“It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.” – Patrick Rothfuss, Author
How did it all start?
My journey started with a personal quest to transform the way I work and delivered value. I was deeply embedded inside a V-model culture in which the end result not meeting customer expectations was typically blamed on the customer.
I started my journey by annoying my manager to allow me to create a pilot project (of little significance to appease me) for my organization after reading about the scrum framework. I knew that this was going to be the wave of how organizations began to work and saw a clear path as to how it could benefit the government sector. So I prepared, I studied, I learned, I asked questions and became immersed in how this worked.
I was given a small team of what I will call “the usual suspects” which were made up of long term employees who were pretty adverse or afraid of change, an assigned “product owner” (who they decided a project manager fit the bill) and a stakeholder who had no idea what I was trying to do. My goal had been stated to conduct this pilot and deliver my findings on if it could benefit this public government organization and what type of staff would be needed to sustain it. So here I was, new team, no idea what this crazy person indicating he was a scrum master (with no experience) asking them to work in a new way in which they would drive their own work, a product owner who needed to understand the role and learn to “lead a team without authority”. This seemed like a real challenge. So, I was all in.
How I got started with my first team …
I started by gathering this new team together and explaining very simply the framework, the roles and rituals and how sprint cycles worked. I was met by questions such as:
- What do you expect us to be able to deliver in 2-4 weeks?
- Where are the requirements?
- How will I test an application without requirements?
- You want us to sit together and work collaboratively? What about my cubicle?
- What do you mean we determine the amount of work we will deliver? Who manages the project?
And many, many more. I addressed each question as best as I could, remained confident and worked to gain their trust. I assured them that I would be right there with them and help them work through any problems as they arose. I assured the product owner that I would work directly with him to become “team ready” so that he could build his product.
Everyone left the meeting unsure of what lie in front of them.
The initial process …
Needless to say, it was tough the first few sprints. I had to guide the team to understand what “potentially releasable” meant. I had to teach a project manager an entirely new set of skills and way of working and how to establish trust in his team to turn his needs into product without use of command and control. I had to reassure stakeholders as they saw partial software being built out along the way. I had to teach a team, how to conduct a daily stand-up, use a task board and burndown hours. I spent countless hours coaching nervous team members who were so far from the way they worked that they were doing this amazing thing that had never been done before.
Although there was a lot of fear over how they were working, through coaching and support they began to move as a team.
The end result and learning
In the end, the product delivered was a success. It was not that it was a highly prized award winning software package that carried the value that we would have liked but it lit a small spark for some people as to a new way to work.
This team had learned to work together, enjoyed the work they were doing and felt in control of delivery once they found their rhythm as a team. The newly anointed product owner saw benefit in the way he worked in this situation and began asking me how he could “be more agile” in what he did. The stakeholders were happy with the end result and the software was delivered in weeks instead of months.
So, I sat down and typed up a summary of the experience, the overall process and how it shifted roles and needs within the organization, an estimation on what type and level of staff would be needed as well as a recommendation to start small and grow over time as opposed to a large scale shift.
The report was presented to the director of the organization who summarily dismissed the approach indicating “we are never going to do this” (firmly believed in the waterfall approach). I think he may have even thrown it in the trash.
Although disheartened, I knew that this was the right thing to do, especially within the government sector to bring more value through focused iterative work. So, I began to plan my exit from the organization in search of somewhere that I could actually make a difference.
The Partnership …
Coming off of this pilot project and more determined than ever to see this way of working take a foothold. Some leadership shifts had begun to occur and I knew of one other individual within my group that seemed to work slightly differently than the standard PMO. His background was in product management and he treated his product in a different manner than the other project managers. So I approached him and told him about the framework and said “I think you should look at this, you are doing about 80% of it now. You just need the discipline of the other 20%”. He read through it and was intrigued but struggled to get through the scrum guide as it felt like it was more engineering focused. I referred him to the agile manifesto upon which it was built and these values had a much more resonating effect. He became curious. He was a marketer and I had a vision for working in a better way. We were the perfect storm brewing.
As we were both ready for the next challenge, we created a skunkworks project with a new assistant director sanction. We created a team room and sat about to deliver the first product of larger business need using scrum. My new product owner new of a 109 page report delivered to the Commissioner that outlined business related projects (both in planning and “in flight”), their timelines, their progress, etc. It was in an effort to support his regular visits with community leaders with a group of organizational leaders so that he could hold conversations about items specific to the area and be aware of current status as he held the conversations. This report, we later found, had never been looked at by him.
