Sunday, January 22, 2017

Self-Organizing Teams

Much of the promise of Agile, and specifically Scrum, results from self-organizing teams. Self-organizing teams are the core value creation organism at the heart a healthy Agile ecosystem.  A self-organizing team will deliver functionality at a higher velocity and higher quality. Additionally, members of a self-organizing team will experience higher morale. Simply put, self-organizing teams will be more efficient, effective, with higher well-being than the overly managed alternative.
Unfortunately fostering a self-organizing team is not a simple endeavor. It is both an art and a science and it is a process that can not be rushed.  
When coaching teams and their leadership on the topic I often use the tomato plant analogy.

I don’t understand the mystery of what makes a tomato plant grow, but I do know that if I foster a healthy environment of sunlight, water, and fertile soil over the course of a few months a small fragile plant will likely mature into a fruit producing powerhouse.  
In a similar way, after 10+ years of Agile coaching, I don’t understand all the mysteries of a self-organizing team. There are far too many variables and variations to write a recipe, but I do know that like the tomato plant, fostering a few basic elements will dramatically increase (not guarantee) the chances for success. Additionally, just like you can’t pull on a tomato plant to make it grow faster, a self-organizing team needs time and space to grow to its potential. Fortunately, the tomato plant analogy comes full circle and the time it takes for a tomato plant to yield fruit is similar to the time needed for a team to experience the benefits of self-organization.

Identifying a Self-organizing Team

Identifying a healthy tomato plant is easy, lots of gorgeous fruit with healthy bright green leaves free of blight and leaf eating parasites. Identifying a healthy (performance and well-being) self-organizing team striving to reach its potential is also easy if you have been fortunate enough to experience one. It’s much more difficult to recognize one if your experiences are limited to traditional management structures, waterfall software development, and command and control vs. servant leadership environments. These environments can also produce valuable fruit, but not to the extent that self-organizing Agile teams will.

Here are a few indicators of self-organizing teams:
  • The team understands the Vision of what defines success.
  • The team is cross-functional and have the skills and capacity to complete backlog items.
  • Team members are focused and motivated by results (better product & better process).
  • Team members authentically collaborate (co-create) toward results. They plan, replan, and adjust as a team toward their shared commitment.
  • Team members have fun with one another and enjoy challenging and being challenged by themselves and their teammates. They see each other as peers.
  • Team members have collective ownership (vs. individual ownership) of the code and the sprint backlog (user stories and tasks).
  • Team members pull work from their shared list of tasks. They are not assigned work by managers or “senior” team members. They pull work outside their “speciality” or comfort zone as a way to learn, and increase team velocity.
  • Leadership practitioners are evaluating the team based on sprint results (better product & better process) and not on items inside the sprint (tasks and task hours) and individual resource utilization.
  • Quality is a non-issue, sprint commitments are consistently being achieved, and velocity is predictable and gradually increasing
This is not a complete list, but it should be enough to raise awareness of improvement areas.

Fostering a Self-organizing Team

Just as it is not possible to create a tomato plant, you can not create a self organizing team. But here are a few items that may help to nurture that process.

Development Team

  • Take ownership of contributing your best toward the shared sprint commitment. Challenge yourself to improve and pull work that may be out of your comfort zone. Ask team members for help.
  • Support other team members when they look like they need help. Pairing on difficult tasks is often an effective way to grow skills.
  • Be honest, respectful, and helpful with your team. Create a safe environment to reduce fear and foster creativity.
  • Pull for work. Don’t assign work to other team members. Authenticity suggesting work is vastly different than assigning work.
  • Plan and write tasks as a team during sprint planning and as necessary throughout the sprint. Respectfully challenge teammates on inefficiencies, redundant tasks, or unnecessary tasks.
  • Be transparent with specific tasks and remaining hour estimates. Large generic tasks do not expose the work. Smaller more specific task breakdown better exposes the work and allows team members to work in parallel.
  • Raise impediments when resources to achieve the sprint commitment are outside the reach of the team. Collaborate with those outside the team to resolve the impediment.
  • Contribute to retrospectives and improving your process.

