Agile Odyssey

Agile Odyssey

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I Wrote a Sequel

AgilePosted by Shane Billings Fri, March 04, 2016 07:31:54

Scene: Shane, Jim, Marilyn, Barbara, Jennifer, Louisa and Stephanie sit around a table in a meeting room. They are anxiously awaiting for their new Product Owner to arrive. Stephanie is the Scrum Master and is dressed in Jedi regalia. The rest are team members. They are at sprint planning meeting.

Scrolling script: The galaxy is finally at peace after years of the Scrum Wars. Culture change is finally a reality as even non-engineering groups and suppliers have become Agile. In a time of unparalleled prosperity, even Darth Tod, the previous Product Owner, has become Agile and has been promoted. The Agile team called “The Padawans” are having a Retrospective meeting after a successful Sprint. They are eager to find out who their next Product Owner will be, unsuspecting of the peril that awaits them.

Stephanie: I have to say that I’m impressed. Velocity has over doubled since we started. You consistently complete all the work in the sprint and burn down reaches zero frequently. Roadblocks seem to be easier to overcome. The sky is the limit!

Marilyn: We owe it all to you. The Scrum Master can make a world of difference.

Barbara: A galaxy of difference actually.

[All laugh heartily at the cheesy joke]

Louisa: Things seem to be great. I never thought I would like work so much.

Shane: Yea. I’ll bet that our new Product Owner was very excited to be assigned to such a successful team.

Jennifer: I wouldn’t be so cavalier. A good product owner is hard to come by, yet they are worth their weight in gold. I mean a team is only as good as their backlog in a lot of ways. Agile isn’t only about scrum. It needs to be combined with other things to truly be successful – Continuous Integration, Test Driven Development, Paired Programming, Scaled Agile Framework, Model Based Engineering and other things should be considered. If you do stupid with Scrum, you’ll just do stupid faster.

Stephanie: That’s the point of this retrospective. We want to avoid stupid things.

Jennifer: I have a bad feeling about this.

Stephanie: That’s enough speculation. Let’s get started. Today we will be talking about our feelings. Engineers that are Agile have a lot of things to say about their feelings. Everyone take some stickies and get out a pen. I want you to write down…

[R2D2 beeps to interrupt Stephanie. Tod comes in along with the new Product Owner – Darth Vader]

Vader: Your thoughts betray you Steph.

Stephanie: Who are you?

Vader: Steph, I am your Product Owner.

Jim: Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!

Tod: Vader has some lofty goals, and I thought he would be a good fit, knowing what you are capable of.

Vader: The Agile is strong with this group.

Tod: Yes it is.

Stephanie: Have a seat while we talk about the last sprint and decide how to improve ourselves.

[Darth Vader sits down]

Stephanie: I want everyone to write a one word description of how the last sprint did on a stickie.

[Everyone writes on their stickie. Stephanie picks up the stickies and reads them one by one.]

Stephanie: Happy. Fun. Wonderful. Delightful. Exciting. Enchanting. Superb. Disturbing. Uhhhh. Okay everyone’s opinion matters. Would anyone like to elaborate?

Louisa: I had a great time during this sprint. Nothing seemed to slow us down. I thought it was “superb.”

Stephanie: Thanks Louisa. Anyone else?

Vader: I think the team could go faster. I find your lack of faith “disturbing.”

Shane: What?

Vader: You haven’t achieved enough of the Agile. You can go faster. In fact, the Emperor is coming to visit?

Marilyn: The Emperor is coming here?

Vader: That is correct Marilyn. And, he is most displeased with your apparent lack of progress.

Marilyn: We shall double our efforts.

Vader: I hope so, Marilyn, for your sake. The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am.

Stephanie: I sense darkness in you, Darth Vader.

Vader: Team, join me in the dark side. Use your fear to become powerful. Use your anger. Work overtime to accomplish your goal. Together we kill the emperor and rule the galaxy!

