Growing Agile Teams at Agile Yorkshire

I attended Agile Yorkshire last week and saw two great talks by Tom Hoyland and Jon Fulton. I really enjoyed both but a few points in Tom’s talk really interested me and I’d like to take a few minutes to share them.

Tom is a Scrum Master at Sky Betting and Gaming, I’ve heard good things about the company in the past so I was interested to hear one of their success stories. It turns out that Tom was part of a team of twelve who really stripped Agile “back to basics” and conducted a series of experiments on the road to continuous delivery. Working in a regulated industry myself I was intrigued how they’d got on.

One of the first things Tom talked about was how many different people in the team came to the table with ideas of what was agile best practice. We all laughed at his “my guru is better than your guru” but it makes a lot of sense! I am heavily influenced by Jez Humble, Gene Kim, and Clarke Ching but many of my colleagues may watch talks and read blogs from very different thought leaders. Tom explained that one of the first thing they had to do in the team’s formation was break many of the concepts down to their fundamental concepts and understand what worked for them.

Something else Tom discussed was how the team consolidated their own backlog. This was not controversial, how else would you prioritise the work against it? It was only when he gave examples of some of the different backlogs they’re identified that I became intrigued. Risk Logs, Retro Actions, and Design Session – all of these moved onto the board and each became visible and prioritised.

It’s dangerous out there – take your buddy! I’ve heard many of the advocates or pair programming before but the idea of your buddy following you into meetings, design sessions, and CABs!? Tom explained that if your buddy went with you to these sessions not only would they learn how to design, and walk work through the CAB but they’d also know the current state of everything you were working on. If you were sick or the proverbial bus came along the team wouldn’t need to bother you because everyone would know what was going on.

group hand fist bump
Photo by on


There were many other good ideas (and I intend to borrow quite a few of them myself) but the final one I’m going to mention was the idea that Velocity is in fact a vanity metric (read The Lean Startup if you have no idea what I’m talking about). Velocity is just a number, like Number of Users or Number of Page Views). What we want are actionable metrics, like team predictability and accuracy of forecasts. As a Development Manager I frequently use the team’s average velocity to forecast delivery dates, Tom recommended that there are better measures out there such as a temperature check of the team’s current mood (which would often dip before any reduction in velocity). It’s an interesting idea, and one I intend to think more about over the next few weeks!

A big thank you to Royd and the guys who put Agile Yorkshire together each month. An equally big thank you to Tom and Jon for their great talks!

The Lock Complex

I have recently coined the term Lock Concept as a symptom of what many people call Fake Agile. Allow me to explain…

Waterfall development is often described with the Design, Development, and Testing phase structure. Many teams adopting Scrum tend to fall into one of two mistakes.

Photo by Trace Hudson on

The first mistake is to split up these into sprints. So Sprint 1 is for design. Sprints 2, 3, and 4 are for development and testing and bug fixing will go into Sprints 5 and 6. This isn’t Scrum. Clarke Ching uses a phrase I like in his book Rolling Rocks Downhill, he talks about GETS software. That’s Good Enough To Ship, at the end of each sprint the software must be production ready. By falling into the sprint phase trap you’re lowering quality between releases and not realising the value of scrum.

The second mistake teams make is to try and run each Sprint as a mini waterfall. This is what I now describe as The Lock Complex. Teams falling into this trap will design in the first few days, develop for a few more, and then test their work towards the end. Yes, the software is GETS at the end… but doesn’t this look like a waterfall on a smaller scale?

Canal Locks of Neptune’s Staircase by aeroid CC BY-SA 3.0

The main symptom with this approach is people twiddling their thumbs (testers at the start of the sprint and developers at the end). While wasted time is frustrating, the real problem is the lack of shared knowledge and by unlocking that you can quickly raise your game towards Continuous Delivery.

The way to solve this becomes quite apparent if you look at the DevOps utopia we’re all told about. In a world of Continuous Delivery and automated approvals we create automated acceptance tests to ensure that our code functions as expected. If the feature doesn’t meet these automated tests then it will not be merged in, or if it has been then the deployment pipeline will stop.

In this world, not only are we deploying faster and achieving single piece flow but we’re breaking that Lock Complex. People are busy all the time and pair and mob programming becomes the norm. Instead of having a testing phase where it’s our QA’s engineers’ time to shine we have continuous collaboration and our quality specialists advising on the best tests and mechanisms to be implemented. Testers no longer run manual tests, we get computers to do that. Testers work to ensure that the automated tests give us a coherent test strategy.

If we can help our teams to break the Lock Complex and stop working in mini-waterfall sprints then we’ll see the benefits as people collaborate more and achieve better velocities and higher qualities as a result.

Crucial Conversations Book Review

I’ve been posting a lot about communication and safety recently and I want to give credit to the book which kickstarted my renewed interest.

Crucial Conversations is by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, and Ron Mcmillan. In the opening chapters the authors explain that a crucial conversation is any exchange where the stakes are high and emotions are running rampant. They describe how avoiding these conversations or handling them badly can leave lasting repercussions on our wellbeing.

Over the following chapters they describe how to recognise safety, how to reinforce it, and how to reach a positive outcome. It’s really strong stuff, in fact I’ve incorporated many of their ideas in my own style and recent talks.

The book isn’t targeted to a work environment, in fact many of the examples are close to home and personal scenarios. Asking for a raise or disagreeing with someone over a design choice will seem like small fry compared to some of the issues the characters in the book face.

However, I believe strongly that by using these techniques teams can communicate more effectively. By using some of the ideas Kerry and his fellow authors use to monitor safety in a conversation we’ll have better retros, planning sessions, and general collaboration.

If you’ve not read it then I strongly suggest you pick up a copy – it’s one of the few books I’ve rated 5* this year.


Why is Safety So Important?

I wrote recently about safety and how I’d describe it, I gave an example of a developer who suspected that a particular approach chosen by the team wouldn’t work but didn’t feel confident enough to speak out and challenge the design.

In this post I want to discuss just how serious that lack of safety is. Beyond that lack of a warning a lack of safety can lead to bugs, disengagement, and even resignations.

If you’ve not already read it then I suggest picking up a copy of 5 Dysfunctions of a Team but Patrick Lencioni. It really is very good!

To back up my statement over resignations I want you to think of the last time you disagreed with your spouse, friend, or family member folder what to do one evening or weekend. Maybe they wanted to go shopping or redecorate a room. I want you to think about how you felt doing that activity and question whether you really gave it 100%

Not really being engaged is hardly unsurprising. Let’s say you wanted to see one film but you were talked into seeing something different. Are you really going to admit that you enjoyed it or will you secretly (it not so secretly) believe that your choice would have been better?

The point of this simple example is that humans struggle to commit to an idea while they still believe that their option would have been better. When we have joint design discussions if someone has an idea and doesn’t voice it or has concerns but gets shot down then they will never feel like their voice has been heard. They become disengaged from the end result, because they never wanted to do it that way anyway. It’s not malicious, it’s a defence mechanism because don’t want to admit that out way wasn’t better.

Only be encouraging all team members to openly discuss their ideas so we gain not just consensus, but buy in. As for staff retention, if your team member never feels bought into the work because they don’t feel like their view is listened to, how long do you think they will remain in that team?

Agile Development with Lego Star Wars

Recently I was lucky enough to attend a workshop run by IndigoBlue as part of the Leeds Digital Festival.

Our objective was to build a Death Star for the Emperor. The Dark Lord of the Sith had kindly refined the construction of his battle station into user stories and the two different teams had to build various sections ready to be deployed into production.

It was only at the end of the first sprint, after my team had constructed a very impressive throne room and firing dish that we realised that none of us had asked how we were supposed to deploy into production.

The Emperor it turns out had an operations team and was very particular about production access. We couldn’t just drop sections of the space station anywhere, there were rules, and if we didn’t talk to the operations guys, the other team, and on occasion the emperor himself there was little chance we’d succeed. I don’t want to share all the rules as IndigoBlue had clearly put a huge amount of time and effort into developing them, if you want to know more I’d highly recommend you to get in touch!

After three sprints I’m glad to say we started to get the hang of things and our Death Star reaches its MVP.

The Emperor was delighted that his Death Star had a trench surrounding it…

A board room for holding important meetings.

And a shuttle bay.

Not to mention all the other bits I didn’t get a great photo of!

Overall it was a brilliant evening, a great game to remind ourselves of some the basic Agile and DevOps concepts, and I had a lot of fun. If you see another of these events advertised I’d highly recommend it!

What Exactly is Safety?

When I first heard about someone taking about safety in the workplace I assumed that it was part of an anti-bullying campaign, a Health and Safety initiative, or perhaps some huggy feely thing from someone in HR. It took a little while for me to realise that not only is safety everyone’s responsibility, it is perhaps the most important component of an effective team.

To try to illustrate what safety is I’m going to give you a fictional scenario.

I dropped in on the last few minutes of the team’s planning session. As their manager I’m not strictly required to attend but I like to join occasion to keep up to date with what they are working on.

One of the developers was up at the whiteboard, pen in hand, and he was gesturing enthusiastically at his design. The rest of the team nodded, some eagerly, others showing the fatigue so typical towards the end of a long meeting.

Seeing that the group were wrapping up I caught the eye of one of our senior developers. We had a 1:1 scheduled and I wanted to get started quickly so I wasn’t late for my next meeting.

A few minutes later, coffee in hand, he had just finished telling me about the new data access module he’d created for one of our legacy products. After giving him the appropriate thanks I shifted the conversation onto the upcoming work.

“So it sounds like planning went well?” I asked.

He shifted awkwardly in his chair, obviously not enamoured with the change in topic. “Yeah… but I’m really not sure it’s going to work.” He muttered “I tried something similar a few years back and it just got way to complicated too quickly, the code became unmanageable and we had to abandon the whole thing.”

My blood ran cold. There was a lot riding on the next piece of work. Deadlines, client expectations, the team’s reputation. Forcing calm into my voice into my voice I asked the most obvious question.

“Did you mention this in the meeting?”

“No…” he said “I didn’t think they’d listen to me…”

I’ve deliberately tried not to give extreme an example here. It’s all to easy to discuss nuclear reactors or operating theatres when taking about safety but that implies that the requirement to feel safe only matters in life or death situations. That’s not the case. The more confidence people have the better our teams will function at all times.

So, let’s talk about the problem here. The team has decided on a particular design for a piece of work. One of the developers believe that the solution is doomed to failure and has failed to share that concern. It’s very easy to blame the developer here, or the guy holding the pen for not listening, but in truth it’s everyone’s responsibility to make sure that people feel they can contribute important, and often unwelcome views without fear of reprisal.

But where does this fear come from?

Unfortunately it’s hard coded into our DNA. Based in the same rational as our irrational terror of public speaking the fear of speaking out and voicing unpopular views is grounded in our history as a tribal species. Millennia ago, if a member of the tribe appeared weak, either because their view had been successfully challenged or if they’d lost such a confrontation then they risked being ostracised from caveman society. We are programmed with a strong herding instinct not to challenge dominance or listen to viewpoints which may make us appear weak or incorrect. Unfortunately in the modern workplace these fears put projects at risk of failure.

Team members feeling safe enough to voice their ideas is crucial if you want your team to reach its highest potential. We need to build teams where everyone, not just those with fancy job titles or big egos feels safe to voice their opinions.

I plan to write more about safety over the next few weeks, however if you’re interested in learning more I highly recommend Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek and Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson.

The Three Ways of DevOps

If you’ve ever read The Phoenix Project (or pretty much any other DevOps book) then you’ll most have heard about the three ways.

The first time I heard the name I imagined some deep levels of understanding that the DevOps Sensai was imparting mystical knowledge to young grasshopper. I still like the mental image but having read a little deeper I believe they are three steps to building a successful collaborative team.

Let’s look at the three ways.

The First Way – Systems Thinking

The idea of the first way is to appreciate that each series of tasks is interconnected into a complex system. Recently I described how a delay at one stage in the system knocks on to each subsequent task, having a good understanding of the overall system allows you to identify where your bottlenecks are, exploit them and avoid work queuing up in front of any individual person or process.

The Second Way – Amplifying Feedback

The second way is all about looking at what happens at the end of the system and using that knowledge to improve the process. If a particular result is of a poor quality then the team need to know so they can focus more effort in the testing phases. Equally if a release is of a particularly high quality or gets good customer feedback then the team need to know that what they are doing works!

The Third Way – Experimentation

The third way is about constant experimentation and improvement. The team is willing to take risks (because they know their feedback loops are good and they will find out about any issues quickly). These teams adapt to changes quickly and are not afraid to challenge processes just because “that’s the way we’ve always done it”.
I believe that the fact these ‘ways’ are numbered is in fact very important. Without an appreciation of the end to end system it’s impossible to develop strong feedback, after all where does the system end and where should your feedback be coming from!? Equally, without this strong feedback experimentation is extremely dangerous – you may in fact be making things worse!

I also believe that these concepts can be introduced to a scrum team to lift them to the next level. By introducing ideas such as systems thinking and feedback (already a strong Agile theme) you’re asking the question of what in fact is the definition of done? DevOps encourages collaboration across Development and Operations, if a scrum team includes both roles then it’s logical that work is only “Done” when it is running properly in a customer’s environment. That surely, is the ultimate goal of any software development team?

Have you come across the The Ways? What are your thoughts? Can you use them in a scrum team?