Friday, April 17, 2015

Clickbait is evil!

Anyone who has taken one of my Scrum classes knows that I believe that multitasking is evil! I have come to realize that clickbait is evil too.

Why? For the same reason. Clickbait, like multitasking, destroys productivity.  At least for my own purposes, I have decided do something about it, and I am wondering if other people feel the same way.

What is clickbait? Let's say you an article open a reputable site, like CNN.com. See all those links on the right side, like Opinion, More Top Stories, Promoted Stories, More from CNN? That's click bait. My guess is 1/3rd of any given web pages consists of catchy headlines whose sole purpose is to get you to spend more time on their site (or maybe, to cash in on Cost-per-Click syndication schemes, to get you go to some other site). By the time you get 2/3rd down the page, 100% of the content is usually clickbait.

What is evil?

What do I mean by evil? Evil things are bad for you. Like weeds in the garden or corrupt politicians, you'll never get rid of evil entirely, but if you don't keep the weeds under control, you won't have a garden any more. So we need to keep evil things in check, lest you suffer the consequences. In this case the consequences is massive amounts of wasted time (at least for me it is)!

Why is Multitasking Evil?

I have long known that if you have two goals, working them in parallel slows you down. If goal A takes a month, and goal B takes a month, then if you work on A and B in parallel, it will take you at least 2 months before either goal is finished and probably longer. So focusing on one thing at a time usually gives you better results. This is why focus is a core value of Scrum. 

It turns out the situation with multitasking is much worse than I thought.

I recently attended a talk by Prof Lutz Jäncke, the neuropsychologist at the ETH, on why teenagers are the way the are. (The short answer: they are not evil, they are drawn that way. They will be people again when their brains have finished developing -- sometime around 20 years old. But I digress.)

Listening to a neuropsychologist for an hour was very challenging! My brain was very tired after his talk, but one point really stuck out:

Multitasking makes you worse at multitasking!

To process information effectively, we need to filter irrelevant information. By responding to every stimulus that comes in, we lose the ability to filter junk.

He also asked, have you ever gone to do something on the Internet, lost track of what you are doing and then wasted a tremendous amount of time? You bet! Every day! Why is that? Clickbait. Catchy headlines and dramatic pictures pique my curiosity to send me to the next page.

I realized this was true, and I am now trying to turn down the interruptions on my computer and other devices.

Using Adblock Plus to fight clickbait

I have used ABP for a long time to block most ads. But the standard filters only target ads, not clickbait. I discovered you can not only block links, but you can block specific HTML elements. After a bit of experimenting with the block element feature, I was able to filter the clickbait sections of the news and entertainment sites I visit most. 

I was amazed at the difference in how much less clutter and fewer distractions I encountered!

Do you have this problem? Would you like to use my filter list? I don't know if it is worth packaging these filters for distribution. Or of there isn't a filter set somewhere that addresses this problem. So I have simply published this list and installation instructions on as a google doc: http://tinyurl.com/clickbait-filter. It's still pretty short, but if you send me additions, I will integrate them. 

Clickbait is evil. I believe reducing clickbait will be good for my performance, and it probably will be for yours as well. If you install it, please put out a tweet like this:

"Just installed @peterstev's clickbait filter! #clickbaitisevil! http://tinyurl.com/clickbait-filter"







Thursday, April 2, 2015

What is the Product Owner Camp in Switzerland?

Dawna Jones, the management writer and initiator of the Stoos Sparks web series spoke with me about the Product Owner Camp in Switzerland. What is is about, who would want to go, and above all why? Check it out!

Product Owner Camp In Switzerland. Product Management meets Product Ownership. How do we create great products together? June 11-13, 2015. Registration and information at POcampCH.org.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Should the Scrum Master validate the inputs from a retrospective

The retrospective can be the most challenging of the Scrum activities, because, well, people are involved. A former student, Vijay, asked me:
The scrum master is facilitating the retrospective meeting by hearing the positive and negative from the team members. Should the scrum master or team members validate each other's feedback during the retrospective? I hope the answer is....
Dear Vijay, I think the purpose of the first phase of a retrospective is to seek understanding. Different people in the team will have different truths. The objective is to understand all the truths, rather than to find the truth. So I prefer to ask the question, "what happened?" Just the facts, no judgements or accusations. Oh, by the way the left side (top half) of the flipchart,  this is for things that made you happy. The other half is for things that made you sad. It is helpful to understand the mood, but don't ask the question too soon, lest people focus too much on the thumbs up or down aspect of the question.

