Learning to Speak DevOps With Stakeholders

When I left my position at Thomson Reuters in late 2012, a colleague gave me a gift.  It was a page cut from a Robert Frost book of works with a raven drawn over it.  Frost is one of my favorite American writers/poets and I have a strong tie to the raven (I even have a sick raven tattooed on myself).  This colleague was clearly a deep listener and really took the time to learn things beyond the superficial about me and made me feel special.  I learned that the art came from a merchant on the Etsy marketplace, which was only 7 years old at that time.

Ironically, the move from Thomson Reuters to Elsevier that the gift celebrated, was one I made to deepen my love for lean and agile.

At the time, I knew nothing about Etsy other than they made available some amazing art.  Since digging into my career more, I have learned about the amazing inter-workings and deployment pipelines that Etsy have curated over the years.  Leveraging private cloud and sound DevOps practices, they have created deployment streams that make most enterprise level shops weep with envy.  In 2014 it was reported Etsy deployed to production as many as 50 times a day.

But it wasn’t always that way.  You don’t always build a deployment chain like that from day one, and they too felt the pains of manual releases, and the associated integration/regression issues with other tightly coupled systems.

“Deploys were often very painful. We had a traditional mindset of, developers write the code and ops deploys it. And that doesn’t really scale.”

The beauty of Etsy was the intentional step to assess the operational culture, process and tooling that enabled poor deployment practices.  Etsy realized that they were only winning some of the business they targeted, and the technology that enabled the business was also the major system constraint and risk to scaling.

To win in business, you require the ability to sense market problems and respond with valuable technical solutions.  Both disruptive innovation and sustainable growth are underpinned with the ability to deploy software nimbly, and with high confidence.  It is important for the business team to understand the critical importance of DevOps, the mindset and to prepare for the speed that is acquired when teams adopt this culture.  Assertive organizations like Etsy realized this and have capitalized on it to continue to grow.

As technologists humans, we are almost hard-wired to talk about solutions.  I can share the publicly known details of the Etsy leveraged tools, but that only feeds the solution-based thinking.  What companies like Etsy do prior to retooling the deployment pipeline is the leading indicator of transformational success and sustainable flow.

All technological change starts with people.

Getting people to understand what better outcomes exist and how these outcomes benefit them, the organization, and the user base is a critical first step in meaningful transformation.  But is typically overlooked by most organizations. Whiskey tango foxtrot.

DevOps is not a set of tools.  It is the intersection of people, process and tools that align with leadership, culture and strategy (LCS).  People need to have the purpose in their environment to align with the LCS from which process and tooling should emerge.  The only way to ensure this alignment is to speak to people in a shared language; said differently, we do lead discussions with our business partners and stakeholders centered on tooling.

It is lazy.  It is short sighted.  It is a shell game.

Learn the intrinsic motivators of the stakeholders, the fears, and the real root problems they face.  Align these items with the strategy (wait, you do have a strategy, right?) to mitigate concerns.  Then cast the message of how DevOps is an enabler of “better” and partner with them on this journey.

DevOps extends well beyond the traditional IT/Engineering silos.  A simple example of this point is the speed of data driven feedback we acquire when we implement analytics, instrumented code, A/B testing harnesses, etc.  To assume our partners in product and marketing are equipped to handle all this new input and respond with better prioritization and strategy is foolish.  This extends to product operations if we increase user registration/billing, sales as we experiment with new features, procurement as we adopt infrastructure as code, and HR as we shift the core values of our product delivery staff.  And these are just top of mind examples.

The days of locally optimizing software practices are either nearly or totally over.  Transparent and honest organizations are emerging as the ones enabling faster growth in market.  This is only achieved with a first mover to shepherd the conversation, and I call on all my change agent friends to be the beacon of delivery calibration.

I recently sketched this model as a tool for myself when speaking to the business about DevOps, perhaps it is useful for others:

R – Research the business to understand the problems they have with current models
E – Empathize with the constraints and lack of technical insights they may have
A – Ask them to partner with you on charting better outcomes
C – Calibrate goals and achievements (leverage OKRs)
H – Harmonize practices and tooling to enable the goals and achievements

Thanks to Hibri Marzook for pointing out the intended loop of the model

As I left my time with Thomson Reuters, I kept that art with me in my various offices and work stations till it got lost in a move.  I loved it as a sign of appreciation from a coworker, but also as a symbol of the shared respect I formed with a Product Manager while working in a technical role.  I find the serendipitous humor in that it lead to this post asking for better efforts from my technical peers to continue with that same torch.

Change Leadership

There was a recent post on the Agile Uprising Coalition by @bradstokes about a scenario where a team had lost all sense of safety.  They were motioning through the daily tasks, but innovation, autonomy and excellence appear to be missing.  When I crafted my reply to Brad, I was thinking from an outside perspective on how an influencer may help to correct the patterns of instability.  My reply was a bit artificial, since I am not sure there is an acknowledgement that the leadership tier see this culture as an issue, that there is someone interested in taking this large responsibility head on and that the team itself is willing to believe in an improvement initiative.

Speaking Typing to Brad, I started to reflect on my prior team.  We were in a tragically similar space about 3 years ago.  The team was working and engaged to each other, but faced external pressures that created a sense of distance from the corporate values and strategy.  They were chronically late on commitments, delivering less functionality than was expected (which was often discovered very late in the process) and did not deliver the quality of software they were capable.  The team was good, they had just learned a battery of bad behaviors and lost the fire that drives your larger group towards excellence.

I was asked to come onto this team and guide them through a transformation journey and learn that it was ok to be awesome.. You may think there was a large amount of effort on coaching the team, which there was, but there was also an equal amount of effort coaching those that influenced the team.  Some leadership, stakeholders, technology peers, the governance teams, the list goes on.  Optimizing silos is an anti-pattern taught in lean theory, we should focus on the entire system.

In a blame-centric culture, teams are targeted as the root of under-performance. Teams are asked to “shape up, or ship out” with a dictatorial tone. As if digital products were akin to assembly line manufacturing. Often, the blame placed on teams is inverted, and the leadership team needs to improve the EQ to first ask “what have I done to enable this?”. In a modern organization, where excellence is built-in, delivery is a shared outcome. A cross-section of all parts of the value stream collectively win or lose based on delivery.

Some basic tactics to enable positive outcomes tend to be:

  • Define value in your organization. Is it revenue? Is it an attrition metric? Is it something else?. What is your primary source of value? This sounds simple, but if you have never had the discussion with various people in the organization, I imagine you will learn a bit.
  • What is your value stream? Map it.  Does your value stream change?  Map that to.  Focus on which value stream you want to start improving.  Set metrics, assumptions and hypotheses prior to improving.
  • Establish working agreements. I like to have no more than five agreements per team so that there is an expressed focus on living up to the agreements.  Too many will muddy the water.  The agreements should be defined by the team, stretch goals but achievable, and regularly reviewed.  When one agreement is regularly achieved the team should remove it and select a new aspiration to take on.
  • Reflect regularly. Waste is the antithesis of value.  Look at yourself and your team, ask “What waste can we impact positively?  What waste have we created?”.  Micro-reflections happen many times a day, but more ceremonial reflections are important too.  A time for the collective team to share reflection on how to improve, and taking on new experiments to iterate on for waste reduction.
  • Visualize and vocalize learning. Learning is not just positive outcomes.  Celebrate the negative outcomes to embrace the idea of foregone waste.  IF that bad code went into production, we would have waste in the form of tech debt, failing tests, displeased customers, etc.  Learn to love the failures from this stance.
  • Make safety a prerequisite. Taken from Modern Agile, this is the pillar of high performing teams.  Early in an improvement change, this is harder to do when there are months or years of learned behavior to impact.  Leadership setting the safety example early is crucial.  When something does not go to plan, blame the plan – not the team.  If a failure occurs, celebrate it as a learning from on top.  Exhibit the empathy and culture we want to see within our teams.  Hearing that story of an employee that was unable to define what their role was to Steve Jobs resulting in him being fired is a reminder that the tail should not wag the dog.
  • Go to the gemba. If there are delivery issues, sit with the delivery team. If there are market issues, engage your market.  And if there are process issues, look to your value stream.  I have been in some beautiful offices in my life.  One CXO from a previous life had a balcony that attached to his office and he would regularly be seen smoking a cigar from that balcony.  It was glorious.  But nothing good happens in four closed in walls.  You spent your entire career getting into that office, now spend the rest of your career rarely in there to learn how the work is really happening.

Change is not easy. Nor is leadership. Being a shepherd of change leadership is both difficult and rewarding.  In spite of the bullets above, there is no formula to successfully bring about a culture turnaround. There is only observation, measurement, and response.

Influencers, Outfluencers and the Apathetic Middle

This is being written during the Fourth of July weekend – a nice four-day escape from work and the perils of bureaucracy. Living within 100 miles of a coast, I am used to most from my area flocking to the beach towns of New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland to relax, soak up the sun and enjoy time with friends and family.  This year, however, there was a major wrench tossed into the plans for a good number of people.  The state of New Jersey has been facing a failure to agree on a state budget, resulting in Governor Chris Christie implementing a state shutdown as of the start of the weekend, impacting non-essential services.  Included in the impacted services were state parks (including beaches).  This sounds bad, but it gets worse.  While travelers, bikers, runners, people with relaxation in mind were all turned away by state police at park entrances, word broke that the Governor himself, and his family, were enjoying their weekend on one of these closed beaches.  When asked about the hypocrisy, the Governor responded:

“The governor has a residence at Island Beach. Others don’t. Run for governor and you can have the residence.”

A crass response typical for the man (allegedly) responsible for the shutdown of a bridge to apply a heavy hand to a political non-conformist foe.  But hidden in the sensationalized headlines, is the message this sends about the culture allowed in the New Jersey state government.  Christie ran for Governor under the “Strong Leadership Now” slogan:

I do not intend to make this a political blog, it is just this story calcified the topic of culture for me.  I have recently been reflecting on culture since switching jobs to join the great folks at Contino.  Contino has an amazing culture, one I have not ever experienced before.  Intellect and technical agnosticism are pillars, respect and pragmatism are explicit, and the sense of team is highly apparent.  The culture of the company allows and enables these qualities.  While I spoke to one of the leads at Contino over a beer last week, I asked “How do these qualities remain as the company grows?”.  The answer was “It is our culture – we focus on hiring the right types of people.” – a good answer.  I then pointed out the definition of culture I have aligned with since first reading it: “The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.” — Gruenter and Whitaker.

If you work for a place where “the brilliant jerk” is permitted, your culture is that of a jerk.

If you work for a place where “managing up” is understood to be the norm, you manage out the bottom.

And, if you are a governor and you close beaches to the public while you and your family take time to enjoy them, your culture is that of hypocrisy.

The flaw with the definition I attach to, is that it hinges on the “leader” to own culture, and I believe that is only a small part of the answer.  We all have a stake in the operating behavior of ourselves and our organizations.  Clearly there is reduced impact at the lower levels, but there is some weight to any position.  Those in areas of influence, either by title or sheer organizational respect, can impart cultural change by squashing cultural anti-patterns.  They have a responsibility as an influencer to take all reasonable steps to identify, make explicit, experiment, measure and improve culture issues within their domain.  These are the shepherds of improvement by working within the context of the organization and should be supported by the organization itself.

The apathetic middle is actually a meta-group for the potential influencers and potential detractors.  This makes up the majority of most traditional enterprise from my experience.  Members of this group are transient and flow between the two subgroups, especially when the influencers are not explicit enough or focused on the right areas of change.  This group requires respect and nurturing from the influencers and the organization leadership tier to constantly work on improving the cultural outlook and emotional health of the individuals.  Looking back to what Daniel Pink prescribed in Drive, these are the folks yearning for Purpose, Autonomy and Mastery in their work – and may need a little support to realize these things.  Maintaining a healthy middle is crucial for employee morale and attrition, but it is also critical to keep an open engagement line to the influencers to see positive growth in the area of positive culture.

Outfluencers are those that either do not agree with or do not see a clear culture within an organization.  Sometimes these are just frustrated folks that want out, no matter what.  The “rest-and-vest”s, or the “waiting for my severance” group.  It is also comprised of others that have shifted from the other groups.  In modern change management works, you are meant to ignore the change suppressors, and this group may appear to be suppressors – but they are not completely.  In this group are the former influencers that have hit the outer boundaries of culture change and are not seeing improvements, or are exposed to the corporate culture hypocrisy.  Understanding the “why” for the Outfluencer group is crucial for the leadership and the organization to realize continuous improvement.  It is less an exercise in converting an outfluencer, and more an attempt to gather data from which to learn and experiment on culture improvement.

When your leadership is comprised of folks like Chris Christie, where they tout “Strong Leadership Now”, but in practice exhibit the opposite, it is obvious to the company and the stakeholders.  Saying one thing and doing the other does not create healthy cultures and has negative impacts on engines of growth.  As the Fourth continues this weekend, raise a beer to all the change influencers and those in the middle trying to improve the status quo within organizations!

A new chapter…

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a police man or a catcher for the Philadelphia Phillies. Given my current level of cardio training, I don’t think I could make the cut for the police academy. Maybe a backup catcher given the state of the Phillies organization. In spite of my childhood career planning, I have meandered the world of technology in a variety of roles since entering the work force.

It’s a team sport of a different variety.

Over the past three years I was very fortunate. I re-joined a company I had resigned six months prior. Led a team that was in need of a turnaround from a delivery stance. Provided every latitude needed from a leadership team to be successful. I was empowered. Given budget, trust, safety and personal advancement.

Over those three years I was a part of one of the most amazing metamorphoses of software delivery. Everyone took notice of how this rag-tag group of folks became the standard within the company. We transformed from late deliveries and buggy products to one of high-performance and safety.

We embodied the principles of lean, agile and devops. We became awesome in full transparency of anyone that would raise their eyes. But during this amazing turnaround, I found, that I transformed on a parallel track. I learned how important having a profound respect for those you work with enables success. I had read it before, and thought I felt it before. But my time with my team has shown me the deep meaning of what this is to enjoy at least once in your career.

My time with this team gave me the confidence to start writing, speaking in public, podcasting. I was even interviewed as some sort of authority on thoughts and transformation. During this time, I never lost sight of the fact that my team was the source of this trajectory. To each of the people that I worked with over the past three years, my family and I thank you for this opportunity.

But we are all on a journey, and journeys take turns. You sense what is occurring around you and you respond to those inputs (hat tip @jboogie). I recently made a decision to accept an offer from the amazing folks at Contino. They are a booming Cloud/DevOps consultancy out of the UK. They also have an extreme amount of core value synchronicity. The story of how the interview process started is a topic for another time. Ah, the power of meetups, public speaking, and the span of the Agile Uprising podcast is amazing.

I encourage anyone I mentor to keep the tools sharp. Find where your passion lives. Live your passion. Practice courage and resilience. I try to model this in my own life, and feel this move aligns with this approach.

To Matt, Andrew, Vicente, Steve and others at Contino: thank you for trusting in me – I will not let you down!

I had a chance to apply agile, and I totally f*cked up.

This year I was invited to join the corporate faculty of Harrisburg University to teach post-graduate courses on lean and agile delivery. I was humbled and excited to be considered and quickly accepted. The university asked me to craft a Lean Product Delivery curriculum to be delivered in the Early Spring 2017 semester.

After all administrative and contractual formalities were sorted, I was sent a packet of basic curriculum documents to get me started and I took off.  I was commissioned to write fourteen 90-minute units inclusive of the core materials, the work assignments and the content for the weekly courseware.  Never having completed a task like this before, I just sat and started in powerpoint – “Unit 1…”

Harrisburg University
Harrisburg University

Upon completing all the units, I then started my course outline that give administration and students the high level introduction to the course and why it matters.  This took a bit longer than I assumed since I had many hours of course content fresh in my head to now distill into a small format.  But after laboring, I completed.  Next I took on the task of writing the course syllabus; the weekly structure, the grading format, the leveled expectations of the students, etc.  Finally I was done.  The joy, the serotonin release, the pride – it was overwhelming as I sent the email to the contact at the university delivering my content in all its glory.  A day or two passes and low and behold, I find out all the work needs to be entered into another system.  But I am still happy to have the experience, so I shuffle off and load all the content into the system.  Then, I find out I needed to add some additional modules to make assignments for students…  cool.  I again go through and make the requisite changes.  Just yesterday I was given a few more required changes (which I should be working on rather than this post 🙂 ).  At this point, the high of this experience is waning through all the large amounts of re-work.

How could an agile practitioner be so naive?

To be fair, it dawned on me at the time of the first batch of re-work that I should have approached this differently. I should have incremented my work, better understood what done looked like, and built in some review unit by unit.  My plan to integrate all the content in one big delivery was foolish.

I quickly did appreciate the irony of my lack of lean and agile practices in delivering my “Lean Product Delivery” content for the course.  I did decide enough was enough, and had a self reflection.  Since the latest batch of revisions, I have agreed to a new delivery method with the course reviewer and plan much more quality work and faster acceptance going forward.

I have spent years coaching others to embrace agility at work, and found myself in need of coaching recently.  What is important is the self awareness needed to improve yourself and your processes.


(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 🙂