Modified on by LeslieEkas
One of the primary reasons that agile teams are “more productive” is that they work together closely to complete small batches of work frequently and continuously. The better the team is at working together, the better their productivity. However, teams struggle to improve their ability to work together, and so this becomes one of the most significant barriers to real agile success.
If you think about how work goes in a typical waterfall project, usually the first thing that happens is that the team decides what they are going to do and then very quickly they split into separate sub-teams to do the work. Generally the team does most of its coordinated work at the end of the project when they have to make it all work. This is the "hockey stick" effect of waterfall. From my days in waterfall I remember long hours, nights, and weekends working through problems with the rest of team. In fact I remember reconnecting with people that I had not worked closely with since the last “end of project march.”
Agile breaks this pattern by working closely together from the beginning of the project. The “end of project” style of coordinated team work in waterfall happens throughout every iteration. This is what makes agile so productive. However, “getting there” can be hard because working where your domain knowledge and skills are the strongest is where you want to work and where you know you will be the most productive.
As the software industry has progressed, software projects have become larger and more complex. With size and complexity, specialization typically follows. We have been encouraged to specialize in order to capitalize on our personal strengths and then use those strengths to produce better product capabilities. Specialized skills are critical so that we build the right solutions. However, learning new skills and increasing your technical breadth is also important. To make an agile team more productive, team members needs to be willing to broaden their skills so that they can help the rest of team get to “Done!” in addition to completing their own work.
This does not mean you have to become an expert at everything or even offer your help when it is not needed. When I was in school getting my Computer Science degree, our professors told us that “You are not a <insert favorite software language> developer, you are a software engineer.” We have to remind ourselves that, as engineers, we need to continue to expand our skills and knowledge, and be willing to try any job that needs attention. If everyone on the team assumes this attitude, the team will become more productive.
Here is the analogy that I think of when I am trying to explain this behavior. In the movie Apollo 13, after the initial oxygen explosion happens and disaster ensues, the mission commander asks that his team leaders to call in everyone on their teams to help figure out how to get the crew safely back to Earth. In the movie, teams that have not worked together are given hard problems to solve fast -- and they do solve them. This is the way very productive agile teams work together throughout the project.
Modified on by ScottWill
When a project is big enough to have two or more teams working on the same project, we recommend that each team have its own backlog of User Stories and each team size its own stories with Story Points. Of course, this inevitably raises the idea of having each team conform to some “story point standard” so that project progress and team progress can be tracked "uniformly." Doing this more or less means that teams have to normalize story points across all the teams so that, for example, a 5-point story for one team is the same as a 5-point story for every other team on the project; an 8-point story is the same for every team, etc., etc., etc.
All I have to say to this idea is: “Ugggghhh… What a collosal waste of time!" I’ve seen teams try to do this and the effort put into trying to ensure uniformity of sizings across multiple teams is enormous.
I’m happy to report that there’s an easier way that still allows for overall project progress to be easily seen as well as individual team progress. In essence, instead of normalizing based on story points we suggest “normalizing” based on the calendar. Let me explain: let’s assume, for example, there are two teams on a project, each having its own backlog that has been sized with story points. Team A has 2000 story points on its backlog and Team B has 500. In this case you would have three burndown charts to track progress: one that’s combined (showing 2500 total points), a second one for just Team A (showing 2000 total points), and a third one for just Team B (showing just 500 points). In order to determine relative progress for Team A and Team B, you base it on the number of points completed vs. the number of iterations... Thus, if you're half-way through the project (e.g., 5 of 10 planned iterations are complete), you would expect Team A to be ~1000 points complete (50% of its total) and Team B to be ~250 points complete (50% of its total).
Where things get to be a little more complicated is when you have numerous teams working on a project (for some enterprise application projects we’ve worked with, we’ve seen over 40 teams working on the same project). With two teams, it’s fairly easy to bounce back and forth between Team A’s release burndown chart and Team B’s release burndown chart. When you have more than that, you can create a very simple chart (using any spreadsheet tool) that shows “percent calendar complete” and “percent story points complete” for each team. Following are two examples that we’ve used (they show the same data, just in different formats):
You’ll notice in the first chart that the schedule is 60% complete (the black bars) and then each team’s relative progress is shown. In the second chart, a stacked bar is used to show overall te am progress. In this made-up example, Team 1 is slightly ahead, Team 5 is slightly behind, and the other teams are perhaps struggling...
