Leveraging the Team for Good PDPs (if you need them)

I am currently working with a relatively new Scrum team (5 Sprints/weeks young) that needs to rewrite their Personal Development Plans (PDPs) in order to better support Scrum and the team.  PDPs are still the deliverables of individuals required by the organization and likely will be for some time.  The organization is still in the early days of Agile adoption (pilots) and they are large.  So, instead of giving them a sermon on why metrics for managed individuals are bad, I am going to help them take the step towards Agility that they are ready to take.

The Plan:

  • Facilitate a team workshop to create an initial Skills Matrix;
  • work as a team to develop a PDP for each individual team member that directly supports the team’s high-performance Goal (already established)—
    • in other words, when considering an appropriate PDP per individual, the team will start with the team’s performance Goal and build the individual PDP from there;
  • develop a plan as a team for how the team will support each team member to fulfill his/her individual PDP—
    • in other words, all individual PDPs will be part of the team’s plan for team improvement;
  • Internally publish the plan (share with management).

I’ll follow up with another post to let everyone know how it goes.

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Minor Update: Seven Essential Teamwork Skills

I was recently checking my Google Analytics for Agile Advice and the article I wrote quite a while back in 2009 about teamwork skills is even more popular than the front page of this blog!  I took a look at it and made some tweaks including providing some good references for more information about each of the teamwork skills.  Take a look: Seven Essential Teamwork Skills.  The only hard one was to find a good article about “sharing” as a teamwork skill.   If you know of one, please comment so that I can add it!  I’ll even be happy to take a link to an article you have written yourself.

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Agile Inception: Facilitating Innovation Towards Valuable Results

I recently had the opportunity to help facilitate a client’s “Innovation Challenge”.  Basically, the concept is to get a bunch of people in the room, give them a business challenge and see what they come up with.

I have to say that the format of the workshop that I used is heavily inspired by a training that I did recently called Specification By Example by Gojko Adzic.  I strongly recommend this seminar as well as the book.  Another strong influence is The Inmates are Running the Asylum… by Alan Cooper.  The workshop that I have developed is a sort of hybrid approach, with my own flavour added to the mix.  During an early iteration of the workshop, I didn’t have a title and one of the participants suggested “Agile Inception”.  I think that title works in a space where Agile is established and well understood (e.g. hopefully this blog).  At the same time, this workshop can be run with people who have no prior experience or knowledge of Agile and without even mentioning the word Agile.  This is also good in certain environments where people have developed an Agile allergy.

Anyhow, my goal for the day was to facilitate the building of shared understanding of the challenge itself as well as some ways that the organization could innovate around that challenge through conversation and collaboration.

From the opening remarks it became clear that the product at the centre of the “challenge” was actually in deep crisis:  a shrinking market combined with shrinking market share.  The product had generated approximately $18M in revenue in 2009, compared with $10.4M projected for 2014.  That’s half dead in some people’s books.  The clear Goal was to reverse that trend, starting with at least $11M in 2015.  They needed a powerful jolt of life-giving innovation energy to defibrillate their failing product’s heart.

There were no shortage of ideas about how the product could become better & more profitable.  In fact, there were many, many ideas.  Too many, perhaps.  Once we had established our working agreement for the day, we did a Starfish Retrospective exercise to make visible all of the things that the group wanted to keep doing, start doing, stop doing, do more of and do less of.  Many post-it notes were stuck on the board and we left them there as a reminder of all of the things that people were thinking about that could help us to consider how the product and ways of working on it could be improved.

Then we talked about the Goal.  True innovation—that is, tangible, innovative results with clear benefits—requires a group to focus on a single, clear, SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound) Goal that everyone in the organization understands and is committed to achieving.  Often times, as was the case with the group on Thursday, taking time to establish shared understanding of the goal can seem redundant and tedious (“we already know what the goal is…”).  However, as we learned through the process of working in small groups to re-articulate understanding of the Goal back to the “customer” (the person paying for everyone to be there) this often requires some further conversation.  Indeed, when the groups presented their understanding of the Goal, there were gaps that needed to be filled by the “customer”.  It took less than 30 minutes to discuss, adapt and confirm the Goal with the customer.  The value of this investment of everyone’s time was tremendous.  The conversation made it clear that shared understanding had already been established to a degree and enabled the group to build on what was already there to make the Goal “SMARTer” in the minds of all of the participants.

A single, transparent business Goal helps us to innovate with focus—to create the right thing.  In addition, we need to develop a single Persona—the ideal, “imaginary” user of the product.  The larger group broke into smaller groups for the subsequent discussions.  The groups worked separately and generated a the details for a few personas.  All 3 personas added value to the conversation.  The Persona of “Lisa” was particularly compelling to the “customer” because she had a clear goal of her own and through innovation, her goal could be aligned with the overall business Goal to create a powerful, “new” product that just might reverse the downward trend.

The next step in innovating with focus in order to generate the best ideas possible: build shared understanding of how Lisa can pursue her goal through her experience of the product in order for the business Goal to be achieved.  In other words, Lisa needs a story.  Her story needs a beginning and an end (for now, until the next story) and all the stages of her journey need to be integrated into a coherent whole.

The last step was for the groups to brainstorm and come up with different ways that the product can deliver Lisa’s story in order to realize the Goal.

I wish I could say more about the really cool ideas that the group came up with, but I am erring on the side of caution when it comes to protecting my client’s competitive advantage.

To wrap up the session, we took a quick, anonymous gauge of how confident the participants felt about achieving the Goal.  Of the 13 participants, two gave their confidence a score of 8/10, six gave a score of 7/10, four scored themselves a 6/10 and one was a 3/10, for an average of 6.5/10.  Not bad, but clearly some work still to go.  So what’s next for them?

Next steps:
  • Get the technical folks involved in the conversation (ideally, they are there from the beginning)
  • Build an increment of their solution
  • Review
  • Continue the conversation and collaboration to build shared understanding 
  • Re-gauge the confidence score
  • Iterate  
  • Repeat 
  • The likelihood of achieving the Goal increases with every iteration

 

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The Real Agility Program – Execution and Delivery Teams

In a recent post, Mishkin outlined the Leadership Team component of the Real Agility Program.  While the Leadership Team track focuses on developing leadership capacity for sustained transformation, The Execution track focuses on launching and developing high-performance project, product and operational teams.  This track is the one that most of our clients use when they run Agile pilot programs and is a critical component of getting quick wins for the organization.

Groundbreaking works such as The Wisdom of Teams (Katzenbach & Smith), The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (Lencioni) and Drive (Pink) have served well to distill the essential requirements of high-performance teams.  Scrum, Kanban, and OpenAgile are proven frameworks that optimize the value of teams and create the necessary working agreements to help teams reach that high-performance state.

The Delivery Team track of the Real Agility Program creates new, cross-functional, multi-skilled, staff-level teams of willing individuals.  These teams are responsible for delivering value—business results and quality.  Individuals are committed to the performance of the team and the organization.  Teams develop the capacity to self-organize and focus on continuous improvement and learning.  A team is usually composed of people from various roles at the delivery level.  For example, and IT project team might be composed of people whose previous* roles were:

  1. Project manager
  2. Business analyst
  3. Software developer
  4. Tester
  5. Database developer
  6. Team lead
  7. User experience lead
  8. Intern

* These roles do not get carried into the new delivery team other than as a set of skills.

The track begins with establishing pre-conditions for success including executive sponsorship, availability of team members and management support.  Team launch involves a series of on-the-job team development workshops designed to enable the teams to create their own set of values, working agreements and high-performance goals.  Teams are guided in the creation of their initial work backlogs, defining “done”, estimation and planning and self-awareness through the use of a collaborative skills matrix.  The teams are also assisted in setting up collocated team rooms and other tools to optimize communication and productivity.

Qualified coaches assist the teams to overcome common issues such as personal commitment, initial discomfort with physical colocation, communication challenges of working with new people in a new way, management interference and disruptions and appropriate allocation of authority.  This assistance is delivered on a regular schedule as the team progresses through a series of steps in the Execution track process.  Usually, these steps take one or two weeks each, but sometimes they take longer.  A team that needs to get to a high-performance state quickly might go through the entire program in 10 or 12 weeks.  In an organization where there is not the same urgency, it can take up to a year to get through the steps of the track.

The coaches for this Execution track also help management to resist and overcome the strong urge to manage the problems of the teams for them.  In order to develop through the stages of team development, teams need to be effectively guided and encouraged to solve their own problems and chart their own courses towards high-performance.

The goal of the Execution track of the Real Agility Program is to help the team go through the stages of forming-storming-norming and set them up to succeed in becoming a high-performance team.  Of course, to do this requires some investment of time.  Although the Execution track is meant to be done as on-the-job coaching, there is a 5% to 20% level of overhead related to the Real Agility Program materials themselves.

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Updated: Agile Estimation with the Bucket System

I have added a pdf download of this article about Agile Estimation with the Bucket System.  It’s just a handy, nicely-formatted document that can be used for quick reference.  It is now part of the materials I give out for my Certified ScrumMaster training classes.

