Fail Fast

One time, I was asked to work in a project in an mixed role as Scrum master and requirements engineer. Many people will snub their noses at such an arrangement, and often with good reason. Mixed roles are not well received in the agile world, but for me this is right up my alley. I have a very broad set of interests and skills, and I like situations enabling me to bring as much of that skill set into play as possible.

But when I started to work at the place, I soon hit a major road block. Agility, as I understand it, wasn’t required or indeed welcome there at all.

How did I know? Well, they told me, and they didn’t beat around the bush either. “Agile is chaos,” one project manager let me know, “we don’t want that here.”

“We’ve hat bad experiences with agile work. That one team we tried it with just went about their own ways, and the end result wasn’t what we expected,” said another.

So you failed once. Not a big deal, considering that according to some sources 70% of classically managed software projects fail. Try again, fail again. Fail faster. (BTW, did you notice how this business often feels like phrasemongering? That’s because you need to repeat a few central ideas over and over, until the concept sticks in the brains of your teams. If you are starting agile work and do nothing else, choose a few crucial phrases well, try to understand the concepts behind them and stick with it.)

Of course, it wasn’t over with those blanket statements. In the course of the work, we stumbled every time the team was supposed to make a decision for itself, even small ones, like deciding on the time of day they want to have their daily. It was to be at 9 AM, come hell or high water, no input from the team required.

Why is that important? The framers of the agile manifesto had a crucial insight: People want to be helpful. They are motivated, if they feel trust and empowerment. “Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.” I don’t know a more effective motivation killer than micromanagement, especially when working with highly qualified individuals.

And it doesn’t help if you put your team in a double bind. “These are the sprint goals, which I’ve presented to the team, and now get to work. No, don’t waste time discussing if these goals make sense at this point, or whether the goals are indeed reachable. We need to reach them, or the project won’t be done in time.”

If a thing cannot be done with the given resources, it cannot be done. Wishful thinking won’t help, and neither will additional pressure, at least not in the long run. What will help, is listening to your team. After all, it consists of highly qualified individuals you chose for the job because you thought they could do it. So why not listen to them? And you can only listen, if you give the team the room to talk. Demos, plannings and retros are the space for exactly that. There is always something to learn from them. The Scrum framework even gives you guidelines for how much time you should allow for these events each sprint.

Look, the thing is: You don’t have to do agile, if you don’t want to, much less Scrum, which can be a bit of a challenge for people who have no experience with the method at all. It’s not a law, and there are other frameworks available. In fact, don’t do it if you’re not fully committed to it, or you will end up with zombie scrum. You know, because a zombie somewhat looks like a human, but inside it’s all dead and it stinks.

Anyway, how do you deal with it if you find yourself in a similar situation? Here’s what I tried:

– Educate: Explain the advantages of agile work. Also, make the limits transparent. Agile is all about discipline in the right places, so that the team can have the freedom it needs where it counts. Don’t let a team wander off into the wilderness. Demand progress, and demand the progress to be shown. Sprint reviews are important, and so are retros. It may sound like a huge waste of time in the beginning, but the benefits will become evident if and when the team forms a habit of constant inspection and adaptation.

– Also important is strict time boxing. There is a reason why scrum will only allow 15 minutes for a daily. The purpose of a daily is not to report to the manager, and also not to solve problems. It is to identify the problems and assign them to people who are able to solve them. This will indeed work better if the time is limited.

The same ist true for the length of a sprint and the time any story is in the works. If you cannot get your stories finished in time, you might actually be better off using Kanban and focus on a limited number of items of which you have a very clear idea how long they can stay in the works. Put first things first, and the first thing to focus on in a team that doesn’t want to do agile is to make sure things are actually getting done.

– If all of this is not enough, try to find allies. This is actually a good idea in any case, but it get crucial if the resistance is too strong for one person. Your allies don’t have to be in upper management – in fact I’d rather they weren’t, agile is nothing you can impose top down – but if your conflict is mainly with a manager, you can work around them sometimes. If it’s just one or two team members, they can sometimes be swept off their feet and carried along by the developing dynamics.

In my case, that also didn’t work. The situation got worse week after week. I never got criticised for any mistakes I made, but for the things I did well and right. I could have given up on my role as Scrum master and just written up requirements for the rest of the duration, but that wasn’t what I was taken on for in the first place. So when, after two months, I was given a way out, I took it. After all, “fail fast” is another one of the driving principles of the agile approach.

How would you deal with such a situation? Help me learn an let me know in the comments.

Something’s Got to Give

I talked to a few refugees in German class today. Hardly surpriningy, what they wish for most, is to get in a car or on a train and go home. Of course, that option is not open for any of them.

And then, there are people like that woman I saw on TV the other day who had nothing better to say than, “how about they all just stay at home?” As if they could! How can people be so callused?

Yes, I know, we all have our own cross to carry. Believe me, I know that better than many. And yet, for some of us, the world is a much, much harder place to live in than for others. And everybody can do something.

Even if it is just to read the news and generally educate about how things are, and not let yourself be taken in by con-men and rabble-rousers.

Please, Europe! Get your act together and get to work!

My Personal Viennale ’13 Programme

For those of you who don’t know, Vienna is host to a very good annual film festival, Viennale, which usually takes place in late October and early November. Last year, and the year before, I couldn’t go for various reasons. This year, however, I have plenty of time and, for the first time, am able to catch a few productions only shown during day time. I’m in a habit of steering clear of the big international productions which I can see later in theatres anyway; instead I prefer the rare gems and documentary features which I can rarely see at all otherwise.

This is my personal programme for 2013. If you would like to meet up, feel free to contact me on twitter, facebook, or via mail at squadrat @ this domain (

27.10.2013 16:00 – The Act of Killing
27.10.2013 19:30 – At Berkeley

28.10.2013 15:30 – Le Cousin Jules
28.10.2013 18:30 – Sickfuckpeople

29.10.2013 13:00 – The Dirties
29.10.2013 20:30 – Joe

01.11.2013 21:00 – Death Row II (Teil 1+2)
01.11.2013 23:30 – Death Row II (Teil 3+4)

03.11.2013 16:30 – Gerontophilia
03.11.2013 21:00 – Medeas
03.11.2013 23:30 – 12 O’Clock Boys

Hear Me Sing

Last night I went to choir practice for the first time in over a year. Mentioning the fact on twitter naturally led to the question what we do, so I went on youtube to see if they had a few examples of the music we like. Turns out they had, and not just of the music, but also of us performing.

A word of caution: These are random recordings that don’t show us at our best; although I really don’t think youtube is right to link to Jimmy’s Infantile Spasms in the related videos column.

In 2009, a few of us went to Milan to take part in a festival called Politicanto. It was great fun and we met a lot of wonderful people there.

In Vienna, every Friday the 13th is celebrated in it’s own unique way. It’s about having fun, but it’s also a political statement, taking back the public space and making parts of society visible that tends to stay hidden.

My Trip to Berlin

I spent the days between Christmas and the New Year in Berlin. The weather was horrible, so I stayed indoors most of the time. That gave me ample opportunity to play with the new camera I got for Christmas in an environment with which I’m as yet totally unfamiliar.

U-Bahnhof Wittenbergplatz
Who would have thought London Transport would have a station in Berlin.
Haus des Lehrers
Haus des Lehrers (Teacher’s House) in Berlin, Alexanderplatz. A good example of GDR post-war architecture, the house was built as a replacement for the earlier Lehrervereinshaus.

Hello, Mr Crab.
Can you see it?
Are you watching me?
Just because I look like a leaf doesn’t mean I have no feelings!


Vienna by Night, part two

Vienna Opera House (Detail)
Vienna Opera House (Detail)
The Michaelertor is the "backdoor" of the Hofburg, the former residence of the emperor.
The Michaelertor is the “backdoor” of the Hofburg, the former residence of the emperor.
The Michaelertor is accompanied by two fountains. This is the one nearer Augustinerstraße.
The Michaelertor is accompanied by two fountains. This is the one nearer Augustinerstraße.
The Looshaus, constructed in 1909 by architect Adolf Loos, is one of the beacons of the Wiener Moderne, or Viennese Modern Age.
The Looshaus, constructed in 1909 by architect Adolf Loos, is one of the beacons of the Wiener Moderne, or Viennese Modern Age.


Vienna by night, part one

Now that it is getting dark earlier and earlier, I figured I could shoot a few pictures of Vienna by night. I plan to do a few more of these sessions, especially because I love this light and the wonderful contrasts. And it’s an additional benefit that, with an exposure of several seconds, you cannot see people walking through the picture.

Zanoni – Arguably Vienna’s second best ice cream parlour. Open all year, and they do really speak Italian.
Lugeck. The statue is Emperor Friedrich III, the one who still baffles the nation with his unexplained acronym AEIOU.
Jesuit Church
The two towers of the Jesuit Church from behind. If I’ve got it right, the bright star in between is the planet Jupiter.
Old University
The same church, front view. It
Schönlaterngasse, where they had a basilisk in 1212.
In my opinion, the Haas-Haus, facing Stephansdom, is grossly underappreciated. This picture shows the Haas-Haus from a rather unusual angle.
The Ankeruhr has its name from the insurance company (Anker, now Helvetica) whose building it belongs to. Every hour it shows a different historical character. The person shown is Johann Andreas von Liebenberg. He was mayor of Vienna and died during the 1683 Battle of Vienna. By the way, it’s 8:38.