Jim: That seems extreme.

Barbara: Well, hold on here. Let’s hear him out. Vader, can your vision be broken down into smaller chunks that fit within a two week sprint period? Like maybe we could just take over a planet at first. Or maybe we just maim the emperor.

Shane: We can’t just go along with him. This is the dark side.

Jim: Yea! The Agile should not be used to kill people. It is powerful, yet we must use the power for good. This sounds like an ethics video. The next thing you know, we’ll all be interviewed one by one and I’ll say, “I guess I thought it couldn’t happen to me. I mean I’m a good guy right? I guess it’s all of our responsibility to stop and question what doesn’t feel right. If I had to do it over again, I definitely would not have killed the emperor. Hey guys they said, `Let’s kill the emperor.` Who does that? Then, maybe I’d still have my job.”

Louisa: The team is going as fast as they can. Your backlog may be in question, but not the capability of this team! Look at our burn down. It’s phenomenal.

[Vader stands and goes for his light saber]

Vader: I’ll show you a burn down!

Stephanie: Now everyone! Please calm down.

[Vader pulls out a paper and shows it to the team.]

Vader: Here are my plans.

Jennifer: Is that a moon?

Shane: That's no moon. It's a space station.

Jennifer: Alright, this has gone far enough. We are at a retrospective. I suggest a simple improvement story. “As a Padawan, I would like a new Product Owner, so I can get a proper backlog.”

Stephanie: Those in favor?

[Team raises their hands unanimously]

Stephanie: My apologies, but you must find another team for your dark plans.

[Tod escorts Vader from the room.]



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We Wrote a Play

AgilePosted by Shane Billings Sat, February 20, 2016 07:53:52

Scene: Shane, Jim, Potts, Marilyn, Barbara, Jennifer, Louisa and Tod sit around a table in a meeting room. They are anxiously awaiting for their new Scrum Master to arrive. Tod is the product owner. The rest are team members. They are at planning meeting.

Narrator: We join our fearless development team as they await their new scrum master. Spirits are low and tension is high. Our heroes have been through many Scrum Masters over the previous months. None could bear the pressure and difficulty of working with the evil Product Owner, Tod. Each had left abruptly, and although the benevolent functional management provided more Scrum Masters, it seemed as though the team would never be as Agile as they believed they could be.

Tod: Thanks for coming to our Sprint Planning meeting. There is a lot to do and little time to do it. Let’s get started by taking a look at what we have planned.

Barbara: Shouldn’t we wait for our new Scrum Master? I would think they need to be here for this.

Jim: Yea. I hear great things about her. I hear she is a Certified Scrum Jedi!

Jennifer: That’s not a thing. There is no such certification.

Jim: No, really. It is. I thought it wasn’t real either, but it turns out it is. It’s true. All of it. They have years of experience and are trained from a young age. They have mentors. They bring peace to the Agile Galaxy.

Tod: We don’t have time to wait. In fact, we need to keep this meeting under 30 minutes. So I have created all of your tasks and assigned each of you the work you will be doing in the sprint. I haven’t prioritized anything because it all has to get done.

[Team groans]

[Enter Stephanie in Jedi regalia. She is hooded with hands in front of her in Jedi pose. She calmly walks up to the table. The team is in awe. Tod is scared. She lowers her hood to reveal her face.]

Stephanie: I felt a great disturbance with the Agile, as if seven voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.

Tod: Nothing terrible. We’re just planning.

[Stephanie sits at the table. She looks at the plan.]

Stephanie: What does the team think of the plan?

Shane: I find it confusing. I don’t think I can finish in time. Not to mention that my assignments would be better done by Potts.

Potts: Awww! But I was going into town to get some Power Converters!

Shane: Nothing has Acceptance Criteria, and we have no Definition of Done either.

Louisa: It definitely doesn’t seem Agile. That’s for sure.

Tod: Sure it’s Agile! Agile means we can deviate from normal processes because we are flexible in what we do. We are Agile. That’s what the word means, right? Do what we want because the rules don’t apply.

Barbara: I have a bad feeling about this.

Tod: My career is on the line here. If I, uh I mean, we succeed, then we are sure to get promoted. Look team. All you have to do is go faster than you have been. How hard could that be? I’m sure no one has come up with that idea yet.

[Tod Stands Up]

Tod: Work harder and quit slacking!

Barbara: Help me Harry Koehnemann! You’re our only hope.

[Stephanie raises a hand and lowers it. Tod is forced to sit against his will.]

Tod: What are you …

[Stephanie clenches her fingers as Tod is forced to be quiet.]

Stephanie: Agile is a way of thinking about the how we do work. Those who are truly Agile value working products, responding to change, customer collaboration, individuals and interactions. Close your eyes. Feel the Agile. For my ally is the Agile, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Agile around you; here, between you, me, the table, the chair, everywhere, yes. It binds the galaxy together.

Jim: I’m afraid.

Stephanie: Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to panic. Panic leads to micro-management. Micro-management leads to suffering.

Jim: That seems extreme.

Potts: I’m not afraid.

Stephanie: Oh, you will be. You will be.

[Stephanie lets go of her Agile hold on Tod.]

Stephanie: Shall we proceed?

Tod [hesitantly]: Ok. The first story. As a product owner, I would like the team to go faster, so that I can get promoted.

Stephanie: This isn’t the story you are looking for.

Tod: This isn’t the story I am looking for.

[Fade to black]

1 hour later

[Fade back in]

Stephanie: The meeting is time boxed, and we are almost done. Does the team commit to the sprint stories and goal?

Marilyn: We can try. You never know what will happen.

Stephanie: Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.

Marilyn: I don’t believe it.

Stephanie: And that is why you fail. There is a long way to go before we become truly Agile my young Padawans.

Shane: Padawhats?



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Agile Elevator Pitch

AgilePosted by Shane Billings Mon, February 08, 2016 16:12:04
In spite of the fact that we've made great strides in engineering technology, management of engineering projects has been slow to evolve to meet the needs of the customer. Businesses are driven by time to market and innovation like they never have been before. Which business will deliver value to the customer the fastest and thus gain market share. This is the focus of Agile.


Agile is a mindset that capitalizes on the knowledge of engineers to produce value rapidly. Instead of producing non-value added items such as documentation or studies, Agile focuses on releasing tangible business value rapidly and using the knowledge to quickly respond to current climates of change. Instead of producing a product over the course of years, the product is incrementally produced over time to meet the customer needs in the moment. After all, if you develop over the course of years, then you deliver what the customer wanted years ago.


Agile is a mindset that has been traditionally applied to software although it is growing into the hardware realm with great success. It's main tenants are that we value responding to change, people and relationships, customer interaction, and an actual working product. These principles may sound like common sense, but that hasn't been the case in traditional development. Compare them to following a plan rather than adapting, no matter how bad. Or maybe we value processes over people. Some developers never interact with a customer to determine their real needs. In the worse case, a working product is never produced at the expense of comprehensive documentation.


Agile helps people think about using these principles to deliver value. They apply it with practices such as Scrum, Kanban, paired programming, Continuous Integration, Test Driven Development, and others. Companies that apply these new methods of management are seeing fruits that far outpace their alternative methods. They are seeing a competitive advantage. They are seeing value.

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Solve the world's problems. Just don't do it now.

AgilePosted by Shane Billings Tue, November 03, 2015 16:50:01

Recently I was invited to a meeting to discuss a problem. Actually, in truth, I was invited to be shown a solution. I suppose that the people attending wanted approval for their approach.

I guess the solution was a good one. It was to solve the problem of data organization. How would we find it? How would we deal with an audit?

The fix was comprehensive. It took into account everything that could go wrong. Nothing was left out and it felt safe. The only problem was that it was complicated. As the whiteboard was filled with lines, boxes and diagrams, I realized that the solution would soon turn into a problem in and of itself.

