it is efficient to help a group of people (small or large) communicate and share great ideas.
For anyone out there who is a fan of liberating structures, I’m curious to find out which ones you used, in what context, and how was the result. Please share and discuss!