Our Guest This Episode: Alan Zucker
How has Agile changed the way we work? What is the value of Agile? Velociteach instructor, Alan Zucker answers these questions and addresses some difficulties an organization may face when transitioning from traditional methods to Agile, and he offers advice on how to help your team become successful.
Alan explains project management’s adaptation of the Japanese martial art Aikido principle of Shu Ha Ri, and the team also talks about applying agile practices across multiple disciplines outside of the traditional software development realm, including helping not-for-profits and knowledge organizations better manage their work using Kanban boards, backlogs, and daily stand-ups.
Alan is a certified PMP, PMI-ACP, an ITIL Foundation certificate holder, a Scrum Master, and a scaled agilist. Alan has more than 25 years of experience as a leader in Fortune 100 companies. In 2016 he founded Project Management Essentials, and he also recently completed a new online course for Velociteach called Fundamentals of Agile available through InSite.
Taking a look at Disciplined Agile (DA), Bill and Alan give their feedback on a recent DA Train-the-Trainer session hosted by PMI. They talk about the unique approach Scott Ambler & Mark Lines bring to agile and how DA leverages other agile frameworks as they embrace many methods, including agile, scrum, lean, Kanban, and continuous delivery.
Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:
“... as long as you are stepping in and making those decisions, the team won’t. So you really need to focus on stepping back and giving the team that space to make those decisions and allowing them to stub their toes and skin their elbows so that they will become successful over time.”
“I think one of the biggest takeaways for me was just the flexibility with this tool (D.A.) to truly choose the best way of work for your team, given the environment and the context that you have.”
Hear how to support your team’s success when transitioning to Agile. The adaptation of the Aikido principle of Shu Ha Ri, as well as more info on Disciplined Agile.
00:58 … Meet Alan
02:07 … Defining Agile
04:20 … Shu Ha Ri
08:26 … Non Traditional and Non Profit uses of Agile.
14:43 … Challenges with Transitioning to Agile
17:41 … Disciplined Agile Train the Trainer Seminar
21:48 … Choosing your WoW
23:14 … D.A. and Lean
26:01 … Value Stream Mapping
27:33 … Fundamentals of Agile InSite Course
29:51 … Closing
Alan Zucker: …as long as you are stepping in and making those decisions, the team won’t. So you really need to focus on stepping back and giving the team that space to make those decisions and allowing them to stub their toes and skin their elbows. So that they will become successful over time.
NICK WALKER: Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers. We’re back with another episode, bringing the kind of information you’ve been asking for. We hope you’ll keep the requests and comments coming in. You can always comment right there on your listening app, or on Velociteach.com, or on social media. We love hearing from you.
I’m your host, Nick Walker, and with me are the two guys who guide our discussion, Andy Crowe and Bill Yates. And this time around we’re featuring a member of the Velociteach family. And like most of the folks around here, Andy, he has credentials a mile long.
ANDY CROWE: He does indeed, Nick. And we have Alan Zucker on the show today. And Alan and I go back a good ways. He and I interacted back before he worked for Velociteach. We had a relationship. Somebody I have deep respect for, and I’m really looking forward to today’s podcast.
NICK WALKER: Before we hear from Alan, I want to tell you a little bit more about him. He’s a certified project management professional, an ITIL Foundation certificate holder, a Scrum master, a scale Agilist, and an Agile certified practitioner. Alan Zucker is a keynote speaker, and he has more than 25 years of experience as a leader in Fortune 100 companies. In 2016 he founded Project Management Essentials to provide training and advisory services. He recently completed a new course for Velociteach titled “Fundamentals of Agile.”
Alan, welcome to Manage This. We want to talk Agile today. And before we really get into it, can you tell me a little bit about what Agile is, particularly for my benefit and for the benefit of those who maybe are coming from a predictive or waterfall background.
ALAN ZUCKER: Sure, Nick. Well, first of all, Andy, thanks so much, it’s great to be on the podcast again. So Agile is a way of managing projects and it goes back formally about 20 years. And it started out as a way of developing software using incremental and iterative development techniques. So what we try to do with Agile is try to develop our projects and deliver our projects in smaller pieces. And then learn from what we’ve delivered in order to make things better with each of the successive increments.
BILL YATES: Those are some of the keys; right? Small batches, quick iterations, quick turnaround, get it in the hands of the customer, deliver value quickly. Those are some of the keys.
ANDY CROWE: Value, value, value.
BILL YATES: Yeah, value, value.
ALAN ZUCKER: And so I think one of the other really big pieces of Agile is that it changes the way we work, and it really focuses on having empowered teams and people really engaged, both from a customer’s perspective, as well as from the technology team perspective. In our traditional projects, particularly our waterfall projects, there’s a big separation between the customers, the business, the development team, the testing team, and on an Agile project we try to get everybody to collaborate together more effectively.
So, it’s really interesting, Jeff Sutherland wrote one of the really great books on Agile, and he actually wrote it with his son J.J, and J.J Sutherland, as you may know, was a producer for NPR. And in the book he talked about how, when J.J. was covering the Arab Spring in Egypt, they really were having a hard time getting the material back to the states for broadcast. And they thought about how do we deliver the broadcast, and how do we cover the topics more quickly so we can get smaller pieces back to the states in order to meet their broadcast delivery schedule. So even though Agile was built for software development, it has a lot of applications outside the software development realm.
NICK WALKER: Alan, there’s a Japanese martial art called Aikido, and so within that there’s the principle of steps to mastery of Aikido that’s the Shu Ha Ri, and a lot of Agile leaders have borrowed this principle. Tell me about how Shu Ha Ri fits into the Agile concept.
ALAN ZUCKER: So a number of the Agile thought leaders use the Aikido principles of Shu Ha Ri as a way of talking about progressing and maturing our Agile. The idea behind Shu is where we’re following the rules, and if you’re doing a martial art, this is where you follow the master, and you really are copying the master step by step. So the idea behind Ha is where we’ve learned the principles, and Ha stands for bend the rules. So we’ve learned the principles, we’re beginning to adapt the style a little bit for ourselves. And then the idea of Ri is break the rules, and that’s where you’ve gained your own mastery, and you can see patterns, and you can pool different practices and almost create your own style with this.
So one of the things that’s been really interesting for me is I’ve been doing Agile now for actually well over, I hate to say it, 30 years. And now that I’m teaching, and I’m consulting and coaching organizations, I’ve really gotten to the point where I’ve got that rate, where I can pick different things off the shelf, and I can work with non-software development organizations and other organizations to help them apply the Agile principles to improve whatever they are doing.
ANDY CROWE: You know, Alan, when you were talking about this, something came to mind, I’ve been reading Cormac McCarthy lately and Cormac McCarthy is a famous fiction author. He will do some things that are so unconventional as a writer. For instance, he doesn’t do a lot of punctuation marks, he doesn’t do quotes, he just goes back and forth with narrative and dialogue, and it’s very fluid.
Now, my middle child tried to do this back in high school, and decided he was going to just eliminate certain pesky rules of grammar, but he had not mastered the Shu first, so he didn’t know the rules and you’re not allowed to exactly bend the rules or break the rules yet. So as a writer, this actually resonates very loudly with me, I understand, you know, there are certain rules as a writer that I will intentionally break. The rule in my house is you can use incorrect grammar if you know the rule, and you know what you’re doing, so there’s a little bit of a parallel there, as well.
ALAN ZUCKER: So it’s really interesting, about two years ago I started working with this team. I was part of a small eLearning company, and when I started working with them, they were like, we want to learn Scrum. So I went, and I did a workshop for them, got them running on Scrum. But I also taught them how to do Kanban, or flow-based Agile, and I’ve maintained contact with the director of the group over the years. And in the last six months they’ve actually moved onto the next version, where they’re doing what they’re calling “hyper sprinting.”
So instead of following the two-week Scrum process, or the flow process, they are doing demos two times a week. They’re delivering work as soon as it’s available, they are not doing story point estimates. They’re still doing daily stand-ups and some of those things, but they’ve bent the rules in order to make it work for their organization. And so it’s really interesting, and they’ve been very, very successful with it, that’s in software development.
I’ve also started to do some work with nonprofits. I’m working with the board of a nonprofit near me, and so I’m using Agile principles with them to help them run their board meetings much more successfully.
BILL YATES: What are some of the challenges that you see a group like that – so you know, you’re mixing things up for them and introducing these new concepts. Do you start out with, “Hey, guys, I’m going to teach you Agile,” or do you just go into specifics and say, “Hey, here’s another practice that I think may benefit our group?”
ALAN ZUCKER: So I don’t start trying to teach Agile theory to a nonprofit board. What I do is I start in with the practices. So the new board started its term in July. So at the first board meeting, I did what I normally do when I’m starting up an Agile team, which is setting the rules of normative behavior. And so I go through a structured brainstorming process, everybody puts their ideas, how should we behave as a board, what are our expectations of each other and of ourselves. We put the ideas on the wall. We go through our brainstorming process, and we sort of codify that into the rules of normative behavior, and then we set that as how we’re going to work.
So it was really interesting, I was standing there, and we came up with the rules. It was like, we want to be respectful, we want to be efficient in terms of the use of our time. We want to have respectful debate, all these things. And then I turn around – I’m going through this, and I’m facilitating this process, I see a couple people on their cell phones scrolling through, a couple people sort of having side conversations. And so like a good Scrum master, like a good Agile coach, I said, “Look, you all just established these rules of behavior that you’re going to follow as a team. You’re breaking these rules.” And over the next successive meetings I worked with them. And, yeah, a couple times I had to call people out, but those are some of the things I did.
So the next thing I did with them is, at the second board meeting, the organization had spent the prior year developing a 150-page strategic plan with 19 objectives and like a hundred-some-odd tasks. And I did what we normally would do, let’s break that down. Let’s focus on the things that provide the highest priority. Let’s develop that list, and then let’s figure out what those specific actions are. I actually set them up with a Trello board to track the things that they are going to do to implement the objectives that they thought were the most important. And we’ve been working through that. And we’ve actually started doing daily stand-ups when the board meets once a month and people focus on what have we done? What are we working on next? What are our issues?
BILL YATES: Alan, how did they take that Trello board? So Trello’s a great tool for Kanban to move things left to right, work in progress. Did that come pretty naturally to them? Did they jump onto that?
ALAN ZUCKER: Unfortunately, that has not worked out as well as I would have hoped to be honest with you. There’s some stuff on there, I don’t know if it’s a technology issue, I don’t know if it was too much change too quickly for them. But that’s something we’re still working on with them.
BILL YATES: We’ve had some recent experience with some Agile training with a university, and so they were professors who were looking for ways to change their way of work, the way that they go through a two- to three-month coursework with students. And so they embraced some of the concepts of Agile, which were, okay, traditionally we’ve had these small teams in our student cohort that are doing this big delivery at the end of the course.
And so we’ve had experiences where maybe four students did a great job, and the other four students, they totally missed the mark. They’re also finding value in, okay, let’s break this down, let’s have small batches, let’s report out more quickly with smaller impact on a final score for a student. But just trying to take some of the concepts of Agile and the small batches and quick iterations even into doing work like that. It’s interesting to see not-for-profits, universities even trying to embrace this in what we would not see as typical Agile applications.
ALAN ZUCKER: So one of the things that I’ve done with the nonprofits is actually help them build out Kanban boards, and the Kanban board, watching the flow of the work, is great in any environment. It creates transparency, creates the opportunity for collaboration, and also helps create accountability, that works great with the nonprofits. It’s really interesting, one of my older kids, one of their friends is a science and technology teacher up in Maryland, outside of Annapolis. And so she’s set up an Agile classroom and has done some really cool stuff, and she was just actually out at a conference on Agile in the classroom in Colorado not too long ago.
About a year ago she came over before school started, and I talked to her about some of the things that she could do to make her classroom more Agile. And so one of the things was having the students define their roles, have them define the roles at the beginning of the semester. Another was everybody created their own personal Kanban board for tracking the work, and she did it by giving the kids manila folders, and there was backlog in process and done. And then they used Post-it Notes to track the work, and because it was in a manila folder, they could carry it to class, they could carry it home with them.
