How to Frame Team Development Challenges

When working with teams or organizations new to Agile and scrum, it’s common for scrum masters to face varying degrees of resistance to the new methods and processes. The resistance can take many forms ranging from passive-aggressive behaviors to overt aggression and even sabotage.

There are two things to consider when looking for ways to resolve this type of resistance.

  1. The specific issues are typically not Agile problems in the sense they won’t be solved by any specific Agile techniques, methods, or frameworks. Rather, they are people problems; issues with how people’s behavior is driven by their values and beliefs. We have to resolve the people problems in concert with implementing Agile or Agile will never be successfully implemented. We also have to be sure not to confuse the two.
  2. We need to look at these challenges as opportunities.

It’s the second point I want to focus on in this post.

To simply paint the often unpleasant experiences we have with coaching our teams in the ways of Agile and scrum as “opportunities” isn’t much of a solution. It’s weak tea and about as useful as “Let’s all just think positive thoughts and eventually it’ll get better.” Nor do I suggest we sugar coat the unpleasantness by sprinkling “It’s an opportunity!” language on our conversations. Losing your job or breaking your leg may be one of those “wonderful opportunities” born from adversity, but only after you’ve found that next better job or your leg has healed. Hustling for new work or sitting idle while in pain and healing is decidedly unpleasant.

I had something else in mind for thinking about the challenges we face as “opportunities.” It’s in the midst of the unpleasant phase where the opportunities are found that lead to success. Seth Godin speaks to this in his book “The Dip.”

The Dip is the long slog between starting and mastery. The Dip is the combination of bureaucracy and busywork you must deal with in order to get certified in scuba diving. The Dip is the difference between the easy “beginner” technique and the more useful “expert” approach in skiing or fashion design. The Dip is the long stretch between beginner’s luck and real accomplishment.

It’s the classic “things will get worse before they get better.” But as Zig Ziglar put it, “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly–until you can learn to do it well.”

It’s important to recognize and acknowledge when you’re in The Dip. Not just as an individual scrum master on a particular team, but perhaps the entire organization as well. Solving the issues you’re encountering today is exactly what you need to do in order to be successful in the long term. The Dip is inevitable and unavoidable. Part of the scrum master’s purpose is to raise the awareness of this fact so that the underlying issues that need to be resolved can be amplified.

This is what can make serving in the scrum master role particularly unpleasant at times. It’s when you earn your pay. In general, people don’t like to look at themselves in the Agile mirror that scrum masters are charged with holding up in front of them.

The Dip is another way to describe Shalloway’s Corollary applied to teams and organizations. Unlike losing a job or breaking a leg, what we’re dealing with is actually something we most definitely should expect. The system was always going to push back. Now we’re discovering exactly how that’s going to happen. The system is showing us what needs to change in order to become a more Agile organization. No more guess work. It’s a gift. Knowing this should be cause for optimism and viewing the tasks ahead as an opportunity. The way is known. There is less ambiguity. Doesn’t mean the path ahead is easy, just better known. That alone is incredibly useful.

A final thought. “The System” that’s been in place at any organization is what it is. For better or worse, it’s been working, perhaps for decades. Anything that challenges the status quo is going to receive push back. It just happens that Agile is the current challenger. As scrum masters, we have to continually evaluate our own “system” in a way that prevents it from becoming the next version of the problem.

  • Is a particular tool, process, or method fit for purpose?
  • What problem are we trying to solve?
  • Are there aspects of the “old system” that actually make sense to keep in place?
  • Are the frustrations we’re experiencing due to the “old system” pushing back or are they the result of our own ossification around out dated or misapplied beliefs?

The Pull of Well-Crafted Product Visions and Release Goals

There was even a trace of mild exhilaration in their attitude. At least, they had a clear-cut task ahead of them. The nine months of indecision, of speculation about what might happen, of aimless drifting with the pack were over. Now they simply had to get themselves out, however appallingly difficult that might be. [1]

In the early 20th Century, Sir Ernest Shackleton led an expedition attempting to cross the South Pole on foot. He was unsuccessful in that attempt. What he succeeded at, however, was something far more impressive. After nearly two years of battling conditions south of the Antarctic Circle, Shackleton saw to it that all 27 men of his crew made it safely home. As Alfred Lansing notes, “Though they had failed dismally even to come close to the expedition’s original objective, they knew now that somehow they had done much, much more than ever they set out to do.”

There is much I could write about the lessons from Shackleton, his crew, and the Endurance that apply to our own individual endeavors – personal and professional. For the moment, I wish to reflect on the sheer clarity of the goal 28 men had in 1915-1916: To survive, by any means and nothing short of complete dedicated effort.

To be sure, their goal was self-serving – no one can judge them for that – and no product team is ever likely to be placed in a situation of delivering in the face of such high stakes. Indeed, the lessons from Endurance are striking in their contrast to just how feeble the drama is that is often brought into product delivery schedules. We call them “death marches,” but we know not of what we speak.

One of the things we can learn from Endurance is the power of a clearly defined objective. Do or die. That’s pretty damn clear. Time and time again, Shackleton’s crew were faced with completing seemingly impossible tasks under the harshest of conditions with the barest of resources and vanishingly small chances for success.

What kept them going? Certainly, the will and desire to live. There were many other factors, too. What interests me in this post is reflected in the opening quote. The emergence of a well-defined task that cleared away the fog of speculation, indecision, and uncertainty. Episodes like this are described multiple times in Lansing’s book.

Why this is important to something like a product vision is that it clearly illustrates a phenomenon I learned about recently called “The Goal Gradient Hypothesis,” which basically says our efforts increase as we get closer to our goals. But here’s the rub. We have to know and understand what the goal is. “Do or die” is clear and leaves little room for misunderstanding. “Let’s go build a killer app,” not so much.

From the research:

We found that members of a café RP accelerated their coffee purchases as they progressed toward earning a free coffee. The goal-gradient effect also generalized to a very different incentive system, in which shorter goal distance led members to visit a song-rating Web site more frequently, rate more songs during each visit, and persist longer in the rating effort. Importantly, in both incentive systems, we observed the phenomenon of postreward resetting, whereby customers who accelerated toward their first reward exhibited a slowdown in their efforts when they began work (and subsequently accelerated) toward their second reward. [2]

Far away goals, like a product vision, are much less motivating than near-term goals, such as sprint goals. And yet it is the product vision that can, if well-crafted and well-communicated, pull a team forward during a postreward resetting period.

But perhaps the most important lesson from the research – as far as product development is concerned – is that incentives matter.  How an organization structures these is important. Since most people fail The Marshmallow Test, rewarding success on smaller goals that lead to a larger goal is likely to help teams stay focused and dedicated in the long run. Rather than one large post-product release celebration, smaller rewards after each successful sprint are more likely to keep teams engaged and productive.

References

[1] Lansing, A. (1957) Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, pg. 80

[2] Kivetz, R., Urminsky, O., Zheng, Y (2006) The Goal-Gradient Hypothesis Resurrected: Purchase Acceleration, Illusionary Goal Progress, and Customer Retention, Journal of Marketing Research, 39 Vol. XLIII (February 2006), 39–58

Center Point: The Product Backlog

If a rock wall is what is needed, but the only material available is a large boulder, how can you go about transforming the latter into the former?

Short answer: Work.

Longer answer: Lots of work.

Whether the task is to break apart a physical boulder into pieces suitable for building a wall or breaking up an idea into actionable tasks, there is a lot of work involved. Especially if a team is inexperienced or lacks the skilled needed to successfully complete such a process.

Large ideas are difficult to work with. They are difficult to translate into action until they are broken down into more manageable pieces. That is, descriptions of work that can be organized into manageable work streams.

We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.President John Kennedy

That’s a pretty big boulder. In fact, it’s so big it served quite well as a “product vision” for the effort that eventually got men safely to and from the moon in 1969. Even so, Kennedy’s speech called out the effort that it would take to realize the vision. Hard work. Exceptional energy and skill. What followed in the years after Kennedy’s speech in 1962 was a whole lot of boulder-busting activity

A user story is a brief, simple statement from the perspective of the product’s end user. It’s an invitation for a conversation about the what’s needed so that the story can meet all the user’s expectations.

In it’s simplest form, this is all a product backlog is. A collection of doable user stories derived from a larger vision for the product and ordered in a way that allows for a realistic path to completion to be defined. While this is simple, creating and maintaining such a thing is difficult.

Experience has taught me that the single biggest impediment to improving a team’s performance is the lack of a well-defined and maintained product backlog. Sprint velocities remain volatile if design changes or priorities are continually clobbering sprint scope. Team morale suffers if they don’t know what they’re going to be working on sprint-to-sprint or, even worse, if the work they have completed will have to be reworked or thrown out. The list of negative ripple effects from a poor quality product backlog is a long one.


