Agile Coach Toolkit #3: Asking Powerful Questions

As an Agile Coach, you frequently encounter situations which demand quick thinking to get things moving in the right direction. Over time I have found few techniques which come out handy and always keep these in my playbook in case need arise. This is the third part in the series of tools that I have found useful in my role as Agile Coach – Asking Powerful Questions.

Purpose – As a Scrum Master, you will deal with different personas in the Scrum Team with clear goal to build a high performing team. Dealing with human psychology is complex at best (though I feel that it is chaotic at times). At times you are pulled into situations where there are conflicts among the team members and you may need to coach them to ensure it is constructive and doesn’t go down into war zone.

Description – Coaching is a guided discussion meant to sort out conversations, set goals or learn new behaviors. Start your coaching conversation by welcoming the participant and asking the person what he/ she would like to get out of the discussion. This will help set the objectives for the discussion and serve as a guardrail for channeling the conversation. This stage should not take more than 10% of the time.

Let the participant open up and talk about his/ her concerns. To get the person open up more, you may need to ask open ended question like –

“Tell me more about it?” or “What else?”

In order to gauge if the person has tried solving the issue by himself/ herself, you may ask below question –

“What have you tried and how has that worked out?”

Sometimes I find it helpful to ask below question to understand the person’s emotional state by asking –

“How does that make you feel?”

In addition to helping the person express his/ her feelings, it also provides us with good insight into how emotional aspects play into the issue. One of the useful follow up questions I find helpful is –

“If you were to give a suggestion to friend who in this scenario, what would it be?”

This helps the person to take a step back and analyze the problem from third party perspective. Sometimes, even a short question like below also help explore few options

“What is possible?” 

Unless that person has not come up with options and you want to give any suggestion, first ask the person –

“May I offer you a suggestion?”

Then add your thoughts by stating –

“Have you explored … <option>?”

After the conversation has run its course, you would like to wrap up by asking the participant to summarize the take aways and next steps to ensure there will be a fruitful follow up. This should ideally be no more than 10% of the entire conversation.

Have you used this technique in coaching your team? If yes, please share your story.

References – Lyssa Adkins

Agile Coach Toolkit #1: 5 Whys

As an Agile Coach, you frequently encounter situations which demand quick thinking to get things moving in the right direction. Over time I have found few techniques which come out handy and always keep these in my playbook in case need arise. This is first part in the series of tools that I have found useful in my role as Agile Coach – 5 Whys.

Brief History – This technique was originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda and was used within the Toyota Motor Corporation during the evolution of its manufacturing methodologies. It is a critical component of problem-solving training, delivered as part of the induction into the Toyota Production System.

Purpose – 5 whys can be used for:

  1. Root Cause Analysis during Sprint Retrospectives
  2. Identifying impediments

Description – Discuss with team members to look at the issue and ask “Why?” up to five times to get beyond habitual thinking. It is imperative to distinguish causes from symptoms and pay attention to the logic of cause-and-effect relationship to identify the root cause. Be empirical in the investigation by leveraging the facts for decision-making.

Example – An issue identified is “poor Sprint Planning”. Let’s find the root cause for this problem.

  • “Why was Sprint Planning poor”?
    • “Well, we did not have a clear objective and the PBIs were not ‘Ready’
  • “Why were the PBIs not ‘Ready’”?
    • “The team did not meet for Product Backlog Refinement meetings”
  • “Why did the team not meet?
    • “Yes, we were supposed to meet on Thursday from 4 to 6pm, but the CEO called for an impromptu All-hands at the same time”
  • “Why wasn’t the meeting re-scheduled”?
    • “Well, there is no owner for the meeting”

So the real root cause for poor Sprint Planning was no accountability of the Product Backlog Refinement meetings. It is very important to identify the root cause, come out with action items for improvement, identify an accountable person from the Scrum Team and agree on the expected time frame for putting the improvements into practice.

Have you used this technique to identify the root cause of any problems? If yes, please share your story.


Scrum Insights for Practitioners – Hiren Doshi – Wikipedia

Agile Retrospectives – Esther Derby, Diana Larsen

Scrum Chapter Mumbai – “Leading Agile adoption”

Goal to answer the question:

“As an aspiring Agile Coach, I want to learn how to lead Agile adoption for my 1st prospective client, so that I can deliver maximum value and improve their ROI for the investment they make in me”

We had some excellent discussions.

