My fridge & the phantom work jam

April 17, 2011

Have you ever had too much to do? Did you react by working even harder – like the rest of us? At first, the situation seems to improve and everything looks just fine. However, even though “harder” might lead to “better”, it still is not the same as “good”. Time passes and you keep putting in the extra effort and then some. By now you are quite busy, but not actually getting anything done. Congrats – you have met the phantom work jam.

I was in my car talking over a really bad connection. At the far end was Steve Denning, a renowned author of several books on management. He wanted to know how we work at Jayway. During a long interview, interrupted by countless GSM holes, we kept talking. Among other things I told him the story of our old house – a school from 1928. It is a good example of a renovation that had gone wild and how we managed to get on track again. It ended up in Steve’s new book which came out last fall, “The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management” ( It is a great book and a funny thing happened while I was reading it: I took notes in the margin. That has not happened in the last twenty years, basically back in university. Denning’s book really made me think. I just had to scribble and make comments.

Shortly after the interview I got the transcript – boy was that a sorry sight. Not only did the bad connection play tricks, my half-finished sentences and fuzzy thoughts made the text almost incomprehensible. Therefore, I was thoroughly impressed when I got the following text from Steve Denning’s latest book. It was spot on.

“The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management”

Björn Granvik lives in Malmö, a small town in the southern tip of Sweden. At work, he is the chief technology officer of a software firm called Jayway. In the evenings and weekends, he works on renovating the house that he occupies with his wife and three children. The house used to be a school and so it is rather large, but doesn’t have many rooms. Transforming it into a livable house requires a massive effort.

When he started the renovations, his wife would stand in the corner in one of the rooms, and she would say, “Björn, here’s something over here that doesn’t work.”

And Granvik would run over and start trying to fix it.

But then he would hear her from somewhere else in the house and she would shout, “Here’s something even worse.” And he would leave whatever he was doing and go over and try to fix that. So he kept running between projects in the house. There was so much to do that he was constantly jumping from one project to the other, hardly ever finishing anything. So one day he said to his wife, “This doesn’t work. We can’t go on like this.”

Granvik had encountered a phantom work jam! Too many inputs had jammed the system.

Given Granvik’s experience with the practices of radical management and the simplicity of the situation, the solution was fairly obvious.

“I know that there are a bunch of things to do,” he told his wife. “But we need to do them in some kind of order.”

So he cleared a space on the door of the fridge, and he said that they would have three available slots. There would be one slot for all the big things that needed to be done—things that take a lot of time like fixing the leak in the roof—and two slots for small items, something that would take less than an hour to do, for which he could squeeze in an hour here or there. That might be like: “Hang ten photographs on the wall.”

“Anything we put on these slots,” he said, “we can talk about. And we can get them going. I will concentrate on these three things. If something else comes up, we can put it on the side of the fridge, but I will not look at it. There’s no point in talking to me about this, because although I will listen, I won’t do anything about it. I will only work on the top priority items in the three slots on the fridge.”

So he and his wife began working this way. And it went really well. He was happy because his wife stopped bugging him about things that weren’t on the priority list. And she was happy because things that she really wanted done were actually getting done.

The interesting thing was: it turned out that his client—his wife—was equally happy if he hung ten photos, or if he fixed the leak in the roof. Fixing the leak in the roof is a big expensive project that takes considerable time and effort. But the amount of joy that comes from it was no bigger than a tiny task like hanging the ten photos.

By focusing on what his client really wanted at that particular moment, he found that increasing client delight didn’t necessarily cost more. A small thing delivered sooner could delight more than a big thing delivered later.

In order to become more productive, and generate more delight for his wife, Granvik had to restrict the flow of work. To go faster, he had to go slower.

Steve Denning goes on to talk about “phantom jam work” and the havoc it plays on our efforts. Doing too much at the same time invariably leads to less being accomplished. It certainly does not feel like it. Putting in the hours makes us count the effort and not the actual value we create. Just like tunnel vision, we are blinded by speed and forget that we are not reaching any goals.

Whenever you are stuck in effort blindness, stop and think.
– Am I really doing the right thing, the right way – is this value? Is it fun?
In my case I needed something that would focus our effort. Something to slow us down and get stuff done, really done. “The big and small list” was my solution of getting a good flow through my org… err, family.

Works for big people
So how did we do it?

Figure 1: Our fridge and the simple task board with a “small” (lilla) and “big” (STORA) list. Big stuff is “lift roof and fix it”, small might be “hang photo on wall”. Second from the left at top is the “build room” note (Bygga rum).

The first important step was to reduce the number of things going on at the same time. The lists are each limited to “3 notes”. This meant nothing could be introduced or worked on before there was a vacant slot in one of the lists. In order for this to work we have to prioritize the work. It is of no use if I go off on a fixing spree if it is not what both my wife and me needs or wishes.

Separating the small stuff into their own lists, or “swim lanes”, was the next step. As a parent I usually can squeeze in the 1 hour tasks somewhere into my calendar. Getting those smaller tasks done is an easy way to turn around a bad situation. It was baby-sized steps, as compared to the big list stuff, but at least it was a step forward. And remember, sometimes even small values are big wins.

