Do you want to be the next Wells Fargo Scandal?

Last week, Wells Fargo put out a press release acknowledging that they had uncovered more than 1,000,000 additional possibly fraudulent accounts. A million! Say it with me: one… MILLION more fraudulent accounts.

Here are a couple comments from the twitterverse, complete with a branded hashtag #wellsfargoscandal:

What’s at the root of the issue? An environment that generated a “bonus” for performance targets and fired people who did not hit them. Read more about the “incentive” program in the NY Times article.

But it’s not just Wells Fargo!

A group called Patriot Majority USA was incented its workers to register voters. I’m sure they mean well. They want to get people to the polls, and to do that, they want to get more folks register. So some genius decided to set a quota of 10 registrations a day. Register 10 people each day, or you risk losing your job. That sounds brilliant!

Guess what… they got 10 registrations per day from their employees.

Now, Patriot Majority USA and some of its employees have been charged with registering fake voters! (No, this is not #fakenews.) The article states:

“A search warrant unsealed on Nov. 14 says some workers admitted to falsifying registrations, saying they faced the possibility of losing their temporary job if they didn’t register at least 10 new voters a day.”

There are tons of other instances, I assure you.

But here’s the point

It’s time to do away with the MBA stupidity of “you get what you measure.” Yes, sure. And, you get a whole bunch of shit you didn’t intend.

People are smart.

If you rig the system, they will exploit the weakness in the game.

Stop the bullshit manipulation with performance-based targets.

If you’re in charge, focus on creating an environment where people feel valued, they know their purpose, and give them the tools to do the job well.


What do you think? Leave a comment.

Scrum Master Certifications – Two Cents from an Agile Coach

“Which Scrum Master Certification should I get?” That was the question I got just a week ago. This lead to a good conversation with the person asking, and this blog post is based on our conversation and my answer. What do you think?

To answer “which should I get,” one might first ask “Is it worth getting a certification?” There are two ways I want to explore this topic. One facet is financial the other is more intrinsic. First, some companies require a certification before they consider a candidate for a position. This is a lazy way to screen candidates. It’s like requiring a 4-year college degree as a litmus test that prospective candidates must pass, even if the job doesn’t really need a four-year degree. Hopefully some day we will have more enlightened hiring practices. Until then, however, we’re stuck with the game. The other way to look at it is about how well going through the certification process can position you for the role. There can be a lot of indirect value in the learning that comes from preparing to take the exam.

Here is my perspective on the four certifying bodies we talked about: Scrum Alliance,, PMI, and

Scrum Alliance

Scrum Alliance issues the Certified Scrum Master (CSM), Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO), and other “Certified Scrum *” certifications. To take these exams, you must to take a two-day class from a Certified Scrum Trainer (CSD), and then take the exam. The cost of one exam attempt is included in the cost of taking the training. Cost of training varies from one trainer to another. Certifications have to be renewed periodically. I think that cost might be about $100 every two years, or something in that neighborhood.

There is a vast difference in the quality of CSTs. Some have deep knowledge and communicate well, and others are more style than substance. When people ask me about CSTs, I always recommend spending the extra money and going to one of Mike Cohn’s training courses. He’s not the least expensive option out there, but his experience and ability to communicate is excellent.

From an employer perspective, I see CSM as the most asked-for certification when I see position descriptions for Scrum Masters or Scrum Coaches. So, from a “get a job” perspective, I’d put this one at the top of the list. was formed by a couple of the founders of Scrum. They offer “Professional Scrum….” Certificates. For example, Professional Scrum Master level 1, 2, and 3 are certifications that are offered. Unlike the Scrum Alliance certification, you can take the exams without taking a training class at all. There are study guides available on the web site. The PSM 1 certification exam cost is $500. There is no requirement to renew these certifications.

If you want to attend training in preparation for the exam, you can certainly do that. There are certified trainers that can deliver training from a standard set of materials made available by Admittedly, I am conflicted about where you should get the training, since my employer, AgileThought, provides the training. However, at this time, AgileThought does not have a public training class offered. Should you have a group of folks in your company who would like to get trained, we can arrange to have a trainer come to your business.


