Measuring The Value Of An Agile Team

Measuring the value that an agile team creates is one of the biggest challenges that teams who are new to agile often face. And while many agile methodologies put an emphasis on focusing on those activities that are most likely to yield value for your organization, how to actually measure that value often remains a question.

For many agile teams, especially those using the Scrum framework, velocity is often the first place we look. But is velocity really the best measure of the value that a team creates?

What’s Wrong With Velocity?

Velocity is often described as a measure of the amount of work a team delivers in a given sprint, but this description isn’t entirely correct. Rather than a measure of the amount of work a team delivers, velocity is actually the sum of the estimates of each story that the team delivered during that sprint.

Let’s look at an example. Imagine during the last sprint your team delivered the following 5 stories.

The total of the estimates of all of those stories was 21 points, which means that your team’s velocity for the last sprint was also 21 points. But does that mean that your team delivered 21 points worth of value? Not necessarily. The points that we’ve just described are estimates of a story’s complexity, which doesn’t always correlate to a story’s business value. For example, the previous sprint’s most complex story, which was the story to update the admin portion of the app to support color blindness mode, was estimated at 8 points. However, just because this was the most complex story undertaken in the sprint doesn’t necessarily mean that it was the story which produced the most business value.

By comparison, the story to add American Express as a supported credit card was estimated as the least complex story in the sprint at only 2 points. However, due to the potential for additional revenue this story may have been one of the most valuable stories delivered in the entire sprint, despite its relative simplicity.

What does it mean that our most complex story was one of our our least valuable while our least complex story was one of our most valuable? It tells us that velocity isn’t necessarily correlated to the value produced. In fact, this example tells us that it may not even be a reliable proxy.

Changing the Conversation

To measure the value that an agile team produces you must shift the conversation away from your team’s productivity and towards the value that your team actually creates. But to do this, you must have at least an initial understanding of how that value is created.

Sometimes this can be easy, as in the case of a story that may result in increased usage of your product or even in direct revenue. But other times, it may not be as easy. Sometimes the ultimate goal of a story is not to increase revenue, but instead is something more tangential. For example, some stories are written with the goal of streamlining an existing workflow inside of a product, improving the perception and awareness of a company’s brand, or simply making an existing process inside of an organization more operationally efficient.

Measuring the impact of these kinds of stories can be difficult and that difficulty only increases if the impact must be measured soon after a story is delivered. So, how do you measure the impact of these types of stories?

Understanding The Value Your Stories Will Create

The most important point to remember is that if you don’t have at least an idea of how to measure the impact of these stories then immediately stop where you are. Everything an agile team does should be in support of maximizing the value that they produce for their organization. This means that if you don’t have at least an idea of how to measure the value of what your team will be creating then you don’t understand your end goal well enough to continue to invest in it.

If this is the case, then take a step back and consider what the value is that you’d like each story to produce. Once you have an understanding of what that value is then you can begin to brainstorm possible ways to actually measure that value after delivery.

It’s important to realize that your first idea of how to measure the value produced in these cases doesn’t have to be correct. In fact, measuring these types of stories can be so difficult that you’re unlikely to get it right the first time. But to learn from that experience you need to consider why your first attempt was wrong and what you could do differently to measure that value more effectively. Like most things in an agile, learning to measure the value produced by stories that don’t directly produce value themselves is often an iterative process. However, this iterative process not only results in the right answer, but also teaches you more about the value your stories are creating along the way.

Making the Most of Measuring

A high-performing agile team will almost certainly produce value for your organization, but understanding how much value they create isn’t always straightforward. Worse, it can often be easy to conflate metrics such as velocity, which are intended solely for the team’s own use for forecasting and planning, with the amount of value that the team is producing.

But by using the opportunity to measure the value that your team is producing as a chance to uncover what that value truly is, you can be sure that your team will always be producing value for your organization.

Want to learn more about getting the most out of agile with your team? Check out my course, Agile in the Real World, for tips and techniques for making agile work in your organization.

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Improving the Scrum Master's Craft

3 Simple Things Scrum Masters Can Do To Improve Their Craft

Getting started as a Scrum Master can be pretty easy. Take some time to read the Scrum Guide to learn the mechanics of the framework, watch a few videos to go deeper into the role, and then perhaps attend a certification course to learn how to apply these principles in practice.

But even though getting started as a Scrum Master can be relatively easy, the next steps in your journey to becoming a great Scrum Master often aren’t so clear. How do you learn to handle the tough situations that will inevitably arise day-to-day? Or how do you learn to step out of your daily responsibilities and see the bigger picture of how your team is evolving? And finally, how do you ensure that you are growing as a Scrum Master so that you’re continually improving in your quest to help your team become more effective?

Achieving these more advanced goals often isn’t as easy as getting started, but lucky there are some simple practices that can help you take those next steps.

Find Your Tribe

One of single the most effective things you can do to become a more effective Scrum Master is simply to interact with other Scrum Masters. Spending time with other Scrum Masters can reveal a wealth of information, practices, and resources that you may not have been aware of. You’ll be exposed to new perspectives on how to handle common problems faced by Scrum teams and you might even gain insights into how your own practices and behaviors are perceived.

But how do you do this? The easiest way is to simply invite other Scrum Masters in your organization to a regular session in which everyone can meet and share their experiences with their own Scrum teams. A morning coffee chat or even a Friday afternoon session to unwind at the end of the week once per month both work well for this. The only rule is to make it a regular occurrence at a time when everyone can attend without feeling rushed.

Once your group is together, take the opportunity to share recent experiences and developments that have affected your team as well as how you handled them. Then ask if anyone in attendance has encountered similar situations and, if so, how they handled them. You might learn some new approaches to handling the situation should you encounter it again. In addition, if there are others in attendance who haven’t encountered the same situation then they will not only be better prepared to recognize the same situation but they will also have a few tools in their toolbox to handle it when it occurs.

But what if you’re the only Scrum Master in your organization? Maybe you work for a small organization or maybe your organization has just begun its Scrum journey and yours is the first Scrum team on the ground. What do you do then?

In that case, try to find other Scrum Masters in your local area with which you can establish the same standing meeting. Perhaps this is a coffee chat early one morning or lunch at a convenient location one day per month.

While it’s true that Scrum Masters from outside of your organization may not have the same insights into your organization’s unique culture and dynamics, you may find that these same Scrum Masters bring a fresh perspective to your problems simply because of different approaches that they’ve tried in their own organizations. Simply becoming aware of the challenges and experiences of Scrum teams in another organization can open your mind to perspectives and practices that you may not have even considered.

Start a Scrum Master’s Journal

The next practice is even simpler. Go to your favorite bookstore and buy a nice journal and pen. Then every day, at the end of the day, take 10 minutes to write down the day’s experiences.

A great model for this is the Sprint Retrospective that you’re already engaging in with your own team, but from the perspective of your own daily interactions.

Record what you did in your role that day that seemed to have a positive effect on your team and what that effect was. Then record anything that occurred that didn’t go as well as you would have liked. And finally, consider whether there is anything that you’d like to try differently tomorrow.

I would also suggest that you make a note of any major events that occurred during that day, such as key developments that occurred with your team or important events that occurred within your organization. This will help you better understand the context of your notes as well as any external dynamics that may have been affecting your team when you revisit your notes in the future.

Taking a mere 10 minutes at the end of each day to perform a bit of introspection can be incredibly powerful. Not only will this help improve your awareness of your own actions and what effects they have on your team, but it will also help you start to better identify patterns that seem to be affecting your team and better equip you to intervene when you spot those patterns occurring.

Find a Mentor

Interacting with other Scrum Masters will expose you to new perspectives that you may not have previously considered. And starting a regular habit of journaling will help improve your self-awareness of your own behaviors and how those behaviors may be affecting your team. But what about the truly tough problems that you’ll face as a Scrum Master? What about those challenges that are not only facing your team, but also your own growth as a Scrum Master? For that, you’ll need the one-on-one interaction of a mentor.

A great mentor can help illuminate the path on your journey to self-development, act as a sounding board as you work through some of your toughest challenges, and even help you spot possible pitfalls that may lie in wait on the path ahead.

Many Scrum Masters have found that regularly participating in a structured mentoring session on a weekly or monthly basis has been one of the most impactful experiences of their career. But where do you find someone to fill the mentorship role for you?

Many senior Scrum Masters are often willing to serve as a mentor to those who are more junior not only because it can be so personally rewarding, but also because serving as mentor can often be an incredibly illuminating experience, as well.

However, if a more senior Scrum Master is not available then many agile coaches are often more than happy to serve this role. Or, if you’ve taken part in a formal Scrum Master training course then consider reaching out to your Scrum trainer as many trainers are happy to continue their relationships with their students beyond the classroom in this same capacity.

But, barring that, many coaches and Scrum Masters are also happy to engage in virtual mentoring arrangements. In these arrangements, a mentor will regularly engage with you in a virtual setting, often working through a very structured and productive mentoring relationship using video conferencing and other collaboration software.

Putting This Into Practice

Regardless of how you start, regularly interacting with other Scrum Masters and engaging in a broader practice of introspection and increased self-awareness will pay tremendous dividends for your growth as a Scrum Master.

You owe it to not only yourself but also your team to begin investing in improving your craft as a Scrum Master by putting these ideas into practice today.

Are you new to the Scrum Master role and are just trying to find your way? Or, are you an experienced Scrum Master who has your feet wet but now you’re ready to take your craft to the next level? Check out my course series, Scrum Master Fundamentals, to learn how to set yourself apart as a Scrum Master and help your team reach their highest potential.

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The Best Books to Help Scrum Masters Sharpen Their Skills

So you’ve found yourself in the Scrum Master role with your first team and are wondering where to start. Or, maybe you have a certification or two under your belt, have already worked with a few teams, but are looking for ways to sharpen your skills even further.

Luckily for you, there have been some great books written for Scrum Masters over the past few years. Nearly all of these books are good, but there have been a few that will really help you take your skills to the next level. These books are listed in a specific order that tracks the milestones most Scrum Masters progress through on their journey to becoming a great Scrum Master. To get the most out of these books, I suggest that you work through them in this same order.

Let’s get started…

The Scrum Guide

Surprised? Many people are often taken aback when I recommend such a basic reference book. However, I’m often caught off guard at how many practicing Scrum Masters haven’t actually read the Scrum Guide.

The Scrum Guide is the main touchstone for the rules of the Scrum Framework which you, as the Scrum Master, are responsible for ensuring your team is following. At only 17 pages long, the Scrum Guide can easily be read in an evening, but fully internalizing its content may take much longer.

However, the brief and succinct format of the Scrum Guide can be quite helpful. The Scrum Framework is often accompanied by many complementary practices, such as user stories or planning poker. However, while helpful, did you know that these practices are not actually part of the Scrum Framework?

This is because the creators of Scrum so erred on the side of a lightweight and non-prescriptive framework that many of the practices at are now synonymous with Scrum were explicitly omitted from the Scrum Framework. Reading the Scrum Guide will help you better understand what is part of the Scrum Framework and what isn’t so you can help your team cut through the noise to what actually matters.

Scrum Mastery by Geoff Watts

Once you’ve reacquainted yourself with the rules and values of the Scrum Framework you’ll be better equipped to understand how those values can play out in your organization.

This is where Scrum Mastery comes in. Scrum Mastery uses a scenario-driven format to illustrate specific approaches that a Scrum Master can use to be more effective in their role. It also demonstrates many of the most common challenges a Scrum Master may encounter in their role and then shows possible solutions to work through those challenges in the most productive way.

If you’ve built a good understanding of the basics of the Scrum Framework and your role within it, then Scrum Mastery will help you put those skills into practice.

The Great Scrum Master: #ScrumMasterWay by Zuzana Sochova

Once you’re ready to add some more advanced tools to your Scrum Master toolbox, The Great Scrum Master is a great place to start.

This book is full of practical advice and practices that can help any Scrum Master become more effective in their day-to-day role. Whether you need help getting to the root cause of a pesky problem that continues to afflict your team, understand why certain group dynamics seem to be emerging in your team time and time again, or just start to identify what types of tools might be appropriate for the problem at hand, The Great Scrum Master is full of a wealth of concrete practices that you can start putting to work with your team immediately.

Becoming a Catalyst: Scrum Master Edition: Using Everyday Interactions to Accelerate Cultural Change by Len Lagestee

We’ve talked a lot about the fundamentals of the Scrum Framework as well as what practices you can use as a Scrum Master to help your team. But, we haven’t talked about how to think about your daily interactions as a Scrum Master. This is where Becoming a Catalyst comes in.

This books gives you the tools to make the most of each of your day-to-day interactions both with your team and your broader organization. It provides guidance on how you can build support for your goals for your team, strengthen your relationships with your co-workers, or even gain insights into where trouble may be brewing ahead.

We frequently talk about the “softer side” of becoming a Scrum Master and how useful strong communication skills can be, but there’s often a gap of resources specifically designed to help grow those skills. Becoming a Catalyst fills that gap.

Coaching Agile Teams by Lyssa Adkins

The inclusion of a book so obviously focused on agile coaching may surprise you. But, effective Scrum Masters know that one of the most important ingredients to their team’s success is their own coaching skills. Whether you’re helping your team better understand the practices and values of the Scrum Framework, improve in a specific area of delivery, or even just work together more effectively great Scrum Masters are also great coaches.

But what’s that you say, you’ve never been trained as a coach? Don’t worry Coaching Agile Teams will give you the tools you need to help you coach more effectively both at the team level as well as within your broader organization. If you’re ready to take the next step in your Scrum Master journey and begin actively coaching your team, then this book will help show you the path.

Putting These Books to Use

While these are my favorites, they’re just a taste of the wealth of information available today for Scrum Masters. But getting value out of these books takes more than simply reading them and moving on. To truly get value out of this material you need to carefully read these books, identify and internalize the practices they espouse, and then look for opportunities to put these practices to work with your team. This is because only by actively applying what you’ve learned can you move your team, and yourself, forward.

Are you new to the Scrum Master role and are just trying to find your way? Or, are you an experienced Scrum Master who has your feet wet but now you’re ready to take your craft to the next level? Check out my course series, Scrum Master Fundamentals, to learn how to set yourself apart as a Scrum Master and help your team reach their highest potential.

Don’t have a Pluralsight membership yet? Try the entire Pluralsight course catalog free for 10 days here.

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Becoming a non-technical Scrum Master

Becoming A Non-technical Scrum Master

If you work in the tech industry then you’ve no doubt noticed the recent explosion in demand for qualified Scrum Masters. But, what’s more interesting is the surge in interest from individuals hoping to fill these positions who are coming from outside of the tech industry. In fact, in the last month alone I’ve received several questions from individuals without a technical background who are interested in becoming a Scrum Master. While the background of each individual is different, all of the emails end with a common question: “Can someone who doesn’t have a technical background find success as a non-technical Scrum Master?”. While opinions on this may certainly differ, I’m thrilled to say that in my experience the answer to this question has been a resounding “Yes!”.

Learning The Skills To Be A Great Scrum Master

While there’s no question that having a strong technical background can be advantageous to becoming a successful Scrum Master, it’s in no way a requirement. In fact, some of the best Scrum Masters that I’ve ever worked with have come from completely non-technical backgrounds.

So, if a technical background isn’t a requirement for becoming an effective Scrum Master, then what is?

The Scrum Master role is all about fostering collaboration across your team. And to do this effectively you need to be able to build connections with others and communicate with them in a way that makes sense to them. Therefore, great Scrum Masters need to be great communicators and understand how to adapt their communication style to a variety of situations and individual preferences.

Teams who are new to the Scrum framework are often skeptical of the number of ceremonies and artifacts that are required to adhere to the rules of the framework. It’s your responsibility as a Scrum Master to communicate the value of each of these ceremonies and artifacts in a way that resonates with each member of your team so that everyone is on board with fully participating in the framework.

In addition, great Scrum Master have a knack for setting short-term goals with their teams and then visualizing the steps necessary to reach those goals. In this way, the Scrum Master helps their team understand the value of each of their sprint goals and helps them build a plan to reach those goals.

But What About Technical Skills?

Both of the skills mentioned above are non-technical in nature, meaning that anyone from any background could be capable of employing these skills successfully. But, does this mean that there are no technical skills required for becoming a great Scrum Master?

Not exactly.

Truly effective Scrum Masters also possess a deep understanding of how their organization delivers software. However, this is not the same thing as being a skilled software developer. Great Scrum Masters have a clear mental picture of all of the steps their organization takes to deliver an increment of product to market and how each of those steps fit together. This doesn’t mean that the Scrum Master understands every line of code used to bring a product to life, or the specific nuances of each step of the product’s deployment pipeline, but they do understand how each step of that process fits together and how changes to one step can affect other steps.

In addition, while they may have a deep understanding of their organization’s software development process, they also understand that their organization’s process is almost guaranteed to differ from another organization’s process…and that this difference is ok.

The goal of understanding their process is to better position them to spot impediments that could be affecting their team, especially those impediments that their team may not even see themselves. And another goal is to help them to spot opportunities to improve and optimize that process so their team can deliver software more effectively.

So while some level of technical understanding is necessary, the good news is that this level of understanding can be learned on the job by anyone willing to invest the effort to do so.

Finding Success As A Non-Technical Scrum Master

But despite the skills above, a large part of your success as a non-technical Scrum Master will depend on how willing your team is to accept a Scrum Master from a non-technical background.

For some teams, this won’t be an issue. They’ll be happy to have the aide of a great Scrum Master and won’t care about your level of technical chops…or lack thereof. For others, however, this may be more of an issue.

For some teams, a Scrum Master from a non-technical background may need to work a little harder to gain their team’s trust. This can be particularly true for teams who are new to the Scrum framework and are already a bit skeptical of the Scrum Master’s role to begin with. But don’t despair, if you find yourself in this situation all hope is not lost.

When working with a team whose trust you may have to work harder than usual to earn, your first order of business should be to invest in building strong relationships with each individual on the team. This can pay huge dividends since people whom you have strong relationships with will be more likely to support and follow you as you begin to drive change in your role. Or, even if they don’t always agree with you, they’ll at least be less likely to publicly detract from you when they disagree.

But beyond this, you must also work to really learn the skills and responsibilities that are expected of a Scrum Master. And then, make a visible effort to put these same skills to work bettering the lives of your team.

As mentioned above, it’s not unusual for teams are who are new to the Scrum framework to also be skeptical of the Scrum Master role in general. Often this skepticism is rooted in a general lack of understanding of purpose of the Scrum Master role as well as the value that this role can bring to their team.

But, by working to truly develop the skills of an effective Scrum Master you’ll not only start to show your team how you can add value to their work but you’ll also demonstrate that the Scrum Master role is a craft of it’s own that requires a commitment to mastery comparable to their own roles and therefore worthy of their respect.

Beginning Your Journey To Becoming A Great Scrum Master

So, you’re confident that you can become a truly effective Scrum Master even without a technical background but you don’t know where to start? Luckily, getting started is easier than you think.

First, there are a wealth of books and online courses available to help you deepen your knowledge of your craft and to teach you the specific skills you’ll need to be successful. Becoming an effective Scrum Master is a career-long pursuit and there’s always more to learn, but luckily you’ll never be at a loss for inspiration.

Second, finding an experienced Scrum Master who can serve as a mentor can be an incredibly effective way to accelerate your own growth as a Scrum Master. A great mentor can give guidance as to what materials or learning would be most appropriate for where you are in your journey, provide insight and advice to problems that you may be facing based on their own experience with similar problems in the past, or just act as a sounding board and listen encouragingly as you reason out the best approach for yourself. If you’re looking for a mentor, a great place to start are the more experienced Scrum Masters in your own organization, Scrum Masters from outside organizations that you may encounter at local user groups or conferences, or even those Scrum Masters who can provide coaching and mentoring remotely via the internet.

And finally, jumping into your role with both feet is the most effective way to quickly find success as a Scrum Master. Truly effective Scrum Masters are great communicators and great facilitators, but above all, truly effective Scrum Masters are great problem solvers. This is because every situation you’ll face will be different and therefore the problems you’ll face with one team will differ from the problems you’ll face with another team. Great Scrum Masters don’t have all the answers, but they excel at putting their problem solving skills to work to find those answers. And there’s no better way to do this, then to dive headfirst into your first team and start solving these problems for yourself.

Are you ready to take the first step in your Scrum Master career? Or, are you an experienced Scrum Master whose ready to take your craft to the next level? Check out my course series, Scrum Master Fundamentals, to learn how to set yourself apart as a Scrum Master and help your team reach their highest potential.

Don’t have a Pluralsight membership yet? Try the entire Pluralsight course catalog free for 10 days here.

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The Case for Eliminating Epics

It should come as no surprise that the smaller the pieces your team can break their work into, the better chance they’ll have at succeeding at that work. After all, smaller pieces not only reduce the risk associated with your work, but they can also be easier for your team to understand.

In fact, breaking work into small pieces is so beneficial for your team, that most agile methodologies is to do everything possible to encourage you to do so.

But, despite all of the obvious advantages of breaking work into small pieces, teams who are new to agile still find themselves hiding large pieces of work inside of epics.

To be fair, epics aren’t inherently evil. They can be a great tool for storing loosely defined work on the product backlog, or for grouping smaller and related pieces of work in a logical way. In fact, there are quite a few perfectly valid uses for epics.

What’s Wrong With Epics?

Unfortunately though, many teams tend to use epics as way to enable their bad habits. In particular, epics can encourage poor refinement of ideas by enabling people to capture details in epics that they would otherwise consider too poorly refined for a normal user story. This can result in poorly refined stories being hidden on the product backlog, under the guise of epics.

While at times this can be acceptable, the trouble arises when epics are slated for teams to work on during a sprint rather than slating the individual stories that comprise those epics. This is because while it can be perfectly acceptable to load the component user stories of an epic directly into a sprint, the epics themselves should never be loaded as a sprint level item.

Loading an epic directly into your sprint allows you to hide larger work inside of your sprint than would otherwise be acceptable. And, when work is not broken down appropriately before loading it important details become much more likely to fall through the cracks and missed by your team.

This can result in vague and poorly defined work which can be tough to prioritize.

So What Should You Do?

Remember that epics are just another type of user story. Don’t lower your bar of what’s considered acceptable for an epic just because it’s larger than a normal story. Instead, simply consider an epic to be a story that’s been refined to the point that’s most appropriate for where that story is at in its lifecycle at that time. This may not mean that an epic should adhere to the same Definition of Ready as a typical user story, but some level quality should still be applied to it.

However, if your team still seems to struggle with understanding what the appropriate level of refinement is for an epic, it may be time to eliminate them from your toolbox until your entire team has a better understanding of how to get the most from this particular tool. This doesn’t mean that epics will never be appropriate for your team, but until everyone has a better handle on how to use them appropriately it may be time to take them off the table.

Want to learn how to get even more out of  user stories? Check out my course, Creating Effective User Stories, for easy techniques that will have you writing better user stories today.

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My Team Works Hard But We Never Seem To Finish. Why Not?

We’ve all experienced this. Your team seems to be working hard. In fact, you know your team is working hard because you’re right there in the trenches with them. But, no matter how hard your team works, they never seem to actually get anything finished.

If this sounds familiar, then you’re not alone. Most teams face this problem at some point in their development. However, despite how common this problem is it’s actually quite easy to overcome.

Why It Happens

To overcome this problem you first have to understand why it happens, in the first place. Most often this is due to two reasons.

First, it can happen because your team is accepting work from outside of the Sprint. This is the “can’t wait” work that wasn’t planned for during your team’s Sprint Planning, but reared it’s head after the Sprint has begun. Sometimes this happens because the Scrum Master is unable to head off a major stakeholder. Or sometimes the Scrum Master simply can’t make that stakeholder understand the impact that this new work will have on the team’s outcome. Or even other times, the Scrum Master may not even be aware of the unplanned work, in the first place.

But regardless of the reason, if your team is spending time working on unplanned work instead of the work they had planned for the Sprint, then they may look busy but they’re unlikely to finish what you expect them to.

Second, it can happen because your team is working on too much work at once. This can be counter-intuitive at first, but if your team decides to tackle all of their work at once then the team will make surprisingly little progress on any of their work. This is because the team’s total effort will be spread across a much wider surface area resulting the in team making very little forward progress.

In addition, on many teams when the amount of work in progress is not closely tracked, it can be common for some individuals to begin work on one item and then move to a second item before the first item is complete. Once again, this can create an image of very busy individuals on a team, but with very little actual work in result.

Luckily, there are solutions for both of these situations that will get your team back on track and back to finishing the amount of work that you know they’re capable of.

Make It Visible

In the first case, where the team is continuing to work on items outside of the Sprint, work with your team to craft a clearly defined Sprint Goal that describes the goal that the team should accomplish with the work in the next Sprint. Once your team is in agreement about the goal, share the goal with your stakeholders so that everyone understands what your team plans to accomplish during the next Sprint and how this Sprint Goal contributes to your overall product goals. Then, when outside work begins to appear during the Sprint, you can work with your stakeholders to evaluate how that work maps to the goal the team has selected for the Sprint and what effect accepting the work may have on that goal.

If you’re still unable to prevent the work from being worked on during the Sprint, then make a special effort to estimate the newly accepted work and add it the Sprint board. You can even dedicate a reserved row of the Sprint board for this type of work, or use a different colored card so the unplanned work is immediately obvious. This visual differentiation will make visible the impact that the unplanned work is having on the work that was originally planned in pursuit of the Sprint Goal. In addition, the estimated points will allow you to better communicate to your stakeholders during the Sprint Review what percent of the team’s effort was spent on work that didn’t directly contribute to the Sprint Goal.

Both of these actions will help your stakeholders stop thinking of the Sprint as an empty bucket that work can simply be poured into, and instead begin to think of the Sprint as a strategically planned batch of work that moves the team closer to a stated goal.

Limit Your Throughput

In the second case, where the team is working on too much work at once, work with your team to establish work in progress limits, commonly known as WIP limits, on the key states of your Sprint board.

A WIP limit restricts the number of items that can be in a given state at any time. For example, in the image below, a WIP limit of 3 has been assigned to the Development column and a WIP limit of 2 has been assigned to the Testing column. This means that at any given time, no more than 3 items can be in development at one time and no more than 2 items can be in test at one time.


What happens if the WIP limit is reached? Then your team must work together to figure out how to complete the items in the column where the limit has been reached to make room for new work, thus allowing more work to flow through the process.

For example, imagine that a developer on your team completes the an item and attempts to move it to the Testing column. However, the Testing column has already reached its limit. The developer must work with your team’s testers to understand how they can help clear the existing the items from the Testing column. This may mean that the developer needs to assist the tester with their work so they can complete the items currently waiting to be tested, or that that team as a whole needs to make a greater investment into automated testing so that the testing process is more efficient overall. Regardless of the solution, the new item cannot be added to the Testing column until the existing items have been cleared.

While at first, WIP limits may seem as if they would cause a team to move slower, the opposite is actually true. WIP limits incentive your team to move work to completion, rather than to simply start it. This results in more work being completed by your team which allows them to reach their goals faster.

Focus on Finishing

Many teams look busy but surprisingly few actually complete the amount of work that may be expected of them. But, by defining clear goals for each Sprint that your team can aim for, and then incentivizing them to focus on finishing the work required to complete those goals, you can ensure that your team actually delivers the value that your stakeholders expect.

Do you want to learn more about how you can help your team deliver work more efficiently? Check out my course series, Product Owner Fundamentals, to learn how you can help your team reach their highest potential and deliver a great product to market.

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Is Your Process A Rose Or A Dandelion?

This is a rose.

Roses are some of the most beautiful, and the most coveted, flowers grown on earth. But, that beauty comes at a cost.

To thrive, roses require near perfect conditions and nearly constant attention. For example, if you hope to see that luscious deep red bloom that roses are known for, then at a minimum your rose will demand

  1. Six hours of direct sunlight each day
  2. A bed of perfectly pH-balanced, ideally organic, well-draining soil
  3. 2-3” or coarse, once again ideally organic, mulch surrounding the rose
  4. Infrequently, but deeply applied water, applied directly to the soil and only late in the evening

But these are only the basics. If you really want to see those gorgeous blooms, then be prepared to also take steps like

  1. Regularly chopping banana peels and burying them around the stem of your rose…while being careful, of course, not to touch the roots
  2. Brewing alfalfa tea for your rose and treating it’s surrounding soil to a nice afternoon cup of tea
  3. Pulling out your iPod so your rose can enjoy the sonatas of Beethoven and Mozart. But only their early stuff…you’re rose is a classic, after all.

If you follow each of these steps consistently and without fail, then your rose may reward you with one or two blooms. In fact, you may even get to enjoy these blooms for up to two weeks…before you have to start the process over again, that is.

Meet The Dandelion

This is a dandelion.

Dandelions don’t need perfectly pH-balanced soil. They don’t need perfectly consistent watering that only occurs at the perfect time of day. And, if you try to treat them to afternoon alfalfa tea and the occasional Beethoven sonata, they’ll only laugh in your face.

Compared to roses, dandelions can grow nearly anywhere, in nearly any conditions. And, trying to kill them, seems to only make them stronger.

This is because, regardless of what’s happening in their environment, dandelions will find a way.

A Process Like A Rose

Now think about the process your team uses to deliver software each day. Which of these flowers feels the most familiar to how your team works? Is your team’s process a rose, or is it a dandelion?

We’ve all seen rose-processes. Rose-processes are filled with complicated rules and procedures that must be adhered to. They demand the full attention of the teams who are implementing them and create a plethora of roles and ceremonies that must be strictly followed if they are going to work.

But, when they do work, they are beautiful. They create a clean and streamlined environment in which your team can ship software, and they stay that way as long as the environment that you’ve created for them remains stable and constant. Which, if you’ve ever worked in any technology environment, you know the words ‘stable’ and ‘constant’ typically aren’t the words that spring to mind to describe it.

Becoming A Dandelion

Dandelion-processes, on the other hand, can thrive in nearly any environment. This is because rather than expecting the environment to adapt to their needs, dandelion-processes adapt themselves to the reality of their environment.

A dandelion-process demands little of the team who chooses to practice it, often no more than a few loosely defined roles and ceremonies. In fact, dandelion-processes often prescribe little about how these roles and ceremonies should even be implemented, instead leaving it up to the team to implement them in whatever manner is most likely to succeed in their environment.

In fact, dandelion-processes are so robust that they always seem to find a way to crop back up even when an organization tries to stomp them out. Perhaps it’s the natural resiliency of a dandelion-process that permits this or perhaps it’s simply the insistence of the teams who practice them to want to use a simple process that works, but in either case, dandelion-processes have a way of always coming back.

Any Process Can Be A Dandelion Process

You may think that I’m hinting at certain processes as rose-processes and other processes as dandelion-processes, but this actually isn’t true. While certain processes may naturally find themselves gravitating towards a rose’s fragile beauty while others may naturally gravitate towards a dandelion’s robust utilitarianism, the truth is that any process can be rose or a dandelion.

It all comes down to how each team decides to practice the process they choose to adopt. Given enough time, even the most lightweight and minimalist of processes can gradually accrete enough supporting processes and value-adds to incur the fragility of a rose. While, when boiled down to their essence, even the most complex processes can start to show dandelion-like qualities.

The secret is to understand that whatever process your team adopts, that process is a means to ship great software…not a goal. When the process becomes your focus, any process has a tendency to grow to demand the constant nurturing care of a rose in order to bloom. But, when you remember that the process is there only to support your team and its goal of a shipping software, then you can be sure to keep your process lightweight, robust, and capable of thriving in even the most unidealistic of situations, just like the dandelion.

Want to know more about creating a process for your team that can withstand the reality of your environment? Check out my course, Agile in the Real World, for tips and techniques for making agile really work in your organization.

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Reverse User Story

Putting Value First With The Reverse User Story

User Stories are a great way to translate your users’ needs into real tasks that your team can work with. They’re succinct, lightweight, and flexible. But what if you could make them even better by moving the “why” of the story to the beginning?

To understand how you can improve them even further, let’s start by looking at an example of a User Story…

User Story format

This format answers the important questions clearly, but it keeps the most important part of the story…the benefit…until the end. The benefit, or the “So I can…” part of the story, is how you ensure that your team understands why they are building this story and how it will contribute to your overall vision for your product. Without clearly stating this benefit you risk adding functionality that doesn’t move your product towards its vision.

Saving this part of the story until the end means that we ignore it or even leave it out completely. The result of this is that the benefit of the story is shortchanged.

Turning the Problem on Its Head

The Reverse User Story, on the other hand, moves this important clause to the beginning of the story.  This format, inspired by the Reverse Stand Up, recognizes that the benefit is the most important part of the story and therefore it should appear first.  Building on the example above, our Reverse User Story would look like this…

Reverse User Story formatMoving the benefit to the beginning of the story forces your team to first think about the business value and resulting benefits of your work. If you’re unable to articulate a benefit for a story then this can be a warning sign that you don’t understand the story as well as you thought you did. This may mean that the story still needs fleshing out or even that it may not be worth the effort required to bring it to fruition.

Finding Balance…Or the Zen of Release Management

Bringing the expected benefits to the forefront can also aide in long term exercises like Release Planning. For example, if the majority of stories selected for a release seem to have similar benefits then this can be a hint at the theme that’s emerging for that release. Alternatively, if too many stories have the same benefit then this can serve as a warning that you’re weighing the release too heavily towards one specific feature set while starving another.

Shifting the focus to the benefit can also help identify stories in the backlog that are duplicating value. Recall that one of the goals of Scrum is to optimize the ROI of the development team. To this end, if more than one story is accomplishing the same end goal then this can be an opportunity to drop a duplicate story in favor of another that may bring more value to the product.

Drawing in the Team

Bringing the business goals of the story to the forefront draws the team into the discussion.  This can even lead to the discovery of alternative approaches as to how those goals may be met.

For example, recall that the original idea of your story was to allow a customer to save items for later.  You’d assumed that the only way to do this was to make their shopping cart persistent.  But, perhaps someone on the team suggests instead providing a wishlist where the customer could store items for long term. This would result in the story being changed to…

So I can save items for later,
As a customer,
I want to add items to a wish list.

This change may even spawn additional conversations regarding the opportunities that the wish list could open up. Perhaps the customer could share their wish list with friends who are shopping for them.  Or, maybe they could even post them to their social networks. This would give you the opportunity to also capture sales from friends of the customer.  This could even happen when your original customer isn’t quite ready to buy an item themselves.

None of these ideas would have ever been suggested if the developers had not first been encouraged to consider the overall benefit they were trying to achieve rather than simply focusing on the action.

Putting This Technique to Use

Though a Reverse User Story has many advantages over the format it still may not be right for every situation.  Specifically, the classic format’s simplicity and broad adoption make it a good choice as a starting point for introducing the concept of User Stories to new teams.

But, if your team seems to be missing the bigger picture of the stories or is becoming mired in the details then this twist on the classic format may be just what you need to shift everyone’s focus away from specific actions and back to the overall goal of the product.

Want to learn even more neat techniques to get the most out of User Stories? Check out my course, Creating Effective User Stories, for easy techniques that will have you writing better User Stories today.

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Start With Stickies, Not With Tools

The beginning of a Scrum adoption is always an exciting time for teams. The promise of what the future holds, a new way of working, and the possibility of a better way to do what the team loves always holds great potential.

But in this excitement, many teams rush into selecting a tool that will help them run their projects in this brave new world. This isn’t surprising, there’s no shortage of agile project management tools available and many of them shine in demos. But choosing a project management tool too soon confines your team to that tool’s approach, rather than allowing your team to discover the approach that works the best for them.

This can lead your team down the path of confusing discussions about the “right way” of operating and how the team can warp their process to meet the expectations of the tool. All of which can lead to a lot of unwarranted frustration with the team’s entire adoption of Scrum.

Starting on the Right Foot

So how do you avoid becoming a slave to your tool? Instead of choosing a tool too early in your Scrum adoption, begin your process as lightweight as possible. This can be done by simply creating a Scrum board on an empty wall in your team area from painter’s tape and a few pads of sticky notes.

When choosing the columns for your board just ask yourself what steps your team must take to deliver a piece of functionality to the market. We can assume that each feature must be coded, but what happens then? Is it peer reviewed by another member of your development team? Is it tested before release?

Whatever your delivery flow is, capture each step as a column on your Scrum board. Creating your board by hand gives you the flexibility to map out exactly what your delivery process looks like so it’s visible to everyone involved.

Only after you’ve discovered the process that works for your team should you consider finding a tool that supports that process.

Taking Responsibility for Your Process

But there’s another benefit to managing your team’s process by hand. Creating a board manually also requires your team to take responsibility for ensuring that the board is updated and always reflects the current state of each piece of work in progress. Is that authentication routine really still in progress? I thought it was tested yesterday? And what about the latest database migration scripts? The board says that they’re in progress but are you really working on them? Weren’t you busy with a production issue for the last two days? By forcing your team to take responsibility for updating the board each day you increase the odds that the Scrum board accurately reflects the work in progress.

Too many teams take a passive approach to their adoption of the Scrum Framework, relying on their tooling to manage the heavy lifting while they change very little about their way of working. The obvious result of this is that if the team changes very little about how they actually work, then very little actually changes. But by taking a hands-on and manual approach to tracking their project the team is forced to take responsibility for the progress they make day to day and to face tough questions when that progress isn’t what they expected it to be.

Limitations Breed Simplicity

But there is potentially an even bigger benefit to skipping an electronic tool early in the team’s adoption. This is that the natural limitations of a physical board drive a simplicity that simply can’t be matched by an electronic tool.

Electronic tools breed complexity with their multitude of options and seemingly infinite ability to capture detailed information. But a physical board naturally limits your team to focusing only on what is critical to their process. Do the columns on the Scrum board really reflect each step that your team takes to deliver a piece of functionality? If items seem to stay in certain columns for days with no obvious progress then you may be missing a step. Or, maybe you’ll notice that you seem to be trying to fit a lot of information on the the front of a sticky note. What if instead you simply captured the essence of what you’d like that item to accomplish and let the rest of the detail naturally emerge from a conversation between the Development Team and the Product Owner.

Many of the natural aspects of working with a physical board that are often initially considered to be limitations, turn out to be advantages when looked at from the broader perspective of the team’s overall process.

Letting Your Team Drive the Process

The surge in popularity of Scrum and other agile approaches have resulted in a flood of great agile project management tooling on the market, many of which have some great features and amazing functionality. While these tools can add value to a team who has reached a certain level of maturity in their agile approach, they are almost always the wrong choice for a team just getting started on their agile journey.

Use your team’s Scrum adoption as an opportunity to press the reset button and take the chance to discover the process that works best for them, rather than simply jumping into the process prescribed by the tool that demos the best. You’ll find that the long term result is a team that’s much more confident, happier, and effective in how they work. Because at the end of the day, your tool should support your process…not the other way around.

Are you new to the Scrum Master role and are just trying to find your way? Or, are you an experienced Scrum Master who has your feet wet but now you’re ready to take your craft to the next level? Check out my course series, Scrum Master Fundamentals, to learn how to set yourself apart as a Scrum Master and help your team reach their highest potential.

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Scrum Master Demand Is at It’s Strongest Point Ever

It’s no surprise that the Scrum Framework is quickly becoming the framework of choice for teams interested in adopting an agile methodology.  In fact, VersionOne’s 2016 State of Agile Development survey puts the number of teams currently following a pure Scrum approach for their agile implementation at 58%. Furthermore, this number increases to 75% if you include hybrid approaches such as those which combine Scrum with another agile approach such as Kanban to create Scrumban.

But despite the simplicity of the Scrum Framework its adoption by a team new to an agile approach is still not for the faint of heart. If you’ve ever been on a Scrum team you’ll know that a large part of most team’s success is the presence of a skilled Scrum Master. This individual is responsible for ensuring that the team is adhering to the Scrum Framework in a way that helps them to deliver their product in the most effective way. Given the growth in popularity of the Scrum Framework it should come as no surprise that this growth is also fueling an unprecedented demand for Scrum Masters.

Scrum Framework Growth Breeds Scrum Master Demand

So much so, in fact, that the Scrum Master role has found itself square in the middle of LinkedIn’s list of The Most Promising Jobs for 2017. This list, culled from LinkedIn’s unique position to analyze job trends and growth, placed the Scrum Master role at #10 of the 20 most promising jobs for 2017. According to LinkedIn, this uptick in demand has given the role a median base salary of $100,000 USD and a year-over-year job growth of 400%, which will likely drive base salaries even higher as demand for the role continues to increase.

If you’ve seen many “hot jobs” lists in the past then the dominance of jobs from the tech sector should come as no surprise. As a matter of fact, 12 out of 20 jobs on LinkedIn’s Most Promising Jobs for 2017 list come straight from the technology sector.  So what makes the Scrum Master role any different?

Becoming a Scrum Master Is Easier Than You Think

LinkedIn’s Most Promising Jobs list contains many roles which are highly specialized and thus can require years of developing both specialized skills and experience, such as a Data Architect or Site Reliability Engineer.  But unlike these roles, the Scrum Master role can be very accessible for someone who already has a technical background which makes this path more of a lateral career move for many who are already in the tech sector.

This is because some of the most important skills for a successful Scrum Master are an in-depth understanding of your organization’s software delivery process and a willingness to connect with and build relationships with those both inside and outside of your team.  By combining an overarching view of the steps necessary for your organization to bring your product to market with a willingness to build relationships with those individuals who are involved each step of the way, you can build the skills necessary to clear the path for your team to keep them moving as efficiently as possible.  And this ability to keep your team on a clear path is one of the most important responsibilities for a Scrum Master.

This means that if you’ve already gained some experience in your organization’s software development ranks in a role such as a developer, tester, or designer and you like interacting with others in your organization then the Scrum Master role can be an attractive option for your career path and one that’s much more accessible than a highly technical specialization requiring years of training and experience.

What It Takes to Become a Great Scrum Master

If this appeals to you then you’re probably wondering what it takes to land a job as a Scrum Master. Well, in addition to the skills that I described above you’ll need a strong understanding of the practices and components of the Scrum Framework and the ability to help your team learn to interpret the Scrum Framework in the way that’s the most effective for them. You’ll also need a thorough understanding of the broader agile concepts and methods that the Scrum Framework embodies so you can be sure that your team is always adhering to the spirit of the agile methods that underlie Scrum.

But in addition to these skills, many candidates find that holding one of the more recognizable Scrum Master certifications can be a helpful step to getting their foot in the door. The most recognized of these certifications are the Scrum Alliance Certified ScrumMaster© certification, commonly known as the CSM, and the Scrum.org Professional Scrum Master™ I certification, commonly known as the PSM I. You can see the specific requirements for each certification on the respective website of each certification body but, in general, the path to each certification includes attending a multiple-day in-person training event and then passing a written exam testing your knowledge of the Scrum Framework. However, while multiple-day training events are available for both certifications, please note that in the case of the Professional Scrum Master certification attending this event is not required before taking the exam, though it can be extremely helpful.

Building on Your Experience

Without question, in addition to a strong understanding of the inner workings of the Scrum Framework and a well respected certification, the most important ingredient for success as a Scrum Master is the ability to interpret and ford the political waters of your organization to help your team to succeed. This ability can be gained only by an investment of time in learning the ins and outs of the environment and culture in which you will function as a Scrum Master. This is because regardless of the number of certifications they’ve earned or the depth of their knowledge of the Scrum Framework, a Scrum Master who unable to navigate the trade winds of their organization will ultimately be ineffective.

The Scrum Master role can be an incredibly rewarding role for those interested in blending elements of technology, leadership, and business acumen in a way that allows them to help their team deliver great work in a way that’s both productive and enjoyable. And the recent surge in demand for individuals who are able to serve this role, combined with the lateral nature of moving into this role for those individuals who are already from a technical background paint a bright picture of the future demand for this role. All of these elements combine to make this role the ideal choice for anyone who is looking for the next step in their career or who is simply interested in trying their hand at something new.

Does the Scrum Master role sound like the right next step for your career? Or, are you an experienced Scrum Master who wants to become more effective in you role so you meet the increased demand for your skills? If so, then check out the course series, Scrum Master Fundamentals, to learn how to set yourself apart as a Scrum Master and help your team reach their highest potential.

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