Archive for category Agile
Plans are useless but planning is indispensable.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
What goes up must come down. This is true of aircraft in flight. Bringing an aircraft back to the ground safely is the primary concern, but it also is necessary that the return to the ground occur at the intended landing point. The descent from flight altitude must be started well before the intended landing point is reached, and the rate at which the aircraft descends must be calculated, so that the aircraft reaches ground level just as it reaches the desired landing point. This controlled drop in altitude is called the descent rate.
Let us use these tips to learn how we can apply it for Agile development team.
The analogy here is very close…
Imagine team is a crew and airplane is the sprint, while burndown chart (CI, established NFRs, …) are navigation tools that allow to land sprint properly, with all passengers (stories) safe, at right airport (release) and on time (sprint review meeting).
So the crew must take into consideration many factors as altitude, distance to destination, aircraft descent velocity, weather conditions, fuel consumption, etc..
One of the key factors that allow to have successful landing of aircraft is choosing the correct descending point. You for sure remember that at some point you see “fasten your seat-belts” sign on and flight attendants start asking you to follow the “landing rules”. This happens not right before airplane lands but some time in advance…
Similarly Agile team must consider many factors to get things done on time with required quality baked in (number of stories in progress, time left finishing development, regression testing left, meeting agreed non-functional requirements, preparing for the demo, etc. ). And shall start finishing things in advance to guarantee proper “landing”.
How much in advance?
It heavily depends on variety of factors: team maturity and confidence, extent team can rely on automated testing (and extent product is covered with automated functional testing), need to check for non-functional requirements, all kind of risks, etc…
Sprint (Flight) Plan and Descent Point
I will bring real life example.
In a picture below team had planned sprint in the way to start checking product on development environment in advance (while possibly working on integration defects), then deploy it on staging environment the last day of the sprint to make required final performance/load tests, confirm release/deployment plan and test application closest possible to the real life conditions:
Part of this plan presumed that in case all is OK, free team members will focus on less priority bugs, increase unit tests coverage, prepare for upcoming sprint, focus on past retrospective action items and do other valuable things. While plan changed of course, reflecting changing reality leading team inspecting and adapting accordingly and team moved descent point according to the joint decision.
But there is still difference…
While airplane landing is an example of waterfall project with QA (hardening) phase in the end (landing), it’s still differs from Agile. The more you do Agile right the more your team is mature, your product is safe, having more quality in and things are more automated. The more you apply engineering practices and earlier you start integrating and testing things (continuously), the later you can start “landing” and the more passengers you’re capable to take (stories) and the shorter your “flight” will be (you will “Deliver Faster”).
Team members attending mode
Usual team stand-up to align on daily progress. Yesterday-today-impediments questions applied to each team member.
But there is a second scenario that also works …
Work Items attending mode
When this is useful: imagine more than one Agile team is working on the same product/running same sprint and need to be aligned.
For this particular case I apply model to serve as peer management tool (for Scrum of Scrums aka SoS) with work items “attending”, where the yesterday-today-impediments questions is still used but will be from the perspective of the work item, rather than the person.
To run this one efficiently here is what I do:
- I prepare list of aspects of product, teams have to address in common (e.g. regression bugs, functional tests, integration tests, unit tests, non-functional requirements and anything else teams consider as important);
- I list them on the whiteboard beforehand (we have pre-agreed order of addressing those);
- I invite max 2 team members per team to SoS to avoid long talks (one is also an option, however I’ve found 2 is optimal since in case particular team would need to make an on-going decision, another peer will help). Those guys are to talk for a team and report back to their teams whatever decisions were made, statuses changed, etc. in SoS;
- Then I go through the list during SoS one by one (as if not teams attending, but “topics” and ask if each team has to align their peers on specific topic or has any related questions clarifying in which state topic is in presently);
- I ask to share stories states not by default, but only in case there are questions or things that affect peer team(s) or causing dependency;
- Then I ask if teams has anything else to discuss (and if that is technical, leave them alone);
- Last but not least I ask if they have any impediments or may/are causing impediments to other team(s);
- And of course I time-box to 15 minutes as max;
Before everything else, getting ready is the secret of success.
