When Scrum Teams discuss too many problems during the Retrospective they may lose focus. That results in shallow decisions that barely scratch the surface. Teams are disappointed and lose faith in the Sprint Retrospective. Let’s see how to improve the event with the Scrum Patterns.

Too Many Improvements Uphold New Challenges

I want to share a story of the Scrum Team I have been working with as a Scrum Master long time ago.

There were too many problems the Scrum Team had accounted for. And there was a pressure to cover all of them during the Retrospective timebox. Therefore, the time spent per item was not enough to conduct in-depth analysis and investigate the underlying causes. Not surprisingly, the quality and depth of the improvement experiments were low. The problems did not go away and stayed over many Sprints. In fact, the number of challenges increased as the chronic disability to improve was a problem itself. From Systems Thinking perspective the Scrum Team got into the vicious cycle (see in Figure 1).

Decreased Team Commitment

There was also one more issue. Discussing too many problems and improvements did not generate enough commitment for the team during the Retrospective. There was not enough time for the team to achieve consensus. Therefore, the actions and follow-through suffered from lack of collective energy and were not implemented. That is how the second vicious loop was created (see in Figure 2).

It turned out through the years that I was not the only Scrum Master who made these mistakes. Let’s see how Scrum Patterns might help to improve the situation.

Improving Sprint Retrospective With Scrum Patterns

The Scrum Patterns are typical solutions that were applied to the well known problems around the globe in different organizations and teams. A pattern is an instruction to shape something we build to increase the “Wholeness of the Whole”. Let’s see how we can improve the wholeness of the Sprint Retrospective. If you are not familiar with the Scrum Patterns yet, the following articles may guide you:

In Figure 3 you can see one of many possible sequences that could be created with Scrum Patterns.

I will put a short description of each of the selected patterns below:

  • One Step at a Time. Attempt one improvement at a time, incrementally.
  • Impediment List. Make all non-trivial issues visible with an Impediment List; raise them up to the right people in the organization for resolution.
  • Involve the Managers. Sustain a management function that can act from a position of power to initiate, and take responsibility for, radical changes in the organization, and deal with impediments that may be too weighty for the ScrumMaster or Product Owner in the Scrum Team.
  • Scrumming the Scrum. Identify the single most important impediment at the Sprint Retrospective and remove it before the end of the next Sprint.
  • Testable Improvements. Write improvement plans in terms of specific concrete actions (not goals) that the team can measure objectively to assess whether the team is applying the process change. 
  • Kaizen Pulse. Alternate periods of controlled velocity with spikes of process improvement.
  • Happiness Metric. Drive the improvement process with a single, small improvement at a time, chosen through team consensus. Pose a question to the team that helps it reflect on which of the alternatives on the table will best tap into their collective passion or sense of engagement, and use the answer to choose the kaizen that will most energize the team.

Remember that there are no “wrong” or “right” pattern sequences. Occasionally a pattern or a sequence doesn’t work as expected, and it makes sense to try another one or to try patterns in a different order. Follow the principle to refine the largest “wholes” first and then proceed to the smaller ones.

How would you use Scrum Patterns to improve the Sprint Retrospective? 🙂

How to start an Agile transformation? What are the initial steps? In this article I explain how transformations could be planned using Scrum Patterns and systems thinking.

Study Organizational Context

Any collaboration with an enterprise starts with an immersion in organizational context using Gemba Walks and Go See approach. Observing how teams work, collaborate and conduct their regular events is crucial in understanding patterns of behavior that exist in an organization. Why is that important? System structures reside behind the patterns of behavior and they are the main focus of Scrum Master intervention. Go See results are usually collected in a report that includes observations, description of the discovered system structures, and recommendations.

Take a look at the excerpt from one of the Go See reports:

The product group consists of 16 Scrum teams. They are component teams made narrow specialists who work in “their” components. There are 16 “Product Backlogs” and 16 “Product Owners”. Customer features usually involve a large number of components. Work at the product level is not evenly distributed across all teams, so some of them are overloaded, while others are forced to make themselves busy with less important work. Features are eventually delivered to the market in 5-10 Sprints. Features usually span over multiple Sprints due to dependencies between teams.

How to start a transformation if the final goal is creating an adaptive organization? Before answering the question, let’s get back to the basics of systems thinking.

Car as a System

A car is a deterministic system consisting of three parts: a body, a chassis, and an engine. If we look at the chassis gear then it, in turn, includes smaller systems: a frame, suspensions, axles and wheels

Larger systems contain smaller ones and cannot function properly without them. It can be said that smaller systems “improve” or “refine” the larger systems that they are part of.

In order for the minimum version of the car (MVP) to move and fulfill its functions, the interaction of the body, chassis and engine is necessary. You can refine the car with the golden rims, but this will be a less important improvement from systems thinking perspective. Without an engine, the car will not budge.

Scrum as a “Product Organization” And a “Value Stream”

Scrum can be viewed as two interconnected systems or two “wholes”. The first one is the product organization. It establishes the relationships between people and teams. For example, the Scrum Team and Stable Teams are the patterns from the product organization language.

Picture from “A Scrum Book”

The second “whole” is the value stream that structures time. For example, Product Backlog and Product Backlog Items are patterns that are commonly used in order to achieve a product Vision.

Picture from “A Scrum Book”

Both systems are highly dependent on each other. In practice, it is worth simultaneously build both “wholes” to maximize the benefits of Scrum. Two forms of Scrum, as in the case of a machine, form a system of nested patterns. They visualize the relationships between patterns and suggest the order in which they should be applied. 

The general principle is refining larger system first and focusing on the smaller ones later.

Product Organization Pattern Language

The product organization language starts with four sequential patterns: The Mist, The Spirit of the Game, Fertile Soil and Conway’s Law. Then it diverges into parallel nodes (patterns): MetaScrum, Involve the Managers, Scrum Team, Birds of a Feather

If you look at the product organization language you may notice that it incorporates five levels of nested patterns, if we count from the Conway’s Law level. Each pattern is a system and is a part of the larger system. Let’s investigate the Happiness Metric metric: 

The greatest impact at the product organization level can be achieved when we focus first on improving larger system, and only then improving the smaller ones. Maybe Happiness Metric is not the first pattern to start with when transforming an organization. If you don’t have cross-functional (Cross-Functional Team pattern) Scrum Teams and management support (Involve the Managers pattern) maybe you should focus on something more critical first.

Planning an Adoption

Let’s get back to the excerpt from the Go See report. Teams are organized around architectural components, functions, and internal business processes and are so called component teams. This structure and its associated patterns of behavior and trends (dependency management, long release cycles) can be solved by the pattern Conway’s Law, which implies transition to product teams and the creation of an adaptive organization.

Conway’s Law pattern in short:

  • Problem: effective communication and feedback are at the heart of effective complex system development, and the organization structure should be optimized for the most crucial paths of communication. 
  • Solution: organize the workforce into Small Teams of more or less five people, partitioned according to the most important concerns for the creation of value by the enterprise. Supplement this structure with a small number of cross-cutting structures for secondary but important concerns, never forgetting that these structures are only optimizations in what is otherwise an open environment of unconstrained cooperation. 

What other patterns could be helpful in transition to product teams as Conway’s Law states? Thoroughly investigating the product organization language you could come with the following start-up pattern sequence: 

In order to create an adaptive organization you choose the Conway’s Law pattern first. Then it’s critical to get management support and thus you Involve the Managers. After that you create the overall Product Backlog, analyze it and define the Value Areas. Next step could be creating the best possible Cross-Functional Teams и starting up the Birds of a Feather. And this is just the beginning of the transformation journey.

Avoid Local Optimizations Whenever Possible

Recently I had a telephone conversation with the managers of one foreign bank. The initial request was to support the launched Scrum Teams and mentor Scrum Masters. The simplest thing that could be done was to negotiate the price and fill up their request. But it would be incorrect and unethical from my side to propose a solution without understanding the underlying issue. An express assessment that followed showed that what managers asked would be a local optimization. Agile transformation in the bank had much more serious challenges. Supporting teams and mentoring Scrum Masters would not be the best possible solution from systems thinking perspective. 

Scrum Values Create a Breeding Ground For Systemic Optimizations

Adhering to Scrum Values (Fertile Soil pattern) creates a breeding ground for the creation of the product organization. Scrum Master guides and leads by employing Scrum Values.

The job of the Scrum Master is to propose systemic solutions that solve the fundamental problems of the organization. Avoid local optimizations whenever possible. In order to do this, the Scrum Master relies on the Scrum Values. This is a touch job, but demonstrating courage and openness continuously, the Scrum Master creates the crucial transparency for everyone involved in the transformation. Thus, it becomes the basement for future changes.

Main Ideas

  • Scrum can be viewed as two interconnected wholes: one looks at structure (“product organization”), the other looks at time (“value stream”).
  • The general principle is to refine a larger system first and focusing on the smaller ones later.
  • Adhering to Scrum Values (Fertile Soil pattern) creates a breeding ground for the product organization.
  • The job of the Scrum Master is to propose systemic solutions that solve fundamental problems.

On September 21, Cesario Ramos gave a talk about Scrum Patterns at the Agile Rocks conference in Kiev. You can see the recording of this talk here. Enjoy.

At Agile Days Istanbul 2019, Cesario Ramos gave a talk and small workshop on Scrum Patterns. It is based on the upcoming book A Scrum Book which I co-authored.