Complexity leads to lack of use. It leads to adoption failure. And we were on that path.

I listened carefully to understand. Finally, I asked a question.

"What is the bare minimum you have to do now to solve the immediate problem?"

That changes the whole conversation. Bare minimum? What was that? What is the immediate problem? What is the real goal?

I've been in more than one meeting where we solve potential problems rather than actual ones. Problems seem to have babies and procreate faster than a rabbit on fertility drugs.

There is no need to commit to a solution for an imagined problem. There is no need to imagine problems. The 100% solution can solve all of the potential problems. But let's be honest; not all of the problems ever happen.

A better approach is to solve the problems as they come up. And this is what this team was now presented with. What was the real problem? What was the solution? What was the bare minimum to accomplish the goal.

I let the team talk about it. Honestly, when the meeting was over, I wasn't sure what they would do and I didn't want to overly influence them. The following week, they came to me and told me they had solved the solution much more simply. In fact, it was already in place and working; much easier than the weeks of development planned for the original solution.

And the best part - they can still evolve. There will be room for future growth. There will be time to experiment and evolve. There will be a chance to solve the world's problems. We just don't have to do it now.







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The Parable of the Jungle Yard

AgilePosted by Jim Palmer Fri, September 04, 2015 18:26:33
I live in Southern Arizona... hot, desert, prickly everything... right? Well, mostly. There are a couple of months of the year, called the Monsoons, when it rains a lot. The desert is actually a very fertile place, as is evident by my back yard. I literally have weeds that are 11 feet high--no exaggeration. Prickly everything still everywhere, just now it's green.

I'm a busy guy, with 4 kids, all in sports. I don't have a lot of time to spend on the yard. However, today I happened to have only 2 mid day volleyball games and a Friday Night Football game. So, in the drizzling rain, I decided to attack the jungle with gusto.

My team was made up of my 10 year old daughter, her 9 year old cousin, my 13 year old son and myself. I didn't totally geek out on them and create a backlog, estimating the effort for each stick note on the wall, but as I pulled out tumble weeds, gourd vines and mini mesquite trees, my mind was formulating this blog post. Though my written word is never as good as it sounds in my head, here is my attempt to share with you the Parable of the Jungle Yard...

A man had a vision of what his yard should look like. He gathered together his children and painted the picture for them:

"We are going to have a beautiful yard once again!" the man exclaimed.

"We will fix the gates so they hang straight. We will trim up the trees, pull the weeds and level the ground. Once we reclaim the yard from the overgrown jungle, we will finally be able to plant grass and have a place to play and enjoy."

As the children stared out at the trees that Dad called weeds, they couldn't see it... the vision he tried to paint was just too far fetched! How could they possibly get there from here?

In spite of their doubts, they grabbed gloves and went to work. The daughter started hacking away at the thorn encrusted mesquite trees that had grown from nothing to taller than the eaves in such a short time. She trimmed a little here, and she trimmed a little there.

"Dad? Can you come here please and see what I've done?" she called to the man.

The man came and inspected her work. Not bad for a 10 year old.

"Go ahead and cut it back further. Let me show you." He took the pruners and cut one of the bigger limbs about shoulder height to his daughter.

"That far?" she asked.

"Yes, you are doing a good job. Nice first round. This time you can take even more off. No matter what you do, you can't kill those things!" So, she went back to work.

The man then noticed how his son was doing.

"Good job!" The boy was working hard, but leaving quite a lot of smaller weeds as he attacked the big ones.

"hmm... should I tell him to make sure he gets all the little ones to?" the man thought. "Nah. The first priority is to get the big ones down, then we can move to the smaller ones... baby steps!"

"Your doing it right. Keep on crankin'." He told the boy.