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Real Agility Program – Leadership Transformation Team

One of the main components of our Real Agility Program for enterprise Agile transformations is the Leadership Development track.  This track is a series of monthly leadership meetings with one of our consultants to help them establish their Leadership Transformation Team.  This team is based in part on the concept of a guiding coalition from John Kotter’s work (see “Leading Change“), and in part on Edgar Schein’s work on corporate culture (see “The Corporate Culture Survival Guide“) as well as our own specific experience on successful Agile transformations in organizations.

The very first thing, of course, is to establish who should be on the Leadership Transformation Team.  There are six major categories from which the team must find representatives:

  1. The Executive Sponsor, for example the CIO
  2. Business Management, for example an SVP of Sales or Product Development
  3. Process Management, for example the head of the PMO or Compliance
  4. Technology Management, for example VP of Technology or Development
  5. Human Resources, for example a Director of Staff Development and Training
  6. and Apprentice Agile Coaches / Agile Champions

In total, the number of people on this team should be no more than 12, but smaller is better.

Once established, this Leadership Transformation Team must execute on three core responsibilities in perpetuity:

  1. Urgency and Vision: constant, strong, repetitive, prominent communication of the reasons for change and a high level view of how those changes will happen.
  2. Lead by Example: use of an Agile approach to run the Leadership Transformation Team’s work – we recommend OpenAgile for the process, but Kanban may also be used.
  3. Empower Staff: focus on removing obstacles by making structural changes in the organization, helping staff master standard Agile processes and tools, and eventually, creating innovative Agile approaches customized for the organization.

This leadership support is a critical success factor for an Agile Transformation.  One of the first steps in our program for this team is to help with the creation of the team’s plan for the transformation.  This plan can be derived from an number of sources including assessment work, but includes a number of standard items that must eventually be addressed for a successful transformation.  At a high level, these include:

  • Hiring, performance evaluation and compensation
  • Reporting relationships
  • What to do with project managers, business analysts, testers and certain middle managers
  • Key metrics and processes for measuring progress
  • Technology and physical environment
  • Vendor relationships and contracts
  • Compliance, regulation and documentation

Many of these items are multi-year change efforts that need to be closely guided and encouraged by the Leadership Transformation Team.

One final point about the Leadership Transformation Team needs to be made: the work they do must not be delegated to subordinates.  If something is part of their three core responsibilities, it must be handled directly by the members of this team.  Therefore, the team members need to allocate a significant percentage of their time to the effort.  Usually 20% is sufficient to get started.  The proportion may wax and wane slightly over time, but if it gets too low, the Leadership Transformation Team will lose touch with the transformation and the risk of it going bad increases substantially.

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Two reviews of SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework)

SAFe (Scaling Agile Framework) is gaining in popularity.  Ron Jeffries recently attended a SAFe training session and has written a great review.  I particularly like what Ron says about the idea of being properly Agile:

SAFe will be successful in the market. People will benefit. They just won’t benefit nearly as much as they might if they set out to do things in a fashion that truly supports Agile Values and Principles.

SAFe is good. It’s just not good enough. It provides some benefit, but endangers an organization’s progress toward really high functioning. As someone who has been in the Agile movement since before it started, I do not like it. It’s fast food. You can do better.

 

Neil Killick seems to have even stronger opinions about SAFe, and is quite direct about them.  I like what he says in one of the comments on his blog post:

So you can go the SAFe path or the Scrum and Agile path. All you need to do i[s] figure out how big a cliff you want to deal with down the road.

I don’t personally have any experience with SAFe so I won’t make any big claims about it either way.  However, I do appreciate that the popularity of SAFe, like the popularity of Agile/Scrum* will probably lead to studies showing modest qualitative improvements of 20% to 40% increases in productivity.  Is this just the Hawthorn Effect at work?

When I help an organization with Agile principles and methods, I hope and expect dramatic measurable improvements.  Sometimes this results in people losing their jobs.  Sometimes this means people have nervous breakdowns.  It can be very painful in the short term.  SAFe, by it’s very name, seems to be anti-pain.  That doesn’t bode well.

Here are a few other interesting links to information about the Scaled Agile Framework:

Has SAFe Cracked the Large Agile Adoption Nut? – InfoQ

Unsafe at Any Speed – Ken Schwaber

Kanban – the anti-SAFe for almost a decade already – David Andersen

* There is no such thing as “Agile/Scrum” but that’s what lots of people call Scrum when they don’t do Scrum properly.

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Reflections on Agile Business Leadership

From push system to pull system thinking

One of the disconnects holding teams back the most in an organization embarking on an Agile transformation is the lack of will and perhaps understanding of vision on the part of the business. The required shift in thinking is from a “push system” to a “pull system”. Historically and still culturally, most organizations, even those claiming to be ‘Agile’ are very much push systems. The business folks in client services – VPs, Directors, sales people, etc. seem to make time (deadline) commitments to clients on behalf of teams and then the teams are given the deadlines to finish the work. Sometimes, the deadlines are decided on in consultation with particular individuals on the teams and very rarely, if ever, with the actual teams themselves. In any case, the fact that the business is almost entirely deadline-driven is the centre of the push system. Deadlines push or drive everything else. Deadlines are fixed and often considered non-negotiable. Deadlines are a taboo subject – it is considered a waste of time to even discuss them because they just don’t and won’t ever move. The general attitude is that if we try to move deadlines, we put the entire business at risk because our clients will drop us and turn to one of our competitors who claim to be able to promise and keep deadlines. If we lose our clients, we lose business, we lose money and it potentially puts us all out of jobs. What this exposes is not only a push system driven by deadlines, but a culture that is actually driven by fear. The not-so-implicit message is that if you miss a deadline, you might lose your job, so you had better do whatever it takes to not miss the deadline. Or else. Push and pull systems and mentalities are like oil and water – they don’t mix. In Agile, there is no place for fear of failure. Rather, teams must be allowed to fail (miss deadlines) and learn from their failures (plan better).

Why quality, not time/cost or scope is non-negotiable

The “make the deadline or else message” is couched and clouded by other talk. The main excuse is to blame the client, as noted above. “That’s just the way our clients work, the way the market works”. Of course, such an excuse contains a kernel of truth. Without a true understanding and embrace of Agile, the idea of not meeting deadlines and the perceived consequences can be truly scary. Generally, there is an understanding from the business that the productivity of teams may drop somewhat as they progress through the storming stage. What this translates into is a difficult discussion with clients around delayed delivery. It is tolerable in that it is temporary. “Once the teams get up and running, we can go back to meeting our deadlines, and even be able to deliver early because Agile is supposed to be faster.” But the benefits of truly adopting Agile are much more powerful than this.

Understanding the true business value of Agile

What needs to be understood is the true business value for investing in Agile processes and practices – how it may add cost and time to the initial development Cycle, but how it saves both the business and the client tremendously on technical debt and support long-term. This needs to be understood and championed by the business in order for the organization to become liberated from its enslavement to the push system mentality. At the heart of such a mental liberation is the wholehearted adoption and commitment to the Agile/Lean principle that quality is non-negotiable. The investment in Agile processes and practices is essentially an investment not only in quality, but in continuous quality improvements towards the goal of being able to frequently deliver products of increasing relevance and quality (value). The ability to ship frequently allows for sustainable growth. All of this is made impossible by the deadline-driven push system mentality/culture of fear.

The urgent need for slack

One of the first things that a team needs in order to focus on continuous quality improvements is slack so that it can learn to learn. The first goal of the business leadership should be to facilitate scope and deadline slack for the team. This goal should also be fully and visibly championed by the business leadership. In order to develop the capability to facilitate slack, the business needs to gain knowledge around the purpose and importance of Agile processes and practices and be able to articulate a strong business case for them. The business leadership needs to develop the skill of educating the team, management and business leadership on the long-term benefits of an Agile transformation – the transformation from a push system to a pull system. The key stakeholders and business leaderships need to possess the courage to engage in difficult conversations with management and clients who may be upset by the short-term pain of delays and missed deadlines and protect the team from continued attempts to push work into the team. Perhaps above all, the business leadership needs to develop an attitude of learning – a humble learning posture that allows for the setting aside of preconceived notions, fears and prejudices around what it means to be a good business leader. A leader possessed of this posture demonstrates a learning attitude by stressing first and foremost the importance of creating slack for the team to learn to learn. It is a common pitfall for inexperienced business leaderships and stakeholders to expect Agile to provide solutions for their push system woes, woes that include the broken trust of clients from consistently broken (unrealistic, dreamt-up) deadline promises and the crippling effects of technical debt (the fallout of the former – when scope, time and cost are fixed, quality is compromised).

If the business leadership, with the support of the Process Facilitators and the Transformation Team, is able to foster the organizational will to create slack for the teams, then the teams will have the space they need to truly focus on continuous quality improvements. This is a critical milestone on the path to realizing the true, measurable benefits of Agile. Although the support of others is needed, the business leadership is in a unique position benefitting from an intimate relationship with both the needs of the business as well as the daily life of the team.

