Archives for posts with tag: project management

This was a Talkback I prepared for Lisette Sutherland, who could not attend Agile Bill Kreb’s 3D Webinar aired September 18, 2013.  Video at:  Get in touch with me if you’d like a TalkBack prepared for your online event! – ES

wave surger

Speaker Tom Wessel – Davisbase Consulting

Interactive Features: Spatial Environment.  Moderator gave lots of voice inflection, made listening engaging. Brought in other senses: made the sound of hands rubbing together, at the questions coming in.  This was a nice moment!

Tom Wessell is founder of Southern Fried Agile Conference… Regional flavors of Agile can complement and strengthen each other.   Enjoy the chicken, celebrate our thought leaders.  Attendance has gone from 75 to north of 300.  Five different tracks total 20 sessions.  5 PDUs  are like PMP crack!  We do it on a Friday – this year it’s October 18, 2013.  Take the day off and hang out with geeks and freaks and have a good time.

Virtual world graphics used to express metaphors for Agile:


It’s a pure sport – a simplistic framework in which you have just a few elements to work with and you must navigate a very complex system.  Execute on the wave, you have to adapt to the motions of that wave.  That’s Agile, applying simple tools to an ever-changing environment.  Otherwise, you end up in the drink!

Pile of Stones

The stones relate to release planning.  There’s a sequential flow of fulfilling requirements that have to be met by a specific date.  Iterations are fixed bucket sizes, requirements are different sized stones.  We arrange them into buckets based on needs of organizations.  Sustainable pace – small pebbles fill in the empty space around big rocks to even the flow.  Takes negotiation between teams and product owner.  There is a logical order to what takes place.

Fossil of Dinosaur Bones

Agile is more than software development and teams.  We as an organization need to evolve and adapt.  Challenges rise as you move up the food chain, it takes more energy to break down the silos and move toward an agile enterprise.  If you do not evolve to be competitive, you will end up extinct.  We are knowledge workers so learning is the bulk of what we do.  If you’re not upgrading skills every two years or so you’re probably falling behind.


Seeds sprouting in different stages relate to a paradigm shift we are experiencing from command and control structures to allowing for emergent design based on intrinsic strengths.  Project managers have many chances to grow in their development and understanding.  Agile is not a fad.  This is something that has value.  It is growing strong.

Watchmaking versus the Weather

Complicated system versus a complex system.  In the systems we work in, there is too much variability to mindlessly follow a fixed set of plans.  We must inspect and adapt and use whatever we’re learning.  Incorporate a replanning perspective.

Trends are Emerging Patterns.  Here are some:

Pairing a PM with an SM – team focused paired with externally focused.  Scrum Master job is full time, external requirements like compliance takes research and time that a partner can support, esp in a regulated environment.  PM will help navigate that.  Plus this helps agile transitions at enterprise scale by giving a legitimate role for the PM.  SM takes certain skills, empathetic/nanny/psychologist/motivator…not all PMs can make that transition.

SAFe structure -you’re addressing the things that we want to spend money on that fit into a business strategy – end to end system, whole organism – structure will help us evolve

Soft is the new hard.  People skills matter incredibly much.  We are imperfect creatures and hard to work with.  Servant leaders ask: how do I take this group of talented individuals and get them moving in a common direction and becoming high performing?  Then how do we take that to the next level, to the whole organization?

Focus on communication/negotiation/mutual respect – different parts of the organism flexibly say “sure – we’ll reconsider what we were going to do in light of what we are learning about how to make happy customers”  This can be internal or external…making the product owners happy is great.  Barbara Fredrickson’s books tell us that three to one positive to stressful events keep your brain operating at peak efficiency.

Chief product owner with sub product owners   Complex systems have multiple subsystems.  The voice of the customer includes competing needs and priorities.

Managing your personal WIP so you’re more productive and less stressed.  Our work in progress as thought workers isn’t visible, then at the end of the day we wonder why we’re so tired…what are all the things that are work in progress – make them visible so you can visualize them and understand why you’re so tired. Limit our WIP because we think we want as much work going on at once as possible, but we as humans are not as good at multitasking as we think. Chunking and conquering can be applied to anything in life, that’s what’s great about Agile principles, not just software

Goldilocks Approach to Process: focus on “what is the right level of process to support the flow through the system?”  Not too much, not too little, has to be just right to avoid disconnect without overcommunicating.  This is sophisticated stuff – Agile is evolving, and so are organizations.

student chalk art2

Chalkville, a city-wide collaboration attempting to break the world record for Largest Chalk Pavement Art in West Haven, Connecticut, this summer may be the first public art project to use Scrum as its project management framework.  Joining a Core Team comprised of Courtney Tracy (Design), Mitchell Gallignano (City Relations), Gwyneth Evans (Registration), Pat Libero (School Relations), and Richard Kasperowski (Agile Coach/Tech) are now two Student-Artist Co-Chairs, Carlos Andino and Mary Antoinette Canieso.

Carlos and Mary Antoinette very kindly took a break from their responsibilities as students during a busy spring of the academic year to answer a few questions.  Valuing people and interactions above tools and processes, the Chalkville team welcomes a chance to get to know more about who they are and introduce them to the broader community.



My name is CARLOS ANDINO and I am a junior at West Haven High School. I moved here last year from Puerto Rico. I’ve been a member of the art department ever since I got into the school and have taken classes such as 2D design, Cartooning and Commercial Art.


I’ve always been interested in art. Ever since I can remember, I used to draw on anything and everything that I could (just ask my parents!). I would spend every Saturday morning eating cereal and watching cartoons, and after I’d grab some paper and pencils and draw out my own characters and stories. This has stayed with me throughout my life, and I’m very thankful for that. I love being able to think of interesting and compelling characters and stories, even if I’m the only one that will see them.

Moving here from Puerto Rico has been a big blessing. Back in my old school, the only non-academic classes were P.E. and Computer Science. Even though I am very much into computers, I felt like I was missing out. I would see American high schools on television and movies, where students had a range of classes to choose from, where they could go after school to a club that they enjoyed and wanted to be a part of. I envied that and now I’m very happy that I get to have that life.

The Art Department at West Haven High School has helped me so much with expressing myself through my art. It helped me harness my own style, and not be afraid to express myself, even if thought of as unusual to others. It is very important to me to be proud of my style of art because I hope to be an animator for movies, television shows or commercials. I want to be able to flip through the channels and spot something that I created or helped create rolling on air for the world to see.

In the Chalkville project I hope to contribute my skills as an artist, but also contribute my love for West Haven by making this chalk art the best that it can be. Whether that means being part of the design team or serving people cold water, I want to help any way that I can in this great opportunity that we all have to come together as a community and break the world record for largest chalk art!

IMG_0232 2

NETTIE CANIESO: I’m a senior at West Haven High School and have participated in the Art department for all four years. I have also been a part of the theater program since my sophomore year. I like to write (and sing) my own songs, stories and poetry. 


I’ve always been interested in art. Tooting my own horn, I’d say it was a natural talent. But I learned to hone my skills as student under the three art teachers at the high school and I had the honor of being taught by all three at one point or another. 


As a student, art classes, namely Studio Art Honors, have taught me to think outside the box and never stick to what I am comfortable with. Throughout my years, starting from Studio Art I and taking Studio Art II this year, I have learned the importance of deadlines and being able to produce works of art that I can be happy with while still being able to hand them in on time (being much easier said than done!)  Art is a reflection of what’s important to me as a person. Every work I create (that I am happy with and/or simply complete) is an extension of who I am and what influences me. Art has taught me to give reason to why I do what I do and why I create what I create.


Art will always be a part of my life and I hope to further my art education and eventually become an animator of a cartoon of my own creation. 


I hope that by participating in Chalkville, artists and non-artists alike will get an understanding of what is needed to create a successful work of art.  I hope this hands-on experience shows the community that art is more than just drawing a flower on a piece of paper. It’s a statement louder than words.  We all know a picture says a thousand words.  I hope what we create will leave viewers with at least this one: amazing.


Heading up the Design Squad, Courtney Tracy, a West Haven resident and alumna of the West Haven High School art department, will meet regularly with the students and other New Haven-area based artists including Giada Crispiels to create a unified image for a site-specific 100,000 square foot drawing.  All are welcome to participate in the world record attempt but must pre-register at  Meanwhile, principles of Scrum are keeping the development team on track: timeboxed (2-week) sprints leading up to a fixed release date, urgent and enthusiastic goal-driven communication, frequent inspection and adaptation, clear alignment of purpose in the form of user stories, and a commitment to demonstrate awesome results.

student chalk art1

Chalkville, a large-scale public arts event for civic pride, is funded in part by the Awesome Foundation, Connecticut Chapter.  Donations for chalk and other supplies are fully tax-deductible and may be sent to Chalkville, c/o West Haven Council on the Arts, PO Box 16513 West Haven, CT 06516.  SPECIAL THANKS to Ann Nyberg at WTNH Channel 8 for her recent interview which may be viewed at

In his book On Dialogue, physicist and theorist David Bohm famously describes thought as not an individual act but a collective stream of meaning that is shared within a culture.  He suggests we strive for “proprioception” in our thought processes, which he defines as the perception of self-aware movement.

Proprioception is the kind of sixth sense that enables a bike rider, for example, to perform the required  slew of nano-corrections that support the body’s forward motion.   Bohm proposes a corresponding set of mental processes that enable avoidance of dead-end patterns (chief among them, aggression and suppression), improving the flow of meaning and the success of a culture.

What might this have to do with the Scrum framework for project management?  One striking thing at the recent Scrum Gathering in Barcelona (see was an emphasis on the role of Product Owner in many of the sessions.   Getting that particular role “right” comes across as a critical lever for many Agile companies.

For those who aren’t familiar, a Product Owner is someone who works closely with a development team representing the needs and interests of the customer.  The Product Owner is chiefly responsible for articulating the project’s goals and acceptance criteria,  providing feedback and approving finished work at the end of each sprint.

According to the internal logic of Scrum, then, a Product Owner is engaged in a Bohm-like dialogue  with the team.  The degree of consciousness and subtlety of this dialogue can enable a kind of group proprioception, improving the quality of the team’s creative output.

With the right feedback, corrections can be achieved throughout the development process, making a product more powerful in its construction of a coherent set of meanings.  Because these meanings have been agreed-upon by the makers and those for whom a thing is being made, their realization in form is a kind of cultural success, a “win” for the culture.

This was evidently the case for Ericsson, a world leader in providing technology and services to telecommunications companies, as described by Peter Madden in his session Significance of Feedback Loops on the Journey to Agile, part of the “Engineering Wars” program track at Barcelona.  It wasn’t until they had made the Product Owner role full-time that his teams had enough customer feedback to be particularly effective in transitioning away from a waterfall approach.   For Madden, the urgent need to do so is primarily about velocity.

Because it can achieve creative proprioception by virtue of structured feedback loops, Scrum is capable of bringing thought into form – and into the marketplace – faster than traditional methods of project management.  These days, throwing work “over the wall” from one team to the next, as proscribed by the waterfall style, just can’t carry a dialogue forward fast enough.

As I hear about capital projects that have gone bust from overambition and organizational stress rooted in conflicting views about how much it is possible to know in advance, it seems apropos to put this thinker’s conclusion forward, grounded in arts management as a lived experience:

“It is not a matter of saying analytically, ‘what are the requirements, how best they could be organized?’ This will usually bring into existence something tame, conventional, often cold. The science of theatre building must come from studying what it is that brings about the more vivid relationships between people.“ – Director Peter Brook

The science of theater building sounds like every project worth completing right now. MANY THANKS to John Thackara for including the quote in his excellent 2003 essay, The Post-Spectacular City.

Thackara’s essay is a useful grounding point for heady, interrelated discussions taking place in the emergent design worlds. Whether it’s culture hacking or creative placemaking, any good idea can go awry in a heartbeat of “too busy to care” or “too about-to-be-funded to care” about the internal logic of what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. There is also (ahem) what David Ehrenfield called the plain, old “arrogance of humanism” to contend with. It happens.

I attended a memorable speech Toni Morrison gave twenty-odd years ago at a conference in Washington, DC in which she made the point: ”there is no Golden Age.” We cannot with integrity hark back to periods in history which relied on slavery and other forms of oppression to organize the leisure time of its decision-makers to indulge in politics and the arts. That’s what I see today when presented with a set of Greek columns, for instance, in Chicago’s Millennium Park. A false harking back and a collective call towards inauthenticity – in other words, a spectacle. We cannot even hark back to the golden ages of our own respective movements, times when the inside circle of a given scene was very small (we were in it, of course!) and things were cooler.

However, I do believe we can achieve something golden in our work across sectors as we imagine things differently. These glimmers, these clues, are by definition ephemeral and provisional. They multiply out of concern for vivid relationships between people. We must make space for dialogue and co-dreaming. For the invention of new, shared meanings. As we muddle through figuring this stuff out, we must include ourselves. As we take responsibility for prioritizing individuals and interactions over tools and processes (wait, who’s manning the Agile Manifesto?), we supply others with useful models for differentiating the vivid from the bland.

Don’t we all want a taste of the post-spectacular? Something to carry our time spent in cities, theaters, and workplaces beyond the tame, cold and conventional? This is not something that will be delivered to us. It is something we must make.

Companies like Morning Star are figuring out vivid relationships at work AND figuring out how to succeed economically. Let’s study them closely, for inspiration and information rather than exact, cookie-cutter replication.

Meanwhile, we’ll walk across Millennium Park to another sculpture affectionately known by Chicagoans as “The Bean.” Here, a reflective surface views its viewers, reminding us of the absurdity of standing in front of a hunk of metal trying – alongside a bunch of strangers – to see something wondrous. It is simply the act of seeing that is wondrous, the public celebration of NOW, and the unrepeatable experience in the infinite reflections every moment brings.

I wanted to provide a quick way to reference “The Artistic Dividend: The Arts’ Hidden Contributions to Regional Development”  By Ann Markusen and David King out of the University of Minnesota.  In section eight (Artists’ View of Themselves as Economic Actors), the researchers took an “occupational approach, centered on understanding the economic aspirations and experiences of individual artists through interviews, [which] uncovered a significant number of cases where artists are successfully generating a satisfactory income by working entrepreneurially, often aided by an extensive network of advice and contacts with others in the region. Many do so without sacrificing quality and creative integrity. ”

However, many artists, even successful grant-winning artists, still do not think of what they do as economic activity!  The report finds that they might do well to engage in entrepreneurial skill-building and overcome tendencies to think negatively about marketing their work.

Agile (which can be summed up as a team-based technology for approaching high-value business projects at high velocity in climates of dynamic uncertainty) is such an effective way to prioritize administrative tasks and achieve business objectives – I recommend it to any artist seeking to leverage time spent on “the business end of things.”   Training and coaching discourses around Agile are still very much grounded in the world of software development, now spreading to other, related domains – see  I am working on translating the essence of Agile into an arts-friendly language…collaborators WELCOME!  I hope that this will unlock new partnerships between the arts and start-up worlds and re-interest / reinvest nonprofit arts supporters in  the core administrative operations of organizations, which can be creative and innovative in their own right.

Planning to visit Minneapolis/St. Paul in August.  Please contact me ( about other arts organizations and/or start-up companies I should visit on my northern trip cross-country.    Special thanks to arts reporter Judith H. Dobrzynski.

Devin Hedge is an Agile Coach with Big Visible Solutions, and is now coaching one of the largest financial management firms in Raleigh-Durham.  He agreed to be interviewed for “TGIF,” our Friday custom of seeking out choice bits of thought exchange.  MANY THANKS to Devin, who can be reached through his website ( for feedback or inquiries.

AB:  So we’re speaking today about working environments  in which the impetus for adopting Agile does not come from the top down.   Have you witnessed this phenomenon of Stealth Agile?

DH:  I would say 99% of the impetus for adopting Agile is grassroots.  A small team within a software development or IT shop is fed up with bureaucracy and the typical way things get done, or rather don’t get done.  Agile compelled me in this way, that’s where I started.  Going back to 1997, all the Agile teams I worked on, they were all stealth.   We dumped the traditional project plans, we dumped the Gant charts.  We looked around for other models.

I was working in the European telecommunications industry, in which many countries were just starting to transition to free markets, it was scary for them, times were uncertain and we needed to be able to deliver value quickly.  [DBH] I started as a staff developer but quickly became a Team Lead once they realized that I had a leadership background as an Army Officer. I started looking around for all sorts of ways to turn a chaotic situation into delivering what our business partners wanted.

I had learned about doing stand-ups from an article in a pop-management magazine about lessons to be learned from a Navy boat commander.   He would have stand up briefings at the beginning of the day.  This got everyone focused on the same things.  The article pointed out that the Command and Information Center had big visible charts all over the place. It put all of the  work happening on the right out in front of the whole team.  The Navy has been that way for years, whether you’re on a destroyer or a frigate or an aircraft carrier, there are big glass walls where they would put everything.  That way the commander or captain could – at a glance – gain complete situational awareness. It was also a way for each of the officers to hold each other accountable for getting things done.

This really resonated with me because as an Army NCO and later as a young Officer, I spent time supporting a lot of elite forces. There was a team dynamic there that I was going for. I knew these kind of teams could exist and be highly productive because I had seen them in our government. These were self-contained teams, close knit and cross-functional. When I applied the same principles to software development teams, it all just clicked.

I started having standups, set up the big charts on the wall and then asked, “What we could show after one week?” By the end of one week we were able to turn a prototype back to the customer and ask for feedback.  We didn’t get much sleep, but we were wildly successful. If kinda snowballed from there once the customer was able to see and touch the software early on. After that,  I was asked to be a the project manager for 30 guys and gals on a one month sprint.  After that, it was a distributed team, spanning the UK, Australia and India.

As a Project Manager, I started to have a cult following.  This was not because I walk on water (obviously!) but because, when you put people at the center of the process, everything works.

AB: What is it about Agile that attracts workers on a stealth basis?

DH: Quality stays right out front the whole time.  Good quality assurance programs try to harmonize the fact that you can meet every specification, but if the market rejects it, the product isn’t good.  We know that having two truckloads of documentation at the end of a process is not actually proof that a product was good.

One thing about quality, it’s in the eye of the beholder, just like beauty.  Many quality implementation frameworks end up transforming something that was well-meaning into a check-the-box exercise instead of actually looking at the product.  It should be more like an art critique.  Agile just does that naturally, through tight feedback loops.

Most small teams like Agile because it fires up people’s creative juices.  We are not robots; we are not here to do the same repetitive task over and over.  We are here to do a unique task that is highly nuanced – singularly unique every time – based on human experience.  That’s why Agile is so appealing to knowledge workers who should have been hired for creativity, for situations in which what is required is kind of fuzzy.  It enables the human potential within them to come out, expressing the intrinsic value of work.

Agile has all sorts of built-in reward systems.  Computers give us interesting puzzles to figure out.  The problem is, if you’re the only person who plays with the puzzle it’s not that rewarding.   Someone else recognizing what you went through to produce that product is a self-reinforcing reward system.  Agile recognizes people’s mastery.

AB: What happens when a Stealth Agile team tries to scale up?

DH: A couple things.  When you first start adopting Agile outside the initial hive, we often see “teams” that aren’t acting like cross-functional, self-organized, empowered teams. Instead we find groups of individuals. Part of this is the Gulture Culture of celebrating being an Introvert. Nothing wrong with that. However, we need teams. So, the Introverts who aren’t used to collaborating very well might resist getting dragged into a team. Usually the objections aren’t real objections, they’re expressing insecurity about some facet of the process. Takes a little digging to figure out what’s really going on. A command-and-control culture might say that the person has “issues” or “lack of skills,” expressing a judgmental attitude.  That is rarely true. Often the situation is that the Leadership Style being employed just hasn’t found the right way to motivate the person. In Agile we take the time because people are more important than process.

Also, to scale out of being Stealth, you have to create an environment where it is safe to fail.  I’m not talking big failures, but lots of little ones that don’t cause any real harm, the kind people actually learn a lot from.  Christiansen in the Innovators’ DNA talks about how safe environments help workers connect their synapses by asking probing questions, personal networking with others, and taking time to observe in and out of the company.

In Stealth mode, it is easy to create this environment. You’re in an isolated bubble. At some point, Stealth Agile starts to gain what I call “viral velocity” and the team hits a wall when it can no longer be stealth. You have to explain why you’re not doing such and such documentation of where you have failed forward as a learning opportunity and someone just sees it as failure.  Generally there’s someone in middle or upper management who just doesn’t understand. This really isn’t because of process or policy. It is because the culture inside the Stealth Agile team is so different from the larger organization around it.

So you have to find your champion and your change agent.  We’ve found that having a group of at least four people, two supportive people at two different levels in the company, is a critical factor for getting past this culture shock to the organization. There is real Brain Science at play in the way people will resist the Stealth Agile team joining the rest of the organization.  The basal ganglia part of the brain is always searching for pattern recognition.  A response to the new and unfamiliar can override reason because it triggers flight or fight.  In situations where you’re trying to expand out of a Stealth Agile team, the rest of the organization doesn’t have a “pattern match”, so the champion and change agent have to create the experience, the pattern match, that helps click pieces into place horizontally and vertically through the organization in order for the new culture to stick.

The message from the Stealth Agile team to the rest of the company should be two-fold.  First, they should communicate the story of their pattern of responding and adapting to rapidly changing business needs.  The strength of the feedback loop created through close customer collaboration creates a narrative all by itself which then becomes compelling to the champion and change agent and gets retold.

The second part is management seeing the potential for what happens if the company embraces Agile outright.   At a very personal level, you have to activate the senses of management: desire gets triggered and then fulfilled just the way it does in a user story.

There is a hitch to all of this. There have to be structures for fulfillment around the Stealth Agile team or group or department otherwise there’s no survival at scale.  So you have to create a lot of buzz  around how much return on investment you’re going to get by being able to adapt and quickly respond to changing business needs, to ensure that the requisite structures are in place to be successful.

It’s management’s job to push, see how hard they can push people. That’s their job. It’s how they do that in the culture that matters.  There’s a directing style of leadership and a servant or motivating style of leadership.  The latter recognizes that people aren’t typically motivated by someone dictating policies.  Stealth Agile teams need to trigger a larger desire within the company for a different way of working and then fulfill that desire.

The following Q&A with project management veteran Tom Gilb – known today as “Grandfather of the Agile movement,” has direct application to the world of arts funding, particularly as outcomes-based management  is catching on among grantmakers and showing up in their reporting requirements.   A statement he makes validates my assumption that there needs to be a shift from “grantwriting” per se to more of a project management-driven approach in an age of increased competition for project-based contributed income:

“So that is my lesson to stakeholders and project funders. Demand clear, quantified objectives before happily dispensing money.”

Recent publications such as Mario Morino’s Leap of Reason make clear the connections between big thinking, fundability, creativity and survival in the coming years in the nonprofit sector.  So in that spirit, here are some questions for arts managers to consider.

  • At any given point, could a funder walk up to someone working in your box office or classroom or studio and say “tell me what you’re trying to accomplish this season with my money” ?
  • Have you integrated aspects of project management into your grantwriter’s set of responsibilities?
  • Is your grantwriter considered the “spinmaster” in your organization?
  • Do some of your staff seem resentful of having to “kowtow to funders”?
  • Are grantwriters included in long-range programming and brainstorming meetings?
  • Are programming staff assigned to write portions of your final reports?

The arts should stay ahead of this curve – it’s where we belong!

What is Agile?

As the arts community agrees on the value of entrepreneurship, one specific framework to look at is Agile.  Originating from within the fast paced, ever-changing world of software development, Agile is now spreading to other business sectors, even outside of the start-up community.  Big Visible Solutions is one company offering regular trainings in New York City in a form of Agile known as Scrum, which offers enough reference points to make it an arts-friendly way to plan, organize workflow and manage teams.

Planning in Agile Mode

A traditional planning process is geared towards envisioning the entire plan from start to finish prior to execution.  One of the assumptions made is that the conditions which govern the operating climate at the start of the planning process will remain stable throughout the period covered by the plan.  Alternatively, a five-year plan may be drafted with the assumption that it will need to be examined and revised each year in order to remain relevant.  That’s an awful lot of time committed to be spent planning!

Agile planning mode is more reality-based.  It assumes that you cannot possibly know everything you need to know at the start of execution, no matter how thorough a planning process has been.  The goal is to gather enough clarity to get started, and to set up a transparent process for learning and sharing results along the way.  Precision is not sought-after while making estimates (guessing), but is to be desired and expected as a team works together.

When you have committed a lot of time to be spent in a planning process, change becomes a threat to be controlled or eliminated.  In reality, change is an ever-present constant, which can be channeled into productivity if it is recognized with thoughtful response.

Bottom Line from The Agile Manifesto: Agile values responding to change over following a plan.  

Organizing Workflow in Agile Mode

Responding to change does not mean operating in a chaotic or unstructured way!  On the contrary, a definite structure to the workflow is necessary in order to measure what in fact gets accomplished.  In the Agile framework, workflow is organized into “sprints,” time periods which have specific beginning and end-dates.  Based on all the priorities identified in the plan (called a backlog, to be explained in more detail in the next article) the team commits to what it can accomplish within a given timebox.  That commitment – to accomplish X by Y date – constitutes the sprint and is to be considered a team not an individual effort.

Defining “X,” or what the team will accomplish together within a very tight timeframe requires that all team members maintain a customer focus throughout the sprint.  In other words, everyone involved with a project must understand how the work produced is going to be used in the real world and why it is in demand.  The meaning of the work is embedded into Agile workflow practices and constantly accessible to the team because of the Agile focus on organizing tasks by creating short narratives based on customer wants and needs.

These short narratives that define the workflow in Agile mode are known as “user stories.”  To take an example highly relevant to the nonprofit arts world, instead of a plan that reads “consultant will research funding prospects for Executive Director to distribute to the Board,” the Agile translation would be “As a Board Member, I want to review a current list of funding prospects so that I can fulfill my fiduciary responsibilities.”  The consultant and Executive Director work together to make that story come true, but they are not the focus of the work.  The “customer” is (i.e. in the arts world, stakeholder).

Bottom line:  Commitment to completing work within a given timeframe fuels high productivity.

Managing Teams in Agile Mode

Let’s look at project management as a discipline.  Its place in the business world has become well-defined; most projects require an administrator whose job it is to run around with a club making sure everyone involved is on time and on budget.  The project manager holds others accountable, because ultimately they are accountable themselves.

In the arts world, creative projects have managers (choreographers, certainly, fulfill this role) but on the administrative side things are not so clear.  Many administrative “projects” do not have managers per se other than the organizational directors.  Without a defined project manager, collaborations tend to get bogged down and become more trouble, sometimes, than they are worth.  Then around final report time, grantmakers are asked to go into the back room and sprinkle pixie dust all over everything to make it sound good.  Grantmakers get tired of reading “spin,” and everyone wonders what the real outcomes are for the money invested.

Projects are led by a  Scrum Master in the Agile framework.  The Scrum Master functions as a team coach.  He/she is responsible for facilitating meetings, listening to reports from the team, identifying obstacles to getting the work completed and removing them, and helping the team understand any changes in specifications as the customer/stakeholder’s wishes become increasingly better understood.

Another important function of the Scrum Master is to lead a retrospective at the conclusion of a sprint.  This will be a familiar concept to performing arts administrators, similar to a “post-mortem” after a production.  The retrospective is focused on three simple questions:

•    What went well?
•    What did not go so well?
•    How can we improve?

Answering these questions makes the next planning process rather a no-brainer, as the next set of work becomes mapped out and refined automatically.  Agile teams are self-organized in that each team member has an intrinsic commitment to accomplishing the goals of the sprint, and the Scrum Master functions as a coach rather than a dictator, taskmaster, or guy/gal with a club.

Bottom line: Agile management is focused on teams rather than individuals, but individuals and interactions matter more than processes and tools for getting work done.

Why is Agile relevant to the arts?

This appears to be a watershed moment: alongside the eternal cry that arts organizations should become ever more businesslike in a traditional, fiscally buttoned-up sense, businesses are now striving to be more and more creative, to think and operate more like artists.  The cultural membrane is stretched very thin right now between non-profit and for-profit forms of innovation, minimizing their differences.  As a result, producers and practitioners of all kinds can meet and profit from the exchange of ideas on a more level intellectual playing field than ever before, where no one sector is presumed to have all the correct answers and mutually meaningful collaborative learning can take place.

Focus here on the Agile framework represents one set of specifics in that vein.  The arts community itself must determine its ultimate relevance and usefulness.

Further information on the Agile framework and Scrum training is available at and

Please provide feedback on this article and related topics here or to  MANY THANKS.

%d bloggers like this: