Why Not DIY Agile

By: Reese Schmit | Jul 27, 2017 |  Agile Coaching,  Agile Transformation,  Article

The amazing thing about the human spirit is that we think we can do anything we set our mind to. The problem is that we don’t always follow up with, “but should we?” Let me tell you a tale of our deck.

Last spring my husband and I set a deadline to redo the deck that leads out to our back yard and subsequently our pool. The deadline: our baby becoming mobile. You see, a deck with unfettered access to a pool is not safe for a tiny human. Unfortunately, the deck we had led right into the pool without barrier, so my husband got to work.

He ordered a few books on deck building from Amazon, read them cover-to-cover, drew up plans in Google Sketch-up, and bam, we were ready to go. We put a project plan together, “hired” a few friends to come help us, and during one insanely hot June week, we built a deck. Sorta.

A DIY deck -- like an Agile transformation, you might need professional helpYou see, we ran into a few snags and almost a year later, that deck isn’t finished. Our solution to the mobile daughter issue? Don’t let her go in the backyard. The front yard is way more fun anyway!! Our solution to the deck? We have a contractor coming next week to fix and finish it.

The Plan

Here’s what our project plan looked like:

DIY deck -- like an agile transformation

Seems straightforward, right?  After day one was finished, we were feeling great. The demo went as expected, at some points even easier! Day two was where it started to fall apart. We live in Southwest Austin. Our soil consists of roughly 4” of dirt then pretty much solid limestone. We had anticipated this and rented a jackhammer. We were so proud of ourselves. However, after spending 30 minutes digging 6 inches down in the first of 25 12” holes, we knew we were about to have to shift the plan.

By Friday afternoon we were all exhausted and rather than a finished two-level deck that butted up to our above-ground pool, we had a frame with some not-so-square beams and joists.

Some things we now know that we didn’t when going into this project:

  1. Digging holes into solid limestone is hard
  2. Keeping your holes in the same spot you had planned them while boring into solid limestone is impossible
  3. If your holes aren’t aligned, your beams won’t be square
  4. If your beams aren’t square, your frame won’t be either
  5. If your frame isn’t square, every joist has to be cut to a different length
  6. Even the thought of cutting 50-ish cedar boards at $35 each into a perfect curve to match the pool is terrifying
  7. Building in 100-degree heat when you are used to an office job is horrible
  8. And finally, we should have hired professionals.

An unfinished DIY deck -- like an Agile transformation, you might need professional help

Great Story But What Does This Have To Do With Agile Transformations?

Agile transformations can go the same way as this deck if you don’t have the right help. We’re not saying you can’t do it yourself, we’re just saying it’s going to be much harder and take a heck of a lot more time, and in the end, you may have to bring in the right help to unwind the changes and get you back on track.

Like building a deck, leading an Agile transformation is not as straightforward as it seems on paper. We can and should read books and attend ScrumMaster training, but that should be done to help prepare yourself and the team not in lieu of experts who have done this before.

“Doing it Wrong” Agile Transformation Red Flags

I’m going to admit something to you. Until I started working here at Agile Velocity I was a DIYer myself. I think I led a few pretty good Agile transformations, but looking back, the Red Flags were EVERYWHERE across those organizations. I’m going to share a few:

You are doing “Scrum-But” and it’s not because you have evolved, it’s how you are surviving.

You never finish a Sprint. Predictability builds trust and drives empowerment. If you constantly say you are going to do a thing and you never do, people stop believing you.

Your teams are silent. They are just a group of adjacent co-workers – not a team.

Muddy or Non-Existent roles. Titles like “ScrumMaster/Business Analysts” or “Project Owner” or “Product Owner/ScrumMaster” are some pretty big clues that there is something going on. Scrum is a really simple framework. It’s an easy set of guides to allow you not to have to think about how to develop work in an Agile manner and just focus on innovation and collaboration.

You don’t take the time to Retrospect. Either you don’t do them at all or you devote so little time to them that they aren’t useful sessions to drive actual improvement.

No Safe-to-fail environment. If you had an idea that would make your team 3x faster, would your boss let you try it? What if it was going to slow you down for at least a sprint and had only a 50% chance of actually working?

Your Agile “Experts” aren’t really experts. Your ScrumMaster may be an amazingly organized servant leader, but if they don’t understand, for example, that conversation is the most important part of estimation, you need some expert guidance.

User Stories = Requirements Documents. You know the Product Owner is supposed to work with the team to flesh out very straightforward, simple user stories right before the team will work on them. This means they don’t need to capture a requirement doc’s worth of information up front, but they just can’t help themselves. All the information is in their head already. They know exactly how they want it built. Why not just lay it all out there? “Sure you can attach your PRD to the JIRA ticket and call it acceptance criteria. That should be way more efficient…” sigh.

Here’s how an Agile coach can help

Unbiased Decisions

Coaches understand. We know that change is hard and that sometimes it just takes another person to say the thing you’ve been saying for years to get them to hear you. Imagine how differently my husband would have reacted to a carpenter questioning if he had made sure that all of the holes for the beams were aligned before he poured the concrete. Having someone who isn’t embedded into your landscape can enable decision making. Having someone with experience can ensure you remain focused on the right path follow it to the end.

They’ve been there.

Chances are Agile Coaches have been almost exactly where you are standing right now or have seen a half dozen situations so similar they can guide you down the right path. Just like the contractor who would have seen smoke when he noticed the second joist needing to be cut to a different length than the first, they’ve seen the warning signs and can help you head off a situation before it becomes a real issue. Having a person on your team can help you navigate through unfamiliar territory with experience guiding your success.

Outside View

It is hard sometimes to look at things without all the baggage of history, emotions, and politics. Even with the best analytical mind, the longer you are immersed in the culture the harder it will be to remain objective and nonpartisan. An Agile Coach will come in with an unspoiled eye and use their experiences to help you wade through the baggage and come out with real solutions.

The other part of this is the challenges of driving a transformation as an employee inside a traditional, hierarchical reporting structure. When the person who needs to adjust their behavior and hear hard truths is the person who is responsible for your quarterly reviews and subsequently your bonus or salary increase, things go unsaid. Hard conversations don’t happen in earnest. On the other hand, when a company hires a consultant to tell them they’re doing it wrong, they tend to listen.

Change is hard

When you introduce a change things get harder. Things slow down and can become chaotic. Following the Satir Change Model, we call this phase “Chaos and Resistance”.

Sound familiar?  Everyone was used to playing by the old rules. Even if it wasn’t the best way, it was the comfortable way. We all knew our role and what we were supposed to do, and now the game has shifted. It’s human to dig in your heels and long for the way things were when you didn’t have to think about it.  Things will slow down while we are all learning how to exist in the new landscape and how to get better.

One of the challenges that can happen if you don’t have someone holding your hand, encouraging you to stay the course and see it out is what we call the Death Spiral of Change. It’s where you make a change and a short time in you think: “This isn’t working. We’re not going faster. Things are harder. Let’s try something else.” So you try something else, only give it a minute to bake in, then that doesn’t work, try something else, rinse and repeat until you are deep into the pit.

Death Spiral of Change for an Agile Transformation

A coach will take that experience we talked about before, and make sure that drop is as short and the valley as thin as possible. You will make mistakes. You have to. That’s how you really learn. But they don’t need to be month- or year-long mistakes. We’ll get you to a better status quo faster and on to your next improvement driving change.

Path to Agility for Agile Transformation

ScrumMaster vs Agile Coach

So why not just have my ScrumMasters doing this?  First of all, a ScrumMaster is not an Agile Coach. A ScrumMaster with many years of experience can become an Agile Coach, but they are generally not there yet. Like the Japanese stages of learning to mastery, Shu Ha Ri, they are still likely in the Shu stage. An easy way to remember to translate the three stages of Shu Ha Ri is “Imitate, Integrate, Innovate”. Shu is Imitate. This is where a ScrumMaster is purely doing things “by the book” with very little gray area. They don’t have enough of the underlying understanding of the “why” behind the mechanics of Scrum to truly help solve issues that come up that live outside the happy path.

Your ScrumMaster should be the champion for your team. In any given day they play the role of teacher, mentor, coach, facilitator, or even barista for the team. In most cases, that makes it extremely hard to focus on the bigger picture. Seeing the forest for the trees if you will. And that’s ok. That’s what they should be doing. An Agile Coach will be able to come in and see things from a different point of view–the organization as a whole. They have the experience working with numerous teams and aligning the entire value stream.


You can absolutely transform a company by yourself with internal players. I’ve been that employee in that company. In fact, we did a pretty darn good job. We started off strong, and it took a few years to really get humming, but my inexperience and embeddedness led to concessions and roadblocks. We did some things right, and we did some things really wrong. If I had had a coach to help align the organization and provide the expertise, we would have gotten there so much faster, and probably would have been able to drive a truly Agile organization, not just a company that did Scrum.

Just like my deck, if we had had someone telling us that if you are cutting every joist to a different length, each one getting progressively shorter, then the beam is crooked. We would have saved a ton of time and money. Having a person who knows and does this stuff on a daily basis, whose entire focus is your transformation, will save you more time and money than you can forecast. More importantly in all this is that you need someone to teach you how to build the next deck by yourself. And that is a unique skill all to itself. Not just someone that can do the job, but also teach others.

For more on our approach to building lasting business agility, you can check out our Transformation Services page.


2 Responses to “Why Not DIY Agile”

  1. Dana V. Baldwin

    Thank you. This was very timely for me as my next assignment will be a purely coaching role where I tend to play a hybrid SM/Coach Role. The red flags I can use as a quick checklist and I can put that to use day 1!

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