I’m sure you can think of other, different ways of showing the data, so do whatever’s most helpful. The key is that this approach is so much easier and simpler than trying to normalize the sizing of story points across multiple teams.
“If you’re not better this month than you were last month, don’t tell me you’re Agile!”
I forget exactly where I heard that quote but it was from someone well known in the industry that came up during a webcast I was listening to several years ago. It caught my attention and helped me start to focus more on why Continuous Improvement is considered a foundational principle of agile. My research led me back to the Agile Manifesto, specifically to the principles of the Agile Manifesto where one of the principles reads:
“At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.” [emphasis added]
No doubt you’ve heard of, and hopefully engaged in, regular reflections (sometimes called “retrospectives”). If you haven’t done so, or have tried them and not gotten much value, then I’d like to provide a few ways to help make them valuable and to help you and your organization adopt a Continuous Improvement mindset. Conversely, even if you do regularly hold reflections and find them useful, the hope is that the following is something else you can add to your “bag of tricks” and make them even more valuable and compelling.
First, we recommend that reflections occur at the end of every iteration. These meetings are team meetings and shouldn’t take more than an hour (a half-hour seems to be fairly typical in our circles).
Next, the meetings are not meant to be “gripe sessions.” Yes, sometimes a little bit of griping can be cathartic, but the goal of a reflection meeting is more than just walking away happy that you had the chance to vent your spleen… The goal is to figure out a way to improve between now and the next reflection meeting.
The meeting facilitator should just go around the table and ask everyone to list the pain points that they’re facing. The facilitator keeps a list of all the pain points brought up and, after the last person has spoken, shows a list of all the pain points raised – ranked from those with the highest number of mentions down to those with the least. The item at the top of the list is what the team focuses on since that is the one that is having the biggest negative impact on the team.
Now that the biggest pain point for the team has been identified, the team brainstorms on some specific actions to take to improve in that one area and includes those actions as part of the iteration plan for the next iteration.
At the end of the next iteration, during the reflection meeting, the team determines whether that pain point has been resolved. If not, the team brainstorms on some additional actions to take in the next iteration. The key here is to NOT start trying to solve another pain point until the first one has been solved to everyone’s satisfaction. Once the biggest pain point has been solved, only then should the team move to the next biggest pain point on the list. Lather, rinse, repeat every iteration – and soon Continuous Improvement will be the norm…
I’ll have some additional suggestions in the next post. In the meantime, please comment on your experiences with reflections, as well as on any helpful practices you’ve discovered. Thanks!
Modified on by ScottWill
A while ago I started working with a team that had stopped having “standup” meetings altogether. Initially, the team started with the typical daily team meetings. After a little while they moved from having daily meetings to having them only three times a week. Subsequently they went to just once a week. When I asked why they had decreased the frequency of their meetings, and then ultimately stopped having them altogether, I was told that no one thought they were very useful and some of the team members had already stopped attending.
At one level, I applauded this team – they had taken one of the Lean Principles to heart, that of “Eliminating Waste.” Their attempts at having daily standup meetings weren’t providing any value, so they just stopped having them. However, at another level, I faulted this team. They held daily standup meetings because that’s what they thought they were supposed to do since they were now calling themselves “agile.” In essence, they had adopted a practice without understanding why they were adopting it, nor did they understand what benefit the practice was meant to provide.
What I have found in my years of coaching teams is that when teams reduce the frequency of the daily team meetings (or eliminate them altogether) it’s usually because the meeting has become just a status meeting. And, seriously, who wants to spend time every day reporting status as well as listening to others report status…? What you typically hear in such meetings are things like, “I’m doing the same thing today as I did yesterday,” “I’m still working on my code,” “I’m still finding defects,” and so on. Ugghhhh – what a waste.
So, if it’s not to report status, then what’s the purpose of the daily standup meeting? It’s meant to be a coordination and communication meeting for the team. And this type of meeting is very important. However, there are a couple of other things to cover first before I can show how the daily standup will be valuable – instead of daily waste of time.
