Category Archives: Nirmaljeet Malhotra

Why the idea of a scrum team is so powerful..

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The idea of a team has evolved over the last decade. What started off with a group of people working together to achieve a vague goal under the control of a manager/leader, has in some cases matured where teams are gradually getting more engaged and are aware of the business objectives and are being trusted to get to the finish line.

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The idea of a scrum team presented a new twist to the definition of a team, obviously with its share of discomforts. The thought of a team without a manager, attributes of self organization and self management and emphasis to build trust sounded great but had many heads shaking.

While some organizations have introduced structural changes to embrace 3 scrum roles (Scrum Master, Product Owner, Development team), most organizations are trying to fit the new roles in the context of their current organizational structure or are making a effort to somehow align existing roles to the new ones.

The thought that some existing roles may become redundant can be discomforting and lead to resistance. Some common questions/opinions are highlighted:

  • What about the “other” roles like business analysts, architects, project managers etc..?
  • These people have been with the organization for ever. We can’t let them go.
  • Our product owners are customer facing and have other responsibilities. They cannot be available to the team.
  • A Scrum Master? Who is going to manage the team?
  • Our teams are not mature enough to self organize.

The above questions are clearly indicative of the lack of understanding of the roles and the fact that the organization is focussed on individual roles and not the overarching impact of the roles.

The intent behind the idea of a scrum team was to bring all aspects of product development (business/product, engineering and process) together in order to realize the end goal. While the simplicity of the framework makes it acceptable, the roles continue to operate in isolation and be looked as “speciality driven”. To simplify, Product Managers assume that the responsibility of development team is to implement their ideas only.

As I went around coaching many organizations, I have always made a focussed effort to communicate the attributes of a successful and high performing scrum team, and the attributes that make the idea of a scrum team so powerful. Here are some key attributes that distinguish the great scrum teams from the good ones:

Screen Shot 2017-08-31 at 3.01.06 PMInclusiveness – Scrum teams works best in a inclusive environment. This means that while every individual might have a set of responsibilities that come with his/her role, what creates a big impact is how these roles come together and contribute to the overall success of the product. The idea that only Product Managers are responsible for product strategy, analysis and business decisions and development team implements the decisions made the manager defeats the purpose of a scrum team. In my experience, teams that have been able to achieve the highest level of productivity and created seriously innovative and disruptive products are the ones where these roles collaborate and engage on a day to day basis.

No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive

Mahatma Gandhi

 For example; the complexity and the time taken to implement a functionality can negate the value of the feature. This information from the development team can impact the priority of the items in the backlog and help the Product Manager make better decisions. So, the idea of a collaborative team that embraces the scrum practices as intended can have a positive impact on the business value produced and accelerate the time take to do so.

For a patient at a hospital going through a surgical procedure involving doctors from a variety of specializations, each doctor constantly provides inputs to others to make sure that every aspect of the patient’s health is known to reduce risks and keep focus on patient’s recovery. Each one is included to achieve the end goal.

Alignment – can go a long way in defining the interest of scrum team members. Often, team members have a very narrow focus on the immediate tasks at hand and lack clarity of the business goals and objectives. Creating alignment is a critical aspect for a scrum team.

Alignment is a practice, not a state.

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Alignment is critical both at the business and process level and the scrum framework provides practices to help create the alignment through the empirical process control. The scrum team exists so that product, engineering and process can tweak things to stay on course to achieve desired outcome.

Talking about alignment, US and India launched their respective missions to Mars about a year ago. A very big part of the journey to Mars that lasts about a year to complete is to adjust the trajectory of the space vehicle to aligned with the ultimate goal (red planet). This requires various teams handling a multitude of functions to work in complete collaboration and constantly align the vehicle to ensure that the vehicle does not go off course. Any kind of misalignment can have catastrophic results.

Passion  – Alignment creates passion. Once every member of the team is aligned with the end goal of the product with clarity about what defines product success, they contribute in their unique way using their skills to make it big and successful.

Unfortunately, team members work in silos either unaware of the end goal to be achieved or are just not allowed to create impact outside their territory.  There is no focused intent to leverage the team’s creativity, skills or knowledge to drive decisions.

A great leader’s courage to fulfill his vision comes from passion, not position.”

John Maxwell

Time and again companies like Amazon and Google have shared instances where teams were able to come up with innovative solutions just by understanding a problem, doing some experimentation and adapting to feedback and these are the people who feel passionate about what they do. The intent of a scrum team is to create this combined passion for what is expected to be achieved.

Delight – The term delight is often associated with customers but it holds equal importance when it comes to the team we work with. The question one may ask “so how do we delight the team?”. As humans we get a sense of delight from small gestures from people around us. These can include writing a note of gratitude for all they do for the team and the project, engaging in activities to familiarize with the ups and downs of their lives or by just acknowledging what they do as a member of the team.

There is no delight in owning anything unshared

Seneca the younger

When a team comes together to achieve a common purpose and hold each other accountable for the collective success, delight happens. Acts of support, trust, belief, respect, openness result in a overall delightful environment and experience.

Click here to read about an experiment conducted by Thalia Wheatley called impact design to evaluate a delightful experience.

Celebrate – A unique attribute of scrum teams is their ability to celebrate success and failure. The cause of a success or failure is never attributed an individual but the whole team.

“Each day offers a reason to celebrate. Find it and experience true bliss.”

Amy Leigh Mercree

The important aspect of celebration in this case is that the celebration should become part of the team culture. Celebrations should happen frequently, for the whole team and in a way such that it leaves a lasting impact of the team members.

Conclusion: As organizations embrace the scrum team idea, the thought process needs to go beyond the need, skills and title of a role. Instead the focus needs to be towards creating an environment where unique skills are coming together to achieve a common goal in a inclusive environment where there is passion, alignment and celebrations and delight is not just for customer but for every member of the team.

 

My recent podcast on the future of Scrum Master role

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In this recent podcast, you can watch me in conversation with Samir Penkar on the topic of “The future of Scrum Master role”. This is part of Samir’s recent research study.

Add your voice to this research study:
https://futureofprojectmanagement.com/2017/01/26/future-of-scrum-master-research-study/

 

When a plumber gave a crash course in consulting

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Source: rlmconsulting.be

 

The idea of consulting is typically associated with an individual with certain specialized skills that makes him an expert in an area. While the term “consultant” is generally associated with high profile areas of specialization, other kind of areas fit rather well into the definition of a consultant.

A close friend was recently sharing his experience where he needed to call in a plumber to a fix a leak behind a wall, however; he also went about researching the internet about how to solve the problem. Not to mention he used certain keywords while searching like “cheap ways”, “quick ways” and some more. He also searched for specific information about how plumbers have a tendency to exaggerate the problem towards generating a high margin. As it was time for the plumber to arrive, he was ready with how the problem should be fixed, what tools would be needed, how he would ensure that the fix was successful and steps he would take to shield himself from getting ripped.

screen-shot-2017-02-28-at-11-19-47-amThe plumber who seemed like a master in his trade had other thoughts. He was quick to diagnose the problem and suggest the fix which obviously was different from what my friend was expecting. During this period, the plumber was patiently listening to all the research that was done. There was some back and forth and the plumber left without fixing the problem.

Human mind is constantly engaged in the activity of forming opinions about people, society, profession etc. We try to appear smart, knowledgeable and experienced in the most unknown territories. This isn’t necessarily because every human knows everything but because we feel uncomfortable with how the person in front of us will perceive us if we said “I don’t know”. At the same time, this behavior does change in situations when the outcome has a higher degree of risk involved. For example, talking to a doctor about a possible fix to an ailment, we tend to trust the doctor to make the right decision with the end objective of a successful and full recovery. We do not even want to confront the doctor if what our research suggests is otherwise.

While organizations like to have control over what and how consultants solve problems, consultants needs to exhibit certain characteristics and ethics to justify the value for the price paid. Below are some characteristics that identify great consultants from the rest:

  • Listen – A consultant’s first strategy to build confidence is by listening and paying close attention. The 5 stages of listening (receiving, understanding, evaluating, remembering, and responding) supported by active listening (a technique that required the listener to provide feedback of what he or she hears to the speaker) help in empathizing with the situation and subsequently providing solutions or asking relevant questions.
  • Comfortable saying “No” – The fact that consultants are experts in their field gives them a upper hand in making recommendations that are based on skills, knowledge and experience. This also implies that addressing the problem in hand using the right means takes precedence over other measurements including doing things a certain way to keep the client happy. As an expert, a consultant should feel comfortable to disagree with the customer and provide evidence to support it.
  • Align strategic goals and measurements of success – Engagement of a consultant suggests that a certain expertise is needed in order to address a problem which the organization is unable to address by itself. In such a scenario, it becomes vital to understand the strategic goal behind engaging a consultant and the measurements of success both long term and short term. Often these discussions never take place and consultants are asked to follow orders and paint a picture that is expected.
  • Challenge and persist – Great consultants don’t give up. They accept frictions, unforeseen circumstances and negative feedback, they learn from them and they move on. They will analyze and learn from every setback in order to prevent it from happening again.
  • Do not get ahead of yourself – Being a consultant in a specific area does not mean that one works on the same set of problems. For example; the symptoms for the doctor to diagnose a problem can vary from patient to patient. A doctor cannot afford to assume that the second patient has the same problem as the first one given that the symptoms are same. Think and assess before giving a reference to how you faced similar challenges in the past and how they were addressed. Assessment of the problem along with creative thinking should happen before influencing the solution approach.
  • Expose problems and facilitate solutions – Consulting done by providing immediate solutions to problems is done with an intention of creating dependency. A great consultant refrains from providing solutions and instead helps in exposing problems so the organization can solve the problem itself. It is impractical for a consultant to get into a problem solving mode having been with the organization for a short period of time. Instead, a great consultant will use enquiry and facilitate conversations to expose problems so organizations can find the best possible solution(s).
  • Have a exit strategy – A consultant needs to have a well defined exit strategy which should be looked at all along the duration of the engagement. Exit can be a result of a successful solution of a problem or completion of the engagement or a realization where the consultant cannot fathom the value to be added. Either way, exit at the right time goes a long way in building trust with the customer and ensuring a long term relationship. As it a said, the greatest measurement is success if by how soon a consultant can work him/herself out of a job leaving behind a organization that is self sufficient.
  • Maintain transparency – Consultants need to feel comfortable sharing both the good and bad news. Consultants are bought in for a reason that things are not working in the first place. Given the high rates consultants get paid, some consultants refrain from or delay sharing bad news with the client assuming they will address the problem without bringing it to the notice of the customer. The fact is that most issues exposed sooner than later. Consultants should establish transparency as the key criteria of their relationship with the customer right at the start of the engagement. If this is done, a bad news will not come as a surprise for the customer and will only help in building trust and ensure ongoing collaboration in addressing issues and risks.
  • Accept you don’t know it all – Not knowing everything is normal, however; accepting that I do not know everything is difficult. No matter how experienced or qualified a consultant is, s/he will run into situations where the consultant might not have a opinion or an answer. This isn’t necessarily bad news. Acknowledging that I do not know something and then making an effort to research the solution elevates the relationship and provides opportunity to learn something new.

Consulting in the area of business, technology and other recent areas of innovation has forced other business like staffing to get into the consulting fold. Individuals and so called consulting organizations have started using the term rather loosely. While this has resulted in smoke around who consultants are what they do, it is important that consultants practice the above characteristics to bring some credibility back to the professional of consulting and help organization realize the benefits of value consultants offer.

If you are a consultant who exhibits a characteristic not captured here, I would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below. Happy Consulting..

My podcast interview about Agile, Scrum and the Scrum Master role

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Image courtesy: cbc.ca

I am excited to share my latest podcast interview with Vasco Duarte where we discuss about agile and Scrum and get into details about the Scrum Master role all through this week. This podcast was recorded for the site http://scrum-master-toolbox.com/ to discuss various topics around challenges related to the Scrum Master role, some anti patterns to Scrum, change leadership, measurements of success for Scrum Masters and agile culture and mindset.

First 2 episodes are live now. Don’t forget to watch the upcoming 3 episodes (Wednesday through Friday) this week.

Please provide your feedback on the podcast, leave comments and like. Also reach out for any questions or if you would like to record a podcast for your site.

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Failing consciously – Product Managers, make failure your ally to be successful

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Failure. A word that refers to the act of failing or proving unsuccessful.

There have been multiple instances when we decide not to do something because we not sure of being successful. Similarly we sometimes undermined our own efforts to avoid the possibility of a much larger failure.

No one likes to be called a failure, however; what would happen if you knew that you were working to fail or that your work is intended to failing you personally but making someone or something else successful?

Let’s take the example of Toyota Prius. When Toyota decided to work on the concept of a hybrid car, they created 9 teams to work on different engine ideas. So, there were engineers that were trying to create the best hybrid technology possible but they also knew that the probability of creating a successful concept that will potentially revolutionize the automotive industry was very small since there were other 8 teams working on the same idea. ToyotaHybrid2.jpgToyota did not form committees that made decisions on which engine idea to embrace but they tried all ideas in multiple scenarios, kept refining the ideas and finally got to one that proved to be the best. It turns out that in a approach like this, the final design turns out to be a collection of smaller ideas from all teams that come together to create innovative products. For Toyota, Prius became synonymous of hybrid just like Kleenex became synonymous of tissues.