Why the business leadership needs to own the process

The first way that the business leadership creates slack for the teams is by championing the process. In OpenAgile, like all other Agile methodologies, there are key features of the process the purpose of which are to give space for new teams to begin to make the often seemingly inconsequential, yet ultimately critical first steps towards continuous quality improvements. One of the most obvious of these features is the Agile team meetings. In the early stages of team development, organizational understanding and will, the OpenAgile meetings (particularly the Reflection and Learning aspects of the Engagement Meetings in OpenAgile) can easily be discounted as an obstacle preventing the team from getting the “real work” done. What is often forgotten under the pressure of deadlines is the fact that in order for a team to be able to learn to make continuous quality improvements, it needs to develop the capability of systematic (frequent & regular) inspection and adaptation of the way that it works. It is easy to save on the short term pain of perceived non-negotiable deadlines (meeting deadlines at all cost = success) by compromising on investing in the process, especially when the team is still learning to learn and the effectiveness of the meetings is not yet apparent. When the team and the organization have an expectation of Agile as something that fits into the push system and allows for a team to function better within such a system, it can be hard to understand how spending time in a kind of meeting that the team doesn’t seem good at yet can be of any value. This is where the business leadership needs to stand firmly behind the process. The team needs the meetings – the space to reflect, learn and plan – in order to learn to become more effective at making continuous quality improvements – a critical feature of an effective pull system. Without the meetings, the team will never develop this critical capability and as a result, will never become an Agile team. Instead, the team will revert back to getting the “real work” done with all of the quality problems crippling the organization and which led to the decision to adopt an Agile framework in the first place.

Why the business leadership should care about burn-down

Another key feature of the process for the business leadership to understand and champion is the concept of burn-down as represented by the burn-down chart of an Agile team. Agile doesn’t care about how much work the team gets done. It assumes that the team is doing valuable work and getting things done – in other words, that the team is managing itself and working towards its goals and commitments. There are no tools in Agile for an individual, least of all the business leadership, to measure and manage how much work the team is getting done. Agile acknowledges the reality that real (sustainable) productivity cannot be forced on any team. Instead, a team grows its productivity at a sustainable pace when it is given enough slack to do so. The team makes a plan at the beginning of the Cycle based on what it understands about its capacity, works towards that goal throughout the Cycle and hopefully delivers valuable results at the end of the Cycle. By learning to apply the process of continuous improvement, quality and productivity go up hand in hand. That is the essence of the pull model. Through all of this, the team manages “how” it gets work done. The productivity of a team can be measured, but the burn-down chart is neither an appropriate nor effective tool for measuring the productivity of a team. Instead, burn-down provides one specific measurement and ONLY this one measurement: WORK REMAINING (in order to achieve the goal/commitment of the current Cycle). It does not and cannot tell you how much the team got done and even less so the whys and hows of the output and productivity of the team during the Cycle.

So what is the purpose of burn-down and why should the business leadership even care? If it can’t be used as a tool to measure the productivity of the team (in other words, if it can’t be used to manage the team) then what importance can it possibly have? These are typical questions of teams and individuals that are coming from a traditional project management, i.e. command & control, i.e. “push” system mentality. Understanding the purpose of burn-down depends on the ability to make the shift from the push system paradigm to the pull system paradigm. In a push system, burn-down is nice but somewhat irrelevant. For an organization committed to an Agile transformation (towards a pull system of self-managed teams) it is an invaluable launch pad for powerful conversations that live at the heart of continuous quality improvements.

Commitment to the business requirements come from the Agile teams

When a team decides on a plan for a Cycle of work, the plan is a commitment. This is a critical step in the Agile process. It is only after a unanimous commitment from the whole team that the team begins to work on the plan. If any individual team member feels hesitant about the work in the plan, tasks and potentially even Value Drivers should be removed until everyone is comfortable making a commitment. When the business leadership is telling a team what the plan is, then it is not the team’s plan and therefore it cannot be a team commitment. This is not only an inappropriate use of authority, it is also breaking the Agile process. Moreover, when a plan and therefore a commitment is forced onto a team, the team cannot be held accountable for failure. Worse yet, the team will never learn to plan. If a team is not able to plan, then it is not able to make commitments. If the team is overwhelmed by an overly-ambitious, management-forced plan, it will not learn to evaluate its capacity and apply that knowledge to long-term planning and project estimates. It will not learn to make meaningful quality improvements and reflect on its progress. It will not learn to self-manage or self-organize. The purpose of burn-down is to establish commitment velocity. In other words, the amount of work that the team can truthfully expect to complete during the Cycle when it is making the Plan. The difference between the number of tasks in the Cycle Plan and the number of tasks remaining at the end of the Cycle gives the team its commitment velocity. Commitment velocity is always based on minimum historical velocity. The team uses commitment velocity to make a Cycle Plan containing no more than the number of tasks represented by its commitment velocity. This allows the team to spend just the right amount of effort and time on planning and allows the team slack to focus on the truly Agile work of learning and continuous quality and process improvements. Over-planning, especially when it is wedded to over-committing or even worse, non-committing (a common push system mentality pitfall forced onto teams by the business leadership) leaves the team in a state of dependent on daily micro-management and can completely halt the progress of a team. Not to mention that this is a flagrant violation of Agile values (truthfulness, responding to change over following a plan) and principles (sustainable development). Such compromises to foundational Agile values, principles and processes may produce desired results in the very short-term, but the long-term costs can be crippling to teams and organizations. The wasteful activity associated with team dependency on micro-management is what often leads organizations to the accumulation of technical debt that places them in dire competitive disadvantage and desperate need for Agile transformation in the first place. If an organization misses out on this golden opportunity, teams can become demoralized and innocuous to the Agile practices and the promise of an Agile transformation can quickly erode.