And I’ve actually read some research more recently that that kind of structure actually also works very well with students that have attention deficit issues because it really creates that visibility. They know what’s most important, so they’re limiting the things that they’re focusing on, their work in process, which means that they’re focusing on getting work done versus spinning.
BILL YATES: I know a lot of project teams that have ADD, so I think that’s applicable in many ways.
ALAN ZUCKER: It works for everybody.
BILL YATES: Sure, yeah.
NICK WALKER: Alan, so I need to ask you, are there people within a certain work environment that are going to rebel against this whole process? So I mean, like, okay, I am pretty much a rule keeper. I drive the speed limit. I yield right of way. And I like everybody else to follow the rules, as well. Am I going to have a problem in an Agile environment?
ALAN ZUCKER: So Nick, that’s really sort of an interesting question. And I particularly like the way you teed that up. In an Agile environment, it’s the team that is deciding the rules of engagement. In our more traditional organizations, it’s usually the managers that are telling the team what to do. So when you talk about potentially having a problem or having difficulties transitioning from a traditional to an Agile environment, what I often see is really problems on both sides.
One is I see folks that have been traditional managers that now wonder what’s my role, particularly when I’ve worked with technology organizations. The people that are managers of the technology teams, in the past they came up with the technical design. They defined the tasks that people should be doing, and then they monitored their team’s work. And so I’ve actually had managers that say, “What’s my role now? I’ve spent my career achieving this level. I don’t know what to do.” And so for them it’s really focusing on how do they shift their role from being a directive leader to being more of a coach or a mentor to their team?
So the other place that I see challenges is with a team. You’ve got a team that for years and years has had the manager tell them what to do. Tell them how to do it, make all of the decisions, and then all of a sudden you say, “Okay, you guys, you’re the ones to make all of the decisions. You figure this out yourself.” And it doesn’t necessarily come naturally or easily.
There’s a company that I work with. It’s a small software company, and so I started coaching the owner of the company. And one of the first things he said is, “The team is really great. We’ve been doing Agile for a while. But we’ll have these meetings, and it’ll be an hour-long meeting. And about 50 minutes into the meeting I’ll get frustrated because no decisions are made. And I’ll step in, and I’ll make the decisions.”
My response to him is, as long as you are stepping in and making those decisions, the team won’t. So you really need to focus on stepping back and giving the team that space to make those decisions and allowing them to stub their toes and skin their elbows so that they will become successful over time.
ANDY CROWE: Well, Bill and Alan, I know recently you two, along with another member of our staff, went to some training for Disciplined Agile. Disciplined Agile is sort of a new approach and a combination of existing approaches. So tell us a little bit about that. Tell us a little bit about your experience and your take on this.
BILL YATES: Yeah. I’ll go first. So it was a very enlightening four days. We had the chance to meet with the two founders and authors of the Disciplined Agile approach, including the WoW book, the “Choose Your Way of Work” book. Scott Ambler and Mark Lines were leading the effort and looking at Disciplined Agile. And seeing how they’re trying to take the best of all approaches. So everything from Scrum and Agile all the way through applying Lean principles and bringing on a sense of continuous improvement and just seeing how all that fits together as a construct. And Alan, so I think one of the biggest takeaways for me was just the flexibility with this tool to truly choose the best way of work for your team, given the environment and the context that you have.
ALAN ZUCKER: Yeah. It was really interesting because until a few months ago when the PMI acquired Disciplined Agile, I really hadn’t had DA on my radar. So before the training I read the “Choose Your WoW” book, and I really loved it.
BILL YATES: Yeah.
ALAN ZUCKER: One of the things that really struck me was that it was really methodology agnostic. When I do my training, and when I’m working with others, I really try to figure out what they need, what’s going to resonate in their environment. And so one of the real premises behind or one of the key premises behind Disciplined Agile is knowing the context.
BILL YATES: Right.
ALAN ZUCKER: So one of the things that I really love is that they talk about all of the different methodologies and all of the different options, from Waterfall to Scrum to Lean to Scaled Agile. And it helps you figure out which approach you want to use. Then, as you’re going through your project, it gives you a host of decision points and then detailed options of what to do and what the considerations are when you’re making those decisions.
BILL YATES: Yeah, Alan, picking up on that. So one of the things that I appreciated in it is there’s almost a prescriptive – there’s a method to take in determining what your environment is, looking at the context. And I think this would make you feel a little more comfortable with that, Nick. So there’s a nice, not a formula, but it’s close to it. Some of the context things are like team size or skill level of the team. How technically complex the problem is that you’re tackling with this project. Compliance, you know, if compliance is an issue or not.
And so they presented a view, kind of a spider diagram of these key factors. From that you could look at it and kind of score out on these factors, given the environment that you’re in, and determine just how complex is my environment, and what’s the methodology that would fit best, given where we’re at. And Alan, I had the sense, too, that it’s not a one-and-done. Just as we’re continuing to improve our team, we also have to look back at our context and see if things have changed.
ALAN ZUCKER: Yeah, so one of the things that really strikes me about DA is that there’s a lot there. On the one hand, you can go to a basic Scrum class, and in a couple days you’re up and running with it. So DA really feels almost like graduate level work. Where it really thinks through all of the different methodologies and different options and really gives you a lot to think about in terms of how do you want to operate as an Agile team? And it’s very, very comprehensive, as well.
BILL YATES: Yeah.
NICK WALKER: So can I ask something else about this WoW, the Way of Working? Are we talking about choosing from different methods here? Or are we just talking about reinventing the wheel and coming up with our own way? And doesn’t that take a little bit more time?
BILL YATES: I would say it’s a little bit of both. You are evaluating where you’re at. You’re not starting from scratch or reinventing the wheel, but you are determining, okay, let’s not make any assumptions. Let’s go through and take a clear view of the context that we’re performing this project or initiative in, and then find the tool that’s going to fit the best. And then within that, as Alan’s mentioned, there are practices and toolsets that we can grab within that, once we’ve chosen our way of work, that line up specifically with that.
There’s even a decision tree at a high level as we walk out as a team in determining what our context is. How complex it is, are we new at this, what have we done, so what experience have we had. Then there’s a decision tree to kind of step through that and go, okay, what is right for me? Should I take a Lean approach? Should I take just a pure Agile approach? Or should I start with Agile, and then move into Lean? And then continue to try to refine my approach later? It’s almost like Alan’s described as you’ve seen organizations that it started with a crawl, moved into a walk, and then later they start to pick up the pace. So they’re taking more approaches or varying their approach to how they’re doing their work.
ANDY CROWE: I want to ask you a question, Alan, and it’s along the lines of some of this. We talk about Lean, and Lean comes up in Agile a lot. I’m a big fan of all things Lean. I’ve studied the Toyota production system before and looked at what they’ve done. And they’ve taken that just about as high as anybody has taken it. They’ve gone about as far as they can. What are some of the ways we can use and fold in? So if you’re choosing your way of work, and you decide we need some Lean principles, without spending 60 years mastering that, how do you actually fold these in and get benefit from them using the Disciplined Agile approach? Or any Agile approach with a short runway?
ALAN ZUCKER: Sure. Well, it’s really interesting because the DA approach is actually built on the Lean model. So one of the things, and I think one of the most valuable and easiest things to do, is embrace the idea of Kaizen – continuous improvement. Small change for good in Japanese. And classically in America our idea of we’re going to reengineer the process. And we’re going to spend six months defining the current process, and another six months defining our to-be process. Then moving forward. The idea here is that if we can just continually identify and make small changes and figure out what provides value or what doesn’t provide value for our teams, then that’s a great way of implementing Lean. So the idea of doing continuous improvement and eliminating waste, wasteful actions, is a great way of implementing the Lean principles.
When I’m working with organizations, and particularly technology organizations or project organizations, so one of the areas I always challenge people to look at are things such as how many approvals are you requiring? And do those approvals, and does that approval process really provide value? Does it really make the product that you’re working on much better? So quite often the person closest to the work has the best information and can make the best decision. But what we end up doing is we end up layering on approvals on top of that. And that’s just effort that doesn’t need to be taken. Another area that I ask people to look at is how much documentation are you creating? One of the principles, if the Agile Manifesto is minimally sufficient, and figuring out what is it that we need to produce, but not producing more than that.
