Category Archives: How-To Apply Agile

Practical or step-by-step advice and descriptions on how to do various agile practices.

Summary of User Stories: The Three “C”s and INVEST

User Stories

Learning Objectives

Becoming familiar with the “User Story” approach to formulating Product Backlog Items and how it can be implemented to improve the communication of user value and the overall quality of the product by facilitating a user-centric approach to development.

Consider the following

User stories trace their origins to eXtreme Programming, another Agile method with many similarities to Scrum. Scrum teams often employ aspects of eXtreme Programming, including user stories as well as engineering practices such as refactoring, test-driven development (TDD) and pair programming to name a few. In future modules of this program, you will have the opportunity to become familiar enough with some of these practices in order to understand their importance in delivering quality products and how you can encourage your team to develop them. For now, we will concentrate on the capability of writing good user stories.

The Three ‘C’si

A User Story has three primary components, each of which begin with the letter ‘C':

Card

  • The Card, or written text of the User Story is best understood as an invitation to conversation. This is an important concept, as it fosters the understanding that in Scrum, you don’t have to have all of the Product Backlog Items written out perfectly “up front”, before you bring them to the team. It acknowledges that the customer and the team will be discovering the underlying business/system needed as they are working on it. This discovery occurs through conversation and collaboration around user stories.
  • The Card is usually follows the format similar to the one below

As a <user role> of the product,

I can <action>

So that <benefit>.

  • In other words, the written text of the story, the invitation to a conversation, must address the “who”, “what” and “why” of the story.
  • Note that there are two schools of thought on who the <benefit> should be for. Interactive design specialists (like Alan Cooper) tell us that everything needs to be geared towards not only the user but a user Persona with a name, photo, bio, etc. Other experts who are more focused on the testability of the business solution (like Gojko Adzic) say that the benefit should directly address an explicit business goal. Imagine if you could do both at once! You can, and this will be discussed further in more advanced modules.

Conversation

  • The collaborative conversation facilitated by the Product Owner which involves all stakeholders and the team.
  • As much as possible, this is an in-person conversation.
  • The conversation is where the real value of the story lies and the written Card should be adjusted to reflect the current shared understanding of this conversation.
  • This conversation is mostly verbal but most often supported by documentation and ideally automated tests of various sorts (e.g. Acceptance Tests).

Confirmation

  • The Product Owner must confirm that the story is complete before it can be considered “done”
  • The team and the Product Owner check the “doneness” of each story in light of the Team’s current definition of “done”
  • Specific acceptance criteria that is different from the current definition of “done” can be established for individual stories, but the current criteria must be well understood and agreed to by the Team.  All associated acceptance tests should be in a passing state.

INVESTii

The test for determining whether or not a story is well understood and ready for the team to begin working on it is the INVEST acronym:

I – Independent

  • The solution can be implemented by the team independently of other stories.  The team should be expected to break technical dependencies as often as possible – this may take some creative thinking and problem solving as well as the Agile technical practices such as refactoring.

N – Negotiable

  • The scope of work should have some flex and not be pinned down like a traditional requirements specification.  As well, the solution for the story is not prescribed by the story and is open to discussion and collaboration, with the final decision for technical implementation being reserved for the Development Team.

V – Valuable

  • The business value of the story, the “why”, should be clearly understood by all. Note that the “why” does not necessarily need to be from the perspective of the user. “Why” can address a business need of the customer without necessarily providing a direct, valuable result to the end user. All stories should be connected to clear business goals.  This does not mean that a single user story needs to be a marketable feature on its own.

E – Estimable

  • The team should understand the story well enough to be able estimate the complexity of the work and the effort required to deliver the story as a potentially shippable increment of functionality.  This does not mean that the team needs to understand all the details of implementation in order to estimate the user story.

S – Small

  • The item should be small enough that the team can deliver a potentially shippable increment of functionality within a single Sprint. In fact, this should be considered as the maximum size allowable for any Product Backlog Item as it gets close to the top of the Product Backlog.  This is part of the concept of Product Backlog refinement that is an ongoing aspect of the work of the Scrum Team.

T – Testable

  • Everyone should understand and agree on how the completion of the story will be verified. The definition of “done” is one way of establishing this. If everyone agrees that the story can be implemented in a way that satisfies the current definition of “done” in a single Sprint and this definition of “done” includes some kind of user acceptance test, then the story can be considered testable.

Note: The INVEST criteria can be applied to any Product Backlog Item, even those that aren’t written as User Stories.

Splitting Stories:

Sometimes a user story is too big to fit into a Sprint. Some ways of splitting a story include:

  • Split by process step
  • Split by I/O channel
  • Split by user options
  • Split by role/persona
  • Split by data range

WARNING: Do not split stories by system, component, architectural layer or development process as this will conflict with the teams definition of “done” and undermine the ability of the team to deliver potentially shippable software every Sprint.

Personas

Like User Stories, Personas are a tool for interactive design. The purpose of personas is to develop a precise description of our user and so that we can develop stories that describe what he wishes to accomplish. In other words, a persona is a much more developed and specific “who” for our stories. The more specific we make our personas, the more effective they are as design tools.iii

Each of our fictional but specific users should have the following information:

  • Name
  • Occupation
  • Relationship to product
  • Interest & personality
  • Photo

Only one persona should be the primary persona and we should always build for the primary persona. User story cards using personas replace the user role with the persona:

<persona>

can <action>

so that <benefit>.

 


i The Card, Conversation, Confirmation model was first proposed by Ron Jeffries in 2001.

ii INVEST in Good Stories, and SMART Tasks. Bill Wake. http://xp123.com/articles/invest-in-good-stories-and-smart-tasks/

iii The Inmates are Running the Asylum. Alan Cooper. Sams Publishing. 1999. pp. 123-128.

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Scrum Data Warehouse Project

May people have concerns about the possibility of using Scrum or other Agile methods on large projects that don’t directly involve software development.  Data warehousing projects are commonly brought up as examples where, just maybe, Scrum wouldn’t work.
I have worked as a coach on a couple of such projects.  Here is a brief description of how it worked (both the good and the bad) on one such project:
The project was a data warehouse migration from Oracle to Teradata.  The organization had about 30 people allocated to the project.  Before adopting Scrum, they had done a bunch of up-front analysis work.  This analysis work resulted in a dependency map among approximately 25,000 tables, views and ETL scripts.  The dependency map was stored in an MS Access DB (!).  When I arrived as the coach, there was an expectation that the work would be done according to dependencies and that the “team” would just follow that sequence.
I learned about this all in the first week as I was doing boot-camp style training on Scrum and Agile with the team and helping them to prepare for their first Sprint.
I decided to challenge the assumption about working based on dependencies.  I spoke with the Product Owner about the possible ways to order the work based on value.  We spoke about a few factors including:
  • retiring Oracle data warehouse licenses / servers,
  • retiring disk space / hardware,
  • and saving CPU time with new hardware
The Product Owner started to work on getting metrics for these three factors.  He was able to find that the data was available through some instrumentation that could be implemented quickly so we did this.  It took about a week to get initial data from the instrumentation.
In the meantime, the Scrum teams (4 of them) started their Sprints working on the basis of the dependency analysis.  I “fought” with them to address the technical challenges of allowing the Product Owner to work on the migration in order based more on value – to break the dependencies with a technical solution.  We discussed the underlying technologies for the ETL which included bash scripts, AbInitio and a few other technologies.  We also worked on problems related to deploying every Sprint including getting approval from the organization’s architectural review board on a Sprint-by-Sprint basis.  We also had the teams moved a few times until an ideal team workspace was found.
After the Product Owner found the data, we sorted (ordered) the MS Access DB by business value.  This involved a fairly simple calculation based primarily on disk space and CPU time associated with each item in the DB.  This database of 25000 items became the Product Backlog.  I started to insist to the teams that they work based on this order, but there was extreme resistance from the technical leads.  This led to a few weeks of arguing around whiteboards about the underlying data warehouse ETL technology.  Fundamentally, I wanted to the teams to treat the data warehouse tables as the PBIs and have both Oracle and Teradata running simultaneously (in production) with updates every Sprint for migrating data between the two platforms.  The Technical team kept insisting this was impossible.  I didn’t believe them.  Frankly, I rarely believe a technical team when they claim “technical dependencies” as a reason for doing things in a particular order.
Finally, after a total of 4 Sprints of 3 weeks each, we finally had a breakthrough.  In a one-on-one meeting, the most senior tech lead admitted to me that what I was arguing was actually possible, but that the technical people didn’t want to do it that way because it would require them to touch many of the ETL scripts multiple times – they wanted to avoid re-work.  I was (internally) furious due to the wasted time, but I controlled my feelings and asked if it would be okay if I brought the Product Owner into the discussion.  The tech lead allowed it and we had the conversation again with the PO present.  The tech lead admitted that breaking the dependencies was possible and explained how it could lead to the teams touching ETL scripts more than once.  The PO basically said: “awesome!  Next Sprint we’re doing tables ordered by business value.”
A couple Sprints later, the first of 5 Oracle licenses was retired, and the 2-year $20M project was a success, with nearly every Sprint going into production and with Oracle and Teradata running simultaneously until the last Oracle license was retired.  Although I don’t remember the financial details anymore, the savings were huge due to the early delivery of value.  The apprentice coach there went on to become a well-known coach at this organization and still is a huge Agile advocate 10 years later!
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Updated: The Best Agile Practices to Implement Now

This article which lists three high-ROI practices has been updated with new images and a few other minor fixes:

The Best Agile Practices to Implement Now

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Updated: Full-Day Product Owner Simulation

The Product Owner Simulation that I shared last summer has some minor updates based on a stronger emphasis on product vision.  In particular, two 5 minute exercises before and after the Product Box exercise help to frame the concept of product vision and make it stronger.

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Retrospective Technique: What Did You Learn?

Retrospectives are a key part of continuous improvement in Agile teams.  The retrospective techniques that a team uses should be adjusted to the needs of the team.  In a Scrum team, for example, the ScrumMaster will often decide on the techniques to use based on the current issues facing the team and then facilitate the retrospective for the team.  There are some great resources which give you collections of tried-and-true retrospective techniques including Esther Derby’s book “Agile Retrospectives” and the amazing online tool “Retr-o-mat“.  As an active consultant and trainer, I am always looking for new techniques to share with my clients.  Sometimes, I even create a new one (or at least new to me).  The “What Did You Learn” technique is new: I’ve been using it and testing it for a few years now to refine it.

What Did You Learn?

By itself, this is a powerful question.  As part of my work with OpenAgile, I’ve been helping teams and organization to focus on learning as an even broader category than continuous improvement.  The Learning Circle and the processes in OpenAgile help with focusing on learning.  The question “what did you learn?” is very open ended, and can certainly work as an extremely simple type of retrospective in OpenAgile or in Scrum or other Agile methods.  Often people like to have a little more structure and guidance so the “What Did You Learn?” retrospective technique provides four categories of learning for people to think about, share, and discuss within a team.

Setup

Setup for this retrospective is very simple: a flip chart or whiteboard divided into four sections or columns works fine, along with a piece of paper for each person in the retrospective, divided up the same way, and sufficient markers and pens for everyone.  Here is a downloadable PDF version of the handout for the “What Did You Learn” retrospective.

The facilitator will also participate at various points if they are a member of the team (e.g. a ScrumMaster).  It is easiest to do this with a group in-person, but can also be done reasonably well with video or teleconferencing.

Process

The facilitator introduces the retrospective with a welcome and, if necessary, a recitation of the Retrospective Prime Directive.  Then, the process is described to the group.  Each of the categories of learning is also explained as follows:

  • Questions.  When you can formulate a question about something, it means that you have learned about a gap in your knowledge.  In other words, you have discovered something that you would like to learn.
  • Information / Data / Facts.  These are specific details that relate to some area of knowledge or skill.  This category of learning is the simplest and is often what people focus on when asked “what did you learn?”  Information tends to be dry and unemotional.
  • Insights / Concepts / “Aha!” Moments.  Often when we have a collection of facts or an experience, we see a pattern or make interesting connections between things.  This leads us to the great feeling of an insight.  Insights tend to be exciting or scary and have an emotional component.
  • Action Items.  These are decisions about what we would like to do in the future, but they could be extremely short-term or very long-term or anything in between.

