Turning The Ship Around For The Liberators
This year has been challenging for all of us. It wasn’t any different for our company, The Liberators. At the same time, seemingly insurmountable challenges are also drivers of innovation. And a lot of that is needed, as we’ve seen some of the pillars our company was built on crumble due to COVID-19. In this post, we clarify how we intend to turn the ship around. Time will tell if we succeed. Or fail.
Our business model, pre-COVID
When we started The Liberators, we did so from a shared passion for what great teams make possible for organizations and individuals. Because we have experienced how powerful and fulfilling it is to be part of a (Scrum) team, we felt compelled to share these possibilities with others. We did so through our writing, workshops, and the tools that we created individually (e.g. Team Metrics by Christiaan, the Scrum Master stances by Barry). When we started The Liberators and formulated our mission to “unleash organizational superpowers”, we hoped to find more time to share more of these “tools”, more writing and useful workshops, and to build communities around them at the same time. We also wanted the content to be free so that it could reach and help as many teams as possible.
But “free stuff” doesn’t pay bills. So, initially, our business model was based on a stream of revenue from paid in-house work and public events. One year after we started, we already discovered that the in-house work limited how many people we could effectively support and had only a modest impact. So we decided to drop that pillar of in-house work and focus entirely on a limited number of public workshops and classes to cover our running costs and pay our (modest) salaries.
“Our business model was based on a stream of revenue from paid in-house work and public events.”
This decision in mid-2018, though risky from a commercial perspective, paid off. It bought us time to create more content that people appreciated. From this focus flowed such things as our podcast, our upcoming Zombie Scrum book, The Liberators Network, the Scrum Framework poster, the Zombie Scrum Survey, and much more. To support a growing global community, we worked hard to organize workshops with an international character, both with international attendees and international co-facilitators, while at the same time going for topics that weren’t well-known at the time (e.g. Liberating Structures, conflict navigation for Scrum Teams and Strategy Knotworking).
So things were going well. At the same time, we found ourselves in two ongoing conversations.
Conversation #1: “How long can we remain authentic teachers?“
Both Barry and I have been Scrum Masters for nine years, ending around 2016–17. This experience has been both a source of stories, as well as a foundation for us to feel comfortable as trainers. We believe that you can only create an authentic learning experience if you have personally juggled principles and values against the messiness and rawness of the real world for a prolonged period of time. From that struggle springs the wisdom that tells you when to be flexible and when not to be. It is one thing to say that “a Daily Scrum should be held every day”, but another to recognize in which situations not to. It is one thing to say that “every Sprint should result in a ‘Done’-increment”, but another to recognize when it might be acceptable not to. This deep nuanced view is only possible when you have both a deep understanding of what you’re trying to achieve and a wide repertoire of difficult situations that the real world throws at you to challenge this. This is what distinguishes an authentic teacher from someone merely dishing out the theory.
“You can only create an authentic learning experience if you have personally juggled principles and values against the messiness and rawness of the real world for a prolonged period of time.”
Because our personal experience as Scrum Masters is fading into our pasts, we feel it makes us increasingly less suitable as authentic teachers about Scrum Mastery. How seriously do we take ourselves and our participants if we continue to act as trainers for something we haven’t done ourselves for years? Although one strategy would be to re-invigorate that experience by becoming a Scrum Master again, we prefer to move on and into new challenges. In our conversations, we talked about when this would happen — probably 2021 or 2022.
Conversation #2: “What else can we create?“
Both Barry and I are entrepreneurs. We always work hard to try new things, take risks, and experiment. One of those experiments was to host the first Dutch Liberating Structures Immersion Workshop, several years ago in Amsterdam. Another experiment was to develop an advanced class for Scrum Masters, which eventually turned into the official Professional Scrum Master II Class by Scrum.org. And we started a podcast that now has thousands of listeners. Although these experiments were successful, others weren’t. For example, we couldn’t find sufficient participants for our virtual Strategy Knotworking sessions. And our attempts to host workshops for developers didn’t pan out either.
In my heart of hearts, I am a creator. I love the creative process that goes into imagining a possibility and then turning that into reality. It is what made me become a software developer. My first attempts at coding were fueled by ideas like “What if I can create my own city-builder game?“ and “What if I can catalog all the games I have for my NES?”. But without a clear purpose, it is easy to get lost in the creation of things that ultimately don’t matter. What I love about our mission as The Liberators — to unleash organizational superpowers — is that it fuels the creation of all sorts of content and products to support this mission. For example, we created the Zombie Scrum Survey with this in mind, the Definition of Done Exercise, the Management in Scrum Exercise, and many other materials available in our webshop.
We’ve always seen many possibilities for the platforms we have, but always lacked the time to implement them. What if we add a way for teams to track their results on the Zombie Scrum Survey across time? What if we use feedback from teams to hone the experiments we suggest based on their outcomes? Can we create a platform where Scrum Teams can connect and help each other? So our conversations revolved around ways to find the time to run these experiments.
Then came Covid-19
When Covid-19 hit, it turned most of our work upside down. Early on, we applied the Liberating Structure Critical Uncertainties to The Liberators to identify potential futures. It was obvious from the start that Covid-19 would have a huge impact on our ability to generate revenue from in-person classes and workshops. What we didn’t know was how long this would be the case. As an intermediate strategy, we did some virtual (paid) work. Although successful, we quickly discovered that while we deeply enjoyed the shorter virtual meetups, the longer multi-day virtual events were simply too exhausting and draining for us. We didn’t become trainers to sit behind a screen. Plus, we found that people were far less willing to pay significantly for virtual workshops.
