Targetting Your Investment in Agile

  • 01 Jul, 2014

The Agile Fluency Model Explained

I recently had the great privilege of attending a two-day Product Owners’ Survival Camp in London, organized by Gojko Adjic, Dave Evans, Christian Hassa and Chris Matts. Other camps are planned around Europe – if you get the chance I highly recommend it. Contact Neuri Consulting (1) for more information.

Over lunch on the first day I was talking to Christian Hassa about the issues many of Emerald Hill’s clients were facing – especially those I described as taking their “second wind” in Agile – and he asked me if I had seen James Shore and Diana Larsen’s Agile Fluency Model (2). I hadn’t. But I have now, and what an eye-opener it is!


First, let’s park one possible misconception. What James and Diana have presented is not (another!) “Agile Maturity Model”. The point is not to badge Agile teams with one level of maturity – or indeed immaturity - or another, but to provide a guide to teams and organizations about where are with the Agile approach, where they want to be, and what are the trade-offs of costs and benefits that have to be considered in meeting their targets. For consultants like ourselves, and for training organizations, it helps focus our efforts with our clients in helping them overcome any impediments they are facing. If you browse the Emerald Hill website (3) you’ll see that we are already reorganising our services and marketing them along the lines of the Agile Fluency Model.

Fluency is measured by what teams do when under pressure. It’s what their “muscle memory” is. Fluency is not gained by merely knowing certain techniques, but by practising them intensively over time.

As you can see from the figure below, the Model uses a star system that goes from 1-star rising to 4-stars. James Shore has described a 1-star Team as one that is using the fundamentals  of Agile. From the perspective of Scrum that would mean that the mandatory rules of Scrum are in place and are being operated.  Then again, it might be that Kanban is being used, for example, if the team is not a Scrum Team. The test of whether a team is at least at the 1-star level is whether they have changed team culture to the point that they are business value-driven in their process, and can change direction when needed. It typically takes a team from between 2-6 months of practicing their chosen Agile approach to become a 1-star team.

1-Star and 2-Star Teams: Changing the Team

Sustainability  in Agile requires 2-star Teams. Big investment in skills is needed for teams to be 2-star teams. Test-Driven Development, Acceptance-Test Driven Development and Continuous Integration are typical practices. The common theme is that these are the kinds of skills that eliminate the drag of technical debt, allowing the team to be truly responsive to change. 2-star teams typically identify impediments, dysfunctions and issues early, and are quick to remove them. They are characterised by an ability to ship on “market cadence” – i.e., to deliver value as soon as the market is ready to accept it: the ability to ship at will.

The model’s authors point out that many organizations will be satisfied at achieving 2-stars. Shore has since commented that most large, bureaucratic organizations – the kind that have heavyweight managerial cultures and IT that is predominantly legacy – will probably be unable to go further (4). But even getting to 2-star demands a price. The kind of intensive skills training required, together with the task of eliminating the previously accumulated technical debt will almost certainly cause a drop in the team’s productivity while they are upskilling. How fast they can become a 2-star team depends on the existing level of technical debt, but it can take a further 3 months to two years of training, mentoring and, above all, intensive practice before the necessary muscle memory is acquired.


3-Star and 4-Star Teams: Changing the Organization

Shore describes 3-stars as the level of “ Agile’s promise ”. In a rather damning aside he has stated that Agile promises 3-stars, but more often than not, has delivered only 1-star teams (4).  3-star teams are characterized by the level of business domain expertise that is embedded in the team itself. They deliver higher value than other Agile teams and make better, business value-driven decisions about the product. In retrospect many of the practices we were discussing at the Product Owners’ Survival Camp are of the kind that would be routine for 3-star teams. Chris Matts’ Feature Injection (5) is an approach that helps teams “hunt the real value”, for example, while Gojko Adzic’s Impact Mapping (6) allows the team to test assumptions in the business case for the product by shaping and releasing Minimal Viable Products that can provide quantifiable feedback with concrete business metrics. Such teams are equipped to be vastly more responsive to changing market conditions and business priorities than 1-star or 2-star teams.