Product Owner

  • Communicate vision, acceptance criteria, and definition of done. Setting clear expectations will help the team to understand where the finish line is and enable them to drive across it. A team will not self-organize if they do not understand their mission.
  • Help the team to be successful. Be responsive to questions and support them in the removal of impediments.
  • Be honest, respectful, and helpful with your team. Create a safe environment to reduce fear and foster creativity.
  • Foster the space for authentic commitment at sprint planning. The team needs the ability to get clarity on the backlog items as a way to raise their confidence. Only then is the commitment real.
  • Keep the sprint backlog stable. Disruptions to the sprint backlog will impede its completion. Shorter sprints (2 weeks vs. 4 weeks) may be helpful.
  • Allow the team to experience success. The sprint commitment should be challenging but sustainable. “Stretch Goals” for a sprint generally play against the feeling of success. Work can always be pulled into the sprint if the team hits its goal early. Sometime it is necessary to pull way back on the commitment for a couple sprints until the commitment is consistently achieved. At that point challenge the team to increase their velocity. If the commitment is pulled back to unacceptable levels, ask the team what is needed to increase it.  

Management and Leadership
  • Allow the team makeup to stabilize for an extended period of time. While deliberate teaming is an effective strategy to grow skills and accelerate velocity, ad-hoc shifts in team makeup will block self-organization.
  • Ensure the team has a shared vision of what success looks like. They need to know their overall objective.
  • Building software can at times, seem messy and chaotic. Incremental delivery, using sprints as time-boxes serves to contain the messiness. Evaluate team performance on sprint results and velocity, not task items within the sprint. Scrum done well is very empowering and motivating for team members, but if daily activities are managed by those outside the team, it can be viewed as extreme micromanagement.  For example, management should not be evaluating tasks or hour burn-down charts within the sprint unless they are asked by team members for support or guidance. The hour burn-down chart is a tool for the team to help them understand where they are relative to their shared commitment.
  • Decouple time reporting from task reporting and feature costing. Using task hours for time reporting generally plays strongly against self-organization and is often interpreted as micromanagement.
  • Assemble a cross-functional team. A team without the skills can not self-organize. A talented and motivated team can grow the skills, but it will take time. Development managers can be embedded with the team to “pair” with other team members and help develop skills, but they need to be viewed as peers on the team.
  • Operate as a Servant leader vs a manager. Partner with team members and ask what you can do to help them be successful.
    • Remove as many constraints as possible, but establish and communicate necessary boundaries and allow the team to work within those boundaries. A team member should be empowered to pull any task they feel they can add value to. Identify and remove traditional processes that may not be adding value in the Agile context.
    • Remove as many metrics as possible. Working software should be the primary metric. All other metrics should be evaluated based on value. Too many metrics will have a negative impact on self-organization.
    • Allow time for the team to self organize. This is at least 3-4 sprints for a cross-functional team.
    • Support the removal of impediments. Partner with practitioners, leadership, and other managers to remove immediate and systemic impediments.
    • Raise your awareness of activities that may be perceived as micromanagement.

Scrum Master

  • Stay neutral in reporting and other activities. “It’s not good news or bad news, it’s just the news.” Partner with the team and the organization on how to effectively work with that information. Champion the needs of the team to the organization and champion the needs of the organization to the team.
  • Coach and support the items listed above for the Team, Product Owner, and Management & Leadership.
  • Champion the Agile mindset and the associated process. Scrum is a framework that can be extended by the team and the organization. Help to keep the practice reflective of the process. This is essential for continuous improvement and valuable for self-organization.
  • Pull for impediments. Look for areas where team members may be stuck or struggling and ask if they need assistance. Demonstrate that you are there to support their success and to help resolve items impeding their success.
  • Facilitate a conversation on self-organization at the sprint retrospective. This blog may be used to help with that conversation

Self-organization is a rich but  foundational concept of effective agility and it’s nuances are complex. Given the space/time, skills, and capacity along with a shared vision, self-organization has a chance to emerge. My hope is that this blog will help raise awareness and help you with conversations regarding self-organization.

