I signed up for Agile, but it sure feels like waterfall. What can the Scrum Master do about it?

I signed up for Agile, but it sure feels like waterfall. What can the Scrum Master do about it?

In previous installments in this series, I’ve talked about what Product Owners and development team members can do to ensure iteration closure. By iteration closure, I mean that the system is functioning at the end of each iteration, available for the Product Owner to test and offer feedback. It may not have complete feature sets, but what feature sets are present do function and can be tested on the actual system: no “prototypes”, no “mock-ups”, just actual functioning albeit perhaps limited code. I call this approach fully functional but not necessarily fully featured.

In this installment, I’ll take a look at the Scrum Master or Project Manager and see what they can do to ensure full functionality if not full feature sets at the end of each iteration. I’ll start out by repeating the same caveat I gave at the start of the Product Owner installment: I’m a developer, so this is going to be a developer-focused look at how the Scrum Master can assist. There’s a lot more to being a Scrum Master, and a class goes a long way to giving you full insight into the responsibilities of the role.

My personal experience is that the most important thing you as a Scrum Master can do is to watch and listen. You need to see and experience the dynamics of the team.

At Iteration Planning Meetings (IPMs), are Product Owners being intransigent about priorities or functional decomposition? Are developers resisting incremental functional delivery, wanting to complete technical infrastructure tasks first? These are the two most serious obstacles to iteration closure. Be prepared to intervene and discuss why it’s in everyone’s interest to achieve this iteration closure.

At the daily stand-up meetings, ensure that every team member speaks (that includes you!), and that they only answer the three canonical questions:

  1. What did I do since the last stand-up?
  2. What will I do today?
  3. What is in my way?

Don’t allow long-winded discussions, especially technical “solution” discussions. People will tune out.

You’re listening for:

  • Someone who always answers (1) and (2) with the same tasks every day and yet says they have no obstacles
  • Whatever people say in response to (3)

Your task immediately after the stand-up is to speak with team members who have obstacles and find out what you can do to clear the obstacles. Then address any team members who’re always doing the same task every day and find out why they’re stuck. Are they inexperienced and unwilling to ask for help? Are they not committed to the project mission and need to be redeployed?

Guard against an us-versus-them mentality on teams, where the developers see Product Owners or infrastructure teams as “the enemy” or at least an obstacle, and vice versa. These antagonistic relationships come from lack of trust, and lack of trust comes from lack of results. Again, actual working deliverables at the close of each iteration go a long way to building trust. Look for intransigence on either the developer team or with the Product Owner: both should be willing to speak freely and frankly with each other about how much work can be done in an iteration and what constitutes Minimal Value Product for this iteration. It has to be a negotiation; try to facilitate that negotiation.

Know your team as human beings – after all, that is what they are. Learn to empathize with them. How do individuals behave when they’re happy or when they’re frustrated? What does it take to keep Jim motivated? It’s probably not the same things as Bill or Sally. I’ve heard people advocate the use of Meyers-Briggs Personality Tests or similar to gain this understanding. I disagree. People are more complex than 4 or 5 letters or numbers at one moment in time. I may be an introvert today and an extrovert tomorrow, depending on how my job is going. Spend time with people to really know them, and don’t approach people as test subjects or lab rats. Approach them as human beings, the complex, satisfying, irritating, and ultimately rewarding organisms that we actually are.

Occasionally, when I speak at technical or project management meet-ups, an audience member will ask, “I’m a Scrum Manager and I can’t get the Product Owner to attend the IPM; what should I do?” or, “My CIO comes in and tasks my developer team directly without going through the IPM; how do I handle this?” I try to give them hints, but the answer I always give is, “Agile will only expose your problems; it won’t solve them.” In the end, you have to fall back on your leadership and management skills to effect the kind of change that’s necessary. There’s nothing in Scrum or XP or whatever to help you here. Like any other process or tool, just implementing something won’t make the sun come out. You still have to be a leader and a manager – that’s not going away anytime soon.

Before I close, let me point out one thing I haven’t listed as something a Scrum Master ought to be adept at: administration. I see projects where the Scrum Master thinks their primary role is to maintain the backlog, measure velocity, track completion, make sure people are updating their Jira entries, and so on. I’m not saying this isn’t important – it is. It’s very important. But if you’re doing this stuff to the exclusion of the other stuff I talked about up there, you’re kind of missing the point. Those administrative tasks give you data. You need to act on the data, or what’s the point? Velocity is decreasing. OK…what are you and the team going to do about it? That’s the important part of your role.

When we at CC Pace first started doing Agile XP projects back in 2000-2001, we had a role on each project called a Tracker. This person would be part time on the project and would do all the data collection and presentation tasks. I’d like to see this role return on more Agile projects today, because it makes it clear that that’s not the function of the Scrum Master. Your job is to lead the team to a successful delivery, whatever that takes.

So here we are at the end of my series. If there’s one mantra I want you to take away from this entire series, it’s Keep the system fully functional even if not fully featured. Full functionality – the ability of the system to offer its implemented feature set to the Product Owner for feedback – should always come before full features – the completeness of the features and the infrastructure. Of course, you must implement the complete feature set and the full infrastructure – but evolve towards it. Don’t take an approach that requires that the system be complete to be even minimally useful.

If you’re a Product Owner:

  • Understand the value proposition not just of the entire system, but of each of its components and subsets.
  • Be prepared to see, use, and test subsets, or subsets of subsets of subsets, of the total feature set. Never say, “Call me only when the system is complete.” I guarantee this: your phone will never ring.

If you’re a developer:

  • Adopt Agile Engineering techniques such as TDD, CI, CD, and so on. Don’t just go through the motions. Become really proficient in them, and understand how they enable everything else in Agile methodologies.
  • Use these techniques to embrace change, and understand that good design and good architecture demand encapsulation and abstraction. Keeping the subsystems isolated so that the system is functional even if not complete is not just good for business. It’s good engineering. A car’s engine can (and does) run even before it’s installed into the car. Just don’t expect it to take you to the grocery store.
  • Be an active team member. Contribute to the success of the mission. Don’t just take orders.

If you’re a Scrum Master:

  • Watch and listen. Develop your sense of empathy so you “plug in” to the team’s dynamics and understand your team.
  • Keep the team focused on the mission.
  • If you want to sweat the details of metrics and data, fine – but your real job is to act on the data, not to collect it. If you aren’t good at those collection details, delegate them to a tracking role.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series. Feel free to comment and to connect with me and with CC Pace through LinkedIn. Please let me hear how you’ve managed when you were on a supposedly Agile project and realized that the sound of rushing water you heard was the project turning into a waterfall.

As I mentioned in the introductory post in this series, an issue I frequently see with underperforming Agile teams is that work always spills over from one iteration into the next. Nothing ever seems to finish, and the project feels like a waterfall project that’s adopted a few Agile ceremonies. Without completed tasks at iteration planning meetings (IPMs), there’s nothing to demo, and the feedback loop that’s absolutely fundamental to any Agile methodology is interrupted. Rather than actual product feedback, IPMs become status meetings.

In this post, let’s look at how a Product Owner can help ensure that tasks can be completed within an iteration. As a developer myself, I’m focusing on the things that make life easier for the development team. Of course, there’s a lot more to being a good Product Owner, and I encourage you to consider taking a Scrum Product Owner training class (CC Pace offers an excellent one).

First and foremost, be willing to compromise and prioritize. An anti-pattern I observe on some underperforming teams is a Product Owner who’s asked to prioritize stories and replies, “Everything is important. I need everything.” I advise such teams that when you ask for all or nothing, you will never get all; you will always get nothing. So don’t ask for “all or nothing”, which is what a Product Owner is saying when they say everything has a high priority.

As a Product Owner, understand two serious implications of saying that every task has a high priority.

  1. You are saying that everything has an equal priority. In other words, to the developer team, saying that everything has a high priority is indistinguishable from saying that everything has medium or indeed low priority. The point of priority isn’t to motivate or scare the developers, it’s to allow them to choose between tasks when time is pressing. You’re basically leaving the choice up to the developer team, which is probably not what you had in mind.
  2. You’re really delegating your job to the developer team, and that isn’t fair. You’re the Product Owner for a reason: the ultimate success of the product depends on you, and you need to make some hard choices to ensure success. You know which bits of the system have the most business value. The developers signed on to deliver functionality, not to make decisions about business value. That’s your responsibility, and it’s one of the most important responsibilities on the entire team.

The consequence of “everything has a high priority” is that the developers have no way to break epic stories down into smaller stories that fit within an iteration. Everything ends up as an epic, and the developer team tends to focus on one epic after another, attempting to deliver complete epics before moving on to the next. It’s almost certain that no epic can be completed in one 2-week iteration, and so work keeps on spilling over to the next iteration and the next and the next.