The Project Management Institute (PMI) issues the PMI-ACP certification. This certification requires that you have a certain number of hours of agile project experience (2,000 hours of general project experience, an additional 1,500 hours on agile project teams), plus 21 hours of training in agile practices. The training that I provided at Zillion could be counted toward your 21 contact hours, although I didn’t look into exactly how to document those training hours. For non-PMI members, the cost is $495, so very comparable to the PSM 1 certification.

This is one of the lesser known options. Honestly, I know relatively little about it. Without having looked at the Scrum Body of Knowledge (SBOK), I’d think it might have good reference information in it. That said, since the scrum master-related certification from costs almost as much as the one from or the PMI-ACP, I would be inclined toward either the or PMI-ACP, since they are more recognized in the industry. It’s not to say that the education you will get from one or the other is better or worse, but if the goal is recognition in the industry, I would put the one from scrum study at the bottom of my list.


I feel like you could really start with any of these and do well. My opinion is that the test has the lower barrier to entry. By that, I mean you don’t have to document the thousands of hours required by PMI to take their exam. And, you don’t have to attend a two day class like you would for CSM. If I were pursuing a certification on my own, I think I would start with certification.

If the company I worked for were paying for the time and the exam, I would probably get a CSM from Scrum Alliance, and I would try to attend a class given by Mike Cohn. Of course, that is if all the costs of attendance and travel were covered by my company. I got my CSM from Mike Cohn several years ago, and really respect him as a trainer.

As for the PMI-ACP, I have heard that the preparation is valuable. I’m not sure what the market demand for that is, but I could see an organization that values PMP certification also being interested in PMI-ACP.


The best “certification” I can think of is a personal reference from a trusted source. No piece of paper will replace this. As a person looking to step into that role, look to connect with others in the agile community. Seek out opportunities to build your experience base and allow others to see what you can do. Demonstrating competence of the material, as well as the ability to apply the knowledge in an engaging way, is much more valuable than a piece of paper that says you sat in class and/or passed a written test.

What are your thoughts? Comment on the post below….

Slack Tips for Agile Teams

Image result for slack iconIt seems like Slack is becoming the default chat tool for both distributed teams and collocated teams. This really astounded me. There was a time not long ago where I hated slack. Yes, I hated it. The signal-to-noise ratio was awful. There was no value to it that I could see. Zero. I couldn’t figure out why some of my friends used it. So I asked. And I kept asking.

For folks who used it, Slack seemed to be a simple way to connect to teammates. I get that it is a chat client, but I already have Outlook, Skype for Business, texting on my phone, and any number of other tools for communicating. What value could yet another channel create? It seemed like yet another damn place to go try to figure out what was going on. Frustrating.

When I asked about the signal-to-noise issue, they would tell me about configuring alerts for specific topics of interest to them. So, granted, I can configure alerts to get alerts on keywords that I’m interested in, and I can turn off alerts. That approach can help to amplify the signal and dampen the noise of the communication. Baby steps.

But since those frustrating times, Slack has grown on me. What really changed for me was having a client that set a really good example of how to use Slack. Here are some of the lessons I learned and want to share with you:

Lessons Learned

Use Channels Effectively

The company set up channels for individual teams, channels for build servers to post test results to, and even channels for communicating about lunch plans. If people were interested in a topic, they could join the appropriate channel. No interest? Don’t join the channel. Just like you cannot expect to be part of every conversation in the office and not feel overwhelmed, don’t feel a need to be in every Slack communication. Let go of the desire to be engaged in every Slack message.

Use Slack Integrations

If you’re going to use a tool, get the most out of it. You can have up to 10 integrations in the free version of Slack. Some integrations can be useful, and others are mostly for fun. Here are a couple apps that we have added and have been getting used:
/Giphy – Add fun animated GIF to your chat. You can type “really?”, but doesn’t a brown puppy shaking its head convey so much more emotion? For those concerned about whether the GIF might be NSFW, you can configure the rating of the GIFs that are returned. Don’t fear the HR people. Well, at least don’t fear them because of Giphy.

/Donut – This randomly pairs people up each week for coffee. I’ve found this to be an excellent way to connect with remote colleagues I might not otherwise engage with during the work week. If you’re collocated, you can go somewhere and get coffee. With my distributed team, we hold an impromptu video call to have coffee and catch up.