Scrum Chapter Mumbai - Feb 2018

1st Edition of Scrum Chapter - Mumbai, "Leading Agile Adoption" Goal to answer the question: "As an aspiring Agile Coach, I want to learn how to lead Agile adoption for my 1st prospective client, so that I can deliver maximum value and improve their ROI for the investment they make in me"

Some insights we gained from our discussion:

  1. Understanding ‘The why”: Why is the organization is trying to embrace Agile?
  2. Derive the baseline of where the organization stands before the Agile journey
  3. Facilitate retrospectives and interviews with the C-level executives, mid level managers and the foot soldiers to understand the culture of the organization as well as their Agile readiness.
  4. Educate the organization on the new ways of working and get a top-down and bottom-up buy-in. This can include trainings, brown bag sessions, etc.
  5. Define quantitative business metrics to measure the progress with the idea of continuous improvement and the understanding that all we need to do is try to be “better than yesterday”
  6. … and many more

The 2nd edition of Scrum Chapter Mumbai is planned on Saturday, March 24th from 4:30pm to 7:00pm.

Topic:  Moving from “ScrumBut” to “ScrumAnd

Emergent Architecture Handled in Scrum

How Is Emergent Architecture Handled in Scrum?

Scrum embraces the Agile principle of emergent architecture and design. Architectural needs emerge due to functional and non- functional requirements. Certain nonfunctional requirements like security, deployment platforms, compliance, and scalability are often of very high value and ordered high in the Product Backlog. Usually some parts of each of those nonfunctional requirements are required for an initial release of a minimum viable product.Business-facing functionality (i.e., functional requirements) also drives architectural and design needs as well. In Scrum, each Sprint serves to build at least one piece of business-facing functionality that has at least some tiny amount of value. So as we evolve the system, we build only enough architecture and design to support the functional and nonfunctional requirements that we are focusing on for that Sprint.

Important: In every Sprint at a minimum we have to build at least one piece of that business-facing functionality, regardless of how many nonfunctional requirements and architecture we are also focusing on.

Then with every subsequent Sprint, more and more of the architecture and design emerges in response to more and more high-ordered requirements. The purpose of this is to build architecture and design only in response to the highest-valued requirements at the top of the Product Backlog.


An example of how Architecture is handled in Scrum.

Emergent Architecture

Emergent Architecture

In the example shown in the chart, in Sprint 1 the majority of the work done by the Scrum Team is on architecture/infra- structure; however, enough business-facing valuable functionality is still released by the team to deliver value and validate the current architecture work. As the team progresses further Sprint over Sprint, the architectural needs decrease, and the value-driven business functionality delivered increases.

The Development Team also ensures good architecture by ensuring a set of guiding architectural principles that every Development Team member understands and follows while writing code. In addition, architecture is an ongoing discussion in the Development Team focusing on implementing current Sprint Backlog items.

This is one of the topics from my book – Scrum Insights For Practitioners: The Scrum Guide Companion“. Happy reading!

You can read more about Emergent Architecture and Design here.

Scrum Insights For Practitioners

Book: “Scrum Insights For Practitioners”

I am pleased to announce my new book — “Scrum Insights for Practitioners: The Scrum Guide Companion”. Thank you all for your support and help.

The Scrum Guide
holds the bare and essential rules of Scrum. It provides sufficient information to understand Scrum but leaves much open for interpretation by readers and practitioners. When individuals and organizations follow The Scrum Guide blindly, without understanding the real, deep essence of Scrum—the principles and values underpinning the framework—they likely will fail to reap all the benefits Scrum has to offer.

Scrum Insights for Practitioners fills in some gaps in the understanding of Scrum for individuals or organizations practicing Scrum. This book can be thought of as a companion to The Scrum Guide. I encourage readers to first read The Scrum Guide if you are new to Scrum before reading this book, as this will help you reap the maximum benefits.

Scrum Insights for Practitioners is a perfect companion to The Scrum Guide that helps the practitioners master the Scrum framework by gaining in-depth practical insights and helps answer questions such as these:

  • What are some common myths, mysteries, and misconceptions of Scrum?
  • The Scrum Guide recommends three to nine members in a Development Team, but we have fifteen members. Is this Scrum?
  • Can you share some tactics to do effective Sprint Planning, Daily Scrum, Sprint Review, Sprint Retrospective, and Product Backlog Refinement?
  • My designation is development manager. Does this mean I have no role in Scrum?
  • How is Scrum Empirical?
  • Can Scrum Master and Product Owner be the same person?
  • We don’t have a Scrum Master. Are we still practicing Scrum?
  • What does Self-Organization really mean?
  • How does Scrum embrace the four values and twelve principles of the Agile Manifesto?
  • Please share a case study on Scrum based product development?

