Scrum Turtles

What turtles and market trading have to do with Scrum

28 December 2007

Haim Deutsch
AgilePlanet

Every Scrum practitioner (certified or not) knows that while Scrum principles are easy to learn and to understand, they are often tricky to manage. The ScrumMaster finds himself at the nexus of the development effort. All around him revolves almost every single function in the organization (with the possible exception of the janitor). The ScrumMaster has to control and manage the fears and concerns of the customer, the Product Owner, the QA manager, his own boss, the VP of marketing & sales, and, last but not the least, his teams. In essence, he is the lamentation wall for a global village. This stress is always present—I know; I have experienced it over and over again. To succeed in this environment, the ScrumMaster needs powerful tools that can help him regain control and manage the constant stress.

Luckily, coaching provides us with just such a toolbox. The ten tools in the coaching toolbox (this may sound familiar) are easy to learn and to understand, but are often tricky to apply. None are a silver bullet. I'll describe each of the ten tools in detail in future articles, and will also show how you can leverage them to manage delicate situations. In this article, however, I'll present a much more general approach for being a successful ScrumMaster. This approach is one that we all know—one that is pure common sense and that we apply to our coding but not necessarily to our project/team management.

Back in the early 1980s, a seventeen-year-old boy named Richard Dennis stepped onto the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the biggest commodities trading floor in the world. A few years later, this same young boy was one of the most famous traders of this exchange and became known as "the prince of the pit." Dennis believed that successful trading was an activity that could be learned, rather than an innate ability. “We're going to raise traders just like they raise turtles in Singapore,” Dennis said. Few believed he could do it. To prove them wrong, he published an advertisement searching for traders to be trained. Though thousands answered, Dennis hired only twenty three of them. He dubbed them his turtles. What began as a bet, turned out to be one of the most amazing experiences in Wall Street.  Dennis gave his turtles two weeks of training. Four years later, each of the turtles had produced 30 million dollars and had averaged an 80 percent profit. Some had as much as 100 million dollars in profits to show for their four years of trading. All this after only two weeks of training! What turtle-raising techniques had Dennis employed to produce such amazing results?

Sit down with me a while. We’ll have a drink and ponder the way of the turtle.

Dennis relied on five principles to raise his trading turtles:

  1. Keep it simple. Dennis built some simple rules that his turtles would have to follow. (Sound familiar?)
  2. Too much data is a lethal weapon. Dennis minimized the amount of data the turtles would have to process.
  3. Have a clear plan. Define your goals clearly and determine what steps will get you there. Anything that doesn’t take you there is negligible. Yes. Anything, no matter what the losses, that doesn’t take you toward a goal is in the way. (This is the crux of “result thinking,” for those of you who are of the coaching persuasion.)
  4. Manage the risks properly. Without proper risk management (or money management in Dennis’ case), you are the walking dead.
  5. Never try to foresee the future. You must have a general idea of where you are heading, be able to react to the reality of the market, and have the discipline to react only to what you actually see.

Whew! You now have all five principles. Let’s take a quick break. Take your time and reread the way of the turtle. You can have another drink if you need one; I’ll take a diet cola. When you’re ready to go on, keep reading.

Whether you are introducing Scrum in your company or you are a seasoned ScrumMaster, these guidelines apply to you. To manage stress, follow the way of the turtle. You need to teach each function of the company, including the customer, to work in a Scrum-ish way; but to achieve your goals, you will have to raise your turtle. Let’s turn those turtle-raising principles into Scrum-specific guidelines.

Keep it simple. The rules have to be minimalist and simple. Remember: people like simple rules, or thumb rules. Not only are they easier to follow, but it is also easier to detect any infraction. When you have only a few rules, you can rationalize your insistence that they be followed to the letter. The only intent of these rules is to allow you to do your job properly by enforcing effective, creative, and committed work from all functions of the company. These rules are also very important within the team. The team must have a limited bunch of rules on how to code, how to document, and how to test. These rules must facilitate the developers’ work, rather than hinder it. A good rule set allows developers to think less about how and more about what. In other words, good rules should free developers to concentrate on code development.

Too much data is a lethal weapon. Make use of a dashboard to give a global vision of the entire process in the more concise manner. Restrict yourself to the minimum documentation and data when you present to customers or executive managers. Believe me, they will thank you for it. Making conscious choices about simplifying data not only builds transparency, it also builds focus. Give the team a global picture verbally, and transmit focused and concise written material to support that picture. Think about it: each piece of written data has to be controlled and updated. Why waste the time? Standards like FDA or AAA require a minimal amount of written documents. You may be surprised by how concise these documents can be while still conforming to these standards.

Have a clear plan. It seems evident but, in fact, not every function sees the plan clearly. This is partly because the goals of each function are not necessarily the same. The first tool of coaching is result thinking. It looks much easier than it is in the real life. While I’ll cover this I more detail in a future article, for the moment, let’s just say that a clear plan helps to coordinate the entire effort of the organization. It helps to manage difficult situations and conflict by focusing on the common goal. It helps to determine which action items to undertake: those that are bringing the company closer to the stated goal. The plan gives a common frame for everyone to work within. It helps to manage difficult times by reassuring everyone that any losses incurred are only lost to realize some other action that fits the overall plan, so that by the end we will be much more profitable.

Manage the risks properly. Don't put your head in the sand. It doesn't help. In the same manner that Scrum embraces change, Scrum also embraces risks. Identifying them clearly can help to either prevent them or take corrective actions in time. How much effort are you assigning to risk analysis and risk management? If you are like most, not enough. This action starts at the top. Executive managers have to be involved and committed. They have to identify their risks in front of each function in the organization; usually, they need a coach to achieve this. And then from there the risks have to trickle down until they reach the developers, who have to know their own risks. Each single function has to identify and manage on-the-fly the risks in front of each function. This is really hard the first time you do it, and in general you need the help of a coach, but as you learn to do it, it becomes more and more natural. Knowing all the risks makes you more proactive. You can see more clearly the situation you are heading towards, and are able to take corrective action according to the plan. In the end, you make fewer mistakes.

Never try to foresee the future. This is what Scrum is all about. You can never know exactly what will happen, and you cannot possibly be ready with solutions up your sleeve for every impediment that might occur. Do you have a plan? Good. Do you know where you are heading? Double-good. Don’t even try to prepare responses to the “pacmans” that lurk around the corner. You will have enough work on your plate when they do happen. Do, however, be observant and aware of what is happening around you. And as you identify a change, embrace it or kill it; it's up to you. Just like the trading turtles, you can follow a plan, but you cannot go against the market.

And I’ll add a sixth guideline—one to see you through. The sixth principle is to have faith in your skills, belief in your capabilities, and trust in your way.

Be Scrum smart!

You can find an interview of Curtis Faith, one of the original turtle traders at Curtis Faith on YouTube.


Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.



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