There are three main stages in the retrospective as follows:

  1. Individual Reflection.  For 10 to 15 minutes, each individual works silently to write down the things that they have learned in the appropriate category on the handout.  Everyone should try to get at least a couple things into each of the four categories, but more is welcome.
  2. Sharing with the Group.  Systematically going around the group and getting people to read from what they have written.  This is another 10 to 15 minutes.  This stage should not get bogged down in discussion, but brief clarifying questions should be welcome.
  3. Identifying Important Learning.  The group now has open discussion to decide on a small number of things it considers the most important that it has learned.  This could be based on popularity, but impact, depth, or uniqueness might also be factors in considering importance.  These are the items that get written down on the flip-chart.  This is usually the longest part of the retrospective and can take up to 30 minutes.

Applicability

This is an excellent retrospective for a team that is going through a significant transition such as starting a new project, a major change in business direction for a product, or as a wrap up technique for sharing lessons learned with other parts of an organization.  It is not a good technique for a brand new team that hasn’t worked together before as there will be little common ground for deciding on the importance of peoples’ various shared learning.

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The Agile Manifesto – Essay 2: Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools

This value is the hardest to do well.

In IT and high-tech, there is a “natural” prevailing culture that makes this first value incredibly difficult.  This difficulty is rooted in traditional “scientific management“, but made even more so by a critical additional factor that is mostly invisible: techies solve problems with tools.

Management wants to define processes with clearly described activities, clear inputs and outputs, and clear sources and recipients of the activity (see the description of SIPOC for an explanation of this thinking).  Techies build tools to automate these well-defined processes to improve their efficiency, quality and reliability.

Management creates organizational roles with detailed descriptions, detailed goals and detailed performance measurements (see the description of RACI for an explanation of this thinking).  Techies build tools to carefully constrain people to these detailed roles to improve efficiency, quality and reliability.

Management has money.  Techies want some of that money.  So they build the tools to help management get what they really want: a completely automated organization of computers, machines and robots.

The culture of technology is to solve problems with individuals and interactions by introducing processes and tools.  The culture of technology is (almost) inherently anti-Agile.

Ford Assembly Line 1913

The culture of technology is to solve problems with individuals and interactions by introducing processes and tools.  The culture of technology is (almost) inherently anti-Agile.


 

BMW Assembly Line

Individuals and Interactions

Let’s look at the first part of this value in a bit more depth.  When we think about work, most of us work with other people.  We bring our unique skills, personality and interests to work, and we work with other people who also bring unique skills, personality and interests.  In a high-bureaucracy, high-technology work environment, it is easy to forget about all this uniqueness and instead objectify people.  When people sense they are being objectified, mostly they feel bad about it.  We want to be acknowledged as thinking, feeling, unique beings with agency.  Objectification, no matter the source or the rationale, is depressing and de-humanizing.  The Agile Manifesto implicitly recognizes this concept and asks us who follow the Manifesto to try to shift our value-focus.

There are many aspects to this concept of humanizing work.  Some things that come to mind immediately include recognizing and encouraging people’s capacity for:

  • creativity and innovation
  • learning and problem-solving
  • caring about others
  • pride in work
  • complementarity with others
  • responsibility

Photo of diverse children teamwork

Processes and Tools

This side of the value is also interesting.  Processes and tools do not have agency.  They do not improve on their own.  Instead, processes and tools only either remain the same or degrade.  Processes and tools are forces for stasis: they encourage maintenance of the status quo.  Only humans introduce new processes and tools.

Technologists live in a philosophical double-standard: we build processes and tools for others to use and which we frequently would not like used on ourselves.  (We will discuss the cases where me might both build and benefit from processes and tools in a bit.)  This is one of the challenges of the type of work we do in technology, but it also applies to many other types of work.  So how do we solve this conundrum?  I would assert that the principles of the Agile Manifesto and the various Agile methods and techniques are all answers to this question.  They show us possible ways to implement this value (and the others) without getting stuck in processes and tools.

Only humans introduce new processes and tools.


 

What are Processes Good For, What are Tools Good For?

Some processes are good.  Some amount of process is good.  How do we determine what is good?  Well, it largely depends on context.  Some examples:

If a close family member is living in a distant location then the advances in communication tools are extremely helpful: the telegraph, the telephone, the cell phone, email, Skype.  These tools create connections where otherwise there would be little or none.

If a great deal of data is created while running a marketing campaign and needs to be stored and manipulated, then computers are amazing tools for this.  Computers are much much better than human minds and manual record-keeping for this sort of work.

If you create a fantastic new soup, from scratch, for some special occasion and you want to remember how to make and even share how to make it with others, then you document the process in a recipe.

Photo of Pho Soup

Context, Emphasis and Crisis

Context here is important.  The value of Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools is basically a statement that given the right circumstances we can use processes and tools, but that our default approach to work and problem-solving should be to focus on individuals and their interactions.  Depending on the state of your work environment this is easier or harder.

For example, a startup company founded by three long-time friends who have not yet employed anyone else is almost certainly going to solve most problems that come up through discussion amongst founders and through the development of their skills and capabilities.  As a company gets larger, however, there is pressure to adopt more and more processes and tools.  This pressure comes from a deep source: lack of trust.  At about 12 people, you reach the limit of the number of people you can have and still have anyone do anything (this limit is referred to obliquely in “The Wisdom of Teams” by Katzenbach and Smith).  After 12 people, it becomes harder to avoid role specialization and some basic forms of processes and tools.  In other words, bureaucracy starts growing as the organization grows.  Even at this size, however, it is still relatively easy to have a very strong emphasis on individuals and interactions.  There is another important limit: somewhere around 150 to 200 people, any hope of 100% mutual trust among the members of the organization is lost.  This is the point at which processes and tools “naturally” start to truly take over.  (This transition can happen even in much smaller organizations if the culture does not emphasize trust-based interactions.)

