Teaching agility online

I taught an online version of my company’s “Agile Essentials” class for one of our clients. Before the COVID-19 crisis hit, I had always delivered the class as an in-person event. Social distancing and quarantine forced us to re-evaluate our delivery.

I was determined to do more than force people to sit through an all-day Zoom session in which I merely presented a slide deck. I re-evaluated the flow of the class and determined how to teach the same concepts in a different way. Instead of slides, I build a virtual whiteboard using Mural. Some of the exercises we use in the physical class couldn’t be replicated, so I invented new ones that demonstrated the same principles.

It paid off. The participants demonstrated what they learned throughout the class and provided very positive feedback throughout the course. That’s not to say there wasn’t room for improvement. They let me know some things I could do better next time. But I felt good about what I delivered and certain that they gained knowledge that they can and will use to improve their processes and practices when they return to work tomorrow.

When I teach in person, I often come away from the experience both tired and wired. I’m happy to say that today, I have the same feeling. I honestly don’t know how I’m going to get to sleep tonight.

Solvable

I have a deck of journal prompts my wife bought me. The card I drew today asked, “Think of a situation that’s currently got you stumped. How would one of your heroes resolve it?” And I thought, I’m not stumped by anything right now. It’s not that I know how to resolve every problem in my life; I don’t. But I believe that all my problems are solvable even if I can’t see the solution right now.

This outlook grows out of my career as a Scrum Master and an agile coach. The purpose of Scrum is to solve complex problems. The solution to a complex problem is unknowable in advance. You have to experiment your way to success, and success is not guaranteed, easy, or obvious. You fail a lot. You learn from the failures.

I’ve been using Scrum for my own life goals for over a year now. Every week is a Sprint, and every Sprint is an experiment. I experiment with writing techniques. I experiment with improving my health, both physical and mental. I experiment with different ways to improve my performance at work. I’ve come to believe that there are few personal problems that can’t be solved, if you refuse to stop looking for a solution.

Motivated Learners

Last week, I delivered the workshop, “From Blank Canvas to Product Vision,” on using Roman Pichler’s Vision Board and Product Canvas to refine an idea into a product vision and translate that vision into concrete product increments. It was very good evening, with a highly energetic and engaged crowd of over seventy people.

For feedback, I used a technique called “Four Square Feedback,” which I took from Training from the Back of the Room. Four Square Feedback presents participants with a 2×2 matrix (hence the “Four Square” moniker) that asks what they feel about what they learned, the most important concepts they learned, what they plan to do with the new information, and any final comments or suggestions.

The feedback response was excellent. I received fifty forms, with some very good constructive criticism sprinkled in among the praise and well wishes. It was exciting to see how many people planned to put the techniques I taught into use. (One person responded to “What I plan to do with what I learned” with, “DO THIS!”)

My favorite one, though, was the person who wrote that the most important concept he learned was how the Daily Scrum helps to adapt the Sprint plan. What amazed me about this response was that I didn’t mention the Daily Scrum at all that night. The participant took in what I was teaching and made a new connection without being prompted.

That’s an exciting thing for a teacher to have happen. It made me feel good about my skills as a coach, a teacher, and a speaker. And it shows that for an engaged audience, we don’t have to lead learners by the nose. To paraphrase one of the principles behind the Agile Manifesto:

Build workshops around motivated learners. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to make their own connections.

Photo courtesy of Christy Erbeck.

LEGO play date

At last night’s Tampa Bay Scrum Master’s Guild, we did a simulation of a scaled Scrum project. We used LEGO bricks to build the components of a zombie defense system. It was fun, of course. How can LEGOS be anything but fun?

At one point, when several members of my team were off coordinating with other teams, my friend Jessica and I remained at our table. As we caught each other up on what we’ve been doing since we last saw each other, we idly assembled pieces of our teams design. It was very relaxing to be engaged in what amounts to children’s play while we talked of the challenges of adult life. Maybe, the next time we arrange to get together for coffee, we should bring a bucket of LEGO bricks to play with, too!

How may I be of service?

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I have always had an impulse to help people. As a child, I would always volunteer to help, whether it was around the house, or at school helping the teacher, or at school helping my classmates when they struggled with their studies. It didn’t even matter whether or not I liked the person who needed help.

I’d sometimes volunteer even at the expense of getting my own chores or tasks done. I remember helping a boy in my neighborhood finish up yard chores so he wouldn’t get in trouble with his father. Later, I was grounded for not mowing my own yard. Because of course he didn’t come over and help me with my chores.

I learned never to do anything for him again, but I still overextended myself time and again with others. I was the guy who would volunteer to help run your thing, get your stuff, or collaborate on your project. Often, I volunteered to do things that, on second thought, I really didn’t want to do at all. One example was my service on the board of the local chapter of the American Society for Quality.

Early in my Quality Assurance career, my boss encouraged me to get involved in a professional organization that would help my career, and I attended an ASQ meeting to check it out. During the meeting, they mentioned that they needed someone to serve as Historian for the chapter. After the meeting, I volunteered.

I was not even a member yet.

I joined the next day, and served as Historian for the chapter for about a year. After a few months, it became clear that I’d made a mistake. The organization, both local and national, was heavily geared toward quality in manufacturing. Software was an afterthought. I didn’t gain much in the way of professional development, and as a board member, I felt obligated to attend every meeting whether I wanted to or not.

Fortunately, I had the sense to decline the offer to step into the Secretary position when it became available. I resigned from the board, and stopped going to meetings that I wasn’t getting any value out of.

My impulse to help was one of the reasons I was so strongly drawn to the Scrum Master role when my company adopted Scrum. Being a “servant leader” is all about helping and empowering others.

Being a Scrum Master ultimately made me realize the folly of being too generous with my support. I recognized that the “leader” portion of servant-leader meant helping people to learn to solve their own problems.

 

Image by Fran Priestly.