Date Archives

November 2016


(Originally posted on

Roughly eight years ago, I stood in my basement office afraid to sit so I didn’t fall asleep. It was the third day managing a project cutover that was meant to be completed in two days—a critical series of technical issues had us stuck at 50 percent complete and well past the release deadline. At this point, my pride was hurt, my emotions spent, and, if not for the need to update the executives every hour on a status call, I am sure I would have been totally empty-minded.

I look back at that release weekend as a pivotal moment in my life. It was a point in my life where I had celebrated some of the most rapid career and professional confidence growth I could imagine, but it was also the first time I came to realize my happiness was as artificial as project dashboards that led me into that disastrous weekend.  I was lacking real happiness.

scaling happiness

Read other Happy Melly members’ #WhentoJump moments


Happiness comes in two primary categories: natural happiness and synthetic happiness(terms popularized by Dan Gilbert).

Natural happiness is what we generally accept as the ubiquitous definition of the emotion – when we are delighted, pleasantly surprised, when our bodies are delighted with that momentary release of stimuli.

Synthetic happiness is when we artificially create happiness by resolving ourselves to achieving a reality we’ve created for ourselves. An example would be working on a terrible assignment, but reaching a breakpoint or the end. You created the happiness associated with completion of a bad task.

Synthetic happiness is not cheating the system, it is healthy and required for us as a species to enjoy life. As leaders of knowledge workers, we need to be sure to make meaningful connections with our teams to understand what are the happiness triggers for them — both natural and synthetic — so that we can create a system supportive of their happiness.

Beyond the types of happiness, leaders should have a lightweight appreciation for the neuroscience behind what makes people happy. There are four chemicals [EDSO] that make us all feel senses of happiness:

  • endorphins
  • dopamine
  • serotonin
  • oxytocin

While I will try to execute a poor-man’s distillation of this here, you should watch Simon Sinek’s talk on this topic to get a more robust explanation.


  • Endorphins are a means for our bodies to mask physical pain — they keep us safe when we need it most. It is the boost that runners often call a Runner’s High. Knowledge workers have endorphins released when they are in a hardcore coding session or when writing in a groove late into night.
  • Dopamine is the happiness chemical that helps us reach our goals. In my world of agile coaching, I frequently leverage dopamine on Kanban workflow boards by having mini-celebrations when each smaller task is completed. There is a ritualistic bonding ceremony for the team to appreciate the mini-accomplishments frequently. Dopamine is a great motivator, but can become addictive and is the same chemical that fuels gamblers, smokers and drinkers. It is a heavy contributor to synthetic happiness and deserves some active regulation in the workplace.
  • Serotonin is the social chemical — it helps us form human bonds. Teams thrive off the relationships they form at work — both collocated and virtual. What is amazing about serotonin is the bidirectional nature of the experience. Recently one of my team members was recognized for a presentation he gave to our leadership team. He was proud of his recognition, which caused his surrounding team and myself to be happy, which made others near us happy too.  Serotonin has a butterfly effect on teams and organizations making it an ideal scaling catalyst.
  • Oxytocin — the servant leadership chemical. Last week, I was among several people that volunteered to help review an upcoming book. The author and editor both experienced dopamine with the influx of reviewers, but I was happy to help. The author is a person who contributes to my professional network and the subject was one of great interest to me. I was charged with a rush of oxytocin during and shortly after my review period. Actually, while writing this, I feel some happiness related to the work again — welcome aboard, oxytocin!

As you can see (hopefully), effective and mindful leaders can identify tasks or interactions that may trigger happiness in groups and individuals. This identification will foster the creation of both natural and synthetic happiness that will increase the overall employee engagement.

But the real power of happiness is seen at scale. How can organization at large be happy? How do we create self-priming happiness engines?

‘#Happiness scales when orgs make conscious, long-term decision to value people & teams over…CLICK TO TWEET


There is a simple pattern emerging that fosters happiness at scale.

Happiness scales when organizations make the conscious, long-term decision to value people and teams over short-term financial gains.

While this sounds simple, changing existing mindset from revenue-first to employee-first is by all means disruptive in most large organizations.

By building a culture that fosters those happiness chemicals, leaders can start guiding teams and organizations toward happiness at scale. As the organization starts its mindful happiness journey, it takes on a beautiful transformation — usually with serotonin as the catalyst.

Serotonin has a butterfly effect on groups which causes happiness to multiply.

