Hacking Agile with Dave Prior

“The struggle that I think a lot of people have with Agile is that they come to it with the understanding of the benefits but not of the work that it takes to get there.”

Agile has somehow become the equivalent to business nirvana. Many people—project managers, developers, CEOs, and managers alike—think adopting Agile or taking on a full Agile transformation will solve all their project problems. While Agile has tons of merit and helps plenty of organizations, it’s not the perfect fit for every team or project. So how do you know Agile’s right for you? We brought Certified Scrum Trainer and all-around Agile guru Dave Prior to Time Limit to break it all down. In this episode, we discuss:

  • What’s required to make Agile work
  • Where Agile works and where it breaks down
  • Blending Agile with traditional methods
  • How to approach Agile as an organization
  • Recommendations for “going Agile” (and the roadblocks you may encounter)

Links and resources mentioned in this episode:

About our guest


Dave Prior, PMP, CST, ACP
Certified Scrum Trainer

Dave Prior is an Agile Consultant for LeadingAgile. He provides training and consulting for individuals, teams and organizations who are transitioning to Agile. Dave has over 20 years of experience managing IT and Technology projects, programs and portfolios and has been working with Agile methodologies since 1999. Because of his experience working with traditional project management and the challenges he faced in transitioning to Agile, Dave's work is focused on establishing a better bridge between Agile and the traditional project management worlds. In 2008, during his time as Chair of PMI’s IT & Telecom SIG, Dave began working with the Scrum Alliance to establish programming designed to enable traditional project managers become more aware of and educated about Scrum and Agile. He also participated in the founding of the Malaysian Scrum Chapter in 2010.

Dave is an active volunteer for the Scrum Alliance and he also writes and creates podcasts for Projects at Work and Project Management.com.

In addition to his work leading technology programs and projects, Dave also has extensive experience training Information Technology leaders and coaching organizations in managing projects using both an Agile and a traditional approach. His work as an educator and speaker has provided him with the opportunity to lecture and teach classes in the U.S., Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Central America.

Dave is a CST, a PMP and an ACP. He received his MBA from the University of Texas at Dallas. He lives in NYC and works all over.

Episode Transcript


Brett Harned:       Hey, welcome back to Time Limit. So I'm not sure how much you know about Agile, but there's a lot to know and a lot to misinterpret. And at TeamGantt, we're really excited about the idea of blending methods to make processes that work for you, but you kind of just can't do that without knowing what you're truly getting into. That's why so many organizations have a really hard time with Agile. So for this episode I recorded my good friend Dave Prior to talk about where Agile works well, where it breaks and how you can utilize it's principles even when you don't have the time to be trained.

And Dave's the perfect guest to help with that because he's got traditional PM experience and is now a certified scrum trainer for leading Agile, where he travels the world to teach certification courses, speak at conferences and record his own podcast. So give a listen and get some of your Agile questions answered. Dave Prior, thanks so much for joining me on Time Limit. Say hello to our nice listeners for us.

Dave Prior:         Hello. Nice listeners.

Brett Harned:       Dave, thanks for being here. I'm really excited to dig in on some topics around Agile and maybe some blended methods as well. But before we do that, I have to admit that I'm a little bit nervous because in my mind you are the all knowing Agile person. So you know it all, you really do. You teach it, you talk about it all the time.

Dave Prior:         As far as you know.

Brett Harned:       But to me you're kind of like, you are Agile at this point in my mind you're going to think is crazy.

Dave Prior:         Wow.

Brett Harned:       Maybe a little bit of an exaggeration ...

Dave Prior:         Gives me a big opportunity to disappoint people.

Brett Harned:       Well, why don't you tell us a little bit about what you do and why I think that?