My product owner had the idea that we should produce an interactive map application that could be used on a mobile device so that executives could review this status anywhere and use location as a way to get to these items prior to meeting without going through the hoops of asking a cadre of other people to compile and sanitize the data. I believed that domain data should remain where it lives and that this application should be decoupled from these core business systems yet reflect real-time changes to the data. This had been the debate for many years within unsuccessful committee after committee of how you “connect” the information into a unified view always resulting in “it cannot be done” or using mechanisms to scrape data from one system to make it visible to another. The problems were:
- Once scraped, the ownership of the data in question became transferred to the new owner who was unlikely the owner, therefore would not recognize errors within that domain or ensure that it was accurate.
- This was something that actually forced a cross organizational work effort within the business and a base level understanding of owners and consumers of data.
Our theory was through the building of this application we could do several things:
- Eliminate a 109 page report that people rarely looked at.
- Create a locational context to the data making it more meaningful
- Solve a long standing business issue into connecting multiple domain sets of data and giving them visibility.
- Create a lightweight tool that since it did not create data but use the data at rest, would allow for quality control in terms of how the data was actually reflected.
So my experience of all of a few months and my colleague of zero months sat about to do the impossible at the time. Create a product (which was not the term used, it was always project in our world coupled with plans, committees, governance, etc) built using the agile framework of scrum with a small but motivated rag tag bunch of team members wanting to do something different and believing they could bring value to the organization. Sounds like a tall order. It probably was. But why was it a good choice?
- The product we chose had immediate business value and visibility to the highest level of leadership. It could be a product they would actually use.
- It solved organizational problems by connecting disparate data sets and visualizing them in a geospatial context.
- It rallied a team. Teams were being demoralized each and every time they worked so hard on a product for many many months just to be told “this is not what we wanted”.
- It was focused on value, transparency and visibility. We welcomes anyone to observe how we worked, what we were doing and communicated openly and often. We littered our area with BVCs (big visible charts) indicating who we were building the product for, what the features were and the current progress.
So after putting some solid time into product planning (understanding the need, identifying personas, creating a vision and decomposing high level needs into features) we started with a cross functional team of developers and I played a dual role of scrum master and tester (which I do not recommend of possible). Being cautious, we selected a horizon of 30 days for our first sprint (which probably ran slightly longer as we were learning).
At the end of this cycle, we had a releasable product. Did it do everything wanted? No. Was that the point? Yes.
We demoed the product for the director (who as you recall said we would never do this) who was looking for a win with management. As my PO reviewed the features, the director asked several times “and you built this in a month”? He had no idea that this level of work could be accomplished like this, without the tomes of documentation, the endless committees and death-march approach of a 9 month waterfall effort.
Excited by what he saw and eager to show his leadership value to the executives, he arranged a demo with us and the COO and CFO (even though I am unsure of he understood what had been done or why). Although the first iteration was primitive, they saw the value of this product and method of solution delivery. A rapid innovative solution meeting a business need by people who wanted to respond to change. They immediately scheduled a meeting for us to demo to our commissioner.
Demo day with the Leadership Team
We arrived and setup our demo for the room. We had gone through how we would demo the features and planned to show how it worked across multiple devices so that it could be accessed anywhere. We, perhaps naively, assumed this would be IT, the COO and CFO and Commissioner. The room filled to the seams. Apparently we had stepped on a lot of toes of people who had been promising a solution to this issue for years. They all stopped in to see and, in my opinion, find that one gaping flaw that proved they were right in the impossibility to solve this. Our top leader entered with his staff and off we went.
I produced the 109 page report that this replaced and was immediately struck by the confusion on the commissioner’s face. He had never seen it or if he received it, never read it as it was like a car manual that was designed for the people doing the work, not to help people understand. We continued our demo and I handed him an iPad with the application displayed so he could play with the application and replicate what we were doing on screen. He became more engaged. We were excited and wrapped up the demo for the room.
With a brief pause the commissioner asked “who told you to build this”? We replied “no one, we knew it was an open question that the business had and we wanted to provide value”.
He then proceeded to do what I would call “beat the application with a proverbial baseball bat” telling us all the things it did not do or he wanted it to do. The PO and myself hung on his critique and I scribbled notes so we could process them later. The director looked like we had just shot him in the middle of the room. His perceived “win” seemed to be going south and here were the two guys to blame.