Leveraging the concept of happiness distribution via teams and departments is a grassroots happiness scaling method. When you are looking to redirect organizational culture to be more mindful, it’s important to acknowledge your creative workers’ intrinsic motivators, like:

  • Respect
  • Courage
  • Transparency
  • Openness
  • Focus

You need to find constant moments to celebrate, using tools like the Celebration Grid. A focus on perfection is a scaling inhibitor, while creating a culture focused on learning is a scaling accelerator.


Beyond the softer aspects of scaling, more tactical actions can be taken to create a growing culture of happiness. I have personally implemented Experimentation Days, guilds, and engagement assessments in organizations to introduce workplace happiness. Experimentation Days set aside work time for knowledge workers to scratch that innovative itch, while not having to have a direct correlation to their day-to-day tasks.

At my organization, I co-founded a maker program where anyone interested could set aside a half day per month to work with Arduino boards and robots to create fun gadgets for the office. Sometimes, these mini-projects fail, sometimes they succeed, but every time we have fun and build stronger bonds.

We show videos of these employee engagement events in our recruiting process to show the culture we are trying to build.

I’ve also helped create a virtual guild within my company that focuses on emerging agile practices. We meet via phone and Webex, and regularly have well-known external speakers come and share their recent areas of study. It promotes learning, but also an active interest in our desire to improve as a group.

Measuring team improvement has been an area of research for years. As I have professionally grown, my appreciation for the inherent flaws of following metrics in isolation has increased. While metrics can be bad if not taken into total context, they are not bad if properly applied.

This year my team introduced OfficeVibe — an employee engagement polling tool that integrates with Slack and allows for lightweight anonymous feedback loops broken down into various areas of impact. Via this tool, we have learned and taken action on several items of displeasure for our team. For example, the development space temperature setting was too cold. It sounds simple, but it had largely gone unnoticed until we had the feedback provided in OfficeVibe to bump it up. Since doing so, the engagement score has improved. There are similar tools out there, but OfficeVibe has been the most effective means for continuous and tight feedback loops I have seen for the enterprise space.

The most interesting thing I have learned about scaling models at large is that there is no single model that will last. When dealing with highly dynamic systems such as machine learning, cloud storage, compression or — the most dynamic system of all — people, any scaling approach we take must be seen as an organic, constantly changing model.

Happiness models must be revisited and revised often in order to continue improving them.CLICK TO TWEET


Creating practices and tools to promote happiness takes a mindful leader with the support of higher level leadership. The C-suite and thought leaders need to remain engaged in order to ensure support sustains or — better yet — increases.

It’s just as important to continue to tune your happiness systems. This means experimenting and finding new problems to solve. And it means working with teammates one-on-one to understand what they think of the systems introduced and to see where they can be improved.
Truly investing yourself into the craft of creating happiness is a daily effort and not a one-time ceremony. Once you start seeing some short-term success, you need to maintain a high focus on continued happiness and mindfulness. Some more progressive corporations have taken happiness to the extreme of hiring Chief Happiness Officers or similar. While this shows a firm’s commitment to improvement, I tend to favor the stories of happiness driven from the trenches and ranks. Perhaps both are needed in some companies.

At the end of that fateful Thanksgiving Saturday, we made the call to roll back the release. We were losing data and despite the best efforts of the global team working on the issue, it could not be resolved. That evening, the team in charge of the rollback initiated the 24-hour process so our customers would not be impacted on Monday morning. Shortly after the final call ended, I went to sleep without saying a word to anyone. I just curled into my bed exhausted not understanding how this could have happened. Within a year I had left this company and found myself starting on a leadership and agile journey that really nurtured what I now know as my real happiness.

What leaders can learn from Tony Dungy

This year Tony Dungy will be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton, OH.  His history in the league dates back to his playing days in Pittsburgh.  Ominously enough, he started out as a passed over, undrafted free agent for the team  Upon making the team, he switched from a college quarterback to a professional safety and special teams player.  In his second year, he was on a Super Bowl winning squad in Pittsburgh, and later played out a pedestrian career on both San Francisco and the NY Giants teams before ultimately retiring from the league.

After his playing days, Dungy went on to coach.  He mired in the assistant coach ranks in both college and at the professional level for 17 years, waiting his turn to be interviewed for the head coach position.  All the while, Dungy honed his coaching philosophies of simplification and repetition.  His belief was simple; to optimize outcomes, you have to build trust based teams and intrinsic habits of excellence.  During those 17 years as an assistant, Dungy was invited to speak with four teams for a head coaching position.  All four times, he unfurled his plan of simplification and hardcoding habits into players.  At this time in the league, the West Coast offense was in the maturation phase of its popularity and teams were seeing ever-growing playbooks and new schemes.  Dungy’s proposal was to fraction off the playbook and to learn it so well that, even though the competition knew the plays his team would run, they would be slower than the team and unable to stop them.  He also believed steadfastly that winning was an outcome of the full team, and therefore, believed coaching the 53rd man on the roster was as important as coaching the 3rd man.  After presenting this four times, he received four notifications he did not land his dream job.