This presented a bit of a pickle. As described earlier, our business model was built on generating sufficient revenue through public training and workshops to ‘buy’ time to create content, host meetups, write blog posts, and record podcasts and such. Most of that revenue had fallen away now. So we had to survive on the buffers we had built pre-COVID. At the same time, we started exploring new sources of revenue.
So this brought our earlier conversations to the forefront. Following the adage to “never waste a good crisis”, perhaps this was exactly the right time to start something new. We spent the remainder of our summer break to explore other ways to build a viable business that aligned with the purpose of The Liberators, our own ambitions, and was capable of generating at least sufficient revenue to keep the boat afloat. And we’re confident that we can make this work while being nervous about whether or not we can pull this off at the same time.
Our new mission
So where do we go from here? We want to fulfill our purpose as The Liberators — to unleash organizational superpowers — by giving (Scrum) teams all over the world the products, content, and community they need to make this work. One part of this consists of the content that we already create (blog posts, books, podcasts, and videos). Another part is the community we’re building through the free meetups we host for The Liberators Network And yet another part is are a series of products we’re on working — both physical and software-based — to help Scrum Teams discover what is holding them back, to investigate the root cause, and to ignite real change.
Some examples are the Scrum Master Starter Kit, the Zombie Scrum Survey, the 52 Challenging Cases for Scrum Masters, and the various card-based exercises we offer in our webshop. Some of these products will be entirely free, others are free but with paid add-ons and others will be made available only to our patrons (see below). Taken together, this is our new mission:
“We create data-driven products that help (Scrum) Teams unleash their superpowers.”
Our patrons; our stakeholders
We can’t develop useful products without constant feedback from our stakeholders. So we will work closely with our growing community of patrons to invent, develop, test, and distribute these products. These are the people who feel that our mission, and our work, is valuable enough to justify a monthly contribution of whatever they can spare. Right now we have 74, and we hope that that number will soon grow. We appreciate the transparency of Patreon; if we deliver value and are responsive, people join. If we don’t, they leave. And there is a strong community-element to Patreon that is essential to our mission: we simply cannot do this alone.
So we will invite patrons to our frequent Sprint Reviews. Patrons also have early access to new materials, gain special benefits, and/or receive materials entirely for free. Together with our patrons — our stakeholders — we hope to make a bigger impact on (Scrum) teams and organizations all over the world.
Focus (and what we’ll be saying ‘No’ too)
If we say ‘Yes’ to this new adventure, it requires that we say ‘No’ to other things; even things that are dear to us. So what will we be saying ‘No’ to?
- We have three more Professional Scrum Master II classes planned, one in September (full), December (4 seats left), and January (10 seats left). If the situation allows it, we hope to host one super-special final Professional Scrum Master II Class in April 2021 where we aim to bring together a larger group of experienced Scrum Masters. So consider this our “goodbye tour” for the Professional Scrum Master II Class;
- We are both stepping down as stewards for Scrum.org as soon as there are new stewards to replace us. We thoroughly enjoyed the ride and learned heaps from our peers at Scrum.org. At the same time, it is a good moment for new stewards to take ownership of the Professional Scrum Master II Class and apply a fresh perspective to the class that we created.
- We will not be offering in-house or public classes, workshops, or training for the foreseeable future. The only exception is Liberating Structures Immersion Workshops as they are particularly fulfilling for us and for the participants. But it needs to be both safe and feasible again to bring together 50–80 people in one (large) room again. For now, the next one is planned for June 2021;
- We will be saying “No, thank you” to requests to collaborate on projects and initiatives that don’t clearly fit with our mission. This includes many calls, zoom-calls, and webinars. Even though each of them may only take a short time, they amount to much together;
This will be exceptionally hard for us. Barry and I are both eager to jump on new ideas and are quick to start collaborations. So we will challenge each other (and you can do too) to keep our focus tight and narrow. And just to be clear, we will absolutely continue writing blog posts (one a week), podcasts (our aim is one a week), and hosting (virtual) meetups as part of The Liberators Network.
The first steps?
From now on, we start every week with Sprint Planning. We plan to do this during a walk or a bicycle ride and want to use this time to define a valuable product that we can create — start to end — that week or a new increment of a product that already exists. From that follows the selection of work we need to do. We already have a couple of new products coming up soon, all supporting our upcoming Zombie Scrum Survival Guide (out in November).
“And yes, it is scary as hell. But we’re confident that we can make it work.”
And yes, it is scary as hell. But we’re confident that we can make it work. We have a large community of supporters, we have a lot of ideas that we hope are useful and we know that we can limit risk by working empirically. All we can do now is make the leap and see what happens. We may hit the floor a few months from now and concede that it didn’t work at all. Or it will be wildly successful. In any case, we’ll be transparent about our successes and our failures. That’s the joy of entrepreneurship!
Will you help us?
If you’ve read this post through to the end, you now understand how vital your support is to make this possible. By becoming a patron, you have early access to most of our materials, receive all sorts of nice benefits and discounts that non-patrons don’t get, and are closely involved in the creation and field-testing of new materials. In other words; it’s totally worth it!