001 – Agile for Humans

This week I’m excited to share episode one of the “Agile for Humans” podcast. This is a regular podcast hosted by a rotating group of agilists who take on various topics and issues. I’m working on getting a site setup for the podcast, but for now you can find the episodes here and eventually on iTunes.


Don Gray, Mark Kilby, Aaron Kopel, Ryan Ripley


On our inaugural episode the team started off by trying to name this new podcast, however, they eventually moved on. First we discussed Hala Saleh’s talk at Agile Indy 2015 title: My Agile is Better Than Your Agile. Overall the group agreed that empathy and kindness are key ingredients when talking about agile topics.

Next the team moved on to the caring and feeding of user groups. Aaron and Mark shared their experiences in this area and provided cautionary tales and solid advice to Ryan, who is looking to start and agile user group in Fort Wayne, IN.

Ryan discussed his recent talk at Agile Indy 2015 – Help!!! The Scrum Master IS the Impediment – and talked about the need for scrum masters to inspect and adapt their behaviors to avoid becoming impediments to their team’s success.

The team wrapped up with a some light talk about “change” and decided to table that large discussion for next time. Ryan completely butchered the word “cynefin”, Don started a book club, and then we called it a night

Resources, Plugs, and More





Agile Indy 2015 Notes

The Agile community in Indianapolis is a vibrant and flourishing group of passionate agilists and lean thinkers. They put together an amazing conference that should be on your radar for next year.

Agile Indy 2015 - Hala Saleh Stage Talk

Agile Indy 2015 – Hala Saleh Stage Talk

The highlight of the event for me was Hala Saleh’s stage talk: “My Agile is Better Than Your Agile“.

She spoke about the dangers of extremism when promoting ideas. She also made a great case for dropping the judgment and negative connotations that come along with certain “trigger” words in the agile community such as: agile project manager, PMP, #NoEstimates, management, and PM’s.

We state “People over Process”, then turn around and put people in boxes because they have the wrong letters following their name, or because they use the word “hybrid”. 

It’s a message that I needed to hear and that I very much appreciated. It’s inspired me to inspect the way that I engage with others and adapt where needed.

Agile Indy 2015 was also a special event for me professionally. I presented a talk for the first time to the sell out crowd, and had a great time in the process.

I should have been nervous, but the excellent staff of conference volunteers, the venue, and the overall vibe of the event made it a great place to debut my talk:  Help!!! The Scrum Master *IS* the Impediment!

The change in mindset necessary to become a servant leader is incredibly hard for a scrum master who comes from command and control background. As a newly minted Professional Scrum Master (PSM I), I returned to my team excited and ready to get underway with a scrum adoption. Unfortunately, I had not fully grasped the concept of servant leadership. Instead of being a change agent, I was an impediment.

I also really appreciated one of the nicest – and most humbling – compliments that hit my Twitter feed immediately after the talk.

Comments like this are why I enjoy writing, blogging, and speaking. Becoming a scrum master is a difficult journey. I struggled with it. Given the feedback I’ve been getting, so have many other people.

Below are related posts if you would like more information about this topic:

Scrum Master Heroics Can Hurt Agile Teams

Scrum teams work on complex problems. Solutions emerge during these type of projects; over time and after many sprints. When a scrum master becomes the “hero” and mandates solutions, he/she can cause lasting damage to the scrum team.

Scrum Master Heroics

Uplifting Hero – JD Hancock – Flickr

All nighters, caffeine fueled coding marathons, and last minute deployment heroics happen regularly on projects death marching to a forced conclusion. That behavior manifests on agile teams as well. But the “hero scrum master” anti-pattern surprised me during a recent exchange on LinkedIn.

A scrum master explained his role as follows:

“I would prefer to be considered as someone who managed to make the team get past the hurdles and obstacles and make it to the “Miller Time” to chuckle and laugh about how silly they behaved in reflection.”

Not exactly the model statement for self-organization and self-management.

My own struggles with dropping the command and control habit are here and here. During those episodes I thought I acted in the best interest of the team and with best intentions. And I believe that this scrum master feels the same about his actions.

With that said, the consequences of directing instead of coaching can be significant and long lasting:

  • No Ability to Experiment: When a scrum master “solves” all of the teams problems, the scrum team will not learn how to experiment. We constantly inspect and adapt our practices. Some changes work; others don’t. Dictating answers robs the team of these possible improvements and lessons.
  • Scrum Team Members Withdraw: Apathy sets in when scrum masters mandate solutions. A disengaged team can lead to silos of knowledge and individual actors as opposed to a gelled and cohesive scrum team.
  • Whole Team Concept Compromised: Every member of the scrum team contributes to and owns the project. If a hero scrum master is solving all of the problems, the scrum team can become dependent on this hero behavior. Coaching others to solve issues and impediments can help make sure that teams grow, mature, and find success together.


As the LinkedIn exchange progressed, it became clear that a bad system/environment drove the scrum master’s behavior:

  • Job Security: When I asked why the heroics were needed, he replied “Either one is a passionately participating and involved scrum master or he is someone that can be replaced tomorrow and no one may notice any difference.” Understandable, but not in the spirit of servant leadership.
  • Carrot and Stick Mentality: He also added, “Sounds to me more like letting people succeed or fail but suffer so they can change out of necessity at the cost of damaging the team’s image/pride and team spirit. This to me is something a villain would resort to.” Experiments do not appear to be valued at his company. Neither does failure.
  • Bad Scrum: The scrum master’s environment “smelled” toxic. The scrum team does not have a Product Owner. The QA team works in India and gets code nightly from U.S. based developers. The list goes on. Perhaps, without the heroics of the scrum master, nothing truly would get done at his company.

The scrum master heroics can appear to help in the short term, but over time the negative impacts – especially the loss of continuous improvement – amplify. The sprint retrospective can help uncover these issues. But once these items make the impediment list, the scrum master still has the difficult task of addressing these system issues up the organizational structure.

Being a servant leader is hard, but as the consequences above indicate, we should coach our teams to be empowered and self-sufficient and remove system impediments…even if it makes us a bit uncomfortable.

[QUESTION] What Do Managers Control on an Agile Project?

The number one question that I get from managers who are learning about Scrum and Agile is: What do I control on an Agile Project?

Flight Controls - Bryan Burke - Flickr

Flight Controls – Bryan Burke – Flickr

It seems like a simple question to answer, but if you go the purist route and deep dive in to your self-managing teams talk, you risk alienating the manager. After a few failed attempts at answering this question, I think I’ve found a better way to address this very real management concern.

This question usually comes up when I start talking about how agile teams are self-organizing and self-managing. Managers like the prioritized backlogs and the value tracking. Those things can be turned in to forecasts and metrics that map to their past experiences.

Self-organization feels odd to them, but they seem to get it. Self-managing teams on the other hand can lead to this kind of reaction:

“Wait, if teams self-manage, then…what do I control?”

Doubling down on self-management theory has not worked for me in the past. I’ve also tried answering this question by pointing out moments during a sprint where a manager can help the scrum team inspect and adapt their practices and the increment of software, with mixed results. And honestly, this answer is begging for more trouble than it’s worth.

During my most recent encounter with this question I gave a different answer.

A manager on an agile project controls empowerment, which drives how much and how fast value is delivered to an organization.

Every design review meeting, status report, security assessment, dashboard, metric, and inquiry take time (capacity) away from the team. This is time that could be used to get a valuable feature to a “done” state and ready to be shipped at the end of the sprint. In other words, attempting to control the project delays value from being delivered.

The impacts of trying to control an agile project can even be quantified if needed. I like to add the mechanisms that managers use – additional status reports, design reviews, and excessive documentation – to the team’s definition of done.

This creates transparency with the product owner and ensures that the scrum team takes these activities in to account when estimating their work. Future sprints can be run without the overhead of the control mechanisms to determine any differences in velocity.

Honestly, these managers have never had control of their software development projects – regardless of the methodology used. At best they had an illusion of control. Project are made up of people, not status reports. You can try to convince, coerce, inspire, or lead, but in the end people are going to do things that you cannot predict. And there isn’t a metric, meeting, or dashboard that can change that fact.

Question: How would you handle this question? I’d love to hear your take on it. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

[QUESTION] How Do You Pass the Professional Scrum Master I (PSM I) Assessment?

A former co-worker reached out to me and wanted to know how to pass Scrum.org’s Professional Scrum Master I (PSM I) assessment. Below I describe my path to certification and how to get the most out of the PSM I assessment experience.

PSM I Assessment Certificate | Scrum.Org

PSM I Assessment Certificate | Scrum.Org

The PSM I assessment is an 80 question examination with a 60-minute time box. The questions are a mix of multiple choice and true false. To pass you must score at minimum an 85%, which means you need to get 68 questions right or better to become certified.

Scrum.org made the interesting decision to not require a class in order to take their assessments. This means that anyone who wants to try to gain the Professional Scrum Master I credential only needs to pay the $150 fee and pass the exam.

There are many paths that people have taken to get a passing score. Here’s my path to obtaining this certification followed by the steps that I think are valuable to people trying to pass this assessment.

Before pursuing the scrum.org certification path I had been working in an agile way for the previous 10 years. I started as a java developer, later moved in to project management and finally people management.

Even with 10 years of experience with agile and scrum, I decided to take the scrum.org Professional Scrum Master course. I am fortunate to live close to Professional Scrum Trainer Dr. Chuck Suscheck and got a lot out of his class and subsequent mentoring on scrum and agile.

His class is excellent and gives the participants a solid basis for understanding scrum and the practices that support delivering value to your organization. He starts with values and principles and takes a deep dive in to how scrum works and how to implement scrum in real world situations.

I took the exam a few days after the class and managed to pass with a good score.

Clearly, I recommend the Professional Scrum Master course. It’s a great opportunity to learn about scrum in a group setting. The learning that takes place is valuable not only for understanding scrum, but for also creating relationships with other agile practitioners.

However, the class is expensive ($1,200+) and as mentioned earlier, it is not required to get certified. For those of you who plan on taking the PSM I assessment without taking the class, these 4 practices will help make sure you are successful:

  1. Read the Scrum Guide…Often:  I read the scrum guide 2-3 times per week. This not only keeps the scrum framework fresh in my mind, I often find myself gaining new insights in to scrum the more I read about and inspect the roles, artifacts, and practices outlined in the scrum guide.
  2. Take the Open Assessment…Often:  I don’t recommend taking the PSM I assessment until you are consistently scoring 100% on the open assessment. There is some overlap between questions on the PSM I assessment and the open assessment so you can get a few right answers for “free”. More importantly, the open assessment gives you a feel for how the real exam is administered.
  3. Favor Empowering the Team:  If you are unsure about an answer, try asking yourself which of the available options empower the team. Scrum calls for teams to self-organize and self-manage. Answers that violate these practices will likely not be right.
  4. Read and Understand the Agile Manifesto:  The values and principles of the agile manifesto are at the core of scrum. You must understand the manifesto to truly understand the “why” behind the scrum roles, artifacts, and practices.

I wish you luck as you prepare for the PSM I assessment. If you follow the advice I’ve laid out, you should have a great chance of understanding scrum at an intermediate level and passing the exam.

I’m looking forward to hearing how all of you do!

Question: What are your experiences with the PSM I? What are your best tips to help others successfully pass the assessment? You can leave a comment by clicking here.