Whitepaper – Agile Adoption in Government

What are the key considerations when choosing to adopt agile methods in a government context?

This whitepaper by Zen Ex Machina is aimed at government senior executives and managers. It examines the benefits of adoption of Scrum to both initiate new projects and rescued stalled ones within a government context.

In this whitepaper, Zen Ex Machina articulates:

  • The ANAO’s factors in planning and approving projects as they relate to using Scrum.
  • Why projects using Waterfall are more likely to fail than Agile projects.
  • The benefits/outcomes can be realised through adopting Scrum.
  • How Scrum aligns with Prince2 requirements.
  • How Scrum’s key processes can increase transparency and reduce risk.
  • Impediments to adopting Scrum.

Importantly, this whitepaper articulates how to get started with Scrum, including planning, governance and building requirements.

If you work in government, you can receive your copy of the whitepaper by completing the the following details:

The Master Scrum Master – Scaling your Scrum Master capability in Government

Whilst Scrum Teams are self-organising and empowered, at scale, the Master Scrum Master (i.e. Chief Scrum Master) provides coordination and alignment to support teams’ delivery. In Government, this role is crucial to ensure that alignment not only across the teams, it also needs to be in line with program and portfolio strategic intentions for that government agency and in line with wider whole of government initiatives as such as the digital transformation to provide simpler, clearer and faster public services.

The Master Scrum Master role is a recent concept in government. I have been a Master Scrum Master on a number of transformation projects across large government agencies and have had to explore some of the unique challenges of scaling in government including:
• Scaling from a team of eight backend developers to eight teams of 100 people across the three platforms with six external vendors on separate government contracts/SLAs
• Introducing scrum roles into a government structure that are traditionally based on levels of hierarchy with associated HR and PMO reporting
• Dealing with expectations that Agile teams will still meet work schedules driven by internal and external Waterfall teams outside of the sprint planning process
• Working within Gateway signoff processes driven by upfront detailed level design

So, how can we address these challenges?

The Master Scrum Master plays a vital role in addressing challenges of scaling in government in three critical ways:
1. Coordination of Integration to meet shared goals: As a contractor or vendor into government agencies, often it is hard to navigate the landscape and projects and programs of work can become caught up in “noise”. This is where the Master Scrum Master as owner of the process and integration can help as their focus on tactical delivery of the implementation, can help those new to government or the agency, to understand the integration points and then work with these vendors and contractors to gain a better understanding of lead times, dependencies, capabilities and capacities external to the team, to work together to support the small batch sized product increments.
2. Facilitating collaboration: As a Master Scrum Master of a government service delivery teams, I found patterns such as “Scrum of Scrums” and its counterpart the “Product Owners Council” were useful in ensuring collaboration and integration coordination across the teams and facilitate an effective escalation process. For example, these patterns were key to cementing the Scrum Masters and Product Owners relationship to put the focus on business value and working together towards achieving the goals for the Product Increment rather than working in team silos or formal sections/divisions.
3. Focus on Continuous Improvement: The Master Scrum Master requires a very different mindset to a traditional program manager as the Master Scrum Master needs to be a servant leader who coordinates all the team’s efforts to facilitate program level processes and execution, escalate impediments, manage risk, and drive program-level continuous improvement through Inspect/Adapt feedback loops.

The Four Principles of Forming Effective Governance of a Release Train

I’ve been working with a number of government agencies as they look to Agile methodologies to help them implement their digital transformation strategies. Governance is key to these implementations as the governance framework needs to describe the functional lines of responsibility and accountability.

It is important to recognise that, because a Release train is a construct, the governance framework is explicitly designed to support the outcomes of that construct. As such, it is independent of the organisational hierarchy and therefore must also contextualise these new  Agile roles and the responsibilities of all those involved in the Release Train.

Team members need to know what decisions are within their domain and which need to be escalated.  In our Release Trains, we want to optimise for fast, decentralised decision making as any decision that must be escalated to a higher level introduces delay (waste) and inhibits flow however within the government agencies we also needed to acknowledge that some decisions are strategic, critical and far reaching across the enterprise and therefore need to be centralised.

Decentralised Decision Making

Decentralised decisions tend to be those decisions that need to happen frequently, are often time-critical (e.g. acceptance of a Sprint Goal at the end of Sprint Planning or acceptance of User Stories as “Done” in Sprint Review), and do not have significant economies of scale. The responsibility for these team-level decisions typically resides with the Product Owner (for decisions regarding the team’s work, scope and quality) or with the Scrum Master (for decisions regarding execution of work aligned with the Scrum process).

Centralised Decision Making

Strategic decisions, those that are infrequent, long lasting and have significant economies of scale, are made at a higher level of management. In the Release Train, the responsibility for these decisions typically resides with the Product Manager (for decisions regarding the scope and boundary of the work for the Agile Release Train and its quality) and Release Train Engineer (for decisions regarding execution of work across the Agile Release Train), with the ultimate level of accountability residing with the Program Director and then the Portfolio Executive.

Four Principles for Effective Governance

  • A single point of responsibility for the success of the Train – This provides clarity of leadership, management and timeliness of decision-making during the product increment.
  • Service delivery is focused on business value – Placing the delivery of business value at the heart of the product increment.
  • Separation of delivery ownership and product ownership – To focus on delivery of business outcomes and prevent decision-making forums, such as the Release Management Group (RMG), from becoming just a status report meeting focused on technical issues.
  • Separation of project governance and organisational structures – To reduce the number of project decision layers, since the project decision path does not follow the organisational line of command.

To achieve its goals, this Release Train is comprised of the following three structures:

Activity Role Description
Directing Release Management Group Accountable for the direction and management of the Train within the constraints set out by the Program’s mandate.
Managing Release Train Engineer and Product Manager Responsible for the day-to-day management of the Train within the constraints set out by the RMG, typically encompassing time, cost, quality, scope, risk and benefits.
Delivering Scrum Team/s Responsible for delivering the products to an appropriate quality within a specified timescale and cost.

Responsible for planning and producing products.


Release Train Engineer – The Master Scrum Master

When scaling Agile at an enterprise level, coordination and alignment across multiple teams is challenging. Whilst Agile teams are self-organising and empowered, someone needs to steer the train to keep it on the tracks to facilitate program level processes and execution, escalate impediments, manage issues, mitigate risks, and drive continuous improvement.

This is my presentation form the LAST (Lean Agile System Thinking) Conference in Melbourne where I shared my experiences of being a Release Train Engineer (RTE) on a digital transformation project across a large government enterprise and explored the challenges and lessons learnt. In particular, I focused on the Scrum of Scrums and how the RTE is essentially the Master Scrum Master of the Release Train and demonstrated how to ensure Scrum Masters are working together towards achieving the goals for the Train’s Product Increment.



Who *should* be your Product Owner?

Who should be your (Scrum) Product Owner?

I’ve had a number of these conversations recently with small, boutique software development agencies and even design companies with UX expertise. Typically, the conversation goes something like this:

  • The business stakeholder or client is the owner of the product, so they should be the Product Owner
  • We’ve got a Product Manager, so they should be the Product Owner?
  • The Development Team is supposed to self-manage, so they can just share the Product Owner role
  • Decisions about the scope and what the Development Team should work on is far too important for just one person, so we should have a committee make the decision.

The Scrum Guide (2013) is pretty specific about what the role of Product Owner is and what it does:

“The Product Owner is responsible for maximizing the value of the product and the work of the
Development Team. How this is done may vary widely across organizations, Scrum Teams, and

“The Product Owner is the sole person responsible for managing the Product Backlog… [the role requires] is one person, not a committee. The Product Owner may represent the desires of a committee in the Product Backlog, but those wanting to change a Product Backlog item’s priority must address the Product Owner [1].”

The implications are significant. Ultimately, it means managing the Product Backlog in such a way so as to achieve balance between optimisation at the delivery (Team) level and the vision of the product.

Different Product Owners

Client as Product Owner

In my experience, when push comes to shove, and the end of funds is near or the project is running out of time, a client won’t throw Scrum aside and push for more features. I’ve often heard them say, “you’re agile, so that means you just have to learn to adapt”.

  • Advantage: Clear view of the vision
  • Disadvantage: Doesn’t care about your Scrum process. Won’t truly understand balancing technical features and technical debt over features and functionality.
  • Result: Features! Features! Features!

Business Analyst as Product Owner

A senior B.A. is a whiz at managing scope and interpreting clients’ needs. Unfortunately, they are often too low down the pecking order to be given responsibility for delivering an outcome.

  • Advantage: Product Backlog Lumberjack!
  • Disadvantage: Often not empowered.
  • Result: Wait until I go ask someone and then I can tell you the decision.

Scrum doesn’t say where that vision needs to come from, though. It could come from the client, a Product Manager, a Program Manager or the executive leadership team in a large enterprise.

Project Manager as Product Owner

A Project Manager’s focus is not too dissimilar from a Product Owner’s. He maximises the ROI of a project, manage stakeholders and communication, its finances and changes to its scope.

  • Advantage: Often have the power to make decisions
  • Disadvantage: May not be technical enough to create balance between the technical needs of a product and the needs of the requirements of clients. May tend to blur the line between the “what” and the “how” and micromanage the Development Team to deliver an outcome. Scrum key meetings may fall by the wayside as a result to make more time to code.
  • Result: You should be coding not being in meetings so much!

UX Designer/Architect as the Product Owners

I came from a UX background. It influences my Scrum practice quite heavily in terms of optimising the Product Backlog so that it delivers value to end-users. As such, when I perform the role of Product Owner, I’m always conscious of building a product with a user-centred vision, and balancing good UX with technical features and the “nice to haves” that clients ask for.

  • Advantage: User centred perspective.
  • Disadvantage: Like a BA, may be too low level to be empowered. May “gold plate” the UI and not care how long it takes the Development Team to deliver.
  • Result: This would be good for users, but the Project/Product Manager/Client has overridden me and wants more features.

Product Managers as Product Owners

I find that Product Managers, like Program Managers, are just too high level and too concerned with larger things to get their hands dirty at a local, Development Team level. Their responsibilities often mean there is little time to spend in key meetings relating User Story level details to a Development Team.

  • Advantage: Have the vision and are empowered to achieve it
  • Disadvantage: May not know how to translate that vision into items for the Product Backlog. May not have the time to dedicate to collaborating with the Development Team to deliver the outcome because they are spending more of their time with senior stakeholders.
  • Result: Here is the big picture, now just do it!

Line Managers as Product Owners

In an organisational context, Managers can be quite effective Product Owners. They already have experience telling their teams what to do. Empowerment is an important key aspect of being a good Product Owner, and in environments with an existing hierarchical structure, this is one of my favourite patterns.

  • Advantage: They are empowered to make decisions.
  • Disadvantage: May be too used to micromanaging their team.
  • Result: Agile aside, what do you need to deliver?

So, who could be the Product Owner

My favourite Product Owners are senior BAs with enough referent power on the client side to help shepherd them to good decisions regarding the vision, enough expertise to manage the scope of the Product Backlog themselves to deliver a high-value product, and with experience with Scrum so that they respect the process.

Ultimately, there is no best person for the role other than someone who is empowered to make decisions, balance the short and longer term vision of delivery, and has experience with Scrum sufficient not to throw it away when things get tough.

Hierarchy and Product Owners

But sometimes one Product Owner is not enough. And when there is a whole program of work and many teams, what happens to the Product Owner? Can he make the same decisions independent of other Product Owners?

Program Management and Product Owners

In SAFe, the high-level vision comes from the Program Manager who collaborates with a number of Team-level Product Owners.

SAFe's Product Manager to Product Owner model

Product Managers have a number of Product Owners

This model is quite logical in an enterprise with an existing management hierarchy, particularly where the vision of the product is made at a level higher than the Team.

Chief Product Owners and Local Product Owners

In LeSS, that superordinate view of the direction of the product as a whole comes from a (Chief) Product Owner who then engages Area Product Owners.

The LeSS model focuses on a Product Owner Team

The LeSS model focuses on a Product Owner Team

In more decentralised Team environments, an Area Product Owner (APO) specialises in a customer-centric area and acts as Product Owner in relation to one or more teams for that area. An Area Product Owner does the same work as a Product Owner but with a more limited, yet still customer-centric, perspective.


Understanding the governance between the strategic, tactical and delivery aspects of a program of work is key to understanding who is the best person to be the Product Owner. Ultimately, it can be anyone, so long as “the entire organization must respect his or her decisions. The Product Owner’s decisions are visible in the content and ordering of the Product Backlog [1]”.


The Development’s Team’s focus is often to build the product right, making sure it works and the code is of good quality. The Product Manager’s focus is on achieving the vision, but not necessarily on the detail to make it work. The clients’ focus is all about features features features!

Ultimately, the role of the Scrum’s Product Owner is the focus point of all these conversations. It has to be one person, not many, otherwise decisions may take too long, the focus might lean too much toward the higher (product management) or lower perspective (team’s delivery), or the governance watered down so that no one is the “go to gaol” person when things go poorly.

Who ever you decide on making your Product Owner, ensure they are:

  • Empowered to make decisions.
  • Can be pragmatic in creating a balanced outcome between the vision and delivery.
  • Know and respect Scrum, so they make it all work through collaboration with the Development Team, the Scrum Master and the customer (who ever that might be).
Team, Product Owner, Client collaboration

Team, Product Owner, Client collaboration



[1] Schwaber, K. & Sutherland, J. 2013. The Scrum Guide™ The Definitive Guide to Scrum: The Rules of the Game. p5.

Growing Pains – Scaling Agile to achieve greater capability in service delivery

The team I was working with had a “great problem” – more work than we could deliver. However this success brought mixed blessings as the strain of growing so quickly was starting to show. We had a backlog of work, process issues, resourcing and quality issues and a lot of knowledge residing with one or two of the original start-up team who were now single points of failure.

The innovative, “can do” attitude of the start-up company was still there but we were having growing pains. We knew that what we were experiencing in our market (Australia) would eventually be seen in our USA market if we didn’t find a solution to our growing pains.

We looked to Lean and Agile as a multidisciplinary approach to achieving an effective product strategy, development and delivery capability that could be scaled to the whole organization.

As a result of our optimization for lean delivery we had an empowered team, improved quality, know velocity and capacity and an organization that is learning to deal with changes and project complexity. In the short term we achieved greater transparency of projects, increased collaboration and knowledge sharing across teams and the team now had a better understanding of the “what” and definition of done and a process to handle unknowns and respond to changes. Projects are now managed in programs of work and we now have a product and service delivery roadmap to ensure enterprise aims for product development are linked to implementation strategy and delivery.



Adopting Scrum helped to improve delivery capability and enhance product co-development partnerships and decreased the risk of failure to deliver the Program of work in a timely fashion. This was done through employing a number of methods and techniques, including working collaboratively with stakeholders and end-users, simplifying governance and increasing accountability and employing iterative methods, rather than a ‘big bang’ approach. Encouraging frequent inspection and adaption, teamwork and collaboration between the project’s members ensure that knowledge and skills were shared within and across teams as the process scaled from project delivery to program and portfolio level delivery.

The artefacts and learnings from the Australian pilot were adopted by the global PMO and we are now helping to roll out this framework to other regions. Once clients become a program of work, we had a scalable and proven method to ensure we continue to deliver a quality outcome.

An important part of our aim was to optimize for lean delivery. Scrum’s processes are explicitly engineered to identify and decrease waste and the organization was able to ensure that through the PRINCE2 governance framework the project was empowered to be responsive to changes in its environment so that delivery aligns with changing user, stakeholder and organizational needs. This ensured that all of the Program’s features delivered were useful and of high-value.

Agile adoption & helping to change organisational culture

This presentation given at LAST 2014 (Melbourne, Australia) and Agile 2014 (Orlando, USA) outlines ZXM’s behavioural approach to changing culture to become more agile based on Hofstede’s cultural factors and the Transtheoretical Model of behavioural change.


You can view this presentation on the Prezi website: prezi.com/gimawcukycsx/agile-adoption-helping-to-change-organisational-culture


Session activity handouts (PDF 108KB).


How to Teach your Team Scrum in Three Months

We tend to think about agile as a software development approach, but it has applications to the business as it can aid the improvement of business processes and give non-technical staff an approach that help them gain the efficiency in projects that agile has delivered in the software development environment.

At the recent Australian Computer Society Agile Special Interest Group, I shared my experience in implementing Scrum for a services team with a backlog of projects, and within three months we were able to take the team from Unconscious Incompetence to Unconscious Competence and provide them with increased efficiency and a simplified process to deliver both their Business as Usual (BAU) work as well as IT project initiatives.

We used a psychology based model to implement Scrum. In psychology, the four stages of competence, or the “conscious competence” learning model, relates to the psychological states involved in the process of progressing from incompetence to competence in a skill. It suggests that individuals are initially unaware of how little they know, or unconscious of their incompetence. As they recognize their incompetence, they consciously acquire a skill, then consciously use that skill. Eventually, the skill can be done without consciously being thought through, and the individual is said to have unconscious competence.

The team always seemed to have a “backlog” of work that never got done. The main issues were:

  • No collective process for them to process business user requests
  • New work coming constantly coming in from the business
  • Team not sure of which work was important, urgent or ranked higher
  • No collective processes to handle BAU as well as project work
  • Team working in three streams of activity As a result, they started a bit of each project but never quite got anything finished.

This exposure to agile in the business setting had a flow on effect to IT projects in that when the product owners needed to work with the technology team on backlog grooming and user story development, they have a shared understanding of the process and this helped improve the collaboration between business and technology and enhanced clarification of specifications and requirements.

Outcome at the end of the three months:

  • Better understanding of commitment to take on a product/story in a Sprint
  • Greater visibility of BAU capacity
  • Collaboration and pairing across old silos occurred to complete tasks
  •  Not silos of 3 streams — a single team with a single, shared vision of how to get their work done

Why use a behavioral based learning approach?

  • Demonstrates how to retrospectively assess  story complexity to improve capacity planning of  teams
  • A framework for coaching agile teams based on  observing their behaviour to identify their of learning
  • It is the behaviour that needs to change to ensure the agile approach is successfu

Lean Coffee

Lean Coffee is an structured but agenda less meeting that allows participants to gather, build and talk.

Our implementation of Lean Coffee with this client was a way to informally discuss what was important to the team and look at ways to improve our efficiency, effectiveness and processes within the service delivery team.

[Source: Lean Coffee from Mia Horrigan ]

How does it work?

  • We spend 2 mins writing down topics people want to discuss
  • We spend 2 – 5 mins minutes letting people explain their topics (15-30 secs each)
  • We vote on which topics to discuss in what order. Each person gets 3 votes
  • We start talking. We let the conversation run for 5 minutes per topic, at the 5 minute mark we take a show of thumbs (up, down, neutral) to see if we want to stay on this topic or move on

It’s really that simple. The power is that we have a list of topics everyone at the table is interested in and is motivated to discuss.

Benefits of Lean Coffee:

  • Talk about what is important to my team
  • Team decides how long we discuss each topic
  • Sharing experiences and challenges
  • We are solving problems together
  • Collaboration and team building
  • No preparation required
  • Free coffee on the boss!

The Lean, Agile PMO

Presentation at the Australian Computer Society 2013, Canberra Australia.

In a modern world of agile processes and self-managing teams, what role does the traditional Project Management Office (PMO) play? What does an agile PMO look like and why would you want one? Is PRINCE2 still relevant in a Scrum world? How do you bring these worlds together and bring traditional project managers with you?

In this presentation, Matthew Hodgson, ZXM Partner Agile & Lean Enterprise Transformation, presented a recent case study involving a government agency, 30 projects, and its need to address its project management maturity. He described how, in only four months, a focus on old school PRINCE2 process and products, combined with modern Lean principles of value, radically changed the way IT viewed its projects, engaged with business, and rapidly accelerated its project management capability. Specifically, Matthew articulated the critical role of Kanban in visualising the value chain of products for projects, programs and the portfolio and how it radically increased transparency and empowered executives to remove project bottlenecks and wasted resources. Overall, he assessed how a focus on mentoring project management capability through the PMO produced an equal need to address delivery issues and the choice to move to combining PRINCE2 with Scrum to drive the agency’s P3M3 assessment toward a 5 – a culture of continuous improvement.

You can view this presentation on the Prezi site at: http://prezi.com/qsmxdusw3gg0/the-lean-agile-pmo/


The Lion, the Mouse and the Thorn of Usability Testing

Presentation at Agile 2013, Nashville USA.


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