The Agile Gymnasium

January 12, 2016


I used to be a weightlifter. All through college, and for much of my adult life I have been in gyms exercising in one form or another. I’ve had some modest success. The experience of joining a gym goes along some standard lines. You’ve probably done it yourself. You show up and they take you around the facility and orient you to the equipment. They may even go so far as to give you some very basic training. You get an introduction to circuit training and then they slap you on the butt and tell you to “go be awesome!” You can record your exercise sessions on this little card over here…

That’s pretty much it.

As you might imagine, the success rate with that sort of system is fairly low. A lot of people never come back (although many continue to pay their monthly dues). Those who do come back typically have no idea what modern exercise programming looks like and simply go through the motions: they ride the stair master, do a few sit-ups, and maybe do some curls. That sort of exercise has some marginal utility – you get some small amount of aerobic benefit, but it’s a far cry from exercising a meaningful percentage of most people’s potential.

Most people stop there, but there are a few who have a more ambitious goal in mind. They may be trying to improve their tennis game with better conditioning. They may be looking to build massive pectoral muscles (like most teenage boys). They may be trying to maintain their conditioning in the off season of their sport, perhaps like cycling in the winter. In other words, the purpose of their exercise is to improve their performance in some sort of real world scenario.

I’d like to pause for a moment here. I was listening to a discussion with some folks who owned their own gym and they had an interesting model. It had three tiers to it:

  1. Gym Work: Work in the gym is not like the real world at all. It is where you go to prepare for the real world. The gym is a safe place to work to the point of failure (that’s important) and to learn.
  2. Expeditions: Expeditions are adventures in the real world that are guided by a coach. So it is real world experience, but with someone there to guide you and help if you fail.
  3. The Real World: This is where it all comes together. Ultimately, this is where the training in the Gym and the experience in the expeditions pays off in terms of improved performance.

As a model for the role of training for high performance, I thought this made a lot of sense. There was one more thing that they added to this: They were capturing data on the entire group’s performance and analyzing it in order to provide better training for individuals in the future!

So when you join the gym, you use a training program that is similar to what others in the gym are using. Your performance of that program is measured and metrics across the entire population training in the gym are measured. Then experimental changes are made to the training program and their benefit (or lack thereof) is measured across the group. Gradually their training program improves over time. But the training isn’t just tested in the gym. They also track the performance of their members when they go on expeditions. This measures the effectiveness of their training program in the real world.

OK, enough about this gym. What if we could use the same metaphor for the way we train our development teams? Training would be a weekly thing. Something where you go in for training on a periodic basis to firm up your skills. There might be repetitions (pair programming, mob programming, etc.) and there might be coaching (coaching circles, etc.) and there might be someone who is coordinating the training program and measuring the performance across the entire group of trainees.

There could be expeditions from time to time. Hackathons where people get to try out what they have learned in the gym out in the real world. You know: build a real project, maybe deliver something over a weekend. Test out your mastery of your skills in the real world – with a coach there if you need it.

Then there is game day – the real world. You take what you have learned and join a team. You get to flex your massive coding and collaboration muscles and help build something challenging – something amazing. What a great model for development! But I’m not done yet…

Let’s take this model, we’ll call it the “gymnasium model”, and apply it to something like Certified Scrum Master Training. Right now, there is two days of class time and exercises and then they slap the CSM on you and send the newly minted CSM out into the world. It’s a hauntingly similar scenario to the average person’s experience at the Gym: welcome to scrum, now “go be awesome!” Maybe you do a few sprints, do a few standups and off you go. That’s about as agile as most people get. Seriously. You get some marginal benefit, but that’s about it. It could be so much more.

But what if we did things differently? What if instead of signing up for a 2 day class, you were to join an Agile gym. Maybe twice each week you go into the gym to “work out”. A coach would give you a workout, perhaps something like this:

1. Dysfunctional Standup
2. 3 Reps in the coaching dojo
3. 2 Sets of mob programming
4. 2 reps of code katas
5. 1 cool down with a retrospective

That’s just a sample workout. The Agile Gym is a safe place to try out new skills and to push ourselves. The coach would be responsible for measuring the effectiveness of the workout and modifying it over time. Experimenting with new techniques and combinations of methods and evaluating the outcomes. Of course, this is just training in the gym. From time to time we are going to need to test our our competence in the real world. The coach would provide some guided expeditions (perhaps twice a month). For example:

1. Participating in a Hackathon
2. Participating in a Startup Weekend
3. Participating in a Maker Fair

These are events in the real world that are important places to evaluate the effectiveness of our training in the gym. If our coding skills have improved, then we should do well at these events and build confidence in our ability to use our newfound skills in the real world. Speaking of the real world, hopefully now we would see the agile behaviors that we have practiced being manifested in useful ways in the actual projects that we are running from day to day. Our collaboration skills should be tight, our planning impeccable, our retrospectives revealing. And if we find any weak areas, then it is back to the gym for more training.

In this model, the gym is always open. You actually practice your skills and see improvement. What an amazing way to learn about agile!

It’s not a bad model really. Actually, it’s a really darn good one. Who wants to start a gym?

Keeping It In the Family

October 16, 2014


I was asked the other day, “Do you use Scrum at home?” It’s not the first time that I’ve been asked this question. The honest answer is: no. Oh, I’ve used bits and pieces here and there. I’ve put together a taskboard to track work on the occasional big household project. I’ve even built a backlog from time to time. But that is about the extent of it. I’ve been married for nearly twenty years – I’m not about to screw it up with Scrum or any other method for that matter.

You won’t find me standing around with the kids doing a daily standup. There is no weekly planning meeting on my family calendar. And the only retrospective that I do is after getting caught leaving the toilet seat up (“Doh!”). Nope, I’ve got to be honest, my household isn’t very agile.

You might ask, “Why not?”

Dang, that’s a really good question. I’m not sure that I have a good answer. Maybe I just want to leave all that stuff at work. But if that were the case, then why do I go home and write this blog? No, that’s not it. Maybe there really has been no structure modelled in my family life before. In fact, the very idea of doing that kind of “work” at home makes me cringe a little bit. I guess I feel like we have things under control. Maybe I don’t even want that control. It’s really hard to say.

I think there is value in sharing the practical time management techniques that I use at work with my kids. I didn’t hesitate to introduce them to pomodoros when my daughter was struggling to stay focused on her homework. It felt really good to be able to introduce her to a tool that would help her be successful. She loves pomodoros! The kids like all the fooling around that I do with self-experiments around the house (“Hey! Look at Daddy!”). They always want to know what kind of nutty thing Dad is doing this week.

However, I’ve never felt a compelling need to have any kind of formal family meeting at all. Call me a bit waterfall. I guess when it comes to my family I only want to give them the techniques that they need for the problems they have. I don’t want to burden them with a framework. Got a problem with focus? Use pomodoros. Does the problem seem too large? Break it down into stories. No progress? Try iterating.

When I can provide a helpful technique that solves their problems (agile or not), I feel like Superman. Seriously folks, there is no better feeling in the world. There is no preaching. I don’t lecture them on the perils of waterfall. To my kids a waterfall is something you ride a log down at Disneyland. I aim to keep it that way as long as possible.

I guess, in retrospect it’s not such a bad approach for introducing agile practices for anyone, regardless of whether they are in your family or not. In fact, why would you treat a team any differently than your family? Aren’t they just that – your extended family? Can we use this to inform how we approach introducing Agile Practices to our teams?

Maybe we just introduce them to the tools they need to solve the problem that they have in the moment. Perhaps that’s how we start. That’s how we demonstrate value and earn trust. Not by dumping some framework they must comply with on their heads.

Hmmm….I think I’ve been doing it wrong.

Introduce agile practices to your team like you would to your family. Give them only what they need and let them figure out the rest.

This is the Way Scrum Ends

September 30, 2014

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This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

– T.S. Eliot

Did you ever wonder if this is the future of Scrum? Will it eventually go out with a whimper? I think a lot of people fear this fate for everyone’s favorite framework. Go to a conference or follow your favorite luminary on Twitter and you hear a chorus of “That’s Scrumbut!”, “It’s FrAgile”, or “Welcome to Scrummerfall!” And maybe that’s the way it has to be. Perhaps all great new ideas eventually become diluted in a sea of mediocrity.

I think I hear a longing in some to fight such dissolution. To resist the forces of corporate entropy. Rather than try to fit in, they urge us to confront and overturn the system. You know, subvert the dominant paradigm? Confronting this dissonance is the difference between making a living and actually living.

I wonder if that’s the difference between those who “fire” their customers and those who stay and work within the system. Are those consultants who give up and declare, “These clowns aren’t ready for Scrum.” going out with a bang? And what about those who stay? Are they afraid to make the big moves and just content to fit in? Whimper. Or are they more subtle than that? Can you embrace your client and still change them? Perhaps the “bang” approach is quicker, and more decisive. And maybe, just maybe, remaining engaged is very, very hard, but yields results in the end.

I know, I know…why so bleak? Well, I feel this tension a lot in our weird little community. I’ve been on both sides of the engagements where a respected consultant has tossed their hands in the air and walked away from the engagement because “They just don’t get it.” or “They’re not ready yet.” And I’ve been that poor fool, laboring away within the system, living on a meager diet of optimism and the occasional conference, trying to make change happen. I won’t pretend to know which approach is right, or even when to use these strategies, but I think it would be worthwhile to understand this issue better.

Swarming Context

September 29, 2014

The application of Swarming as a method can be broken down into four main contexts. For each context the process of swarming is different. Allowing for different contexts makes sense, because we really can’t expect the same process to work equally well in every situation. Even the simplest animals are able to exhibit variations in behavior based on the context, so why shouldn’t our processes? We change our behavior to match the circumstances. That is, unless we are using fixed methods like Scrum or Kanban. If you are using fixed methods, the proscription is to treat the process in a fractal fashion, repeating it everywhere. Practically speaking, by having only one process these methods ignore the context.

So what are the four contexts of Swarming? Here they are in no particular order:

  • Emergencies
  • Shifting Gears
  • Innovation
  • Building

Emergencies represent the simplest context for swarming. When a crisis occurs, it’ all hands on deck. Everyone joins the conversation and brings whatever specific expertise they have to the party. The group self-organizes to enable those present to contribute to solving the problem. You see this a lot in production operations environments when a “P1” defect occurs or, heaven forbid, the production system goes down. When this happens, everyone swarms on the problem. Some are gathering information, some are listening and integrating the information, and some are taking action to try and remedy the situation. All of this is happening dynamically in the moment without central organization. All of these activities are critical to the success of the swarm. During a crisis, nobody is going to stop what they are doing for a standup meeting, and they sure as hell aren’t interested in seeing your Kanban board.

Shifting gears refers to when the system is in transition. The corporate ecosystems that we are all a part of are changing faster with every passing day. New products are coming to market and disrupting the old ones. It’s not enough to simply work within the existing system. You can’t keep up that way. These days corporations have to match their structure to the complexity of the environment. That’s hard, and that’s where swarming comes in. Like when honey bees form a swarm, the corporation reaches a critical mass where a new structure is necessary. Up until this point, the hive has been a stable and reliable structure, but with the presence of a new queen everything changes. A cascade of events takes place where the hive moves on. This can also happen with companies. When they reach a certain size, they can spin off subsidiaries, divisions, and even teams. We see this when teams reach critical mass and split into two teams (meiosis). On swarming teams, we use simple rules to enable groups to decide on their own when division should take place (Team size of 7 plus or minus 2). We use the swarming values and principles to help guide who works on each team – always leaning toward letting individuals decide based on where their own passions take them.

