Scaled Agile Framework: I Learned about Weighted Shorted Job First (WSJF)

Among the great things I learned last week in London UK at the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) Program Consultant training is the concept of using the Weighted Shortest Job First method of prioritization for backlog items.  The concept is similar to the Relative Return On Investment (RROI) that I teach in my Certified ScrumMaster and Certified Scrum Product Owner courses, but adds a bit of sophistication both in the background theory and in the actual application.

Weighted Shortest Job First is a numerical score where the larger the score, the sooner the job (feature, product backlog item) should be done.  Scores therefore give a sequence to jobs.  The score is based on the ratio between two estimates: the estimate of the “cost of delay” and the estimate of the “duration to complete”.  The cost of delay is a more sophisticated version of business value in that it takes into account customer needs, time criticality and risk reduction or opportunity cost.

In SAFe, the WSJF is calculated at the level of the team’s backlog on user stories through estimates of effort by the team and estimates of the cost of delay that are done by the product owner in collaboration with program management and business owners.  The effort estimate is considered a reasonable proxy for the measure of duration, but there is explicit acknowledgement that this may not always be a reliable relationship.

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Technical Push-Back – When is it Okay? When is it Bad?

Whenever I run a Certified Scrum Product Owner training session, one concept stands out as critical for participants: the relationship of the Product Owner to the technical demands of the work being done by the Scrum team.

The Product Owner is responsible for prioritizing the Product Backlog. This responsibility is, of course, also matched by their authority to do so. When the Product Owner collaborates with the team in the process of prioritization, there may be ways which the team “pushes back”. There are two possible reasons for push-back. One is good, one is bad.

Bad Technical Push-Back

BudapestDSCN3928-smallThe team may look at a product backlog item or a user story and say “O gosh! There’s a lot there to think about! We have to build this fully-architected infrastructure before we can implement that story.” This is old waterfall thinking. It is bad. The team should always be thinking (and doing) YAGNI and KISS. Technical challenges should be solved in the simplest responsible way. Features should be implemented with the simplest technical solution that actually works.

As a Product Owner, one technique that you can use to help teams with this is that when the team asks questions, that you aggressively keep the user story as simple as possible. The questions that are asked may lead to the creation of new stories, or splitting the existing story. Here is an example…

Suppose the story is “As a job seeker I can post my resume to the web site…” If the technical team makes certain assumptions, they may create a complex system that allows resumes to be uploaded in multiple formats with automatic keyword extraction, and even beyond that, they may anticipate that the code needs to be ready for edge cases like WordPerfect format.  The technical team might also assume that the system needs a database schema that includes users, login credentials, one-to-many relationships with resumes, detailed structures about jobs, organizations, positions, dates, educational institutions, etc. The team might insist that creating a login screen in the UI is an essential prerequisite to allowing a user to upload their resume.  And as for business logic, thy might decide that in order to implement all this, they need some sort of standard intermediate XML format that all resumes will be translated into so that searching features are easier to implement in the future.

It’s all CRAP, bloat and gold-plating.

Because that’s not what the Product Owner asked for.  The thing that’s really difficult for a team of techies to get with Scrum is that software is to be built incrementally.  The very first feature built is built in the simplest responsible way without assuming anything about future features.  In other words, build it like it is the last feature you will build, not the first.  In the Agile Manifesto this is described as:

Simplicity, the art of maximizing the amount of work not done, is essential.

The second feature the team builds should only add exactly what the Product Owner asks for.  Again, as if it was going to be the last feature built.  Every single feature (User Story / Product Backlog Item) is treated the same way.  Whenever the team starts to anticipate the business in any of these three ways, the team is wrong:

  1. Building a feature because the team thinks the Product Owner will want it.
  2. Building a feature because the Product Owner has put it later on the Product Backlog.
  3. Building a technical aspect of the system to support either of the first types of anticipation, even if the team doesn’t actually build the feature they are anticipating.

Okay, but what about architecture?  Fire your architects.  No kidding.¹

Good Technical Push-Back

Rube Goldberg Self Operating Napkin

Sometimes stuff gets non-simple: complicated, messy, hard to understand, hard to change.  This happens despite us techies all being super-smart.  Sometimes, in order to implement a new feature, we have to clean up what is already there.  The Product Owner might ask the Scrum Team to build this Product Backlog Item next and the team says something like: “yes, but it will take twice as long as we initially estimated, because we have to clean things up.”  This can be greatly disappointing for the Product Owner.  But, this is actually the kind of push-back a Product Owner wants.  Why?  In order to avoid destroying your business!  (Yup, that serious.)

This is called “Refactoring” at it is one of the critical Agile Engineering practices.  Martin Fowler wrote a great book about this about 15 years ago.  Refactoring is, simply, improving the design of your system without changing it’s business behaviour.  A simple example is changing a set of 3 radio buttons in the UI to a drop-down box with 3 options… so that later, the Product Owner can add 27 more options.  Refactoring at the level of code is often described as removing duplication.  But some types of refactoring are large: replacing a relational database with a NoSQL database, moving from Java to Python for a significant component of your system, doing a full UX re-design on your web application.  All of these are changes to the technical attributes of your system that are driven by an immediate need to add a new feature (or feature set) that is not supported by the current technology.

