Scrum tip: Conduct better sprint retrospectives

Sprint retrospectives have in the past proved challenging for me as a Scrum Master:

  1. Some pigs take an inordinate amount of time to give their feedback. In a team of 8 pigs we often had the first few volunteers getting a lot of bandwidth and short-changing the folks at the back of the queue.
  2. Discussing all points that are brought up – without sensitivity to relevance and then running short on time to give really burning issues appropriate analysis time. Often there is an underlying feeling that some points are less important than others but out of respect for the pig originating an idea, fellow pigs feel inclined to avoid filtering discussions.
  3. Some pigs have not done any introspection and try to come up with their feedback on-the-fly – thus doing their fellow pigs who have taken the time to think about things a disservice.
  4. Scrum Master’s leading rather than facilitating the process (guilty as charged)!

Based on these challenges, I introduced a few process changes to our last retrospective and it made a huge difference. We got rich feedback from all pigs, discussed only the relevant points and had far less Scrum Master interference in the process improvement solution space. Here’s what we did:

(A) Precursors [First 5 minutes]

Elect a Scribe: A scribe was nominated to take points down on the whiteboard. Rule: The scribe at the whiteboard cannot offer an opinion or do any filtering. He/she must simply take down what is being said in a succinct way (the scribe is allowed to ask questions just for clarity). As far as is possible the scribe must use the words of the person making the point – don’t unnecessarily paraphrase. The scribe can be the Scrum Master provided that the rules are followed.

Elect a Timekeeper: The time keeper monitors the timeboxed activities and calls ‘Time’.

(B) Pig feedback: What went well, what could be improved [Next 45 minutes]

  1. Each pig was given exactly 5 minutes to say in their own words what went well and what could be improved. They could talk about whatever they wanted in these 5 minutes and other pigs were limited to questioning only for purposes of clarity. This also empowers/forces the pig to choose points that are especially relevant if they have a long list of items to go through.
  2. The scribe takes down the points in two adjacent columns on the whiteboard.
  3. No discussion is allowed on the topics at this point. Pigs were asked to respect their fellow pig’s right to an uninterrupted opinion.
  4. Note the scribe being a pig in the team also gets a chance to give his/her feedback and someone else does the scribe duty during this time.

(C) Discussion points voting [20 minutes]

Once the feedback points were captured, each pig was given a distinct color whiteboard marker. They were given 15 minutes to peruse the board and were allowed to make seven votes in total against points that they felt warranted further discussion (you need the distinct color to keep track of your vote count). The number “7” was arbitrarily chosen based on the total number of potential discussion points on the board. Pigs were not allowed to make more than one vote per point thus limiting the potential for any pig to force an issue into discussion (the jury is out on this part).

At the end of 15 minutes, once all votes were cast, we could sum up votes and select the pertinent points for discussion (5 minutes).

Previously we had no aggregated view of topic relevance. The voting mechanism addresses this shortcoming!

"What we can improve" - note the voting marks against the points!

(D) Discussion [60 minutes to 90 minutes]

In this timeboxed period, the pertinent points were explored in order of reducing importance. This ensured that items that were seen to be especially important were not short changed on discussion time.

The scribe would take down any process improvements that came out of the exploration exercise.

(E) Retrospective – knowledge capture [5 minutes!]

Previously I tried to capture notes through the laissez faire discussions that ensued and then retrospectively capture these notes in a document and distribute. As I was often an active facilitator/participant in the discussions I didn’t always have a chance to capture all the relevant points – bad. I also tried on a previous project to record the retrospectives but it was horrible task to have to sit through a 3 hour recording to capture notes retrospectively.

This time was different. Because the scribe had neatly captured the points against “What went well”, “Areas for improvement” and “Process improvements”, capture of the knowledge was simply an exercise in photographing the whiteboards and distributing them on e-mail to the pigs (awesome!).

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Using short videos as a change management tool

Some time last year I started investigating whether videos are a good mechanism for driving change on a project. Project stakeholders typically don’t read long documents and even if they do it’s usually a cursory glance at the pictures. Roadshows and presentations can be effective but I sometimes got the feeling that stakeholders begrudged the hour-long intrusion in their lives (especially when presence is enforced by a sponsor’s command). If the presentations are effective then there is the other problem of being asked to repeat them ad-nauseum to different parts of the functional organisation. This is fantastic but time-consuming and at some point you still have to get back to the actual work of the project delivery!