As a Scrum Master, it's my job is to prevent debate and other downward spirals. That's right, there is no such thing as a constructive debate! It drives people into their corners and makes agreement and consensus much more difficult. So people can ask clarifying questions of each other, but not rebut or challenge what was said, justify their own behavior or criticize others. "We understand and truly believe, everyone is doing the best job they can...." So we look for that 80% that everyone can agree on. This is the better basis for achieving a consensus for action.

As for recording, At each step of the retrospective, I would get cards up on a flip chart or pin board, then take a picture. As Scrum Master, I would only record individually those points that the team wants to act on in this sprint.

For a more complete discussion, check out "How we do a retrospective."


Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Dive deep into Product Management, Product Ownership and Creating Great Products


I have become really excited about the potential of bringing an excited, passionate group of experts into room to work on challenges and problems that inspire them! So I am really excited about the Product Owner Camp in Switzerland!

Product Owner Camp in Switzerland (#POcampCH) is an Open Space conference inspired by the successful Agile Coach Camp in Kandersteg and Scrum Coaching Retreat in London. Unlike its role models, #POcampCH focuses on product creation: "Product Management meets Product Ownership: How do we create great products together?"

Thursday kicks off with an optional master class, "How to Get Quickly from Idea to Minimal Viable Product?" led by Karen Greaves, Samantha Laing, and Steve Holyer. Social activities are planned Thursday and Friday evening for attendees to interact, learn, and get to know each other.

Friday and Saturday, all day, involve all participants to conduct a series of parallel sessions addressing current topics around product creation and development in a Scrum/Agile/XP/Lean/Kanban context. As an Open Space "Unconference" event, the participants define the program. This is an exceptional opportunity for Agile leaders to collaborate and learn from each other. Saturday afternoon is a wrap-up of the POcampCH that involves attendees retrospecting on the event and looking toward the future.

Target audience

The Product Owner Camp in Switzerland is for practitioners involved in product creation, from the idea to the realization. Product Managers, Product Owners, Designers, Developers, ScrumMasters, Agile Coaches, Testers, Entrepreneurs, Innovators and Managers. Not on the list? No worries! If you create new products, POcampCH is for you!

As a Scrum Alliance sponsored event, you can earn Category A SEUs toward your Certified Scrum Professional.

Prices start at CHF 299 / person in double occupancy (yes, this includes your hotel costs!) or CHF 368 for single occupancy.

Dates: June 11 (18:00) to June 13, 2015 (17:00). Optional all-day Master Class on June 11. For more information, registration, and to find out who else is coming, see http://pocampch.org/!



Monday, March 2, 2015

Understanding the Indian 'Yes'

My experience with the word 'yes' in India is that it doesn't seem to mean what I think it means. And the word 'no' does not seem to exist.
Doing business with India for me has always been a somewhat strange experience. As native speaker of North American English, there is a language barrier. Yes, it's English, but.... I was never really sure when negotiating with my business partners whether they were really going to deliver what they said they would. Often there would be substantial differences between what I thought we had agreed to and what was actually delivered.

Since I agreed to a four city tour in November of Scrum Trainings, I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to explore what yes really means, and why it remains such a stumbling block. What did I find out about 'yes' and other aspects of Indian culture?

Raising the question

My Scrum courses devote substantial attention to working agreements. At the start of each course, I facilitate a discussion among the participants. “What agreements do we need among ourselves so that we can work together effectively between now and the end of the course?” The participants propose their topics, and then agree to concrete actionable proposals. I might add a topic or two. Sometimes we have to modify the proposal before we can come to an agreement that everyone can really support.

Agreements among the participants make for an effective course and agreements among colleagues are an excellent tool for transforming corporate culture. You can't change corporate culture directly, but you can influence your meeting culture quite strongly, simply by making working agreements with your colleagues. This in turn influences and changes your corporate culture.

Nicolas Jene, one of my participants last October was retaking the CSPO course he had taken a year ago. Back then, we had made a number of working agreements, including being on time and ready to go after breaks, devices off or on silent, no crosstalk, the attention protocol, how to deal with questions, etc.

People are the same everywhere...

Nicolas noticed that the working agreements this time around were essentially the same as the agreements as in his last course, so he asked, 'Are the working agreements always the same? Even in different cultures?” I thought back to my the last year of courses in Switzerland, in Russia, in Portugal, in Italy, and in Texas, and replied, 'yes, pretty much. But I am not sure how that will be when I get to India, because the culture there is quite different compared to where I have been before.

So in all of my India courses, I facilitated the same discussion. What do we need to work together effectively?

