July 22, 2014

All Posts By: Skip Angel

Agile Coaching Blog

Skip Angel

About Skip Angel

A Certified Scrum Trainer (CST) and Certified Scrum Coach (CSC), Skip has solid experience in consulting, IT staff and product development environments over the last 20+ years, with an exposure to several industries in an technical capacity including retail, healthcare, financial and automotive. He has been involved in managing, developing and supporting the best practices relating to the product development lifecycle through modeling of known software development methodologies including agile, waterfall and iterative.

Agile Changed Their Lives…From The Trenches of a CSM Training Class

As a long-time agile coach and trainer, I have had the privilege of teaching many types of agile courses, but more recently, I’ve been focusing on Scrum certification training for BigVisible. I teach certification classes available to the public, as well as private engagements with our customer organizations. Not too long ago, a request came in from a PMI Chapter, looking for a three-day class that teaches the fundamentals of Scrum to become a Certified ScrumMaster and prepares project leaders for the PMI-ACP exam.

Along with the usual challenges of a three-day class (longer days, more materials, additional preparation) another potential challenge began to reveal itself. This class was on the larger side (30 attendees) and made up of an audience of seasoned project management professionals well-versed in traditional/waterfall project management and not very familiar with agile methodologies. What I did know was that there was a thirst for more Scrum knowledge in general, not just preparing for the PMI-ACP exam. But that still didn’t calm my apprehension. Past experience had shown me that project managers tended to be a tough crowd. I mean, after all, these folks were seasoned PMs who have been doing their job for many years and doing it successfully. Now, they’re being asked to take a different approach and manage projects in a new manner.

One of the many things we do well at BigVisible as part of our class experience is not to sell people on agile, but to get participants to learn from one another, share their experiences and have valuable discussions with one another. We use hands-on exercises and interactive simulations throughout class to teach agile principles. This helps people feel more at ease with the concepts and feel confident in a safe environment that they can apply their knowledge and feel prepared to take on a Scrum project. That’s not to say they’ve becomes experts, but they’re more prepared with the tools and knowledge to take on projects in an agile fashion.

As our class kicked off and we moved through the exercises, there was an arsenal of questions, including “how does this work in the real world?” or “how is this different from what I’ve done the last 15 years?” Even with all the materials I had and the planned simulations, I still needed to make it real for them. I shared my past work experiences at previous organizations. I was able to articulate the benefits of agility, such as: reducing risk, quicker delivery of product, higher quality and more satisfied customers. Collectively, the group shared lots of their own stories, tapping into their own experiences of success and failures of past projects. The dialogue was rolling.

As this sharing continued over the three-day period, you could clearly see this group morph from being skeptics to advocates. They began to shift their thinking from “this will never work” to “how do we make this work in our own environments”. They were truly interested and engaged and the deep discussions continued. Then another wonderful thing happened. This group was so intent on learning, applying techniques to exercises and figuring out how to make agile work for their organizations – they really began to bond. It was such a strong bond for such a large group – but they became a community, a support system.

They wanted to have access to this support system and continue their discussions outside of the class. A good handful of people from the class approached me about creating an online community for them. I told them about our Training Alumni LinkedIn group – but they wanted one specifically for them. One of the participants created a LinkedIn group just for them and EVERYONE opted in to participate. Surprisingly, it’s been a long-lasting, active and collaborative community. They still share successes, praise each other when someone gets certified, share experiences, and initiate discussions.

As we wrapped up the class, what happened next will be something I’ll never forget. In addition to providing complimentary feedback about the course through our feedback forms, a several people individually took time to approach me. For each of them, this class became a game-changer for them; that it actually changed their lives.

Taken aback, I asked them what prompted their comments. As experienced PMs, they were starting to feel that their skills and approach were not as valid or valued as much anymore. To them, their new knowledge would open doors to new opportunities or new ways of succeeding in the current roles. The class put them in a mindset that felt like a new beginning for them, a breath of fresh air. The world was changing around them and they now felt like they could adapt and change with it.

What I thought was going to be a challenging three days turned into a very rewarding and fulfilling experience. This was a group that clearly got out of what they put into the experience.

For this group it was about the people, the dialogue and interactions. What’s been the agile game changer for you?

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A Tale of Two Teams and Two Times – An Agile Case Study

At BigVisible, we love a good challenge. So we’d like to share with you an agile case study about an engagement where the organization we were working with had a challenge implementing Scrum prior to our arrival.

Just the Facts

The Challenge: Implement agile in an organization with a previously disappointing experience with Scrum.

The Client’s Goals: Regain market share, increase innovation, and boost employee retention.

The BigVisible Approach: Assess the current situation, design a plan, start sprinting with pilot teams. React to results and adjust as necessary. Scale responsibly and give the client the tools to sustain the change.

What We Delivered: A successful roll out of 15 agile teams, a new passion for innovation throughout the organization, and a delivery cycle that was reduced from 6 months to 2 weeks.

A travel services client asked us to help them implement agile in the hopes it would hasten a return to the energy and excitement of the boom times. Our agile coaches began with two pilot teams. The first team rocketed through the launch, while the second struggled to escape the gravity of the status quo. Through a series of in-depth conversations and calculated adjustments, our agile coaches were able to help the second team take off. Soon the second team had surpassed the one that had taken to agile so easily. Meanwhile, the company experienced greatly improved release times and found ways to save millions of dollars through streamlining and automation. It goes to show that you can’t just flip a switch and suddenly be agile; and you can’t always rely on the tools of the past to propel you forward in the future. Sometimes you need a little help to move you in the right direction.


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Self-Organization: The Secret Sauce

Self- Organizing secret sauce
In the last decade, I’ve become quite a foodie. My ever expanding waistline is proof of this. I enjoy trying new types of food, and appreciate a meal that was carefully prepared to excite my taste buds. One of my favorite shows is Top Chef and I find myself watching the Food Network more than other channels. One thing that I have learned is that there is one key element that can make or break a meal. The sauce. While it may appear that the sauce is there to make the plate colorful, many sauces are quite complex in nature and are meant to enhance the taste and experience of your main dish. Likely, a bland or unappealing sauce can ruin a good meal.

In Agile, the team is the core element in the success or failure of greater agility in your organization. That’s why so much focus is at the team level. If you have high-performing teams that are reliable in delivering high-quality solutions that meet customer needs, you will be successful. If you have highly-dysfunctional groups of individuals that can’t deliver, you won’t. So, what’s the equivalent of that secret sauce for teams? Self-organization. (check out my upcoming webinar for more on this)

You are probably thinking right now, “Self-organized teams aren’t anything new, and it sure isn’t a secret that its important.” I would agree with you. Everybody knows self-organization is important, just like an amateur cook knows sauces are important. But how many teams really are self-organized and reaping the benefits? In my years as a coach, I usually come in to help teams get better and I realize what it takes for a team to truly become self-organized. While I wish I could provide you with the recipe for the perfect self-organized team, I can give you some of the ingredients you need to create your own secret sauce.

Self-organizing teams had deep influence into the core values and principles of Agile and Scrum. Within the 12 core principles of the Agile Manifesto is this: “The best architectures, requirements and designs emerge from self-organized teams.” There was a belief among the signers of the manifesto that the right teams under the right conditions could build great products. Putting the power of the solution and the right way to build those products in the hands of the team. If you don’t have the belief or trust in your team to have this kind of responsibility, you can’t expect them to truly self-organize and do whatever it takes to build a solid product.