Dave Prior:         Okay. So I am a certified scrum trainer, I work for a company called Leading Agile. It focuses on agile transformation, but mostly what I do is teach scrum. And I come to it from kind of, I guess I would say it's a slightly unique background. I am a project manager and so, um, I got my start working in what is now called digital, a while back. And after I kind of did that for a while. Um, I got more involved in traditional project management and then I got PMP certified. I got a master's degree in project management. I taught PMP certification, did a lot project management consulting work and then was dragged unwillingly into Agile and hated every single piece of it. And eventually I got to a point where I really couldn't avoid it anymore. So I figured I would try to learn how to make it work and once they got my head around, not just the process, but kind of the value system shift that you have to go through to be able to make that transition, I really fell in love with this way of working. I think it allows for a lot more creativity and a lot more fun.
                   And I do the job that I do because the transition from Waterfall over to Agile was absolutely horrible for me. It was eight years of hell and I don't think it has to be that way, I don't want it to be that way. So I feel very lucky to have this job because they get to spend my days trying to make that transition suck a little bit less for anybody else than it did for me.

Brett Harned:       Thanks for that. I want to dig in a little bit more on that transformation part, but before we get there, tell me like what is it about Agile? Like why are there so many fans? Why is it such a, I kind of feel like it's an industry buzzword in some terms, but like what is it about Agile?

Dave Prior:         I think a lot of people come to it and with a misunderstanding of what it is, it offers a lot of great stuff. I mean, it can deliver, Jeff Sutherland has the book Twice The Work In Half The Time, and that is possible. I think people like the idea of being able to deliver quicker and get feedback sooner and they liked the idea of the team being something that you can kind of put together and keep together. But the struggle that I think a lot of people have with it is that they come to it with the understanding of the benefits but not of the work that it takes to get there.

Brett Harned:       Yeah.

Dave Prior:         And you can get all those awesome things, but it takes a ton of discipline, the organizational shift that has to occur in a company and on a personal level too, is massive. So that's why I think so many people have trouble with it, they only see the headlines and they don't necessarily understand what's required to get there.

Brett Harned:       Right. It's not like go take Dave's class and your Agile, ta da, there's a lot of work that goes into it.

Dave Prior:         Well yeah. Absolutely. No that will absolutely happen but, it takes a lot of discipline. It takes a lot more disciplined than traditional project management. And I think for people that are interested in that, I mean it's a really great thing. And a lot of people I know, like one guy in particular that I work with, he has a similar background to mine. And when he discovered Agile, he said it was like the thing that he knew he was supposed to be doing the whole time. Sort of like, you know, Jake in the back of the church in the Blues Brothers, when the light comes in and you know, he started shaking, I was the exact opposite. But it offers a lot more creativity. It offers the ability to be more engaged with your team and to understand the product better, to see better results for your customers and to learn more about how, I think for a team member, how you're impacting the customer on the end state. And I think that's very rewarding.

Brett Harned:       Yeah. So where do you see Agile working the best? Like what kinds of organizations or teams?

Dave Prior:         So can I preface it by saying that you sent me these questions ahead of time?

Brett Harned:       Of course.

Dave Prior:         'Cause I cause I was trying to figure out how to answer this one. I don't think it necessarily is specific to an industry, I think it's more specific to organizations, and the people that are behind it. So it works great in software and a lot of places and not in a lot of places. It's used in healthcare and legal and military and just really now, it's all over the place. You know, kids use it in school, they use it to run schools. I think it works much better in an organization where people are open to the possibility of the fact that everybody up and down the food chain has a lot of value to offer. In organizations that are very structured in that sort of, kind of, tiered organizational model where you can only talk to the person directly above you and nobody else that's not so good.
                   It struggles in organizations where there's no trust and where there's a fear of failure, I think for people that are open to failure being a gift that allows you to make great leaps and to get better, And that are okay with working in an environment that can be slightly chaotic at times and they can kind of lean on, um, the fact that we have an approach that's going to allow us to solve the next problem. I think that that can be a great thing, but it's not, I wouldn't say it's a specific kind of company.

Brett Harned:       Yeah, that makes sense. I also hear pretty often that Agile does really well in organizations where the entire organization is open to education and transformation. Is that true?

Dave Prior:         Yeah.

Brett Harned:       Yeah.

Dave Prior:         Yeah I think  that's a big part of it. So when companies started doing transformation work, they would always start out with the teams, and after a while the teams are complaining that leadership didn't get it and they were the roadblock. And so then people started to coach executive level, and then now what's happening is business agility becomes a bigger deal and people are realizing that it's the whole organization that has to shift. And that's where you're seeing, or at least what I'm seeing in the Agile space is, there's two big trends right now. One is a focus on shifting to more of a product centric mindset than a project centric mindset. And the other is this idea that, you know, Agile is, they're just practices that you can use to get work done. And it's becoming much more apparent that this is more about organizational change than anything else.

