Tag Archives: Ideas

Six Rules for CHANGE – Notes from a Talk by Esther Derby

Hired to help change and grow a business? These ideas are a guide for agile coaches and consultants, when you’ve been asked by a company to make them “agile.”

Esther Derby began by noting that traditional ideas of change can get in the way of real change. For example, ideas such as “Driving the change” or, “Installing Agile” or, “Evangelizing Agile” are not helpful.

What is helpful is to NURTURE complex change in complex environments.

Her Six Rules are:

1.Work from a stance of congruence.

Congruence is a place from which empathy is possible. Consider your own internal state, the context, and the situation of the people who are facing change. Think about what legitimate reasons they may have to keep things as they are!

2. Honour what’s valuable about the past and what is working now.

Don’t force people to admit they’ve been wrong. Shift your language, i.e. “This served you well when…” People don’t change because of data, but only because of what they value!

3. Assess the current situation and the current system.

How is the system working now? What holds the current pattern in place? What might shift the pattern? Who benefits from the status quo, and who will benefit from change?

4. Work by attraction.

Find those who are willing to work with you, i.e. try pair-programming with someone. Find your allies and follow the energy. Don’t rely only on the formal hierarchy. Analyze existing networks, activate and enhance them. Those who cross silos can influence others and change people’s norms. Ideas can be contagious.

5. Guide the change, and work by successive approximation.

Everything (and everyone) thrives in different conditions. Not every scrum team needs to work in the same way. Consider where global principles apply, and what can evolve locally. “When people get their fingerprints on something, it becomes theirs.” Ask for more of this, and less of that – scrum teams aren’t necessarily standardized.

6. Use experiments.

Big changes scare people. Experiments help people practice and learn. Insert at least 3 ideas – not more – then observe, evaluate and adjust.

7. (Esther tacked on this extra…) Use your own curiosity, generosity, patience and self-care. Use yourself. Change is often stressful.

These are my notes from the Regional Scrum Gathering, Toronto, March 2018, and any misunderstandings of Ms. Derby’s presentation are mine.

See also http://www.agileadvice.com/2015/02/10/referenceinformation/retrospective-technique-what-did-you-learn/


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Seeking Patterns Between Human Rights and Agility

Image Attribution

Photographer:  Zoi Koraki – https://www.flickr.com/photos/zoikoraki/
Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/zoikoraki/15046030905/in/photostream/
License: Creative Commons https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/

Preface: To be transparent in my agenda, I firmly believe there are strong parallels between Agility and Human Rights, and I believe that is a purposeful and direct by-product of the primary outcomes of the Agile Manifesto.  However, I have attempted to make this article a little different from others by more subtly embedding the learnings and patterns within the messages and on several levels.  As such I hope the connections are still obvious, and that you find this article refreshing, insightful, appropriate and useful.

A Premise

It seems everywhere I turn lately there is a scandal of greed, lust, abuse, harassment, violence or oppression in both the workplace as well as personal life. I’d like to believe the number of despicable activities is not actually increasing but rather I am simply exposed to more because we live in an age when the speed and ease of access to information is staggering. Certainly recent events are no exception to human history that records thousands of years of oppression, subjugation, control, and violence. My question is: as a supposedly intelligent species, why is it we have seemingly learned very little over the millennia?

I propose we have actually learned a great deal and made significant advances, yet at the same time we have experienced setbacks that repeatedly challenge that progress. These setbacks are often imposed by select individuals in positions of authority that choose to prioritize and exert their power, individual needs or desires over the rights and needs of others. However, I believe if we can truly harness the power of unity and collaboration we can make a significant positive difference, and that is what I seek your help in doing.

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
~ Aristotle

Finding a Beacon in the Darkness

Every day I find it disheartening to bear witness to people being physically and mentally hurt, abused or taken advantage of. In their personal lives and at home. At the workplace. In wars and conflicts. In human created environmental disasters. It seems there is no end to the pain and suffering or the countless ways to inflict it.

Meanwhile I sincerely believe many of us have the desire to make the world a better place, but given our positions and busy lives it can be daunting to make a real difference. In many instances we feel powerless to change the world because someone else has authority over us or over the system. It may also seem pointless to commit to change something we as an individual have little to no control over. It can also be risky to draw attention to ourselves by speaking against others in a position of power who may and sometimes will exert their influence to attack and hurt us as well as those we care for.

Despite the temptation to hide from the noise we must remain strong and acknowledge that by creating transparency and visibility in to dark and sometimes painful events we are actually opening the door to the opportunity for positive change. Obscuring truth does nothing to help a worthy cause or to better society. Remaining silent about an injustice does not provide the victim with any form of respect or comfort. Pretending something didn’t happen doesn’t make the consequences and outcomes any less real for the casualty. Inaction does not provide any benefit except perhaps the avoidance of an immediate conflict.

Many times, shining a light on something does provides tangible benefit. It creates visibility and awareness, and provides opportunity for the truth to be exposed. Although transparency itself may not solve a problem, reflection and openness should make the misalignment more critical and obvious. I believe the majority of us want trust, and honesty wherever we are, whether it be in the boardroom, on the manufacturing floor, in a political office, or even in a private home.

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
~ Robert Kennedy

However we must also acknowledge that sharing truth may often be painful and uncomfortable, and in order to create the opportunity for truth we must first provide individuals with safety so they may find the courage to do what is right. Without safety people fear reprisals, embarrassment, retribution, consequences, and loss of respect. History has taught us that without safety and courage we can not expect most people to bridge the chasm from fear to justice, and as a result the silence will continue. With silence there will be no hope for change. So in order to help define expectations and to foster a safer environment for effective communication we need a code to live by; one that provides standards and creates safety – that serves as a beacon in the darkness so that we may uphold ourselves and one another to it.

To be absolutely clear, I am not saying that policies, processes and tools are more important than people. Instead, I am acknowledging that the right combination of policies and processes with appropriate tools and a method to uphold those ideals should serve to provide opportunity for fairness for people, which is the desired outcome.

A Disturbing Retrospective Leading to a Hopeful Outcome

At the end of World War II when “relative” safety was finally achieved, people were exhausted, shocked and appalled with the magnitude of human atrocities they bore witness to. Given the darkness of the times it may have seemed less painful to move on, put it in the past, and perhaps even obscure disturbing facts rather than revisit them in the pursuit of learning. Instead, the leadership of that time chose to leverage careful inspection to uncover truths and provide visibility with the aspiration that something good could flow out of the evil. In the end the aim was to use the learnings to create a shared understanding and define standards and expectations for a safe environment in the future.

“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
~ George Santayana

To this end I believe we already have a code to live by, but I surmise most of society doesn’t give it the continuous, serious consideration and support it deserves. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was created on December 10, 1948 as a direct outcome of the learnings from World War II, and in this brief but impactful document are 30 articles that define human equality and set the standards for safety. Despite some of its choice wording and age (at almost 70 years) I believe it is still directly relevant and bears serious attention.

(http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/)

UDHR
Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The UDHR document transcends political borders, gender, orientation, race, religion, boardrooms, workplaces, homes, family, and economic status. Every person on this planet should not only just read it, but actively live, work, and explicitly honour the values it represents. The UDHR should become the definitive core learning article for every child. If we all continuously make a firm commitment to hold ourselves and others by the standards in the UDHR I believe we could collectively create opportunity for better safety, transparency, respect, and courage in the workplace, at home, and abroad by putting focus on what matters most – equality and the value of and compassion for human life.

The UDHR document may be policy, but with continuous effort, unilateral agreement and support it enables and empowers people. It may not be perfection, but it is aspirational towards it. It focuses on individual rights but strongly values human interaction. It promotes balance, harmony and partnerships. It demands mutual respect and caring. It is elegant in its simplicity. It promotes collaboration and shared responsibility. It defines clear expectations for a safe environment.

“Continuous effort – not strength or intelligence – is the key to unlocking our potential.”
~ Winston Churchill

I believe the UDHR is the manifesto of real, human agility, and if enough of us embrace and enforce it I believe we could collectively make real, positive change.

Now, A Challenge

I challenge each and every one of you to take time to read the UN Declaration of Human Rights. I don’t just mean on the train on the way to work, or over morning coffee, or while your kids are playing soccer or hockey, or whatever you do to pass a few minutes of time. I mean take time to really, truly and deeply comprehend what each of the thirty articles are saying. Reflect on the value of wisdom that it provides and how that wisdom came from pain and learning. I then encourage you to share it with every family member (adults and youth) and ask for constructive feedback on what it says about them and personal life. I encourage you to share it with every co-worker and then have an open, honest dialogue about what your company culture and leadership either does or fails to do to provide a safe work environment and to promote equality, truth, transparency and human rights.

Then, I challenge you to ask every single day “Given the declaration, what small positive adaptation or change can I make right now to help our family, friends, peers, coworkers and humanity achieve these goals and outcomes?” You could start with something as simple as a brief conversation, and see where it goes.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

I asked myself that very question after visiting the UN General Assembly and Security Council Chambers in New York late last year. In response, one of my first actions in 2018 is to publish this article in an effort to re-establish awareness about the UN declaration and how it may bring hope and positive change if we can rally enough people behind it. How about you?

A secondary (and arguably less important) challenge I am issuing for Lean and Agile enthusiasts is for you to identify the patterns and key words in this article that I have borrowed from various facets of the Lean and Agile domains (hint: there are at least 20 different words – can you spot them). I purposefully embedded these patterns and key words in this article to explicitly highlight the parallels that I see between Agility and the UDHR and I hope you see them too.