In swarming, Innovation is treated as foraging. We are foraging for new information and new ideas. In this context we are actively using our social networks to recruit new people and new ideas to our cause. This can be initiated as part of a special state (shifting gears) or it can be part of the ongoing activities of the team. When ants are foraging, they tend to follow the strongest pheromone trails to a food source. However this rule is not universal. There are ants who wander off the pheromone trail from time to time. These solitary explorers are the ones who have the unique opportunity to wander off the beaten path and potentially find rich new sources of food. So too, we want people on our team not to follow the team too closely. It’s best if they can wander off and explore side avenues and blind alleys. This isn’t something that is dictated, it’s a natural part of teams with rich diversity. People make these decisions on their own and either bring them back to the original team or they form a new team.

Building takes place when we are trying to strengthen our networks. As a team is growing it uses it’s social networks to strengthen bonds both within and without the team. This can be as simple as increasing the number of social “touches” on a team. Social touches are things like: greeting each other, going out to lunch together, supporting each other’s work. There are some people who are stronger at this than others. Some people tend to form many lightweight social contacts (which is very useful). On the other hand, there are those who only have a few deep, strong relationships. A good swarming team is composed of a healthy balance of both types of people.

In summary, swarming is used differently based on the context you are in. Understand the context, and you are prepared to take advantage of the power of swarming.


The Grumpy Scrum Master

September 17, 2014

grumpy dwarf

“Going against men, I have heard at times a deep harmony
thrumming in the mixture, and when they ask me what
I say I don’t know. It is not the only or the easiest
way to come to the truth. It is one way.” – Wendell Berry

I looked in the mirror the other day and guess what I saw? The grumpy scrum master. He comes by sometimes and pays me a visit. Old grumpy looked at me and I looked at him and together we agreed that perhaps, just this one time, he just might be right.

We sat down and had a talk. It turns out he’s tired and cranky and seen this all before. I told him I can relate. We agreed that we’ve both done enough stupid to last a couple of lifetimes. No arguments there. He knows what he doesn’t like – me too! After a little debate, we both agreed we don’t give a damn what you think.

So we decided it was time to write a manifesto. That is

We grumps have come to value:

Speaking our mind over listening to whiners

Working hard over talking about it

 Getting shit done over following a plan

Disagreeing with you over getting along

That is, while the items are the right are a total waste of time, the stuff on the left is much more gratifying.


Role != Job

September 16, 2014


When I talk to folks about Scrum, one of the points I make sure to cover is the holy trinity, the three basic roles in Scrum: Product Owner, Scrum Master, and Team. I’m starting to think I must be doing it wrong because when I talk about roles, somehow that role manifests itself as a job. Let me back up a step and see if I can explain what I mean. To me, a role is a transitory responsibility that anyone can take on. It’s akin to what actors do. Actors take different roles all the time. But when an actor takes a role, say as a teacher, they act in every way like a teacher, without actually being a teacher. They do it and then leave it behind and move on to the next role. They may perform the role so well that you can’t tell the difference between the actor and the teacher, but to the actor teaching is still just a role.

Now there are people for whom teaching is a job. A job is very different from a role. You are hired for a job. A job is something that you identify with and are assigned to. A job, at least for some, becomes something that they identify strongly with (i.e. “I am a teacher.” or “Teaching is what I do.”). A job is a very different thing than a role. A job comes with identity, some feeling of authenticity and permanence. Typically we hire people to perform jobs.

According to this definition, jobs and roles are very different beasts. However, people have a hard time keeping this distinction in mind. We tend to take roles and turn them into jobs. That’s unfortunate, because a role is meant to be something transitory, something that is filled temporarily. It is meant to be worn like a costume and then passed on to the next wearer. When you turn a role into a job, you risk perverting it’s purpose. When you turn a role into a job, you make it very difficult for others to share it – it’s hard to swap back and forth. When you make a role into a job, people get surprisingly defensive about it. It becomes something that they identify with very closely. If you try and tell them that anybody can do it, they tend to get all fussy and upset. They start to try and protect their job with clever artifacts like certifications – they’ll do anything to make themselves unique enough to keep that job. It’s an identity trap.