Works for tweens
As Steve Denning writes in his book, we actually started to land projects, small and big. My wife was happy again, but my oldest son Max started to talk about the rooms I had promised him and his younger brother Felix. Since we live in an old school we have rather large rooms and no wardrobes. By Swedish standards we are apparently defined as “cramped living” (Swedish “trångbodd”). The statistics have us as living in a “small” house since our three sons shared a single bedroom. This is no small feat in the 360 m2 (3 800 square feet) that make up our ex-school.

My oldest son, Max, kept asking me (in a nice way) about his room. Being 12 years old, I could understand him. He wanted a room of his own. I recognized the earlier situation with my wife and yet again our fridge came to our rescue. This time around I made some more slots available – I needed to size up to include my sons. I explained why the “leak in roof” note came before “Build Max & Felix Room”. This worked really fine because it was now understandable and transparent to Max why he would have to wait. Moreover, our kids needed to be better included in the decision process. Roughly once per week we visit the fridge and check the progress. If there are any vacant slots open we discuss what needs to be done – both fun and important stuff get their chance. And of course, we constantly check to see if we have the right prio – something might have come up that needs to “push through” the other tasks.

In the spur of the moment I took a pen and asked Max for commitment.
– You could help, I explained. What do you want to do?
He took the pen and to my surprise he signed off on one of the jobs before his own room note. Despite being young he understood that helping me with some other task would make us as a team work faster on accomplishing his goal. Sure enough, when I came home one afternoon I found a big hole in the garden for one of our roses that my wife wanted to plant. It might not sound all that much, but digging through those layers of ice age clay leaves even a grown man panting.

Works for small people
My second son, Felix (8) saw and understood the fridge. One morning I came down and saw that one empty slot now had a new note scribbled with a child’s hand: “go bovling”. A couple of weeks later we did just that.

In order to get a sense of flow with the big tasks I introduced a “scratch”. Every man-day, roughly, was a scratch on a big note. Otherwise, they risked going stale – staying on the fridge “forever”. It also meant we got a counter and a “reward”. The quotes are needed, since a scratch is such a small reward, but none the less it works.

At this time we had introduced red notes. They were important high prio tasks that needed to be executed quickly, basically to push ahead of the ordinary yellow notes. This risked blocking out the fun stuff. Where is the R & R, if we just kept doing good? My solution was to introduce the green notes. It is a just such a natural color to indicate fun 🙂

Figure 2: The “before” image of the rooms.

Close to a year later, me and my children have finally built the rooms for Max and Felix.

All it took was: some 2,5 metric tons of building material, 97 man days of work (yes, I counted) and the ability to focus – all visible on our fridge.

Sometimes I even managed to find some work that was easy, but still important, for Bix (4). We were working on the roof/floor above the rooms and Bix had the important task of bending the floor boards. Boy, was he proud. All it took was some creativity in dividing the work.

Having a simple, visible system with understandable rules promotes transparency and understanding. As a parent this translates into less nagging.

Final thoughts

If you find yourself working really hard and being quite busy, without any real results to show – except for sweat – then stop and think. It will feel contradictory, but you need to limit your work so you can focus on getting something worthwhile done. Add some transparency and a shared prioritization and you get commitment. It doesn’t really matter if the people around you are colleagues or kids. We are all pretty much wired the same way.

Having learnt all of this, I’m I immune? Or will I repeat my mistakes and try to do too much at the same time? Most likely the latter.

The experience might make me quicker seeing a solution, but it’s still hard to convince myself – and others – that we need to do less in order to do more.

Figure 3: Max and Felix rooms.

Am I proud of what we accomplished? You bet.


Hello world!

December 2, 2009

I started this blog    …because I just had to.

It will be a mix of Swedish and English. And probably rather haphazard in both time and subject. I can only hope that some of it makes for a worthwhile read for someone somewhere.


Øredev 2009 Panel Video Books

November 9, 2009

The panel of Øredev 2009 proved to be a great group of people ready to take the panel format further.
As the moderator I wanted something other than your daddy’s discussion – something edgy or just plain edutainment.
I certainly got what I asked 🙂

The folks on the stage were:
James Bach – Author of Lessons Learned in Software Testing
Ola Bini – Thoughtworker, core developer of JRuby and creator of Ioke
Stu Halloway – Author of Programming Clojure
Scott Hanselman – Principal Programmer at MS and general spreader of good info for developers
Oren Eini (Ayende Rahien) – NHibernate Profiler, NHibernate, Castle, Rhino Mocks
Chris Hughes – AT&T iPhone Hacker

Scott Hanselman did a great job of setting up a live feed together with the Øredev people.
Here’s a good page from Scott,, on the event with video and everything.

Oh, and the non-computer related books that the panel recommended:
* The Gathering Storm (12th book of The Wheel Of Time) – Neil Jordan
* Anathem – Neal Stephenson +1
* Gödel Escher Bach – Douglas Hofstadter
* Replay – Ken Grimwood
* Flow – Mihaly Csikszentmihaly

Thanks guys!

Originally published at Jayway Team Blog.

PMI, Scrum Shock Therapy

May 19, 2009

I’ve just uploaded the slides from the PMI conference in Amsterdam here.
Some 150 people turned up for this morning show, a Pecha Kucha with group discussions, about various aspects on Scrum. After some initial wrestling with the audio we got under way. We were four to speak – Juliet Andrew, Gabrielle Benefield, Petri Haapio and me. If you haven’t heard of this format it is a sort of PowerPoint in “burst mode”, i.e. 20 slides and each will flip over automatically after 20 seconds.
Difficult, but I would like to do it more 🙂

After that we broke up into separate groups for discussion. There were many good questions and I wished I’ve had more time on hand. Anyway, thanks to the those who attended and for your great feedback.


