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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The Start of a True Team

I wrote this article for our Real Agility Newsletter, but I wanted to share it here too, just in case some of you don’t get it.  I think this is important to share because it gets to some of the deep values of Agile and good teamwork.

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The team really is important. Last month I wrote about love. This month, I’ll write about commitment. Our team has gone through some extreme tests this last month. Commitment kept us together.

Our business has been through crisis before. In the second half of 2005, my own financial mis-management led to near-bankruptcy for the business and for myself personally. My dear long-suffering wife and business partner, Melanie, kept things under control as we recovered. In late 2009 the Great Recession hit us hard and we had to cut our staff back to just Paul and myself by laying off three talented friends and cutting work to a loyal subcontractor. That was incredibly painful for everyone involved. A similar crisis occurred again in late 2011, although it wasn’t as severe. In September last year, our projections were showing a looming crisis… but we narrowly averted any layoffs when a smaller consulting deal closed and one person was let go for unrelated reasons. We still needed more work, and in late fall we were expecting to close three important deals.

In January we knew we were in trouble. Business was not booming. In fact, those three important deals had fallen through with nothing obvious on the horizon to replace them. Our office management was in a shambles with two recent changes in staff and very little continuity. Our accounts receivable had several items that were waaaay overdue. We were starting to dig deep into our operating credit with no obvious way to climb back out. The partners, Paul, Travis, Melanie and I started to talk about serious stuff: deep layoffs. We were worried we may even have to cut all the way back to just me doing work (mostly CSM classes) – a staff level we haven’t seen since 2007!

Two weeks ago, the four partners had an emergency weekend meeting after our early February attempts to build sufficient immediate cash flow failed. We consulted for over four hours around a single question: what should we do? Our projections were showing us running out of credit in just four weeks, our business development pipeline was almost empty and the few things in it were clearly long-shot deals, at least in the timeframe we needed. It seemed almost impossible to avoid deep layoffs. Our love for each other seemed almost irrelevant to the crisis, despite the depth of our feeling.  The consultation was difficult and filled with despair.

My memory for exact words is poor. I remember concepts, relationships and feelings. During that weekend consultation, one thing really stood out: we started to talk about commitment. We talked about what it would mean to be committed to each other and to the business vision of transforming people, process and culture. Most powerfully, we talked about the commitment of our newest employee, Nima, who seemed determined to go to the ends of the earth, to the very last moment to help us all succeed. As we talked about commitment, we came to our most powerful decision: sink or swim, we are all in this together to the end.

After that critical point in our discussion, we set some goals, determined some important activities, and decided to go literally day-to-day in deciding if it was time to wrap up the business. And, strangely enough (I say ironically), we decided we needed to shorten our planning cycle from a month to two weeks, increase the discipline of our team’s interactions to bi-daily check-ins, create a detailed set of dynamic plans for the two weeks, and have a review meeting at the end of the two weeks. Sounds a bit like an Agile team, doesn’t it?

What happened? Well, we’re still around. We’ve closed enough business that our projections are now showing us staying in a steady state financially for the next three months. That’s a dramatic turnaround from just two weeks prior. We aren’t going to run out of credit. In fact, we now have enough prospects that we expect to be extremely busy in just a couple more weeks. Our end-of-cycle review, which happened on Friday, was still difficult. There is still great uncertainty about many things. But the one thing that is crystal clear, strong as steel, and deep as the deepest ocean is our commitment to each other to succeed together. We are a true team.

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If you have similar stories to tell, I would love to hear them!


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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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Two reviews of SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework)

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Has SAFe Cracked the Large Agile Adoption Nut? – InfoQ

Unsafe at Any Speed – Ken Schwaber

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

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


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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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The Rules of Scrum: Your Product Owner creates and maintains the team’s Product or Release burndown chart

The Product burndown chart tracks the amount of work remaining in the Product Backlog Sprint-by-Sprint. This burndown chart is updated every Sprint and is visible to the Scrum Team and its stakeholders. This activity is part of the Product Owners duty to facilitate transparency around value delivered over time. The Product Owner is responsible for making the overall progress of the work visible to the Scrum Team and other stakeholders. This activity is part of the Product Owners job to satisfy stakeholders as it allows them to easily see how the Scrum Team is trending on planned deliverables. This information allows the team and the Product Owner to discuss any necessary adjustments to the team’s plans for the upcoming Sprints in a timely fashion. What happens if the Product Owner fails to create and/or maintain the team’s Product burndown chart? Most likely we will be unable to see if the team is on track, late or early in its delivery of value. In a traditional waterfall approach we would find out this information near the end of the project which is much too late. Also, without regular updates on the trend of the team it is highly probable that stakeholders and/or team members may slip back into an individualistic approach to work instead a team based approach.

To learn more about Product Owners, visit the Scrum Team Assessment.


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The Rules of Scrum: Your Product Owner puts known defects at the top of the Product Backlog

The Product Owner has complete authority over the ordering of the Product Backlog. However, it is strongly recommended that the Product Owner put all known defects at the top of the Product Backlog so that the Team fixes them in the very next Sprint. By defects is meant features of functions of the system that have been built by the Team in previous Sprints where those features or functions do not behave according to the expectations of the Product Owner and where such mis-behavior is exposed to users of the system. There may be other quality problems with a system which are not categorized as defects (e.g. duplicated code). This prioritization of defects generally results in extremely high levels of quality in a system and a long-term reduction in costs for the system (total cost of the system) by making future features easier to add, and reducing effort spent on maintenance and support. Failing to put defects on the top of the Product Backlog generally leads to decreasing overall quality and in particular can severely damage the morale of a Scrum Team thus preventing them from getting into a high-performance state.

To learn more about Product Owners, visit the Scrum Team Assessment.


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The Rules of Scrum: Your Product Owner never interrupts the team mid-Sprint with new “high-priority” Product Backlog Items

The Product Owner is involved with the other Team Members throughout the Sprint, but after the Sprint Planning meeting is completed, the Product Owner cannot add to the scope of the work being done during the Sprint. New Product Backlog Items, no matter how high their priority, must be put onto the Product Backlog for the team to look at in the next Sprint. This restriction is meant to allow the team to truly be focused and committed to the work of the Sprint and to allow them to make commitments and learn to keep them, thereby building trust. The Product Owner can, of course, collaborate on the details of the PBIs the team has chosen for the Sprint. If the Product Owner does indeed force a team to take on extra work during the Sprint, it breaks the focus of the team and can lead to the team’s failure to complete the work they planned.

To learn more about Product Owners, visit the Scrum Team Assessment.


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The Rules of Scrum: Your Product Owner always lets the team freely decide how many Product Backlog Items to do in a Sprint

The Product Owner controls the order of the items in the Product Backlog, but not how many are done each Sprint. Instead, the team decides how many to do. This decision is made in Sprint Planning and, of course, should be made in collaboration with the Product Owner, but ultimately the Product Owner must let the team freely decide how many items are planned. This freedom allows the team to be truly motivated and committed to the work as well as being collectively accountable for getting that work done. If the Product Owner forces a team to take on more work than it feels is within its capacity, then that dis-empowers the team, moves accountability for getting work done to the Product Owner, and completely dis-ables the team from getting to a high-performance state.

To learn more about Product Owners, visit the Scrum Team Assessment.


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The Rules of Scrum: Your Product Owner never tells the team how to solve a technical problem

Solving technical problems is the job of the product developers on the Scrum Team, not the Product Owner. The Product Owner is responsible for the product from a business and user perspective and has authority over the team only in this limited realm. By overstepping the bounds of authority in this way, the Product Owner becomes an obstacle for the team by reducing its ability to self-organize. A Product Owner who is part of a team that has reached a high-performance state may be able to safely make technical suggestions, but should always be careful not to push the team to accept those suggestions.

To learn more about Product Owners, visit the Scrum Team Assessment.


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The Rules of Scrum: Your Product Owner never does hands-on technical work with the team

The Product Owner’s main responsibility is to maintain the Product Backlog through direct communication with the users and stakeholders. To do this well it will take most of his time and effort to be effective. Hands-on technical is done by the Team Members not the Product Owner since this is not the Product Owner’s strength or area of expertise. If the Product Owner refrains from doing the hands-on technical work, then he is able to provide the vision and share the “what” that the team needs to accomplish. If not, he will be bogged down by the tasks and lose the time and ability to provide product guidance and connect with the stakeholders.

To learn more about Product Owners, visit the Scrum Team Assessment.


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