Addressing the Agile Elephants in the Room

On October 21, 2020, I led a Toronto Agile Meetup “Quicktalk.” Here’s the promotional blurb. “What is there about Agile that hasn’t already been said? Lots, actually, but much of it is “elephant in the room” stuff. We know it’s there, and it’s probably big, but we pretend not to see it. Maybe it’s time to start talking about it.” One of the issues I’ve observed is that we don’t recognize our own dogmatism. A lot of people have a preference for one of the Agile frameworks. This can be for any of many reasons. Maybe it’s the one we learned first, the one for which we have our most recent (or only) certification, the one the “cool kids” are talking about, the one we know the most activities for, the one that “just feels right.” Maybe it’s something else. But we just know our framework, activity, method, process or other solution is the right one. We risk becoming a bit, well, fanatical.
Which leads to another conversation. Agile practices were designed to replace current processes, not pile on. They are instead of, not in addition to.

In my long-ago Scrum training, people from a large financial institution, objected to almost everything our instructor told us. “We can’t do that,” they whined. “Audit won’t let us.” I might have called out, “How do you know? Have you asked them?”

As Agilists, our role is to improve the way people work, not add to their burden. Certain reporting requirements and other practices become redundant when teams work in an Agile way. Does the corner office really need that status report when they can see the work board? Is this security practice still relevant?

Conversations with our bosses, partners and clients can create realistic expectations. Can we hold them? Do we hold them? The same sort of conversation can help us – and our bosses, partners and clients – understand whether agile practices and actually address the business problem. Or which practices address it and which add no value.

A few days ago, a colleague asked me what I would recommend new Agilists do to build their knowledge and credibility. I suggested they learn about business – not just business, in general, but their business. We need to understand what are the business results organizations are hoping to achieve through Agile practices. Are we getting them? Is what we’re doing helping? The software industry has done well to move from a process focus, to a program focus, to a product focus. The next focus must be an outcome focus. What is the point? What are we getting? How is it working?

One of the most disturbing things I have observed is a sort of “Agile Arrogance.” I see Tweets about, “these guys just don’t get it,” and comments about “management morons.” Why are some people so dismissive about people who don’t buy the ideas they’re selling? (Recall the dogma section.) I suspect they define success in their jobs as “people do what I tell them.” Is that really the deal? We are hired and paid for our expertise and experience. We offer our best support in the best way we can. People, including those who hired us, won’t always take it. Recall Jerry Weinberg’s Third Law of Consulting: “Never forget they’re paying you by the hour, not by the solution.” Our job is to make the offer. We offer our mad programming, facilitating, coaching, change management and people skills and experience.

These things we offer are more likely to be appreciated, and our support accepted, if two other traits are in place. You can’t be certified in them and they may not show on your resume. But people know when they are present. They’re worth discussing – and practising – if we are to improve our profession and our own chances of success as practitioners. We need to develop humility and curiosity in ourselves and nurture these traits in others.

We need conversations about all these things, where we use empathy and confidence, in equal measure. What I’ve seen, in over 50 years in the workplace, is that real confidence comes from knowing you don’t have all the answers and being OK with that because you’re going to find them – or you’ll find something better on the way.


There’s an old saying that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Are Scrum, kanban, SAFe, unSAFe, etc. our hammers? What if our favoured flavour of Agile isn’t right for the context? What if Agile’s not the answer? What if we open our minds to the possibility that some other solution will work? Do we talk about this? With our employers and clients? Amongst ourselves? Do we even think about this? Or do we introduce our preferred frameworks, structures, tools and processes and make sure everyone does them correctly? Perhaps it’s time to think about how we understand the first value of the Agile Manifesto
They may have hired us to teach teams to use Scrum properly and get all those user stories lined up in Jira with the right amount of story points to the appropriate decimal place. How is that going to help our clients, our customers or our organization?

Perhaps it does that. But do we know? Do they know? When we have a constructive, two-way conversation about the practices they and we are introducing, we contribute. Do we wait for the all-singing, all-dancing, all-ducks-in-a-row. super-technicolour Agile solution to come along, all signed-off and budgeted and staffed up with seals of approval all over it? Change does not have to be a big, hairy deal. We can make change non-threatening – for everyone – by framing change as an experiment. “Let’s try this small thing for a short time and see if it works. We’ll learn something. We’ll use the people and budget we already have. And, if it doesn’t help, we’ll stop it.” Nothing will convince people you are serious about experiments and empiricism like cancelling a change that didn’t work out.