Photo Credit: Country by Nature

Friday, June 21, 2013

From Project Manager to Scrum Master

On June 14th, Johnathan Watkins shared his experiences on shifting from the Project Manager role to the Scrum Master role in the webinar, “Journey From Project Manager to Scrum Master: Conversation with Johnathan Watkins”. 
You can listen to Johnathan introduce himself here: Johnathan's Introduction (.mp3)
During the conversation, Johnathan touched on several points and a few stories from his journey, but the underlying theme of his experience and insights align well with the description of the Scrum Master role from the Scrum Guide.
The Scrum Guide describes Johnathan’s actions --- “The Scrum Master is a servant-leader for the Scrum Team (Product Owner, Engineering Team, and Scrum Master)” where coaching on the Agile mindset and the Scrum practices helped facilitate this service.
Service to the Product Owner
Johnathan described ways that in his role as Scrum Master he worked with the Product Owner to coordinate backlog grooming sessions with the team. These sessions ensured the team and the product owner were on the same page with the goals and vision of the product and the appropriate specifics of the various backlog items.
Service to the Engineering Team
The primary service he provided to the Engineering Team was his assistance to remove impediments and help navigate throughout the organization. Additionally, he championed the agile mindset and helped the cross-functional team to self-organize and live the Agile values.
Service to the Organization
Service to the organization took many forms. Johnathan described that in addition to the Scrum Master functions, he supported the organization with budgeting, time-reporting, and team member onboarding activities. Johnathan worked with the organization to provide visibility of project progress to meet commitments.
The Scrum Master is “Switzerland”
Across all three of the groups, he ensured that everyone had an appropriate understanding of the the Agile mindset and the associated Scrum practices. Remaining neutral among all three groups maximized his effectiveness and ultimately contributed to the successful delivery of a high-quality product for AutoVIN.
See the AutoVIN team webinar to learn more about their journey.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Journey From Project Manager to Scrum Master: Conversation with Johnathan Watkins

Free Live Webinar: June 14th from 12:00 - 1:00 pm Eastern Time

Session Recap:
From Project Manager to Scrum Master


Agile continues to gain momentum as teams and organizations apply both the mindset and associated practices to deliver value! In the 2012 Annual State of Agile survey, 83% of respondents plan to implement agile practice on a future project --- an increase from 59% in 2011. Additionally, Scrum continues to be the “agile methodology” of choice with 72% using Scrum or Scrum variants. In Scrum, the Scrum Master role is a pivotal for successful implementation and achieving the benefits of greater agility --- to accelerate time-to-market, manage changing priorities, increase productivity, enhance quality, further align Business and Technology, improve visibility, reduce risk, and reduce cost ---  but going from the Project Manager role to the Scrum Master role can be “daunting”.

In 2012, AutoVIN shared their Agility Transformation Journey (with Redpoint Technologies), where Johnathan Watkins contributed as Scrum Master; this webinar will focus on Johnathan’s story and his path from Project Manager to Scrum Master. We will explore his experience and distill specific actionable lessons learned that you can leverage in your organization, teams, and journey.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Great Coaching: The Possibilities when Starting with A Blank Page

What is the most powerful and telling attribute to look for when evaluating and selecting a coach to help with your transformation? Perhaps it's the attribute of starting with a “Blank Page”!

This concept is referenced by Harvard Business Writer, Robert Kaplan in a recent article for Inc. Magazine, “Great Leaders Don’t Have to Know All the Answers”  Kaplan describes a handful of behaviors for great leaders.  In this short list he references the blank page as:
“Do I look at my enterprise with a clean sheet of paper?” 
Kaplan’s Clean Sheet of Paper and our Blank Page highlight that preconceived notions constrain creativity and limit possibilities.

In the context of transformation coaching, it applies when the coach shows up on day one and literally starts with clean sheet of paper... and no preconceived notions of what the journey or ultimate destination will be! The alternative is a coach who arrives with preconceptions of how you should operate.  It’s often based on the technique or approach they are most comfortable with (yet without justification if its the right approach for you, the team, or organization).