Here is how I see this problem manifest itself with Scrum teams: You sell them on scrum and teach them how it works. Every team has a Scrum Master and a Product Owner. So what do they do? They run out and hire themselves some people to fill the jobs of Scrum Masters and Product Owners. They get their teams sprinting and start delivering quickly – hey, now they’re agile! Only they’re not really. You see, as you face the challenge and complexity of modern day business, the team often needs to change. That person you hired as the Scrum Master? You may be best served to swap that role with somebody else. Maybe a developer or QA on the team. The ability to move that role around to different actors could be very useful. But you can’t do that now because it’s no longer a role, it’s somebody’s job. And you can’t mess with their job without seriously upsetting somebody. The end result is that your organization effectively can’t change. You limit your agility.

The bottom line is that I believe that the roles in Scrum were never intended to be jobs. To make those roles into jobs risks limiting your agility.

Killing the Buddha

September 10, 2014



“If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!”

This is a popular saying derived from an old Zen koan. When it comes to working with Agile projects I find this saying very appropriate. People who do Agile transformations typically talk about finding the Way (the road) and often speak with almost religious fervor regarding Agile processes.

In fact, Agile is really just one short step away from organized religion. You have daily meetings, attend retrospectives where we examine our patterns of behavior deeply, we worship idols with bizarre names like “Kanban” and “Scrum” and fight (flame) wars over them. We anoint our priests as guardians of that process (yes, I’m talking about you, Scrum Masters), and agonize endlessly over whether we and others are following the right path.

Wow, maybe Agile actually is a religion. That’s pretty scary. I’ve got to go sit down now.

OK, I’m back. What were we talking about? Oh yeah, killing the Buddha. So, given my little digression above, it would be pretty easy to rewrite that old Zen saying like this:

“If you meet an Agile Guru while on your journey (to excellence, improvement, whatever), kill him!”

Now aside from sounding terribly violent, what the heck do I mean by that? It turns out, that having an Agile guru around is pretty limiting when it comes to learning and continuing to grow. Whenever we have a guru like that, what do we do? We defer to his expertise. We wait for him to provide the answer and we stall our own learning journey. Having an Agile guru around can freeze an organization’s development. You end up limited to whatever level the guru is at.


Many organizations have these characters lurking in their midst. Heck, I was one once. I still have a business card with a title of “Though Leader” emblazoned on it around somewhere. I’m here to tell you it can happen to anybody. One day you are a perfectly decent, self-respecting developer and then WHAM! you become an Agile Coach, or a Thought Leader, or a Lean Sensei, or any number of other wacky guru code names.

You become, THAT guy.

And trust me, you don’t want to be that guy. You know the one, the Agile guy? The guy who simply must render an Agile judgment every time he opens his mouth. The guy who everyone defers to when it comes to do all things Agile. To paraphrase the old Life cereal commercial “Is it Agile? Hey, let’s get Mikey. He’ll judge anything!”

…oh brother, I think I just dated myself straight back to the stone age.

So what do you do when you have an Agile guru? You get rid of him! What if YOU are the Agile guru? Now that’s awkward. Well, your mission is to eliminate that perception. How do you do that?

  1. Keep your mouth shut
  2. Stop telling people what’s Agile (see #1). Use pantomime or something instead.
  3. Bring in, find, unearth or otherwise manufacture someone who has more expertise than you do. Understand that by doing this, you will run the very real risk of learning something. Sorry.
  4. Rinse and repeat until nobody mentions Agile in your presence. Ever.

So if you find yourself or someone you love has become an Agile guru, take heart! There is a cure! The best thing you can do to avoid stifling (and annoying) everyone in your organization trying to get work done is kill the Buddha.