All of my participants in India asked for and agreed to more or less the same the agreements, just like at every other place else I have been to. They did have some novel suggestions, but the topics and actual agreement were essentially the same.

My conclusion? People are the same everywhere. They want the same things from each other. They need the same things to work effectively: Focus, Commitment, Courage, Openness and Respect. Sound familiar? These are the Scrum values. You find all of them reflected in people's working agreements.

But cultures are different

If people are the same everywhere, does that mean everyone thinks alike? Of course not! Case in point: during my last product owner class, I showed Henrik Kniberg's fantastic video “Agile Project Ownership in a Nutshell” (watch it here). One highlight of this video is the importance of saying 'No.' “Pat [the product owner] practices [saying No] every day in front of a mirror.” After watching the video, the class wrote down their “Eureka!” moments of what they would take home from the video. Most of the participants found that 'No!' was a highlight of the film. “We are allowed to say no!?” “We're expected to say no!?” “Wow!”

One person, of Indian origin, had a completely different lesson from the video: “Sometimes it is better to say yes and prioritize down.” What?! That was exactly the opposite of what Henrik's video was trying to say, or so I thought. I even asked him about it. Yes, that was his a-ha! moment. After getting past my disbelief, I reflected on why his answer might have been different from mine and the others.

If the inputs seem the same, but the outputs are different, then there must be some other inputs I don't know about. I call these inputs 'culture' and I decided I wanted to explore that further during my trip to India.

Why is 'no' so difficult to say?

At each course in India, during the section on working agreements, I introduced the topic of yes and no, and explained why I thought there was an issue. My participants agreed that this misunderstanding occurs quite regularly when working with western companies. So I invited the participants to discuss in pairs why saying no is so difficult, then report back on to the group.

To my surprise, there was no hesitation to discuss the issue (though I had done a lot to lower the social risks in the room before asking question). The opinions of all four classes – over 100 people – centered on three issues:

  • Our upbringing discourages us from saying no. It is impolite to say no.
  • If I say no (to the customer), my company might lose the business.
  • If I say no (to a manager), I might lose reputation and risk losing my job.

In short, it's about fear. It's about the challenges of living in a developing nation. It's about the fear of becoming part of the 60% of the population that lives on $2/day or less. Saying yes is an accommodation. You may lose the business or your job later, but you do have it today, and that is perceived as much lower risk than saying no right away. Given that upbringing appeared so often in the list of reasons, it looks like the accommodation is deeply ingrained in the society.

What does 'yes' really mean?

What does 'yes' really mean in India? It depends. It might really mean yes. It might also mean “I'm saying yes to satisfy your expectation” (but without committing to actually deliver on the expectation). More likely, it means, “I'm going to do my best, but there may be outside forces that I cannot control which will prevent me from succeeding.”

How to bridge cultural differences?

I don't pretend to have the definitive answer to this question. I found being in India, talking face to face with people and learning to recognize their body language were both very helpful. I found it easier to work with people while I was there than over the phone from Switzerland.

Is there really a conflict between being polite and setting realistic expectations? I think this is a false dilemma. Henrik Kniberg pointed out that Autonomy and Alignment are not opposites, but independent of one another. People can be aligned and autonomous. Steve Biddulph wrote that parents can be both firm and loving with their children. How can you set realistic expectations and be polite? I think that is a fair question for any team to ask of itself.

Conflict avoidance is not evil

Many facilitation techniques avoid using the word No. In a retrospective, we first identify possible topics for improvement. Then we identify the most important items, and say yes to a few of them. We don't actually say no to anything. Just yes. Dot-voting is classic consensus-building tool. Identify the most important, start there. And Rod Collins' Work-Thru also focus on identifying where we agree, so we can start here, and deferring points of conflict until later, when trust is higher and the situation is clearer. (Read more about Work-Thru's...)

Are there patterns here which could be applied for other kinds of collaboration? I have seen evidence that working agreements can be extremely effective at transforming corporate culture. Can working agreements be the basis for bridging cultural differences within a project? I believe so. You create your own culture through your working agreements (among other things – good stories are vital!) within your project so that you and your on-shore and off-shore collaborators can work together effectively.

Finally I believe that one day, people in India will let go of their fear. It is not weakness that makes people afraid, it is fear that makes them weak. India has strong abilities and great prices. There will always be a demand for that combination. If this customer gets away, there is always the next one. Once people realize they don't need to be afraid, they will have the courage to say no and to say a yes that really means, Yes!

Monday, February 16, 2015

What good are story points and velocity in Scrum?