The Product Owner has asked for a new feature, now, and the team has decided that in order to build it, the existing system needs refactoring.  To be clear: the team is not anticipating that the Product Owner wants some feature in the future; it’s the very next feature that the team needs to build.

This all relates to another two principles from the Agile Manifesto:

Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.

and

The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.

In this case, the responsibilities of the team for technical excellence and creating the best system possible override the short-term (and short-sighted) desire of the business to trade off quality in order to get speed.  That trade-off always bites you in the end!  Why? Because of the cost of fixing quality problems increases exponentially as time passes from when they were introduced.

Young Girl Wiping Face With Napkin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Refactoring is not a bad word.

Keep your code clean.

Let your team keep its code clean.

Oh.  And fire your architects.

¹ I used to be a senior architect reporting directly to the CTO of Charles Schwab.  Effectively, I fired myself and launched an incredibly successful enterprise architecture re-write project… with no up-front architecture plan.  Really… fire your architects.  Everything they do is pure waste and overhead.  Someday I’ll write that article :-)

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Theoretical Team Member Allocation Adjustment for Team Capacity Adaptation Projections Game: Adaptive Planning for Adjusted Team Capacity in Scrum

Author’s caveat:

Lots of smart people have already come up with lots of ways of doing adaptive planning, and chances are someone has already come up with some variation of this particular approach. I have not yet had the benefit of reading everything that everyone else has already written about Agile and planning, so this has been generated by my own experiential learning on the ground as an Agile coach.  Sometimes, as a ScrumMaster/Agile Coach, you are called upon to be a two-trick pony.  This is my other trick.

 Requirements for team estimation (and planning):

  • Product Owner
  • The whole Development Team (i.e. everyone who will be involved in doing the work)
  • Product Backlog
  • Definition of “Done”

 When team membership changes:

A Scrum Team that is estimating effort against Product Backlog items for project planning and timeline projections and changes team membership for one or more Sprints must also re-estimate the remaining items (or at least the items that will be part of the Sprints in which the different/additional team members are expected to participate) regardless of estimation method (Agile Planning Poker or otherwise). The people involved in doing the work (Development Team members/Sprint) must also be involved in providing team estimates. The Development Team is responsible for all estimates as a whole team and therefore should provide estimates as a whole team. The Planning Poker game is widely understood by Agile experts and successful Agile teams as the best tool for facilitating team estimation. Part of what makes Planning Poker so effective is that it does not only provide accurate timelines, but it also facilitates knowledge-sharing among team members as everyone on the team is required to endeavor to understand the degree of complexity of the work of all other team members in order to deliver each item according to the team’s Definition of “Done”.

When team member allocation is adjusted:

Sometimes, the Development team will have people partially dedicated to the team. After one or two Sprints, it becomes apparent that full dedication of all Development Team members is required for optimal team performance. As result, management can be assisted to reconsider allocation of team members towards 100% dedication to the work of a single Scrum Team. Increased (or decreased) dedication of team members can also be expected to have a corresponding impact on velocity (effort points completed per Sprint). However, the Scrum Master needs to help the team (and their managers) to be careful to avoid planning against the unknown. Scrum allows a team to adapt based on actual historical data. Therefore, planning against minimum historical velocity is strongly recommended as a general best practice. At the same time, if a team starts off with, say, 50% allocation of team members and management decides to bump it up to 100%, it is fairly safe to assume that you will actually get somewhat more out of the team. How much more is never possible to know, as human beings are reliably incapable of predicting the future. The moderate way to approach this is to plan the next Sprint based on previous velocity, finish the planned work early in the Sprint, get a bunch of “extra” stuff done, then calculate velocity of the new and improved team and plan against the new and improved velocity. This allows the team to adapt to actuals and not be blind-sided by unforeseen impediments/bottlenecks.

Sometimes, there is a need for management to get a sense of how much more velocity the team will get from increased team member allocation in order to feel that an informed decision has been made. There is a simple (though not risk-free) method for doing this that I have whipped up after being put on the spot on several occasions. I have decided to call this the Theoretical Team Member Allocation Adjustment for Team Capacity Adaptation Projections Game.

WARNING:

The purpose of this exercise is to provide decision-makers with a sense of how much they are going to get out of adjusted allocation of team members to Scrum Teams. Scrum Teams perform optimally when all team members are 100% dedicated to the team. This game should be used with caution and as a means to help organizations move closer to 100% dedication of all Scrum Team members (at least all Development Team members) and, therefore, eliminate the need for this game. Great care should be taken to not encourage perpetuation of dysfunctional Waterfall habits such as “we will now go twice as fast and get done twice as early with twice the allocation of resources because we have this shiny new crystal ball called Theoretical Team Member Allocation Adjustment for Team Capacity Adaptation Projections Game that tells us so.” As long as no one believes that this is magic, it is likely safe enough to proceed to Step 1.