Leslie and I recommend that, as much as possible, a team should be working together on one user story at a time. Additionally, the work items that team members tackle as part of implementing a user story (typically called “tasks”) should be small in size (a day or two at most). This means that small amounts of needed design, coding, testing, user documentation, automation, and so forth are being completed on a daily basis. For example, a developer could complete a coding task and, as soon as the build finishes, a tester can start running tests against that code. Thus there is a lot of “parallelization” taking place every day within the team. Perhaps you can now begin to see how important regular (daily) team communication is in such an environment. Conversely, you can see how the daily team meeting devolves quickly into a status meeting if everyone is working on their own thing and there’s no shared goal for the team.
By working together on one user story at a time, and using small tasks to accomplish work, the daily team meeting becomes a meeting that you don’t want to miss because you’ll likely miss something critical to the work the team is focused on.
Modified on by ScottWill
Scott and I are thrilled to tell you about our new book called Being Agile: Eleven Breakthrough Techniques to Keep You From Waterfalling Backward. You can click on the link below to get access to the book or use the handy link in the Links section of this page.
Our goal for the book is to help teams that have adopted the standard practices and call themselves agile, but have not gained the real benefits that agile promises. We believe that adopting agile requires a change in thinking, not just adopting a set of practices. When teams don't get immediate results, they often fall back into old habits that will reduce their chances of success. Our book offers eleven breakthrough techniques to help overcome reflexive thinking so that you will start to respond with an agile mindset that prioritizes delivering customer value, ensuring high quality, and continuously improving.
The book consists of eleven chapters that focus on some of the critical topics for agile success. In each chapter we discuss the basic principles that are the foundation for the topic followed by the corresponding practices. Each chapter closes with a breakthrough technique to help teams achieve the real benefits of the aspect of agile covered in the chapter. It was not our goal for the book to be an agile primer or even to cover all of agile thoroughly as there are much better references for that. Our goal was to focus on principles critical to agile adoption with which teams struggle and for each area, give them the means to succeed via using an agile mindset.
Scott and I have both had our breakthrough moments and so have the teams that we have le
ad and coached. We share experiences from those teams to provide a real world context to the ideas. Most of what we have learned came from working with numerous teams and it is our hope that we continue the conversation with you. Please share your "A-ha!" moments on our blog so that we can all continue to learn together.
Being Agile (IBM Press)
Modified on by ScottWill
Years ago, waterfall projects would typically shun requests for new features or capabilities being added to a project that was underway. After all, project success was typically measured by conformance to “the plan” – and a new request was not part of the plan. These waterfall teams would complete the opening sentence something like this, “When we get a new feature request, we put it on our list of features for consideration in the next release.” Thus, an opportunity to respond to changing conditions, changing customer needs and expectations, or changing competitive situations in a timely manner was lost.
Other waterfall projects have tried to add the new feature in along with the work that was originally committed in “the plan,” but that would often spell disaster since teams were typically already working feverishly just to meet the original commitments. In order to add something else to an already booked plan, there were very few options – mainly overtime and/or cutting corners – neither of which is a good thing. Oh, sure, there was always a planned “buffer” added into “the plan” to account for such contingencies, but when have you ever seen it work out the way it was intended? The skeptic in me would guess rarely, if ever… These teams would complete the opening sentence something like this, “When we get a new feature request, we add it to the plan and start mandating extensive overtime.” Pretty soon, employees are burnt out, frustrated at not having a life, and begin to actively seek employment opportunities elsewhere.
Mature agile teams complete the sentence something like this: “When we get a new feature request, we see it as an opportunity to get ahead of the competition as well as make our customers happy and successful.” Typically new requests surface because of changes in the competitive landscape, changing customer needs and expectations, new market opportunities, or even some combination of these and other factors. And when these new requests arrive at the door of an agile team, there’s no drama at all, no worries about overtime, no cutting corners, no consternation about not meeting “the plan,” etc. Agile teams have great flexibility to handle new requests because they are always working on just one thing at a time – not numerous features in parallel. Waterfall teams typically worked on lots of features in parallel since all the features were committed up-front and since teams typically had to show progress on all the committed features from the very beginning of the project. Thus, if a new request arrived, there was no flexibility to drop a less important feature from the plan since everything was already underway.
