Archive for category Agile Project Management

Agile is verge of productive conflict: controlling gap between demand and offer

Before everything else, getting ready is the secret of success.
Henry Ford.

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.

Good Luck 🙂

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10 Tips to undermine Agile team ability to deliver

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”;

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Getting them READY: user story life cycle and “Epic Box” principle

I’d thinking to cover this topic long ago. This would be the start for the series of posts on PO work to “Get Them…” (user stories) ready, in and out of sprints…

I would like to start with describing what cycle user story goes through before it becomes READY for sprint planning meeting and how PO handles this cycle.

For sure there are many best practices to get stories READY and write proper stories. Instead of focusing on story-writing itself, here I will cover PO workflow to them ready.

So, here are my 5 cents…

Assumption: user stories are part of shaped big wish (called epic), that is part of Agile release/roadmap and takes place on “storymap” that had been presented to development team some time ago.

What does this means?

This would mean that:

  • Value brought by an epic (and future user stories) is clear to everyone;
  • Possible big “underwater” problems it may cause surfaced (reworks, performance, missing data, uncertainty, etc.);
  • High level estimates are given to an epic;
  • Big questions are addressed;

As next step PO prepares epic further, splits into particular stories, sizes each of them and “hones” acceptance criteria (aka satisfaction criteria). To proceed we need to know what does INVEST mean.

What is INVEST?

Things PO should keep in mind when doing story-writing and story-splitting is “INVEST” rule. It stands for:

  • Immediately Actionable – so that team can start working on it immediately;
  • Negotiable – so that can be quickly made smaller/bigger by removing/adding scope of acceptance criteria (AC);
  • Valuable – so that everyone understands what value it brings to an end user;
  • Estimable – so that it can be estimated with user story points or ideal hours;
  • Sized to Fit In – so that estimates fit in established iteration length;
  • Testable – so that has understandable and achievable acceptance criteria;

Splitting an epic

Then it comes to the split itself. I suggest doing the following way:

1. Have a pencil and paper talk  with your PO peer(s) on the epic before splitting:

  • define overall description (As a WHO I want WHAT so that WHY);
  • agree on the way to reach WHAT (draft acceptance criteria, aka AC);
  • write AC down. You will end up having many AC, e.g. 30 or more;

2. Request, get and provide stories with everything that makes them immediately actionable (e.g. designs, data, clarifications, everything that has to do with 3rd parties, etc.);

3. Define story split logic, so that they all can be worked on quite independently and placed in a sequence that satisfy following criteria:

  • upper stories do not require functionality of lower stories (and lower stories do not impede implementation of upper stories);
  • functionality is split logically, trying to keep stories ~same size (remember, best sizing of stories is 3-8 user story points);
  • upper stories allow user to see maximum valued functionality first;

4. Define each story description and split overall AC accordingly. Keep in mind that at this point new stories will pop up (I call them “conjunction stories”).  The rule is easy to understand.

Epic Box Principle: “As soon as you start emptying  virtual box of epic functionality, removing and shaping story after story out of it, you will find out something that is still there and was not your initial plan”.

If your plan was to split epic into 4-5 stories, you may end up with 7-8 or so. That is one of the reasons that explains why usually epic level estimates are smaller than sum of estimates of all corresponding stories.

Important hint: do not hesitate to split as combining is way easier. Splitting is good exercise because enforces to think through value->solution again and discovers potentially hidden problems, functionality etc. Another effect of splitting bigger stories into smaller is reducing doubt (and therefore risks) team will have associated with big story. It turns afterwards into saving user-story-points…
Therefore, it’s way better to have detailed backlog rather then let team estimate their doubt wasting story points on your inability to think through solution and side functionality that may popup during implementation of bigger chunks.
Remember: as PO you are in charge of what team does next and need to have stories prepared accordingly.

5. Peer review all stories with your colleagues after you consider them as READY to see what is missing, question how each AC may be interpreted, best guess on possible estimation;

6. Re-do steps 2-5 until stories are INVEST and  READY for sprint planning meeting (SPM);

To be continued … (“Getting them through sprint planning….”)

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Dynamic Story Board: KANBANizing story map

“Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions”. Albert Einstein

An interesting thought came to me while thinking on how to bring in dynamics in story map to make it a tool that will help PO both in day-to-day work/tracking and overall release management.