Here are other key attributes of a great coach:

Client focused - At the top of the list is client focus. It’s all about the client and an acute focus on getting results that address their needs.  With a blank page, a coach isn’t interested in experimenting with their latest theories or testing out a concept they recently read about.  They're forced to listen carefully to the client and absorb the surrounding context before presenting suggestions on an approach. And once the client determines their choice of options, the coach should be focused on helping them navigate through the consequences.

Collaborative - A Blank Page enables the coach to work with the client to cocreate an approach and results that best fit the client’s context. Preconceived ideas may generate some positive progress, but it will be much less scalable and sustainable than a solution that was derived in collaboration with the client. You want a coach that is open to new and creative possibilities.

Renewal - One of the biggest challenges in any transformation journey is letting go of existing paradigms and processes.  A coach with a Blank Page philosophy provides leadership in the form of example to help a client confront this challenge of letting go.  A demonstration that starting fresh opens the door to exciting possibilities. 

Confident and Grounded Principles - A Blank Page is a demonstration of confidence that the coach has a depth of experience as well a vast toolbox of proven best practices that can be combined and shaped to meet the needs of the client.  It demonstrates that they lean on principles and human dynamics to form opinions and not the most popular technique of the day.  They’ll be comfortable in chaos and have the ability to appreciate and even shape context. 

Neutral - Neutrality is essential for a coach.  Without a Blank Page the coach may lean toward practices that favor specific groups or perspectives within an organization.

There are many attributes that describe a great coach, but getting their perspective relative to the “Blank Page” will provide valuable insights.  

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Transformation Can Start From Anywhere: Think Fractals

Its a common misconception that transformation can only be successful if it starts at the executive level of an enterprise. In reality, transformation can start anywhere. Transformation can be successful at the individual, team, division or the enterprise level. 

Transformation is like throwing a stone in a pond. You can throw the stone anywhere, but eventually the ripples will affect the whole pond. Obviously the size and placement of the stone will affect the speed of the ripples, but even a small stone in the corner of the pond will influence a wide area. We should never underestimate the potential of a stone!

An individual or a small team can be the catalyst for transformation at the enterprise level. As this unit (individual or enterprise) engages in healthier language, behavior, and relationships, the impact on performance and well-being will quickly be noticed. This improved health will be noticed by those touching these areas and the effects will permeate and replicate --- just like ripples in a pond!

A recent client engagement involved transforming an Enterprise Program Management Office (EPMO) where after transforming only a few programs, a ripple pattern of greater health emerged and began to move across the organization.

Think Fractals

Urgency for renewal, budget, openness to change, and other factors will dictate the breadth of the initial transformation, but you can start just about anywhere. Transformation follows the rules and patterns of a fractal. Just like the fractals found in nature where the shape of a small twig and a giant redwood follow the same pattern, the pattern for transforming a small group or an entire enterprise are reasonably identical.  

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Enterprise Transformation - An Act of Renewal

Why Transformation?

Enterprise transformation is a renewal process that helps organizations become healthier (performance and well-being). Over time, short term decisions, mergers, turnover, conflicting management styles or visions, and for many other real reasons organizations develop a type of “scar” tissue. Eventually this “scar” tissue becomes increasingly burdensome on the bottom line and the well-being of employees, customers, and suppliers.

Symptoms of “scar” tissue emerges in many different ways:
  • Increasing difficulty to meet customer needs and wants 
  • Processes that seem to take way too long or seem far too costly or far too complex
  • Reduced quality
  • Competitors that always seem to be one step ahead of you 
  • Reduced market share or difficulty in getting customers to adopt your new offerings
  • Thinning profit margins and increased costs
  • Increased employee turnover 
  • A noticeable lack of engagement or motivation
  • Conflict and bickering that is increasingly directed inside the organization and not resolved in healthy ways
  • Etc...

Generally, the painful symptoms listed above can be grouped into three areas:
  • Means - Challenges with discovering and creating valuable results
  • Ends - Challenges with the results themselves
  • Dysfunctions - A disturbance between the way departments or individuals work with each other 

Thriving Organizations - A Vision of the Future

Alternatively, we often hear of those organizations that seem to break the mold and thrive. They continuously outperform their competition and are staffed with employees that never have trouble describing the wonderful company they're a part of.