Being Wrong – Part Two

In Being Wrong – Part One, we looked at some of the reasons – both innate and learned – that contribute to our “need to be right.” In this post, we’ll look at some things we can do to stop it from getting in the way of good decisions.

One of the first things we can do is to be aware of whether we are reasoning to discover something or to confirm something we already believe.

Whether we’re playing poker, building software, introducing organizational change or deciding which checkout line to go into at the grocery store, we’re working with incomplete information. There is lots of uncertainty. Lots that we can’t control, no matter how smart we are.

Thought experiment

  • What was the best decision you made in the past year?
  • What was the worst decision you made in the past year?
  • (What was your process for making each decision?)


Today’s environment, for work and for life is volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous. We can’t be certain how anything we plan will actually turn out. Still, we have to take a chance and bet on something.

We can develop practices that will help us overcome our habits and biases so that we improve the odds in our decision making. Help us make better bets.

One recommendation is to cultivate what are called “Negative capabilities.” It’s a strange label because there is nothing negative about these traits except they are less visible and action oriented than those normally associated with success. They’re not the sort of thing we normally put on our résumés. It was the poet John Keats who first used the term and it’s been adopted by psychologists (such as Wilfred Bion) to indicate openness of mind, the ability to tolerate the pain and confusion of not knowing, rather than trying to be certain in an ambiguous situation.

They’re not the sort of thing we normally put on our résumés. It was the poet John Keats who first used the term and it’s been adopted by psychologists (such as Wilfred Bion) to indicate openness of mind, the ability to tolerate the pain and confusion of not knowing, rather than trying to be certain in an ambiguous situation.

Both “positive” and “negative” capabilities are needed to create a space of learning and creativity.

Source: French, Simpson, Harvey – “Negative Capability: A contribution to the understanding of creative leadership” (2009).

You exercise these negative capabilities when you challenge your beliefs

  • What are some of your typical reactions when you come to the edge of your knowledge and expertise?
  • What might you begin doing if you were not afraid of looking or being incompetent?
  • When was the last time you said, “I don’t know?”
  • What would be a safe context in which you might express doubt?
  • How could you test your assumptions?
  • How might you show more compassion to yourself and others when facing the unknown?
    Source: D’Souza & Renner – “Not Knowing” (2014).

Decision making can be improved by adopting probabilistic thinking. This is essentially trying to identify the most likely outcomes of a course of action. Data specialists use modelling tools, math and logic to estimate the likelihood of any specific outcome coming to pass. I’m not advocating for us all to go out and become data scientists, but we can make an effort to calculate the odds in uncertain situations and assess the risk of choices. This is a good team or group exercise.

The first question to ask is, “What matters here?” You want to the identify situational conditions that will affect the outcome – as many as you can.

For each one, ask “What are the chances of this happening?” based on your knowledge of the facts relating to that condition and actual experience in similar situations. Attach a confidence level. “How confident are you?” (You could use your Planning Poker cards.)

Identify the assumptions you’ve made and assess their reliability. Think about any cognitive biases that might be at work. Then make the decision.

Watch your language

  • Ask humble questions, not rhetorical or smart-alec questions.
  • Challenge your own ideas – train yourself to test alternate hypotheses
  • Focus on accuracy
  • You might be wrong
  • Be open to diverse viewpoints
  • Work in groups – easier to see others biases than our own.
  • Give everyone permission to ask, “What are we not seeing? And why?”

Other sincerely curious questions

  • What is likely to happen if we do X? What’s our level of confidence?
  • How do we know? What’s our evidence?
  • What would need to be in place for that to work?
  • What else might be true?
  • How can we find out?
  • What are we not seeing?
  • Are we examining for discovery or for confirmation?
  • What biases do we have that might lead us astray?

Use the team. You might build this sort of questioning into your team agreement so curiosity and humility become the norm. It will help you go from trying to be right all the time to seeing a more accurate and objective representation of the world.