Once the review finished, the commissioner rose and said “I’ve got another meeting but you guys are 100% on track” and left and all of the spectators (many of whom probably felt we got what we deserved) filed out leaving the COO, CFO and IT staff behind. The C level executives apologized for the reaction and the IT director seemed to be disappointed we showed “incomplete software”. But we responded in a way that shocked the room … “This was great! We now know what he did not like and we can pivot and begin adjusting those features”. We explained that this how this worked. We review regularly with stakeholders, receive their feedback and adjust course as needed. They may have though we were a little nuts. I know a lot of the IT leadership did but with the excitement of the executives, we were given a reprieve to continue.
Within one more 30 day sprint, we had a version that met the needs and it was being used in the field. It was the fastest delivery ever done from a team of 3-4 as opposed to 5-12 over a 9 month period after 9 months of requirements gathering beforehand. We held conversations surrounding value and need, not features.
My PO was made CIO following the success of the product and asked me to stay on and transform the organization to work like this on every product. 4 years later and we have 4 scrum teams, 5 product owners and other pockets of agility. Even our own HR for the organization has become trained in kanban and uses it for their HR projects. The business extrapolated the idea of the scrum team to create “business studios” made up of all of the team members needed to complete a business function for a core business line.
How I planned to Build Something New Here …
When the PO moved into the CIO role he asked me to stay and help him build something new. I agreed under 2 conditions:
- I needed to be able to always call BS when I sensed it.
- I needed to be trusted and left to build it right.
He agreed (although he may have thought I was a bit nuts, and still may).
First, I knew I could not do this alone. Although I had a significant technical background in all aspects of software delivery, I had to follow the advice of “getting the right people on the bus”. So the initial team for this organization was hand picked and recruited. They were either excited to do something new or brought in superior technical skills and strategy to build out a solid technical architecture. I remained personally involved as a scrum master and tester (as we did not have much depth) and we stayed strictly adherent to the framework (look at the Shu-Ha-Ri principle).
Once I was able to move into more of a leadership role, I set about doing a few things that I think, although small, made a big difference.
- This new organization would be align as flat as possible to encourage self-management and self-organization. Everyone reported directly to me to support the people doing the work determining how the work would be done. This did not change until the group had significantly grown and it became necessary to add a layer.
- Continuous learning for the group would be core to the values of the new culture. We identified a great online technical education resource which we procured for every staff member and the idea of a “lab day” in which they built upon their own skills following each sprint became standard practice.
- The idea of team protection and focus from distraction was also a core principle. We minimized disruptive impact to the focus the teams and encouraged, coached and empowered them to take commitments seriously by ensuring that the people doing the work indicated the commitment of work that could be done.
- I hired a couple of eager team oriented scrum masters to be servant leaders to the teams and help them mature.
- Ensuring space was available for the team members to innovate and exercise personal creativity. Outside of the standard lab day within the cycle, I self-funded and piloted a hackathon which is growing into a larger and wider event for the broader organization.
- Hiring became focused and central to our growth. We broke out of the typical mold of the state process in which an applicant performed a 1 hour interview in which they regurgitated their resume and convinced you to hire them. We implemented 3 hours interviews that combined not only behavioral based questions to gauge how they had responded in the past to situation or might do so as well as a 2 hour technical interview in which the expectation was that they demonstrate the skills needed to do the role for which we were hiring. This has been something we have maintained focus on changed over time as opposed to making it a standard approach. I strictly adhered to the rule of “hiring the right person” and if they did not show up, I hired no one (much to the dismay of my leadership as the public sector hiring process can be cumbersome). I truly believe that this helped us create sustainability by making good hiring decisions.
- I placed equal focus and attention to the cultural and technical growth aspects of the group. I hired people that were “culturally additive” in terms of value and with the help of strong technical leaders we defined and adhered to an architecture complete with design patterns, branching and merging strategies and promotional process. Defining this initially but leaving it to the technical people to grow has done well. I tried to be very intentional to create some growth paths by not hiring for every position so that people felt they had to leave to get ahead.
- Instead of overloading a lot of processes (outside of the rules that were outside my control in the public sector) I imposed a litmus test for decision making composed of (2) key elements of consideration. Is what we are seeking to do “reasonable and responsible” to ourselves, our team, the citizens, our organization? If it met this litmus test and we understood and accepted the personal responsibility of the risk, remained transparent to those involved or impacted, the people doing the work had the complete freedom and support to make good choices without committees, work groups, management hierarchical approval, etc.
- I established the idea of creating tribes within the organization composed of people with a passion to solve a problem that they created themselves and managed. This applied to everything from how we celebrated birthdays to our recurrent staff meeting to process improvements.
- Everyone had a voice. Starting with everyone reporting to a single point it was easy to establish that anyone had the right to speak out. I reinforced this to staff by being an advocate for meritocracy, not democracy. “Good ideas come from where they come from” was the guiding idea.
In doing all of these things, I learned a lot. I challenged a lot of preconceived ideas of how people operations worked and how work got done. I have to say, although there is always room to improve and grow, I am very proud of the teams that are here today. I have had a few people move to new opportunities (always in a positive way) and seed groups of their own or seek to take aspects of the culture and apply it to new organizations.
While I have always hated to see people leave, I treated this as a good thing that they were growing and not dwelled on any gaps it left behind, which I think has been encouraging to them and not created undue organizational stress. So many public sectors operate in fear of “that one guy” leaving as they carry so much legacy knowledge. They do not stop to realize the problems is in the silo of knowledge as allowed by the organization, not the person themselves.
So why did I share this journey?
Some might think it is for the purpose of braggadocio. Nope. While I am proud of where I am and where this organization has grown, I see miles of potential unrealized before us. I think we are where we need to be today and hope we continuously inspect and adapt to get us where we need to go to become truly high performing.
I have heard many stories that amaze me on how people shaped their work world and I take personal pride in what I do and am impressed by the strides of many others. I have tried experiments that have succeeded and some that have failed miserably. I am very fortunate to be in an environment that has allowed me to do this as they know that I am aware of risk without sacrificing the need to experimentation. I truly am grateful for this opportunity.
Personally, I am grateful for everyone I work with from the most agile person within the organization to the person that is struggling just to figure out how they fit in the agile space. The former because they focus on value as a driver in the way they work and the latter because they want to learn, adapt and grow most likely or find the way they can connect with something different.
I take pride each and every day knowing my teams are in control of the work they do, take their commitments seriously and work to deliver quality products to the best of their ability. I take pride in seeing the depth of people we have and how those differences make them a more solid team as a whole. I am humbled by the fact that a great deal of people took a chance to try something different and trusted that we were building something great. I take pride in building an organization in which and every person has a voice in their work no matter their role and that teams are protected when they fail from being vilified and are asked to use these as learning opportunities. I am proud that my teams know the value of the “first responsible moment” when encountering problems and raise the flag to draw the attention when it happens so that risk is managed in real-time as opposed to being based on a risk register outlining risks that may or may not ever occur.
I spoke at an agile leadership summit about 6 months ago and one of the other speakers said “you should tell stories more, you have a knack for it” (unsure I agreed but appreciated the compliment). I actually did tell the organizer that if they had a rocking chair available, that is was best not to place it where I could sit when giving my talk or I might keep folks for a while. Yes, I love to share things with others. Perhaps it is in my nature and wired within my regional DNA in general.
The reason I share and this story is that I want people who may be struggling with a transformation or even just getting started to have hope.
Hope that you personally can do something different and affect change. I helped drive the implementation of agility in the most unlikely of places at a time when “death marches” of project failure were accepted in the culture as the standard practice of work and the value add by IT in general was viewed as very low by the business. From this small product, we transformed an organization and a culture and started a broader conversation that continues today. I often tell people when I started this conversation, I was the only person in the room (which meant a lot of talking to myself). I recently attended a meeting where 10 people engaged in a conversation of how to apply agile conversations more broadly and have coached, mentored and shared this story with a lot of folks over the years.
I alway recall a quote that inspired me early on from Mike Cohn.
“Agility is not something you become. It is something you become more of …”
If you’re stuck now or things are less than optimal. Stop. Take a breath. Figure out where you can pivot and where you can persevere. If you are unsure where to start, find that thing that you can make valuable and start “starting”. Be as agile as you are able to be given constraints and then push to become more agile. Learn from failure, embrace feedback, push yourself and do not compromise or collapse in the face of adversity. Show people a new way to work and build a culture that drives to empower and trust those doing the work, not operating under command and control.
I am going to end this quote with a passage from Apple’s “crazy ones” ad campaign created by Rob Siltanen and hope you all stay agile!
“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently.
They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things.
They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”