“Champions don’t do extraordinary things.  They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they’ve learned.”

It was his fifth interview, with the last place Tampa Bay Buccaneers, that Dungy finally realized his dream of heading his team.  He installed his scheme of simplification, trust, and habit forming from the first day.   He drove fundamentals of trust and belief in each other that the team will execute as they have trained.  He hardcoded the habit of the team into itself.  As a result, the Bucs reformed from one of the worst in the league, to a perennial contender.  As a coach, Dungy went on to record 10 consecutive play off teams and become the first African American head coach to win the Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts.

“I always coached the way I’ve wanted to be coached.”

What leaders can take from the story of Tony Dungy is that trust and teamwork are fundamental in delivering change.  Also, implementation of complex and dogmatic frameworks may seem like the solution to institutional hurdles, but at times simplification and core training will also deliver amazing results.  Providing teams/departments/units/companies a safe environment to learn and execute is paramount.  Understanding that changing bad habits cannot be done without organization belief that the change is needed and being done in good faith, is core to any transformation from  under-performance to a culture of high-performance.

Intrinsic Motivation: The virtual Kudos Box

(Originally posted on

I work for an organization that has a defined hierarchy system that has prescribed reward and merit subsytems. Thankfully, there is also built-in flexibility for the departmental leaders to develop talent and have additional rewards to motivate, inspire, and award individuals and teams for performance. carrot

I truly believe the best reward for individuals is the reward that is both unplanned and presented by peers. There is ample research to show that planned rewards, such as annual bonuses, do not have as great an impact on employee morale, performance, and happiness as does an unplanned reward structure. When an individual knows the process for performance monitoring, they perform to that degree of monitoring. In the Agile Manifesto, the first principle states, “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” As an agilist, I not only strive to live this and the other principles but I place high value on the relative position of this core belief above all others laid out by the manifesto signers back in 2001 in the Utah lodge.

Placing individuals over the process in this context means to structure rewards at the individual level, on an irregular basis. Said another way, implementing a method by which anyone can be awarded at any time for anything seen as good. Equally as important to having an open system is the input sources to the system. Managers muddy otherwise healthy human interaction at times — stated from my perspective as a manager of many people. Rewards that are given from one peer to another peer in plain view of managers has proven to be much more meaningful and impactful than the traditional “top down” reward system.

A method by which anyone can be awarded at any time for anything seen as good.

Last year my team adopted the Firestarter and Fix-It awards. The Firestarter award is meant to call out an individual who invokes passion and drive as an aspect of our team. The change can be a new technology, a new process change, a new way of thinking — fixitanything that enables us to improve. (Yes, the term “Firestarter” was intentional, to break from old habits wherein “firefighting” is seen as a good trait.)

The Fix-It award is meant to call out an individual who took some aspect of our code, process, communication model, or overall delivery steps and improved it. While this can be technical in nature, the nomination is not limited to technical improvements alone. Team members are empowered to think outside the box when it comes to the Fix-It award.

As the implementation of the awards came to fruition, the primary focus was to have an easily accessible award collector, to have a real-time feedback loop for the person submitted, for it be outcome based (not behavior based), and for it to be driven by peers but presented publicly in front of managers. One critical aspect of my team that makes thisfirestarter process valuable is the dispersed nature of the group. We have team members in India, U.S. Eastern time zone, and U.S. Central time zone. Placing a pile of index cards and a pen next to a shoe box with a slot cut in the top does not fit this team structure. Thankfully, we have SurveyMonkey to address issues just like this! With a simple three-field survey creation (your name, the nominee’s name, and a message about why they are being nominated), the virtual shoe box is complete.

Throughout the sprint, with a reminder at every retrospective, team members can award their peers with a note of praise, which is immediately shared with the recipient, including the name of the peer who awarded them. The only manager involvement is the sending of the award notification to the recipient — Survey Monkey does not have the ability to do this as far as I am aware.