Brett Harned:       Interesting. So you kind of touched on this a little bit, but where are the places that you see or people experienced kind of a breakdown in Agile and why does that happen?

Dave Prior:         Other than digital, so I think the breakdowns occur where people are, there's a lot of people that like the idea of just coming to work and doing their bit and they don't want to engage at a higher level, so that can be a struggle. If you work in an organization that wants to maintain that siloed approach, where you know, you have all of the QA people separated from the designers, and separate from the developers, that's a problem.
                   And one of the things that is at, the two things that are kind of a hangover from Frederick Taylor and the old way of working, the idea that you can optimize resources like they were cogs in a machine that can be a problem and companies want, they have to plan, like you still have to be able to run the organization and you can't say we're doing scrum, so we only plan things two weeks at a time. So traditionally what management has had is a Gantt chart and then some of those other reports that we're used to giving to them. And even if they're willing to admit the reports or the Gantt chart are going to be wrong, they like the predictability, or the illusion of predictability that it gives them, so that is often a problem as well. You can get predictability, but you have to go about it in a different way and you have to learn how to ask completely different questions of the people doing the work.

Brett Harned:       Hmm. Interesting. So you and I, you kind of alluded to this, you mentioned that if Agile kind of breaks down in digital, as we've talked about that a lot ...

Dave Prior:         Yes.

Brett Harned:       I actually met you because I came to you because I had a head of development who wanted to go Agile and I just knew it wouldn't work and you saved the day for me by basically backing me up. But I want to talk a little bit about blended methods cause I knew that you and I have talked about this in the past and I think it's a topic that's definitely rising within project management. I mean if I say blended, some folks call it hybrid, some call it adds adgefall, adgefail, even. But at team Gantt we're calling it blended because effectively what people are doing is just blending methods to kind of create their own. And I'm curious, just as a certified scrum trainer, what are your thoughts on people using bits and pieces of traditional methods along with some Agile methods?

Dave Prior:         I do that. So ...

Brett Harned:       Okay.

Dave Prior:         If I'm working with the scrum team, I use traditional risk management, like straight out of the [inaudible]. I have a risk register and a weekly meeting to go over that stuff, because I think that at least with the way I practice scrum, it's very beneficial a lot of the time. Maybe not for the reasons like the PMI intended it, but at least I know that when I'm working with organizations that that kind of thing can be very helpful. There is a tendency of a lot of companies to kind of head down the path of Agile and then say, well, you know, we're different, we're special, we're going to do a hybrid or blended or whatever you want to call it. And the problem there is that it's not actually, well the problem that can occur is that many companies take the approach of, okay, here's this thing people have spent 20 or 30 years figuring out how to make work. We're going to take half of that and do that and we're going to do the rest of the way we want to do it.
                   And that's not really, I wouldn't consider that to be a blended approach. I would consider that to be like half Agile.

Brett Harned:       Right.

Dave Prior:         Or half scrum, or whatever you want to call it. To me a blended approach would be, okay, we're doing this waterfall approach or this Agile approach and these are the missing pieces. Let's go figure out a way to get those pieces. I think that's one of the reasons that safe is so popular is because what Dean Leffingwell effectively did was, found answers to all the questions that the organizations were asking. And I'm not trying to promote Safe, I think I'd probably get my car and pull it if I did that. But, he gave an answer. There's still questions, like scrum doesn't answer everything, Kanban doesn't answer everything and neither does Waterfall. So I think to me, looking at it like these are two different tool sets and in any given situation, some tools work and some schools don't. And I think that using an empirical process and inspecting and adapting your approach to work is a really smart thing to do.

Brett Harned:       Yeah, I totally agree with that. I think that's one of the things that people miss, I think when they're trying to create a hybrid or blended approach is they just jump right in and they're like, we're doing sprints, we're Agile.

Dave Prior:         Yeah.