Many of us doing Agile do not understand that it is primarily business mindset, rather than just another methodology to deliver software. Balance and sustainability of constructive conflict (key driver of any prosperous business) is the secret sauce to implement Agile successfully.
Let me explain it from practical business perspective. I will drift away from IT and software now…
Imagine you’re running business delivering…. car repair services to your customers.
It is your interest to deliver services fast and having quality in, so that you retain your customers and attract more (as it’s known that satisfied customer may bring 1 or 2 others, while dissatisfied one may stop other 8 coming to you). On one hand the more services you deliver, the more money you get, so you will push for more. But if you start pushing harder than your team is capable of, your service quality will start to suffer and this will obviously cause problems with your customers.
So you will try to get as much as possible given your conditions, while keeping quality in.
Now let us look at it from your customers perspective…
They want to have their car repaired cheap, fast with quality in. When you say your’re busy this week and cannot take their car, they will consider someone else’s services, rather then agree waiting that log (reality of market competition);
So, there is conflict of interests and mismatch between demand and offer.
It drives 2 things:
- Your business development (we need to improve our service to deliver faster/more/cheaper);
- Your customer’s expectations (maybe these repairs are not doable that fast/that much/that cheap);
Two consequences out of that:
- When there is no demand, why should you care to do more/faster/cheaper?
- When there is no chance to change your customers expectations either you’re doing poor job or your customer won’t likely get any better services with reasonable price anywhere else (task for your client managers to drive customer’s expectations).
So mismatch of those two creates conflict of interests that drives change.
The art is to understand to what extent you’re capable to improve things at your business given your current circumstances, while managing your customers expectations in the way to have control over gap between your offer and your customer’s demand.
Controlling this implies another important thing: ability to recognize challenge that you will fail taking (you should constructively resist) and challenge you’re able to overcome (and should take) to improve and continue managing “the gap”.
If you do not understand this you will end up bad. Either you will not be able to deliver quality in to your customers or you will be “beaten” by your competitors. In both cases you will end up being out of business :(.
Now let’s come back from cars to software and Agile
Customer is Product Owner (PO), while your business is your development team. The more you think business-wise and consider your team a business the better your team will be satisfying your PO.
So it is as easy as managing just 2 things:
- Your PO’s expectations;
- You development (quality and predictability);
Agile is just business common-sense mindset, nothing else! So to implement it right start from considering that you run a business in a highly competitive market with goal to satisfy your customer.
And mind that there is difference between pleasing and satisfying your customer, so argue, stand for your point, do not let compromise quality, do never over-commit, protect your ability to deliver, manage expectations, and … satisfy. If you do not follow these simple business rules and will focus on just pleasing your customer (or PO) just as in business you will end up not being able to manage what you’re responsible for – QUALITY.
Many Agile coaches have their own list of top failure modes. My favorite one is Mike Cohn’s: “How To Fail With Agile: Twenty Tips to Help You Avoid Success“.
But I also want to publish my winning list of things that impact teams and undermine their trust in business and Agile (combined from experience gained observing different teams at different times, so no particular team is meant here ).
So tips are written from the Product Owner perspective:
1. Argue in front of team at Sprint Planning. Let them see you were not capable to decide what you want to build them. Moreover, involve them into arguing. This will demonstrate how your (PO) team misses integrity;
2. Demonstrate that being on time does not matter: interrupt meetings with calls, side talks and questions. Leave the room occasionally and be late regularly. Doing this will make it almost impossible to demand on-time delivery from the team;
3. Continuously fail to deliver INVEST stories and integrity in sprint goal/product backlog. Let stories w/o details thought through, so that team feels you had not invest enough time to prepare them. This will also make it easier for team to fail delivering outcome of that stories to you, will make things more ambiguous, so that no one will understand where is failure or what was wrong and will never learn from it, so that improvement will not be feasible;
4. Ignore team signals on complex stories (the ones that are above ~13 story-points, the ones that are risky, big, and usually need to be analyzed and split into smaller chunks in advance). Just let big stories that have big doubts, leading to easier underestimations, over-commitments, sprint failures, causing less team confidence, further under-commitments and wastes of all kinds;
5. Present deadlines ignoring reality “I do not care how you do it, it MUST be done”. With this “masculine” management style you can always push things forward as Agile teams just delivery chain, so they must obey and no matter what they think and capable of;
6. Never share the Product Vision and mid-long term roadmap with the team (just keep it secret);
7. Ignore technical debt (just concentrate on #5);
8. Bombard team with in-sprint questions and “Can you do it now please?” tasks. Explain them that SCRUM is good but now we need to be more “FLEXIBLE”. Moreover, assign tasks to team members without talking to entire team. Demonstrate that you were not been able to plan things for an iteration, this will ruin team trust that they are working on most valuable things and completely undermine their ability to deliver;
9. Never groom your backlog just leave it to the sprint planning meeting when it is already too late. This will lead to long and stressful discussions as you will have to do it mid-planning,will drain team energy, lead further to fatigue, wrong estimations, poor planning and sprint failure;
10. Always try to find something that team did wrong to pin point and focus on blaming. This is proper way to avoid Kaizen and let team protect themself by “storytelling”;
Scrum is based on “Empower the Team” Lean principle that prescribes self-organization. This means that regardless of age and experience team members are equal and serve as managers to one another. There is strong rationale behind: people that do the work are the best to manage it as they own responsibility of results and know best how to handle it.
Daily stand-up or daily SCRUM is a team tool to reflect on changing reality and adapt accordingly.
I’d like to point out some cases when self-organization does not work as should and help those teams out to boost their productivity.
Let us discover some sick stand-up/self-organization symptoms first…
1. Refraining from exposing problems (ignorance of reality):
- Task takes longer than planned and reasons are not clear to everyone (or something holds back people from raising problems);
- Task is blocked and impediment is not exposed/raised (this also may indicate some other problem with task that is not comfortable to raise);
- It’s just a way it is (yes we all know that we’ve planned 4 hours for that task, but as usual it takes us 2,3,5,… times longer or this guy always messes things up, we can do nothing, etc…);
- Team does not reflect during a day on changing reality (just in stand-ups), leading to impediments piling up and being addressed late, so that they mask something else;
2. Intolerance to critical feedback:
- Team member pushes back heavily when someone tries to rise a problem related to his/her task;
- Raising problems considered as de-motivating and team silently prefer to hide them until it’s too late;
- Team members prefer to stay “nice” to each other rather than constructively criticize their plan in order to adapt it daily;
Those two are inter-related. As a team member one will hold back from giving critical feedback if receives push back from his/her peer leading to confrontation and poor->no self-organization…
Scrum Masters, look around. Don’t you observe those symptoms during your stand-ups and/or during daily work?
If yes then…
Try out following cures ….
- Talk to push-backers one on one, try to understand what makes them do so? It could be personal issues with team members, lack of positive feedback or self-esteem, or other personal or inter-personal problem(s). It also could be absence of trust (readiness to look vulnerable to the team).
- Explain that feedback is not oriented towards person, rather towards team (exposes problem) as there are no personal problems in a team, since problem causes wastes, further slowness, incompleteness and later sprint failure of entire team.
- Focus person on constructiveness rather de-structiveness when exposing problem and coach on asking why 5 times, usually it helps to come up with adequate counter measures to remove root cause of the problem;
- Educate other team members that raising questions is crucial and needed, but highlight issues and offer them to try out different ways to do so (there may be personal barriers for push-backers, so more “gentle” way may be less stressful while lead to the same result, e.g. instead of asking “Why you did not finish this task so far”?, try “What holds you back from completing this task”?
- Cultivate more solution oriented then problem stating approach (as solution is vector, while problem is scalar);
- Talk to entire team that problems are normal and ignoring them just postpones failure. So they require courage to face and team spirit to overcome, that makes difference between team and group of people. Exposing problem does not mean it shall become energy-drainer and de-motivator, rather it’s in-time red flag that shall re-focus team on next right thing to do;
- If conflict is unavoidable and your peers do not go with “exposing problems approach”, steer it, but not let pile it up (nice article on conflict avoidance here);
- Launch team storming to “shorten the distance” between team members, so that exposing problems is more constructive and easy (see: “Teamleads, “Storming”, Self-organization and Entropy”)
- Propose and drive team branding activity to help them find out shared values and motivators (see: “Team DNA: how to Brand up your team”);
To summarize, work both ways with ones who raise (also including you if you are in SM role) and with ones who push back to make raising problems comfortable and easy.
“Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.” Albert Einstein.
I was about to write another one in the scope of “Getting them…” targeted for Product Owners (PO), however thought that before getting them (stories) out of the sprints it is crucial for sprint success how to get them (team members) on it right…
So story going to be about how PO influences team focus and instills feeling of urgency and what happens if he/she’s not…
To understand this we would need to get back to Sprint Planning meeting (SPM). When PO makes final accords, accepts team commitment and sends team out to the sprint it is very important for everyone to stay focused on the Goals PO presented.
If PO jumps in mid-sprint, having unplanned acceptance criteria, special circumstances, etc… this sends a message: goal is void, direction is being changed, things that had been agreed at SPM are not valid anymore.
Scrum is tense way of delivering software. Constructive tension comes from high commitment and builds up high velocity (aka deliver fast lean principle) that is impossible to achieve without addressing limited and fixed number of issues within timebox.
Let’s understand how this works…
Higher velocity is achieved by staying focused on what is most important. As soon as this vector changes, something that had been important yesterday, becomes less important today, or something else emerges focus drifts away.
But velocity is not single thing this impacts…
More drastic effect this has on team morale, since besides team has to conduct context-switch (that has it’s own impact: see another related post here), but also it throws team into “Less” vicious circle that is:
- Less focus that eats up energy and leads to …
- Less energy that impacts productivity and leads to …
- Less commitment that impacts desire to work and leads to…
- Less motivation that drain attention and lead to …
- Less focus …
- Etc …
Understanding this will help PO to plan sprints in the way to avoid de-focus, protect sprints from interference (and team members from de-focus) and minimize impact of unplanned issues.
Of course fire-fights happen, of course they are important, but it makes sense to dive in root causes and build real quality in rather than fight consequences… and eventually turn circle back into “More..” :).
“If you can not measure it, you can not improve it.” Lord Kelvin
I’d like to continue with “Getting them…” topic (see previous post “Getting them READY: user story life cycle and “Epic Box” principle“). Today we’ll be getting them (stories) through Sprint Planning Meeting (SPM)…
Assuming all stories are INVEST and backlog is prioritized according to value, return-on-investment, risk, etc..
Then it comes to sprint Planning Meeting (SPM) itself…
Here are steps that will help you to get stories through:
1. Be prepared
As Product Owner (PO) you should be quick with decisions as some estimates may be quite “surprising”. I recommend have “plan B” on every story in mind (see Negotiable from INVEST of previous post) as pre-decision what acceptance criteria (AC) it is possible to live without or separate and your idea of estimation prepared.
2. Present it. Sell it!
Start with presenting the goal of the sprint, follow up with idea behind the story and the problem it solves. Do it in the way to get team buy in. Of course it is your responsibility to decide what is important and what is not, but knowing WHY this is important is vital for correct story implementation and has positive effect on team’s feeling of urgency. Be ready for questions and address them with patience.
3. Applicably question
You should be ready to question estimates if they go beyond your expectation. This is important as empowers “constructive conflict” between parties (team and PO). But please keep in mind that you should be very careful doing this as it should not look like putting a pressure on team.