In small trust-based organizations, crisis is usually addressed by the mechanisms of mutual respect, skill development, informal agreements, and strengthening the interactions between people.  In a large organization with low trust, crisis is almost always addressed by the creation of new bureaucracy: sign-offs, audits, traceability, procedures, policies, processes and tools.

The true test of the an organization’s commitment to the first value of the Agile Manifesto is, therefore, how it responds to crisis.  When someone makes a mistake, can we help them develop the skill and the support networks to avoid the mistake in the future?  Or do we put in place even more restrictive constraints on what that person does and how they do it?

In a large organization with low trust, crisis is almost always addressed by the creation of new bureaucracy.


 

Beyond IT and High-Tech

For now, all that needs to be said is that this particular value of the Agile Manifesto does not in any way directly refer to software or software development.  As such, it is pretty easy to see how it could be applied in many other types of work.  However, there are some types of work where processes and tools really do take precedence over individuals and interactions.  If we want to apply the concepts of Agile universally (or near-universally), we have to examine some of these exceptions.  I will leave that for a future essay.

In the next few articles, I will continue to look in-depth at each of the values of the Agile Manifesto.  If you missed the first essay in this series, please check it out here: The Agile Manifesto – Essay 1: Value and Values.

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Family Kanban for Cleaning

Two nights ago I had a great discussion with my son, Justice Berteig, about how we have been managing to do house cleaning every week.  We have been using a very basic Kanban system.  I have created about 100 stickies each of which has a basic cleaning task such as “tidy the kitchen counters” or “vacuum the office floor” or “clean the powder room toilet”.  If we do all of the tasks, it represents a fairly complete cleaning of the whole house.  Every Saturday morning, all six of us (myself, my wife and our four kids) choose one task at a time and put the sticky for that task in the “In Progress” column.  When we finish a task, we move it to the “Done” column.  When all the tasks are done, we all are finished.  We reuse the stickies each week.  Sometimes if we want to do a quick clean, we won’t put out all of the stickies.Cleaning Kanban - Task

It works well in one specific way: everything gets done!

But Justice was complaining about the system because he works a lot harder and one of my younger kids has admitted to doing less than she could… because she can get away with it with this system.

Last week we tried a modified system where each person has a task allocation.  For example, Justice had an allocation of 25 tasks.  Our younger daughter had an allocation of just 5 tasks.  We then took turns to choose one task at a time (although there were a lot of exceptions to this) until all the tasks are pre-allocated (similar to how teams used to do Sprint Planning).  But, although some people finished all their tasks, not everyone did and so there were a number of things left over that never got finished.

In other words, we stopped using a Kanban system, and we stopped reaching the overall goal of a clean house.

So Justice and I had a long conversation about this problem.  In the interests of continuous improvement and experimentation, I didn’t just force the issue back to the old Kanban system.  Instead we decided to try the following changes:

  1. Limit the tasks to only those in common areas.  Private areas such as bedrooms would be taken off the master list.
  2. Each task would get an estimate from a scale of 1 to 3 to represent their relative difficulty.  We will talk as a family about the estimates and maybe use a simplified “bucket system“.
  3. Now, instead of an allocation of a specific number of tasks, the allocation would be for a total amount of effort.  We agreed that our youngest would get a smaller allocation still, but she could take any number of tasks to fill it up.
  4. We also agreed to be more disciplined about taking turns to choose tasks.

I’m going to add one more thing which is to do a specific retrospective on how it worked to see if we can come up with further improvements.  I have to admit that I hope we go back to the Kanban approach!!!

Check out our new Kanban training offering: Kanban: Gentle Change currently available for public enrolment in the Toronto area and for in-house delivery wherever you might be!

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Announcing: The Real Agility Program

Real Agility Program LogoThe Real Agility Program is an Enterprise Agile change program to help organizations develop high-performance teams, deliver amazing products, dramatically improve time to market and quality, and create work environments that are awesome for employees.

This article is a written summary of the Executive Briefing presentation available upon request from the Real Agility Program web site.  If you obtain the executive briefing, you can follow along with the article below and use it to present Real Agility to your enterprise stakeholders.

The Problem

At Berteig Consulting we have been working for 10 years to learn how to help organizations transform people, process and culture.  The problem is simple to state: there is a huge amount of opportunity waste and process waste in most normal enterprise-scale organizations.  If you have more than a couple hundred people in your organization, this almost certainly affects you.

We like to call this problem “the Bureaucratic Beast”.  The Bureaucratic Beast is a self-serving monster that seems to grow and grow and grow.  As it grows, this Beast makes it progressively more difficult for business leaders to innovate, respond to changes in the market, satisfy existing customers, and retain great employees.

Real Agility, a system to tame the Bureaucratic Beast, comes from our experience working with numerous enterprise Agile adoptions.  This experience, in turn, rests on the shoulders of giants like John Kotter (“Leading Change”), Edgar Schein (“The Corporate Culture Survival Guide”), Jim Collins (“Good to Great” and “Built to Last”), Mary Poppendieck (“Lean Software Development”) Jon Katzenbach (“The Wisdom of Teams”) and Frederick Brooks (“The Mythical Man-Month”).  Real Agility is designed to tame all the behaviours of the Bureaucratic Beast: inefficiency, dis-engaged staff, poor quality and slow time-to-market.

Studies have proven that Agile methods work in IT.  In 2012, the Standish Group observed that 42% of Agile projects succeed vs. just 14% of projects done with traditional “Bureaucratic Beast” methods.  Agile and associated techniques aren’t just for IT.  There is growing use of these same techniques in non-technoogy environments such as marketing, operations, sales, education, healthcare, and even heavy industry like mining.

Real Agility Basics: Agile + Lean

Real Agility is a combination of Agile and Lean; both systems used harmoniously throughout an enterprise.  Real Agility affects delivery processes by taking long-term goals and dividing them into short cycles of work that deliver valuable results rapidly while providing fast feedback on scope, quality and most importantly value.  Real Agility affects management processes by finding and eliminating wasteful activities with a system view.  And Real Agility affects human resources (people!) by creating “Delivery Teams” which have clear goals, are composed of multi-skilled people who self-organize, and are stable in membership over long periods of time.