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Leaving your title at the Scrum team room door and pick up new skills!

Each member of an organization has a title or designation that may reflect their responsibilities or profession.  These titles may include BA, Tester, Developer, QA, PM, and others.  It is normal to be proud of our accomplishments, achievements and titles.  Unfortunately in a Scrum team these titles can limit the individual and adversely effect the team.  These same titles can label the individual as that role (example – as a tester) and only that role.  Within a Scrum team we certainly need the skills, knowledge and abilities that come with that title/role, but we do not want to limit that person to being viewed as only that role.  Each of us is the sum total of our experience, education, values, upbringing and history.  All of this is of value to the team.  We should encourage every member to fully participate on the team, to willingly share their expertise, to contribute to non-traditional tasks and to feel they are valued as a complete person rather than a specifically titled individual.   So if the goal is to leave your title behind, then it is implied you can also pick up other skills.
So how can this be accomplished.  One way is a Skills Matrix.   This is a chart that can be posted in the room to identify the skills needed and the people on the team.   On the left column you list all the team members.  Along the top you list all the various skills you need on the team.  Then each person reviews their row, looking at each skill, and then identifies how many quadrants of each circle they can fill in, based on the range below the chart.  The range is from no skills through to teach all skills in a given column.  After filling the columns and rows, now the work begins.  By using pair programming (an extreme programming method) and other methods like self-study and taking additional courses, the team member can begin to learn other skills.  The objective is to have at least two persons on each team who possess each of the skills at the level of performing all the tasks of a specific skill.  The goal is not to have every one do everything but to have a least enough people with specific skills to cover sicknesses and vacations so that required tasks are performed.  This is a method to capture the full extend of each person’s current knowledge, skills and abilities and expand on it.
Skills Matrix
Since they are hard to see, here are the labels for the number of quadrants:
0: no skill
1: basic knowledge
2: perform basic tasks
3: perform all tasks (expert)
4: teach all tasks
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Agile: Cheating at Work

I just finished reading an excellent article about a UCLA prof who, for his game theory class, allowed the students to cheat

I strongly recommend reading this because this points to one of the big cultural barriers to using Agile methods effectively: we are focused on individual performance instead of the outcomes of a group (team) of people!

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The Planning Game – An Estimation Method for Agile Teams

The Planning Game [PDF] – printable reference.

Purpose: estimate the effort for User Stories (Product Backlog Items, Value Drivers)

Prerequisites: all items have a value estimate, each item is written on a separate note card, full team membership is known and available for planning, each team member has a set of planning game cards

Process:

  1. The team goes through all the items and chooses the one which has the lowest effort. Write the number “2″ on this card (usually in the bottom right corner).
  2. The team looks at the item with the highest value.
  3. Each team member thinks about how much effort the team will expend to fully complete all the work for the item. Comparing this work to the work effort for the smallest item, each team member selects a card that represents this relative effort. For example, if you think that it requires ten times the effort, you would select the “20″ card. It is not permissible to select two cards.
  4. Each team member places their selected card, face down, on the table. Once all team members have done this, turn the cards over.
  5. If all team members show the same value, then write the value on the item and go back to step three for the next item. (Or if there are no more items, then the process is complete.)
  6. The person with the highest and the lowest value cards both briefly explain why they voted the way they did. If there is a Product Owner present, this person can add any clarifications about the item.
  7. For any given item, if a person is highest or lowest more than once, then each explanation must include new information or reasoning.
  8. Once explanations are complete, the team members collect their cards and go back to step three.

Notes:
- it is extremely important that the voting for an item continues until all team members unanimously vote the same way (this way team members and outside stakeholders cannot blame any individual for “wrong” estimates)
- in Scrum, it is normal for the Product Owner to be present during this process, but not to participate in the voting
- in OpenAgile, it is acceptable for people serving as Growth Facilitators for a team to participate in the voting
- voting should not include extensive discussion
- if more than one person has the lowest or highest vote, usually just one person shares their reason in order to help the process move quickly
- the first few items will often take 10 or 15 rounds of voting before the team arrives at a unanimous vote
- later on, items may take just one or two rounds of voting to arrive at a unanimous decision
- some teams, where trust levels are high, will discard with the use of physical cards and just briefly discuss votes

The planning game is used at the start of a project with the full list of user stories. In this case, it is reasonable to expect the team to average two minutes per user story, and an appropriate amount of time needs to be set aside to accommodate going through the whole list.