Only about 1 in 20 Agile teams are thought to be at this level (45% of teams are 1-star and 35% are 2-star), and it might take a team an additional 1 year to 5 years to reach it (if indeed that is the target it has set itself). The issue is that structural changes in the wider organization are needed for this to happen, and this always engenders some level of resistance. How quickly a team might move to 3-stars depends on how willing the organization is to remove the impediments in its way, as much as it does on the team establishing new practices as part of its daily routine. Most of the teams currently at this level are in relatively small, entrepreneurial organizations.

If 3-star is the (largely unfulfilled) promise of Agile then 4-star is largely  aspirational . It represents a potential future for the Agile Model and there are only a handful of teams at this level right now. 4-star teams are peer-decision makers with the entire organization as to how to deliver business value. You might say that they are applying “Agile Enterprise Architecture” in full partnership with everyone else in the wider organization. Most of the teams at this level are in small, single Team organizations, although Shore (4) has suggested that Semco, the Brazilian manufacturers; the US games company Valve; G.L. Gore, the makers of GoreTex and GitHub are potential hosts of 4-star teams. Nevertheless, there is not enough experience in the industry yet to say how a team might get from 3-star to 4-star or how long it might take.

Most 3-star teams will not even aspire to the 4-star level and this is the beauty of the Agile Fluency Model. It is not promoting an “OK, better, best” scale that managements will use to whip their software development teams with. Perhaps 15% of Agile teams are not even 1-star teams yet (maybe they have just started their Agile journey) and they should certainly seek improvement. But, beyond that, every level is the right level for some teams. My guess is that most will aspire to at least 2-stars, and the Model shows what the investment focus should be, and what the costs that will likely need to be paid to get there. It also demonstrates very clearly, that 3-star and 4-star teams cannot be grown without significant structural and cultural change in the wider organization which in turn often implies a change in management’s mind-set – even if it was management which initiated Agile adoption in the first place.



(1)   Neuri Consulting LLP.

(2)   J. Shore and D.Larsen. 2012 “Your Path Through Agile Fluency”.


(4)   J. Shore. 2013. “Your Path to Agile Fluency” NDC Conference presentation.

(5)   C. Matts and G. Adzic 2011 “Feature Injection: 3 Steps to Success” www.infoq/feature-injection-success

(6)   G. Adzic. 2013. Impact Mapping. Making a Big Impact with Software Products and Projects. Provoking Thoughts Limited

By A O'CALLAGHAN 13 Nov, 2017

How can you assess the progress of your Agility in your organization?

Agile has apparently ‘crossed the chasm’. Its early adopters have achieved sufficient momentum to ensure its entry into the mainstream of software and IT development, if not product development in general. In fact, one estimate is that currently between 12 and 15 million people use Scrum daily. And yet a keynote speaker at the recent Global Scrum Gathering in Dublin claimed that Agile is failing, providing as supporting evidence a straw poll of attendees that showed only a small minority thought they were reaping the full benefits of agility.

I have no issue with the idea that many organizations who have adopted agile are disappointed with the results so far. We’ll come back to that a little later. But the statement that Agile has failed begs two questions. First, who put a time limit on Agile’s pathway? Secondly, and much more importantly, what is meant by ‘the full benefits’?

Agility Fluency v ‘Maturity’ Models

My point is that Agile is not an end in itself, but a means to an end: the more effective delivery of business outcomes. And these goals are highly situational. They vary from organization to organization, and even between different departments in the same organization. The ‘full benefit’ is not some absolute standard that everyone should aspire to, but something that is completely qualified by the business goals that are being set for Agile teams.

The question ‘”How Agile are we?’” is the wrong question. It raised the spectre of ‘maturity’ models that really are ghosts that should have been banished a long time ago. Instead of Agile ‘maturity’, we should be thinking in terms of Agile fluency. Fluency is what your teams do when under pressure – the ‘muscle memory’ with which they react instinctively, without too much thinking. And the kind of fluency your teams should aspire to is determined by the goals of the organization.

An analogy might help here. I’m learning French. I need to be fluent enough to be able to converse and socialize with my neighbours in Nouvelle Aquitaine where I have a home. That is a completely different type of fluency from what someone would need for a weekend trip to Paris. Yet another kind of fluency would be needed for someone wanting to, say, teach a technical training course to French-speaking students.