Originally published at Jayway Team Blog.

Scrum Shock Therapy, Part 2

December 17, 2008

So we have a recipy for the team. But this is just not enough. We need to make sure that management and everyone else is on board. The second part of the Scrum Shock Therapy presents a bootstrapping recipe on how you can do this.

The first part of this series can be found here: Scrum Shock Therapy, Part 1.

The Management Recipe

The checklist above is only a part of what it takes to go through Shock Therapy. I often find myself at new companies and need to work with a bigger picture than focusing solely on the team. As is evident from the polls and surveys above, we need to address management as well. The word shock is perhaps more applicable here. If it has learnt anything from the past it is that you have to “drive” development – delegate, follow up, check, adjust, hand out, recheck…
Telling them to trust the very group that has not delivered before is asking for a leap of faith.

Setting up a recipe for this group is tricky. You have to adapt to management style, the corporate culture and so forth and the things you ask for are softer. These can be very hard indeed to change! In plain English; The management has to take some more real tough decisions for a Scrum to work efficiently. If you need to kill a document standard or process step then do so! If this is impossible (for now) then go for “barely enough”.

The Management

  • Attend the Scrum training session with everyone else
  • Hands off during 3 iterations
  • Attend:
    • Some Daily Scrums – be quiet
    • All Sprint Reviews
  • Start to work on waste – now!
  • Management by walking, asking and listening, i.e. practice facilitation.
  • Make the first step easy for the team

When learning something new you have to do it several times just to make sure you are not totally confused. I have found that three times a charm. Try your best to get management to abide by this “rule”. After the three iterations everyone has better picture to judge the value of the effort and Scrum.
Eliminating waste is vital on any type of project or endeavor. In a transition it makes even more sense, you have to make space to learn something new.

Finally, management has to ask the people that will perform these miracles what they need to do just this. Have they? Have you?

The Management Exit

  • One successful team
  • Removed impediments and studied results
  • Change in perception at “ground level”
  • A good agile reason to change the rule

Having one successful team is sort of self-evident. This takes patience when the ride is anything but smooth. Being a part of this process is important. Management will have the best ability to change ambition level, removing impediments etc. Get cracking and be that good example.

If there is a change at ground level on how they perceive management, then you’re probably on to something.

Is this recipe the final version – probably not? Your mileage will vary, adapt to your management.

The Organization Recipe

Many of our customers are just starting out doing Scrum. Therefore we typically come into play as an external effect. It is important for us to understand how the agile effort has started and its nature within our client’s organization. We can basically divide this efforts into to two major types – “bottom-up” and “top-down”. The typical traits for a bottom-up style is one where the programmers et al have decided to go agile. The management might be aware of this and even letting it run. Then again this might be a stealth and an under the cover job.

I have found the bottom-up approach to be the most common case. Programmers usually like to work in an agile way. In these type of setups my work usually revolves around questions like “How do we fit this to a waterfall context?” etcetera. This can be tough work, but I find it to be the more easy of the two – the people who do the day to day grinding are already on board.

The top-down effort of introducing Scrum comes with its own set of problems. Any methodology or decision that involves change tend to meet resistance from the organization. We need both experience and sideways effort to the transition.

The Top-Down Scrum Organization

  • Get a Scrum Sensei
  • Inject a Agile Senior Programmer into the teams
  • Make sure there is organizational transparency

The Scrum Sensei is an experienced Scrum Master who’s been there before. Much in agile and Scrum is common sense, but there is no need in making the simple mistakes. With a battle-trained mentor the whole organization get a sounding board (Swedish: bollplank) helping out to implement Scrum. This part is important to the Shock Therapy where he or she will be the contract owner enforcing the startup and approving exit. In some sense this person could act as a “bad cop” in a good-bad ScrumMaster setup.

Or in the words of Nanny McPhee – a children’s movie where a nanny answers the seven ne’er-do-well children on how long she will stay:
– When you need me, but do not want me, then I will stay. When you want me, but do not need me, then I have to go.
The Scrum Sensei needs to work in similar way to bootstrap the team and management.

A top-down effort always risks resistance from the organization. My experience tells me that a side way force is needed for translation on the factory floor. Moreover, such a person has the experience on a technical level to do the hands on tools and practices that is a vital part of any agile projects. A seasoned programmer with agile experience knows what works and how to translate the management vision into bits and bytes.

“Self-evident” sometimes reads “evident to myself and no one else”. If we want to affect the organization we also have to make sure that practices, experiences and results are easy to come by. Walking down a corridor should yield interesting information about ongoing projects. If there is a pilot project doing Scrum then visibility is high on the wish list. Not only does it mean commitment for the Scrum team, but also a pull factor for other teams to get on board. Organizational transparency comes in many flavors. Apply liberally!

Summing it up

There is no denying that projects have problems getting started with Scrum. But more often than not I believe that we can do something about it. Why not try some nice Shock Therapy?
It might be the sweetest hard deal around!

/Björn Granvik, Jayway

MySpace Therapy:

Scrum Poll on Nokia Test Practice:

VersionOne Report: State of Agile Development Survey:

Situational Leadership:

Nanny McPhee:

Originally published at Jayway Team Blog.

Questions from the Øredev session Shock Therapy

December 9, 2008

The Øredev conference was a real success. I’m involved in it ,so that probably makes me biased:-). However, I struggled for the first 10 minutes of my presentation to get my slides on the projector. A tip for you Mac users out there: Plug the adapter (dmi to vga) into the VGA cable first! I plugged a lone adapter into the computer first. It couldn’t find any projector and gladly gave up on me… Sigh. After that bumpy start I got going, but had to keep a brisk pace. Sorry, for that to those of you who where listening.

I asked for comments/questions. As it turns out I got mostly questions on Scrum in general and not so much on my topic – how to bootstrap Scrum. I’m not sure what to make of this.
Anyway, here are my takes on those questions. I hope they’re of some value.

Dear Björn,

How do you motivate a team to produce more without paying more for IT (salaries)?
Hourly salary seems retarded for agile teams.

Dear anonymous,

I’ll first look at the non-monetary part, mostly Scrum, and later on salaries and bonuses.

Self organizing
In many organizations people enjoy very limited control over their own situation. Being able to self organize is important. We humans just tend to like this.

Pick your tasks and choose your implementation
Again, if I can use my competence and decide (as far as possible) on how to implement a certain goal, I will enjoy my work the more. Using this approach I’ve even been able to rehire people to very problematic situations. Very powerful.

When I ask programmers what they are most proud of, I usually hear words like “idea, made by me, real users”. It might not be the hardest and certainly not the biggest project they worked on. They used their competence, created something and delivered! In Scrum you get the delivery feeling at every sprint. If you break it down into activities no bigger than a day, then you will get that nice “flow” and people will be able to say “I did” every morning.

Good Colleagues
I’ve found that Agile makes sense if for no other reason than you can keep and hire the good people. SmartFriends(tm) is a great way to work!

I’m sure I could pick more facets of Scrum and Agile on how to motivate your team. But let’s move on to the Money. This part of my answer doesn’t have so much to do with Scrum or Agile, but rather my beliefs. So you have to be the judge here – what would work for you and your situation?

Powerful, way too powerful
Salaries, bonuses etc affect you – all the way to the bank and your holiday and…
In short: Once you start using money in different forms as your primary means of rewards, you will get a powerful ally in driving your people. Perhaps to powerful.

Take bonuses at a consultancy firm (a real example from life). You have all the good intentions so you set up a bonus system so that everyone will benefit if they have a client. More hours with customers, bigger bonus. Easy. This way you can lower your costs in bad times. Nice, if you’re just counting beans.

Effect: No one wants to come in do monthly meetings if it’s going to cost them money.
Counter effect: Introduce a threshold so that there is room for a bonus even though it doesn’t mean 100% with customer.

Another effect: You just removed your ability to make strategic decisions like “put someone on the big corporate account” that pays less, but means more hours. Who wants to loose money working for that customer if they have to take a cut money-wise?
Counter effect: You introduce another “rule” specifying that a lower price per hour will not affect their bonus.

Yet another effect: Holidays suddenly never cross the monthly boundaries. That would put your people below the threshold for the bonus on two separate salaries.
Counter effect: …haven’t got the faintest here what they did here.

I hope my example makes sense in your situation. My point is that money matters. When used to drive people you will get side-effects.
For me this is not good enough. I don’t want just to persuade people’s wallets – I want their hearts and minds. It has to be fun and engaging.

Here’s my short take: First make sure you have decent salaries etc. When this in place, aim for those things that make our working day worth while. Set interesting goals, get good colleagues, the right work to do, empower people and so on.

How to ensure creativity and quality in Scrum?

Hi Fredrik,
I liked the way you wrote this on a green note (meaning “good” when voting at the conference). Thanks 🙂

I believe there doesn’t have to be a contradiction between setting a goal and using proper frames (time, resources etc) vs. creativity – at least as long as we have the right to work to our own judgement within these constraints. I often find that this last part is missing. You get all the obligations, but no mandate.

In Scrum, one part of the creativity is built right into the process: Understanding the different goals. In the product backlog you should enter business value. This way the team has direct contact with the user’s intentions and can suggest alternative solutions that might be better, i.e. be creative.

If we’re talking IT, I would like to use automatic testing, continuous integration and so on to ensure consistent quality. Add to this an annoying email whenever something breaks and you have a good start 🙂

Moreover, the tight feedback loop using sprint reviews and such should pick up on issues like usability etc. Basically make sure you have a product owner that can spend time on the project.

Also make sure that your “definition of done” reflects your quality goals. It has to be very clear what “done” means within your organisation.

Hur gör man för att bryta ner gigantiska projekt över flera plattformar i lagom stora bitar för att köra Scrum?
[How to break down into gigantic projects over several platforms into decent chunks so that Scrum can be used.]
Sven Nilsson, SAAB

Hi Sven,

Your question seems to revolve around two hefty issues: Breaking down the project into several teams that are likely to depend on each others and breaking down the actual work to fit into a sprint. Perhaps “platform” has a special meaning within your organization and how you work. I would have to know a bit more to answer you on that point.