Step 1 – What is our current velocity?

After the first Sprint, the team should be able to count up the number of Product Backlog items completed and add up the corresponding number of “Effort Points” established during its initial estimation (Planning Poker) sessions. Let’s say for our example that the number completed for Sprint 1 is 21 Effort Points. Therefore, the current velocity of the team is 21. Let’s say that this is not a comfortable realization for the team because at some point in the past it had been estimated that this project would take the team about 5 Sprints to complete. Now, the team has done 21 points in the first Sprint and the total number of Effort Points on the Product Backlog estimated by the team is just under 210. Uh oh… 10 Sprints! Whoops! Now what do we do?! Are the new estimation values wrong? Should we stick to the 5 weeks and just have everyone work overtime on this project? Should we take this to management? Let’s say that this team decides to take it to management. But what if management needs more information than “team velocity = 21, Product Backlog = 210, therefore it’s going to take us 10 Sprints instead of 5”? Never fear, Theoretical Team Member Allocation Adjustment for Team Capacity Adaptation Projections Game is here!

Step 2 – What is our current capacity?

As part of Sprint Planning, the team needs to have a sense of its capacity in order to create the Sprint Goal and Sprint Backlog. Therefore, the team should already have a sense of its own capacity. Let’s say for our example that the (fictional) Development Team had the following projected allocation for the first Sprint:

50%        Chris P. Codemuncher

50%        Larry Legassifulunch

25%        Beth Breaksidal

40%        Gertrude Gamesthadox

40%        Dana Deadlinedryver

The team is doing 2-week Sprints. After calculating the time that the team has allocated for Scrum Events, the remaining time for doing the work of the Sprint is about 8.5 days. Therefore, we can calculate the total allocated days per team member as such:

8.5 x 50% = 4.25 days    Chris P. Codemuncher

8.5 x 50% = 4.25 days    Larry Legassifulunch

8.5 x 25% = 2.13 days    Beth Breaksidal

8.5 x 40% = 3.4 days      Gertrude Gamesthadox

8.5 x 40% = 3.4 days      Dana Deadlinedryver

17.43                              Total combined available days per Sprint

Let’s round that down to 17. That’s the number used by the team to understand its capacity for Sprint Planning. This is a powerful number for other reasons than what we are trying to get at here, but they are worth pointing out nonetheless. For generating the Sprint Backlog in Sprint Planning, this is particularly useful if each task in the Sprint Backlog is a maximum of a one-person-day. Therefore, this team should have a minimum of 17 tasks in the Sprint Backlog and these tasks should all be a one-person-day or less amount of effort. If the team has more than 17 tasks which are all about a one-person-day of effort, chances are the team has overcommitted and will fail to deliver the Sprint Goal. This should trigger the adaptation of the Sprint Goal. In any case, it provides the team with simple transparency that can easily be inspected and adapted throughout the Sprint. For example, with one-person day tasks, each team member should be able to move at least one task into the “Done” position every day and point to that movement every day during the Daily Scrum. Also, this team should be burning down at least 5 tasks every day. If either of these fails to occur, this is a clear signal for the team to inspect and adapt.

Now, let’s get back to our Theoretical Team Member Allocation Adjustment for Team Capacity Adaptation Projections Game. As a result of Steps 1 & 2 we now know that the team’s velocity is 21 Effort Points and that the team’s capacity is 17 person-days per Sprint. For short, we can say:

21            Velocity

17            Capacity

21/17       V/C

(WARNING: This number is dangerous when in the wrong hands and used as a management metric for team performance)

 Step 3 – How much capacity do we hope to have in the next Sprint?

Let’s say a friendly manager comes along and says “you know what, I want to help you guys get closer to your original wishful thinking of 5 Sprints. Therefore, I’m deciding to allocate more of certain team members’ time to this project. Unfortunately, I can only help you with the ‘developers’, because everyone else reports to other managers. I’m concerned that Beth is going to become a bottleneck, so someone should also speak with her manager. But for now, let’s bump Chris up to 100% and Larry up to 75% and see what that does for you. We’re also going to throw in another ‘specialist developer’ that you need for some stuff in your Product Backlog at 100%. How much more velocity can I get for that?”

Okay. So…more allocation = more capacity = more velocity, right? If we acknowledge that this is highly theoretical, and remember the initial WARNING of the game, we can proceed with caution…

But just as we get started on calculating the adjusted allocation of team members, we find out that Beth was actually more like 50% allocated, Dana was more like 15% allocated and Gertrude was more like 30% allocated. We need to recalculate our actuals for Sprint 1:

8.5 x 50% = 4.25 days    Chris P. Codemuncher

8.5 x 50% = 4.25 days    Larry Legassifulunch

8.5 x 50% = 4.25 days     Beth Breaksidal

8.5 x 30% = 2.55 days     Gertrude Gamesthadox

8.5 x 15% = 1.28 days     Dana Deadlinedryver

16.58                               Total combined ACTUAL available days in Sprint 1

16                                    Actual capacity (rounded-down)

21/16                               Actual V/C

As a side note, Beth had to work on a Saturday in order to increase her capacity but she spoke with her manager and thinks that from now on she will probably be able to maintain this degree of dedication to the team without having to work any more overtime.

Now the team can calculate its hoped-for capacity for Sprint 2 and beyond:

8.5 x 100% = 8.5 days     Sally Supaspeshalis

8.5 x 100% = 8.5 days     Chris P. Codemuncher

8.5 x 75% = 6.38 days     Larry Legassifulunch

8.5 x 50% = 4.25 days     Beth Breaksidal

8.5 x 30% = 2.55 days     Gertrude Gamesthadox

8.5 x 0% = 0 days            Dana Deadlinedryver

(Note: Dana is also the Scrum Master with plenty of other work to do for the team)

30.18                               Total combined hoped-for available days in Sprint 1

30                                     Hoped-for capacity (rounded-down)

Step 4 – How much velocity do we hope to have in the next Sprint?

21            Actual Historical Velocity

16            Actual Historical Capacity

30            Hoped-For Future Capacity

x              Hoped-For Future Velocity

Some simple math, loaded with assumptions:

Actual Historical Velocity/Actual Historical Capacity = Hoped-For Future Velocity/Hoped-For Future Capacity

Therefore if 21/16 = x/30, then x = 21 x 30/16 = 39.375

39            Hoped-For Future Velocity

Step 5 – How do we adapt our planning in light of what we now know (assuming we now know something substantial enough to inform our planning)?

Hopefully, not much. The best thing for the team to do at this point is to plan against its actual historical velocity of 21. If team members finish their work in the Sprint Backlog early, they should help out with other tasks until the Sprint Goal is delivered. Then, if the team achieves the Sprint Goal early and has extra time left before the end of the Sprint, then the team can pull additional items to work on from the Product Backlog. If the velocity of the team actually increases as a result of actual increased capacity, then the team can safely plan against its increased velocity beginning in Sprint 3. However, Hoped-For Future Velocity is often way too tantalizing for a team that already strongly (and to some extent, logically) believes that it can get more done with more capacity. So, most teams will usually plan to do more in light of this knowledge and that’s fine. Scrum allows them to inspect and adapt this plan at least every day. The team will figure it out.

Thank you for playing Theoretical Team Member Allocation Adjustment for Team Capacity Adaptation Projections Game. I hope it was as fun to play as it was to create!

See you next time,

Travis.

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Full-Day Product Owner Simulation Exercise

This simulation exercise rests on the idea that people learn a lot better by doing something than by talking about it.  My Product Owner classes were getting great reviews, but I really felt like there was something missing compared to my ScrumMaster classes which have a full-day ScrumMaster simulation exercise.  It took a little while to figure it out, but this article describes in detail how I do the simulation for the Product Owner class.  I’m sure it will evolve and get refined from here since I have only used the simulation twice so far.

NOTE: Permission to use this exercise / print associated materials is granted with a simple request: please link to this page on your blog, in a LinkedIn group or Google group, like it on Facebook etc. or write a comment in our comments section!

Pre-requisites: None!  No prior Scrum or Agile knowledge or experience required.

Audience: Product Owners, Business Analysts, Project Managers, Product Managers and other people responsible for business results and who interact with a Scrum team.

Timing: This simulation takes at least 7 classroom hours.  I usually run it from 8:30am to 5:00pm with a one hour lunch break and two 15 minute breaks during the day.

Materials Needed:

  • Coloured pencils and/or coloured markers
  • Black Sharpie fine-point markers
  • Scissors
  • Rulers
  • Scotch tape and/or glue stick
  • Blank white printer paper
  • Pencils, erasers, pencil sharpeners
  • Blank white 4×6 and 3×5 note cards
  • Blank white box (e.g. a shirt box from U-Line)
  • Planning Game cards (email me if you want a bunch for free!)

Room Setup: Round tables with 4 to 6 chairs at each table.  Materials distributed to each table.

Agenda (with facilitator’s notes):

  • Lecture: Simulation Overview, Backlog Preparation and Refinement
    The purpose of the overall simulation is to learn to create a good Product Backlog in preparation for a Scrum team’s first Sprint. Review the agenda with participants.
  • Discussion: Choosing a Product for the Simulation
    Give participants four product options (suggested options: “Doggy dating web site”, “iPad app for plastic surgeons”, “POS for food trucks with social features”, or come up with your own app idea).  A table group must agree to one of the options.  They will stick with this product for the remainder of the simulation.  5 minutes to decide (usually takes much less).
  • Part 1: Product Vision
    • Lecture: Innovation Games – Product Box
      Talk about the need for a compelling vision as a pre-requisite for high-performance teams, and a way to decide what is in vs. out of a Product Backlog.  Introduce “Product Box” as a way to do market research in an Agile compatible way (collaborative, light documentation, quick).  Talk about the pattern of a product box: front to attract, back to showcase, sides to deal with objections.  Use of online resources / web research is allowed but should not dominate the exercise.
    • Exercise: Building Your Product
      30 minutes, with warnings at 15 minutes and 5 minutes remaining.  Ensure that by 10 minutes in, the group has actually started using the craft supplies and isn’t just talking.
    • Exercise: Presenting Your Product
      5 minutes – give additional time to allow groups to prepare for a trade show (in their market) presentation where other groups (or yourself) will role-play sceptical trade show participants.
    • Discussion: Debrief
  • Part 2: Product Users
    • Lecture: User Categories
      Describe “end users”, “customers” and “admin users” as the three major categories.  Users can be in hierarchies where a general user type may have two or more specific sub-types.
    • Exercise: Identifying Users
      10 minutes.  One user of each main type (end, admin and cust), at least 5 users in total.  More is okay.
    • Lecture: Personas, Usability and Empathy
      Introduce Persona concept (great reference: “The Inmates are Running the Asylum” by Alan Cooper).  Usability as part of Agile, not separate (i.e. “working software”).  Identifying personas as a way to build empathy from the development team to the end users/customers.
  • Part 3: User Stories
    • Handout: User Stories and Splitting
    • Lecture: Writing Effective User Stories
      Use the example “As a Job Seeker, I can upload my resume, so that I get a job.”  Explain the user story template based on the handout.  Emphasize the idea of end user functionality.  Explain user stories as an important tool, but optional part of Scrum.
    • Exercise: Create User Stories
      Goal: 20 user stories for each group’s product, at least two user stories for each type of user, all done in 20 minutes.  User Stories must be written on 3×5 note cards with a 2cm blank area on right side of each card.
    • Discussion: Review User Stories
      Workshop examples from each group.  Ensure that the “benefit” section of each story does not contain a feature.
    • Lecture: Splitting User Stories
      Go through each of the “top” six splitting methods.  Provide simple examples where the group needs help.  E.g. error conditions as an example of splitting by business logic.
    • Exercise: Split Some
      Goal: result in at least 30 user stories, use each of the top six splitting methods at least once, give 15 minutes.
    • Discussion: Review Splitting
  • Part 4: Estimation and Financial Modelling
    • Lecture: Effort, Value and ROI
      Customers and business stakeholders estimate value, Scrum team members estimate effort, and ROI is the calculation of the ration of value over effort.  Discuss examples of ordering based on these ratios, e.g. 8/2 vs. 8/4 and 200/20 vs. 20/2.
    • Handout: The Bucket System
    • Lecture: The Bucket System
      Review process based on handout.
    • Exercise: Estimating Business Value
      10 minutes.  Goal: all user stories get a business value estimate written in the top right-hand corner of the user story card.
    • Discussion: Debrief the Bucket System
    • Handout: The Planning Game
    • Lecture: The Planning Game
    • Exercise: Estimating Effort
      20 minutes. Goal: estimate 3 user stories using the Planning Game.  Use the Bucket System to estimate the remainder with the ones already estimated as the reference points.
    • Discussion: Debrief the Planning Game
    • Handout: Methods of Ordering the Product Backlog
    • Lecture: Ordering a Product Backlog
      Review ROI as a method to order the PBIs.  Reminder that the Product Owner has final authority and can ignore the estimates in deciding on the order.
    • Exercise: Calculating ROI and Ordering
      5 minutes.  Just simple divide-and-conquer calculations of business value divided by effort for all the user stories.
    • Lecture: Simulation Wrap-Up – Where Does This Fit?
      Reminder of the idea of creating an initial Product Backlog that is “good enough” to start the first Sprint.

NOTE: Permission to use this exercise / print associated materials is granted with a simple request: please link to this page on your blog, in a LinkedIn group or Google group, like it on Facebook etc. or write a comment in our comments section!

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21 Tips on Choosing a Sprint Length

Many teams that I work with choose their Sprint length without too much thought.  Often enough, that’s okay and it works out.  But, in some cases, it helps to think clearly and deeply about what length of Sprint to choose.  Here are 21 tips on choosing a Sprint length.