For instance, instead of asking “Why this is 13 (20, 40, …) story points?” that implies hidden context and will most likely lead to a defensive and broad technical answer you will not benefit from, ask “What makes it 13 for you?” or “How I could split this story so it takes less?” or “What AC make it like that?”, etc.., which is more direct question and assumes no hidden context. Most likely you will be provided with non-technical answer and will be able to judge on “expensive” functionality.
3. “Decode” estimates and implement PO Kaizen
Estimation process is valuable feedback to PO on stories quality and granularity and it makes sense to use it right. Why? Because as PO you will learn to improve your stories and size them the way it will lead to fast, stress-free sprint planning meeting as prerequisite for successful sprint.
How to “decode” team estimates
Here is my hint: as you know user story point is relative measure of work, but to me estimates have also different meaning that “signals”, I suggest to be interpreted by PO as follows (assuming that same team estimates continuously using same baseline):
- 0 USP (orange) – you may have no idea about your product, this functionality is in place;
- 1/2, 1 USP (yellow) – small (usually cosmetic) improvement. It is OK to group several such improvements in a single story if they contribute to the same WHY clause of story description;
- 2-3 USP (light green and green)- small to medium size functionality. All is well
- 5 USP (green) – medium size functionality. All is well
- 8 USP (dark green) – big size functionality, any way to make it easier or split into smaller? But all is well still:)
- 13 USP (orange) – do you understand WHY this cannot be smaller/indivisible?
- 20 USP (dark orange) – you should have very STRONG reason of having such a story. Make it smaller and simplify;
- 40 USP (red) – no way this will be done during a sprint. Understand what makes it that big and split;
- 100 USP (dark red) – damn big amount of work/ambiguous acceptance criteria/big doubts, serious problems, etc;
When turning those signals into color scheme planning poker logically turn into sequence, reflecting “estimate temperature”:
4. Track time
Besides, I recommend to track time spent per user story discussion (use hourglass or timer, or ask your scrum master to facilitate). My observation of sprint planning over 2 years proved that team usually able to estimate ~10 user stories per hour as average (3 teams of ~ 15 people in total). Of course it depends on the size of team and many other factors, but to me if a story takes more than 10 minutes to discuss, PO shall do something with it (question what causes doubts, remove story from planning completely or partially).
5. Ask for feedback
Asking for short feedback at the end of sprint planning also helps to improve. It’s good idea to hand over paper with INVEST acronym reminder where team members place comments on stories and quickly feedback to PO in the last 5 minutes of SPM, referring to particular quality of INVEST and particular story that had not meet this requirement. This is timeboxed to 5 minutes and helps to improve quality of SPMs a lot.
To be continued…
“People like talking about people. Makes us feel superior. Makes us feel in control.
And sometimes, for some people, knowing some things makes them care.” [HouseMD #113]
As described in earlier post in “TEAM: 7 indispensable ingredients for Together Everyone Accomplishes More” one of the key elements of a strong team is Brand.
An idea to apply known brand-building practice to team management seemed to me interesting and made me write this blog post.
So I would like to cover a useful tool that can be applied to build up your team brand…
Team Brand is essential team motivator that cannot be given to the team (by company, management, money, etc.), it needs to be build inside, owned and maintained by the team. Actually this is type of “achievement” and “idea”-motivator for a Team (here cross-functional, self-organizing teams are meant, although practice is applicable for any team of small size).
In other words, Team Brand serves as an alignment on its core values/ways to achieve, inspires team by having strong and challenging core set, while distinguishes team among others.
Team brand may be built as any corporate brand starting from key cause or a purpose, moving from core through the benefits (qualities, values) to attributes (tools, norms) supporting and transmitting them.
Well, but an agile self-organizing team needs a hint to start thinking of themselves as a “company”, having a “brand”. A hint that envisions this mind shift would sound like: think of your TEAM as of an entrepreneurship and your collaboration as of an inspiring challenge! Imagine you’re running business with your peers (which is not that far away from reality, considering self-organized development team doing SCRUM).
- WHY are we here, what we want to achieve together, what is our core, our strongest believe and our purpose? Why do we exist as a TEAM? Which core value we all share?