There are lots of radical differences between Real Agility and traditional management (that led to the Bureaucratic Beast in the first place).  Real Agility prioritizes work by value instead of critical path, encourages self-organizing instead of command-and-control management, a team focus instead of project focus, evolving requirements instead of frozen requirements, skills-based interactions instead of roles-based interaction, continuous learning instead of crisis management, and many others.

Real Agility is built on a rich Agile and Lean ecosystem of values, principles and tools.  Examples include the Agile Manifesto, the “Stop the Line” practice, various retrospective techniques, methods and frameworks such as Scrum and OpenAgile, and various thinking tools compatible with the Agile – Lean ecosystem such as those developed by Edward de Bono (“Lateral Thinking”) and Genrich Altshuller (“TRIZ”).

Real Agility acknowledges that there are various approaches to Agile adoption at the enterprise level: Ad Hoc (not usually successful – Nortel tried this), Grassroots (e.g. Yahoo!), Pragmatic (SAFe and DAD fall into this category), Transformative (the best balance of speed of change and risk reduction – this is where the Real Agility Program falls), and Big-Bang (only used in situations of true desperation).

Why Choose Transformative?

One way to think about these five approaches to Agile adoption is to compare the magnitude of actual business results.  This is certainly the all-important bottom line.  But most businesses also consider risk (or certainty of results).  Ad-Hoc approaches to Agile adoption have poor business results and a very high level of risk.  Big-Bang approaches (changing a whole enterprise to Agile literally over night) often have truly stunning business results, but are also extremely high risk.  Grassroots, where leaders give staff a great deal of choice about how and when to adopt Agile, is a bit better in that the risk is lower, but the business results often take quite a while to manifest themselves.  Pragmatic approaches tend to be very low risk because they often accommodate the Bureaucratic Beast, but that also limits their business results to merely “good” and not great.  Transformative approaches which systematically address organizational culture are just a bit riskier than Pragmatic approaches, but the business results are generally outstanding.

More specifically, Pragmatic approaches such as SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) are popular because they are designed to fit in with existing middle management structures (where the Bureaucratic Beast is most often found).  As a result, there is slow incremental change that typically has to be driven top-down from leadership.  Initial results are good, but modest.  And the long term?  These techniques haven’t been around long enough to know, but in theory it will take a long time to get to full organizational Agility.  Bottom line is that Pragmatic approaches are low risk but the results are modest.

Transformative approaches such as the Real Agility Program (there are others too) are less popular because there is significantly more disruption: the Bureaucratic Beast has to be completely tamed to serve a new master: business leadership!  Transformative approaches require top-to-bottom organizational and structural change.  They include a change in power relationships to allow for grassroots-driven change that is empowered by servant leaders.  Transformative approaches are moderate in some ways: they are systematic and they don’t require all change to be done overnight. Nevertheless, often great business results are obtained relatively quickly.  There is a moderate risk that the change won’t deliver the great results, but that moderate risk is usually worth taking.

Regardless of adoption strategy (Transformative or otherwise) there are a few critical success factors.  Truthfulness is the foundation because without it, it is impossible to see the whole picture including organizational culture.  And love is the strongest driver of change because cultural and behavioural change requires emotional commitment on the part of everyone.

Culture change is often challenging.  There are unexpected problems.  Two steps forward are often followed by one step back.  Some roadblocks to culture change will be surprisingly persistent.  Leaders need patience and persistence… and a systematic change program.

The Real Agility Program

The Real Agility Program has four tracks or lines of action (links take you to the Real Agility Program web site):

  1. Recommendations: consultants assess an organization and create a playbook that customizes the other tracks of the Real Agility Program as well as dealing with any important outliers.
  2. Execution: coaches help to launch project, product and operational Delivery Teams and Delivery Groups that learn the techniques of grassroots-driven continuous improvement.
  3. Accompaniment: trainer/coaches help you develop key staff into in-house Real Agility Coaches that learn to manage Delivery Groups for sustainable long-term efforts such as a product or line of business.
  4. Leadership: coaches help your executive team to drive strategic change for long-term results with an approach that helps executives lead by example for enterprise culture change.

Structurally an enterprise using Real Agility is organized into Delivery Groups.  A Delivery Group is composed of one or more Delivery Teams (up to 150 people) who work together to produce business results.  Key roles include a Business leader, a People leader and a Technology leader all of whom become Real Agility Coaches and take the place of traditional functional management.  As well, coordination across multiple Delivery Teams within a Delivery Group is done using an organized list of “Value Drivers” maintained by the Business leader and a supporting Business Leadership Group. Cross-team support is handled by a People and Technology Support Group co-led by the People and Technology leaders.  Depending on need there may also be a number of communities of practice for Delivery Team members to help spread learning.

At an organizational or enterprise level, the Leadership Team includes top executives from business, finance, technology, HR, operations and any other critical parts of the organization.  This Leadership Team communicates the importance of the changes that the Delivery Groups are going through.  They lead by example using techniques from Real Agility to execute organizational changes.  And, of course, they manage the accountability of the various Delivery Groups throughout the enterprise.

The results of using the Real Agility Program are usually exceptional.  Typical results include:

  • 20x improvement in quality
  • 10x improvement in speed to market
  • 5x improvement in process efficiency
  • and 60% improvement in employee retention.

Of course, these results depend on baseline measures and that key risk factors are properly managed by the Leadership Team.

Your Organization

Not every organization needs (or is ready for) the Real Agility Program.  Your organization is likely a good candidate if three or more of the following problems are true for your organization:

  • high operating costs
  • late project deliveries
  • poor quality in products or services
  • low stakeholder satisfaction
  • managers overworked
  • organizational mis-alignment
  • slow time-to-market
  • low staff morale
  • excessive overtime
    or…
  • you need to tame the Bureaucratic Beast

Consider that list carefully and if you feel like you have enough of the above problems, please contact us at tame.the.beast@berteigconsulting.com. or read more about the Real Agility Program for Enterprise Agility on the website.

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Real Agility – Self-Organizing Team Creation Event for Large-Scale Agile Enterprises

In 2005 I had the privilege to participate in the first occurrence of this fantastic technique for organizing large numbers of people into Agile teams.  It happened at Capital One in Richmond Virginia and my colleague of the time, Kara Silva, led this successful experiment.  The problem was that the “teams” that management had set up didn’t make much sense from an Agile perspective.  They were functional teams (e.g. a team of testers).  But to do Agile well, they needed cross-functional, multi-skilled teams that could work well together to deliver great results each iteration.  So Kara and a few other senior people got together all the staff in the department into a big room with a big whiteboard and facilitated a 3 hour meeting to sort out who would be on which team.  Everyone was involved – all the people who would be on the teams were in the room.  Those teams stayed together with the same membership long after that meeting.

This “team creation event” was a fantastic success for that particular department.  What made it a success?

  1. Everyone participating already had Agile training and experience.  They knew what they were getting into and why they were doing it.
  2. Everyone was encouraged to participate through the way the meeting was facilitated.  No one felt like their opinion was ignored.
  3. The meeting was long, but also time boxed.  It wasn’t an open-ended discussion that could go forever.
  4. It was in-person!!!  Everyone was physically present so that not just abstract facts, but also feelings were clearly visible to everyone else.
  5. It was honest: tough things were discussed including potential personality conflicts.  This open discussion required expert facilitation.
  6. Management was not involved in the decision-making during the meeting.
  7. The overall purpose of the exercise was clear: here’s the business we’re in, and here’s the people we have to work with – how can we organize ourselves to be most effective?
  8. A big diagram of the proposed teams and their membership was constantly being updated on a whiteboard: visual and concrete for everyone to see.
  9. Preparation: the meeting was scheduled far enough in advance that everyone could make it and management was informed about how important it was (don’t schedule over top of it!)

In the Real Agility Program, the team creation event is used to launch a Delivery Group.  The key people at the meeting include all the potential team members as well as the three Real Agility Coaches from the business, from technology, and from process/people.  Depending on the number of people involved, the team creation event can take anywhere from two hours up to a full day.  Longer is not recommended.  For larger Delivery Groups, we recommend that the team creation event be held off-site.

Facilitation of the team creation event is usually done by the process/people Real Agility Coach.  If you wanted to use this process with other enterprise Agile frameworks such as SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) you would have the “equivalent” person such as SAFe’s Release Train Engineer as the facilitator.

The team creation event should only be done when the business is ready to get a Delivery Group started on actual product, project or program work.  If there is any significant delay between the team creation event and the launch of the Delivery Group on it’s work, then the teams can fracture and you may need to run the event again.  A few days should be the maximum delay.

One client we worked with ran the team creation event but had some significant problems afterward because they weren’t really ready.  In particular, they still had to make staffing changes (primarily letting go of some contractors, hiring some new full-time employees).  As a result, the teams created in the team creation event were not really properly stable.  This caused a great deal of disruption and even significant morale problems for some teams.  It is essential that the Leadership Team be committed to keeping the team membership stable for a significant period of time after the team creation event.  That includes any necessary means to encourage people who are thinking of leaving to reconsider.  It also includes a commitment from leadership to respect the self-organizing choices made during the team creation event unless there is an extremely urgent problem with the results.

So, to make it systematic, here are the steps required to run a team creation event:

PREPARATION

  1. Make sure that everyone who will participate has Agile training and has been on an Agile team for at least a few iterations/sprints/cycles.
  2. The Leadership Team needs to publish a notice (usually through email) explaining the upcoming team creation event and their unqualified support for the event.
  3. The people/process Real Agility Coach needs to schedule the time for the event, and if necessary, book the venue.
  4. In the weeks and days leading up to the event, some communication should be provided to all the participants about the overall business purpose of the Delivery Group.  Is it for a specific Program?  If so, what is the objective of the program from a business perspective?  It should not just be a one-time communication.  This should come from the business Real Agility Coach.
  5. The Leadership Team needs to decide which management stakeholders will attend the team creation event and make presentations.  These presentations should be about setting a vision for the Delivery Group, not about assigning people to teams.

TEAM CREATION EVENT AGENDA

  1. The team creation event starts with the people/process Real Agility Coach welcoming people and reiterating the purpose of the event.
  2. Management stakeholders make their presentations to ensure that participants have a clear vision.
  3. The business Real Agility Coach summarizes the vision presented by the management stakeholders.
  4. The people/process Real Agility Coach provides instructions about the constraints for a good Agile Delivery Team:
    • Cross-functional
    • Multi-skilled (see the Skills Matrix tool for ideas here).
    • Correct size (usually 7 +/- 2).
    • People who want to work with each other.
    • People who want to work on that particular team’s goal (if such is set).
    • Everyone must be on a team.
    • Every team must choose the people who will fill the Agile Delivery Team roles (e.g. ScrumMaster and Product owner for Scrum Delivery Teams).
  5. Everyone starts self-organizing!  Usually the three Real Agility Coaches circulate through the teams as they are working to organize themselves to offer gentle guidance, to answer questions, and to see if there are opportunities to optimize across teams.  These optimization opportunities should always be offered as suggestions rather than being directive.
  6. As the self-organization is happening, the people/process Real Agility Coach needs to clearly indicate the passage of time so that people are “finished” when the time has run out.
  7. Once the self-organizing is done, the Leadership Team (or a representative) thanks everyone for their work in creating the teams and agrees to let everyone know within a short period of time if there are any changes required (to be done before the teams start working).
  8. The people/process Real Agility Coach closes the meeting.  It is critical to record the final results of who is on which team.  It may be easiest to get the teams themselves to do this before leaving the meeting.

FOLLOW-UP

  1. The people/process Real Agility Coach makes sure that the Leadership Team receives a complete and accurate record of the results of the team creation event before the end of the day.
  2. The Leadership Team reviews the results and makes any (minor but critical) adjustments within a few days, at most, and publishes the final list to everyone.  Failure to do this in a timely manner can deeply demoralize the staff who will be in the Delivery Group.
  3. Any updates to org charts, management tools, time tracking tools, job descriptions, etc. that need to reflect the new team organization should also be made immediately and certainly before the Delivery Group starts working.
  4. A final thank you message from the Leadership team should be delivered immediately prior to the start of the Delivery Group doing its work.

Have you experienced an event like this? Did it work? What was different from what I described?

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Product Backlog Refinement

The ultimate purpose of Product Backlog refinement is to ensure an ongoing conversation that increases transparency of the Product Backlog and therefore the Product itself – to orient everyone on the team to breaking out of their waterfall silos and focus on delivering business value, period.

On mature teams, a lot of the refinement work happens as ad hoc conversations while they are sitting around and thinking together about how to build something great because they are just motivated by that and it becomes part of their mode of operation.

The objective of the refinement work of any given Sprint (that often needs to be repeated over and over like a mantra with new, immature teams) is to ensure that the items at the top of the Backlog are transparent enough that the Development Team considers them ready to pull and get “Done” in the next Sprint.  This is where the concept of the Definition of “Ready” (DoR) comes from – the Scrum Team defines the DoR and spends up to 10% of its capacity refining enough items at the top of the Backlog so that it can provide estimates (if required) and have a reasonable degree of confidence that it can deliver the items in the next Sprint.

Refinement is NOT solutioning – I think this is the big trap that a lot of teams fall into because there is a false assumption that technical solutions need to be hashed out before estimates can be made (part of the carried-over lack of trust and communication between the business and IT) – I would almost rather throw out estimates in cases where this is not improving – The Planning Game exercise, when facilitated well, lends itself more to increasing transparency rather than solutioning.

The fact that teams are telling us that they need to solution before they can estimate is also an indication of weak Agile Engineering practices such as refactoring, test-driven development and continuous integration (XP).  The best refinement sessions are those in which the team is able to focus on the “what” – the business benefit results that the Product Owner really wants – rather than the “how” (solution).  Strong teams emerge in an environment in which they are trusted by the business and management to find the right solution as a team.  They don’t need to have it all figured out before giving an estimate because they are not afraid to give a bad estimate and fail.  Also, if the team is struggling to give estimates, this is often a sign that the Product Backlog Items are too big.  Most likely the team also needs to expand the Definition of “Done” to include testing against acceptance criteria within the Sprint so that they can estimate based on that criteria.

The “how” (solution) should be mapped out by the Development Team at a high level in the 2nd part of Sprint Planning (partly why the time box is bigger than they often think they need) and more detailed architecture, requirements and design work as part of the Sprint Backlog

But this level of maturity is very hard to do and it will take a while to get there, perhaps even years.

It also depends on your interpretation of “detail”, the word used in the Scrum Guide to describe what the team does in Product Backlog refinement. To me, it means understanding in more detail what the Product Owner really wants and needs. What does it mean to you?

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Tips to Start Agile in a Hostile Environment

Although Agile methods are very popular (particularly Scrum), there are still many organizations or departments which may not yet have official support for adopting Agile methods formally.  In some cases, management may even be hostile to the concepts and practices of Agile methods.  If you are interested in Agile, you don’t have to give up hope (or look to switch jobs).  Instead, here are some tips to start using Agile methods even in hostile environments.

Regular Retrospectives

Some Agilists claim that the retrospective is actually the key to being Agile.  In some ways, this is also the easiest practice to introduce into an organization.  Start with “easy” retrospectives like “Pluses and Deltas” or “Starfish“.  These are retrospectives that can be done in 15 minutes or half an hour.  Try to do them with your team weekly.  If you are are a team lead or a project manager, it will be easy to include this as part of an existing weekly status meeting.  If you are “just” a team member, you might have to get some modest amount of permission.

So why would it be good to do a retrospective?  Because it’s a high return-on-investment activity.  For a few minutes of investment, a team using retrospectives can become aware of dramatic opportunities for improvement in how they are functioning.   Here are a couple more articles about the importance of retrospectives:

What’s an Agile Retrospective and Why Would You Do It?

What is a Retrospective?

Practice-by-Practice

Although I strongly recommend starting with retrospectives, sometimes that’s not the best way to start.  Myself, my first formal Agile environment, I started with the Daily Scrum.  Another time less formal, I started with Test-Driven Development.  In both cases, starting with a single practice, done well, led to adding additional practices over a relatively short period of months.  This gradual adoption of practices led, in time, to attracting positive interest from managers and leaders.  This is the practice-by-practice approach.  Start with a simple Agile practice that you can do without asking anyone for permission.  Make sure it is a practice that makes sense for your particular environment – it must produce some benefit!  If you are technical contributor on a team, then practices such as refactoring or test-driven development can be a good place to start.  If you are more business-oriented, then maybe consider user stories or one of the Innovation Games.  If you are responsible for administrative aspects of the work, then consider a Kanban board or burndown charts.

It is important to get the chosen practice done consistently and done well, even when the team is struggling with some sort of crisis or another.  If the practice can’t be sustained through a project crisis, then you won’t be able to build on it to add additional Agile practices.

Stealth Project

Sometimes you get an unusual opportunity: a project that is funded but hidden from the bureaucracy.  This can happen for a variety of reasons, but often it is because some executive has a pet project and says (effectively): “make it so”.  This is an opportunity to do Agile.  Since there is little oversight from a process perspective, and since the overall project has a strong executive sponsor, there is often a great deal of freedom on the question of “how do we actually execute.”  There can be challenges as well: often the executive wants daily insight into progress, but that level of transparency is actually something that Agile methods can really support.  In this case, there is no need to ask anyone on what method to use, just pick one (e.g. Scrum or OpenAgile or XP or Kanban or Crystal or…) and go for it.  Don’t talk about it.

The “just do it” approach requires that you have some influence.  You don’t have to be an influencer, but you need connections and you need charisma and you need courage.  If you don’t have at least two of those three, you shouldn’t try this approach.  You have to do things and get away with things that normally would get people fired – not because they are illegal – but simply because they are so counter-cultural to how your organization normally works.  Here are a few comments on Stealth Methodology Adoption.