Teams need certain conditions to be satisfied before they can achieve self-organization. A large influence to the founders of Scrum was an article that appeared in the Harvard Business Review called “The New New Product Development Game”. The article focused on what it takes for a team to become high-performing and long lasting. One of those elements was self-organization. In the article, they mentioned three keys for this to happen:

  1. Autonomy – Management involvement is limited to providing guidance, money and morale support at the outset. On a day-to-day basis, top management seldom intervenes; the team is free to set their own direction. This sounds a lot like another one of the 12 principles “Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.”,
  2. Self-Transcendence – Project teams seem to be absorbed in a never ending quest for “the limit”. Starting with the guidelines set forth by top management, they begin to set their own goals and keep on elevating them throughout the development process. By pursuing what appear at first contradictory goals, they devise ways to override the status quo and make the big discovery. Sounds a lot like another of the principles, “At regular intervals, the team reflects how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behaviors accordingly.”,
  3. Cross-Fertilization – A team consisting of members of varying functional specializations, thought processes, and behavior patterns carriers out new product development. You start thinking in terms of what’s best for the group at large and not only where you stand. If everyone understands the other person’s position, then each of us is more willing to give in, or at least try to talk with each other.

Team members must have a different mindset and change of behaviors to be part of a self-organized team.  Following are just a few of the attributes of a team members that is part of a self-organized team:

  • Accept change – Team is always looking for ways to improve how they work, we should be willing to open minded and accept change as it happens.
  • Try new things – Team makes commitments as a group, we may have to step out of our comfort zone and learn something new in order to help the team commitment. This requires taking risks, experimenting and helping the team with work outside your job description.
  • Take action, instead of waiting to be told what to do – We can not wait for someone to tell us what to do, if we see something that needs to be done, we share that with the team or do it if necessary.
  • Help others to succeed – If you see that someone needs help or more experience in a certain skill, offer your assistance if you can. In the end, this helps the team succeed.
  • Consensus decision making – The team will have to make many decision, they will need to agree as a team on how they will make decisions.
  • Peer coaching and feedback – The team should be looking for ways to become cross-functional and amplify learning. One way of doing this is through peer coaching and giving feedback to one another.
  • Group problem solving – The team is responsible for solving problems together quickly.
  • Conflict management – Learning how to resolve conflicts, teams will have to agree together on how they will resolve conflicts amongst the team.

Teams need coaches to help them on the initial path towards self-organization. You will see in XP and Scrum the notion that outside leadership is needed. XP has the role of XP Coach and Scrum has the ScrumMaster role. People in these roles are focused on how to help the team reach a level of high-performance. So, a large part of their effort is to help the team get in place the ingredients mentioned above. Are you in those positions but not sure how to get started? You might consider getting an external coach that has seen firsthand teams that are self-organized and get their help. Don’t just think learning practices is enough for teams to get good. Even the best conceived dishes can be poorly executed because they forget the sauce!

Still Hungry? Check out Skip’s latest webinar!
Self Organize or Die? A Survival Guide Webinar. Why is self-organization such a critical ingredient in adopting agile?


Agile Coaching Is (All) About People

“You’ve not only made things better, you have truly changed our lives.”

These are the words that every agile coach yearns to hear from the people they work with. While it’s always a goal of mine to change the mindsets of clients, I have had mixed results over my five years as an agile coach. On one six-month engagement with a client I’ll call Prosperity, though, something transformative took place. I’ve spent some time since then thinking about what made those six months so successful and why Prosperity continues to push the envelope of what it is capable of doing as an organization.

Agile Coaching: What Makes It Better With Some Clients?

At first, I thought it was all around the process. Prosperity, like many other clients, started out wanting to “learn agile.” [Read more...]


Agile Delivery: From ScrumMaster to Team Coach

Several weeks ago, one of my colleagues at BigVisible brought up an interesting concern around agile delivery and the ScrumMaster. How is, he asked, that there are so many ScrumMasters out there who are unprepared for their role on a team?