Brett Harned:       And to me it's like, let's take a step back and actually think about what you're doing. Just because you say you're doing sprints doesn't mean that you're Agile. Right?

Dave Prior:         Yes. And just so that I've said that loud, buying Jira does not make you Agile either.

Brett Harned:       That's so true. On that note, like what are some of the questions that you hear from people who are trying to adapt Agile to their own needs or do they, do they ask you that at all in classes?

Dave Prior:         Yeah. They ask how to convince management to do it. They ask her to convince their team members. Those tend to be the kinds of questions that people go after. And I don't really try to convince people of it. I mean I'm there to show people how it works or  what's been proven to work.

Brett Harned:       Right.

Dave Prior:         But I think if you're going to try to convince your company to do it, you have to have a specific problem that you want to fix. Like you asked why is it so popular? I think this is one of the things that's very concerning is that, um, people want it. I was just talking to a guy after class today, he wants to switch to Agile, but he doesn't know why. And I think, you know, employing this type of approach, you really have to have a business problem that you're trying to fix and you have to know what outcome you're looking for. If you don't, you're just buying it because it looks cool. And even though that's what a lot of people do, that's not really the best approach. I think you have to find out where the pain is and how you can solve it. And that's, I mean generally most of the questions I get, unless they're just tactical, you know, like, how do I do a daily scrum if my team is distributed or something like that. It's more about the organizational problem.
                   And a lot of people have questions about the PMO, including the people in the PMO cause the poor PMO is thinking dead man walking half the time.

Brett Harned:       Right, they're like what happens to us, right?

Dave Prior:         Yeah. Or how do I do, today, I got a question like how do I do the projects when the PMO is still making me have a project manager on my team? And that points to a bigger problem. Is it the organization is still structured and organized for Waterfall and they haven't yet figured out how to enable Agile to work within the company.

Brett Harned:       Yeah. So would you say that, you know, if I'm working in an organization and I know that we're not going to go a hundred percent Agile, but I'm feeling like we might be able to lift, you know, a thing or two from scrum, you're okay with that it sounds like?

Dave Prior:         Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, well, so the official answer according to Ken Schweiber, where is you either do scrum or you don't do scrum, but I think ...

Brett Harned:       Interesting.

Dave Prior:         From a practical standpoint, any step you take in that direction as a positive step, even if he try something and it doesn't work, at least now you're experimenting with better ways of working. You're trying to solve specific problems. And if all you can do right now is get to a point where you have a daily standup or you can get permission for three months to have a cross functional team that's like fully dedicated to one thing, you're going to learn. And the whole thing is about learning to get better. So anything you can do there is positive.

Brett Harned:       Yeah. You know, you kind of mentioned this earlier, but transitioning to a new process can be really tough. So I wonder, you know, you might've seen this, I wonder how many organizations might start by just rolling out a couple of practices at a time until they can get to a point where everyone is on board. Everyone's understanding how the team should be functioning in more Agile methods.

Dave Prior:         That's one of the things I encourage the students to do because one of the things that happens in a lot of places as they just decide we're going to do Agile or scrum or Kanban or whatever, and they don't really invest the time to figure out how to go about doing it and it doesn't work. And then everybody's like, oh, well, Agile doesn't work. Well maybe not. Maybe it's just the approach that you took. I think if ...

Brett Harned:       Right.

Dave Prior:         Digital is a great example, right? You've got people working on multiple projects, they're spread across five different teams. You can't get a fully dedicated team on one client. It was like, okay, so what can you do? Can you get to a point where your clients' engaged with your team frequently enough that you can produce stuff every couple of days and get some feedback on it? Can you start to do daily scrums? Can you start to estimate work differently? Any step is a positive step and it could take a generation or two before this stuff is fully baked into through the system. So, you know, we're kind of the tip of the spear still. I think that any effort you can make towards that is a positive thing.

Brett Harned:       Yeah. So do you have any recommendations for people who you know, are really inclined to quote unquote go Agile? Like someone who wants to get trained and just jump right in? Like what would your advice be to them? Like how would they get started?

Dave Prior:         Other than taking my class?

Brett Harned:       Yeah.

Dave Prior:         I think, so I get a lot of people in class who want to be able to do this stuff, but they don't feel like they can do it at the company that they're at right now. And that was my situation. I wanted to, I decided I wanted to learn it. I couldn't do it at work, so I started to use it outside of work. So a great place to start is at home, right? You can set up a backlog. I taught it to my daughter when she was five and she was our scrum master, while we planned vacations.

Brett Harned:       Oh that poor kid.

Dave Prior:         Oh she was great. She couldn't say impediments but she was great at it.But any place in your life, work or not where you can start to do things like you know, have a product backlog and figure out how to prioritize work and start to understand your capacity and how you're constrained and how you cannot do everything that you want to do in one day.
                   I think personal Kanban is a great thing to start with if you can't do it at work, but if it's a team, I think it's a lot easier for a lot of people to start with Kanban than was scrum. Cause Kanban doesn't require you to change the way that scrum does. And you can kind of map out your workflow and start to look for waste points in the system, or things that cause delays and use that to be the thing to diagnose what problem do we need to fix next? So if you just kinda forget about Agile and just try to find ways to be more efficient, you can get a lot of the results. And at the end of the day, like nobody really cares. It's not like you're going to get a bonus for being Agile. You get a bonus or delivering value for your customer. So if you keep in mind that it's about value that we want to give to the customer, then let that be the guide, I think, is more important ...

Brett Harned:       Yeah. So kind of related to that, obviously whenever you take on a big transformation or even just trying something new, something's gonna go wrong. So what kind of roadblocks do you think people should expect if they're working on going Agile?

Dave Prior:         So there's roadblocks at many levels. I think, I'll start with the team and then organization and personal. So with the team, you're going to have to find a way to get everybody kind of, to agree to how you're going to work, and then try to be disciplined about it. And there you've got buy in from different team members, changes in things like on a team, you know, nobody has seniority over anybody else. We're all equal, and that can be hard for a lot of people from an ego perspective or from an organizational perspective, you're going to have to have somebody in sort of a product owner role as the availability to work frequently enough with the team. And if it's something like digital, you're going to have to train the client to work with you differently. So that can be kind of a struggle.
                   Within the organization, it's going to be things like everything from, you know, how do we have people organized within the company to what kind of metrics do we look at to understand performance? Even down to things like individual performance reviews, like all that stuff's going to have to change, how you budget a project, how you bill a project. All that stuff has to change.
                   And even when you get all that figured out, like for me, the biggest problem was not the organizational stuff. It was this is a way of working that is completely opposite of what I was taught to do. And even though it's a lot more common sense, most people get out of school and they're taught the Waterfall method and it's great. It just doesn't really, it at least in the work that I do, it doesn't help, it just causes barriers. So I had to figure out a way, let go of the things I'd been taught to rely on and to try to find better tools. And so being open to that, being open to challenging your own beliefs and your own biases, that's really hard too.

Brett Harned:       Yeah, it's like unlearning behaviors and learning new ones right?

Dave Prior:         Yeah. Actually there's a really smart lady named Dr. Sally Anne Friedenberg, she's another scrum trainer and I was talking to her one day about how I used to feel that when I would get people in my classes, like my job was to scoop out all the Waterfall and backfill with Agile. And she looked at me and she's really smart and she's British so she sounds even smarter. And she's an organizational psychologist, or behavioral psychologist. And she looked at me and she said, you know, Dave, when they rescue people from cults, they can't take out with the cult put in.
                   And that was like, she meant it in a humorous way, but that was really informative thing for me. Like I am a Waterfall project manager. That's never going away any more than being an Irish Catholic from Philadelphia is ever going to go away. My sense of humor is a little weird and you know, I think like a project manager, but what I learned to do was to take a breath and give a couple of seconds for all the Agile filters to click in so that I remember not to do things like call people resources. Or trying to manage people's work for them. It takes a lot to like, kind of let that breathe and challenge yourself that way.

Brett Harned:       Yeah. I'm so glad that you told that story cause I think that's important for people to know. It is a change in your behavior, a complete change in your role and that means dropping some old behaviors and picking up new ones.

Dave Prior:         Yeah.

Brett Harned:       Obviously all for the better at that time. But it's also nice to know that you've got that experience in your back pocket should you need it. You know, like if things go off track or things go awry, like they do some times just knowing that if you've got other experiences you can draw on those too.

Dave Prior:         Yeah. And I think that is really helpful for me when I'm working with senior leadership or people that come out of the waterfall background. Like I can speak that language and I get it, and I love traditional project management. I just don't use it day to day, but it helps me have a lot more empathy for the people that I work with. And one of the things that I've picked up at the last conference, the last summit was from Abby when she was talking about how your clients, you know, they're our teachers as much as there are students. So I always learn a lot from the people that I'm working with.

Brett Harned:       Yeah. Awesome. All right, last question. So you know that our podcast is called Time Limit, kind of nods to the fact that we all have limits on the time we have to do good work. So I've been trying to ask speakers a question in light of saving time or having limited time. So I'm wondering if you have any tips for people who want to go Agile but maybe have less time to get an entire team trained, or you know, read up on documentation, like what, those things are less than ideal. Like obviously they would go through a training, specifically your training, but that's not always realistic. Right?

Dave Prior:         Yeah.

Brett Harned:       So what should those people do? Are there any resources out there that, that you would recommend or things that they do?

Dave Prior:         Oh my gosh, there's tons of them. So if you just want to learn some basics about how scrum works, there's a video called product ownership in a nutshell by Heinrich Kniberg that's really great. There's tons of like five minutes scrum videos and things like that you can watch. But the scrum guide itself is only like 15 pages. So you can read that in about a half an hour. From a maybe more practical standpoint in my own experiences, I wanted to get better at writing user stories and I didn't have a project where I could use them. So I went into Netflix and I wrote user stories for everything I could see, like every feature I could find with acceptance criteria. And then I bought lunch for a team of developers. And, and while they ate lunch, the requirement was that they tell me why my user stories sucked.
                   And developers tend to be pretty comfortable with telling you what's wrong with your user stories. So,  and that was a really, really valuable learning experience. And then the other thing was when I wanted to learn Kanban, I didn't have a place where I could do Kanban, so I started with personal Kanban. And for me, the trick there was, and Jim Benson is the guy that came up with that and there's a lot of video tutorials he's got that you can watch that are really short, personal Kanban is really lightweight, really simple to use. But the thing that was most valuable to me there was I got a guy to act as my coach. And he was somebody that, that, I mean, I knew this stuff, he knew this stuff. And when he asked why I wanted to coach, my response was that I knew I was going to cheat and I needed somebody to like hold up the mirror and be like, why are you doing this? Why are you doing that?
                   So if people are going to try to find a quick way to get some of this stuff down, any simple thing, maintaining a product backlog on a daily basis, trying to prioritize your work and limit your work can process, all that stuff is going to help. But I think having some kind of accountability partnership is one of the most important things you can do, because you won't see all this stuff and with somebody else, you can be more objective. And hopefully that knows you well enough and you trust them enough that they're going to call you out on stuff and help you find the pieces you're missing. I think that is one of the most important things you can do.

Brett Harned:       Yeah. So basically don't go it alone. Have somebody there to help you out to hold up a mirror.

Dave Prior:         Absolutely.

Brett Harned:       Yeah, I love that.

Dave Prior:         Yeah.

Brett Harned:       I like that in, in any case, it's good to have an accountability partner.

Dave Prior:         Yeah yeah.

Brett Harned:       So awesome. Well Dave, thank you so much for joining us on Time Limit. Really appreciate it. Hope to have you back again sometime and we can talk a little bit more about blended, but this has been really awesome to learn more about Agile and your background.

Dave Prior:         Yeah, this was fun man.

Brett Harned:       Thank you. I appreciate that.

Dave Prior:         Thanks for having me.

Brett Harned:       Absolutely. So there you have it. Agile is not perfect and even the experts know that have to do what works best for you, but if you have the time to get educated, I say go for it. I've taken Dave's course through leading Agile and it's not only informative, it's actually a lot of fun. So check out the show notes for more information on Dave, and please don't forget to share rate and like our podcast on your podcast listening service of toys and come back for our next episode, which will be all about the PM career path. Thanks.

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