We use velocity as a measure of how many story points to take into the next sprint. When you take in enough stories, and story points, so that you reach your average velocity, then, you can end the sprint planning meeting.
Although this is a common approach, it is exactly how you should not use story points in Scrum. It leads to over-commitment and spillover (started, but unfinished work) at the end of the sprint. Both of these are bad for performance. How should you use story points in planning? How do you create the Forecast? And what do you do if the team runs out of work?

The first thing to remember is that Development Team is self-organizing. They have exclusive jurisdiction over how much work they take on. The Product Owner has final say over the ordering of items in the backlog, but nobody tells the the Development Team how much work to take on! Not the Product Owner, not the ScrumMaster, and certainly not the math!

As a Product Owner, I would use story points to help set medium and long-term expectations on what is really achievable. Wish and probable reality need to be more or less in sync with each other. If the disparity is too big, it's the Product Owner's job to fix the problem, and she has lots of options: less scope, simpler acceptance criteria, more time, more people, pivot, persevere, or even abandon.

As a ScrumMaster, I would use velocity to identify a number of dysfunctions. A wavy burndown chart is often a symptom of stories that are too big, excessive spillover, or poorly understood acceptance criteria (to name the most likely causes). A flattening burn-down chart is often a sign of technical debt. An accelerating burn-down chart may be sign of management pressure to perform (story point inflation). A lack of a burn-down or velocity chart may be a sign of flying blind!

As a member of the Development Team, I would use the estimate in story points to help decide whether stories are ready to take into the sprint. An individual story should represent on average 10% or less of the team's capacity.

How to create the Sprint Forecast

How much work should the team take on in a sprint? As Scrum Master, I would ask the team, can you do the first story? Can you do the first and the second? Can you do first, the second and the third? Keep asking until the team hesitates. As soon as they hesitate, stop. That is the forecast.

Why should you stop at this point? Taking on more stories will add congestion and slow down the team. Think of the highway at rush hour. Do more cars on the road mean the traffic moves faster? Would be nice.

Why do you even make a forecast? Some projects say, let's just get into a state of flow, and pull work as we are ready to take it. This can work too, but my own experience with that approach has been mixed. It is very easy to lose focus on getting things done and lose the ability to predict what can be done over a longer period of time. So I believe Sprint Forecasts are useful because they help us inspect-and-adapt enroute to our longer term goal.

What about "yesterday's weather"? Can we use the results of the last sprint to reality check the forecast for this sprint? Sure! If your team promised 100 but only delivered 70 or less, this is a sign that they should not commit to more than 70, and quite probably less. I call this "throttling", and it is one of my 12 Tips for Product Owners who want better performance from their Scrum Teams. But yesterday's weather is not a target, it's a sanity check. If it becomes your target, it may be holding you down.

What if the team runs out of work?

On the one hand, this is easy. If the team runs out of work, they can just ask the Product Owner for more. A working agreement can streamline this process, for example, Team, if you run out of work, you can:

  • Take the top item from the product backlog.
  • Contact me (the Product Owner) if you get down to just one ready item in the backlog
  • Implement your top priority improvement to our code ("refactoring")

Implementing improvements from the last retrospective is usually a particularly good idea, unless you are very close to a release. There are investments in productivity that will often pay huge dividends, surprisingly quickly!


Sunday, February 8, 2015

Are agile trainers agile?

There are literally hundreds if not thousands of people out there who will train you to do Agile (and some will even try to convince you to be Agile). Some of them are certified, some are not. How many of them apply Agile to their own profession? I believe the answer is "not many," and I have realized that I was not one of them. This a-ha moment help me refine the purpose of my CST mentorship program.

When people say "Agile", most people are referring to the four values of the Agile Manifesto. While these are important, I believe the fundamental definition of Agility is contained not the four values, but the first statement: We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. (emphasis added).

I don't develop software, I train people to do Scrum. Actually, I like to believe I enable them to turn their current project into their best project ever, so maybe this "training Scrum" is too limiting. Hmm... let's not go overboard just yet! So what would my manifesto look like? Here is the first draft:
We are uncovering better ways of teaching Scrum, by doing it and helping others to do it! -- Peter Stevens
This has become the overarching goal of my CST Mentorship idea. Not just to get you through the TAC, but to create a community of like minded Agile trainers, who help each other to become better trainers, and help others to do the same.  It is no longer just a CST mentorship program, but a CST Mentoring Network.

P.S. I went looking for trainers who are active and transparent about mentoring. I have only found two (including myself):


Does anyone else belong on this list? Please let me know!