Teams and dependencies
This is tough on several levels. First let’s do the pure Scrum answer – Scrum of Scrums. This basically means that we organize our teams so that one person from each group “steps up” and forms a team that work across several teams. Dependencies etc can be resolved in this group, set up an encompassing backlog and work much in the same fashion as a Scrum Team. Jeff Sutherland, co-fonder of Scrum, has run this set up on 500+ persons. I would love to work on such an outfit.

However, and this is a big however, this is a major change for most companies. The ones I’ve met (medium size and up) just aren’t geared to handle such an approach right now. The number of issues and obstacles with such a transformation can be huge. If you find yourself in such a situation then I suggest you adapt piece by piece and continuously strive to be ever more agile. This is hard work and will mean small improvements upon each other, but maybe no hyper productive state.

This is where I chicken out and suggest you should get someone with experience. Every company is different and needs their set of actions.
Hell, buy me lunch and maybe I can point you in a good direction 🙂

Breaking up the work into chunks
This takes creativity.

First: Try to slice the work so that you will touch base with most layers/parts. This way we can have a better understanding of what it means to deliver the whole system. Therefore make the slice as thin as you can while at the same time deliver something “valuable”. This might mean you need to mock other components (code that isolates different components with dummy answers). This can be very beneficial since it becomes some sort of contract with other teams.

If the chunk still is to big then you might have to resort to cutting up the chunk into parts by level in your architecture. This of course has the drawback that we don’t know what it will take to implement the parts we didn’t do. Business value might be less, but we might be able to “prove” that we’re on the right track. What is “proof” to your product owner?
If you can, stay away of doing tasks in your product backlog. In worst case people will be task-driven: “I’ve changed the registry, can I go home now?”

If we want to/have to promise the customer a delivery date. How can we do that when we don’t analyse the whole project?
We are focusing on the next sprint?

How can we tell management how many resources we will need in one month?
/Patrik Johansson, Ericsson

Hi Patrik,

Several questions and perhaps the most common ones. Let’s dive into them.

Analyze the whole project?
Why we can’t analyze the whole project? Because, this is blatant lie for anything bigger than a trivial project. I apologize for my frankness, but I’ve never seen a project with a single version of the Gantt schema, a single time plan, with a known set of resources…
They always change. Always.

If you and your management can’t agree that things change then you might have to go dualistic – outwards project manager old style, inwards ScrumMaster. It’s not easy, but in time you will gain some victories, err deliveries, and you can move the agile thinking further up. Hard work, but it’s better than doing waterfall all the way.

Your question is still valid. How do we commit on delivery if most things might change? The customer still needs to plan an ad campaign.
One trick is to reinterpret the “commit to delivery date” into agile terms. Get a stable backlog and learn the team’s velocities. This way you can commit to the same “distance”. Things will change, but (as always) it’s down to making things fit into the available time.

For this work we need some iterations under our belt to know our velocity and hashing out what the product backlog should contain. Therefore, mix the project plan’s you have do at the start with some “real work” like coding. Inspect and adapt. After while I think you will able to commit to management.

Focus on the next sprint?
You shouldn’t just focus on the next sprint. The closest work (sprint) is fine grained and the most well understood. The further away (further down on the product backlog), the more coarse grained should the user stories be. No point in being specific, when they’re far into the future.

Which resources can you get? Go for full time members. Make sure can keep them. Look at the product backlog and calculate what you can get done with the people (velocity etc) that you got. The important part is to couple the resources with the goals. All too often your resources get slashed and the goal knocked into orbit – and not on the same day.
Get them in synch so that a change in one of them will affect the other.

I hope this helped.


Originally published at Jayway Team Blog.

Where to listen to Scrum Shock Therapy

November 18, 2008

Just a quick note on Scrum Shock Therapy. I will give a session on this subject at the Øredev conference on Tuesday at around 10 o’clock. If you can make it I will talk about the whole shebang – recipes for the team, management and organisation.

I’d love to get your feedback. See you in the halls and the Way Group booth.
Or you can just give your comments about the session here on this blog.

Developer's conference in Malmö, Sweden



Originally published at Jayway Team Blog.

Scrum Shock Therapy, Part 1

November 17, 2008

Scrum consists of a straightforward process, half a bunch of roles and a few artifacts. Sounds simple enough, but according to an online poll 3 out of 4 projects that call themselves Scrum fail to implement even the simplest parts. To make matters worse, most of the mistakes are on the simple side of things. Is there a way to bootstrap the project? Might there be a sweet hard deal that we can use?

Scrum and Agile development has started to rock the world within IT in various ways. A simple, but powerful process that seems to deliver. Developers and customer alike are happy. What’s not to like about it? Still, there are signs of problems. Projects that claim to use Scrum do not reap the benefits, management looses patience with this new method and team members struggle to adapt an agile approach to their everyday work life. Why is this? And more importantly, what can we do about it?

The Therapy: Get off to a good start by directing the team with a careful set of good practices and a strict agreement that leaves little or no choice. The team can then, over a couple of iterations, gradually take command themselves.

Easy, but still so hard

Why then is Scrum so hard? Well, first of all it is fail-fast, meaning that any problems will be quickly apparent. There are no artifacts or process steps to hide behind. This is never easy. To this list we can add even more pitfalls that are just plain hard to deal with whatever method we are using.

Still, it does not explain why there seems to be so many simple mistakes with such a simple framework. One of the best examples is the failure to keep backlog that is prioritized and up to date.
– We’re doing Scrum, but we’re too busy to work on the product backlog!

