Coach Leads Scrum Alliance Through Its Own Agile Transformation

by Bonnie Nicholls

John Miller is in the unique situation of mentoring his mentor.

Hired in June by Scrum Alliance®, Miller is leading the organization that trained him as a coach through its own Agile transformation.

In many ways, he has come full circle. "I owe so much of who I am today to Scrum Alliance," says Miller. He credits its active Agile communities and educational opportunities with much of his personal and professional growth.

Over the next year, he will work with the organization's 32 employees and facilitate their goal of adopting an Agile culture. Miller is tasked to help the team discover and actualize what it means for Scrum Alliance to become Agile in a way that inspires them. Nevertheless, Miller is quick to point out that, in his estimation, he's more than a "nerd doing a framework process."

Miller's Methods

A coach who specializes in educational organizations, Miller has been working with Scrum Alliance employees on a number of levels, using various methods to create awareness as well as assess their culture and their readiness for change.

For example, he has led the leadership team through several conversations, including a "5 Whys" session. This method, originated by Toyota executive Taiichi Ohno in the 1950s, poses the question "why?" every time the recipient provides an answer to a problem, drilling deeper to get to the root cause. At Scrum Alliance, the executives interviewed each other using the five whys.

"It was eye-opening to everybody to see how much on the same page they were," Miller says. "The cool thing with that was that they didn’t think they were on the same page. Everybody thought they wanted something different. It came out that 'No, we really want the same thing.' That really brought them together and brought a lot of sense of urgency around the change."

He also held one-on-one sessions with every person in each department — education, marketing, operations, human resources, and finance — to assess what they hoped to get out of coaching and understand their perceptions.

Another method he has used is appreciative inquiry. This technique, which has made headlines in national media, allows a team to discover what each individual's strengths are and how the team may already be acting or thinking in an Agile way without being aware of it.

As Miller explains it, "We're trying to find the bright spots and say, 'Hey, if it works there, those are the values that are resonating, those are the practices that are already working.'"

With his guidance, six employee volunteers self-organized into an appreciative inquiry interview group. Each volunteer interviewed up to four people, and they made sure not to interview their managers or direct reports.

One of the great things about appreciative inquiry, says Miller, is that it connects people outside of their departments, so they gain a greater understanding of each other's worlds. They learn about other employees' experiences, what the high points are within those different departments, and how they feel empowered as an organization.

These conversations shift the focus from the negative to the positive things a team is doing. It propels them forward, shows them they can change, and enriches the culture.

"People were pleasantly surprised about the connection they had with each other and what they learned," he says. "They felt empowered." 

What success Will Look Like

Miller's goal is to help the team create an environment where employees come to work with a clear sense of purpose and understand how they're contributing. Ultimately, Scrum Alliance will be a highly positive place to work.

There's also his personal goal — to ensure that people feel empowered to make that change.

That's part of his hidden agenda. "If I can help them enrich their culture regardless of how Agile works or not, I try to do that," he says.

SIDEBAR: Appreciative Inquiry in the Media

John Miller is a notable practitioner of appreciative inquiry, but he is not alone. The concept and practice has been a headline maker in the national media, including in this piece in Forbes by Brett Steenbarger: "Appreciative Inquiry: Leading by Asking the Right Questions."

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