Thriving and high performing organizations are founded on strong cultures, which involve shared values, strategy alignment, and interconnection. Such organizations achieve 4 times higher revenue, 7 times more expanded work force, 12 times higher stock prices, and 756% higher net income [1].

People who work at these organizations enjoy coming to work each day, they enjoy interactions with their coworkers, and are excited to contribute to the mission of their organization. When impediments and opportunities present themselves, they work with each other to heal the impediment or seize the opportunity.

These organizations do exist and yours can become one of them (and much faster than you might think possible).

Transforming into a Thriving Organization

Unfortunately, approximately 70% of all change initiatives focused on improving performance fail! [2] 

Change is taking what you have and making tweaks or even significant modifications around the problem areas and hoping things get better. In many cases things do get better, but sustaining and building on the change becomes the recurring problem. Before too long things are back to where they started and often compounded by even lower morale and additional problems --- and you have additional “scar” tissue!

Alternatively, transformation involves acknowledging what you have and constructing something new. A butterfly is not a changed caterpillar. A butterfly is a caterpillar that has transformed into something new. It has been reborn in a new form --- not merely additional “scar” tissue!

A Roadmap to Better Health

Transformation initiatives don’t have to involve an army of consultants commonly prescribed by traditional approaches, but can be achieved with a very lean team. Additionally, transformation initiatives don’t have to involve a five year journey, but can be accomplished within a substantially shorter timeframe.

Such a roadmap involves three phase:
  • Appreciating the organization,
  • Coaching a shift in the organization’s foundation, and
  • Ensuring the organization can continue to evolve.

Closing Thoughts

Transformation is a never ending journey. It's an ongoing process of renewal. We recognize the courage it takes to begin a transformation journey. Additionally, it may never seem like the right time to start. The time and cost may seem high, but the rewards are almost unimaginable.


[1] Corporate Culture and Performance, John P. Kotter (
[2] Cracking the code of Change, Harvard Business Review (

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Let's Get Started - Welcome


Welcome to my blog and thank you for your interest.
This post provides a starting point for my blog and outlines a bit about me and my motivation to share my thoughts.

My Career... and Passion

Professionally, I’m a transformation practitioner and consultant focused on organizational health (performance and wellbeing).  I work with organizations, teams, and individuals to help them become their better self.

I accomplish this result by engaging in conversation to identify pain points (means, ends, and dysfunctions) then acting with the client across the organization’s sociocultural and system dimensions to reduce pain and foster sustainable improvements.

Transformation is an amazingly rewarding (and challenging) career and I suspect most of my blog posts will relate to transformation.  Send me a note ( if you feel your organization could benefit from improved health.


I maintain a LinkedIn account for my professional network, bio, resume, and client recommendations.  


A Bit About My Personal Side

On a personal note, I'm extremely lucky to have a loving family and an amazing network of friends.
When I'm not working with clients you're likely to find me enjoying outdoor activities. Skiing, sailing and mountain biking top the list, but hiking, running, and canoeing are also great ways to kill a Saturday afternoon.  I'm not much into following professional sports teams, but I do enjoy attending games every now and then. 

Why Blog

It always has to be win-win.  I have been very fortunate over the years to have had the opportunity to benefit from some amazing mentors and courageous clients.   So for you, I want to share experiences and insights as a way to give back in the hope you find this content valuable and it helps you lift those around you.
For myself, blogging provides the opportunity to articulate and tune my thoughts making me more effective with clients.  It also provides a channel for perspective clients to understand my perspective.


The Ground Rules 

  • These are My Thoughts  What I share here is based on real experiences and real work with real clients, but it's just my perspective. 
  • Please Share Your Thoughts  You may share my perspective or you may have a different perspective.  Either way your respectful comments are always welcome (and may lead to the next ground rule).  :-) 
  • On Second Thought...   I reserve the right to change my mind and edit any of the posts.  
  • Suggest a Topic  Please share ideas for future blog posts.
  • Frequency  The frequency of posts will vary.  Only time will tell how often new posts will arrive. 
Thanks again for visiting and I hope you find this content valuable.