Developing the habits of exposing our thinking, acknowledging and neutralizing our biases, and recognizing the value of not having all the answers requires deliberate, conscious practice. It’s worth it. It calls for courage and tact in equal measure. It wakes up our brains so that we build a better foundation for our bets.

Sometimes the smartest thing you can do is give up the need to look smart.

Being Wrong – Part One

This post is based on a presentation Sue gave, in 2021, at an internal Agile conference at one of the Canadian banks.

I’m willing to bet that you’ve discovered that your interactions with colleagues and other departments are as important to Agility as the work you do. It often is the work.

Communication is key to our collaborative and iterative way of working. And sometimes it doesn’t go so well.

Sometimes, we get in our own way, trapped by a very human desire to look smart that impedes our decision making.

In this post, we’ll look at ways you can limit their influence. We’ll answer the question, “What if the smartest thing you can do is give up the need to look smart?”

First – a thought experiment. Think about the way you drive. Are you better than average, about average, or worse than average?

Would it surprise you that something like 80 per cent of people believe they are better than average drivers? It cannot be true. Do the math.

This phenomenon has been validated by lots of research. Eighty-seven per cent of Stanford MBA students believe they are smarter than others in their program. This trait shows up in studies of stock traders and lawyers. Worse, Kruger & Dunning, discovered that people who considered themselves the smartest in their groups were, in fact, at the bottom.

This phenomenon is known in social psychology as “illusory superiority.” We overestimate our own ability in relation to the same thing in other people. And we underestimate theirs.

Illusory superiority is one of many cognitive biases affecting decision making. Consider, for a moment, where illusory superiority may or does show up in your life. In your work. On your team.

So, it seems there’s a natural human trait that makes us think we’re smarter than we are. And our brains support us in this.

Because our brains are lazy.

Legions of neuroscientists have hooked human brains to technology that shows our brains are set up to expend as little energy as possible. There’s no shame in this. Our earliest ancestors needed that energy for survival in a harsh world beset with predators and lots of danger. They had to muster the physical and mental capacity to always be ready to fight or to flee – and to decide in a split second, which of those was the better option. Their brains didn’t have time to think things through and, instead, they took shortcuts.

Centuries later, your brain still does this.

In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes experiments that show how our brains resist processing new information. Our brains see patterns, sense similarities and use memories of familiar patterns to guide our behaviour. It’s almost automatic, beneath our awareness.

 Let’s go back to driving, if you travel the same route every day, beyond watching the road, you may not be aware of your actions. Your brain doesn’t have to work at thinking. It uses well-worn neural pathways to respond quickly and guide you from start to finish without using up energy. But if there’s a detour and you need to follow signs, your brain must work to process new information. And it’s a slower, more challenging, process since your brain hasn’t done this before. It must take the energy to consider the info and make decisions.

Here’s another thought experiment. How can you tell a dog’s age? Well, you take its chronological age and multiply by seven. How do you know? Everybody knows that. Really? Turns out it’s wrong. But our lazy brains believe it because we heard it somewhere. Rather than challenge the idea, do some research, or even think about it, we bought the idea. After all, it made sense.

Our brains fool us that way. We assume it works like this. We hear something. We evaluate it. We believe it. What’s really going on is this. We hear something. We believe it – especially if we hear it from someone we trust, someone in authority, or someone like us. Then we evaluate it. When we get around to it. If we have time. Later. Maybe.

Our brains also make stuff up. There’s a well-known optical illusion where two lines of equal length look very different because the ends of one point inward and the ends of the other point outward. The outward pointing line appears longer. Measure the lines and you see they are the same length. But our brains have trouble with that.

This illusion is an example of another cognitive bias. Confirmation bias. Even when we have evidence that something else is true, we still may have a hard time believing it.

Your brain may also misperceive things, especially when information is incomplete. It’s looking for patterns. In this illustration, what creature do you see? Is it a rabbit? Is it a duck? Who knows?

This bunny/duck dilemma also reminds us that every brain is different. The way you perceive and believe things affects your decisions and behaviour. This is relevant to collaboration – a key element of working in an Agile fashion.