- HOW we can make this happen? What principles (benefits, qualities) support this?
- WHAT we exactly will do (and will NOT tolerate) to support each of the key principles we’ve agreed upon that contribute to our purpose?
A tool I recommend to use at this step to create and maintain team DNA is known “Team Radar” retrospective facilitation activity (see “Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great” by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen for detailed explanation).
It simply suits best this exercise. Here it is used to gather data on team itself and perform self-assessment in the future.
An outcome applying this practice to an Agile self-organizing team may look like this:
As soon as agreed Team DNA is documented, printed out and placed in visible area (ideally at the team scrum board and/or also very usefull in retrospective room). This will serve as a point to refer/remind when choosing for right decision/action and will keep team motivated to comply everything they think, decide and do with their core.
But this “artifact” shall not be “curved in stone”. It’s living, since team is also living. So on and on reviewing it, team curves itself, making their brand stronger and more unique, by finding out deeper levels of their own common values, purposes, beliefs and means, achieving them.
The more team does so, the more it finds it’s own distinctive way doing things and becomes more distinguished (“branded”) and valued by managers, stakeholders, POs, etc…
Good teams that value the way they perform and look, care about this and move further finding out more challenging cores, supporting principles and norms.
Besides that it’s a funny collaborative action that contributes to team building.
Brand up your Team, guys
- “How to Build and Manage Your Brand (in sickness and in health)” ebook
- “Coaching Agile Teams: A Companion for ScrumMasters, Agile Coaches, and Project Managers in Transition (Addison-Wesley Signature Series (Cohn))” by Lyssa Adkins
- “Branding Governance: A Participatory Approach to the Brand Building Process” by Nicholas Ind and Rune Bjerke.
There are thousands of articles and blogposts about what makes a strong team. Here’s my view on what makes bunch of people being a TEAM and what qualities strong team should have. It is based on observation of all successful (and therefore strong) teams I’ve ever met, experience working with and/or built.
Assumption: it would be necessary to assume that group of people shall have common Goal as key motive and prerequisite to become a TEAM.
1. Self-commitment: this is key important characteristic of a strong team. Commitment to the team, putting the team interests first—and commitment to each individual on the team in helping him or her become everything he or she can.
2. Brand: this is aligned vision, strategy, purpose and values of the team. Team identity, both internally spoken/unspoken and transported inside and outside. These are the things every team member believes in and those that are “reflected” in team norms and via way team perceived from outside, that determines unique team behavior, team distinctiveness. This is team motivator first place and only second place team “label”.
3. Trust and care: mutual trust and value of each other, expressed in giving positiveness to each other regularly and helping out just if someone feels bad for whatever reason. Not being afraid to be/look vulnerable to each other. Standing for each other in hard times! All for one and one for all!
4. Peer-pressure: to be able to move, team should have a mechanism that keeps “wheels rotating” daily. Either a team lead (or a peer-pressure in self-organized teams). That is managerial ability of a team to put constructive pressure and spread sense of urgency and accountability around peers that makes team doing whatever is needed to achieve the Goal.
5. “Short Distance” for continuous improvement: having time together creates a good context where “distance” becomes “shorter”, leading to being more comfortable and open with non-comfortable questions, – key for state known as “storming” (see Tuckman’s stages of group development) that is indefensible for team to change (self-improve). Strong teams embrace change when they need to.
6. Transparently communicating: to understand each other, a team has to be willing to invest the time necessary to share their states, feelings and opinions openly. Without talking and listening to each other on a daily basis, team may fall apart. And it’s very important to happen also informally, not just during status meetings or stand-ups.
7. One Boat in to win-win: there is no my/your work to be done or my/your goals to be met or “I’m done, now it’s your turn while I’ll slack around…”. Responsibility and accountability for everything team does and is shared among team members. Successes and failures, happiness and disappointment, praise and blame is a shared pie to eat.
There are many other specific traits that different teams have, however those mentioned, are common pattern for almost all strong ones, regardless of what they are up to, what business they are working for, etc.