Recommendations for the book from the Scrum champions

Take advantage of Hiren’s vast experience and avoid making the common errors people make as they begin their journey. This book contains a wealth of practical information that will be useful to readers as they work to implement the basic theory found in The Scrum GuideSteve Porter, team member,

In his book Scrum Insights for Practitioners, Hiren has extended the core rules of The Scrum Guide with practices he has found useful. Hiren answers questions regarding Scrum that potentially remain unanswered even after one reads The Scrum Guide. Hiren dismantles common misconceptions about Scrum, regardless of the source of such misconceptions. Hiren elaborates on basic information provided in The Scrum Guide, as well as on the principles underlying ScrumGunther Verheyen, Author of “Scrum — A Pocket Guide, a Smart Travel Companion”

Hiren Doshi has written a fine companion to The Scrum Guide, filling in some of the intentional gaps left in the Scrum framework. Using this companion along with The Scrum Guide will undoubtedly improve the outlook for those teams that internalize its teachings.”Charles Bradley,

This book will help you understand the nuances of Scrum. It takes a very practical approach toward implementing Scrum without compromising on its values and principles. A useful and handy reference for Scrum practitioners!—Gopinath R, Agile coach and practitioner

Currently the book is available as a physical copy on Amazon. The Kindle version to follow shortly.

I sincerely hope you find great value in each and every page of the book.

Enjoy Reading. Happy Scrumming.

Mysteries Of Product Ownership

Myths, Misconceptions & Mysteries Of Product Ownership

Here’s what the Scrum Guide says about the Product Owner Role:
“The Product Owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the product and the work of the Development Team. How this is done may vary widely across organizations, Scrum Teams, and individuals.”

Who is an effective Product Owner in Scrum? Is (S)He a requirements typist, user story writer, business analyst, domain expert, maybe all of the above? What are some effective practices of Product Ownership? What are the biggest myths and misconceptions around Product Ownership?

Five of the most respected PSPO Trainers – Ralph Jocham, Mark Noneman, Erik Weber, Hiren Doshi, and Simon Reindl talk and answer questions on Product Ownership myths, misconceptions and mysteries of Product Ownership.

Scrum Foundations workshop

Feedback on the Professional Scrum Foundations workshop

This video captures the feedback from the students on the Professional Scrum Foundation workshop facilitated in India. The students share their learnings on how writing granular user stories, story splitting, defining clear Scrum roles helps with agility. They talk about values and principles like self-organization, empowerment, Courage and Respect needed to embrace Agility. They also talk about the interactive and intensive, hands-on and powerpoint free facilitation of this PSF workshop.

Scaled scrum tactic

A scaled scrum tactic – Team of Teams, A real life example

A program team of over 40 people decided to move to Agile from their traditional development practices. The program was old and had been in existence for over 6 years. In these 6 years they had released multiple versions of their software product to their customers. In the rush to satisfy the customers they had ignored the basic hygiene of following the good engineering best practices. So, along with their move to Agile they had also inherited a considerably poorly maintained legacy code. There was tight coupling between the various software components in the entire system; The majority of  the code files had 10000+ lines of code with plenty of code duplication; there was poor technical documentation on how the overall system interacted; the entire testing effort was manual. There were certain components which when modified, in most instances, introduced regressions in the existing system.  Even though the teams spent significant time testing the entire end-to-end system, the overall confidence on the quality of the deliverable was considerably low.

The program formed 4 cross-functional Scrum Teams and started sprinting. The dysfunctions from the poorly maintained legacy code started surfacing and becoming more evident.The teams struggled to meet their planned sprint forecast. The development team’s time spent testing the new features was exponentially higher than it took to build those features. In addition, most of the times the development teams kept busy fixing unplanned production defects to maintain the business continuity. The deliveries of new business features were at an all time low which made the sponsors very anxious. The scrum teams collaborated, brainstormed and came to a common conclusion that to accelerate product delivery, one of the first steps was to reduce the manual test effort spent by the development teams. They decided to write end-to-end automated service level tests to cut down the time teams spent on manual testing as well as to gain enough confidence in their deliveries. The product owner helped by ordering the PBIs for the service level automated tests higher in the product backlog. The skill-sets required to develop the service level tests were spread across multiple scrum teams. Something different had to be thought of to overcome the above challenge without having a major impact on the business continuity. A new scaled scrum tactic of “Team of Teams” was introduced: “Team of Teams” is a concept where members with the right skill-set from the existing scrum teams participate to form a new Scrum team for a short duration of a sprint or 2 to solve a very focused problem. The 4 Scrum Teams self-organized and quickly identified 2 development engineers from each team with the correct skill-set to participate in the new “Team of Teams”.

One of the Scrum Masters from the existing teams volunteered to help with Scrum Master duties for the newly formed Scrum team. The new “Team of Teams” decided to operate in “Boot Camp” mode and they co-located themselves in a conference room to allow maximum collaboration. In the first few days of the sprint, the team carved out a homegrown test framework and added a couple of end-to-end tests to validate the framework. A quick review of the framework with the original 4 scrum teams and the Product owner validated their hypothesis. The newly formed team of teams worked through their sprint backlog and carved out 17 rich test scenarios in that sprint. The “Team of Teams” had accomplished their mission of writing sufficient automated test scenarios to reduce the manual testing effort thereby accelerating the product delivery. The team members from the newly formed team of teams then returned back to their original scrum team where they continued to build additional test scenarios. Having led many Agile adoptions across multiple organizations, I have found scaling tactic like “team of teams” to be very helpful when a very focused problem has to be addressed.  The “Team of Teams” tactic has also been explored for strategizing the product vision and the product backlog refinement with multiple scrum teams and overall the outcome has been quite rewarding. I would be happy to hear some scaling tactics you have used and learn from your experiences.

Agility fueling organizations towards profitability

Is agility fueling organizations towards profitability?

Let me begin this blog by relating one of my travelogue experiences. A known taxi driver drives me in his car to the Mumbai airport every week from the last 4 years. The car is about 8 years old, poorly maintained, and has tugged a good more than 300000+ kilometers; has by all means attained end of life, good enough to be dumped, and reap benefits from its scrap. As an enduring passenger, I have been containing the noisy tractor-like ride in his car due to my acquaintance with him and also believing his long false promise of a new car on its way to replace this one!

Week-on-week he comes with the same car and asks me if I noticed any evident difference in terms of travel experience. He would spend good amount of money replacing the old parts (like the tires, cars’ engine, AC, etc.) with better ones, beautifying it by a coat of varnish, etc.; the expenditure now almost exceeding the price of purchasing a 3-year-old second hand car. I honestly said a big NO each time he asked me and also wondered why he was investing on this old car when a new car according to him was arriving in the next 3 months!! This fetish behavior of patching the old car in anticipation of some miracle resulted in the loss of many good loyal customers (as they were fed up of the continued bad bumpy ride with no respite in sight in the form of a new car).

During one of my recent rough ride in the taxi, I realized how well this experience was analogous to what many organizations undergo during their agile journey. They have every agile practice in place; right mindset, best practices, roles/ceremonies/artifacts well defined coupled with communication, motivation, and empowerment. Even with such a robust agile framework, the teams/organizations lack agility to adapt to the changing customer requirements and deliver in a fast paced manner. Although in reality, organizations want to go fast (like any new car) by adopting agile but unfortunately are stuck with poorly maintained legacy codebase (like the old taxi). Any amount of replacement, beautification, superficial modification, or adopting new methodology/technique without addressing the deep-rooted problems might temporarily mask the real problem thereby breaking ‘transparency’, one of the 3 legs of empiricism (for scrum to be effective, each of these 3 pillars – transparency, inspection, and adaptation must stand and be supported).

When such projects are assessed, in all probability the hidden truth is that the organizations carry a herculean technical debt in terms of complicated and poorly maintained legacy codebase (just like the old car) with little or no attention to the engineering best practices, poor feedback cycles, no automation of unit./integration/regression, poor re-factoring and code reviews, etc. Based on the assessment findings, organizations need to perform a cost-benefit analysis and decide whether it makes sense to fuel such projects and take appropriate corrective actions immediately rather than wait for some magic to happen overnight in an organization/product by just adopting agile. If not, (like the taxi driver) organizations will fail to deliver/meet customer expectations, not be profitable, and loose out longstanding clients.

Therefore, for organizations in their attempt to keep pace with the competitive world it is not just enough to adopt agile methodology but should imbibe agility in their DNA. Varnishing an old car may give it a new look but the driving experience will remain the same; the same applies to organizations as well. In most cases, change/expected results may not be visible by just refactoring in bits and pieces (replacing the defective parts) but it may call for a complete eradication of the existing system (significant remarkable/dramatic one which would be a winning selling pitch for the organization; in the car analogy it is like buying a new car) and re-designing/re-writing the software to bring in a new vibrant spectrum.

Upon this cleanup and novel thought it is now time to think how to drive this concept (new car) effectively and efficiently! Adopting the rich agile ethodology along with adhering to solid engineering practices at this juncture would act as a fuel to propel the team/project/product/organization, accelerate, and drive towards success!

With the legacy issues addressed and best engineering techniques embraced, agile adoption certainly triggers agility and benefits the organization by delivering fast-paced, feature-rich, competitive, and user-beneficial products of significant business value!

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