Tag Archives: Scrum

The Big Bib

“I need a name for something,” I told Kyle, as we slid into our chairs inside of The Big Bib.
Kyle had discovered this little gem his first week in San Antonio.

Shortly after Kyle started coaching he executed one of the better team building moves I’ve ever seen. He treated his entire team to a free Barbecue lunch (paid for out of his own pocket). Of course, since to Kyle any group is an audience, he used the time they were eating to talk about the fundamental differences between Waterfall and Agile.

I, of course, wanting great barbecue, crashed the lecture–hey, free barbecue. I enjoyed the food so much we scheduled the restaurant as a coaches dinner destination. The talk was good too.

I had no idea it was literally a hole in the wall. About eight of us took up over three quarters of their chairs.

“What is the problem?” Kyle asked in response to my statement about needing a name.

“You know how we radiate stories, tasks, and status on a task board with the team seated nearby?” I continued, between bites of potato salad.

“Yes.” he said, devouring a rib like a starving crocodile.

“Well, even when the team isn’t doing their daily stand-up meetings they still see those items posted.” I noted, “They are continually reminded on what is being worked on, what they need to work on, and what the progress is on the project.”

“Go on.” Kyle stated, now cutting into a brisket.

“I calculate,” I continued, knowing of course that Kyle would immediately begin checking my math, “that the team is exposed to the information on the walls literally hundreds of thousands of times during the life of a typical project.”

I could see his eyes dart for a moment. I waited for him to finish the calculation. Kyle says he calculates using clocks. I have no idea what that means.  However, it seems to be fast and accurate, so I don’t ask any questions.

“OK,” he concludes a second or two later, already having completed his own estimate and finding it close enough to mine.

“Every time they look up, walk by, or see someone updating the task board they are potentially engaging in closing feedback loops.” I continue. “What if only a tiny fraction of the time they actually act on their observations.”

“They are closing hundreds of loops.” Kyle added. “Without even thinking about it.”

“It motivates them to move more quickly when they see others mark their tasks as done.” I declare excitedly. “It prompts them to ask a question about something they don’t understand.”

Geri, who as also been tracking the conversation chimes in, “It also lets a person know they need to pitch in, just by observing a task isn’t completed yet.”

“Absolutely” I continue, “And this goes on all the time!”

“So what is the question?” Kyle says, moving the conversation back to its original intent, and taking a sip of a large beverage I would swear was 10 percent tea and 90 percent cream.

“My question is, what do we want to call this type of feedback?” I said, gently pounding the table. “I want to lecture on it but it needs a name.”

Kyle sat silently for a moment,

“I think I know,” he said.

“Although the words are not perfect, they may do the trick. And there are two words that we need.”

I smile.

“Peripheral and visceral.” Kyle states, matter-of-factly, licking sauce off of his fingers, “Visceral is probably the wrong word, but it is the best I can think of for now.”

My next presentation now had a title, “Peripheral and Visceral Feedback.”

My goal, to explain the subtle psychology behind agile that most software professionals miss. To explain it in terms of feedback loops operating all of the time in the background, if we do agile correctly.

New teams always try to immediately disable all of these feedback loops.  “Lets not put story cards and tasks on the wall,” they’ll say, “lets put’em in this fancy new fangled dater base. The people who sold it to me said it is really good.”

In our experience this is always a bad idea. But, it has been very difficult to explain why without sounding like a mystic. The job I assigned myself was to explain why, and to do it in terms that people could actually understand.  I instantly suspected the words “Peripheral and Visceral”  would help, a lot.

In the end we would write the presentation as a team and call it “Peripheral, Physical, and Visceral Feedback.”

Kyle, of course, gave it to anyone walking too close to his desk.

I think, maybe, we are moving agile from mysticism to pragmatism, with a little help from feedback loops.

Team Members Co-located

Co-location is a fundamental practice for Agile teams, including Scrum. I touched on this in a previous post, but want to spend more time on the topic now.

By co-location I mean that all Scrum Team Members, including the Scrum Master and Product Owner, work together in the same physical location.  Not just the same city, not just the same building, not just the same floor, but literally grouped together with constant access to each other.

No offices either. If each person is in his/her own office, we are not co-locating. And get rid of those cubicle walls. They inhibit conversation.  A friend calls offices and cubicles located next to each other co-isolation. Think about it.

Scrum assumes we are literally working together as a team.  Not a group of individuals who happen to be working on the same thing, but really a team working together to achieve a purpose.

Why is co-location important?

1. When everyone is together communication happens face-to-face. There are fewer misunderstandings when we talk with each other compared to telephone or written communication.

2. If you need to talk with me about something, we can do it immediately. Our work is not blocked because someone is not available. (Some smart person will say, well what if that someone is on vacation or out sick. Paired development resolves that issue.)

3. Team building happens. You don’t need special team building exercises or events. The fact that we are together working on something leads to us to form a team. (And if it doesn’t happen, that becomes obvious as well and we can take steps to resolve inter-personal issues.)

So co-location = less misunderstanding + fewer work blockages + becoming more efficient as a team

There will be times when someone (or some 2) team members really want to work uninterrupted by anyone else. You might find a headset handy. Or maybe you will create a “cone of silence” to surround you and your computer. Or ….  The team can get creative and find ways to communicate when there is a need for someone to be left alone for a while.

Then when you come out of your cone of silence, your team is right there ready to share whatever you created.


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Scrum Works Best When …

Scrum and all Agile methods work best when:

  1. Team members are co-located
  2. Team members are together through the entire work day
  3. Information is radiated visually
  4. Every member of the team is 100% on that team with no responsibilities outside the team
  5. All work is done in pairs of team members
  6. The team has a large suite of automated unit tests
  7. The team practices continuous integration of work
  8. The team is skilled in refactoring and has a large, maintained regression test suite

The first 2 items (team members are co-located and team members are together through the entire work day) address the importance of face-to-face communication. This is because all human language is imprecise. We make up for the imprecision through body-language, tone of voice, and emphasis on some words over others.

We lose all of those advantages when we use written communication, and therefore we lose meaning.

With telephone, we lose body language and have the added problem of possible noise on the line or words that are dropped in transmission, and therefore we lose meaning.

Video conferencing would appear to solve all these problems, but it is only as good as the clarity of the connection and how much the camera is able to see. Even with video conferencing, we lose the meaning of what others are saying.

Item 3 (information is radiated visually) is important because putting team information in an online tool inhibits the transparent sharing of information. If I have to open some software and browse to find the information I want, there is a barrier to me getting the information. If the information is posted on a wall in my team work area, then that information is instantly available to anyone in the area. Including me and my team mates.

Item 4 (Every member of the team is 100% on that team with no responsibilities outside the team) addresses the importance of reducing interruption. Study after study has proven conclusively that human beings do not multitask well. I don’t care what people choose to believe, the proof is overwhelming and it is true for every generation. Young people don’t multitask any better than mature adults.

Study after study has show that switching between tasks takes time, and the more complex the tasks are, the longer it takes to unload one from your brain and load the second one in. When a knowledge worker (writers, analysts, designers, coders, architects of all kinds) is working on two projects, approximately 20% of that person’s available work time is lost in switching between tasks. This is bad enough, but the problem only grows worse as more projects are added.

Item 5 (all work is done in pairs of team members) gives at least two benefits. First, by pairing the work, you always have more than one person who knows what that work is and who can explain it to others. Second, if someone has to be out of work for a few hours, then their partner can quickly catch them up-to-speed on what has happened on the project during that time. This greatly reduces the time to switch between work and the outside world. Pairing is also an effective way to quickly get a new team member up-to-speed.

Finally, items 6-8 (the team has a large suite of automated unit tests, the team practices continuous integration of work, the team is skilled in refactoring and has a large, maintained regression test suite) address the uncertainty of software. We will almost never get it completely right the first time, and so we need mechanisms to help us make continuous small improvement (kaizen), trying and testing until the software is what it needs to be. We are not looking for perfection, but quality and value. We get the quality and value quickly by writing small amounts of code, then testing it and getting it right before writing the next small amount of code.

This stuff works when you do it. If you want to pick and choose just the things you like, you will never get the full benefit of Scrum and Agile practices.


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The War Floor

What does every manager ask for when they really want to get a software project completed quickly? “Give me a war room.” We all know, almost instinctively, what they mean.

A mid-sized room full of white boards and peg boards covered with notes and drawings. Six or seven desks pushed together in the center of the room, each with one or two people working together staring intently at laptops connected to giant monitors. Questions, when asked, are spoken out loud so anyone can quickly answer.

There is an intensity to the room. A sense that the room was assembled for a purpose, a propose everyone in the room knows and understands.

The war room is a solid metaphor for agile space, but does it scale? Can you turn an office constructed as a giant cube farm into agile space without building lots of rooms?


In fact, we can do far better than a war room. We can turn that entire cube farm into a war floor! A war floor is much nicer than just a war room.

To turn your old cube farm (or even your new cube farm) into a war floor do the following:

1. Remove the cubes
2. Make all walls whiteboards, metal boards, and pegboards
3. Acquire portable tables and computers
4. Acquire nice chairs for team members and folding chairs for visitors during demos
5. Drop power and internet from the ceiling
6. Let the team create the space they need for each project

Let agile teams be agile.

An agile war floor is a giant open space where team members arrange their desks and chairs to match the specific needs of the specific product they are working on. They always arrange their desks so they have at least one wall close by to be their task board. The rest, they improvise.

Removing the cubes allows for density and restructuring in an agile manner as the needs change. The war floor adjusts it appearance dynamically, in real time, as the needs of the team change. All without expensive build outs.

Build agile work spaces. Work spaces the team can change at the drop of a hat. The space, more than anything else, sets the tone for the entire agile journey. Do it well, and it will pay off for years to come in better agile behavior.




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Every Scrum team member should be assigned 100% to that team with no other responsibilities.

This dramatically increases an individual’s productivity because you have no “lost time” when the person has to switch from one project to another.

When any person is working on a task, then has to switch to another task, there is a delay as the information for the first task is unloaded from the top of the brain and the next task is loaded in. The more complex the two tasks are, the longer the delay. A programmer keeps a lot of rules and information in his/her head while working on particular code. When he/she switches to a different project, there are new rules and information to remember. He or she has to “forget” the first set of rules and information, and “remember” the second set. This takes some time. The same is true for UI designers, writers, architects, and other other knowledge worker on the team.

A person can lose 20% of their possible working hours to switching between two projects. The lost time grows dramatically as more projects are added.

Now this has some implications for companies that are designed to optimize the individual. The company puts people in specialized roles, discourages them from doing anything outside that role, sets up their workstation to support that role, defines career progression for that role, etc.

Switching to a model that optimizes the team changes all that. We get rid of roles (except Scrum Master and Product Owner). Everyone is a Team Member. Individuals learn new skills and they have more software on their workstations to support those new skills. (f you don’t do that, then you have specialists sitting around doing nothing when their bit is completed. That makes no sense.)

Every member of the Scrum team should be prepared to help with any task that the team needs to complete, which encourages cross-training. People can pair up on tasks, where one person is experienced on that task and the other new to it. This is a very fast way for people to learn new things.

With a team of what Scott Ambler calls generalizing specialists, then everyone is working all the time, and you do not have time lost when people switch between projects.


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Rework is Good

I often hear “My stories cannot be made small enough for one iteration. What can I do?”

In real life, I have almost never found this to be the case.  The real problem is not “stories cannot be small enough for one iteration” the real problem is some combination of:

  • Projects are staffed in a waterfall manner, so that all team members are not present for the whole project, and we are creating stories to match the expertise of the available team members in the various iterations.
  • Developers do not want to “touch” a module, component, layer, etc. more than once.
  • Designers do not want to evolve the design throughout the project, they want to “do it once and be done with it.”
  • Database experts do not want to change the database more than once, they want to “do it once and be done with it.”
  • Testers work on just certain parts of the system, so want to do all their work at once on that part of the system, rather than throughout the project.

A lot of these issues come down to an underlying aversion to rework.

There is a perception with small stories that the people on the team will be re-doing work throughout the project. This is true. This almost always happens, whether or not you do Scrum! The difference with Scrum is we acknowledge that rework will happen and we plan for it in a controlled manner.

Redoing, reworking, refactoring is a necessary part of software development to avoid code that becomes un-maintainable over time. Scrum teams become experts on refactoring code and databases safely (because they will do it often throughout the project), thus protecting the corporate investment in software.

Scrum is designed to mitigate the risk that we have made bad assumptions or not understood the stakeholders needs. Since this is the most common reason for projects to have problems, and since no one gets it all right the first time, we work on a little bit (one story), test, verify, and then make course corrections early in the project when mistakes are less costly to make.

The notion that rework is wrong comes from a mistaken belief that if we just are thorough enough, we will get it right the first time. This is almost never true.  And so we spend far more time trying to avoid rework (and getting it wrong anyway) than we would if we just were to develop something and show it to the stakeholders to find out what needs to be fixed.


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Radiate Information

If you walk through a mature Scrum team’s workspace, you will see a lot of things on the wall. Why?

We radiate information visually, on the walls or whiteboards or windows, to transparently share that information with anyone who happens to be in the area.

Many people think that is not very important.

I once worked on a large project as an assistant Project Manager and lead Business Analyst. The Project Manager asked me to provide a weekly status report of everyone’s work. He had a formatted spreadsheet that I updated every week. Being a believer in radiating information visually, I asked this Project Manager if I could post the information as a task board on the wall. He said he did not see the benefit.

I did it anyway.

About a week later, the Project Manager wandered through the work area and noticed that task board. “What’s that?” he said. “It’s our tasks and statuses”, I replied. “What is this bit over here with no names?”. “Those are the tasks we have not started yet”. “And the colored dots?” “Those tell the status of the task”. “So John is working on task such-and-such, but no one is working on this other task.” “Right”. “That other task is more important. Please ask John to switch to that. Are you giving me this information in the weekly status report?” “Yes”. “Hmmmm”.

A few days later the Project Manager came through our work area with some other Project Managers and proudly showed off “his” task board.  He stopped asking for the weekly spreadsheet.  I started seeing task boards on the walls by other teams.

The power of posting information on the wall is hard to explain, but once you have tried it, you will appreciate how the information is instantly available by just lifting your head and looking at the wall.

Of course this assumes that the information is posted in your work area (it must be) and that it is kept up-to-date (Scrum ceremonies in front of your radiators – especially the daily standup – are a great time to update this information).

Any useful information can be radiated. A data architect I know wanted a large team of developers to review his work. No one was looking at it online. He printed the data model out on large sheets of plotter paper, put it up on the wall, and asked everyone to feel free to mark it up. Throughout the weeks of the project, whenever a developer had a question about the data model, he or she could be found in front of the wall examining the model. And when a problem was found, that person would mark it on the paper, and usually walk over to the data architect’s desk to get an answer right away. The data architect loved how the process worked, and the data model improved very quickly.

A large team I know had some problems. One unhappy person was sabotaging code, but pretending to be helpful and friendly to everyone. Once that person was discovered (and removed from the team), the whole team started to question each other and their trust in each other was hurt. I suggested they post photographs of times when they had done things together as a team and were having fun (picnic, softball game, Christmas party).  This visual wall of photos reminded everyone that they really did like being a team and dramatically improved their relationships in a very short time.

So try posting team information on the wall (rolling white board, windows, presentation pad, etc.) in your work area and see how much easier it is to communicate that information to the team and your stakeholders.


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Software Improvement: Work or Rework?

I previously wrote about the problem of translating factory production advice (Deming, Lean, Toyota Way) to software development knowledge work. I continue that thread with a simple question, but first, read this story.

A company wants to quickly deploy a new website search feature because user testing has proven they are losing some customers who cannot find the right product. After interviewing several users, they decided to deploy a new search feature that uses additional special search characters. The Scrum team deploys the new feature to an isolated test environment in 3 days. Unfortunately, user testing quickly demonstrates their idea didn’t perform that well. They chose not to deploy the code into production and started another design approach in the next Scrum iteration.

Here is the question: Is trying again to improve search “work” and hence valuable or “rework,” and hence a “waste?”  Is it a waste because they didn’t get it right the first time?

If we overly apply factory production thinking to this scenario we might classify it as “rework” and call the entire episode “waste”–this would be a mistake.

This scenario represents “valuable work.” We try hard to get agile teams to do even more of this work. It is really difficult to understand in advance exactly how users will interact with a new interface. Agile teams seek to get working systems in front of real users very quickly, to see if their design is going in the right direction.

The scenario above isn’t wasteful rework.  You should be delighted to get this feedback from your users quickly. Agile seeks to make “mistakes” faster because agile understands  software development is the difficult task of system design. It is frequently a processes of honing in on better and better solutions. If you tell your software delivery teams to get everything right the first time, all you are really doing is guaranteeing it will be difficult to replace the suboptimal solutions they will inevitably produce first.

In fact, the biggest problem with most software interface is that the creators stopped trying to improve it further once somebody declared it “good enough.”

Do you know why Google Search is better than any other Search out there? Because they never stop trying to make it better, because they realize they are only 5% done. Google understands that improving Google Search as the important work it truly is–it is definitely not a waste.

Don’t confuse an iterative software development process with the waste of rework.


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Scrum is not Peanut Butter

Over 10 years ago I saw a presentation by my friend Jennifer Fox on Usability. In this presentation Jen displayed a slide of a giant jar of peanut butter with a red line through it. “Usability is not peanut butter,” Jen said with a smile.

I remember thinking, “What on earth is she talking about?” It seemed like a very strange and rather strained metaphor, but I listened intently, interested in where she was going to go with it.

Given that I remember Jen’s slide 10 years later, I have come to appreciate her brilliance. Strained metaphors can really stick, like… well, you know.  I have decided to steal the idea and apply it to Scrum.

Scrum is not Peanut Butter.

You cannot just spread Scrum on top of whatever you were doing and expect it to taste yummy, and somehow work.

I told you it was a strained metaphor, but it does work.

I know from personal experience it can be really easy to scale agile to a large number of people. But you have to start out with the goal of scaling in mind. You cannot just spread Scrum on top of your existing organization like peanut butter.

Fortunately, I have an alternative to the peanut butter method. It you are trying to roll out Scrum to a large number of people, and you want it to be smooth and effective, follow this simple formula:

  1. Get a core group of employees who are willing to commit to giving Scrum a try, about thirteen people. Train them all in Scrum.
  2. Select 9 to be the Scrum Team. One to be the Scrum Master. One to be the assistant Scrum Master. One to be the Product Owner. One to be the Assistant Product Owner.
  3. Train the Scrum Master folks to be Scrum Masters. Train the Product Owner folks to be Product Owners.
  4. Start doing Sprints.
  5. Get good at Scrum. Use outside coaching to help.
  6. Do some more Sprints.
  7. Do not grow beyond this core team until they are having repeated successes across multiple sprints.
  8. When this team can be successful, split the team into two teams, add additional members to each team to get back to the staffing levels at step 1.
  9. Repeat steps 2 through 6.  Run at least two months before splitting teams again.

Mature Scrum teams grow through cell division. If you follow the mathematics of doubling, this pattern scales to even very large organizations very quickly. Lets check:

  1. Team Size 13 – 2 Months
  2. Team Size 26 – 4 Months
  3. Team Size 52 – 6 Months
  4. Team Size 104 – 8 Months
  5. Team Size 208 – 10 Months
  6. Team Size 416 – 12 Months
  7. Team Size 832 – 14 Months
  8. Team Size 1664 – 16 Months
  9. Team Size 3328 – 18 Months
  10. Team Size 6656 – 20 Months

In less than 2 years you can effectively scale full mature scrum teams to over 10,000 people, one step at a time, one division at a time–carefully, methodically, predictably, and reliably.

If you run a very large development organization you should be quite happy with a two year adoption timeline, this is very fast change for a large organization. A lot will have to be put in place to make this work but it can be done. And, by growing your scrum abilities in this way, the entire process of changing core behaviors of the organization becomes much less painful.

It really really works.

Scrum is not peanut butter.

You cannot just spread it on top of an existing organization and expect it to taste good. But, with a little planning, you can divide and conquer.


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