ANDY CROWE: I like it. So you know, one of the great tools that Agile has kind of reintroduced into the modern project is this idea of value stream mapping. And looking at the workflow, and trying to decide does this step add value? That can be really difficult for organizations to go through and start looking. And then you start realizing really quickly sometimes this step has no value at all.
But organizations are so committed to it for whatever reason, maybe it’s somebody’s job. Maybe there is some security in having a level of approval over my head. So even though it may not add value, I may be the right person to decide. It may give me some element of safety and cover that, hey, somebody else looked at this. They signed off on it. It’s not my problem. There’s a lot of different things. Value stream mapping’s just a wonderful, wonderful technique, but, boy, I have seen that be controversial before, in actually pulling it off.
ALAN ZUCKER: Yeah. One of the things that I do when I’m working with groups trying to do value stream mapping is let’s map out the things that we do. Then let’s categorize them as the things that are absolutely necessary to create the product that we’re doing. What are the things that we need for management oversight or control or, if you’re working in a regulated environment, regulatory control. And then what are all of the other things? And so I think breaking it down into those three buckets sometimes helps that conversation a little bit.
NICK WALKER: Alan, so I’d like to hear a little bit about this course that you’ve developed for Velociteach. The “Fundamentals of Agile.” What is included in that course?
ALAN ZUCKER: So actually we launched that course back in May, and it’s really a consolidation of a daylong class that I usually deliver in person. And so it really provides an overview of the fundamental information that you need for Agile. I talk about the context for Agile. Why Agile? Why is everybody interested in Agile? What are the benefits? I spend a fair amount of time talking about the Agile Manifesto and the principles. I’m a strong believer that, above all, Agile is a mindset, and it’s not a methodology.
So I talk about Lean and Kanban and the things that Andy and I were talking about. About finding waste, about focusing on the flow of work so that you’re actually focusing on getting work done versus being busy. I also talk about Scrum, which is the most popular and common methodology. And then I talk a little bit about some of the principles from some of the less popular methodologies that have become part of the common practices. And then I talk about some of the considerations if you’re leading an Agile transformation within your organization. It’s a really great four-and-a-half-hour course.
BILL YATES: So Alan, I’ve got a couple of student quotes. Just so we don’t have to talk about it, some of the feedback from students. Really positive. One said: “it’s very well paced, understandable speed”, you know, it’s not lingering. It’s got a really good pace to it. Other says: “the elements provided valuable and easily understandable of what makes up Agile”. So it gave them a good sense of what Agile is and what it’s not. It’s been very well received by students, and it covers it in a way that’s very understandable, great speed, so I like to hear that.
ALAN ZUCKER: Yeah. And so I’ve got to tell you, the folks down in Atlanta that put the courseware together just did a beautiful job. When I first started reviewing it, I was just blown away at how professional the online packaging is.
BILL YATES: I so appreciate that, the graphic designers we have and the toolkits they’re using are phenomenal, it’s way beyond what I can come up with. Good stuff.
NICK WALKER: Well, Alan Zucker, thank you so much for spending time with us here. We have a gift for you, and we’ve taken an Agile approach to that. Usually the rule is that we send you the mug after we’ve done the podcast with you, so we’ve taken this Shu Ha Ri thing seriously. We’ve already sent it to you, so it’s there, and hope you’re enjoying it.
ALAN ZUCKER: Well, thanks a lot. And as you guys can see, it’s on my trophy shelf with all of my other accomplishments and trinkets.
NICK WALKER: Well, enjoy. And we have enjoyed this time with you. Thanks again.
ALAN ZUCKER: Thank you. It’s great to see you guys.
NICK WALKER: Before we go, we want to remind our listeners that, if you like free stuff, you’ll like this: free PDUs, Professional Development Units. And you just earned them for listening to this podcast. To claim your PDUs toward your recertifications, go to Velociteach.com and choose Manage This Podcast from the top of the page. Click on the button that says Claim PDUs, and then click right through the steps.
So that’s it for this episode of Manage This. We hope you’ll tune back in on January 7th for our next edition. Until next time, keep calm and Manage This.