Failures are the biggest allies for Product Managers. The value that Product Managers expect to achieve is based on limited analysis and certainty and huge amount of ideation, adaptation to market and most importantly failing and using the failure to learn and build something better. However; when it comes to failures, what differentiates great Product Managers from the good ones is their mindset of failing consciously and intentionally. Here is why:

Plan for failure – Thought leaders cannot stop emphasizing on the fact that failure is opportunity to learn, improve and be successful. As much as this way of thinking is important to keep the positive energy flowing,  there is a huge difference between failing consciously and failure due to unaccounted or unexpected reasons.

business-plan1-600x353While watching  Olympics a few days ago, I noticed the french sprinter Wilhem Belgian  getting disqualified from the 400 meters race and the Olympics due to a false start. While preparing for an event as big as the olympics, an athlete like Wilhem would have laid down a strategy to get to the finals, he had to end his run at the Olympics for the most unexpected reason possible. He was completely devastated when the failure was caused due to a mistake he never imagined would occur and would have been better of completing the race and loosing to better sprinters.

I am sure Wilhem was not 100% sure of winning a medal but he surely wasn’t expecting to loose the way he did.

Pro tip: If you were conscious of failure, you were sure of success.

Build entrepreneurial character – When talking about entrepreneurial characteristics,  tenacity, perseverance, and resilience are the key attributes to success. However, these attributes are not as common. Elon Musk back in 2013 said that the human brain cannot cope with business failure. But at the same time, a human brain responds differently to failures that were completely unexpected versus failures that were expected and were part of the plan to become successful.

entrepreneurAn entrepreneurial character does not try to conceive a idea that had a 100% chance of being successful. Most successful entrepreneurs started with an idea, knowing what could get in their way in becoming successful but having a strategy to deal with expected failures and leveraging the small wins along the way to make a lasting impact.

Pro tip: Do your best to plan ahead for success but be aware of the failures that may happen along the way to affirm your assessment and awareness of what could fail and what will work.

Encourage creativity and innovation – The reason for success behind most successful products and services companies like the Apple products, Google or Airbnb has been the unique opportunity to ideate, innovate and be creative. Talking about Google, its most successful innovations came by way of the 20% time given to its employees (as much as people question the existence of this policy at Google now) where they could innovate on new ideas and opportunities. What was even more important was how Google employees were measured when it came to tracking success. In this case, the engineers building the product were their own product managers.

The biggest impact of this approach was the freedom to try new ideas, innovate and  feeling safe to fail. This basically meant that they were in total control of the “why”, the “what’ and the “how” of the product. This kind of environment allowed them to keep away from the pressure of making everything successful right from the word go but also consciously make decisions that might prove wrong in working towards the final right outcome.

Pro tip: Many minds can create many ideas and then come together to produce the awesome.

Conclusion: Leveraging failure consciously in making the right decision is a critical mindset shift for product management. An urge to get things right the first time can significantly constraint human behavior in a way that can lead to a negative impact if things were to go wrong. So next time you site down to ideate, be conscious of your failure as much as your success.

 

 

3 Pillars of Scrum – Core but easily forgotten

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What are the 3 pillars of Scrum? This is a one question I love to ask leaders, Scrum Masters, Product Owners and members of development teams as I engage with them, trying to help with their agile adoption. The statement “our team is already agile” is commonly heard but what is being referred to is the fact that the teams are conducting Scrum events (sprint, sprint planning, daily scrum, sprint review and sprint retrospective), connecting these events to agility and keeping the ideas of transparency, inspection and adaptation on the side.

Limiting the idea of agile adoption to just events and practices is a clear indication of the missing understanding of the core mindset of agile and Scrum and instead, the use of Scrum as a process control method.

The simplistic design of Scrum framework and the embedded practices are the heart of creating a agile culture for software development. Every event in Scrum is conducted to constantly put the 3 pillars of Scrum in practice to not only ensure adherence to the framework and its practices but also to have agility embedded to the people and process aspects of product development.

Most common examples of situations when transparency, inspection and adaptation are overshadowed by other “not” important decisions are:

– What is the buffer we should account for during the sprint to account for unplanned work? This is a step in the wrong direction from a transparency perspective. Team should rather allow for unplanned work to impact work so that delays become visible and the team can assess the reason behind unplanned work and adapt by working with the Product Owner to make the right decision.

–  Our/Your burn down does not look good. This is commonly bought up as an issue by the Scrum Master or the management and can take the focus of the team from getting the sprint forecast accomplished to making the burn down look good. It is important to understand that the burn down was not created to paint a good picture of the team but to transparently surface delays so that the team can collaborate and plan for the work to be done to possibly meet the forecast.