Remember it is Temporary

Slack’s free tier of service provides capabilities that might meet all your needs. An interesting feature of the free tier is that it preserves the 10,000 most recent messages. So, with any meaningful level of use, you will hit that limit. For $7/user/month (billed annually) Slack removes this limitation and allows you to search an unlimited number of messages in your video archive.

Before you open your wallet to pay, consider this: do you take minutes and archive the conversation at the watercolor, lunch, or happy hour? Do you document the hallway conversation you have with a teammate? If you do, grab your wallet. If not, the free Slack tier is good enough for you. Shifting your mindset from thinking of Slack as an archive of decisions to thinking of it as a temporary conversation space really changed how I viewed the message limit. Be OK with the fact that it is a tool for conversations, not a tool for documenting decisions.

If you make a decision by chatting in Slack, use your system(s) of record to preserve the conclusion. If you clarify a User Story, add it to the Story. If you find a document needs updating, update the document. Troubleshooting a bug? Fix the bug.  Make it safe for the conversation history to be lost.

Pin Items

Even though Slack may only hold messages temporarily, some of the messages may be more valuable than others. For those messages that you want easily accessible, Slack provides the “Pin….” option. On can click on the “…” button and select “Pin to <channel name>”

Now, when a user visits a channel, they have the option of viewing those pinned items in a sidebar. This is a very convenient way to see the more important messages.

Send Notifications When Needed

Slack allows notifications using the “@” command. If you want to notify everyone who is currently active, start your message with “@here” followed by a space and your message. Start your message with “@channel” followed by a space and your message to notify the whole channel about a message.  You can use these notification options to alert your team to more valuable or urgent messages in Slack. That said, don’t be “the boy who cried wolf” and over-use the @here or @channel mentions.

Use the Call Feature

Communication via text can be convenient. I also find that people use text chat because it feels less emotionally risky. That said, sometimes it is just not an effective or sufficient mode of communication. Arguably the most effective form of communication is face-to-face. That is true whether you are collocated in an office, or half a world away. If you are in the same office, walk to the person you’re wanting to talk to. If you’re working with a remote colleague, view their profile and click the “Call” button, turn your camera on, and start a video call. It might feel awkward at first, but the reward is worth the risk.

Configure Slack on All Your Devices

Slack is available for so many platforms (Mac, Windows, iOS, Android…) that I found it valuable to make sure I had all my Slack Teams on all my devices; each computer, iPhone, iPad. This solved the problem of not realizing that I’d missed updates from the Hack Michiana, a Code for America Brigade, when I was away from my non-work computer.

Slack Magic Link

Get a Magic Link for logging in. It is easier than remembering passwords.

“But typing in the passwords to use on a bunch of devices is a pain in the butt,” you might say. I agree. To make that pain more tolerable, use the “Get a Magic Link” option when signing in. When you are adding a team to a device, you enter the team URL. Then, you enter the email address you used to sign up for that team and click the “Get a Magic Link” button to get a one-time-use e-mail sent to me for signing in. Poof! No more remembering complex passwords and typing them in.

Benefits of using Slack

Open Communication

Slack’s biggest benefit, for me, is that it allows a “public” conversation to take place amongst the team, and allows individuals to contribute how they see fit. No longer are inboxes getting filled with communication that they may or may not need to know about.

Reduced Email

Speaking of inboxes, you can really reduce the amount of e-mail sent and read. I recently wrapped up a client engagement where the whole company used slack. I no longer suffered through reading all the new messages only to figure out if I should care about their contents or not. And, I didn’t have to get hit with all the unfounded “reply to all” email. One side-effect of this, however, was that at times someone would say “did you see my e-mail?” In fact, it was rather interesting to see how much my communication mode shifted to Slack, and how much more effective it was for getting prompt responses.

Virtually Unlimited Options

There are so many integrations for Slack that can help to streamline communication. In addition to fun tools like Giphy, or tools to facilitate team member engagement like Donut, there are tools for voting on options. There are integrations for your calendar app to facilitate setting up meetings. And, if you don’t like those integrations and are inclined toward writing your own, there is an API that can open up a world of new possibilities. Search through the available apps and integrations and find ones that you want to try. Many are free.

A Starting Point

Because my client used Slack, that meant I was expected to use Slack during the engagement. And, I feel a responsibility to gain some level of proficiency with the software tools I use. After all, what’s the point of having a tool and not knowing how to make it work for you?

Since Slack was now part of my daily responsibilities, I found it easier to be in tune with other Slack teams on which I have been either lurking or neglecting. I’m not only got in tune with my client’s Slack, but many other Teams in Slack that I belonged to It is simple to get started with Slack. If you’re curious about Slack here’s what I would recommend.

  1. Start with the free tier of Slack service.
  2. Set up your Team in Slack.
  3. Invite your team members.
  4. Chat freely.
  5. Add some integrations. Try them out.
  6. Use “@” mentions of user names to pull people into the conversation.
  7. Allow members to add channels and experiment with what might work for them.
  8. Don’t try to control the Team with burdensome policies.

The reason I say to not try to try to control Slack is that if rules and regulations about how people use Slack, there is nothing to stop people from setting up their own Slack Team for free and communicating with a subset of the team in their own Slack Team.

In conclusion, if you are curious about Slack, try it. Try the tips from earlier, and see how you like it.

What has been your experience with Slack? Do you have tips you’d like to share? Please feel free to comment on this post.

There is an “i” in “Agile”

There’s a popular phrase that states “there is no ‘I’ in ‘team.'” This slogan appears on shirts. It appears on posters. It is popular enough that the phrase has been “hacked” and now there is a funny graphic that says “There is an ‘i’ in Team. It’s in the a-hole.”

There is an “i” in “TEAM.” Hidden in the A-Hole. (Copyright belongs to the image’s creator)

What might that phrase mean to an agile team? There is a SolutionIQ article that states “There is no I in Agile” and discusses how teamwork can make or break an agile team. I agree that teamwork is important. But, contrary to the SolutionsIQ heading, there is an “i” in “agile.” And it is important that we remember that the agile team is made up of a whole bunch of “i’s.” Here are some of the ways to make the “i” in “agile” effective. Work to help each “i”:

  • i realize that i cannot be successful if the team fails
  • i look for ways to help teammates
  • i bring new ideas into the team
  • i am willing to take risks
  • i admit when i need help
  • i admit when i am wrong
  • i grow my skills over time
  • i build upon other people’s ideas with my own
  • i bring my whole self to the team
  • i try to not be defensive
  • i realize others bring their whole self as well
  • i realize that the world outside work impacts people at work
  • i take small risks and learn from the outcome
  • i respect my teammates
  • i foster collaboration across the team
  • i use my eyes to observe what is happening on the team
  • i am a “little i,” not demanding the attention of a big “I”

Remember that your team is composed of many individuals, each with their own background, values, and perspectives. Work to be inclusive of those differences as you work toward a common goal.

The Danger of a Proxy Product Owner

Imagine that you’ve read the Scrum Guide’s description of Product Owner role. You  see that in order to be effective, a Scrum Product Owner needs to

  • Keep the Product Backlog groomed
  • Ensure understanding amongst the Scrum Team, and
  • Negotiate with the Development Team

That takes a lot of time and energy. You realize that the role is so involved that you can’t possibly have your current “product owner” fulfill the Scrum duties as well. You are contemplating using a “Proxy” product owner to fulfill the Scrum Product Owner’s duties. The Proxy Product Owner will not be the real product owner, but they represent the product owner and have the responsibility for communicating the product owner’s perspective with the team.

To fulfill these responsibilities, of a Product Owner, the individual in the role must have the

  • time to do the work completely
  • knowledge of the product and customers’ needs
  • authority to make decisions

Can a Proxy Product Owner be effective? Is it a good idea? Will that work? Let’s explore it a little bit.

Problem Proxy Product Owners

Overworked Product Owners can neither keep the backlog groomed nor be available to the team.

An Indecisive Product Owner can kill the team’s momentum.

What is the danger of having a Proxy Product Owner? The danger of using a proxy is that it often masks organizational problems with the way the role is set up. Many times when I hear “Proxy Product Owner” used, it is used as a euphemism for one of these other types of Product Owner dysfunctions:

Dysfunctional Product Owner Models

The Ignorant Product Owner They lack the knowledge necessary to fulfill the role. They are constantly having to go out and gather understanding from someone else who truly has it. Or, worse, they guess at the answer and inject wastefull activity into the team.
The Impotent Product Owner They have no power to make decisions. They have to go play "mother may i...." with people who really make decisions. This delay negatively impacts the team.
The Indecisive Product OwnerThey have all the information and authority to make decisions, but they're still incapable of deciding. The causes of indecisiveness vary, from fear of punishment for wrong decisions to over-analysis.
The Overworked Product OwnerThis person simply has too much work for one human to do. It is impossible for them to keep the team supplied with a properly groomed backlog, leading to frustrating and ineffective Sprint Planning and delivery.

Effective Proxy Product Owner

A “proxy” is someone who can make decisions on behalf of another. If the person filling the Scrum Product Owner role can completely and truly fill all the responsibilities outlined in the Scrum Guide, then you truly have a Scrum Product Owner.

If the term “Proxy Product Owner” is sometimes used when somebody else in the organization has an existing title of Product Manager or Product Owner. When an organization adopting the Scrum framework already has a position description with the title “Product Owner,” role confusion can emerge. In those cases, it can be valuable to differentiate the Scrum Product Owner from the other duties that are wrapped into the existing title of Product Owner. In those instances, I prefer the term “Scrum Product Owner” versus “Proxy Product Owner.”

Regardless of the name for the role, make sure that the position is fully capable of fulfilling the responsibilities outlined in the Scrum Guide, allowing that person the best chance of being effective in the role.

What do you think? Please feel free to comment and let me know what your experience has been.


What does a Scrum Master Do?

I don’t know how many times during my years of agile coaching that I have been asked “What does a Scrum Master do?” Yes, the Scrum Master is responsible for effectively using the Scrum framework. Yes, they act as servant leaders for the team. But, what do they do?

We like to feed the birds in our yard, and I have an interest in photography. On Thanksgiving this year, we had our regular flock of sparrows flitting about. They would sit in the bushes, fly to the feeder, eat seeds, and then go back to the protection of the bushes. Because I had the day off, I chose to try to get some good photos of the birds. Of course, as soon as I stepped outside, the birds scattered. They were fearful of the intruder into their domain.

So, what does a photographer do? In this case, I sat. I waited. I counted to 200, slowly, to make sure I was not in a rush. I listened to the birds in the distance. I waited more. I was still, and calm. Eventually, a single bird landed nearby.

Male Sparrow on a Branch

I continued to be still. Shortly after one felt safe with me sitting near their feeder, the others arrived.

Sparrows in a Bush

They left the safety of the bushes to come near the feeder. Then, and only then did I slowly move my hands to the camera, and aim the camera at the birds, and begin to take photos.

The birds behaved as if I were not even there. A squirrel eventually walked along the top of the fence, joining the birds at the feeder.

Squirrel in a Tree Trunk

A woodpecker and chickadees joined the sparrows. I kept shooting photos, making sure to not make sudden motions and scare the birds. All of the sudden, the birds scattered. Wings flapped as the birds took off in all directions.

Sparrow Taking Flight


Silently, and without warning, a coopers hawk flew through just above the bushes and landed in the black walnut tree. Coopers hawks prey on birds.

Jouvenile Coopers Hawk

This experience got me to thinking about how we engage as agile coaches. Some folks love to rush in, waving their hands around telling the team to make changes. They correct mechanics of a Daily Scrum. They try to fix all the “non-agile” behaviors. A “coach” who does not create safety will alienate the team. A coach who does not wait will scare people from truly sharing their concerns. And, most importantly, the coach will miss the complexity of the local context.

If I had been moving around in the yard, trying to get the optimal angle for all the shots, I would have missed what was really going on. I never would have seen the hawk. This parallels experiences in coaching. Remember to be still, watch, listen. Try to notice everything that is happening. Take action when the time is right.

Please share your comments. And, if you’re interested in more photos, check out the Dan R Neumann Flickr profile.

100 Words on Incentive and Motivation

How do you get people to do what you want? Why not offer an incentive?

The root of the word “incentive” is “to charm” or “to chant.” Do you feel good when somebody is trying to “charm” you into doing something? I don’t. I feel like I’m being manipulated.

Instead of trying to charm people, try to move them. Or, put another way, motivate them. Don’t pull, push, or lure them along with incentives. Instead, move them emotionally. Foster a deep, profound connection between their labor and a greater purpose.

Remember, Incentives (charms) wear off; motivation lasts. Motivate people instead.

Agile 2016 Book Backlog

Every year I leave the Agile conference with a long list of books that I want to read. This year, I thought I’d publish my list. These books were either cited in conference talks or mentioned in hallway conversations. I’ll make updates throughout the week. Please feel free to add a comment and share the book(s) that you heard about this week. Here’s my list:

 Managing for Happiness: Games, Tools, and Practices to Motivate Any Team

By Jurgen Appelo, this year’s keynote speaker.

Management 3.0

Also by Jurgen Appelo.

Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error

This was mentioned in Michael Tardiff’s talk titled “Finding Agreement when Everybody is Right

On Being Certain: Believing You’re Right, Even When You are Not

Also in Michael Tardiff’s talk.


Leading Change

In Alan Padula’s session on Large Scale  Agile Transformation, he shared a slide based on John Kotter’s book Leading Change.  As with many things, it is hard to change an organization. Kotter provides a framework for that change.Kotter - Leading Change


Group Dynamics

Along with hallway conversations, dinner conversations can provide new insights. This book was recommended at Monday’s dinner by one of my AgileThought colleagues, Christie Erbeck.

This book sounds like a good study of group interactions from a number of different perspectives. It’s weighty, but highly recommended.


Pro Tips for Attending Agile 2016

Agile 2016 is upon us, so I thought I’d take a few moments to share some thoughts for getting the most out of the conference. I’m not going to replace the conference materials, but simply share some complementary perspective.

1. Get to “Popular Sessions” Early

Sessions will get full. If you really, really, really want to see a session, get there early. Just because you used the Sched app to express interest does not guarantee you a seat. Take personal responsibility for being there early.

Lyssa Adkins has facilitated some really rich sessions in the past. But, to make the session a great experience the session attendee count was limited. That left a lot of disappointed people who wanted to participate but were unable to get into the session.

Sometimes room participation is limited by fire code. Esther Derby has powerful insights, and lots of people who want to attend and participate in her sessions. Don’t plan to walk up 5 minutes after the session and expect to get in.

2. Don’t Complain if a Session is Full

The session limits are there to create a safe and valuable experience. Much like WIP limits support delivering value, session capacity helps participants get good value for the sessions. Be kind to the volunteer who might be telling you that the session is full.  If they say the session is full, the session is full. Please thank them and go find another session.

3. Go to the “Undercards”

In boxing, the under-cards are the lesser known fighters. They can be really enjoyable to watch, for any number of reasons. Just as in boxing, some of the lesser known presenters are going to provide tremendous value, new insights, and new perspectives. When they’re famous, you can say “I saw them talk about ____ back at Agile 2016.

4. Check out the Experience Reports track

These sessions are by practitioners, sharing hard-earned wisdom. They have also gone to the effort to create a paper that corresponds to their talk. I suspect you’ll find that these sessions aren’t filled with untested theory. They’re likely to provide insight you might not find elsewhere. Despite not being “big name” folks, the quality of insight I’ve gotten from these session in the past has been quite high. These are 45 minute sessions, so can be rather quick and to the point. And, if you happen to find yourself in a session that’s not providing value for you, it will be over quickly!

5. Don’t Fret

There are a ton of sessions in each time slot. Don’t fret about finding the one perfect session. Pick from the many alternatives.

6. Practice Sustainable Pace

Give yourself permission to skip some sessions. For some folks, going from session-to-session non-stop for the week is too much. Feel free to skip sessions, relax, and perhaps bump into somebody new in the common areas of the conference. Some of the best insights I have had at past events have been from chance encounters and conversations.

7. Give Feedback

The speakers love feedback. In addition to perhaps filling out the official feedback forms, please consider talking with the presenter.

8. Purple Shirts Rock!

Last but not least: thank a volunteer! The fine folks in the purple shirts are there to help the conference run smoothly. Through the volunteer corp, we have quite a number of folks who travel internationally to be part of Agile 2016. They’re volunteering a lot of hours of their time to the conference. Please be kind, and thank them.

Enjoy the conference.

This Cognitive Bias is Hurting Your Company

Imagine using Microsoft Excel to calculate your project’s budget. Now, imagine that you shared your file with another person and when they open it they get a different result than you did. How annoying would that be?

Or, imagine a scenario where you receive different answers from Excel that depended on the last application you had used? Use Photoshop and then Excel, get one answer. Look at your Outlook calendar and use Excel… get a different answer.  That would be awful. If you were unaware that the tool was producing different results, you would likely continue to use it and be surprised when you got problematic results. If you did know that an application behaved this way I think it is safe to say that you would stop using it. A tool like that would be useless. Or would it?

Your brain can anchor its judgement, even when you are not aware that it is happening.

Your brain can anchor its judgement, even when you are not aware that it is happening.

You see, our brains are such a tool. Different people can take the same set of inputs and come to completely different conclusions. Even more interestingly, the way our brains interpret new information can be profoundly influenced by other information that we have recently been exposed to. It’s possible that what is at work here is a cognitive bias called “anchoring.” Anchoring can cause your stakeholders to have unrealistic expectations, your team to have distorted estimates, and your teams to focus on the wrong things.

For this post, we will start with a short definition of anchoring, then share a classic example of anchoring. After that, there are a few examples from the world of software development. The examples will be followed by some research on the topic. Lastly, I’ll share a few ways you can try to combat anchoring.

What is Anchoring?

Anchoring is flaw in the way our brains process information. Our brains do not give equal weight to all the information it receives. We give preference to some information. Anchoring is the name given to the tendency to put too much weight on the first piece of data we receive. The mind attaches itself more strongly to the first piece of information, and doesn’t give equal consideration for all the later pieces of information it receives.

A Classic Example – Car Shopping

I was in search of a car for a teenage driver. While it might have been easier to find a car like the one from the movie Uncle Buck, we thought we’d spare him the embarrassment.  Our quest became finding a car that was safe, mechanically sound, and ideally,  a convertible. Oh, and we wanted to spend $2,500 or less. It wasn’t imperative that we stay with that budget, but it seemed that we ought be able to find a vehicle for that price.  Thus, began our quest.

We scoured the Craigslist posts for weeks. There were many listings that were close to the criteria we were seeking, but the sellers’ “asking price” was higher than our budget. I’d use a couple reference web pages, including the Kelly Blue Book and the North American Dealer Association (NADA) page in an attempt to validate the asking price. Almost everybody was asking more than the industry sites indicated. Some were asking a lot more. But, we know you have to negotiate, right? No matter how much outside information I got, my mind kept telling me that the prospective seller would need a higher amount. They were asking for more. I was anchored on the initial ask, despite having data to indicate that the ask was inappropriately high. It is hard to treat the first price equally, even in light of later information.

Anchoring on Software Teams

The car shopping example is a classic example, but doesn’t directly relate to our professional lives, unless you sell cars for a living. While anchoring can lead you to pay too much for a car, the potential downside for technology teams are orders of magnitude bigger.

1. The Dreaded SWAG

Let’s say the big boss wants a set of features brought to market. From initial high-level discussions, the work seems to be pretty simple, an initial Scientific Wild-Ass Guess (SWAG) of three months comes up during a hallway conversation with a couple folks from the technology side of the business. Everybody gets excited about the new product, and dive in to scoping and planning the work.

As the details unfold, it becomes apparent that the work is more complex than initially envisioned. The team starts to understand that it will be harder to implement, and night not fit as smoothly with he existing application framework that is being used. It starts to feel big… really big.  It starts to feel like the work is going to be three or four times as large as the SWAG  Unfortunately, the initial estimate of three months is going to be weighted more heavily than all the new, refined, information. Sure, the business needs to figure out if it’s still worth the bigger price tag. And, because of anchoring effect, it will be very challenging to reset stakeholder expectations. That initial estimate will be remembered, and it will rear its ugly head for months to come, particularly as the work (most likely) continues to grow.

2. The Story Size

We estimate work on a regular basis. Many teams use story points for estimating the size of  product backlog items There are many ways that assigning story points to backlog items. Some of the estimating methods are profoundly susceptible to anchoring. Here are two estimating patterns that create anchors when assigning story points:

  1. A small fraction of the team estimates the work and then takes it to the team to review and update.
  2. The whole team is involved in estimating the work, but as the work is being discussed, an initial number is voiced and then others are asked for their opinion.

If you do either of those techniques, please stop. No, seriously. Stop!

If you’re interested in learning much more about Story Points, please check out the Story Point articles that Mike Cohn makes available on Mountain Goat Software.

3. The Derailed Retrospective

Anchoring doesn’t just happen with numbers. Poorly structured, or worse yet, unstructured retrospectives can also get anchored.

There’s a common scenario for retrospectives where the team gets together to talk about what’s been happening. No structure, no facilitation. In scenarios like this, the first talker “wins” and skews the remainder of the retrospective.  The first topic raised sets the frame for the meeting. The group just got anchored. In this scenario, there’s a really strong possibility that the first topic raised is not the most valuable one to talk about. It might be the most recent (another bias), or something emotionally safe to discuss, or somebody’s “pet” complaint, but it’s not likely to be the most important or valuable one.

What Does the Research Say?

It’s important to go beyond personal anecdote, so let’s take a foray into the research side. There has been a lot of research on cognitive bias. And, even with the research, there is a lot that is not understood. The field of bias continues to produce interesting results.

One study that is often cited is a 1974 publication called “Judgement under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases” by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. In a demonstration of anchoring bias, Tversky and Kahneman asked participants spun a wheel. The wheel would give participants either a high number or a low number. Later, participants were asked to estimate the number of African countries that participated in the United Nations. And, it turns out that the number the wheel provided had a very significant impact on the estimate provided by participants. If an estimate in such a condition of uncertainty can be influenced by the result from the spin of a wheel, how much more might we get influenced by the estimate of a colleague under conditions of uncertainty?

Combating Anchoring Bias

Now that we’ve seen some examples and dipped our toe in some research, let’s look at some ways to combat the anchoring bias.

Gain Specific Knowledge

When people have concrete knowledge of a subject, they are less likely influenced by the anchoring condition. For example, if you are an expert on Africa’s participation in the United Nations, you would likely know the percent of countries that participate in the UN. Thus, the expert would not get anchored on irrelevant data. But beware. While that is true that people with specific knowledge on the topic are less susceptible to anchoring, people still tend to view themselves as less prone to anchoring than the average person. These are the result of research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

So, the first mitigating strategy is to become more expert on the topic, thus giving you better information to work with.

Provide Multiple Explanations

When people fixate on a single outcome, they are prone to anchoring. An approach called “multiple-explanation” can help to de-bias the judgement. Let’s go back to one of our earlier scenarios where the project was estimated to take three months. One strategy to help de-bias the judgement would be to come up with explanations about scenarios by which the project was delivered in a much longer timeframe. For example, the work turned out to be complex, or needed to be highly scalable, or the team is distracted by the scores of other “top priorities” that the business puts on them. By going through the exercise of explaining a number of different scenarios and outcomes, the initial judgement can become less biased. For more on Multiple Explanation for Debiasing Judgment, read the research by Hirt and Markman.

Planning Poker – Show Your Cards

Anchoring, by definition, is over-weighting the first piece of information you receive. When estimating work, Planning Poker is specifically designed to withhold estimation until everybody who is estimating has formed their own opinion. Then, and only then, do all the estimates get exposed at the same time. It’s a subtle difference compared to what we discussed earlier regarding estimating. In that “anchored” scenario, a subset of people provided an estimate and asked for validation. In this scenario, it is all estimators sharing estimates at the same time. By revealing all estimates at once, anchoring is less likely.

Silent Writing for Retrospectives

The “first talker” scenario for retrospectives has a very simple alternative. Don’t start with talking! Instead, set a framework for the conversation and allow people to reflect for themselves, writing down their thoughts. Then, get people to share them. By allowing people to silently write their thoughts down, they aren’t as prone to the anchoring effect of the “first talker.”


Anchoring is insidious, and impacts our lives in many ways. While we may think we are not as prone to anchoring as the average person, we are. Simply being aware that anchoring is a bias is not enough to remove its influence on us. It is important to look for strategies and tactics that make anchoring less likely to bias our judgement. I hope the four strategies for debiasing stakeholder expectations, getting un-anchored estimates, and letting all voices get heard help your business and teams. I am interested in your feedback, so please leave a comment.

Specific to software, I found the book Software Estimation: Demystifying the Black Art (Developer Best Practices)to be quite valuable. This book provides a number of strategies for getting better estimates for your software project.