Boulder image by pen_ash from Pixabay

Book Review: Tribes – We Need You to Lead Us

Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us by Seth Godin

Reading Godin is a lot like going for an enjoyable mountain hike and finding a handful of small gold nuggets along the way. No heavy effort to dig for miles in order to find the deeper, richer vein of wealth. Just enough interesting shiny bits of useful wisdom scattered along the trail to invite the reader to explore further.

“Tribes” isn’t so much about the composition and character of tribes, per se, but more a call to serve as a leader for tribes yet to be formed. “Human beings can’t help it,” he writes. “[W]e need to belong. One of the most powerful of our survival mechanisms is to be part of a tribe, to contribute to (and take from) a group of like-minded people.” But left to their own devices, tribes dissolve or evolve into something directionless, perhaps unruly. What they need to persist is some form of leadership to set the rules and customs.

Speaking to aspiring or future leaders, Godin presents what he views as the biggest blocker to people stepping up and fulfilling leadership roles.

The only shortcut in this book, the only technique or how-to or inside info is this: the levers are here. The proof is here. The power is here. The only thing holding you back is your own fear….Dr. Laurence Peter is famous for proposing that “in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” In other words, when you do a great job, you get promoted. And that process repeats itself until finally you end up in a job you can’t handle….I’d like to paraphrase the Peter Principle. I think what actually happens is that “in every organization everyone rises to the level at which they become paralyzed with fear.”

And the source of that fear is rooted in misaligned beliefs about criticism and failure.

As with almost everything I read, my eye is searching for ways the information I’m acquiring can be applied to improving team performance. The notion of tribes appeals to me from a social community perspective. I firmly believe there are deep psychological patterns in the human mind that unconsciously gravitate toward the idea of belonging to a tribal structure. And yet, there are limitations to that structure in the 21st Century business world. As Godin notes, “[I]n addition to the messages that go from the marketer or the leader to the tribe, there are the messages that go sideways, from member to member, and back to the leader as well.” What about communication between tribes? How might we avoid the formation of silos and corporate turf battles? These are questions for which I’ll need to continue searching as they are not addressed in “Tribes.”

Written more than ten years ago, there are elements of the book that have not aged well. For example, writing at a time which many today are considering the Golden Age of the Internet, Godin observes “In the nonsquishy tribal world of this decade, Twitter and blogs and online videos and countless other techniques contribute to an entirely new dimension of what it means to be part of a tribe.” And later, while writing about how easy it is for tribes to connect, communicate, and spread messages: “The tribe thrives; it delivers value and it spreads. Internet folks call this viral activity, or a virtuous cycle.” More commonly today the technology noted by Godin – particularly Facebook and Twitter – have resulted in the formation of more mobs than tribes and the cycles are 2019 are more vicious than they are virtuous.

However, I don’t think Godin was casting his gaze into the future through entirely rose colored glasses. He notes that crowds (and their blunt force object version: mobs) and tribes are “[t]wo different things: A crowd is a tribe without a leader. A crowd is a tribe without communication. Most organizations spend their time marketing to the crowd. Smart organizations assemble the tribe. Crowds are interesting, and they can create all sorts of worthwhile artifacts and market effects. But tribes are longer lasting and more effective.”

Several of the gold nuggets I picked up pointed to the importance of systemic thinking and analysis:

Leaders don’t care very much for organizational structure or the official blessing of whatever factory they work for. They use passion and ideas to lead people, as opposed to using threats and bureaucracy to manage them. Leaders must become aware of how the organization works, because this awareness allows them to change it.

Working in an environment that’s static is no fun. Even worse, working for an organization that is busy fighting off change is horrible.

When you fall in love with the system, you lose the ability to grow.

The status quo is persistent and resistant.

The last quote is a clear reflection of Shalloway’s Corollary. The status quo is the system pushing back.

I’ll round out this review with a few quotes that apply to a life in general.

Leaders have followers. Managers have employees.

If you need the alternative to be better than the status quo from the very start, you’ll never begin.

Life’s too short to fight the forces of change. Life’s too short to hate what you do all day. Life’s way too short to make mediocre stuff.

Defending mediocrity is exhausting.

Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, maybe you ought to set up a life you don’t need to escape from.

People don’t believe what you tell them. They rarely believe what you show them. They often believe what their friends tell them. They always believe what they tell themselves. What leaders do: they give people stories they can tell themselves. Stories about the future and about change.