Second, work with the developer team to find out how much of each story can be delivered in an iteration. Keep in mind that “delivered” means that you should be able to observe and participate in a demo of the story at the end of the iteration. Not a “prototype”, but working software that you can observe. Encourage the developers to suggest reduced functionality that would allow the story to fit in an iteration. For example, how about dealing only with “happy path” scenarios – no errors, no exceptions? Deal with those edge cases in a later iteration. At all costs, move towards a scenario where fully functional (that is, actually working) software is favored over fully featured software. Show the team that you’re willing to work with the evolutionary and incremental approach that Agile demands.

Third, be wary of stories that are all about technical infrastructure rather than business value. Sure, the development team very often need to attend to purely technical issues, but ask how each such story adds business value. You are entitled to a response that convinces you of the business need to spend time on the infrastructure stories.

At the end of a successful IPM, you as the Product Owner should have:

  • Seen some working software – remember, fully functional but perhaps not fully featured
  • Offered the developer team your feedback on what you saw
  • Worked with the developer team to have another set of stories, each of which is deliverable within one iteration
  • Prioritized those stories into High, Medium, and Low buckets, with the mutual understanding¬† that nobody will work on a medium story if there are high stories remaining, and nobody will work on low stories if there are medium stories remaining
  • A clear understanding of why any technical infrastructure stories are required, and what business problem will be addressed by such stories

Finally, make yourself available for quick decisions during the iteration. No plan survives its first encounter with reality. There will always be questions and problems the developers need to talk to you about. Be available to talk to them, face to face, or with an interactive medium like instant messaging or video chat. Be prepared to make decisions…

Developer: “Sorry, I know we said we could get this story done this iteration, but blahblah happened and…”

You: “OK, how much can you get done?”

Developer: “We would have to leave out the blahblah.”

You: “Fine, go ahead.” (Or, “No, I need that, what else can we defer?”)

Be decisive.

Next post, I’ll talk about what developers should concentrate on to make sure some functionality is delivered in each iteration.

Occasionally, as part of our strategic advisory service, I work with clients who don’t want custom application delivery from us, but rather want me to provide advice to their own Agile development teams. Many of them don’t need a lot of help, but perhaps the single issue I observe most often is that iteration (or sprint, in Scrum terminology) planning meetings (IPMs) don’t go well. Rather than being an interactive exchange of ideas and a negotiation between developers and product owners for the next iteration, I observe that the IPMs become 2-week status meetings that don’t accomplish much. The developer team doesn’t have much or anything to demo, there’s little feedback from the product owner, and everyone just routinely agrees to meet in two weeks to go through the same thing again.

One of the main reasons for these lackluster IPMs is the failure to close tasks at iteration boundaries. If the developer team can’t close tasks at iteration boundaries, then the product can’t be usefully demoed, which means the product owner can’t offer any feedback. This isn’t any form of Agile – it’s just waterfall with 2-week status meetings.

Failure to close tasks at iteration boundaries has other implications too, because what it’s telling you is that stories are too big, and stories that are too big have big consequences.

First, big stories are hard to estimate accurately. Think of estimates as sort of like weather forecasts: anything over 2-3 days is probably too inaccurate to use for planning. The smaller the story, the more accurate will be the estimate.

Second, big stories make it harder to change business priorities. That may seem like a non sequitur, but when developers are working on any story, the system is in an unstable, non-functioning state. To change direction, the developers have to bring the system to a stable state where it can be taken in a different direction. Those stable states are achieved when stories are completed and the system is ready to demo.

An analogy I like to use is to think of the system as a big truck proceeding down a controlled-access highway, like an American interstate. You can exit only at certain points. If you’re heading north and you realize you want to head east instead, you have to wait for the next exit to make that direction change – you can’t just immediately turn east and start driving through the underbrush. The farther apart the exits are, the farther you’re going to have to go out of your way before you can adjust. Think of each exit as being the close of a story. The closer together the exits (the smaller the stories), the sooner you’ll reach an exit (a system steady state) where you can change direction.

In this series of blog posts, I’m going to look at what it takes to ensure task closure at iteration boundaries. Each post will focus on a different team role, and how that role can help ensure that iterations end in an actual delivery of working software that can be demoed in an IPM. I’ll write about what product owners, developers, and project managers (or Scrum masters) can do to reduce story size, ensure product stability and functionality at iteration boundaries, and keep the system always ready to quickly change directions – the very definition of agility.

Watch this space.