Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Introduction to scrum (A retrospective)

A few weeks ago I wrote about how our first workshop came about and what we had learned from it. As luck would have it, the same day that we ran that first workshop, I received a message from an ex-colleague of mine, Leonie, who was working as a business analyst at Second Floor. This small company is dealing with the difficulties of success – growth is so strong that their existing processes, which have worked well up to now, are beginning to hinder progress. One of the things they were considering in an effort to manage their success, was a transition to scrum (which some teams had already partially implemented) and they were looking for project managers versed in same.

Although I had to disappoint Leonie in as much as I am not for hire as a project manager we quickly agreed that there was potential for mutual benefit in our respective situations; Qualogy could assist Second Floor in a transition to scrum, while Second Floor could help Qualogy through structured feedback on our expanding workshop portfolio.

A meeting was arranged to discuss possibilities. We agreed, with the delivery manager and technical lead at Second Floor, to kick-start possible further cooperation with an afternoon workshop as a general introduction to scrum. If that delivered enough learning and was generally well received we would talk about collaborating for the entire transition. At that point we had already agreed in broad terms on what a transition would look like; it would progress team per team (teams already comprised all the skills required to deliver working software) and would comprise a series of workshops and some targeted coaching.

First things first though; we needed to create a “Scrum basics” workshop that would leave a bunch of very smart, semi-initiated (in terms of scrum and agile) and fully dedicated professionals with an appetite for more. From our previous experience we were very aware of the need to run any workshop as a series of broadcast-interaction cycles, but we only had a half a day for the session and we wanted to ensure that the basics were thoroughly covered. The urge to take the easy way out and create a presentation (broadcast) with a high wow-factor (assuming we could do such a thing) was strong!

Our discussion with the delivery manager and the technical lead at Second Floor had indicated that there were some obvious (and relatively inexpensive) opportunities for process improvement, quick wins if you like. We were considering the possibility of creating hooks in our presentation-to-be for these basic improvement experiments (e.g. keeping sprint length stable) when Wouter made the inspired suggestion of setting the workshop up along the lines of a retrospective. The fact remained that it would not be trivial to involve our audience actively enough while ensuring that we covered the basics, but a retrospective framework (we used Derby & Larsen's Set the Scene-Data Gathering-Generating Insights-Decide What to Do-Wrap) provided an excellent starting point for attempting just that.

We set the scene in a half an hour by introducing ourselves, relating how the workshop had come about and how things might develop thereafter. We explained how the agenda had been set up, how we intended to make the material covered as relevant as possible to Second Floor, and how we wanted to garner feedback throughout the afternoon. This was followed by a short broadcast including definitions and an extremely brief history of both scrum and agile.

To gather data, we used a (familiar) brainstorm; we asked everybody to think about the process at Second Floor and to organise their thoughts by writing down (on sticky notes) what they felt was good about their process, what was bad and what could be improved. Notes were added to a prepared flip chart in the relevant category. We then asked the group to collate and de-duplicate the notes in the various sections. Using dot voting we generated a shared view of what was most important to keep doing, and what needed changing most urgently.

Then followed three Generating Insights/Decide What To Do cycles. Each cycle was built around one of the scrum roles whereby a short broadcast was followed by some Q&A and finally an explicit effort to connect some of the material just covered with specific points raised via the brainstorm. Envisioning how exactly we would make that explicit connection beforehand was difficult; we obviously we did not know what would come out of the brainstorm. On the other hand we knew that there were some quick wins to be had. At the same time, we wanted to avoid obviously guiding people to pre-defined conclusions using leading questions.

Eventually we decided to formulate a list of quick wins per role/section as a list of Try.../Avoid... pairs (à la Larman & Vodde) and play it by ear. If during discussion following a given broadcast, an obvious opportunity to make a link to the Try.../Avoid... pairs presented itself we would capitalise on it. Also, and alternatively, if discussion stalled we would introduce the appropriate Try.../Avoid... pairs as a catalyst for conversation. Organising the information according to the scrum roles worked well; it provided a natural framework for covering required ground on artefacts, ceremonies and rules while simultaneously detailing varying perspectives. However, in spite of (or maybe precisely because of) energetic discussion with the group, we struggled to connect to the results of the brainstorm in the fashion that we had hoped.

We wound the workshop up with a retrospective. We had chosen a combination of the Happiness Metric and the Perfection Game as feedback mechanisms. Feedback from the Perfection Game was again very useful, if challenging. Positive feedback regarding the brainstorm and the general structure of the workshop was tempered by the fact that we had struggled to explicitly incorporate the results of the brainstorm into further proceedings. This was not lost on our audience who complained via the Perfection Game of occasionally missing the relevance to their own situation.

Another interesting aspect of the feedback from this session was that it seemed to contradict itself at times. While some participants felt that we had spent too much time on certain basics, others complained that we had raced through concepts that were not yet familiar. The Dreyfus Model (a modern variant of Shu Ha Ri if you will) provides insight here, although not necessarily a neatly packaged solution! The Dreyfus Model works on the premise that a person's level of training or expertise on a given subject will dictate the best way for them to gain further proficiency in that field. In the extreme that means that the kind of instruction best suited to beginners (context-free instruction to be followed to the letter) is useless, even potentially damaging, to experts honing their intuition. And vice versa. As yet, we are not decided on how to deal with this insight.

This workshop was important for us on several levels. Particularly satisfying is that fact that we have added another increment (Scrum Basics workshop) to our product (Agile Coaching service) while refining (that is; iteratively improving on) already existing elements of same on the basis of (potential) customer feedback. We are hoping that our extremely collaborative approach will serve the double function of setting us apart in an increasingly competitive market while also ensuring that our customers get what they want, much as that may change along the way.

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