That one has always short-circuited my brain. What can be more important than to decide what is important? This pattern of falling short and missing basic parts of Scrum even has a name – “ScrumButt”. If you look in the sentence above you see why.

Nokia created a test to make sure the projects are “Scrum enough”. These plain questions form a lithmus test that can be used to analyze most agile projects.

The Nokia Test
Iterative Development?

  • Iterations – time boxed, less than 4 weeks.
  • Software features – tested and working at the end of each iteration.
  • Iteration must start before specification is complete.

Scrum (in Nokia’s opinion)?

  • You know who the product owner is.
  • There is a product backlog prioritized by business value.
  • The product backlog has estimates created by the team.
  • The team generates burndown charts and knows their velocity.
  • No project managers (or anyone else) disrupting the work of the team.

The questions seem to be on the easy side. It turns out that this might not be the case.
One online poll, Nokia Test by Practice , about the ability to achieve the Nokia Test level gave some interesting answers. In essence, only one out of four give themselves a full mark. Half of the groups report that management interferes, not directs but interferes.

Informal queries by Jeff Sutherland among his audiences around the world give an even worse number – something like 1 out of 10 pass the Nokia Test. Hand on your heart: Does your project live up to this?

A survey by VersionOne tries to dig deeper into the current state of the Agile affairs. Under the headline “Top barriers to adopting Agile” we read the top four answers:

  1. Organisational culture, 45%
  2. General resistance to change, 44%
  3. Lack of people with experience, 42%
  4. Lack of management support, 32%

Take a long look at these barriers. No technical stuff. Nothing specific to agile. Just people.

What do we know?

Learn to walk before you run. Greek Proverb.

We could be a bit closer to today’s reality than these ancient words of wisdom. The Situational Leadership offers an approach to management that has been around since the 60’s. These theories say that there is no single leadership style that is optimal for all people in every situation. Situational leadership talks about four different leadership styles that need to be matched with the follower. Basically, when leading someone who is passionate, but have no experience, you should adapt and give clear directives. As the follower evolves his or her ability to execute, so should the leader using less directives and more encouragement. In the end the follower is able to perform with only a stated goal and little or no directives.

If this holds true for people, could it not be true for teams as well?

The Shock

So we have problems making Scrum and Agile efforts to run. What is the conclusion? Could it be that we adapt our leadership style to the group? Make them walk before running?

This is counter intuitive, at least to me: To go agile, we first need to control. We should not let our teams and managements start off without some kind of directives. Give them a good deal, some practices that make Scrum work. Otherwise, we are just repeating the same old mistakes as the next-door agile project. Set up an agreement with both management and team so that they can evolve and experience Scrum for real. Just reading a book (or article) or listening to some good speaker alone does not help you out there in real life. You have to experience it.

Shocking as it may feel: We need to exercise some control over the Scrum project start so that it can evolve and self organize! But, and this is a big but, this has to be done with compassion and genuine involvement, otherwise we stand the risk of destroying what we are trying to build.

The Therapy

So what can we do? We need to work the team, management and often the whole organization.

The Team Recipe

So how do we get started? Here’s a recipe for the team as it used at MySpace:
The Team

  • Scrum training session for everyone
  • Sprint 1 week long
  • Definition of Done:
    • Feature Complete
    • Code Complete
    • No known defects
    • Approved by the Product Owner
    • Production Ready
  • Story Points
  • Physical Task Board
  • All-in-one Sprint planning meeting.
  • No Multi-tasking, work in priority order.

Scott Downey, Agile Coach at MySpace

The idea of this recipe is to set a good practice right from the start. Instead of debating the details on how to work in an agile way, we can focus on getting going.

Everyone has to have a common Scrum understanding to start from, hence the training session. One-week iteration sounds really tight for any reasonably sized projects. The thinking behind this is to get as quick iterations as possible – the faster that the group gets going the better. Short sprints help in this aspect. We learn faster with more turnarounds.
This in turn affects the meetings where MySpace has elected to combine them all, except the morning meeting, into one single occasion. The time is just too short to in a weekly sprint.

MySpace’s definition of done is a good and basic list. However, as a programmer I lack for instance continuous integration, pair programming and so on. These are not mandatory to have, but I see them as enablers for Scrum and supporting your agile initiative.

The next two on the list – Story Points and Physical Task Board – are really effective. If you haven’t tried them out then please do. They work. Finally we have something that is a no-brainer to me even though I have great problems avoiding it, “No Multi-tasking, work in priority order”. Context-switching is expensive, just avoid it. The priorities are in order, you just have to follow them. In the Reference box you find a link to Scott Downey’s description of their therapy.

When the team matures, they should evolve and handle things more on their own and no longer need directives. At MySpace the group can “prove” that they are ready for prime time by reaching the following goals.

The Team Exit

  • Hyper-Productive (>240%)
  • Three successful Sprints consecutively
  • Good business reason to change the rule

The Result?

So how does this work out? At MySpace all groups achieved exit. All, but one, improved after that. One group even achieved a whopping 1,650% improvement after just four months (16 sprints). At Jayway one of the teams used such a bootstrap technique, primarily on the technical side, and reached 800% after 3 months.

The second part of this blog can be found here: Scrum Shock Therapy, Part 2 where I will look into how to handle management and organisation with some recipes.