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Unpacking the Fifth Principle of the Agile Manifesto

The Agile Manifesto was signed and made public in 2001. It begins with short, pithy statements regarding what should be the priorities of software developers, followed by Twelve Principles. In this article I want to call attention to the fifth principle in the Agile Manifesto, which is:

Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.”

https://www.agilealliance.org/agile101/12-principles-behind-the-agile-manifesto/

Although it appears to be a very simple statement, I suggest that it is jam-packed with profitable guidance, and is essential to, and at the heart of, real Agility. Human qualities must be considered.

Motivation

The first part of the principle urges us to build projects around motivated individuals.  What does this imply?

The idea of “building a project” makes it a process, not necessarily a fait accompli. It can change and be altered as one works toward it. There may be a structural roadmap, but many details and aspects can change in the “building.”

The second part of the statement describes motivated individuals. The verb “motivate” is an action word, meaning to actuate, propel, move or incite. Thus, in this line, is the “project” the thing which will “move or incite” those being asked to carry it out?

Or do we understand this to imply that the individuals are already “motivated” in themselves, which is an emotional condition of individuals? Is this motivation already there prior to starting a project?

The topic of motivation is rich. How does motivation occur? Is it the culture and environment of the company, lived and exemplified by it’s leaders, which motivates? Or is motivation an intrinsic quality of the individual? It may be both. (Daniel Pink, author of “Drive,” uses science to demonstrate that the best motivators are autonomy, mastery and purposeful-ness – ideas which are inherent in the Agile Manifesto.)

In any case, the line itself suggests that the project may be a) interesting to pertinent (perhaps already motivated) individuals, b) do-able by those same individuals, and c) contains enough challenges to test the mastery and creativity of the individuals. In other words, it’s going to be a project that the individuals in your company care about for more than one reason.

Environment

The second line from the fifth Principle has two distinct parts to it. The first part, “Give them the environment and support they need” puts a great deal of responsibility on whoever is assigning the project. Let’s look at the idea of environment first.

In a simple way, we can understand environment as the physical place which influences a person or a group. It can be any space or room; it can refer to the lighting, the colours, the furniture, the vegetation, the walls, whether water or coffee is available – physical elements which will certainly affect the actions of people and teams. For example, creating face-to-face collaboration environments is also part of the Agile Manifesto.

But we must remember that environment also entails the non-physical ie, the intellectual, emotional, or even the spiritual. Is the environment friendly or not? Cheerful or not? Encouraging or not? Affirming or not? We can think of many non-physical attributes that make up an environment.

Support

These attributes allude to the second part of what’s to be given by an owner or manager: “…and support they need.” This idea of support pertains not just to helping someone out with tools and responding to needs, but that the environment is supportive in every way – physically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. This may be a more holistic way of considering this Agile principle.

The last part of the statement is of great importance as well: and trust them to get the job done.

If you as product owner, or manager have created motivation, environment and support, then the last crucial requirement of trust becomes easier to fulfill. There is nothing more off-putting than being micromanaged, supervised or controlled with excessive attention to small details. Trust means you have confidence in the capacity of your team and its individual members. It also implies that they will communicate with transparency and honesty with you, and you with them, about the project.

Context

The principles of Agile do not exist in a vacuum, because, of course, other principles such as the following, are relevant to this discussion:

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

At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behaviour accordingly.”

This fifth principle has application far beyond IT projects. I wanted to reflect on it because it speaks to human qualities, which must be recognized as a key factor in happy work places, and in any high-performance team.

Valerie Senyk is a Customer Service agent and Agile Team Developer with BERTEIG.

For more information please go to http://www.worldmindware.com/AgileTeamDevelopmentWorkshopStage1

Also read about BERTEIG’s RealAgility Program: http://www.berteig.com/real-agility-enterprise-agility/


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How Kanban Saved Agile

In reality, Kanban isn’t actually saving Agile nor is it intended to, nor is any thoughtful and responsible Kanban practitioner motivated by this agenda. What I’m really trying to convey is how human thinking about the business of professional services (including software development) has evolved since “Agile” as many of us know it was conceived around 20 or so years ago. The manifesto is the collective statement of a group of software development thought leaders that captured some of their ideas at the time about how the software industry needed to improve. Essentially, it was about the iterative and incremental delivery of high-quality software products. For 2001, this was pretty heady stuff. You could even say that it spawned a movement.

Since the publication of the manifesto in 2001, a lot of other people have had a lot of other good ideas about how the business of delivering professional services can improve. This has been well documented in well known sources too numerous to mention for the scope of this article.