If I see things one way and you see them another, the conversation can get messy and collaboration’s at risk because of another human characteristic – the need to be right.

The brain’s discomfort with information in patterns it doesn’t recognize is one of the reasons people may resist new ideas when they’re first presented. The brain will often ignore new information. It’s uncomfortable to think through something new and different. It uses up resources. Once we decide something is true, we really don’t want to change our mind about it. That’s another cognitive bias.

It gets worse. Even when we look for the truth, we’re often really looking for support for our own existing beliefs.

So you Think you can Telework – Part Three – A Rant?

In this era of social media influencers, anyone who’s read a book or watched a TED talk can self-promote as an expert in that topic. Now that we’re isolating in a pandemic and everyone is rushing online, I could be a legit distancing diva. After all, I’ve been working, coaching and training online since the ’90s. And I know how to use breakout rooms, polls and whiteboards on Zoom and have the power to mute anyone at will.

Unfortunately, I seem to want no part of it anymore. I’m not sure why, except that it worries me.

Buzzwords make you look smart, right? I see folks in my professional world believing, imagining or pretending that their online tools connect them. They judge that they – both people and tools – are being effective. They wonder what made us think work teams needed to be co-located. Unfortunately, no matter how good the tools are, they provide, at best, a shallow, fabricated, artificial connection. When work requires true collaboration, is real communication happening when we spend our days on Zoom?

I recognize that tools are what we have, as we isolate, temporarily, in this pandemic. And I’m rather fond of what Zoom has done and can do for me and my tribe. What worries me is my certainty that some business people, watching work groups make this ‘remote work thing’ actually work, are thinking, “Hey, this ‘remote work thing’ actually works; let’s keep it going. We’ll save on premises costs, travel and the hassles of dealing with people all day.” The cost issue, alone, will be attractive once the pandemic ends and the accountants tally the financial impact while the PR folk position this to maximize share price.

Worry Number One: What will be missing when technology is, forever, intermediating? Even deluxe, wonderful intermediary platforms (Adobe Connect, iObeya, D2L, etc.) require careful thought about what, why, with whom and in what context we are communicating. Are we considering these things when we set up – or sit through – the seventh online meeting of the day? Or when we reformat our highly interactive in-person workshops as webinars? Or when we move our annual conference to virtual? Or when we forget that there are still neighbourhoods without reliable highspeed?

Worry Number Two: Are we chasing solutions before we understand the problem? And what is the problem, anyway?

4-Cs Model: Yeah, yeah. I know about the George Box quote, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” I developed this model, years ago, when I was trying to get bosses, colleagues, clients in the business world to recognize that communication only happens when we make a connection. And connection only happens when our message, or content, is aligned with the situation people are in, or context, and the channel or means of contact.


Context: So let’s start with breaking down the work. What parts of it can people do alone? What parts need collaboration? Do they need to see and manipulate screens together? Or can they talk about it and send each other screenshots? Who needs to collaborate with whom? Who has the info needed? These are context questions. You can probably think of more.


Content: Is the communication about transmitting facts (“Here are the sales figures for March.” “We deployed n times in April.”)? Or does it need a discussion (“What factors affect our sales figures for March?” “What led to the drop?)? Do we need images? Or will data suffice? Are we informing people? Or do we need people to make a decision? Again, who has the info needed? These are content questions. You can conjure up others.


Contact: Next come the means of contact questions. Here are a few big picture considerations. Do the people with the information have a good Internet connection? Can people get through the firewall? How long does it take? Do people know how to use the tools? Do they have company tools, or are children and a spouse also using the family computer? (That’s also a context question, as is the next one.) Do they have a quiet place where they can be on a call? (Yesterday, I heard about someone who, on a confidential call, had to Zoom from the privacy of the bathroom.)


The next step for generating contact questions would be to match tasks and tools. What can be an email? What needs to be a call? Do we need to see each other? How can we do that? Do we need to share screens? How can we do that? What’s the value of having [whoever] here? What’s the downside risk? What about this tool your brother-in-law recommended? Can we use that? Do we really need it? Will it run on everyone’s machine? When you work thorough that task-tool matching exercise, you may discover that you don’t need to spend seven hours a day with your whole team assembled on Zoom.


