Watch out for Smells It may be Limburger Cheese but …

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As an Agile Coach or Scrum Master, a critical part of your job is to keep an eye or nose open for smells. A smell is an indication that something May be wrong. Everything may be ok, but then again, maybe not. 

The most important advice I can offer is to trust your intuition and experience. If you have the feeling something is going wrong, it probably is. A major tenant of Agile is to find out about problems early and often. If you feel attention is needed someplace, address it early before it becomes critical.

This is often more about you, the Agile Coach, than it is about the team. You need to gain confidence in yourself and recognize that you have valuable experience to bring to the table. Your perspective as a facilitator and Servant Leader gives you a view of the projects others who are down in the weeds do not have.

You also need to have the confidence to possibly be wrong. Some of the smells you uncover will turn out to not be smells at all. It is human nature to hold back and be quiet because we are afraid of being wrong.  As an Agile Coach, you do not have this luxury.

Once you have identified a smell, it needs to be validated and possibly addressed. Keep these two steps in mind; validate first, and then address, if necessary. This requires tactful and respectful interaction with the party or parties who are related to the smell.

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

When the Agile Manifesto mentions “Individuals and Interactions” this is what they mean; respectful and transparent communication to uncover issues before they affect the project in a major way.

So you may say:

"Maybe I am missing something, but taking 45 hours to add two pages with static content seems a bit long to me.”

Your intuition and experience caused you to notice this smell. Suppose your team responds:

"That is true, Scott, but you do not understand. When we built this system, we were under a time crunch and told management it would take longer than normal for this type of change. We made our dates, but this was the cost.”

So you have validated the smell. You may respond like this:

"Thanks for explaining that to me. I’ll bet you were frustrated designing a system like that. I am sure you agree that we need to be better at responding to change than we currently are. I recommend that we bring this up at the next Release Planning Meeting. This will be a good architecture improvement to add to the backlog.”

You acted with respect and understanding.

Now the time will come, when you will be completely wrong as you validate a smell. You may even get hostile responses from the team. Suppose the head architect reacts like this”

"(Rolling Eyes) Scott, you do not understand the complexity in the system. I will send you an article where you can read more about this. I do not have time to explain it to you.”

This is a chance for you to mentor the architect and explain to him that we are a team and we should all feel comfortable voicing concerns. You may say:

"I can see you are frustrated and I understand you are under a lot of pressure. We are however a team and anyone should feel comfortable voicing concerns about any topic as long as it is respectful and constructive. Thanks for explaining your point and for providing me with the article. I hope you will take the time to explain things to me once I read the article.”

Moving from the command and control approach of a typical project manager to a respectful facilitator takes time for you, the Agile Coach, and the team.

Lyssa Adkins has an excellent website and blog at coachingagileteams.com. I also recommend her book titled “Coaching Agile Teams”.