– Get the stories to “done” by moving the undone tasks to a new story. The “Definition of Done” is sacred to the team and is created with an intent of ensuring that the story accomplished is in a state to be released into production. However; creation of new stories with an intention of claiming browny points for work done or delaying defects for later is a common cause of delays and reduced quality.

There are many such behaviors and conversations that you will observe in your teams and the easiest way to make the right decision is to go back to the 3 pillars and make a decision keeping them in perspective. This is what I do while coaching team and it is what teams should do to create a culture of agility.

Remember, Scrum does not solve problems, it exposes them

Agile transformation – Working with shared services along the way

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The concept of shared services is prevalent in most large organizations. A centralized user experience or architecture group or services group can be commonly spotted. A lot of times, component team setups are given a flavor of shared services.

No matter how much dysfunction it causes, shared services continue to live for many reasons including:

  • Organization’s inability or hesitation to make structural changes
  • Fear of being exposed in getting outside of their comfort zone
  • Fear of change in general
  • Focus on local optimization
  • Others…

The fact remains that shared services are generally not economically viable due to associated communication overheads and increased cycle time to get work done, however; the idea of shared services will not go away anytime soon. So what are some of the ways to work with shared services setup in an agile organization? Saying that organizations need to completely change from a shared services structure to feature teams capable of delivering end to end functionality will sound lame and unrealistic. Below are some techniques that can help organizations work with shared services, trying to transform to the agile way of working:

  • Vision – The environment in a shared services setup is generally chaotic as consumers always have a high priority need. At this time, it pretty much becomes a bidding game. The person or team that shouts the loudest or the person with the highest level of influence is able to get their work prioritized to the top. This is followed by the lengthy process of knowledge sharing where the member of the shared services team spends time in understanding what to build and why. This causes the shared services team member to take a very narrow approach to quickly build what is being asked without understanding the vision and move out to the next ask. This sounds pretty much like a robot in a manufacturing environment that just gets its work done without caring about the end result.

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For agile teams, having a common understanding of the vision of the overall product or just a single release is of paramount importance to ensure that every single activity is focussed on achieving the vision. When working on large product backlogs, it is recommended that teams (I mean the whole team and all the teams) get together to create a common understanding of the functionality targeted in the next release. All teams involved should participate and help in sequencing the work to be done to be able to assess when the consumer will need something. This generally calls for investment of time from all teams but the outcome overshadow the cost.

Where there exists a clear vision and a clear understanding of what is needed from the teams, team members remain excited about what is being developed and look forward to their contribution and stay engaged

  • Alignment“Change is the only constant”. A sequenced backlog should not be treated as a project plan. Once a vision has been established and the backlog has been sequenced, all involved teams should come together on a regular basis to inspect the progress and resequenced their backlog as needed. Four-Dimensional-Goal-Alignment

This will specially help the shared services    teams to reprioritize their work to make sure that the next highest priority deliverable goes out quickly.

  • Collaborate – Coming together frequently to align is part of collaboration. Additionally, having someone from the shared services team attend the consumer team’s daily Scrum and other Scrum events and vice versa will help both the shared services team and the consumer team to stay informed about the progress being made and plan their work appropriately.
  • Service Level Agreements (SLAs) – Achieving discipline through working agreements is important when it comes to collaboration between teams. To use a metaphor, car manufacturers rely on multiple suppliers to provide various parts of the car to be able to assemble the end product. Each of the suppliers have to agree to certain processes and protocols to make sure that the assembly line does not come to a halt due to shortage of parts. Each part has a assigned reorder inventory level at which point the order system automatically places order for the next shipment. 3771.PPP_PRD_165_3D_people-Binding_Agreement_1FA08461Not only is the vision of the system clear to each supplier, the suppliers ensure delivery of products on time and are also liable to penalty if the agreements are not adhered to.

The key focus agreements is to build the environment of collective ownership, collaboration and focus to ensure quality and timely deliverable while maintaining a flow.

  • Use a tool – Tools can come in handy when it comes to collaboration and keeping shared services teams informed about their commitments. While I am a huge proponent of physical boards for Scrum teams, I do have to acknowledge that physical boards become a limitation when trying to keep shared services teams informed about the needs or the change in needs of the consumer.

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Additionally, tools can be used by teams to generate metrics to assess their performance in being able to meet their SLAs, get notified about key milestones and provide data specifically targeted towards continuous improvement.

 

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While I truly believe that structural changes are a critical part of a successful agile transformation, it is not always possible  right from the word go. Organizations are generally resistant to radical changes fearing impact on running the business. While baby steps are taken to impact structural transformation, the above mentioned steps will help in the interim to help the organization get started on the journey of agile transformation.

If you have other ideas/techniques that you have used in your engagements, I would love to hear from you.