  1. Don’t ever go longer than 4 weeks… if you do, by definition it’s not a Sprint anymore.
  2. Scrum is about fast feedback – shorter Sprints mean faster feedback.
  3. Scrum is about continuous improvement – shorter Sprints give a team more opportunities to improve.
  4. High-performance teams need pressure to form – shorter Sprints provide pressure.
  5. Each Sprint is, ideally, an independent project – longer Sprints may make it easier to get a potentially shippable product increment truly done every Sprint.
  6. “False” Sprints such as “Sprint 0″ or “Release Sprints” may feel necessary if your Sprint is too short – try to avoid the need for false Sprints.
  7. If you have lots of interruptions that are disrupting your Sprint plans, shorten your Sprints to match the average frequency of interruptions… and then just put them on the backlog.
  8. If you feel like you team starts out by working at a leisurely pace at the start of a Sprint and then “cramming” at the end of the Sprint, then shorter Sprints will force the team to work at a more even pace.
  9. Don’t lengthen your Sprint to fit the “size” of your Product Backlog Items… instead, get better at doing “splitting” to make the items smaller.
  10. Small failures are better than large failures, shorter Sprints help.
  11. If you are using Agile Engineering practices such as TDD, you should probably be able to do Sprints that are 1 week in length or less.
  12. 2-Week-long Sprints are most common for IT and software product development.
  13. Most Scrum trainers and coaches recommend Sprints to be 1 or 2 weeks long.
  14. Teams go through the stages of team development (forming, storming, norming and performing) in fewer Sprints if the Sprints are shorter.  E.g. 5 Sprints if they’re 1 week long, but 20 Sprints if they’re 4 weeks long.
  15. If your team has trouble finishing all the work they plan for a Sprint, make the Sprint shorter.
  16. Every Sprint should be the same length for a given team so don’t let your Sprints get longer just to “get everything done”.
  17. Experiment with extremely short Sprints to see what is possible: 1-day long, for example.
  18. If you are doing a project with a fixed release date/end date, then make sure you have at least 6 Sprints to allow for sufficient feedback cycles.  More is generally better which means shorter Sprints.
  19. If you are working on a product, consider Sprints that allow you to release minor updates more frequently than your main competitors.
  20. Sprints need to be long enough that Sprint Planning, Review and Retrospective can be meaningful.  A 1-day Sprint would allow a maximum of 24 minutes for Sprint Planning, 12 minutes for Review and Retrospective each.
  21. When a team is new, shorter Sprints help the team learn its capacity faster.

Author’s Note: this is one of those articles where I thought of the title first and then worked to make the article meet the promise of the title.  It was tough to think of 21 different ways to look at Sprint length.  If you have any suggestions for items to add, please let me know in the comments (and feel free to link to articles you have written on the topic). – Mishkin.

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The Three Fundamental Principles of Agile Estimation – The Third One Will Surprise You!

You probably already use an Agile Estimation technique such as the Planning Game or the Bucket System, but surprisingly few people understand the underlying principles of Agile Estimation.  This lack of understanding often causes confusion or stress for the people who try to use Agile Estimation techniques.  The discrepancy between traditional estimation techniques and Agile techniques is large and it is hard to bridge that mental gap without understanding the principles involved.  There are three fundamental principles of Agile estimation:

Principle One: Collaborative

Agile estimation methods are collaborative.  This means that multiple people work together to arrive at estimates for work in an Agile project or product development effort.  Traditional estimation techniques (such as those related to bottom-up or top-down) tend to focus on individuals estimating the work that they are responsible for doing and “trusting” those individual estimates.  Collaborative estimation means that most estimation is done by people in formally facilitated meetings where people are present in-person.

Collaborative techniques are generally used where there is some expectation that multiple minds are better than a single mind in discovering some new knowledge or solving a problem.  Teamwork and groupwork are based on this concept.  This idea of collaboration for problem solving is also applied to Agile Estimation and it has some interesting ramifications.

The most radical consequence of collaborative estimation methods is that there is no possibility to trace a particular estimate for a particular item to a particular individual person.  This lack of traceability is important to create a sense of safety on the part of participants in the estimation effort.  This safety is necessary to allow participants to be fully honest about estimates even if those estimates conflict with expectations of powerful stakeholders.  Another way of stating this principle is that no individual can be punished for a bad estimate.

Many Agile estimation techniques take this principle beyond just mere collaboration to the level of consensus-building techniques where everyone in a group doing estimation work must agree on the final estimate for each and every item being estimated.  This strengthens the idea of safety to the point where no participant in an estimation effort can ever say “I didn’t agree with that” and thereby leave other participants “on the hook” for a bad estimate.

Principle Two: Relative Estimation

Imagine you are shown a glass bottle with some water in it.  You can see the water sloshing around.  Someone asks you, “how much water is in the bottle?”  You might, at first, think about the overall size of the bottle and respond by saying “it’s 1/3 full.”  Or, if asked to provide a measure in units like millilitres or fluid ounces, you might mentally compare what you see in front of you to some container (e.g. a measuring cup) where you know the quantity.  In both cases, you are doing a relative estimate of the amount of water in the bottle.  You are comparing the amount of water to a known quantity.

Imagine a counter-example: someone walks up to you with a red pen ask asks you “what is the wavelength of the light being reflected from this red ink?”  If you are like most people, you have probably forgotten (if you ever knew) the wavelengths of light in the visible spectrum.  You have no basis for comparison.  You might take a wild guess, but it is just that.  Going back to our relative measure, you might be able to easily say if it is darker or lighter than another red colour, or you might even be able to tell what hue of red it is.  But those cases are, again, relying on our inherent ability to see relative differences.

So instead of ignoring this capacity, in Agile estimation techniques, we leverage it.  When estimating effort, we start by setting a clear baseline for what we are comparing: another piece of work.  The baseline piece of work is often given an “estimate” that is arbitrary and in some non-standard units.  For example, it is common to use “points” when estimating the effort for Product Backlog Items.

When doing relative estimates it is very important to ensure we are comparing “apples to apples”.  Both the piece of work to be estimated and the comparison piece should both be work items that are not yet done!  If you have already completed one of the pieces of work, you have prior knowledge that you don’t have for the work to be estimated.

This last point is subtle, but important.  If you have already done something, you know much more about it.  If you try to compare to something you haven’t yet done, you will be tempted to assume that the two things will be more similar than they may be when you actually get to work on it.  By comparing two pieces of work that you have not yet done, you become much more conscious of the risks of comparing, and that consciousness will help you make better relative estimates.

It is important to note that one side advantage of using relative units for estimation is that it makes it much more difficult to use estimates as a baseline for either measuring performance or for tracking schedule variance, both of which are essentially meaningless in a good Agile environment (which should be almost entirely results-oriented).

Principle Three: Fast

In Agile estimation we don’t care (!!!) about accuracy nor about precision of estimates.  Whoa!  Why is that?  Because estimation is waste.  You can’t sell estimates, and estimates don’t affect the “form, fit or function” of the thing you’re building.  Therefore, both Agile and Lean concur: do your utmost to eliminate that waste.  There are actually lots of Agile practitioners who think estimates are evil (and they have some good arguments!)

In order to do Agile estimation in a maximally non-evil way, we need to make estimation fast!  Really fast!!!  Many of the Agile estimation techniques allow you to estimate a product release schedule lasting as much as a year in just a few hours given a reasonably well-crafted Product Backlog.

There are really only two modestly good reasons for doing estimation in an Agile project or product:

  1. Estimates provide simplified information to the Product Owner to allow him/her to make sure the Product Backlog is ready for the next Sprint (ordered, refined).
  2. Estimates allow stakeholders, including the team doing the work, to generate high-level common understanding and expectations without dwelling on details.

As a business stakeholder, one can do a simple mental exercise.  Ask yourself, “how much money would I be willing to spend to accomplish those two objectives?”  Whatever your answer, I hope that it is a very small amount compared to what you are willing to spend on getting results.  If not, perhaps you haven’t really embraced the Agile mindset yet where “the primary measure of progress is working software” (the Agile Manifesto).

Bonus Principle: We Suck at Estimating

Most people doing estimation in traditional project management try to measure in units like person-days or dollars.  There is no doubt that these units are useful if you can get good estimates.  However, most of the people doing estimation are fundamentally and irredeemably bad at it.  How do I know?  Because they are not wealthy… and have thereby proven that they cannot predict the future.  If you can predict the future, even just in limited circumstances (like estimating effort or revenue), you can leverage that to generate almost untold wealth.  Given that, it is fruitless and wasteful to try to get better at estimating.  Instead, the principles of Agile estimation help us focus our attention on the right things: collaboration, comparative estimates and doing them fast so we can get to the real work, and most importantly: delivering valuable results now.  Understanding these principles helps teams overcome many of the struggles they have in using Agile estimation techniques.

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Sprint Review Timing – Article by Mike Caspar

Another great article by Mike Caspar: Consider the ability of your Stakeholders to come to your Sprint Review or Demo before declaring it.  From the article:

If you are in an environment that is struggling to get stakeholders to your review, ask yourself if you have chosen an impossible day of the week for this ceremony.

Please, for the sake of your team(s)….

When considering when your Sprint will end,
think of the ability of your stakeholders
to actually show up once in a while!

Stakeholders are people too. They don’t want to let the team down either.

(Emphasis added.)

Mike has great experience working with Scrum teams and I hope you read through his other articles as well.

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The Real Agility Program – Execution and Delivery Teams

Execution IconIn 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.

See also the article on the Recommendations component of the Real Agility Program.

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Great little presentation on Retrospectives… and a bonus download!

If you are a ScrumMaster or Coach or Project Manager or Process Facilitator of any kind, I encourage you to become a master of Retrospectives.  I just happened upon this great little set of slides and presentation notes about Retrospectives by a couple of people, Sean Yo and Matthew Campbell, done a couple months ago.  Very helpful with some practical information, some great links… I strongly recommend checking it out.  My only concern is that they limit the scope of retrospectives too much.  I have a list of topics that I think can and should be considered in a retrospective:

  • Technology / tools
  • Work space / physical environment
  • Corporate culture
  • Corporate standards and policies
  • Teamwork
  • Work planning and execution
  • Skill sets
  • Interpersonal dynamics
  • External groups
  • Personal circumstances and needs
  • The process you are using

 

This list comes from a presentation I used to include as part of my Certified ScrumMaster course.  (Now, in my course I teach three specific methods of doing retrospectives as part of an in-depth simulation exercise.)  Here is a PDF version of the Retrospectives Module.

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Back to the Basics: Coding and TDD

I’ve been working for the past year on building the Scrum Team Assessment (yes, you can still go get it for your team :-) ).  I’ve been doing all the work on it personally and it has been great fun.  The best part of it has been that I’m back into coding.  And, with that, of course I have had to take my own advice about Test-Driven Development and the other Agile Engineering Practices.  But it hasn’t been easy!