Substantial contributions to the discourse have been generated by and through the LeanKanban community. The aim of Kanban is to foster environments in which knowledge workers can thrive and create innovative, valuable and viable solutions for improving the world. Kanban has three agendas: survivability (primarily but not exclusively for the business executives), service-orientation (primarily but not exclusively for managers) and sustainability (primarily but not exclusively for knowledge workers). Kanban provides pragmatic, actionable, evidence-based guidance for improving along these three agendas.

Evolutionary Theory is one of the key conceptual underpinnings of the Kanban Method, most notably the dynamic of punctuated equilibrium. Evolution is natural, perpetual and fundamental to life. Long periods of equilibrium are punctuated by relatively short periods of “transformation”—apparent total and irreversible change. An extinction event is a kind of punctuation, so too is the rapid explosion of new forms. Evolutionary theory is not only a scientifically proven body of knowledge for understanding the nature of life. It can be also applied to the way we think about ideas, methods and movements.

For example, science has more or less established that the extinction of the dinosaurs, triggered by a meteor impact and subsequent dramatic atmospheric and climate change, was in fact a key punctuation point in the evolution of birds. In other words, dinosaurs didn’t become extinct, rather they evolved into birds. That is, something along the lines of the small dinosaurs with large feathers hanging around after Armageddon learned to fly over generations in order to escape predators, find food and raise their young. Dinosaurs evolved into birds. Birds saved the dinosaurs.

There has been a lot of social media chatter and buzz lately about how Agile is dead. It is a movement that has run its course, or so the narrative goes. After all, 20 years is more or less the established pattern for the rise and fall of management fads. But too much emphasis on the rise and fall of fads can blind us to larger, broader (deeper) over-arching trends.

The agile movement historically has been about high-performing teams. More recently, market demand has lead to the profusion of “scaling” approaches and frameworks. Scaling emerged out of the reality of systemic interdependence in which most Agile teams find themselves. Most agile teams are responsible for aspects of workflows—stages of value creation—as contributors to the delivery of a service or multiple services. Agile teams capable of independently taking requests directly from and delivering directly to customers are extremely rare. For the rest, classical Agile or Scrum is not enough. The feathers just aren’t big enough. Agile teams attempting to function independently (pure Scrum) in an interdependent environment are vulnerable to the antibodies of the system, especially when such interdependencies are merely denounced as impediments to agility.

Some organizations find themselves in a state of evolutionary punctuation (the proverbial sky is falling) that can trigger rapid adaptations and the emergence of local conditions in which independent service delivery teams can thrive. Most large, established organizations seem to be more or less in a state of equilibrium. Whether real or imagined, this is what change agents have to work with. However, more often than not, the typical Agile change agent seems adamant that the sky is always falling and that everyone accepting that the sky is falling is the first step to real and meaningful change. This is not an attitude held by Agile change agents alone. This is a standard feature of traditional 20th Century change management methods, the key selling point for change management consulting.

Naturally, most self-identifying “Agilists” see themselves as change agents. Many of them find themselves in the position of change management consultants. But the motivation for change can quickly become misaligned: Change needs to happen in order for Agile to work. If you are passionate about Agile, you will seek to bring about the environmental changes that will allow for Agile to thrive. We don’t need to follow this path too far until Agile becomes an end in itself. It is understandable then that for some, Agile appears to be a dead end, or just dead.

But if there is a larger, over-arching historical process playing out, what might that be? Perhaps it has something to do with the evolution of human organization. Perhaps we are living in a period of punctuation.

For my working definition of Kanban, please refer to my previous article 14 Things Every Agilist Should Know About Kanban (this contains links to the Kanban body of knowledge, including Essential Kanban Condensed by David J. Anderson and Andy Carmichael).

For my working definition of Agile, please refer to The Manifesto for Agile Software Development.

 

 


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Are You Getting What You Need From Conferences?

(Originally posted in June 2015 – Updated October 2016)

Photo Credit: BERTEIG’s Valerie Senyk facilitated a group session on “What Do We Mean by Transformation?” in Orlando 2016.

Professional Development opportunities are everywhere and they are easy to find at any price-point on any topic at any location. The hard part is deciding how to spend your time.

It is important to think about why you attend conferences. Most importantly, why do you choose some conferences over others? Do you want to learn from peers in your field? Do you want exposure to the latest industry trends? Are you looking for a new job? Or do you just want to be blown away by great people?

I attended the Agile Coach Camp Canada last weekend in Cornwall, Ontario, and that incredible experience has caused me to reflect on the variety of conferences I have enjoyed in recent years…and why I choose some over others.

Like any great product, successful conferences have clear and focused goals which create specific opportunities for their participants. Conference organizers choose location, venue, date, duration, registration cost, format, theme, etc. The best conference organizers are courageous and willing to make difficult decisions in order to compose their events with utmost respect to the collective vision and goals of the attendees, sponsors, and founders. The organizers of Agile Coach Camp Canada, for example, are dedicated to creating an event in which the agile coaching community can “share in an energizing and supportive environment”. That’s it! A clear and compelling vision. This clarity of vision guides decisions like whether to host the event in a metropolis (which may result in larger numbers and more sponsorship opportunities) or away from large cities (think overnight “camp”) — this is one formative decision of many that make Agile Coach Camp Canada so intense and unique year after year.

Some background: This was the 6th annual Agile Coach Camp Canada and the 2nd time that I have attended; the event generally starts on Friday evening and includes supper followed by lightning talks, Saturday uses Open Space Technology to produce an agenda followed by supper and socializing (late into the night!), then Sunday morning wraps-up with retrospection then everybody leaves in early afternoon; the cost per person is between $300-$500 for the entire weekend including meals, travel, hotel room; the event is often held in small-ish towns like Guelph or Cornwall which are a few hours from a major airport. Having been there twice — both times just blown away by the community, their expertise, their emotional intelligence, their openness — I understand very clearly the responsibility of conference organizers and I have gained new respect for the difficult decisions they must make.

Upon reflection, I know that I attend the Agile Coach Camp Canada because (a) I learn a lot and (b) I have bonded deeply with my colleagues. Those are the two reasons that I will return next year and the next. I do not attend that event with an expectation to develop new business, or attract new leads, or stay on top of industry trends — instead, I will look to other conferences for those opportunities.

What/where/when is your next professional excursion? Do you know what you want to get out of it? Here’s a tip: choose one objective from the list below and find a conference that delivers exactly that!

  • Business development: Find new or reconnect with existing business contacts.
  • Professional development: Find or explore opportunities for career enhancement.
  • Learning: Listen/watch/share with others who practice in your areas of interest.
  • Community building: Connect and communicate with people with interests or qualities that you appreciate.
  • Market exposure: Evangelize a product or service for a captive audience.
  • Other?

Life is short…make it amazing!


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The Rules of Scrum: Your Product Owner can veto the inclusion of an idea on the Product Backlog

The Product Owner is responsible for ensuring that the Product Backlog Items reflect and contribute to the vision of the product being built by the Scrum Team. Therefore, the Product Owner needs the authority to reject any suggestions for features, functionality or fit and finish that do not move the product towards that vision. This authority must be based on both the depth of knowledge of the Product Owner as well as formal responsibility granted by the organization. A Product Owner that does not have this authority to veto may nevertheless be able to accomplish the same thing by putting any unwelcome ideas at the very end of the Product Backlog based on authority to order the Product Backlog. The lack of this authority to veto can lead to a product with no integrity of vision, an erosion of the Product Owner’s authority to order the Product Backlog, and ultimately an erosion of the critical separation of powers between the Product Owner and the rest of the Scrum Team (the Product Owner with authority over “what to build” and the rest of the team with authority over “how to build it”).

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


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Professionalism and Agility

Recently, I have been reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. Fascinating reading. In this book, Mr. Gladwell chronicles some of the backgrounds of top professionals in artistic, sport and business endeavors. He tried to determine why these individuals/groups have accomplished so much in their lives and why they are in the top of their profession. Tiger Woods, Bill Gates and the Beatles are a few of the many professionals he examines. There should be no doubt in your mind that Tiger Woods is the top golfer, Bill Gates is a very successful entrepreneur, and the Beatles are a prolific band.

Please forgive me Mr. Galdwell if I summarize and distill your findings into a few short sentences. The answer is 10,000 hours. Each of these individuals or groups put 10,000 hours into their chosen profession before they arrived at the top. They viewed their professions differently, were passionate about what they did and behaved differently when learning their profession. I am not suggesting you need to work for 10,000 hours before you are successful. I am suggesting if you adopt the same methods they do, you will increase your chance of success.

As I observed these top professionals, I began to see similarities in a number of areas. They seem to share a comfort in their ability to grow and develop. I am not sure they set out to be the top but they certainly thought they would overcome what life threw at them and they trusted their own capacity to excel. I have found that giving yourself a steady message of what is possible helps you deal better with life and to overcome all the negatives around us. As an example, I seldom read the newspaper or watch the news, for this barrage of negative messages affects my outlook of what is possible. It seems to me that these top professionals insulate themselves from negative messages as well.

Next, they have incredible self discipline skills. They practice their profession with passion. They don’t believe in luck as much as they believe in hard work. This is where the 10,000 hours come into their development. They are constantly practicing to improve and master their profession. The top professionals did not achieve their position through luck, they attained the position through hard work.

To summarize, their methods are to be positive about your ability to cope with the future, give yourself positive messages, be disciplined about mastering your profession and be prepared to work hard to achieve the position of the professional.

There is a quote I like that was told to me by a businessperson from Jamaica. When asked his view of life, he said “I refuse to be held hostage by circumstances!” The top professionals choose their future and are agile as they cope with what life offers.

It seems to me another reason why these individuals are so successful is that they were very agile in their approach to life. They created their future rather than follow others. Through their own personal agility they made the right decisions to gain a top position in their chosen profession.

So the question I have been wrestling with is this: If they can be the top, then why not me? What is holding me back? Well, if you have ever spent time with me, or read any of my books, you would know the answer. The only thing holding me back is me. Can I get better? Yes, I can. Can I work harder? Yes, I can. Can I be more successful? Yes, I can. Can I be more agile in my approach to life and its challenges? Absolutely yes!

So how about you? In these troubled economic times, we have an opportunity to re-invent ourselves. The best way to survive and thrive from our current situation is to build the future we desire. Rather than expending a lot of energy worrying about your current situation, you should be taking that energy and using it to take charge of your future and build a new reality. Approach whatever life throws at you with agility. I believe success is a choice. Make good choices and everything is possible.


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Measuring Process Improvements – Cycle Time?

One of the challenges with agile methods is to get a clear perspective on how to measure process improvements. I recently had a brief discussion with a C-level executive at a small organization about this. His concern was that cycle time was meaningless because it depended so much upon the size of the work package. So how do we use cycle time as a meaningful measurement? What else can we use to measure process improvement?

Let’s look at the difference in measuring cycle time in an agile vs. non-agile environment. Then we’ll get to other measurements.

Cycle Time , Waterfall and Agile

First, let’s define cycle time. From iSixSigma we have:

Cycle time is the total time from the beginning to the end of your process, as defined by you and your customer. Cycle time includes process time, during which a unit is acted upon to bring it closer to an output, and delay time, during which a unit of work is spent waiting to take the next action.

This definition is important because it gives us a clue about the potential difference between a waterfall vs. agile method of delivering value. Let’s imagine the typical process used in a waterfall environment. The following are the high-level steps:

  1. Customer / User / Stakeholder sees a need, validates it and submits a request to have that need fulfilled. This is when we start the clock on cycle time.
  2. The fulfillment organization (IT, Product Development, R&D) puts the request in a queue, backlog or requirements management system.
  3. Along with other requests, the fulfillment organization schedules the work on the request, usually by creating a project to fulfill it and other related requests. The project is estimated at a high level, the current status of in-flight projects is noted, and the new project is prioritized relative to other projects.
  4. At some point, based on the schedule and the reality of the work on other projects, the project containing our customer’s request is started. Here, “started” means that detailed requirements are gathered.
  5. After sufficient requirements are gathered, a detailed technical analysis is done including architecture, high-level design, risk analysis, etc.
  6. Development begins. (Note: many people mistakenly start measuring cycle time here.)
  7. Developers and testers work to validate the results of development and fix any problems discovered.
  8. Final acceptance testing is done.
  9. The results of the project are deployed to users, sold to the client, or in some other way passed back to the original requestor. This is when we stop the clock on cycle time.

So from the start of the customer request formally submitted to the time that the fulfillment of that request is made is our true cycle time. There are a few important things to note here. First, there is a queue of work based on requests made but not yet scheduled. There is another queue for work scheduled but not yet started. We know that if we can reduce the size of these queues, we can improve cycle time in a general sense. Second, we know that most organizations of any significant size will have different queues based on the urgency of the request. For example, a high severity bug discovered in the production system of a company’s largest client will be treated differently than a wish list item for a small not-yet-client. These two requests won’t even go in the same queue: the high priority problem will be quickly escalated to a support or development team that can work on it immediately. Third, it is tempting for the development group to measure their local cycle time. This is a Really Bad Idea since it leads to sub-optimizing behaviors. For example, it is easy for the development team to improve their cycle time by sacrificing quality… but this just causes the QA cycle time to increase, and probably the overall cycle time (true cycle time) is affected more than the local improvement in the development group’s cycle time.

Now let’s look at the steps that occur in an ideal agile environment:

  1. As before, the Customer / User / Stakeholder sees a need, validates it and submits a request to have that need fulfilled.
  2. That request is immediately placed in a ready state for the next iteration (cycle, sprint) of a delivery team. Elapsed time: maximum one month.
  3. Team completes the request including all work to actually deliver/deploy and work is delivered to the stakeholder at the end of the iteration. Elapsed time: maximum two months.

So the ideal method of doing agile has a maximum cycle time of two months to deliver from the time a request is made… how many teams are doing this? Not many.