The Planning Game is also used any time that there is a change in the list of user stories: re-ordering, adding or removing user stories, or changes to a single user story. When such a change happens, the team can re-estimate any user story in the whole list. When starting a Cycle or Sprint or Iteration, all the user stories in the list should have up-to-date estimates so that estimation work is avoided in the Cycle planning meeting.

Finally, the team can decide to re-estimate any user stories at any time for any reason. However, it is important for team members to remember that estimation is non-value-added work and the time spent on it should be minimized.

NOTE: The Planning Game is described as Planning Poker on wikipedia.  The version described there has some minor variations from this version.

A closely related method of Agile Estimation is the Bucket System.

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The Skills Matrix and Performance Evaluation on Agile Teams

For a few years now I have been working with managers and executives to help them do Agile-compatible performance evaluations of their staff.  The method that has been most successful is based on a tool that comes from the book Toyota Talent called the “Skills Matrix”.  The basic approach follows these steps:

  1. Baseline the skills within a team for each team member.
  2. Set development goals and action items.
  3. Regularly review performance in relation to the development goals.

Of course, the details matter.  The OpenAgile Center for Learning has published a brief overview of how to use the Skills Matrix and a convenient A0-size pdf that can be used as a template for a team’s Skills Matrix.  I highly recommend using these to get started.  If you are a manager, ask your ScrumMaster or Process Facilitator to arrange and facilitate a team workshop to do the initial population of the Skills Matrix, rather than doing it yourself.  Once that is done you have a baseline and you should take regular digital photos of the team’s Skills Matrix for record-keeping and as a backup in case of disputes.  You should also let the team know that you will be basing performance reviews on how they improve their skills.

The development goals that team members set then should be made such that every team member understands that they have a responsibility to diversify their own skill set and assist other team members in doing this.  As a manager, you should review each team members’ goals for development and provide mentoring support when needed.  At the end of a fixed period of time (quarterly is a reasonable period), you will review each team member’s development relative to the baseline and the goals set.  Of course, normal guidance around performance (or lack thereof) can be given at these regular reviews.

I strongly recommend reading “Drive” by Daniel Pink as an important adjunct to understanding how to do performance reviews for individuals in an Agile environment.  In particular, individual performance reviews should not be tied to bonuses.  If bonuses are used at all, they should be measured and delivered purely at the team level or organization level without measuring individual contribution.

Of course, Agile team performance can’t simply be measured in terms of skills alone.  Performance must also be related to bottom-line results.  This part of performance measurement is separate from the development of the team.  Another aspect of Agile team performance is how well they are doing Agile itself.  Depending on the Agile method you use, there may be various tools to help with this (I would recommend our new product the Scrum Team Assessment as one possible consideration).

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Be able to explain WHY.

Every once in a while I’m reminded of the very important question: WHY?

If you are considering SCRUM, XP, Lean or any other Agile Framework, or if you are considering using OpenAgile which is an Open Learning System, you will be changing the organization.

Many people think they can do “Agile in a bubble” and therefore not interact with the rest of the organization.  You will likely find that you will quickly run into obstacles to using the Framework.

Just the iterative process alone will change the way stakeholders interact with teams, meeting rooms are scheduled, vacation schedules, communication requirements, team spaces and/or seating, the responsibilities of stakeholders, and even the interactions between team members and other departments.  Because of this, working towards Agility WILL change your organization.

You may start out with an aggressive framework such as XP(Extreme Programming), or something a little more gentle such as Kanban or Lean (which let you start out as you are and visualize your process).  However, please don’t kid yourself; you will eventually need to change the way things get done in the company.

 

Which WayWhether you are the OpenAgile Growth Facilitator, a Scrum Master trying to introduce Agile from the grass-roots, or if you are the CEO or CIO trying to introduce change from that level, you will eventually need to address the WHY for the change.

Managers and employees alike need to know why they are being asked to leave their comfort zones.  In some cases they will be going against everything they have learned in the past about people management or how they should work.  They need to know the reason.

 

Whatever level you are in at your company, please be ready to explain why you are making the change to an Agile Environment.  Something like “to be more efficient”, isn’t really going to cut it.

  • Is it to be more competitive against other companies breaking into our market and you need to change quickly to stave them off?  To give this message, you would need to let people know that you are concerned about this.  This is part of the Transparency of Agile.  If you know this, but are not willing to pass this on to your managers or teams, you will have struggles when managers don’t know why you are changing their environments.
  • Is it to stop the high level of turnover in your company ?  You will be changing to a more team-focused environment which might seriously change the way Project Management or even H.R. does things.  For this also, you will need to explain your changes to help you get support.

I could think of many other reasons.  You should have your OWN reasons.

If you started an adoption or transformation a while back, it’s a good idea to restate this every once in a while (if even for yourself).  It will remind you why you are continuing to improve and learn every iteration.

Asking yourself once in a while will also allow you to improve your message which will likely change slightly over time as the market and your environment changes.

Please, go home TONIGHT and ask yourself WHY are we transitioning or continuing to work towards being more agile.  You will need to answer this for others more than once as you continue on your journey.

If the answer to yourself is “this is our last chance to make sure we don’t disappear as a company”, that revelation is a good one as well, and you will know why you need to stand strong on the changes you are making.  Either way, it all starts with the same question.

Please make sure you always know the answer to the question “Why?“.

References:

OpenAgile, Growth Facilitator
XP (Extreme Programming)
SCRUM
Kanban, Lean

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Interesting: Stoos Network

Transforming organizations: check out the Stoos Network.  Wish I had been there!  Some of my favourite people were there!

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Facing the facts early on. Risk Mitigation can be a powerful motivator.

Recently, I was able to witness a remarkable event in a company that is relatively new to Agile. They have several teams at about Sprint 12, with several new teams just starting up. Many of their processes are waterfall based.

A failed waterfall project was moved to an existing Agile Team.

In the second Sprint, the Team (feeling trust in the organization and the process), came to the Scrum Master and said, “We’d like you to talk to management. We are not sure this project should be using the platform we develop on. We think another team’s platform may be more appropriate”.

The company had spent time developing a “specification document” for this “project” before Agile was introduced. There were detailed specifications as to how the product was to be created and which platform to use. NONE of this was done with the benefit of asking those that would actually be doing the work.

The project was initiated before learning about applying Agile. One developer was tasked with following the specification. After 2-3 months of frustration, the developer left. This left the company in a bad position. Not only was the project incomplete, but there was also no knowledge transfer. The project was basically stopped.

As Agile was now the new target way of doing things, the project (and new developer hired through the previous process) were added to an existing SCRUM team. The team is using one week Sprints.

After only two Sprints (two weeks), the team had recognized the futility of the approach that was “specified” and took this to management.

Traditionally, large organizations staff for projects. In an environment such as this, how could team members be expected to be truthful and honest about the state of affairs? It would mean the end of their jobs or contracts.

The key here is to allow teams to stick together. Not only will you avoid losing all the efficiency the team has built up, but you will also allow them to be truthful about their situation.

If you are a manager reading this, ask yourself. “Do I want to know that things will go wrong at the beginning of the project or wait until 5 months have gone by to be told, ‘We knew it would never work”". Or even worse… “We knew the product owner was asking for ridiculous features that had no Return on Investment for the company, but hey, you hired us for this contract. We just follow instructions”.

As it turned out, the project did continue with the current team, but with some changes to the specification. The parts of the system that were going to be problems in 5 months were re-evaluated and were removed as they really did not have any real value to the company. It was then decided to stick with the same platform.

Discussions did occur regarding moving to the alternate platform, but were deemed unnecessary after open discussion between the teams and the managers involved. Realistic expectations were set based on value to the company.

Sometimes features are absolutely mandatory for the product. This cannot and should not be taken away from the process. What we gain here is that we are able to have a discussion about necessity. In the end, the business has to decide what is valuable, not the development team.

In a case like this, ask yourself, “If my team is very against this, maybe I should at least think about it”.

The company is working in a very short iterative environment, they quickly recognized a flaw in the system design and dealt with it after only 2 weeks into a several month project.

Working incrementally allows the company to “Inspect and Adapt” on a regular basis. This has to include the question, “Does this still make sense?”. If you need to go backwards, let it be to reverse one or two Sprints of work, not months, or even years.

Fortunately, for the company, the product will come out on time, with appropriate technology based on Return on Investment, and likely with significant cost savings over the initial design. This will also allow the team to get started on other high value projects. Talk about win-win.

This project could have gone to another team. It would not have been negative for the first team. The next project would have just come down the pipe for them.

The early signs helped adjust the “expectations” and everyone is moving forward with a clear understanding that they are on a more appropriate path going forward.

For those of you out there trying to convince companies (or yourselves) that Agile is an effective framework, don’t be afraid to talk about “RISK MITIGATION“.

Think about it this way; The company wants to know early on that there will be a problem, not near the end of the project. This is part of the purposeful transparency of any Agile framework.

Mike Caspar
Mike Caspar’s Blog

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