Key benefits that will serve this are:

  • A full picture of upcoming product being built (within scopes of upcoming releases);
  • Transparency about features are being worked on now/coming soon;
  • Highlighting what features are READY and DONE;
To get the complete idea one needs to know the concept of story maps.
Combining this idea with KANBAN flow management framework makes a nice tool for PO:

Dynamic Story Board

So, let me explain what rows of it mean:
  • Done row indicates stories that correspond to the functional areas of the product and are accepted by product owner in sprint review meeting(s), having story definition of DONE met.
  • Areas row indicates key functional areas of the product as any story map has.
  • Wip row indicates work-in-progress, e.g. stories that are part of the running sprint (that team committed upon);
  • Ready row indicates stories that are ready to be presented to team according to definition of ready. PO moves stories in this row only if those compliant with INVEST rule;
  • Pipeline row indicates all the stuff that is planned for the future. As you can see some stories are non-READY here for whatever reasons (not yet completed, or even bigger items (epics) that are not yet prepared for sprint planning and thus cannot be taken by development team);

NOTE: pipeline row can be splitted itself into several rows to indicate scope planned for releases.

This simple board will serve as Kanban-style board turned by 90 degrees CCW. You can always add rows that indicate whatever states your PO team will find beneficial. Such a board can be easily used by PO daily in managing both day-to-day focus on getting READY for upcoming sprint, while keeping an eye on overall priorities and backlog.

Here’s real-live example implemented:

Dynamic StoryMap LIVE

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Roadmap Planning: “steering” with product map

Roadmap planning is indispensable part of Agile project management that represents second level of 5 levels of agile planning that any team should somehow cover. As a best practice suggests it needs to be done by product owner every ~2-6 months, depending on the intensity of development.

  This exercise makes sure that entire team understands direction, goals and vision of the product team, brings many benefits and speeds things up by creating shared clarity about future and maintains high focus on the “vector” PO gives.

Recently I’ve facilitated Roadmap planning session applying  two techniques: planning poker and story map. For those who want to get details of both techniques I would recommend  nice extract from Mike Cohn’s “Agile Estimating and Planning”: http://planningpoker.com/detail.html and this nice article at Jeff Pathon’s blog: http://www.agileproductdesign.com/blog/the_new_backlog.html.

It was both interesting and challenging, especially since we’ve never try this before. It was great success since resulted in having clear, estimated and planed Roadmap for product fist steps.

Goals:

  • To share product roadmap and vision;
  • To make challenges and risks visible and clear and address them early;
  • To make approximate measurement the minimum required scope of the release of the product;
  • To predict possible release date range / manage product scope in the way to hit deadline;

Background/Preconditions:

  • PO prepared items (user stories and/or themes) written on index cards (one per card);
  • Items were grouped according to the story map (by corresponding key product functional areas);
  • Key area titles were stick to the glass wall at our big conference room;
  • Horizontal line was drawn to separate the first release content over the wall;
  • Scrum team in one room for 2 days;

Process:

  • PO presented key functional areas of the product being built, briefly describing what each area covers;
  • PO started presenting item after item, sticking on the corresponding map column of the wall, given priority he had in mind.
  • Team estimated item presented with planning poker.
  • When estimations were too different we’ve allowed 1 or 2 rounds of re-evaluations. Well, we did not played exact poker, since we were interested in the approximate estimations, so we took averaged estimations  (i.e. majority raised 5USP, some guys 8USP, 6 or 7 is taken as an average, more feeling-based);
  • As soon as a column was complete discussion on required minimum scope of the release content started and PO moves some items below/above “scope line” (also considering estimations and best guessing for ROI).
  • Moving on and on to the next product column and item after item of a story map;

Outcome:

As result of 2 days workshop we’ve manage to:

  • Gain shared clarity about what needs to be done to get product LIVE;
  • Identify biggest project risks and “hairy topics” with poker estimations (those had usually high estimates, more than 20 USP, clearly);
  • Agree on next steps (to start with risky but must-to-have items first);
  • Noticed dependencies among items and moved them up/down in the way to decrease them;
  • Estimate roadmap and predict delivery dates range (we’ve ended up having kind of 500 USP);

Estimations/Approximation:

  • On the level of details where items represent Themes rather than a requirements or stories according to the cone of uncertainty estimations vary from 0.8 to 1.25x factor. On the requirement/story level they also vary from 0.85 to 1.15x. Considering this I took an average  ratio, given the fact that some items were story sized, others were bigger (nice article that illustrates correlation between estimation accuracy and uncertainty from Agile101: http://agile101.net/2009/08/18/agile-estimation-and-the-cone-of-uncertainty/).
  • This number together with average team/historical velocity gave an idea of the range required to get product out within agreed scope;


Takeaways
:

  • Roadmap planning is a valuable and must to have regularly exercise;
  • It is both interesting and motivating for team members;
  • PO gains a lot of important insides about product that allows to manage release scope and prioritization to minimize risks and get to live ASAP;
  • Teams are enabled to plan more than  just in time architecture since bigger picture of the product becomes visible;
  • It shall be done outside of a sprint to guarantee 100% clear mind and focus;

P.S.: * many thanks to my CPO, would be impossible without his preparation and buy-in.

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