Sunday, June 26, 2016

Dangers of Certainty in Realizing Customer Value

Don Quixote was certain he saw Giants instead of windmills. In this epic story, he believed he knew the answers and saw what he wanted to see.  Unfortunately in many organizations, there is this same phenomenon, a need to act as if we are certain.  In fact, the higher up you go in an organization, the compulsion of acting with certainty becomes greater and greater.  Statements like “That’s why we pay you the big bucks” are used to imply that the higher in an organization, the more you are expected to just “know”. 

Some think they must act with “pretend certainty” for the benefit of their career.  Others have convinced themselves of “arrogant certainty” where they believe they know the answer or solution but don’t (or can’t) provide any solid basis for this certainty. Unfortunately this arrogance can be interpreted as confidence that can be dangerous to the success of a company.  Nassim Nicolas Taleb refers to “epistemic arrogance” that highlights the difference between what someone actually knows and how much he thinks he knows. The excess implies arrogance. 
What has allowed certainty within companies to thrive is that there is a distance between the upfront certainty and the time it takes to get to the final outcome.  There lacks accountability between certainty at the beginning and the actual results at the end.  Often times the difference is explained away by the incompetence of others who didn’t build or implement the solution correctly.

Of course, the truth is somewhere in between. The concept of certainty is actually dangerous to an enterprise since it removes the opportunity of acknowledging the options and allowing the enterprise to apply a discovery mindset approach toward real customer value via customer feedback loops and more.

We also want to avoid the inverse that is remaining in uncertainty due to analysis paralysis.  A way to avoid this is to apply work in an incremental framework with customer feedback loops to enable more effective and timely decision-making. Customer feedback will provide us with the evidence for making better decisions. Applying an incremental mindset will enable us to make smaller bets that are easier to make and allow us to adapt sooner. 

A healthier and more realistic approach is to have leaders who understand that uncertainty is actually a smart starting position and then apply processes that support gaining certainty. It is, therefore, incumbent upon us to have an approach that admits to limited information and uncertainty, and then applies a discovery process toward customer value. In the end, the beaten and battered Don Quixote forswears all the chivalric false certainty he followed so fervently.  Is it time for management to give up the certainty mindset they think they have and instead replace it with a discovery mindset as a better path to customer success? 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Power of Agile is in your Customers and Employees

I’m Agile, you’re Agile, everyone is Agile.  Or folks think they are.  But are they really? If Agile is only a process to you, Agile will fail. If Agile is pretending certainty without validating with customers, then Agile will fail. If Agile is commanded from above with little ownership from the team, Agile will fail.  More importantly, not only Agile will fail, so will your business.  Agile is a move to a lean culture focusing on customers and what they find as value and focusing on employees who are the engine that can create that value.  Agile is effectively about creating a thriving business. 

I believe there are the two primary success factors in creating a thriving business: a culture where customers matter and employees matter. I’m not talking about the lip service that is prevalent today. In some cases, we see quite the opposite, where employees are disenfranchised and customers are rarely engaged. Instead, the goal is to have a culture and practices in place that truly gain the benefits of engaging with customers and employees. Through the customer and employee, a company draws their power within an agile culture and, I contend, within any thriving company.
When you have a riveting focus on the customer and you believe that an engaged customer matters, then you have the basis for a relationship where you can truly understand what the customer wants. When you have a sharp focus on employees and provide them the space to make decisions and own their work, then you will begin to understand the value an engaged employee base can provide.

If the values are sincerely translated to organizational objectives and agile approaches are applied, then it can act as a differentiator between the success of your organization compared to the success of other organizations. Of course, every company likes to say that employees and customers matter, but are their objectives and actions really aligned with these values?
Upon closer inspection, the values should translate into objectives focusing on customer engagement and employee engagement.
  • Customer engagement focuses on establishing meaningful and honest customer relationships with the goal of initiating continuous customer feedback to truly identify what is valuable to the customer. This includes establishing all of the activities involved in a Customer Feedback Vision.
  • Employee engagement focuses on empowering employees so they can self-organize into teams and can own and be a part of the decision-making process at their own level.  When employees have ownership, they have more passion in their work.  When they have more passion, they give 110%. 

Then we add the “secret ingredient” of applying a continuous and adaptive approach (a.k.a. agile culture, processes, methods, practices, and techniques). If done properly with the ability to adapt, this can lead to an increase in customer sales and an increase in team productivity. This finally leads to your incentive, which is an increase in company profits.  

Now is time to take a moment.  Are employees disenfranchised or fully engaged?  Are customers rarely engaged or is their feedback continuously engaged?  Is Agile just a trend that others should do or are you serious about Agile and the culture shift it requires?  Keep in mind, the combination of customer and employee engagement within an Agile context isn’t just a good idea, it is great for business.  

PS - to read more about the importance of customers and employees, consider reading Chapter 3 of the book entitled Being Agile.  

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Patterns of Resistance in your Agile Journey

Resistance is a common reaction to a change initiative. As organizations attempt to grow or improve, it must change. Change can occur for many reasons. When moving to an organization that is embracing Agile, there is often a need for a significant culture change since Agile is effectively a culture change.
Agile brings about a change in mindset and mechanics, which affects both employees and customers. Whereas change can create new opportunities, it will also be met with resistance.  Agile change really isn’t any different than any other culture change, ergo the resistance will have similar patterns.  There are many reasons for resistance. Here are some of the patterns:  

Here we go again! It is comforting when things remain the same. Employees have seen change efforts come and go without any true commitment and may attempt to wait the new ones out.
  • What can you do?  The commitment to change must be clearly stated.  The change initiate must be treated as a program, with clear motivations and rewards for change.

Fear of the unknown.  Change is often defined by a journey into the unknown and it natural to resist what we don’t understand.  For most, it is unclear what the change will entail.  
  • What can you do?  Leaders should provide a vision of what the new world will look like 

Lack of communication. Employees need to know what is occurring to them. As information trickles down from the top, the message can be lost.
  • What can you do? Plan for continuous communications at all levels is important.  Include various communication channels and messages from as many champions as possible. 

Change in roles. Some employees like to retain the status quo and do not want to see their roles changed. When roles are vague, some don't know where they fit in the new culture, making them feel excluded. When they have no say in their new roles, they can feel alienated.
  • What can you do? Discuss the role changes with employees.  Give them time to adapt to the roles or give them time to try new roles.   

Competing initiatives. Introducing an agile initiative when there are already multiple initiatives occurring can lead to employees feeling overwhelmed, causing them to resist. Hardly an auspicious start!
  • What can you do?  It is important for management to prioritize initiatives and focus on the higher priority ones.

Change for people, not leaders. When asked “Who wants change?”, everyone raises their hands. But when asked, “Who wants to change?”, no one’s hand goes up.  This can be particularly true with leaders.  Leaders want change to occur within their teams but are not particularly interested in changing themselves and this may be been prevalent in past change initiatives.  
  • What can you do? Acknowledge the change that the leaders must make and convey the leaders’ commitment to change. 

New management's need to change something. New leaders often feel they must show they are action-oriented. They may reason that the change that worked in their previous company should work here. Some know their term is short, so they are not interested in long-term change. Some are unaware of what it takes to affect culture. Employees who are used to this scenario may resist. 
  • What can you do?  Avoid what may appear to be random changes.  Ensure the Agile change is aligned with better business outcomes and not just to do Agile. 

It will not always be possible to identify and manage all types of resistance.  However, it must be treated as a real and tangible activity.  It is better to start addressing resistance to change in a pro-active manner. The more you review and enact the "What can you do?" tips, the more likely you will increase your changes of a successful Agile change (or any culture change).   

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Empty Customer Chairs – Illustrating the Absence of Customer Participation

Once upon a time, there was a company that said it was customer focused.  They used Agile methods to incrementally build software. At the end of an iteration, each team within the company would conduct a demo session.  The feedback from the demonstrations would be used to adapt the product toward what was deemed as customer value.  When the demo was investigated, it was learned that there were no actual customers or end-users in the demo. The question that may then be posed is if there are no customers in the demos, then what are the teams adapting too? 

What appears to be a challenge to some companies who say they are customer-focused or Agile, is how to successfully construct a functional demo.  The short answer is that customers or at least the end-users must attend the demo.  Of course this is more easily said than done.  The long answer is to establish a the Agile Customer Feedback Vision.  This vision is a strategy for identifying the right customers to attend, applying personas that represent the various customer groups, establishing feedback sessions throughout the work, and then motivating the customers to attend the feedback sessions. 

In the meantime, how do you highlight the problem of the missing customers?  Certainly those in the company understand that gaining customer feedback is important to the success of a product.  Even when providing companies with the mechanics of a customer feedback vision, customers are still found missing from the demos.  Why is that?  Maybe it's important to illustrate the obvious, that customers are indeed missing from the demos.    
One way to illustrate the obvious to companies and their teams is by applying the Empty Customer Chairs technique.   The Empty Customer Chairs is a visual way to highlight the absence of customers at a demo of the product.  The technique is applied by having 3 chairs that represent the customer at a demonstration. If customers attend the demo, they fill the chairs.  If no customers attend the demo, then the chairs remain obviously empty.  If the demo is held virtually, then 3 virtual screens are designated to customers.  If no customers attend, then those 3 screens remain empty. 

It would be hoped that a company or team realizes the benefit of customer participation.   Until such time, this technique can help you illustrates the obvious lack of customer participation that may have the intent to motivate the filling of those seats. At the end of the day, it is all about delivering customer value and this is a technique that can help you highlight the importance of this value through the absence of the customer. 

Sunday, February 21, 2016

What Colors are on your Agile Coaching Palette?

For those that advocate for Agile within their organization or help organizations adopt Agile, often times the career development is opportunistic based on the work ahead. This helps the Agile advocate at one level in gaining experience but can prevent the more methodical learning.  At some point, isn’t it good to be in the driver’s seat of your own growth? 

For example, if the Agile advocate (e.g., Agile Coach) only has team level coaching opportunities, they will never gain the experience and skills needed to coach at a management or organization level.  If the Agile advocate only has Scrum based opportunities, they will not gain the experience of working with Kanban, Lean Development, or scaled frameworks.  Instead a methodical component to their development must be incorporated.  This is where the Agile Coaching Palette can be useful.  

The Agile Coaching Palette provides a colorful approach to better understand what Agile capabilities and experience an Agile advocate currently has and then provides an incremental approach to explore, learn, experience opportunities in the future based on gaps and interest. An Agile Coaching Palette provides the Agile advocate with what is artistically known as the colors they bring to their work.
These colors represent several key facets (IMHO) of what it means to be an Agile Coach or advocate.  They are the agile experience acquired, levels coached, agile roles played, agile processes implemented, business and technical practices applied, agile training delivered, agile change management and soft skills applied, agile certifications acquired, and giving back to the agile community in the form of articles and presentations.  While there may be other areas of focus, I have found that these tend to cover most of the important Agile areas. 

Those who benefit most from the Agile Coaching Palette are the Agile advocates who play a role as Agile Coach, Agile Champion, Agile Sponsor, Team level advocates (e.g., ScrumMasters, product owner, etc), and Agile leaders of any kind who are looking to advance in their Agile journey. The Palette approach reminds those on their agile journey of the many areas they may desire to experience, learn, and play along the way.

Based on real experience, the Agile Coaching Palette is a methodical and incremental approach in helping you consider what you may want to do next, depending on where you’ve been and more importantly where you would like to go.  The “where you would like to go” is meant to be applied in an incremental manner.  Usually somewhere around 3 to 6 months gives them enough time to make progress but short enough to reflect on where they’ve been and where they want to go next.  