We can make working from home work if we’re thoughtful about the content, context and means of contact, matching tools to tasks. We can make it work if we remember that we are dealing with people, unpredictable, creative, quirky and oh so human. As I and others have said before, this is a weird time. Working at home is our response to ‘sheltering in place during a pandemic’ or ‘staying safe in a crisis.’ Let’s hope it’s temporary and not ‘a new way of working.’

So you think you can telework – Part Two -Tools (sort of)

My email and Twitter feeds are generously sprinkled with messages from tool vendors and consultants pitching their solutions to this new challenge of Working From Home (WFH). I want to scream, “This is not teleworking. This is staying at home in a pandemic and trying to work.”

Tools aren’t the WFH solution, no matter what tool vendors, your boss, the IT department or some dude on Facebook tell you. I’m married to Gadget Guy. As a result of that happy union, and having worked from home since the ’80s, I’ve accumulated heaps of teleworking tools and toys. Speakers, microphones, lights, cables, software, furniture, coffee makers. What do I use? Not many.

As I wrote in Part 1, when you’re WFH, tools are less important than behaviour. I can’t overstate the importance of the human aspect of working at home. It was always important; now, more so, since we’re working in a cloud of uncertainty.

Still here are a few things I’ve learned about WFH tools.

Team Agreement

This may be the most important WFH tool. Best created as a collaborative effort, it sets out how you’re going to work together. It’s formal, but not immutable. It will evolve as you learn what works for your team.
A team agreement sets out such things as:

  • How will we communicate? What tools for what type of communication?
  • What are our core hours?
  • How will work get done?
  • Where is information stored?
  • How will we define success? How will we measure that?
  • Whose Internet connectivity is iffy – or nonexistent?
  • Who is also responsible for looking after children or others?
  • Realistically, how productive can we be?


Under normal circumstances, it’s best to have a dedicated place you can call your home office. But these circumstances aren’t normal. You may be sheltering in place with roommates, spouse or children who are also working from home. And pets.

  • Privacy may be impossible. As best you can, carve out some turf for everyone to assemble the stuff they need to do their jobs.
  • Find a box where they can put that stuff at the end of the work day. (See Habits, below.) Especially important if you have toddlers or pets who might mistake your stuff for playthings.
  • Get as comfortable as you can. Your chair will be important. So is lighting, both for doing your work and any video calls you may be on.
  • Find a way to communicate with others in your household when you’ll be on a call. That way they won’t be blasting Lizzo or walk into your Zoom call in their underwear. (Yes, we have seen this.)

Communication Software

Speaking of Zoom, there are a gazillion of remote communication tools available. Don’t use too many. When you need to find information someone sent you, you don’t want to have to check email, Slack, Trello, Sharepoint, the google drive and voicemail. (See team agreement, above.)

  • Pick tools that are easiest to use and learn how to use them. But don’t make things complicated. Just because Zoom has polls and breakout rooms doesn’t mean you need to use them.
  • Video will be important. The information richness chart (see Part One) tells us communication is more effective when we are face-to-face. Unfortunately, the signal may degrade the group is large and all are on camera, so you may, sometimes, need to make a tradeoff.
  • Still with Zoom or any video tool, get some light on your face so people can see you.
  • Keep calls as brief as possible. Or take breaks. Nobody wants to sit on a video call for more than 40 minutes. Even that’s tough.
  • And don’t have people there who don’t need to be.
  • Phone people, now and then, just to see how they’re doing. If you’re their boss (or whatever the term is this week), make it clear that you’re checking in, not checking up.


  • Get dressed. Sure, you could work in your jammies, but don’t. If you operate as if you are “going to work,” you will feel more professional.
  • Eat lunch. Hide the snacks.
  • Know when to knock off. You may not be able to leave your home “office,” but you can leave the work. So do. (After decades of WFH, I still haven’t quite got the hang of that habit.)
  • Take breaks. Step away from the computer. Walk the dog. Schnoogle the cat. Sing a song. Bang on the drum (but not all day. Sorry Todd Rundgren.)

So the big idea is: Don’t stress about the tools. Do the best you can with what you have. Do what’s really important. Don’t expect yourself – or anyone else – to be as productive as you are in your workplace. And remember we’re all human.

If you want excellent tips and resources for teleworking, head to Collaboration Superpowers, where our friend Lisette Sutherland has assembled tips, tools, resources, podcasts and workshops, all dedicated to working from home. When the coronavirus hit and people started working from home, she set up a How To page. It’s loaded with ideas and links to more resources.

So you think you can telework? Part One

Except for people providing essential services and a few idiots, most of us are in the second week of self-isolation due to COVID-19. Whether it’s lock down, shutdown, quarantine or social distancing, scads of people are now working from home. Nobody knows for how long.

As businesses scramble to get set up with communication and collaboration tech tools to keep the wheels of industry turning, I thought I’d write a series of posts to share what I’ve learned in 26 years of working, teaching and learning from a computer connection.

The first thing to remember is that, night now, we’re working from home as a result of a pandemic. Anything that anyone, including me, tells you about their past teleworking experiences needs to be viewed through a lens of “this ain’t normal.” This is not an experiment. We’re not doing this to save money or travel time. We’re trying to slow the spread of a deadly virus. Government health departments and, in some places, uniformed officers, are telling us to stay at home, for our own sake and that of others. People are, justifiably, distracted and concerned and that will affect everything they do.

Any organization that thinks people working from home will produce the same amount and quality of work as they did in the office is in Fantasy Land. In normal times, there’s a productivity drop, at first, as people sort out the procedures and processes involved in teleworking. In normal times, they’re not working with concern for their health, their loved ones, their jobs, the economy and the food supply. Lower your expectations. (This applies whether you are the boss or an employee.)

Remember you’re dealing with humans. Tools and processes matter but, despite what the vendors claim, they’re not the key to working at home. What matters is human connection. We’re a social species. Even when our work can be done solo, it’s important for us to know we’re working together, part of something bigger.

I was part of a team that started working from home in the early 1990s. As teleworking pioneers, our tools were lousy, by today’s standards – PCs on modem dial-up to a LAN/WAN, IBM’s chat tool, no email, no Internet, no printers, and the ability to call into a teleconference line. As we quickly learned, the tools were not going to be the key to success.

We made being remote work through reaching out to each other. We used that conference line for a quick early morning meeting to check in with each other and synchronize our work. (Agilists will recognize this as a virtual stand-up.) We used the chat system to share personal news, vent frustration, celebrate milestones, post dumb jokes. (This was before the era of cat photos.)

As managers, my boss and I felt we had a responsibility to keep people connected to each other and to the organization. He and I chatted every morning – a virtual coffee break. I did the same with my team in the afternoon. We made it very clear, by the nature of the conversation, that we were checking in, not checking up. This was critical in our time of change. It’s more critical, today, as people deal with additional burden of uncertainty and worry caused by the pandemic.

Invite your team to design its own ways of staying in touch and keeping the human connection going. Keep activities optional. Not everyone wants to attend a Zoom Happy Hour.

All forms of communication become critically important when you are not face-to-face. The illustration to the right shows what communication professionals call “media richness.” We get the most information from a face-to-face discussion. (I currently believe there’s an even higher level – face-to-face with a whiteboard. But that’s a topic for another day.) The least info is conveyed by a poster or mass mailing.

When we’re together, we don’t rely on words, alone, to convey our meaning and intent. We have tone, body language, pace, intensity, volume. When we have only words, such as when we’re sending a text or an email, we must be careful about our choice of words. You’re not just responsible for the message you send; you’re responsible for the way it’s received. Be sure your intent and meaning are clear.

Give everything a “tone check” before you hit [Send]. And don’t rely on emojis to convey your tone. Your cute little grin may not travel well across platforms and applications. Instead, be conscious of your words and explain your meaning clearly.

You may recall that inside your mobile phone, there’s an actual phone. A call may not be as effective as a face-to-face conversation, but it’s kilometers ahead of anything you can write and probably a lot faster. Whatever method you use to communicate, your investment of time and effort in being clear will avoid misunderstanding, speculation and all the ugliness that can accompany them.

Up next: Teleworking tools
Coming soon: Distractions, staying sane, online training.