/Björn Granvik, Jayway

Originally published at Jayway Team Blog.

Interview: Dr Jeff Sutherland, father of Scrum

February 2, 2008

Jeff Sutherland has piercing blue eyes – friendly, but probing – and a frequent smile. They are a bit like a distant uncle who wants to know what you have made of yourself.

After several CTO assignments at various companies, Jeff Sutherland found himself at Easel corporation where he created Scrum together with Ken Schwaber. Ken later presented this methodology at the OOPSLA conference in 1995.

A dozen years later I find myself in search for a good spot where I can concentrate on my interview. Jeff and I sit down at a café at the Øredev conference. My computer has been acting up going blue screen on me twice that day. Time is short and I wonder if it’s an omen.

Photo of Dr Jeff Sutherland.

Photo of Dr Jeff Sutherland.

Dr Jeff Sutherland. Photo by Mai Skou Nielsen, Trifork

Q: I hope I’ve done my reading. As far as I understand you’ve been a fighter pilot in Vietnam, an assistant professor in math and medicine and the CTO at nine different high tech companies. Moreover, you travel the world to teach Scrum. Does it take a resumé like this to invent a process like Scrum?

The key part of what makes Scrum work is “complex adaptive systems” and you need some understanding of this. Also you need to understand systems theory and how to optimise a system as a whole.

You do not have to be smart, but you have to thoughtful.

Q: How did Scrum start and from where does it draw its heritage?
Scrum and Lean both derive from complex adaptive system theory. Constraint theory is a narrow subset of complex adaptive systems thinking. Lean implementations of these theories have been created at companies like Toyota and Honda. Honda was actually more aggressive at this in the nineties, but then Toyota was more successful in the market. They also were more formalised and better known.

Q: Why does it work?
The first reason for all of this is important – super intelligent performance out of ordinary developers. In order to do that we need we need to set up a simple framework so that people will self-organize. The second reason is that there is no central point of control. The manager needs to back off. That is critical.

The third principle is behaviour that emerges in the team based on self-organizing in order to get max production.

The fourth reason is that the production is far higher for the group than any single developer. Groups actually achieve more than any lone bright developer.

These are the basic principles of a complex adaptive system. Any organization is a complex adaptive system. Software production is an organizational phenomenon. It is an empirical process that must absorb significant change in requirements, technologies, priorities, and people.

Q: You talk about managers, why is it important for them to back off?
A company needs to stop sub-optimizing locally. That is the thing that Toyota figured out, largely due to the efforts of Edward Deming and other Americans who trained the Japanese in WWII industry processes. Most managers just care about local performance. Managers have to work as a team to look across the whole spectrum. It is difficult for them. They’re paid and given bonuses on a single level, not the company as a whole.

For instance, look at the General Motors manufacturing plant in Fremont, California. GM shut down that plant 1982 due to several problems, among them quality. Two years later it reopened as a joint venture between Toyota and GM. Toyota needed a plant in the US in order to avoid import restrictions. In an agreement with the labour union they offered reemployment to the former employees.

Two years later the NUMMI plant was producing over 200 000 cars per year and was twice as productive as the typical GM plant. The thinking they applied is the same as “lean production” where Toyota makes the team responsible to figure out the best way to solve the problems and achieve the goals. NUMMI later won several awards for quality.

“Your battery is running low”, declares my machine solemnly. Jeff and I make a run for a power outlet and find one on the second floor. My power chord is too short so we stack up real close to the wall. It will do. More than that actually, it feels like we really are working together on this interview.

Q: Some parts of Scrum are frightening, like making the group totally responsible for an implementation. How come people in management buy this?

The best answer I can give you, is the discussion I had with my first CEO when I introduced the ideas of Scrum. We had a critical project with a hard deadline. It was a question of survival.

The CEO expected a Gantt chart [ed: a timeline specifying activities and their dependencies, showing the progress of a project].

  • How many Gantt charts have you received that actually worked? I asked the CEO.
  • None, was the short answer. In my 25 years I haven’t received a single one that was correct. I asked him if a 100% failure rate wouldn’t make it foolish of me to give him one.
  • What are you going to give me, he asked?
  • Working software. Decide for your self to if we’re on track. In return I made him promise not to disrupt the team before the deadline. At this point he started to worry.

I said that at the end of the month he could change everything he wanted, but not during that month.

  • If you do this, you will get significant more code with better quality.
  • I can live with that. Let’s do it.

Scrum was born in that minute.

It’s a basic contract between management and team. The team delivers twice as much stuff with twice as good quality (minimum) and the management supports the team in their efforts to self-organize and self-manage. If either party does not fulfil this contract then it will fail.

Q: Doesn’t Scrum fail?

Scrum itself is a set of rules that causes self-organization if certain things are put in place. It’s like the rules of soccer. Does soccer fail?
With Scrum you will fail significantly less.

The Standish Group \[ed: a company that specializes in IT studies\] reports that project in the range 3-6 million dollars with a traditional project plan fail more than 85% of the time. Scrum does a lot better than that!

Q: What are your top three tips on using Scrum?

Bas Vodde was the Lead trainer for Scum Master at Nokia Siemens Networks. He has the shortest set of questions to identify a dysfunctional Scrum team.

You must have iterations of 30 days or less with working software tested at system level at end of each iteration. You need an agile specification, just enough for programmers to start for that iteration.