If you are an Agile advocate, consider trying an Agile Coaching Palette approach to help you better shape and color your future.  First start by establishing your current state with the key facets mentioned about.  Then, commit to an increment of improvement based on your interests or gaps.  It will help you be more laser focused on your future!

Monday, January 18, 2016

Unlock the Power of Self-Forming Teams

A collaboration by Chris LeBlanc and Mario Moreira

It is quite possible that many teams in your organization are going through the motions of Scrum.  Per the Tuckman model, they are in the Norming phase of team group development, but are hard-pressed to break into the Performing phase.  This may be due to the team feeling a lack of empowerment and what it means to be Agile beyond the mechanics.  We are going to share a technique that can help bring your Agile organization to the next level, increase employee engagement and help make your engineers high performing and happier. This technique is relevant when you have a squad of 14 or more people who need to form into 2 or more teams.  

The common scenario in team formation is where a manager (or those who do not do the work) decides the team structure.  Managers have external knowledge of who may work well together and what skills they possess.  This is an educated guess at best.  Might we consider another approach?

By embracing the concepts of self-organizing teams and bounded authority, we ask those who actually do the work, the team members, to use their team internal knowledge of who they work best with and how their skills are able to complement the members of their team.  The result can be happy, high performing cross-functional teams composed of engineers that that want to work with each other.  For those experienced with the process of self-organizing teams, might it best start with the ability to self-form? 
May we introduce the Self-forming Teams starter kit!  This is a technique used to help engineers self-organize toward an engaged and effective team based on their current skill sets.  There are few steps that need to be completed by the leaders before you begin:

Create a vision of the work ahead.  This will give the engineers the information they need to understand who is best to work with based on their current skill set.

Set up bounded authority for the exercise.  The leaders can provide their bounded authority guidance on a few inputs to the exercise: mix of senior and junior team members and buy-in to this process.Everyone follows the bounded authority of the Scrum process as input: team size (7+/-), cross-functional skills (Dev+ QA)

An Agile Coach or facilitator to help guide the team toward their self-forming goals

Once the bounded authority and the vision are established, the Agile Coach or facilitator is ready to begin.  Here are steps to follow. Again, this is relevant when you have 14 or more people who need to form into multiple teams. 
  • Kickoff the session with sharing the self-forming goals with everyone. They include: Well-balanced teams who can successfully and efficiently complete any item in the backlog;  Long-term teams and can autonomously deliver value as fast as possible; Teams that understand skills needed on each squad and a learning path for the short term; Team members like the team they are on and the work they are doing
  • Conduct a connection Ice Breaker to lighten the mood of the session
  • Describe the definition of self-organization
  • Introduce the Product Owner and Architect to discuss the vision and any backlog input
  • Conduct a divergent conversation with everyone.  Ask “What skills will be needed to tackle the presented work from the backlog?”  Write down each skill given by the engineers.
  • Follow this with a convergent conversation that draws affinities between the skills to generate a list of Macros Skills each team would need (5-7 is a good number)
  • Ask each engineer to walk to the board and mark off each skill they currently have and each skill they want.
  • Now start the self-formation process.  Ask the engineers to self-form into teams, using bounded authority and the Macro Skills that were generated as guidance.  As the facilitator, move the conversation along when they become stuck.
  • Finally, nobody leaves the room unless everyone is happy with the team they are on.  Ask for a Thumbs Up / Thumbs Down vote from the group.  If there are any thumbs down, explore the reason and adjust the teams accordingly.

What we have seen to be true of self-forming teams is that knowledge workers who choose their own team structure are more invested in owning the health of the team.  When something is not working on the team, they are more likely to improve it. They are excited and happy to be on that team.  Healthy, happy people create high performing teams that build high quality products quicker.  Unlock the potential (and untapped power) of your teams and extend your ability to self-organize with self-forming teams.

To read more of Mario Moreira's articles, visit:
To read more about Chris LeBlanc, visit: