“Agile” is not the end goal, it’s the journey

I first met Todd Scanlan, agile coach and scrum master, at Digital Academy’s open house, where he told me his job was to help people be more agile in their work. “What does that mean?” I had asked. Todd’s response was smooth and effective, solidifying that preaching and practising this topic is his specialty after all. “Would you entertain this for a second?” he politely asked, “Cross your arms.” I obliged with ease. “Now, cross them the other way,” he said. I’m stumped for a brief moment, hesitating for a few seconds and looking at my arms before I figure it out: left over right, now right over left. “See,” Todd explains, “you’re able to do it, it just may not be what you’re comfortable with, or what you’re used to. And that’s the concept of working differently, and being more agile.”

How to be a scrum master: Mr. Miyagi style

“The job of a scrum master is to identify problems and trends, and figure out how to solve them through teaching, mentoring, facilitating, and coaching.

Fast forward to present day, where my colleague and I sit across from Todd at a coffee shop, as he tells us about his job. The job of a scrum master is to identify problems and trends, and figure out how to solve them through teaching, mentoring, facilitating, and coaching. Todd tells me that the word “scrum” was adopted from the game of rugby, where eight key players come together to try and get possession of the ball through collaboration. As a scrum master, Todd integrates himself within teams and facilitates specific meetings to make them more meaningful. Together, they figure out what would improve the effectiveness of the team based on its specific needs.

“First you learn wax on, wax off, then you become the super apprentice, and then you just get to a point where the scrum master is no longer needed.”

With a tailored strategy, he helps to create an environment that makes way for self-organization, and ultimately, to facilitate behavioural change within the team. Todd compares it to the Karate Kid, “first you learn wax on, wax off, then you become the super apprentice, and then you just get to a point where the scrum master is no longer needed.”

The fantastic four foundational techniques to being agile

When Todd begins working with a team, he incorporates four go-to techniques to becoming more agile:

  1. Holding a daily stand-up: One of the most commonly used methods of agile. Though seemingly a small thing, a 15 minute stand-up can have a large impact. It’s where problems can be identified and paths to solutions can be found. A checkpoint on everyone’s workload can help shift priorities so that nobody is overwhelmed or overworked.
  2. Visualizing your work: Kanban is the Japanese word for a visual signal, and the Kanban method quite literally means just that. It’s about creating a visual of the work process (most commonly through post-it notes on a board to track the progress of tasks) that allows a team to keep track of how the work progresses through its stages. At the same time, it helps to identify what areas require more attention than others, for example, noticing that perhaps the approvals stage is where things get delayed, and then addressing that directly. With this visual aid, work is unhidden and its transparency to the whole team facilitates working in the open. The Kanban method can now also be replicated online via various programs.
  3. Conducting retrospectives: The most important meetings in the scrum process are the ones where feedback is given. In a retrospective meeting, the team assesses how they work together and try to improve their workflow. This is where members of the team can also question things like: what do you like doing, what’s lacking, what do you want to do more of, and what do you loathe? All equally important questions to address. How often a team wants to conduct feedback on themselves is tailored to the specific team’s needs.
  4. Recording the start and finish time for all items: Elementary metrics, my dear Watson. Recording the time it takes to complete each step gives you meaningful data to then change how you work. The bottlenecks become clear, as do time issues. The data speaks for itself.

“But” vs “and”: one little three letter word can make a world of difference

Todd tells me that learning never ends for him. He loves that he has the freedom to structure how he works so that he can build learning into his own routine, by consistently reading books on being agile. He excitedly shares with us a tidbit he just learned from a book he’s reading called Radical Candor, by Kim Scott. “It’s all about giving and receiving feedback, and making an environment that’s psychologically safe for everyone to contribute,” he summarizes. The idea of psychological safety is to encourage people to speak up about what they notice, a key component of being agile. Rather than responding to someone with a “yes but,” saying “yes and” builds on what is being said rather than tearing it down. And when everyone feels safe to speak up, that’s when new ideas emerge around the room that can have a huge impact on the work.

When everyone feels safe to speak up, that’s when new ideas emerge around the room that can have a huge impact on the work.

Todd’s day-to-day job is about experimenting with different techniques he reads about to see what works. “It’s very empowering to apply what you learn, and see what impact can be made,” he says, “and ironically, that very process is what you’re trying to get others to try as well.”

Ultimately however, Todd’s favourite part of his job is being able to create a better environment for people, and helping them solve problems. Serendipitously, as he tells me this, an elderly woman with a walker comes up to the door of the café, and Todd immediately rushes up out of his chair to open the door for her.

At the end of our chat, Todd says, quite matter-of-factly, “Agile is never the end goal. The goal is to have better outcomes. Agile is simply the means to achieving that.” There is a method to the madness of the ”agile” trend, and I couldn’t have concluded it better myself.

 

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