As a result of that investigation, in recent times I’ve been using short videos very successfully at one of Crossbolt’s clients. Here’s an example…

[Example pending client approval]

I was asked on at least four separate occasions today ‘how do you make those videos?‘ and this is intended to share some pointers to folks looking to explore using video as a project change or training mechanism.

(1) Create a light-bulb moment: My primary inspiration came from the folks at Epipheo (a play on the words ‘epiphany video’). In particular I learned that the thing that makes a video go viral – is the creation of the epiphany in the mind of the viewer as shown in the video example here.

If you can trigger a genuine ‘light-bulb moment’ about the subject matter, the viewer will want to share it thus taking care of your message distribution. People are more likely to watch something if their friends recommend it than from some chap they don’t know.

(2) Innovate – you don’t need a fancy animation studio: At a business meeting focused on a viral marketing venture, I was pointed to “In Plain English”, a second source of inspiration. Take a look at one of Commoncraft’s examples here and watch how efficiently a message can be delivered in a low-tech way. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is light work though!

(3) You don’t need a fancy camera: For now anyway, any camera will do. In order to ensure that LAN/internet streaming speeds are fast I tend to prefer files less than 200Mb. Just about any reasonable digital camera will do.

(4)  You do need a tripod and good lighting: These two are fundamentally important. I try and find locations with good, abundant natural light. Do not attempt this without a tripod – nobody wants to watch a shaky video. Any tripod will do and I often shoot with the camera on a cheap mini tripod.

(5) You must have video editing software: You need to be able to edit sound, add background audio, clip video, order clips and still shots etc. Just shooting a video of a presentation and hoping that this will do the trick – that’s being optimistic (unless you’re a fabulous orator…). This also means that you need to know how to operate the software! Most tech-savvy folks will be rolling in a few hours.

(6) Videoing a whiteboard drawing is great: As we often use whiteboards to explain concepts, this mechanism translates very well into the video space.

Whiteboard video's are fun

It’s also has a more intimate interaction as it has a real person in the video (as opposed to animation techniques).Some tips:

  • Whiteboard lighting is tricky. Get some tips here and invest the time before you shoot video.
  • Make sure you mark the visible area on the camera on the whiteboard. You don’t want to shoot your video and then find out that you’ve strayed off the camera view (happens to everyone the first time…).
  • Write the narrative in advance so that you know what you are going to draw and what message you intend getting across with the picture.
  • Go through a few trial runs before shooting. Be aware of not blocking the whiteboard with your body as you draw (can be tricky)
  • Speed up the video. It’s boring watching someone draw in real time. Keep this in mind when shooting as you can take more care and do decent drawings with several colors.
  • Add the narrative afterward otherwise you’ll sound like a chipmunk when you speed up the video.

(7) Life is easier on a fast computer: Don’t let this be an obstacle to progress as it is optional. Manipulating video is processor and memory heavy and having a good machine means a whole lot less time sitting around watching the ‘hourglass’. I have a potent Quad Core iMac  with a 27″ screen. I’ve been able to do effective videos on a 13″ business laptop too (with a bit more pain).

(8) Spend time with the audio track: More than half my time is consumed with narratives, background audio and sound effects. It makes all the difference.

(9) Don’t aim for perfection: The videos must be quick and easy to produce. If it’s good enough let it go glitches and all. This is a project tool not a commercial production! Interestingly an over-produced video becomes a barrier to entry for you doing more videos on the project as your stakeholders will expect that quality again (this is a hard lesson).

(10) Use a cheap trick to encourage viral distribution: This is easier said than done but we often try to inject some skit or aspect of the video that inspires a good laugh or shock. In the example that I had earlier in this blog it was the Simpsons sofa spoof at the end.

There you go – happy shooting!

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Eating my own dogfood…

In my personal capacity I’ve had an initiative that’s been open with just about no progress for a couple of months: I’m having to vacate my home office to make way for my daughter’s new room.

Great spot, but it has to go

A big reason for the lack of forward progress is: I can’t see a sustainable solution just yet. I’m often away at client sites during the day and tend to do office work in the evenings. External offices don’t work for me as time spent there is time away from my family in the precious few hours I have before my daughter’s bedtime. The other option is to ‘MOVE TO A BIGGER PLACE’ as I am prompted regularly by all my friends. This brings other challenges into the picture: as an example try to find a reasonably priced spot with four parking bays in our school district! Or that we have a killer bathroom that took me the better part of a year to get right. The thing is – we’re happy and we don’t want to move so the solution has to be found within the available space constraints.

I’m also anxious about losing my place of refuge. The office is my quiet spot in a house shared with two females and several hundred cubic meters of (typically) joyful chatter. But I had promised my daughter her own room and that’s a sacred covenant. Tick-tock-Tick-tock…

I had an epiphany while driving several days ago: “I had the wrong methodology in mind!”. I was thinking of the initiative as a waterfall project: see the solution in its entirety and then do a big up-front plan for its execution. The fact that I couldn’t see the full sustainable solution stopped me from making ANY progress on this front. The realization was that I was running an unpredictable change management initiative. It demanded an agile delivery approach. I needed to make a few small changes and try those on for size, then use this experiential feedback to elaborate the solution in bite sized chunks.

Eat my own dogfood!

Take a step back to think about the irony here: (a) I own an agile management coaching practice ( and (b) I regularly run projects where the full solution was not known up-front.

I shopped around online for a virtual SCRUM board so that I could quickly smash out some user stories and tasks. For the uninitiated, SCRUM is a project management process that allows for a solution to be advanced in small increments. The guys at have done a truly wicked job.

  1. It took me 30 minutes to whack out a full plan of what was known.
  2. I made substantial progress in my first day following the plan.
  3. You folks all get a ringside seat right here:
  4. While I haven’t completely solved the problem yet, what I have already is working quite nicely

Satellite office 1

This blog entry was done in satellite office 1. I haven’t got my wicked Aeron chair yet but the Big Mac and I have gotten off to a rocking start. 

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American Psycho: The search for premium business cards

There’s a famous scene from an infamous movie that epitomises the business card fetish. It is both ridiculous and funny. Here’s the thing though – if you’re in professional services there’s a lot riding on that card.

Late last year when I decided to rejuvenate Crossbolt, I realised that I would need to get new business cards. I only had two left and I wanted to keep one for posterity. This meant that I’d be able to have one business meeting before I’d need to wait until the stocks had been replenished. Fortunately my sales cycle is usually short and the engagements lengthy: I just need to place the card in the right hand and if it sticks we’re on another sleigh ride. That first impression is all important and as the business card is typically the only tangible brand collateral that is exchanged it’s the splash screen for the whole business in the palm of my hand.

It’s also a fantastic opportunity: most folk’s business cards look the same. Arrogant and presumptious? Maybe but I did learn a few things. Johannesburg, where I’m based has a myriad of “1000 cards for R500” deals (about $75 at the time). These are standard, digitally printed, double-sided, full color cards. In fact your cards are batched with a bunch of other folks in the print run so everybody’s cards end up looking similar. My search for a more upmarket offering came to nought:

“No we don’t do embossing”, “No we stopped foil stamping a while back”, “You want what ?”

 I was flabbergasted! I mean we’re talking about the continent’s economic hub here. After much googling and some phone calls I eventually found three credible operations: one in a small town in the Free State and two in Cape Town (really). I settled on The Letterpress Company. I’ve been a fan of letterpress for a while now (follow that last link, its really good). Bashing out the text with a solid die leaves a tactile quality that is missing in modern digital printing. The Letterpress Company use a vintage Heidelberg press and pay attention to service excellence – they were exactly what I had been hunting for.

Finding the right service provider was only part of the challenge. Unlike digital printing, my letterpress run involved manufacturing a laser cut die for the positive imprint and a foiling block (for the logo foil colors). In simple terms if I decided to change any of the content in future, I would incur these costs again and they aren’t cheap. It was a good time to revamp the logo with my graphic designer (that took a very long time too).

Final product : Letterpress, metallic blue and grey foiling on 100% cotton paper 

  Crossbolt: Small operation, premium goods. With a perhaps psychotic attention to detail.  Makes all the difference when its your capital project we’re looking after.

Posted in Entrepreneurial | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Adventures with Thunk!: Where the corporate folk take advice from smart blokes with tattoos

It was a large and prestigious law-firm. Our footfalls echoed in the massive glass atrium as we homed in on the lone reception desk. With me was Don Packett, MD of Thunk! who also moonlights as a stand-up comedian. Bringing up the rear was the inimitable Richard Mulholland (more wild hair and tattoos) and the adrenalin man, Trevor Mey. We had a 10:30 meeting in the boardroom. They were paying us to be there.

Side effects include seeing things differently

Let’s backtrack a bit. I met Richard at a mutual friend’s wedding a few weeks back. Rich was the only new face at a table populated with my old skate crew (another story). We got to chatting and he mentioned his companies, Missing Link and Thunk!. He’s a good storyteller and the evolution of each entity made for interesting listening (and gave me an excuse not to be embarrassing myself on the dance floor). I was particularly intrigued by Thunk’s commodity: “We sell perspective.”


We met for lunch a week later and by then I was more conversant in Thunk’s modus operandi. To paraphrase Rich and Don: smart people (or groups of people) who’ve been staring at the same problem-space for an extended period sometimes get the equivalent of writer’s block. New ideas dry up and forward progress is achingly slow. Enter a team of Thunkers: “smart mo-fo’s” (their term), completely alien to the problem have a crack at solving it in a no-holds-barred brainstorming session. To ensure that perspectives stay fresh, the Thunk team pulls in a ‘Brain Trust‘ member into the workshop: a bright spark from outside the company who is given no preparation material – literally an address and a time to pitch up. This time, that was me and I walked right into an audience with the law firm’s executive board members (wearing my Vibram’s…just to add to the Thunk! corporate counter-culture).

So, does it add value? Without a doubt, YES (we actually got an applause at the end of the session). The washing machine that is the Thunk! brainstorming session does spin out new idea’s at an impressive pace. What I found particularly valuable though is that it also creates a unique environment where members of the client team feel safe in putting out their own innovative (off-center) ideas. These ideas may well have been gagged by the staid conservatism in the corporate atmosphere but with Rich standing in front letting rip with business anecdotes interspersed with penis humor, suddenly it’s not so scary to voice an idea…with the assurance that you’re not going to be the wackiest guy in the room.

Don, Rich and I differ when it comes to whether Thunk! is able to consistently come up with the sexy solutions in all scenarios or whether they catalyze the client’s own bright sparks into coming up with the solution themselves. My training in crisis counselling biases me toward the latter approach: helping people to help themselves. The high impact ideation machine that is Thunk! doesn’t have time to tout subtleties like empowerment. They’re more likely to say: “Hell yeah, bring it on, we’ll figure it out five different ways in three hours or less”.

Brash marketing poise aside (it’s a calculated differentiator) they:

  • Have a unique product offering
  • Deliver real value in a high energy swoop of entertainment
  • Will get you thinking differently

…all nicely wrapped in cool.  Don’t take my word for it, give ’em a call and visit the lair.

Posted in Entrepreneurial | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments Own that first impression online (quickly!)

I regularly google about people in advance of meetings with them. Admittedly  it was disconcerting the first time I met someone new and hearing them mention that they had been checking me out too! I was immediately curious (and slightly anxious) as to what they had found. “All good things, right?”

In my case it’s my own Facebook profile and then my personal Linked In page. There are then a bunch of entries relating to ‘the other Farid‘ (whom I know personally), before you hit my Twitter profile. This situation is fortunate because I still have some control over what people think when they check me out:

  • At the top of the list, you are indeed looking at the real Farid Essack (i.e. me and not the other guy)
  • I have the power to change the content in my Linked In profile and my Facebook page

Great, but there’s still a problem: my professional persona in the Linked in profile is different from my Facebook persona and both of these are vastly different from what I use Twitter for.

I heard about About.Me through Twitter and the concept is brilliant and simple. is offering a single page splash screen as the first impression that people get when they check you out. They can then navigate to your various other online personalities through links on this page. Via a dashboard, you get to see how much interest there’s been, where they’ve come from and what they clicked on next. Most importantly however is that you get to control that important first impression that people get.

A port of entry about you on the web

It’s in beta at the moment but interest is spreading pretty quickly. They’re venture cap funded and have some some influential backers. A quick look at the Twitter activity on the subject shows the Twitterati breaking down the doors to get a Beta invite. Better reserve your name before the public release: the only thing worse than not having control of that first impression is having someone take over yours as a lark. But then nobody is twisted enough to do that, right?

I can’t personally see how the format ‘’ can ever be sustainable. One check on Facebook for ‘Tim Jones’ as an example brings up over 500 results.   On the other hand it’s precisely this exclusivity that’s making the big splash at the moment. I mean people still make up silly permutations to get a dotcom url. Act now and beat your namesakes to the one instance of your name that’s up for grabs.

Oh, here’s me:

Posted in Technology and culture | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Just a better way of handling your notes

I do a lot of research. I have a wide variety of professional and personal interests matched with a rabid curiosity. Like most folks, I typically open up a browser, hit Google and start reading. As I progress, I open up links in new browser tabs. If I’m in serious information gathering mode, I open up a Word document in tandem and start copying and pasting bits of pertinent information for later processing.

Occasionally my notes are taken at project meetings, in training or at conferences and are scrawled in a book or worse, on pieces of paper. If I’m facilitating a meeting I usually can’t write or type anything meaningful so I record audio. If these artifacts are not required for meeting minutes, they’re usually filed away someplace often never to be processed again.

Here’s the thing:

  • I work across multiple computers and don’t always have access to the documents that I create. This is especially true when I am working on a client sponsored laptop or workstation.
  • Paper notes cannot be searched and are mostly inaccessible to me. It’s often easier for me to re-research the topic on the web than to have to hunt down where I stored my scrawls.  
  • I don’t like taking personal information into client sites even if it’s resident on my own laptop. Occasionally I experience a personal emergency and need access to information which is stored on a separate machine or network. I used to carry important personal information on a flash drive but this was also inefficient as I would forget to keep that snapshot updated.
  • In the past, I’ve blasted many artifacts off to a Gmail account to make my notes persistent and searchable, but the process is not slick enough to where I use it consistently.

Say goodbye to lost scrawls

I found “Evernote” while reading ‘office-in-the-cloud’ type blogs. This is a free, hosted, note management solution. You can capture or access your notes through a browser or a desktop application that stays synchronised for offline work. Your notes are then available everywhere on a multitude of devices (desktop, laptop, mobile phone, iPad…whatever).

Capturing of notes is efficient and I find myself keeping an Evernote page or client open all the time now. Amongst other things it allows me to quickly use my webcam to take snapshots of scrawled notes.  You can also use your mobile phone to take photos of business cards, whiteboards or travel receipts and instantly capture these as tagged notes. This allows the information to be saved and grouped in the right context at the time of the ‘transaction’ as opposed to doing it all retrospectively.  

Regarding written notes: Evernote offers native integration support for Livescribe pens so your paper notes go straight to your Evernote filing cabinet in the clouds. Sounds wicked but I’m ok with capturing the pages via my laptop webcam or mobile phonecam. Besides I have a Fisher Millenium pen that is guaranteed never to run out of ink and I want to get my mileage!

The search features work well and Evernote uses OCR to make the printed and handwritten text inside images searchable (with limited success on the latter).

It’s a good tool for team collaboration on R&D type projects, especially if the folks are not co-located though you do need to upgrade to the premium version for this (at a whopping $5/month…).

At the time of writing, Evernote has been picking up 10000 new users a day and there is a whole sub-cult being spawned around new ways of using this software.

Final tip: Dump the notepad feature (equivalent to folders) and capture the meta information in your note name instead eg. “Project/Category name_sub category_description”. This one was “Blog_article_Evernote”. Sounds trivial but dropping the folders makes mobile phone access more efficient by dropping a navigation step.

Posted in Project management, Technology and culture | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments