Concave, Convex, and Nonlinear Fragility

Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, “Antifragile,” is a wealth of information. I’ve returned to it often since first reading it several years ago. My latest revisit has been to better understand his ideas about representing the nonlinear and asymmetric aspects of fragile/antifragile in terms of “concave” and “convex.” My first read of this left me a bit confused, but I got the gist of it and moved on. Taleb is a very smart guy so I need to understand this.

The first thing I needed to sort out on this revisit was Taleb’s use of language. The fragile/antifragile comparison is variously described in his book as:

  • Concave/Convex
  • Slumped solicitor/Humped solicitor
  • Curves inward/Curves outward
  • Frown/Smile
  • Negative convexity effects/Positive convexity effects
  • Pain more than gain/Gain more than pain
  • Doesn’t “like” volatility (presumable)/”Likes” volatility

Tracking his descriptions is made a little more challenging by reversals in reference when writing of both together (concave and convex then convex and concave) and mis-matches between the text and illustrations. For example:

Nonlinearity comes in two kinds: concave (curves inward), as in the case of the king and the stone, or its opposite, convex (curves outward). And of course, mixed, with concave and convex sections. (note the order: concave / convex) Figures 10 and 11 show the following simplifications of nonlinearity: the convex and the concave resemble a smile and a frown, respectively. (note the order: convex / concave)

Figure 10 shows:

So, “convex, curves outward” is illustrated as an upward curve and “concave, curves inward” is illustrated as a downward curve. Outward is upward and inward is downward. It reads like a yoga pose instruction or a play-by-play call for a game of a Twister.

After this presentation, Taleb simplifies the ideas:

I use the term “convexity effect” for both, in order to simplify the vocabulary, saying “positive convexity effects” and “negative convexity effects.”

This was helpful. The big gain is when Taleb gets to the math and graphs what he’s talking about. Maybe the presentation to this point is helpful to non-math thinkers, but for me it was more obfuscating than illuminating. My adaptation of the graphs presented by Taleb:

With this picture, it’s easier for me to understand the non-linear relationship between a variable’s volatility and fragility vs antifragility. The rest of the chapter is easier to understand with this picture of the relationships in mind.

We’re Good, Yes?

No.

No, we’re not.

I’m adding this phrase to my list of markers that indicate things in a relationship are still not settled. It’s another form of the “seeking forgiveness instead of asking permission” bromide. A self-printed get-out-of-jail-free card. If not that, it’s a dodge to get out from under the burden of an uncomfortable situation at the expense of leaving things tangled and for the most part unresolved.

Here’s a typical scenario.

A product owner or executive faces a decision that affects the workload on a team. Rather than work with marketing, for example, to defer their request for new features to a future release or shift the delivery date to accommodate the request, the decision maker takes the easy path, agrees to the change without adjusting anything else in the system, and drops the extra work on the team.

To make matters worse, the team is informed by email. The team is understandably upset and more than a little confused about the immediate change in course. It’s left to the scrum master to make sense of the e-grenade and deal with the shrapnel. The expected back-channeling and grousing quickly attracts the attention of a wider audience and a full-on electrical storm ensues.

After way too many expensive people are involved and someone with some skill and authority gets control of the situation, work gets renegotiated, timelines are shifted, and work that could and should have been done by the original decision maker gets done by a cadre of ancillary and executive staff.

The original decision maker circles back around to the scrum master, apologies for the “misunderstanding,” and dashes off with a wave and a “We’re good, yes?”

In all likelihood, you’re not. In fact, the difficult conversation that needs to happen is just beginning. What lead up to this explosion? How could the decision maker handled the situation better? What do they need to succeed at navigating future occurrences like this with marketing? What’s different such that the team has confidence this won’t happen again? Does the decision maker understand the consequences to taking the easy way? The hits to time, money (in terms of salaries), and morale can be significant, particularly if  scenarios like this are a frequent occurrence.

Whether you find yourself about to utter this phrase or you’re on the receiving end, know that the work to resolve the issue and move forward has only just begun. Pick up the pieces, learn from the experience, and build something better.

Thinking Agile about the Pandemic

[Note: The fact that the SARS-CoV-2 virus pandemic is on everyone’s mind has given me an opportunity to expand the scope of topics I may consider on The Agile Fieldbook. Specifically, relating current events to Agile and systems thinking.]

 

I’ve been thinking a bit deeper on the frequent comparison of flu deaths with highway traffic deaths, total US deaths in the Vietnam War, or any variety of raw number comparisons. I’m  working to get at something that feels to be an underlying mis-match in such comparisons.

Part of the challenge is that self-proclaimed epidemiology experts are popping up like Spring daffodils, busy asserting themselves as consummate experts in statistics and government policy while asserting themselves as enforcement authorities. And the Internet has been an amplifier for the echo chambers created by rabble. In short, finding the signal in the noise has become much harder. I can’t recall a time when there has been this much manufacturing and shoveling of confirmation bias around the world. Alas, it’s one supply chain that has grown significantly more robust.

At the heart of the raw number comparisons is a category mistake. Stopping at an equivalence of mortality across all categories for cause of death gives rise the category mistake. Not all causes of death should be considered equal when searching for a course of action that will affect millions – in the case of COVID-19, billions – of people. There are many differentiating factors that could be considered in the case of viral pandemics and traffic deaths. The principle one, in my view, is agency.

I can choose a robust and enjoyable lifestyle that significantly lowers my risk to death due to highway accidents (to use that number for my analysis.) In fact, I have done exactly that. A four mile commute to the office, all on local streets where the highest speed limit is 45 MPH…for exactly 3 blocks. To those that declare “But, many people can’t do this.” my reply is “Maybe.” There will certainly be outliers for a variety of reasons. But in many of these cases, the individuals are nonetheless making choices. Perhaps they don’t want to move or they don’t want to change jobs or they don’t want to up-skill or… There are likely a confluence of many choices in the mix that make it appear they are stuck or trapped. Frequently, even in the outlier cases, when circumstances press hard enough, they “find” opportunities and make changes, perhaps even subsidized by local and federal governments. But that’s a topic I’ll leave for much more qualified bloggers to tackle.

I can make other choices in the form of the car I drive or the route I drive to my destination. I can chose the time of day I drive for errands or the frequency with which I need to run them. I can chose whether to use my smart phone while driving or engage in some other distraction while driving. Or I can choose not to drive at all and take the bus, train, bike, walk, or a combination of any of those.

With a viral infection – as we are learning now – there is virtually no personal agency. The only way to avoid the adverse consequences is to severely curtail our lifestyle. Now. There’s no easing into it. No evening classes at the college annex to up-skill our ability to dodge the virus. No Ecopass that lets us leave the breathing up to someone else. Not much of any choice for replacing a stalled lifestyle with a different one because they’re all stalled.

Which gets me to the thinking behind “Mass transit kills.” It does so because its an efficient vector for transmitting biological infections. The early studies show how quickly COVID-19 spread due to air travel followed by trains, taxis, and buses in crowed urban settings. A fatal car accident, however, is a local event. First responders and surrounding communities are not at risk of death due to the now static car accident. A viral or bacterial outbreak is dynamic and spreads just by virtue of people moving around. Globally, how long would humans have to drive cars before the death toll matched that of the number of deaths that have been attributed to plagues and pandemics throughout history? And historically, plagues and pandemics moved at the speed of rats, mosquitoes, and ox carts. Today, they can move just shy the speed of sound.

Having read close to a couple dozen COVID-19 related research papers (surprisingly, none of them authored by CNN/MSNBC/FOX/CBS/ABC/NBC/BBC et. al.), the chances that we’re approaching a pandemic that won’t offer much of a lead time are increasing. The growth of human population has greatly increased the adjacent possible for animal virus’ to make the jump to humans. The probability of an asymptomatic contagious period combined with lethal morbidity increases as the adjacent possible horizon expands. If such a viral combination were to occur, mass transit will be that virus’ best friend.

My thinking is probably incomplete on this matter, so I welcome your comments.

Transparency, Source Code Quality, and Metrics

I’ve been reading “Hello World: Being Human in the Age of Algorithms” by Hannah Fry. She relates this story:

In 2012, a number of disabled people in Idaho were informed that their Medicaid assistance was being cut. Although they all qualified for benefits, the state was slashing their financial support – without warning – by as much as 30 per cent, leaving them struggling to pay for their care. This wasn’t a political decision; it was the result of a new ‘budget tool’ that had been adopted by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare – a piece of software that automatically calculated the level of support that each person should receive.

Unable to understand why their benefits had been reduced, or to effectively challenge the reduction, the residents turned to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for help.

[The ACLU] began by asking for details on how the algorithm worked, but the Medicaid team refused to explain their calculations. They argued that the software that assessed the cases was a ‘trade secret’ and couldn’t be shared. Fortunately, the judge presiding over the case disagreed. The budget tool that wielded so much power over the residents was then handed over, and revealed to be – not some sophisticated AI, not some beautifully crafted mathematical model, but an Excel spreadsheet.

Within the spreadsheet, the calculations were supposedly based on historical cases, but the data was so badly riddled with bugs and errors that it was, for the most part, entirely useless. Worse, once the ACLU team managed to unpick the equations, they discovered ‘fundamental statistical flaws in the way that the formula itself was structured’. The budget tool had effectively been producing random results for a huge number of people. The algorithm – if you can call it that – was of such poor quality that the court would eventually rule it unconstitutional.

My first thoughts were, “How bad a spreadsheet hack do you gotta be to have your work be declared unconstitutional? And just how many hacks does it take to build an unconstitutional spreadsheet?”

To be fair, math is hard. Government is complex. And I’m comfortable with the assumption that everyone who had a hand in building this spreadsheet had good intentions. Venturing a guess, the breakdown happened at the manager/politician/lawyer level.

It is probable that the complexity of the task quickly overtook the abilities of the spreadsheet author(s) and the capabilities of the tool. Eventually, no single person understood how the whole thing worked. Consequently, making a change in one place affected how the spreadsheet worked in n other places and no one was capable of regression testing the beast. But the manager/politician/lawyer types knew what to do: Hide behind the “trade secret” smoke.

There are many lessons from this story. Plenty of points of failure. What I’m interested in writing about is the importance of transparency and how a good set of performance metrics can help in maintaining transparency.

The externally facing opacity in this story is readily apparent. What we don’t (and probably never will) see is the lack of transparency prevalent internally to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and whomever designed and built the spreadsheet tool. I’d bet a round of drinks that neither has heard of Agile much less employed its principles and practices. These by themselves – when actually practiced long term – go a long way toward establishing a culture of transparency. This is the key. Long term practice. A period of time is needed to change behaviors, mindsets, attitudes, beliefs, and when necessary, personnel. Even over the long term, implementing an Agile methodology isn’t improvisational theater. A strategy and a way to measure progress is needed.

Which gets me to metrics.

Selecting metrics and tuning them over time is critical to measuring team performance and developing improvement plans. Metrics that inform meaningful actions are the goal. Leave the vanity metrics that verify what managers want to hear or already “know” to the competition.

I’ve encountered my share of overly complex ways to measure the performance of individuals and teams. Often the metrics taken from machine-like task work (for example, assembly line work) are applied to creative or intellectual/knowledge tasks. This type of re-purposing results in, for example, counting lines of code or the number of source code check-ins as an indicator of software developer productivity. It never ends well.

When working to define a set of metrics to track an individual or team’s performance it is more effective to begin by asking several questions.

  • What problems are you trying to solve?
  • What questions will your chosen metrics answer?
  • What questions will your chosen metrics not answer?
  • How, specifically, will you know you can trust you metrics? How will you know when they are right and how will you know when they are wrong?
  • How well do your metrics compliment each other? That is, by combining them do you end up with a much better picture of individual or team performance the you do by considering individual metrics?
  • Do your metrics support any planned actions for improvement? Are you collecting actionable metrics or vanity metrics?

Finally, it is important to understand the limits of performance metrics. Displaying velocity charts that have fractions of story points implies an accuracy that simply isn’t there. Significantly adjusting project timelines based on the first three sprints worth of velocity data can have adverse secondary effects on the project.

There is no perfect set of metrics, no divine set of measures that match an impossible standard of perfect objectivity and fairness. The best possible set of metrics is one that supports useful decisions rather than simply instructs managers where to apply the stick. They should help show the way to performance improvement rather than simply report results.

I work to have 3-5 metrics, depending on the individual, the team, and the project. Less than 3 and the picture starts to look rather flat. More then 5 and the task of performance monitoring can become overly complicated and cumbersome. Keep it lean and manageable. That way, it’s easier to tell when things aren’t working and your metrics are much less likely to violate your team’s constitutional rights.

Broken Windows and Broken Scrum

Recently, I was in a conversation with a scrum master that was of the opinion that correcting teams on all the small details of practicing scrum was the best way to develop them into a high performing team. For example, if someone is a minute late to stand-up, call them out. Or the daily stand-up must not deviate from the “Yesterday, today, and in the way” script regardless how well the team is communicating.

I can see the merits of developing discipline. However, this approach reminds me of the Broken Windows Theory of crime reduction. Without explanation or coaching that includes the rational for practicing scrum in such a way, there is a real possibility for negative unintended consequences.

  • The Broken Windows theory was meant to be applied to situations in need of a reduction of crime. To apply this approach to scrum practices is to imply that any deviation from the scrum framework is criminal.
  • Similar to how the Broken Windows theory resulted in the emergence of “zero tolerance” laws, applying such an approach to scrum teams and strictly enforcing how they may or may not follow the scrum framework is likely to result in a lot of command-and-control zero tolerance behaviors. The guides will become rules and, in turn, inflexible laws.

The approach I’ve found to be more effective is to hunt down the root causes to issues, for which being late to stand-ups or poor communication during stand-ups are a symptom. It’s more like being a big game hunger. Seek out the root of the problem, solve that problem, and it’s likely many of the lesser issues will resolve themselves.

Assessing and Tracking Team Performance – Part 9: Design Changes and Scope

Changes in design can either be tightly or loosely coupled to changes in scope. In general, you can’t change one without changing the other. This is how I think of design and scope. Others think of them differently.

Few people intentionally change the scope of a project. Design changes, however, are usually intentional and frequent. They are also usually small relative to the overall project design so their effect on scope and progress can go unnoticed.

Nonetheless, small design changes are additive. Accumulate enough of them and it becomes apparent that scope has been affected. Few people recognize what has happened until it’s too late. A successive string of “little UI tweaks,” a “simple” addition to handle another file format that turned out to be not-so-simple to implement, a feature request slipped in by a senior executive to please a super important client – changes like this incrementally and adversely impact the delivery team’s performance.

Scope changes primarily impact the amount of Work to Do (Figure 1). Of course, Scope changes impact other parts of the system, too. The extent depends on the size of the Scope change and how management responds to the change in Scope. Do they push out the Deadline? Do they Hire Talent?

Figure 1 (click to enlarge)

The effect of Design Changes on the system are more immediate and significant. Progress slows down while the system works to understand and respond to the Design Changes. As with Scope, the effect will depend on the extent of the Design Changes introduced into the system. The amount of Work to Do will increase. The development team will need to switch focus to study the changes (Task Switching. ) If other teams are dependent on completion of prior work or are waiting for the new changes, Overlap and Concurrence will increase. To incorporate the changes mid-project, there will likely be Technical Debt incurred in order to keep the project on schedule. And if the design impacts work already completed or in progress, there will be an increase in the amount of Rework to Do for the areas impacted by the Design Changes.

Perhaps the most important secondary consequence of uncontrolled design changes is the effect on morale. Development teams love a good challenge and solving problems. But this only has a positive effect on morale if the goal posts don’t change much. If the end is perpetually just over the next hill, morale begins to suffer. This hit to morale usually happens much quicker than most managers realize.

It is better to push off non-critical design changes to a future release. This very act often serves as a clear demonstration to development teams that management is actively working to control scope and can have a positive effect on the team’s morale, even if they are under a heavy workload.

 

Responsibility and Improvement

Feral chickens on the Hawaiian Island of Kaua’i are ubiquitous. And they can be aggressive, particularly when they are roaming around common outdoor eating areas.

While the vast majority of visitors to the island honor the signs that say “Don’t Feed the Chickens,” all it takes is a couple of noob’s to put the operant conditioning in motion and keep it going with each new planeload of first-time and unaware visitors.

I watched the consequences of this play out during a recent trip to the island. I was enjoying a cup of coffee and a blueberry scone at The Spot in Princeville. (Side Bar: GO HERE! The food and coffee is FANTASTIC!) A young couple, obviously new to the island, collected their breakfast order at the service window, selected a table, and then went back to the service window to get utensils, napkins, and whatever else. Left unattended for less than 5 seconds, the chickens were on the table and a sizeable rooster had made off with a croissant.

I can only describe the woman’s response as upset and indignant. She promptly returned to the service window and asked – expectantly – for a replacement. To which The Spot employee directed her attention to the sign above the service windows that said, “DO NOT LEAVE FOOD UNATTENDED. Chickens are aggressive and will attack your food if not guarded. WE ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR THE CHICKENS AND CANNOT REPLACE DAMAGED FOOD FOR YOU.”

There are two (at least) lessons to be learned from this. One by the patron and one by the owner of The Spot.

First, the patron. Five bucks (or whatever a croissant costs on Kaui’i) is a very cheap price to pay for a valuable lesson about not just the chickens on Kaua’i, but the very fact that the Rules of Life from wherever your point of origin was have changed. I’ve camped on this island many time over the years and if you are not mindful of the dangers and keep the fact you are not in Kansas any more foremost in your mind, it’s easy to get into trouble. It’s a stunningly beautiful part of the planet with many hidden dangers. Slip and fall on a muddy trail, for example, can be deadly. Lack of awareness of the rip tides and undertows at the beaches can be equally deadly.

So stay alert. Be aware. Read every sign you see. Study what the locals do. Ask questions. And do a little research before traveling to Hawai’i.

For the owner of the Spot, I have this suggestion: The chicken warning sign is written in black marker on brown paper. It’s also placed high in the service window where patrons collect their order. If there is a line out the door, it typically bends away from the service window. Patrons don’t come to the service windows until their name is called. When they do, their natural line of sight is down, looking at the super scrumptious food. It is certain their attention will be drawn away from the warning sign about the chickens (#1 in the picture below) as they focus on gathering their food (#2 in the picture below.)

Fine to keep the sign in the service window, but lower it so there’s a better chance the patrons will see it. Also, put it on white paper. Even better, put a duplicate sign on the inside of the shop viewable from where customers are paying for their food. While they are standing in line waiting to place their order and reading the menu on the wall for the 12th time they are more likely to read the chicken warning sign. Maybe include a cartoon image of a rooster running off with a croissant.

This won’t “fix” the problems the unaware types bring with them onto the island, but I suspect it will cut down on the number of self-entitled noob’s demanding compensation for their lack of awareness. I’d like for The Spot to do everything they can to succeed, which means controlling costs and satisfying customers. I’d also like for the noob’s to gain some self-awareness and take that back home with them.

Win-win.

(I dropped a note to the owners of The Spot with these suggestions. They replied that they liked them and plan to implement these simple changes. If you’re in the area, send me a note, maybe with a picture, as to whether or not the sign has changed. If so, ask if the changes made any difference! Always good to know the results of any experiment.)

How to Frame Team Development Challenges

When working with teams or organizations new to Agile and scrum, it’s common for scrum masters to face varying degrees of resistance to the new methods and processes. The resistance can take many forms ranging from passive-aggressive behaviors to overt aggression and even sabotage.

There are two things to consider when looking for ways to resolve this type of resistance.

  1. The specific issues are typically not Agile problems in the sense they won’t be solved by any specific Agile techniques, methods, or frameworks. Rather, they are people problems; issues with how people’s behavior is driven by their values and beliefs. We have to resolve the people problems in concert with implementing Agile or Agile will never be successfully implemented. We also have to be sure not to confuse the two.
  2. We need to look at these challenges as opportunities.

It’s the second point I want to focus on in this post.

To simply paint the often unpleasant experiences we have with coaching our teams in the ways of Agile and scrum as “opportunities” isn’t much of a solution. It’s weak tea and about as useful as “Let’s all just think positive thoughts and eventually it’ll get better.” Nor do I suggest we sugar coat the unpleasantness by sprinkling “It’s an opportunity!” language on our conversations. Losing your job or breaking your leg may be one of those “wonderful opportunities” born from adversity, but only after you’ve found that next better job or your leg has healed. Hustling for new work or sitting idle while in pain and healing is decidedly unpleasant.

I had something else in mind for thinking about the challenges we face as “opportunities.” It’s in the midst of the unpleasant phase where the opportunities are found that lead to success. Seth Godin speaks to this in his book “The Dip.”

The Dip is the long slog between starting and mastery. The Dip is the combination of bureaucracy and busywork you must deal with in order to get certified in scuba diving. The Dip is the difference between the easy “beginner” technique and the more useful “expert” approach in skiing or fashion design. The Dip is the long stretch between beginner’s luck and real accomplishment.

It’s the classic “things will get worse before they get better.” But as Zig Ziglar put it, “Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly–until you can learn to do it well.”

It’s important to recognize and acknowledge when you’re in The Dip. Not just as an individual scrum master on a particular team, but perhaps the entire organization as well. Solving the issues you’re encountering today is exactly what you need to do in order to be successful in the long term. The Dip is inevitable and unavoidable. Part of the scrum master’s purpose is to raise the awareness of this fact so that the underlying issues that need to be resolved can be amplified.

This is what can make serving in the scrum master role particularly unpleasant at times. It’s when you earn your pay. In general, people don’t like to look at themselves in the Agile mirror that scrum masters are charged with holding up in front of them.

The Dip is another way to describe Shalloway’s Corollary applied to teams and organizations. Unlike losing a job or breaking a leg, what we’re dealing with is actually something we most definitely should expect. The system was always going to push back. Now we’re discovering exactly how that’s going to happen. The system is showing us what needs to change in order to become a more Agile organization. No more guess work. It’s a gift. Knowing this should be cause for optimism and viewing the tasks ahead as an opportunity. The way is known. There is less ambiguity. Doesn’t mean the path ahead is easy, just better known. That alone is incredibly useful.

A final thought. “The System” that’s been in place at any organization is what it is. For better or worse, it’s been working, perhaps for decades. Anything that challenges the status quo is going to receive push back. It just happens that Agile is the current challenger. As scrum masters, we have to continually evaluate our own “system” in a way that prevents it from becoming the next version of the problem.

  • Is a particular tool, process, or method fit for purpose?
  • What problem are we trying to solve?
  • Are there aspects of the “old system” that actually make sense to keep in place?
  • Are the frustrations we’re experiencing due to the “old system” pushing back or are they the result of our own ossification around out dated or misapplied beliefs?

Parkinson’s Law of Perfection

C. Northcote Parkinson is best known for, not surprisingly, Parkinson’s Law:

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

But there are many more gems in “Parkinson’s Law and Other Studies in Administration.” The value of re-reading classics is that what was missed on a prior read becomes apparent given the accumulation of a little more experience and the current context. On a re-read this past week, I discovered this:

It is now  known  that  a  perfection  of  planned  layout  is  achieved  only  by institutions  on  the   point  of  collapse.  This   apparently  paradoxical conclusion is based upon a wealth of archaeological and historical research, with the  more esoteric details of  which we need not concern  ourselves. In general  principle, however, the method pursued has been to  select and date the buildings  which  appear to have been perfectly  designed for  their purpose. A study and comparison of these has tended to prove that perfection of planning is a symptom of decay. During a  period of exciting discovery or progress there is  no time  to  plan the perfect headquarters.  The time for that comes  later, when all the important work has been done. Perfection, we know, is finality; and finality is death.

Several years back my focus for the better part of a year was on mapping out software design processes for a group of largely non-technical instructional designers. If managing software developers is akin to herding cats, finding a way to shepherd non-technical creative types such as instructional designers (particularly old school designers) can be likened to herding a flock of canaries – all over the place in three dimensions.

What made this effort successful was framing the design process as a set of guidelines that were easy to track and monitor. The design standards and common practices, for example, consisted of five bullet points. Building just enough fence to keep everyone in the same area while limiting free range behaviors to specific places was important. These were far from perfect, but they allowed for the dynamic vitality suggested by Parkinson. If the design standards and common practices document ever grew past something that could fit on one page, it would suggest the company was moving toward over specialization and providing services to a narrow slice of the potential client pie. In the rapidly changing world of adult eduction, this level of perfection would most certainly suggest decay and risk collapse as client needs change.

(This article cross-posted on LinkedIn.)

False Barriers to Implementing Scrum

When my experience with scrum began to transition from developer to scrum master and on to mentor and coach, early frustrations could have been summed up in the phrase, “Why can’t people just follow a simple framework?” The passage of time and considerable experience has greatly informed my understanding of what may inhibit or prevent intelligent and capable people from picking up and applying a straightforward framework like scrum.

At the top of this list of insights has to be the tendency of practitioners to place elaborate decorations around their understanding of scrum. In doing so, they make scrum practices less accessible. The framework itself can make this a challenge. Early on, while serving in the role of mentor, I would introduce scrum with an almost clinical textbook approach: define the terms, describe the process, and show the obligatory recursive work flow diagrams. In short order, I’d be treading water (barely) in endlessly circuitous debates on topics like the differences between epics and stories. I wrote about this phenomenon in a previous post as it relates to story points. So how can we avoid being captured by Parkinson’s law of triviality and other cognitive traps?

Words Matter

I discovered that the word “epic” brought forth fatigue inducing memories of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and Shakespeare. Instant block. Solution out of reach. It was like putting a priceless, gold-plated, antique picture frame around the picture postcard of a jackalope your cousin Eddie sent you on his way through Wyoming. Supertanker loads of precious time were wasted in endless debates about whether or not something was an epic or a story. So, no more talk of epics. I started calling them “story categories.” Or “chapters.” Or “story bundles.” Whatever it took to get teams onto the idea that “epics” are just one of the dimensions to a story map or product backlog that helps the product owner and agile delivery team keep a sense of overall project scope. Story writing progress accelerated and teams were doing a decent job of creating “epics” without knowing they had done so. Fine tuning their understanding and use of formal scrum epics came later and with much greater ease.

“Sprint” is another unfortunate word in formal scrum. With few exceptions, the people that have been on my numerous scrum teams haven’t sprinted anywhere in decades. Sprinting is something one watches televised from some far away place every four years. Maybe. Given its fundamental tenets and principles, who’s to say a team can’t find a word for the concept of a “sprint” that makes sense to them. The salient rule, it would seem, is that whatever word they choose, the team fully understand that “it” is a time-boxed commitment for completing a defined set of work tasks. And if “tide,” “phase,” or “iteration” gets the team successfully through a project using scrum than who am I to wear a the badge of “Language Police?”

A good coach meets the novice at their level and then builds their expertise over time, structured in a way that matches and challenges the learner’s capacity to learn. I recall from my early Aikido practice the marked difference between instructors who stressed using the correct Japanese name for a technique over those that focused more on learning the physical techniques and described them in a language I could understand. Once I’d learned the physical patterns the verbal names came much more easily.

Full disclosure: this is not as easy when there are multiple scrum teams in the same organization that eventually rotate team members. Similarly, integrating new hires with scrum experience is much easier when the language is shared. But to start, if the block to familiarization with the scrum process revolves around semantic debates it makes sense to adapt the words so that the team can adopt the process then evolve the words to match more closely those reflected in the scrum framework.

Philosophy, System, Mindset, or Process

A similar fate awaited team members that had latched onto the idea that scrum or agile in general is a philosophy. I watched something similar happen in the late 1980’s when the tools and techniques of total quality management evolved into monolithic world views and corporate religions. More recently, I’ve attended meet-ups where conversations about “What is Agile?” include describing the scrum master as “therapist” or “spiritual guide.” Yikes! That’s some pretty significant mission creep.

I’m certain fields like philosophy and psychotherapy could benefit from many of the principles and practices found in agile. But it would be a significant category error to place agile at the same level as those fields of study. If you think tasking an agile novice with writing an “epic” is daunting, try telling them they will need to study and fully understand the “philosophy of agile” before they become good agile practitioners.

The issue is that it puts the idea of practicing agile essentially out of reach for the new practitioner or business leader thinking about adopting agile. The furthest up this scale I’m willing to push agile is that it is a mindset. An adaptive way of thinking about how work gets done. From this frame I can leverage a wide variety of common, real-life experiences that will help those new to agile understand how it can help them succeed in their work life.

Out in the wild, best to work the system and process angles if you want meaningful work to actually get done.