The ideal is extremely difficult to accomplish. Getting to that state requires that the development organization catches up to the business side so that there are zero pending requests at the start of each iteration. It also requires that the business side users and stakeholders are able to articulate their requests so that they are small, and appropriately detailed for the team doing the work.

A realistic agile implementation actually is a lot more messy. Depending on the type of request, the cycle time for a piece of work can vary widely. Some low priority items may take years even in an agile environment. A low priority request is made and approved but then never quite makes it into a project… and then once in a project never quite makes it to the top of the team’s product backlog. This is interesting to look at sometimes, but it points out another important aspect of measuring cycle time: mostly we care about average cycle time (or some other statistically interesting aggregate measure).

The predominant factor in most organizations’ cycle time is the number and size of the queues they use as work is processed. In most organizations there are several queues and most of them contain large numbers of requests or bits of work in process. Queues represent huge amounts of waste. It is easy to see that queue size and cycle time are closely related: the more items in a queue, the longer the cycle time.

This leads to a simple conclusion: regardless of lifecycle approach, reducing the size of an organization’s queues is one of the easiest ways to reduce cycle time. What are some common queues? There are often queues of projects, queues of enhancement requests, queues of defects to be fixed, queues of features, queues of tasks, queues of email (large inboxes), queues of approval requests, queues of production database changes. The number of queues increases the more an organization is oriented around functional groups, and the number of queues decreases the more an organization arranges work to be handled by cross-functional teams.

Cycle Time and Work Package Size

This is where queueing theory and agile methods intersect really well. Cycle time is related to the load on your system, in particular your units of work processing. In most organizations, teams are created to handle work. The more work given to a team simultaneously, the higher their utilization level. Many organizations like high utilization levels because it gives them a guarantee that people are doing valuable work all the time that they are paid to work. This is a completely false benefit and in fact is extremely destructive to overall productivity. From queueing theory we know that the cycle time for a piece of work increases exponentially to the utilization level. We see this whenever we over-load a server… but for some reason we fail to see this when we overload a person or a team or an organization even though it still happens.

Cycle time is also related to the variability in the size of the work packages. Low variability means that the exponential factor related to load is low, and high variability means that the exponential factor is high. In other words, if you have a highway that only allows motorbikes, you can have a very high load without getting bad traffic jams. On the other hand, if you have a highway that allows anything on it, you get traffic jams even with low levels of load. This is why HOV or commuter lanes and the left lane in multi-lane highways don’t typically allow transport trucks and buses. This result from queueing theory is not intuitively obvious so it is even harder for us to apply to software development.

But apply these two ideas, load and work size variability, we must if we wish to create a high performance development organization. The simplest way to do this is to have a single team work on a single project at a time and use iterations to ensure that the work being done is always exactly the same size – the size of the iteration.

Improving Cycle Time

It is possible to have very short iterations and still have a long cycle time. Many organizations make a few common mistakes with agile that cause this. If the work done inside each iteration is restricted to pure development work and everything else is done outside the iterations, then cycle time likely stays long. A common example of this is having the QA folks remain separate from the development team and do their work after a development team releases their work.

There is really only one way to avoid this: have a comprehensive definition of “done” that is met by the team every single iteration. This ensures that all work from idea to release for a given customer request is done inside a single iteration. A side effect of this is that all the pieces of work need to be small. It also gets rid of all the queues except one: the queue of ideas approved for delivery. With a single queue to manage, it becomes easy to measure cycle time, and therefore easy to improve it.

Improving cycle time can now be done in a few ways:

  1. Put a cap on the number of items in the work queue. Since cycle time is directly related to the size of the queues in a system, this is a sure way of putting a maximum on cycle time.
  2. Go through all existing requests and throw as many away as possible. This can be tough to do, but if you are able to do a cost benefit analysis, you will typically find that older items in the queue are no longer worth while.
  3. Provide more stringent gating functions for allowing requests onto the queue. The few items added, the faster the size of the queue is reduced.
  4. And of course, increase the performance of your team(s) so that they go through items on the queue more quickly.

Productivity and Cycle Time

Once you have control of cycle time, it is possible to make reasonable measurements of productivity and two more metrics become extremely important (not that they weren’t important before, but they are easier to work with now). The first is Return on Investment (ROI) and the second is customer satisfaction.

ROI is in its simplest form a measure of how much benefit there is to doing something as compared to the cost of doing it. It takes into account the importance of time and timing, the importance of other options you may have, and of course, hopefully takes into account the business reality of your work. It also takes into account costs.

In software development, the primary cost is the cost of the staff doing the work, and the time factor is your cycle time (Ah! that’s where we use it). If you have a consistent team working on iterations that are always the same size and if you have little or no work being done outside of the iterations, it is very easy to calculate ROI in a useful way. Simply measure how much value a given iteration worth of work will generate and divide by the cost of the team for an iterations (and if the team is not yet doing work as it comes in, take into account the time value of money since the work might not be done for several iterations). Now, productivity is simply a measure of the Return for each Team-Iteration. Dollars/iteration. Simple. If the team’s productivity goes down, you can ask some really simple questions:

  • Did the expected return of the work go down? If so, is there more valuable work the team should be doing? This becomes an opportunity for product improvement.
  • If not, what caused the team to get less done? Was the work harder than expected? Was there a skill gap? Was there an organizational obstacle that was revealed? Was someone sick? This becomes an opportunity for process and team improvement.

Customer satisfaction can be measured in many ways. If you have already started using agile practices, there is a good chance that your customers will already be more satisfied than they were before. This will show up informally through word-of-mouth. However, it is good to have a more systematic way of measuring customer satisfaction. One of the simplest and most commonly used methods of measuring customer satisfaction is the Net Promoter Score. From WikiPedia:

Companies obtain their Net Promoter Score by asking customers a single question (usually, “How likely is it that you would recommend us to a friend or colleague?”). Based on their responses, customers can be categorized into one of three groups: Promoters, Passives, and Detractors. In the net promoter framework, Promoters are viewed as valuable assets that drive profitable growth because of their repeat/increased purchases, longevity and referrals, while Detractors are seen as liabilities that destroy profitable growth because of their complaints, reduced purchases/defection and negative word-of-mouth. Companies calculate their Net Promoter Score by subtracting their % Detractors from their % Promoters.

The Net Promoter Score is closely linked to quality including the hard-to-measure parts of quality like responsiveness, ease of use, and fitness for purpose.

Cycle time also affects customer satisfaction. The faster you can respond to requests by customer, users or other stakeholders, the more likely they are to be satisfied. This happens for two reasons: fast response time means that solutions are more likely to still be useful and correct when actually delivered, and it also gives more opportunities for feedback.

In fact, if we look at these three measures, cycle time, ROI and customer satisfaction, we see that they form a mutually supporting and cross-checking system of ensuring productivity and effectiveness. Measuring anything else muddies the waters and can cause sub-optimal behaviors. The real challenge for most teams is realizing that all their local measures of performance and effectiveness may actually be causing harm (unintentionally) because they draw the team’s attention away from the three organizationally important measures.

Cycle time is the measure that is most closely related to process improvements, but ROI and customer satisfaction should also be used to ensure that process improvements don’t accidentally harm the organization.


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Dynamic Strategic Planning

I ran across this idea of Dynamic Strategic Planning [pdf] a couple nights ago at a meeting where a friend and I were talking about agile applied to non-technology work. He told me about Richard de Neufville who had come up with this concept of making strategic plans that were adaptable. It involves the use of Real Options, negotiation and other aspects of planning. I don’t know anything more than what is written in the paper I have linked to… do any of you have experience with Dynamic Strategic Planning that you could tell us about? Are there any good books about this that you would recommend?


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Truthfulness in Agile

I believe in Agile. To the best of my knowledge and based on my experience, Agile methods are the best way for teams, organizations and communities to get stuff done. Doesn’t mean it’s easy though! The biggest challenge of Agile is in the need for truthfulness.

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Stuck? Try Extreme Obstacle Removal!

What happens when you are iterating away, your team is totally groking agile, delivering great results every couple of weeks, and then unexpectedly, suddenly and firmly everyone is stuck!? An obstacle has come along that forces a full stop. A barrier has been placed in the path. What do you do?

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Time is Not Negotiable

The Project Management Institute refers to three variables that can be negotiated or constrained for a given project: scope, resources and schedule. Schedule is an interesting “variable” in that we have no choice about how time flows. We can control how much scope to ask for, we can control how much money to put towards the work, but we cannot actually “buy” more time than, say, our competitors. This has important implications which deeply challenge the PMI’s PMBoK model of project management.

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Agile is Not Communism

Last week I taught an introductory course on Agile Work. Normally this is pretty easy stuff. However, I was teaching this course in Bucharest, Romania (cool), and I have come across a substantial, strong and vigorous objection to agile (also cool, but challenging too). Several people in my class are asserting that agile is just like communism and since communism failed, agile is not likely to succeed either. I’m looking for help on this!

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Leadership

“A leader is a person who assists a group of people become a self-organizing, self-managing and self-sustaining team so that he/she no longer has to be a leader for that group.” – Just an idea I had. What do you think?


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Never Spread Your Facilitator Butter too Thin

I like butter, and when I eat a piece of freshly baked bread, a good hunk of butter thickly spread is an essential ingredient. I don’t skimp on the butter. Using the butter for one piece of bread and spreading it across two or three slices saves cost, but at what price!? Why, the price is my enjoyment.

So how does this relate to Process Facilitators?

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