After five sprints, we aggregate all individual peer recipients. Whoever has the most nominations gets their name engraved on the associated plaque and rights to keep the plaque on their desk for the next five sprints. Whenever needed, the plaque is shipped to the oawardsffice or home of the virtual team member. In the event of a tie (which has happened), we all as a team figure out how to share the award for five sprints.

The award itself is a small symbol of a greater honor: the peer recognition that stands behind the plaque. (As a side note, creating the plaques is a great and inexpensive craft you can do with your kids if they are in the right age.) Seeing the excitement and happiness from the team following the award presentations, you instantly realize there is great pride and motivation resulting from the award process.

There are multiple byproducts of implementing an intrinsic reward system such as this. First, it creates an increased level of employee engagement by showing there is recognized value in what they do every day. Second, it creates an environment of trust by giving team members an outlet by which to recognize peers in the open, and conversely by allowing individuals to accept recognition. The intrinsic reward system caters to all four of the happiness chemicals as well, allowing for an increase biological trust compounds in our body. Third, there is a management feedback loop provided directly from the trenches. Managers try to observe and learn about teams and individuals both up close and from afar. However, it is often difficult for performance to change when individuals know they are being monitored. Having a peer system allows for true and meaningful feedback loops. And finally, it just feels right. Allowing people to formally thank their peers is appropriate at all times, but not creating a means to do so may inhibit this communication.

The evolution of this process is likely to change. We may modify the tools, the awards, the criteria, etc. However, there are several truths that will remain resolute:

  • Don’t promise rewards in advance.
  • Keep anticipated rewards small.
  • Reward continuously, not once.
  • Reward publicly, not privately.
  • Reward behavior, not outcome.
  • Reward peers, not subordinates.

These principles are documented by the Management 3.0 movement, and there is further learning about the background on the Web.

Which came first, respect or the desired outcome?

(Originally posted on

Recently I was in a car driving down the eastern coast of England with my Uncle David. It was a long ride through the winding country roads typical of Suffolk. We had a series of conversations about life, including his time as a touring trumpet player with various bands around Europe. His crowning achievement was twice playing in the Palladium in London — first in 2005 then again in 2013. By all accounts, David Brook made a name for himself as a quality European trumpet player, for which he has a lot of pride. 

The conversation shifted to my upcoming talk in London: ‘Agile transformations and the impact to organizational culture’. And we had a back and forth over what the content of my talk was — as a musician the concepts of lean and agile thinking are not in the front of his mind. I distilled my talk to him into the phrase: It is about respecting people and respecting teams. 

The topic of respect is when our two seemingly divergent worlds soon found shocking synergy.respect1

Respect, like many other team values, usually only gets noticed when it’s lacking. Unfortunately, too many creative workers have been in at least one environment where respect is regularly missing, and this makes me sad. I see software as a craft, and the people responsible for the delivery of software as artisans. Much like musicians, software developers spend countless hours/days/years learning and honing their craft. Even outside of the academic side of the training and learning, there are endless measures of time where they give away their skills on open source projects and “do me a favor” projects, donating all in the hopes of becoming a professional contributing to a product they believe in.


Yet, a culture was born in which respect for software delivery has eroded to a point that developers became seen as cogs in a machine. Code is code and when things are late, do not work or break, it’s the developers’ fault. And respect is gone.

I had seen this first hand, and nearly left the industry twice as a result. Luckily, I stumbled onto a book written by Ken Schwaber in the early 2000s that introduced me to agile thinking. That lead to me learning about lean development. 


Through the lean and agile journey, you develop a deep appreciation for the need to put respect back into the delivery process. This is the natural effect of respect prioritized within teams:

  • From respect comes safety.
  • From safety comes honesty.
  • From honesty comes conversations and innovation. 
  • Happy teams write better code. 

Recently, I heard Jurgen Appelo pose: 

“Is it that happy teams make successful products? Or do successful products make happy teams?”

When I first heard him say this, I thought it was a toss up, but now see the former as the sustainable engine of growth.



There is enough disrespect in the world today — you don’t have to look long or hard to see it in our information-inundated society. I believe respect-centric workplaces have a positive infectious result that crosses into our personal lives. And for that, we would all benefit.

As we drove into an old beach town, my Uncle David told me of the countless times after shows when agents approached him to play for next to nothing or nothing — and how disrespectful it is to artists. I tried to tell him that it’s the same in software and I work to change that daily. He looked at me and said “But no one in management thinks this way.” I looked him in the eye and said “Even if that were true, shouldn’t someone start?”

Uncle David and Ryan


I believe when respect is present, happy teams make better products. Not that better products make for respectful and happy teams.  Challenge this premise for yourself and your experience and in the next week contribute to this one question surveywith your thoughts. At the end of this week’sHappiness Challenge, we will share the findings at the end of this article.

But feel free to start the debate now in the comments below or, if you are a Happy Melly member, you can join us in the #respect dedicated Slack channel!

Certified Agile Leader (CAL) Training Review

(Originally posted at

I am a cynic. My cynicism is sometimes aggressive in nature. When I heard this year the Scrum Alliance was rolling out a new “Agile Leadership Certification“, I nearly had steam rolling off my bald head. I struggle with the idea of telling a relative n00b that they are a Scrum Master after two days, but really took pause with the idea that someone would be anointed an Agile Leader after 2.5-3 days. I considered the approach toxic and yet another certification for the Scrum Alliance to charge for; so I was not a fan when Brian Rabon rolled out the program in Orlando at the Scrum Gathering.  (The rest of Brian’s keynote was pure brilliance!)

However, when Don MacIntyre told me he was offering one of the very first CAL courses, I decided to attend.  Don is my professional mentor, a practicing enterprise agile coach, and someone I respect a lot in our industry.  My thinking was simple; I got to spend 2 days of focused time with a man I deeply respect and get to interface with some local Agile leaders – the fact it was a Scrum Alliance certifying session was not a deciding factor for me at all.

The training session was this past week, and I have a totally different view of the courseware now.

First, either the Scrum Alliance did a horrible job of defining the problem this content was meant to solve or I totally misunderstood the heavy marketing material.  I was under the impression this certification program was for established agile practitioners to advance their agile-ness; a psudo-MBA for agile.  I was wrong.  Second, having been through the training I think presenting/marketing this as a certification training is a short-sighted approach.

I was under the impression this certification program was for established agile practitioners to advance their agile-ness; a psudo-MBA for agile.  I was wrong.

The persona most aptly served by this content is either the traditional leader that is looking to enter an agile transformation, or a leader of an organization that has gone through an agile transformation.  But the connective tissues for the persona are twofold: leadership level and that did not come up through the agile practitioner journey.  As a practitioner, there is less value than there would be for the leader described.  The value proposition for the agile practitioner is reduced because most of the content reaffirms the values we already believe in and look to coach into organizations.  For the executive, however, there are huge upsides to attending:

  • First, the instructors appear to be selected based on industry pedigree (I commend the Scrum Alliance on this, and hope they continue this path).  Don, for example, has lead transformations or been an executive at Lockheed Martin,, the DoD, NASA, Hewitt Packard and more.  Having this high exposure creates instant resonance with the leaders entering the training.
  • The prerequisite learning is a learning catalyst.  The course has to be a minimum of 2.5 days or greater.  My training had the prerequisite of reading the scrum guide, gaining familiarity with the agile manifesto and the agile principles, as well as a preparation exercise that forces learners to be prepared to share experiential data with the class.
  • Core learning objectives – below are the core learning objectives of the CAL.  It creates an interesting intersection of emergent lean and agile theory, recent organizational behavior science positioned against the traditional Taylorism management theory that sadly is still prevalent today:cal-los
  • Cohort/experiential learning was hands down the best aspect of this training.  Sharing transformation stories, successful and failed, created a cohort-based relationship with my peers in the room.  I made some amazing connections that I plan to keep going forward.  I can only imagine the power of the experiential sharing if the class were constructed of leaders all from one organization.  The clashing of ideas would be a fun sight to behold.
  • Outside services mentioned in the session are hugely helpful to organizations of scale.  In particular, Don shared the value of the Leadership Agility 360 assessment program.  I was lucky enough to experience this program first hand and share the perspective that most/all leaders should regularly participate in such reviews and make the action plans part of their own personal accountability KPIs.

Overall, I did draw some learning and a positive attitude from the course.  I believe that is a win.  I also plan to take this experience to my corporate leadership as I think there is huge value for the Director level and above to be exposed to how more modern organizational patterns actually drive better strategic and financial outcomes.  As coaches, we should look for paths that accelerate learning and agile adoption, and helping to craft the minds of the leadership level to be aligned with agile principles does just that.

I remain a cynical man.  I stand firm that the Scrum Alliance should not have rolled this out as a certification.  Zero percent of the people that can benefit from this learning give a damn about a certification.  This would have been better positioned as a leadership program or part of an endorsed transformation approach or similar.  The certification aspect still feels gross to me, but the message is much stronger.  That said, I now have CAL on my resume 🙂