I’m using PHP for the web front end, and Python with OpenERP for the back end.  My testing tools include Selenium for Acceptance Testing and PHPUnit for unit testing.  And… nothing yet for the Python back-end.  This is still a sore point with me.  Normally, I would find the back end TDD process easier… but OpenERP has been a HORRIBLE BEAST to use as a development platform.  Well, I might exaggerate a bit on that, because it is really just the complete lack of well-written API documentation and sample code.  Which is funny, because there are tons of open-source extensions for OpenERP written.  Anyway, I don’t want to complain about it too much, because in many other ways it is a fantastic platform and I wouldn’t easily switch it for anything else at this point.

Back to testing.  Last week, a client using the Scrum Team Assessment found a bug… and it was one of those ones that I know made them consider not using the tool anymore. Fortunately, our contact there has the patience of a Redwood, and is helping us through the process of fixing the system.  How did the bug happen?

Because I didn’t do _enough_ TDD.  I skimped.  I took shortcuts.  I didn’t use it for every single line of code written.

<Failure Bow>

The question for me now, is “why”?  Fortunately, the answer is simple to find… but solving it is not as easy as I would like.  I didn’t follow my own advice because I was learning about too many things at the same time.  Here’s what I was learning all at once over a three week period in December when I was doing the real heads-down development work:

  1. PHP and PHPUnit
  2. Python
  3. OpenERP (APIs for persistence and business logic)
  4. RML (a report generation language)
  5. Amazon EC2, RDS and Route 53
  6. Some Ubuntu sys admin stuff
  7. VMWare Fusion and using VMs to create a dev environment
  8. Postgresql database migration
  9. Oh, and refreshing on Selenium

Like I said, FUN!  But, a bit overwhelming for someone who hasn’t done any significant development work since 2006-ish.  As well, because of learning about so many things, I also didn’t have a good setup for my development, testing and production environments.  Now I have to clean up.  Finally, I also forgot about another important Agile Engineering practice that is used when you have lots of intense learning: the Architectural Spike.

I have to make sure that I take all that I’ve learned and create a truly good dev and test environment (because that was a huge hinderance to my work with both Selenium and PHPUnit).  And I have to take the time to learn to do the testing in Python (I would love suggestions on a good unit test framework)… and go back over that code, even though most of it is simply declarative of data structures, and make sure it is well-covered by unit tests.  Ideally, I might even consider throwing some code away and starting from scratch.  One possibility I’ve considered is to get rid of PHP entirely and build the whole system with Python (I’d love some thoughts on that too!)

Why am I doing all this?  Well, I really think that the Scrum Team Assessment is an awesome tool for teams that maybe can’t afford a full-time coach.  It certainly isn’t a complete replacement, but I’ve poured my knowledge and experience into it in the hopes that it can help a bunch of people out there do Scrum better… and more importantly, create great teams that produce awesome business results and where people love to come to work every day.

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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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Updated: Planning Game for Agile Estimation

I’ve made a minor update to my article about Agile Estimation with the Planning Game to include a downloadable pdf of the article for easy printing.  The downloadable version also includes a tiny bit of commentary that comes from my upcoming Agile Advice book.  There are also two links added at the end of the article.  One is the the wikipedia article about Planning Poker (which describes the method slightly differently), and the other is to an article I wrote a long time ago about the wideband delphi estimation method.

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A Conference Call in Real Life (youtube)

I’ve started to show this video in my public CSM classes (see sidebar for scheduled courses) as part of the discussion about why co-location for Agile teams is so important.  The video is a humorous look at what conference calls are like.  Probably the most notable part of it is the fact that on a conference call you can’t see people’s body language and facial language which are important cues for efficient communication:

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User Stories and Story Splitting

In Scrum and other Agile methods, a common way to manage feature requests is with User Stories.  I’ve been teaching people about User Stories and doing workshops with teams for a long time.  Out of that work, I’ve created a very simple PDF User Stories and Story Splitting reference sheet that might be handy.  Please feel free to download it and share it.  This document is something that I explain in-depth in my Certified Scrum Product Owner training seminars.

There are a number of sites out there that include some details that are left out of the reference.  Please see, for example, “Patterns for Splitting User Stories” by Richard Lawrence.  See also the great foundational article on “INVEST in Good Stories” by Bill Wake.

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Announcement: Agile Coaching Patterns Wiki

Coaches for Agile teams and organizations is a growing profession.  I’ve been coaching for a long time, and I’ve used/invented/learned-about many different techniques or interventions for coaching in the context of Agile teams.  I have recently started a Wiki to capture some of this information.  (Originally, I was hoping to write a book, but I don’t have the time to do it on my own or even to coordinate a multi-author effort.)  This is an open invitation to participate in the wiki.  I won’t make it fully open (like wikipedia), instead, it will be by invitation.  Connect with me on LinkedIn and mention you would like to contribute, and I will set you up with an account… and then you can go nuts :-)  If there end up being several contributors, I’ll make a block on the front page for links to contributors and/or their organizations.

Check out the Agile Coaching Patterns wiki.

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