You need a product owner who orders activities by business value of the feature set. The team estimates the product backlog.

And lastly, the team needs to monitor progress with a burn down chart and know its velocity at the end of the iteration.

Q: Finally, what is in the future for Scrum?

Hyper productivity on an economic and marketing level where companies consistently out perform their competitors. Scrum is a disruptive technology that will alter markets. Companies doing Scrum well will grow rapidly in both size and profitability and dominate their waterfall competitors. There is already a brain drain going on where the better developers are fleeing from waterfall companies to Agile companies. This will hasten the demise of traditional projects.

Q: Is this a shameless plug?
Oh no, we have achieved it in several departments at my company \[PatientKeeper\]. It is doable. Other companies I work with right here in Scandinavia are doing it as well.

Going away from this fast paced interview, I still have the feeling that I could have done more with my life. If Jeff can do it, then so can I …I hope

Originally published in JayView.

Interview: Martin Fowler – man in the know

February 2, 2007

I am in search of an empty room at the Øredev conference. Normally this is an easy task, but I’ve got Martin Fowler on my tail. My mind is still blank. What on earth can I ask him that he hasn’t already written himself?

Finally, an empty room, well almost. Another speaker, Erik Dörnenburg, is sitting half way into his screen and mutters.
– What’s up, I ask.
– I’ve updated my machine and my demo doesn’t work. I’ve got 45 minutes until the presentation.
We sat down next to him. Do not disturb a developer while he’s coding…

So I got a man who has coined phrases like Dependency Injection and POJO in front of me. What next? Martin is easily recognizable both in accent and appearance, a frequent and brilliant speaker.
He has an excellent web site,, which contains loads about his work. Articles and references abound. That is when it suddenly hits me – who is he as a programmer and person?

Q: When was the last time you coded?
Well, I do code my own website. But it’s been a while since I had any paying customers. I’ve been pairing quite recently though. A real delivery? That was some time ago. I’m actually afraid to lose contact with code, but I have smart people around me.

Q: But what makes you tick?
I enjoy trying to figure out new techniques – to organize knowledge. I see myself as a conduit [ledning] for transferring knowledge, to process what is out there and make some kind of structure out of it. Brian Foot actually described me as an “intellectual jackal with a good taste in carrion” [intellektuell schackal med god smak för kadaver].
I look around for interesting stuff and try to make sense of it.
The “Refactoring” is a good example. I figured out how to describe it and wrote a book that came out when it could make a difference and move the area forward.
I also enjoy writing a lot, that’s a big thing. I’m better now at speaking, but that’s not what makes me tick.

Q: You’ve written quite a few books – how do they compare?
Out of the five, “Uml Distilled” sold more copies than the others put together. Usually you can’t make a living out of your books, I guess I could though.
All of the books had their good sides, but I would have to say that it was fun to write with Kent Beck [red: wrote “Extreme Programming”, created JUnit etc]. We were in tune and could support each other through the dull bits.
I would have to say though that I’m proudest of “Refactoring”. It’s an important technique and didn’t get the attention it should have received – the book helped.

Q: How did you start out?
I was an independent consultant for many years. Giving talks was a good way of getting jobs. Articles same thing – it got my name known.
Also, I write something because I don’t understand a certain area or technology. It’s a good way to learn.
Erik is now on the phone with California. We calculate that time is roughly 6:30 there – in the morning.

Q: Then what? How come you started working for Thoughtworks (TW)?
I’ve been there for six years and done a lot of consulting. I never wanted to work for a company, but there was something about TW that made me interested.
Get the work done and tons of bright people. But more importantly is that it is a sort of social experiment. A notion that good people makes a difference.
I hope we can affect IT, which is a difficult and skilled exercise at best.

Q: What is the most difficult part of being a celebrity?
I’m not an extrovert person. I’m not good at the “person to person”. I get emails with questions like “I got a problem on…what is the magic trick”. They worked for months on it and I can only point to a book. That clearly wasn’t an answer they liked. It’s frustrating.
However, celebrity is also a nice thing – it opens a few doors. I can email people like Rod Johnson [red CEO of Interface 21 that created the Spring framework] if I have a question about something. And he will answer.
People tend to think I’m an ingenious programmer. I’m not. I’m pretty good, but not necessarily that great.
Erik suddenly spits out:
– F—!…ok the demo will be shorter.

Q: Looking forward, what’s next?
Oh, there is tons of stuff to write about. The design patterns area for instance. I’m also interested in DSL [domain specific languages] and agile development. But in agile there are too many writers and I don’t like competition. There are too many smart people in agile development.
My strategy is to look for topics that no one has written about. Basically I don’t foretell the future.

Q: What are your top three pieces of advice to a programmer?
My first advice must be to learn to collaborate with the user or purchaser. The really good ideas usually come from them. You don’t have to be an expert to do this. This I found to be a good general advice.
Secondly, it would be “continuous learning”. It’s like running up a downwards-moving escalator – you have to keep running.
The third one is difficult…
“Buy lots of books by good authors” would be it.
Erik suddenly releases a big:
– Yes!
I saw Erik’s demo some twenty minutes later – it was really good.
As for Martin, our discussions continued well into the debate panel and beyond. He would frequently forget his back pain and sip into some extra energy pack. I wonder how he did that.

Originally published in JayView.