Let's stop there... what are some of the lessons we could learn from this parable, and apply to the business world we live in? Clearly, in this situation, Dad is the Product Owner. It was up to him to create the vision for his children, the team. Also, what about the big weeds vs the small ones? It was up to the Product Owner to define the priorities... getting the big weeds out was more important to the customer (Mom) than getting everything perfect. Let's pull that thread a little... how could that be applied to a technology industry? Maybe, a low fidelity simulation with only a little functionality would be better to deliver, in a short time, to the customer rather than never getting anything done to deliver perfection. Deliver working product in smaller chunks is good.

So, what can we compare the conversation about how much to trim off the trees? This was kind of like a mini review. The team was able to demonstrate to the Product Owner their working proto type. Because the short amount of time that the daughter was working on the tree, it was easy to course correct and provide clarity to her to help align with the vision.

Ok, so call me crazy, but that is where my mind was as I got soaked...

Oh, one more thing. How could we have prevented the jungle in the first place? Obviously, if I had been pulling weeds a little at a time, as they sprung up, my nice green grass yard would have stayed a nice green grass yard. But how does that translate into the business we do? From my Software/Hardware integration background, I compare this to continuous integration. Pulling the little testing weeds out instead of waiting for the epic multi-month Formal Qualification Testing that we all have seen. If we stay on top of our testing, and constant integration, there will never be a need for the big bang at the end of a release. We'll already have the beautiful green grass release.

What can you learn from the Parable of the Jungle Yard?

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Scrum Zombie

AgilePosted by Shane Billings Sun, August 30, 2015 19:24:54
The other day, I had a direct encounter with a Scrum Zombie. Now, to be honest, I think he was an engineering zombie well before he became a Scrum Zombie. Nevertheless, as a zombie in general, he was afraid to make any decisions without having permission from his superiors. He was a hardware engineer designing a power supply for an embedded system. To say he was new to scrum was an understatement.

He told me of a time that he almost lost his job because he modified the process. He was now an automaton. Just like real zombies, this guy had his brain eaten, and now he was mindlessly going through the motions. Sad really. I had seen other hardware engineering teams really get it and succeed beyond expectations as they used scrum.

How did I recognize him as a Scrum Zombie? Was it the lack of life in him? Maybe. Was it the fear of management or the lack of satisfaction in his work? Could be. It wasn’t until he asked the following question regarding how to break up his work in a sprint backlog that I really saw it, “Isn’t that against the rules?” Wo! There he was right before me! Did I just see his arm fall off?

Don’t get me wrong. There are rules for scrum – strict rules – rules that must not be broken. We do not compromise on things like whether or not we have a retrospective meeting or if the backlog should be prioritized. Definitions of done are demanded. Velocities are vital. Product owners and Scrum Masters should not be the same person. And certainly there are best practices. But outside the core scrum practices, there is complete freedom to experiment and see what works for a team.

What would you say to this Scrum Zombie? You have to keep a poker face. The temptation to be grossed out must be subdued. Remember, at one time, this was a real engineer – with hopes, dreams, and desires. Not to say they had social skills, but to say they were once like the rest of us. We must reach into his soul and find those things. Where are they?

I told him he was a smart guy. What?! He lit up a bit. I doubt he had heard that in a while. We then discussed the fact that with his intelligence he could make decisions that would be well informed. If they were wrong, he could quickly change. We talked of the pros and cons of his approaches. In other words we talked about the “Why” of his decision.

Then it dawned on me! There was the cure for Scrum Zombies! Agile is the cure! Agile is a philosophy about how we approach development. It is empowering. Agile is a mindset for the mindless. It’s the reason behind what we do. Without Agile thinking, scrum practitioners just go through the motions. They are lifeless and dead inside. Ok, maybe not dead, but there definitely is something missing. I think it’s safe to say they aren’t reaching their potential.

When coaching and consulting on Scrum, I always try to teach the “why” behind the “what”. I always try to teach about Agile as well. Together we can fight the plague before us. Together we can cure the undead Scrum Zombie.

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