Agile teams, however, work on one thing at a time. And the way they do this is by having the features rank-ordered from the most important to the least important. If a new request arrives, the team finishes working on the feature currently in progress – it then has complete freedom to begin working on the brand new request. If a particular ship-date has to be met, then the team drops the least important feature from the list and replaces it with the new request. This way, the team is always working on the most important feature and has incredible flexibility to handle changing circumstances. After all, conformance to “the plan” is not the right measure of success – meeting customer needs and adapting to changing market conditions is a much better measure of success.
To summarize, working on one thing at a time (always the highest-ranked, most important item) and getting it done before starting on something new is the most efficient and effective way to work. It also allows for the greatest flexibility – especially in markets where changes can occur lightning fast.
One thing at a time, one thing at a time, one thing at a time...
Modified on by ScottWill
First of all we would like to wish everyone a Happy New Year! We trust that this year will be full of good challenges and significant achievements for each of you!
Regarding metrics, if it's one thing that engineers love, it's numbers... And if it's one thing that managers love, it's status. Put the two together and oftentimes you have teams that track tons of metrics across all facets of their projects.
While it may give the impression of being really thorough, and providing all sorts of deep insights, if you find yourself in an organization that tracks lots and lots of metrics, then I would encourage you to take a step back and limit the focus to just what's really important.
One of the principles of the Agile Manifesto reads, "Working software is the primary measure of progress." If you stop and think about it, that principle makes perfect sense. Customers aren't going to buy untested code and they're not going to be too happy if they buy something that falls down broken all the time because major defects haven't been fixed. All other metrics should pale in comparison to the one metric of having working software. Putting focus on this one metric will drive many of the benefits that agile promises -- three of which I'll touch on here.
First, focusing primarily on having working software provides a shared, common goal for the organization. This means that no one on the team gets any credit for his or her individual efforts which, in turn, provides plenty of motivation for helping each other out so that the team can take credit for having working software. A lot of the old "us vs. them" mentality of waterfall days is eliminated when focus is placed on working software as the primary measure of progress.
Next, having the focus on working software means that teams will actually achieve working software much earlier in a project than was typical with waterfall projects. Having working software provides plenty of opportunities to involve customers earlier in the project since customers can actually see demos of the functionality while it is being implemented and can even download it and test-drive it in their own environments. Getting customer feedback early is a huge benefit, especially if customers tell you you're going down the wrong path since you'll be able to make mid-course corrections prior to releasing the product.
Finally, having working software enables teams to move into the DevOps space where automation takes on an even more significant role, where releases are more frequent (up to multiple times a day for some Software-as-a-Service offerings), and where opportunities for doing things like "A/B" testing can be pursued. None of this is possible without having working software.
To conclude, if you agree that focusing on working software as the primary measure of project progress makes sense, but you're not quite sure how to ditch many of the metrics you may be currently tracking, I'll leave you with this analogy that Leslie uses with teams when dealing with this very issue. Think of cleaning out your closet -- you pull everything out and then put back only those things you wish to keep. Everything else is either thrown away or donated to charity. So, start with a "clean slate," put working software at the top of the list, and then add only those additional metrics that are absolutely necessary to ensure project success. Tracking anything else beyond just what's absolutely necessary should be considered a waste.
We would be interested in your thoughts and comments, especially if you've already made the transition to tracking working software as your primary metric. Thank you!
Modified on by ScottWill
In my previous post I mentioned how to use end-of-iteration reflection meetings to determine what a team should focus on for improvement in the next iteration. In this post I want to briefly cover two different ways that a team can tackle those improvement actions.
In the first – and simplest – case, let’s say a team needs to fix a problem with their automation framework that is causing some instability. So far, the team has just addressed the immediate symptoms in order to get the automation back up and running, but there’s a sense within the team that the problem runs deeper and needs some focused effort. In this case, the team needs to set aside some dedicated time during the next iteration in order to solve this problem at its root so that it doesn’t keep coming back time and time again, and continually costing the team. Some teams I’ve worked with have simply written a user story and put it on their backlog of user stories to ensure that the dedicated time actually occurs. In this case, the story goes to the very top of the backlog – the team addresses it at the outset of the next iteration (since it’s now #1), fixes their automation problem, and only then starts working on the next story on their backlog. Whether you choose to write a user story or not is up to you – the KEY is that you set aside time to handle smaller issues.
The second case involves larger problems – problems that will take time to solve and that can be quite complex. A simple example of this may be that the automation framework that the team has been using for years may no longer be supported, and now the team has to move to a brand new automation framework. This undertaking isn’t going to be able to be handled in a day or two – even with the whole team focused on helping. Since there’s always pressure to get new features and functionality out the door as quickly as possible, the team most likely isn’t going to be able to hit the “pause button” for four weeks while they switch over to the new framework. What we suggest here is a bit of a compromise: create a small team of automation folks and dedicate them 100% of the time to moving the current automation to the new automation framework. The remaining team members continue to focus on new feature work. The important thing with this suggestion is that you’re getting your new automation framework implemented while still getting new feature work completed (albeit at a somewhat slower pace) – but you’re doing so without having engineers multitask across different sets of responsibilities. This approach honors the lean principle of working on one thing at a time.
Just to recap – if your tackling a small improvement action, dedicate time. If it’s a larger improvement action, dedicate a team.
As always, please feel free to respond with any additional advice, insights, experiences, and/or questions that you may have. Thanks!
Modified on by ScottWill
You might recall that I ended the last blog post with the following:
One thing at a time, one thing at a time, one thing at a time…
Why are we so convinced that this is the best way to work? Hopefully my previous post made it clear that the flexibility teams have to respond to changing circumstances by working on one thing at a time is an excellent benefit. There are additional, significant benefits to working on one thing at a time – two of which I explore in this post.
How do you know that what you’re creating will do well in the marketplace, meet customers’ needs, and generally provide high customer satisfaction? In the old, waterfall days we used to have “beta programs” where customers would be granted access to some pre-release version of the software that they could use in-house and then provide feedback. The biggest problems with beta programs revolve around the lateness of the feedback received from customers. Typically, if customers didn’t like something, or wanted something different, it was too late to make any major changes – the team was too busy fixing the backlog of defects, and the committed ship-date was often very close when the beta program started. Customers were often told, “We’ll get to that in the next release.”
However, by doing one thing at a time, your team has a much greater opportunity to understand, with a fairly high degree of certainty, that what you’re creating will meet customers’ needs. And the reason this is so is that you can involve your customers in your project throughout the entire lifecycle. When the team completes a small feature, or completes even a small part of a larger feature, that feature can be demo’d to customers. It’s common for agile teams to be demo-ing some completed functionality to customers at the end of their very first iteration. And customers love it! It gives the customers the ability to “put their fingerprints” on the product – they get to see what’s being built, provide immediate feedback, and then see the development organization respond quickly to that feedback. In other words, customers are able to provide real-time, on-going feedback so that when the product finally does ship, customers will be very comfortable in knowing that the product provides what is actually needed.
One other benefit is that customers can actually request that the product be made available earlier than planned. Say, for example, a team plans on three major features for its next release. By working on one feature at a time, it’s quite possible that customers could ask that the product be released as soon as the first two features are complete – or even just the first one! If the feature is needed, and customers can see how they can immediately make use of it, and the team has actually completed the feature, then releasing just the very first feature (instead of waiting until all three planned features are complete) may make the most business sense. But the ability to even have such a business discussion is only possible if one feature at a time is being worked on. If all three features are started in parallel, then the team has created inflexibility since nothing can ship until all three features are completed (yes, dark launches address this problem, but the additional overhead of ensuring what’s “dark” doesn’t interfere with what’s been completed must be considered).
So, to sum up, how do you know? You know because your customers are providing you real-time, on-going feedback throughout the project to help ensure that what you deliver is what they need. It’s a win-win situation for everyone!
Modified on by ScottWill
Just a quick plug for the upcoming IBM Rational Innovate Software Engineering Conference next week in Orlando at the Disney Swan & Dolphin Resort. I'll be leading the Agile Track Kickoff Session on Monday, 2 June, at 11am, and following that up with a book signing from 12noon to 1pm at the book table. It promises to be a great conference again this year! Please stop by and say "Hi!" if you'll be attending!
Main conference website: http://www-01.ibm.com/software/rational/innovate/
Agile Track Kickoff Session: https://www-950.ibm.com/events/global/innovate/agenda/preview.html?sessionid=DAG-2459
Podcast (12 minutes) covering the Agile Track: http://public.dhe.ibm.com/software/info/television/swtv/Rational_Software/podcasts/rttu/gist_moore_innovate_scaleagile_enterprise-2014-0520.mp3
Thanks -- and hope to see you there!!