James Shore and Diana Larsen’s Agile FluencyTM Model is a simple but powerful tool that helps organizations identify what kind of fluency their Agile teams need. There are four fluency ‘zones’ in the model: Focus on Value ; Deliver Value ; Optimize Value ; and Optimize Systems . At the risk of mixing metaphors, we can think of choosing a zone like we are buying a ticket on a city bus. Depending on where you want to get to, you buy a more or less expensive ticket to the zone that includes your end destination. Different types of Agile Fluency imply different levels of investment (training, coaching, tools etc.) and different benefits. The model gives you guidance in making these cost/benefit tradeoffs in your Agile investment plan.

Agile FluencyTM Diagnostics

The model is supported by the Agile FluencyTM Diagnostic tools. A trained facilitator works with management to understand its goals, and what achieving them would look like. These are then mapped to the appropriate fluency zone. The facilitator runs workshops with each of the Agile teams, collates the results and feeds back the curated, and anonymized, results to management, making recommendations for an investment plan. The idea is to provide a mirror for the teams to reflect on their progress, and identify the top two or three things that management can do to help them. These guided self-assessments can be repeated on a quarterly or six-monthly basis as part of an overall continuous improvement effort.

To sum up. Agile development is a means for the effective delivery of business value. Its progress can only be measured against the business goals it is being employed to achieve. For organizations feeling disappointed about what Agile has delivered for them this far, the way forward is to invest in the growth of their Agile teams. The Agile FluencyTM Model is just one tool, but a very useful one, that can be used to identify what kind of investment is needed, and what kinds of benefit to expect as a result.

By A O'CALLAGHAN 06 Jun, 2017

The eleventh  State of Agile survey  has just been published by VersionOne. These reports are invaluable in helping agile practitioners understand where their practices, problems and challenges fit the context of the wider world.

As with all VersionOne’s previous reports, the eleventh survey paints a picture of the onward march of agile. Its progress is rarely in a straight line, however, and this latest survey has revealed a very interesting contradiction.

Increased Focus on Business Value?

When respondents were asked how the success of agile initiatives were measured, the second ranked answer after “on-time delivery” was “business value.” In the previous report, “business value” was the fourth-ranked answer. This time, some 46 percent of respondents chose it ahead of “customer/user satisfaction” (44 percent), “product quality” (42percent) and “product scope” (40 percent). No other answer was given by more than a quarter of respondents.

By A O'CALLAGHAN 25 Apr, 2017

The definition of done (DoD) is one of the most important and least-understood elements of the Scrum Framework. It is specifically called out in “ The Scrum Guide ” in what is probably its biggest section, and yet, I’ve seen so-called ‘definitions’ of Scrum that fail to mention it at all.

In this post, we’ll be talking about why, exactly, the DoD is so important.

DoD Explained

So, what is the definition of done? Fundamentally, it is the Scrum team’s agreement about the standard of quality that it will apply across the product. This concept is closely related to that of the Potentially Shippable Increment that must be created at the end of each and every sprint. The two words in that phrase that the DoD concerns are “potentially” and “increment."

While all agile approaches – Scrum included – aspire to “deliver early and deliver often,” this does not mean that a product must be handed over to the customer at the end of every sprint. Whether enough  useful  value has been accumulated to warrant a product’s release is a business decision, and one that is the product owner’s responsibility to make. 


By A O'CALLAGHAN 24 Mar, 2017

Governance seems to be one of those frightening words that threatens to stop an Agile transformation effort dead in its tracks. I’ve been hearing it whispered, and even screamed once or twice, quite a lot recently. There’s no big surprise here. As the big corporations and Government agencies get increasingly fascinated by frameworks like Scrum, they are mandating their IT departments to “Go agile” and then, sooner or later…governance!

Types of Governance

There is operational governance represented in the defined processes that organizations and teams are expected to follow when software is in production. There is project management governance, perhaps dictated by PRINCE2 or similar, while the product is in development. PRINCE, by the way, is an acronym standing for ‘PRojects In a Controlled Environment’.

Project management governance is often a subset of a wider IT governance. According to the TOGAF version 9.1 , IT governance supposedly provides the framework and structure that links IT resources and information to enterprise goals and strategies. “IT governance institutionalizes best practices for planning, acquiring, implementing and monitoring IT performance…” Standards like COBIT, which stands for Control OBjectives for Information and related Technology, might be in place. And then, of course, there is a range of issues to do with compliance to the requirements of external regulators in all public bodies, as well as commercial institutions in sectors such as insurance and banking. So, is this a case of an irresistible force (Agile) meeting an unmovable object (governance)?

Published on 23/3/17 on Learning Tree page. 


By A O'CALLAGHAN 20 Mar, 2017

“We need to get better at estimating,” an experienced member of a Scrum development team once told me. “Management is getting concerned that we keep coming up short on our commitment.”

“Really?” I responded. “What have you been committing to?”

“Thirty story points” she said. “We get there about 50% of the time. In a couple of recent sprints, we’ve even exceeded thirty points, but the last sprint marked the third time this quarter that we fell short of our target.”

“Why was your forecast off target, do you think?” I asked.

“Well, things come out of left field occasionally. You know, stuff that couldn’t be anticipated in sprint planning,” she answered.

“So, why are you estimating effort if you can’t predict what will happen in the sprint?” I said.

Now, at this point I want to make clear that I am not one of those who say that development teams should not estimate effort. For me, the ability to estimate independently is an important part of the autonomy of teams. What I was trying to do in this particular conversation was to get the team member to consider why teams estimate in the first place, and what “commitment” means in that context.

It is not just a matter of those doing the work being the only ones who are able to estimate effort, which I believe to be true. I recently participated in a large multi-team project of effort being estimated by a centralized systems analysis unit. In that project, the development teams were involved in estimating, but it was the systems analysts’ forecast that was being communicated to the customer. The result was massively inflated customer expectations, and retrospection revealed that the teams’ estimates were about four to five times larger—and thus far more accurate--than those of the analysts.


By A O'CALLAGHAN 01 Mar, 2017

“Ready? Steady! Go!”. That phrase echoes from my youth. I used to twitch waiting for the starter to shout that phrase at the beginning of the 800m races I ran, representing my school. It was also the title of a ground-breaking pop music show which caused me to fall in love with Dusty Springfield, Sandy Shaw and every other female singer who appeared (I was a very impressionable teenager). It resonates today for me in Scrum.

When Development teams pull Product Backlog Items (PBIs), or user stories, from the Product Backlog into a Sprint they need to be ready to hit the ground running immediately after the Sprint Planning meeting. For that to happen the PBIs must be in a state that allows them to do that.


By A O'CALLAGHAN 21 Feb, 2017

The pushmi-pullyu (pronounced “push me-pull you”) is a fictional creature in “ The Story of Doctor Dolittle ,” which is described as a cross between a gazelle and a unicorn.

Recently, I was talking with a fellow software professional about some issues he was having implementing Kanban, and the pushmi-pullyu came to mind. Allow me to explain why.

Kanban’s Popularity

Kanban is the most popular agile approach after Scrum, according to the most recently published  State of Agile Survey . Scrum is, of course, massively dominant.

Only 5 percent of respondents described their teams as Kanban teams, while three-quarters used either Scrum, a Scrum hybrid or Scrumban. However, when asked what techniques they used, nearly four in every 10 teams said that they use Kanban boards.

This is might be an exaggerated figure since, in my experience, many people confuse Kanban boards with Scrum boards. They look similar, but have very different purposes.

While a Kanban board maps a value stream for the lifetime of the product, a Scrum board is a visualization of a sprint backlog, and is reset at the beginning of every new sprint.

Additionally, the Scrum board is owned by a single Scrum development team, while Kanban is agnostic about who owns the board. These differences turned out to be at the heart of the issue that my colleague raised with me.


By A O'CALLAGHAN 16 Feb, 2017

“What is the difference between an up-front requirements document and a fish?” said Gollum, hoping to catch the Hobbit out with his riddle. But Bilbo Baggins, though a Halfling, was an experienced Agilist. He knew the answer. “A fish rots from the head down, “ he said, “but a requirements documents rots from the bottom up”. “Curses!”, screamed Gollum, “You cheats us”. But Bilbo wasn’t cheating. He was just drawing on experience.

Detailing all of the requirements out up front is a colossal waste of effort in the development of software products. The average churn after the document has been signed off is said to be about 35%, although most software professionals when I ask them to give an estimate, tend to give me a much higher figure . In any case the point is, that by the time the requirement is reached, there’s a good chance it will have either significantly changed or disappeared completely from the To-Do list. The effort spent in eliciting needs, analysing them and documenting the system requirements that meets those needs has been wasted. That in turn entails a cost: the salaries of the professionals involved for a start. And now at least part of that effort and cost has to be spent again in understanding the new situation.

Read more here

By A O'CALLAGHAN 13 Feb, 2017

(Originally posted 2014)

I have recently been reading The 7th Annual State of Agile Survey (1). It has some interesting statistics. Not surprisingly, Scrum is still the dominant approach in Agile projects by a country mile. 54% of respondents use Scrum and another 11% use a Scrum/XP hybrid. The named approach with the highest reported penetration after that is Scrumban with just 7% of 'the market'. The results concerning the role of the Product Owner were much more concerning, only 51% of respondents reported that they have a dedicated Product Owner and, most worryingly of all, Product Owners are listed at the bottom of those who are most knowledgeable about Agile in their companies (only 1% of respondents chose the Product Owner).

These figures just don't add up. The Product Owner function is one of the three key roles in Scrum. You cannot truly be using the Scrum framework if there is no Product Owner in your Scrum Team, and you certainly will not be as high performing as you can be if the Product Owner does not understand Agile (let alone Scrum). So what's the problem?


Ensuring the Value of the Product

Perhaps a clue to at least part of the explanation can be found in a comment made to me recently, "The Product Owner is a kind of a waiter, yes?". For the commentator - at a client's site - the customer raises requirements just like the customer in a cafe or a restaurant. The development team, like the kitchen staff, create the solution. The Product Owner is, like the waiter, a go-between who informs the kitchen (development team) of the order and then delivers the meal (product) to the customer's table. If that was all the Product Owner had to do then there might be a good reason for either having no-one in the job at all, or rebadging some existing function (a Business Analyst, perhaps) without developing in them any special skills or knowledge about Agile.

But in Scrum, the Product Owner is responsible for the Return on Investment (ROI) in the product, and the Total Cost of its Ownership (TCO). She has to ensure the value of the product to the customer, and the value of the work done by the development team. This is a heavy responsibility: Ken Schwaber once described the Product Owner as "the one wringable neck" in the Scrum Team (2).

For sure, when the customer is not directly accessible by the developers, the Product Owner acts as a customer proxy, but to play even that aspect of the role properly requires the Product Owner to be proactive in creating an intensive collaboration with the customer to understand their Business Value Model. This is so that the relative value of the different features being requested can be understood and communicated to the developers.


Ordering Product Backlog Items vs ‘Prioritising’ Them

Many organisations understand that at least, but there is an even deeper aspect to the role of the Product Owner that has not been grasped so well. When Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland revised The Scrum Guide in October 2011 (3) they removed the references to 'prioritisation' in relation to Product Backlog Items (PBIs) and the Product Owner's responsibility for them. In too many projects this had been interpreted as the Product Owner categorising PBIs by value ('High, Medium, Low or using MoSCoW rules or something similar) and then leaving it up to the Development Team to decide what the build order of the PBIs should be in any given iteration or release. The Guide now talks about the Product Owner's responsibility for ordering the PBIs in the Product Backlog 'top to bottom'.


What is the significance of this change? Of course, the Product Owner is still seeking to get higher valued features delivered earlier than lower value ones. This typically will involve some categorisation of PBIs by value. But the Product Owner also has to take on, amongst other things, the push back from the Development Team about technical dependencies between those features, and from other stakeholders, such as System Architects, who might be pointing out some architectural issues, especially in legacy systems. Another consideration is that what the customer will expect to be seeing in any Sprint Review is not a collection of discrete "done" elements, but a small and skinny version of the product as a whole to which more 'flesh' can be added in later iterations. Any one of these concerns could lead to lower value features being bundled together with higher value ones in any given Sprint Goal.