Agile Delivery Team Coach ScrumMaster

As I thought about it, I realized that the two-day CSM course basically introduces new ScrumMasters, team members, and other interested parties to how Scrum works and how to move teams through the ceremonies and artifacts associated with Scrum. What it doesn’t do—and likely cannot do in just two days—is also focus on all of the things ScrumMasters have to do to foster truly high-performing teams. The ScrumMaster role, done right, is much more than just scheduling meetings and updating a burndown chart. That leads me to conclude that the name ScrumMaster should (or will) die and be replaced with one that reflects the truly comprehensive nature of the role: team coach. Here’s why: [Read more...]


Agile Accountability

This was a great week at BVCon, our bi-annual company gathering where we build relationships, show experiences, and learn from each other. These events are core to our values and success, as it brings our virtual company together not only physically but also emotionally. While I have always enjoyed and treasure this time together, in past events I have felt something was missing. While we would have awesome discussions and a fun time, little would happen after the events. We would essentially go back to our real world with our clients and continue with our lives as coaches. Sure, we would come back refreshed and energized, but there were few tangible results that we could take back and use.

Is Agile Accountability an Oxymoron?

This year’s theme was around accountability, a topic that is difficult for leaders to talk about, especially those that have embraced agile principles. Why? Because many leaders believe that accountability resembles command-and-control leadership. A manager tells you to be accountable, instead of allowing you to be empowered and self-organize with the rest of your team. I have heard some say in the agile world that management is not needed for true accountability; instead, the team members should hold each other accountable for their success.

BigVisible & Agile Accountability

For a long time, the only goal our BigVisible leadership team gave us was to “be awesome.” They felt that to be more specific might put structure or constraints in place that would be stifling. As coaches, we felt great to have complete power over our destiny. No rules, no guidelines, just do your best and help our clients. Should be enough, right?   [Read more...]


The Flywheel of Organizational Agility: Enablement Teams

The Challenge

When I ask people if agile principles and methods have helped their teams with delivery and execution, most of them are quick to acknowledge that they have. These same people, however, often go on to describe the challenges they’ve faced in scaling agile or in their enterprise transformation. They share various organizational impediments that slow teams down and stand in the way of true, lasting change. In response, I ask the following question, “Do you have a team across the organization that is focused on addressing these challenges?” Most of the time the answer is ‘No’ — in fact, most people seem surprised by the very concept. Yet enablement teams could be the most important component for sustained success and true organizational agility.

The Flywheel Effect

In one of my favorite business books, Good to Great1, author Jim Collins talks about the slow, steady nature of lasting change by comparing it to an egg. He says that when chicken hatches, it appears to happen instantaneously. Yet in reality it is the culminating event of a long-term effort:

While the outside world was ignoring this seemingly dormant egg, the chicken within was evolving, growing, developing&emdash;changing. From the chicken’s point of view, the moment of breakthrough, of cracking the egg, was simply one more step in a long chain of steps that had led to that moment. Granted, it was a big step—but it was hardly the radical transformation that it looked like from the outside.

Collins goes on to say that creating this kind of breakthrough within the confines of a large company is akin to moving an enormous flywheel, “a massive, metal disk mounted horizontally on an axle. It’s about 100 feet in diameter, 10 feet thick, and it weighs about 25 tons.”

Image: Flywheel from an old factory by Rajesh Dhawan on wikimedia commons.

Your job, Collins writes, is to generate enough momentum to get that flywheel moving as fast possible. To move something that huge, however, will require tremendous effort. And even as you push as hard as you can, you are unlikely to see a great deal of movement at first. But if you keep pushing steadily, little by little, the wheel will begin to turn, faster and faster, until “at some point, you can’t say exactly when—you break through. The momentum of the heavy wheel kicks in your favor. It spins faster and faster, with its own weight propelling it. You aren’t pushing any harder, but the flywheel is accelerating, its momentum building, its speed increasing. This is the Flywheel Effect. It’s what it feels like when you’re inside a company that makes the transition from good to great.”

Establishing a Guiding Coalition

So how can you get the flywheel that is your company to really start moving and gaining momentum? [Read more...]