In the Scottish Digital Academy (the Academy) one of our key aims is to support teams and organisations through our training and coaching services to help them transform the way they run their services and embed agile, user focused ways of working to be more responsive to the complex challenges we all face.
VisitScotland (previously Scottish Tourism Board) is the national tourism organisation for Scotland whose goal is to attract visitors through advertising and promotional campaigns.
Despite having practiced agile methods, especially scrum, for years, the management team felt that they were not enjoying the full benefits – “agile isn’t ‘working’”. So they approached the the Academy and throughout 2022, we held regular discussions.
They were keen for help with coaching the organisation around working with agile teams, direct team coaching and helping them build their own internal coaching capability.
In December 2022, we started working with two teams working on VisitScotland’s websites: the VisitScotland.com team on the tourist-facing website and the VisitScotland.org team, targeted at the tourism industry.
An initial one-day workshop with both teams at Ocean Point in Leith focused on reintroducing the teams to the ideas and concepts of agile, the values and principles of agile working and the scrum framework. On the second day, our face-to-face session with the VisitScotland.com team looked more closely at their ways of working.
It quickly became apparent that both teams were enthusiastic and keen to learn or refresh their knowledge and, to paraphrase Norm Kerth, everyone was doing the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.
Understanding the problem
Our agile coaches immediately settled into the rhythms of both teams, attending their regular sprint planning and reviews along with their daily stand-ups and estimation sessions.
We soon realised that, despite their enthusiasm, the teams often lacked understanding of why we use agile ways of working and the intent of the things we use to promote agile thinking like why we plan and do stand-ups. There was also an over-reliance on processes to allocate work.
Being not doing
The teams spent a lot of time doing agile but not being agile.
Team organisation and collaborative working wasn’t working as expected, work was being allocated rather than managed by the teams themselves. There was a lack of understanding about how to use user stories, functional and non-functional requirements and acceptance criteria. Both teams struggled with estimation and backlog refinement and, over time, the teams’ understanding of scrum and roles and responsibilities, events and artefacts had changed.
In effect, the teams had lost sight of the intent behind these things and were concentrating on just doing them. They were doing what they thought made them agile rather than being agile themselves through agile values and principles.
Self-organisation, self-organisation, self-organisation!
We worked hard with the teams to embed the principles of self-organisation and self-management.
The Product Owners of both teams spent too much time allocating work rather than focusing on setting the direction for the team and understanding the needs of the users. By encouraging team members to take more responsibility for the work we entirely changed the way the team operated. This approach led to one Product Owner saying “I […] have handed over ownership of a lot more things to other members of the team, which has helped me manage my own workload and empowered the team”.
Our work increased the confidence of the team members to work collaboratively and autonomously, reflected by the thoughts of one team member: “the [emphasis] on being a self-organising team […] will help empower people to take responsibility for their own work and reach out when they need someone else’s input. This will open up lines of communication and help us to resolve issues a lot faster”.
One of the biggest blockers was the size of the VisitScotland.com team and our first recommendation was to split that team. Fortunately, this had already been recognised internally before we arrived but the split led to more self-organised teams with shared purpose and clear priorities.
Another blocker was how the team used story points to estimate the size of their tasks and backlogs. Our observation revealed that this was causing frustration and misunderstanding. We recommended that the teams should abandon using story points and measure the number of tasks instead. This approach felt profoundly liberating with one team member saying “the realisation that we can adapt the way we work to what works best for us has been very helpful”.
Outcomes not output
The work we did was not always easy and surveys done by the VisitScotland team showed some initial resistance.
We worked intensively with the teams to address their concerns and challenges, to highlight and build upon the good things they were practicing and to mitigate or remove the challenges. We worked closely with the Product Owners to enable them to fully understand their roles and develop their own skills and we worked to improve openness and transparency across the teams, their ways of working and the ways they managed their work.
Our work helped to move the teams into a better space. They can demonstrate self-organisation and collaborative working as a team, are better at articulating their work as user stories with relevant acceptance criteria, not individual tasks, and they are continuing the revised approach to estimation and backlog refinement. We were also able to embed a better understanding and application of the Scrum and roles and responsibilities including the role of the Scrum Master.
We believe the teams will be able to sustain these changes going forward especially since a number of team members are beginning to step into other roles to enhance this transformation.
It is essential teams are able to look hard at the way they do things. As one team member said, the whole coaching experience was “very reflective and great to get an outside opinion on what is working well and what isn’t”.