Intense Collaboration

The point is that the intense collaboration that goes on between the customer and the Product Owner is married with an equally intense collaboration between the Product Owner and the Development Team. The Product Owner is right at the centre of some of the key relationships that make the whole thing work. It is a hugely demanding role, and one which is strategically important to the success of any Scrum-driven project.

The intensity of the collaborations does not diminish, by the way, as the project progresses. The Product Backlog is not ordered top-to-bottom once and then left alone. The weight of any of the factors that led to the initial decisions can change, and other unforeseen ones emerge, as the Scrum Team surfaces new information through the development process itself. The ordering of the Product Backlog is therefore being constantly revisited, and constantly changed as the Team, and the project's stakeholders, learn more. But remember, only the Product Owner has the authority to make those changes to the Product Backlog.

The Importance of the Product Owner

If you think about it, the ordering of the Product Backlog in Scrum is the equivalent of the 'critical path' in traditional, plan-driven management of software projects. Project Managers in those projects spend time and effort sequencing activities in such a way that the dependencies between them lead to the shortest possible sequence - the critical path. This in turn determines the ordering of the work by the developers and the scheduling of other resources. In Scrum the Development Team is cross-functional, self-organising and self-managing. No-one can tell it how to do its work. The need for managing sequences based on different activities carried out by different specialists in those activities is gone. Instead the developers self-organise around the order of the PBIs in the Product Backlog by carving out a Sprint Goal from the top that is within their capacity for development in a single Sprint. And the Product Owner 'owns' the Product Backlog. That's why the Product Owner role is so important.

It is also the Product Owner who determines when enough value has accumulated in the product for it to be released, and the Product Owner who, alone in a Scrum Team, has the authority to cancel a Sprint for whatever reason. In addition, of course, it is the Product Owner who forms an agreement about the quality standards of the project with the developers in the shape of the Definition of Done

Now, what waiter tells the kitchen when there's enough of a meal on the plate for it to be served? Or negotiates with the chef and the cooks about the quality standards of the food? In what restaurant does the waiter dictate the order in which the food items will be created?

We will talk more about the role of the Product Owner and the Product Backlog in future articles, but hopefully even in this short space we have established that the Product Owner function is one that deserves respect and attention. Product Owners in Agile teams need the authority and responsibility to do the job properly, and that means their skills have to be developed - through training, coaching, mentoring and experience - to the appropriate level. Organisations that ignore or neglect the role of the Product Owner are just storing up problems for themselves in the future.


Emerald Hill Limited



(1) 7th Annual State of Agile Development Survey. VersionOne. . 2013

(2) Schwaber,K. The Enterprise and Scrum. Microsoft Press. 2007

(3) Schwaber K., and J. Sutherland. The Scrum Guide. . October, 2011

By A O'CALLAGHAN 09 Feb, 2017

You might not have noticed, but  The Scrum Guide  was updated recently (July 2016) for the first time in three years. The changes aren’t big in terms of word count, but they are significant. So I decided I needed to update my own description (1, 2) of the Guide’s evolution.

Cumulative Flow Diagrams

Let’s deal with the smallest change first. Cumulative Flow diagrams (CFDs) have been added to the list of example ‘information radiators’ that a Scrum team might use to track its progress towards its Sprint Goal. CFDs are associated popularly with Kanban – though I think they started life in Feature Driven Development – so it might be a bit of a surprise to some to see them mentioned alongside burndown charts and task boards. Don’t worry though, it is just that – a mention. You don’t have to use any specific charts or diagrams to use Scrum, so there’s nothing fundamental being indicated here.

Scrum Values

The big change is a paragraph that reintroduces the five values of Scrum. They’ve been around since 2002 at least when they were described in a book by Ken Schwaber and Mike Beedle (3). They’ve never really gone away. Although they have not previously been mentioned in  The Scrum Guide  they have always been included in the curriculum for the Scrum Alliance’s Certified Scrum Master and Certified Scrum Product Owner courses, for example.


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