Co-Conspirators

There’s nothing like working with a band of rebels!  If you can find one or two other people to become co-conspirators in changing your organization, you can try many lines of action and see which ones work.  Getting together for lunch or after work frequently is the best way to develop a common vision and to make plans.  Of course, you need to actually execute some of your plans.  Having people to work with is really part of the other tips here: you can have co-conspirators to help you launch a practice-by-practice Agile transformation, for example.

But, like any rebellion, you really need to trust those you work with in these early stages.  Lacking that trust will slow everything you do possibly to the point of ineffectualness.  Trust means that you have, for some time, a formal vow of silence.  Not until you have critical mass through your mutual efforts can you reveal the plan behind your actions.

Read “Fearless Change”

I can’t recommend this one enough!  Read “Fearless Change” by Mary Lynn Manns and Linda Rising.  This is a “patterns” book.  It is a collection of techniques that can be applied to help make organizational changes, where each technique has its own unique context of use.  Lots of research and experience have gone into the creation of this book and it is a classic for anyone who wants to be an organizational change agent.  Patterns include basics such as “Do Lunch” to help build trust and agreement with your ideas for change or “Champion Skeptic” to leverage the value of having systematic, open criticism of your change idea.

Don’t Call it “Agile”

This isn’t really a “tip” in the sense of an action item.  Instead, this is a preventative measure… to prevent negative reactions to your proposals for change.  The words “Agile” or “Scrum”, while they have their supporters, also have detractors.  To avoid some of the prejudices that some people may hold, you can start by _not_ calling your effort by those names.  Use another name.  Or let your ideas go nameless.  This can be challenging, particularly if other people start to use the words “Agile” or “Scrum”.  By going nameless into the change effort, people will focus more on results and rational assessment of your ideas rather than on their emotional prejudices.

A minor variant of this is to “brand” your ideas in a way that makes them more palatable. One company that we worked with, let’s call them XYZ, called their custom Agile method “Agile @ XYZ”.  Just those extra four symbols “@ XYZ” made all the difference in changing the effort from one where managers and executives would resist the change to one where they would feel connected to the change.

Get Some Training

Okay, some blatant self-promotion here: consider our Certified Real Agility Coach training program.  It’s a 40-week program that takes about 12 hours/week of your time for coursework.  The next cohort of participants starts in June 2015 and we are taking deposits for participants.  This training is comprehensive, top-notch training for anyone wishing to become an organizational change agent focusing on Agility.

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Scrum “Inputs”

The Product Backlog is often described as the primary input to Scrum.  The Sprint starts with Sprint Planning and Sprint Planning starts with the Product Owner and the Product Backlog.  In principle, this makes perfect sense and hopefully it is enough for most teams and organizations to just start with the Product Backlog.  And if you don’t have a Product Backlog, then just start without one, get some stuff done that the team thinks is important, invite some people to the Sprint Review and most likely one of those people will end up becoming the Product Owner and gradually take on the responsbilities of that role.  I believe in just starting if you can.  I even wrote a blog post about this a while back and I stand by it.

I have served as a Scrum Master and coach for a number of teams and I have identified some patterns that I think are worth addressing.  Newly-formed teams tend to ask for (and need) a little more help than this in order to feel ready to start.  And I have learned from experience that it is usually more effective for the adoption of Scrum and team development for the team to feel ready enough to just start.

The Scrum Guide recognizes the following inputs to Sprint Planning:

  • Product Backlog
  • Latest product increment (not applicable to first Sprint)
  • Projected capacity of the Development Team during the Sprint
  • Past performance of the Development Team (not applicable to first Sprint)
  • Definition of “Done” (implicitly)

A newly-formed team often needs to address the following before the first Sprint:

  • Product Backlog
  • Projected capacity of the Development Team during the Sprint
  • Definition of “Done”

If these are not addressed before the first Sprint, then they will likely need to be addressed during Sprint Planning, which can place a lot pressure on a new team (especially in environments where it is difficult to build shared understanding of the work).

Product Backlog

Keep it simple.  It’s an ordered list of all the features, functions, enhancements and fixes that might be needed in the end product.  Get the Product Owner to blow these things out into a list.  It doesn’t need to be a complete list.  Just the most important things right now.  A good test is to give the Product Owner 5 minutes.  Whatever the Product Owner can think of in 5 minutes is important enough for the team to start working on.  There are all kinds of techniques that can be used to order the Product Backlog.  The simplest way is to just have the Product Owner eyeball it.  If people are uncomfortable with this, then introduce the other ways.  It doesn’t need to be perfect.  It will get better and become refined and adapted as you go.

Projected capacity of the Development Team during the Sprint

Multiply the number of working days in the Sprint (total days minus Sprint Planning, Sprint Review and Sprint Retrospective, rounding down) by the number of Development Team members by the average percentage team member dedication (hopefully 100%).  If you have weird things going on with team member allocation (not 100%) then you may find it helpful to refer to this blog post.  According to what the Scrum Guide says about Development Team size and Sprint duration, this number could theoretically be smaller (Sprint less than one week), but in most cases no less than 12 (3-member Development Team in a one-week Sprint) and no more than 207 (9-member Development Team in a one-month Sprint with 23 days – the maximum number of weekdays in a month).

Definition of “Done”

This is a list of all of the activities that will go into the intended Increment of the first Sprint in order for it to be done.  The team needs to know this before it can estimate the items in the Product Backlog as a team.  Estimation is not a requirement of Scrum, but is often very helpful in refining the Product Backlog, tracking velocity and making projections into the future based on historical actuals.

Planning with the Product Backlog, projected capacity and Definition of “Done”

In the first part of Sprint Planning, the team looks at the items at the top of the Product Backlog in order to determine what can be done in the Sprint and the Sprint Goal, keeping in mind that it will need to complete the items according to its Definition of “Done”.  Once the team has set a Sprint Goal, it can then create a set of tasks that represent how the work will get done.  All of the tasks should fulfill a specific attribute of the Definition of “Done” or be about the technical parts of the system that need to be built.  The team should try to create a set of tasks each of which are a one-person day effort or less.  Count the number of tasks.  If the number of tasks are close to the number of days of the team’s capacity, the team can be confident that it has a decent Sprint Backlog.  If not, then the the Sprint Backlog and likely the Sprint Goal will need to be adapted.

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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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