Practical agility and Other thoughts

Sunday, November 22, 2015

10 things that agile teams can do in a retrospective

"Today should always be better than yesterday" - mother of Gabby Douglas, the first African American to win individual all-around gold and the first American to win gold in both the individual all-around and team competitions in gymnastics.

A retrospective provides the opportunity for teams to get together and tweak "something" that impacts their outcomes so they achieve better results than before. Teams use retrospectives for joint learning, making a decision, choosing an action or strengthening a common bond. In Scrum, retrospectives are held at the end of each sprint. Kanban is non-prescriptive about retrospectives, but most kanban teams end up doing retrospectives at a regular interval or an as-needed basis.

Noted that some teams resist the retrospectives and lose them entirely. Why does that happen and what is the impact? Well that's another article for later.

Here is we look at the positive side and some of the ways that agile teams use retrospectives to their advantage. This list is but a small subset of many possibilities on what agile teams can do in a retrospective!
    Discover team strengths, weaknesses and opportunities: Retrospectives are avenues for team members to discover what the team is doing well and where it can make improvements.
  1. Raise the bar on their own performance: Based on the strengths and weakness, Agile teams inspect and adapt, either improving their performance or adjusting to new situations they encounter in order to stay on course.
  2. Prioritize problems that the team must address: Teams usually identify multiple problems and areas of attention during the retrospective and then they narrow down what is most important for them to solve.
  3. Solve difficult problems: At times, the team identify a particular problem that needs to be solved without even going through the rigor of listing and prioritizing the problems. Teams deploy various problem solving techniques, such as root cause analysis or five whys, or even discussing the results of an A3 process together.
  4. Review data, important trends: Scrum Masters and others in the team may collect important data and trends for the team to review during the retrospective. The data can be anything related to the team's functioning, or related to an important issue that the team would like to resolve. Looking at the data together often produces new insights for all team members and helps finding the best way to resolve the problem.
  5. Ask for organizational and leadership support: Depending on the organization, some problems may be beyond the team's sphere of influence. By prioritizing and discussing possible solutions, the teams make a case for change that would impact them positively.
  6. Cheer, appreciate, express gratitude: Retrospectives can also be one of the forums to celebrate success on completion of a hard initiative, an effort or any activity that the team undertook. Teams utilize the retrospective to bond together and appreciate each others' strengths and contributions and thank each other for critical help in completing or making progress towards a goal.
  7. Support each other: A healthy team harnesses and extends ideas from its members. Retrospectives are an opportunity to strengthen some of the beliefs and the ideas that team members want to adopt. In that process the team members support each other and make progress on what they think is important.
  8. Challenge each other: Not only are the retrospectives meant for supporting ideas, they are also meant for challenging different ideas. Challenging different ideas helps the team narrow down to the one or few that the team wants to try.
  9. Experiment: Teams, Scrum Masters and facilitators to experiment with what they do in their retrospectives so they can amplify the value derived from the retrospectives. They can experiment and vary the format, agenda and results they want from the retrospective, or just use it to have a conversation to make changes that are needed.
Lastly, if you are doing Scrum please do not wait for a retrospective till the end of the sprint to have a conversation with your team.


Sunday, November 15, 2015

Rough notes: Misunderstood agile practices

Let us assume management and team have some experience with agile but they only understand parts of it (such as iterative delivery, sprint ceremonies etc.). Have you faced such situations? Which practice(s) and concept(s) did you strive to adopt but were challenged? what tools did you use for influencing the outcomes?

Here are some highlights from a LinkedIn discussion I started about misunderstood agile practices.

* In many "traditional" companies agile is seen as a new set of controls to get work done. Old roles are re-labeled.

* Many companies think that they can purchase agile as product also if they have few certified SM/PO on pay roll, company is agile.

* Misconception: Equating testing with quality improvement. Quality needs to be designed in from the get go.

* Try this: Making metrics visible. Nobody can argue with truths, and the truth is a strong motivator of change in group dynamics.

* Conducting honest retrospectives over many sprints is often neglected.

* The biggest mistake that people make is thinking that Agile is a process, and if you do the process, you'll be successful.

* Agile practices could be perfectly implemented but with inappropriate mindset and intention, then practices perfectly implemented in physical and visible shapes will all always be misunderstood.

* Misunderstanding Being Agile vs. Doing Agile: Most people don’t understand the difference between Being and Doing. Agile isn’t something you do. It’s something you are.

* Misunderstanding the proper amount of documentation needed. Reading "Working software over Documentation and Processes" and forgetting the final line of the manifesto, "Although we value the things on the right, we value the things on the left more".

* The problem is with the mindset. A mindset change is more difficult of a change and involves coaching/training/teaching and importantly discussions around what Agile is to the team/department/company.

* Many chickens do not understand the "doing" vs "being" agile.

* Misunderstanding: Many organizations associate agile with "I am using Jira / Rally / TFS /(any other tool you can think of) and still not able to get the benefits of agile. Looks like agile doesn't work for us"!!!!

* Transparency does not mean micromanagement.

* Misunderstanding: Dysfunctional Waterfall is the same as Successful Waterfall.

* Misunderstanding: If I cut my big traditional programme of x years without any reliable progress indicator into small iterations, that I can reasonable expect precise forecasts / commitments and then still get all the benefits of agile.

* Misunderstanding: Agile methodology is not suitable for products which take multiple years to build.

* Misconception: "Agile is for those who are not disciplined enough for processes", i.e. "You can improve Agile by introducing more rigid processes."

* Try this: Look at your dev / test / staging infrastructure and automation around that. And your engineering skills and practices.

* Misunderstanding: Scrum ceremonies often misunderstood and poorly done, but yes Daily Standup especially. As it returns every day.

* Misunderstanding: "We create user stories ñ try to complete them in two weeks" so we follow agile ...

* Misunderstandings: Originally, there are things like "I can't break down my work that small." Or "our testers are used to being at the end, we can't include them in our current sprints." And the misconceptions just move on down the line as you transform the teams.

* Quote: Wisdom begins when we discover the difference between "That makes no sense" and "I don't understand". --Mary Doria Russell

* My favorite takeaway: It is far better to move ahead with a wealth of misconceptions and the personal and organizational intent to continuously improve than to try and identify and correct the misconceptions first.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Five agile concepts that managers should never ignore

Having practiced agile for some years now, I keep running into situations where managers, with all their good intentions, either misinterpret or fail to understand or do not choose implement certain agile concepts due to various reasons. Although that provides them immediate relief the long term pain only aggravates impacting the outcomes, the team and the managers themselves in different ways that are usually not positive.

Are you a manager? Below are five key concepts that you will hopefully find useful.
  1. Start right, because if you don't you will put the entire project or initiative in jeopardy. Going through a short term pain or pressure is sometimes necessary if you wish to avoid long term problems with your project. Managing expectations is the key. If your voice is not being heard by higher ups, get help if you have to. It could be someone with more influence or someone with more experience or may be a mentor or a coach who can help you make a convincing argument and even argue on your behalf. Get your team to appreciate why starting right is important. Ally with them to build a convincing case on what works for you.
  2. Adapt or Die. If you don't learn from mistakes you will find it hard to survive. This is applicable for you not just as an individual but also for your team. The teams that do not learn from their mistakes and team members that do not learn from each other often run fire-drills as regular way of working. If they are using Scrum, you will often find symptoms such as planning more than what they can do, or ignoring yesterday's weather, and often pulling in new work when the planned work has not been completed yet. Others may abandon Scrum altogether and start using Kanban without applying WIP limits or even visualizing their workflow. Are you a leader of such a team or teams? Why do you think this is happening?
  3. Be transparent. At times there may seem to be a tendency and perhaps even an incentive not to disclose information higher up and letting them know what is really happening in your project. There could be many reasons for this situation, organization-created or self-created or just fabricated. When you look into the reasons, think about what is best for you, best for your team, best for your organization and best for the customer - ideally, all the four should have the same answer. If not, dive deeper and ask why is there a difference? Can you do something to remove the difference? If can't do anything about it, are you and your at the right place doing the right job?
  4. Promote collaboration, simplicity and excellence. Agile principles talk about collaboration, simplicity and emphasize technical excellence. The reason is that there is usually nothing more powerful than collaborating to deliver successful outcomes along with technical excellence, that motivates a strong development team. As a manager you carry a ton of influence and responsibility to make this happen.
  5. Deliver customer value and team happiness. You have demonstrated your success as a manager when your team is delivering functionality that makes customers happy, it is building in quality into the product, and is proud of its accomplishments. Process may be important but it is not the goal
Good luck!

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

How to increase team velocity? There is no silver bullet but you can try!

Ugh... That question again?

In a discussion forum I came across this comment that "Velocity is an awful term and one that is often weaponized like it has been in this thread by asking how to get more. It's the wrong question because the goal is to become predictable much more so than faster."

I do not agree that velocity is an awful term, but I do agree that it is often misused (and even weaponized). If you intend to use velocity the right way, and are interested in using it as a tool to understand and improve your work outcomes, this post is dedicated to you.

I would like to note that some of my friends are passionate about #noestimate. Whether you go that route or not, is your choice. The important thing is that is the team performing or worrying about numbers and metrics. If velocity discussions are weighing down the team, that is usually a sign of a different problem.

As you go through this post, keep in mind that increasing velocity may not be your real and only problem, and should definitely not be your main goal.

Addressing the "Real Slim Shady"...  

If you want to address the issue genuinely please understand there is never really an end.

If the team is rapidly delivering customer value, communicating well and learning from its experience you may only have limited leverage on what the team itself can do. The team may need support from its ecosystem to take it to the next level. At the same time there will still certainly be things that can team can do to make improvements. and is improving velocity the end goal? Or is it delivering customer value rapidly?

Lets address that.


Step 1. Who is asking?

Before you go any further it is important to understand who wants to increase the velocity. Many a times someone higher up in the food chain may want to know how you will improve the velocity. It may also be a software developer on the team, the whole team, the product owner or the scrum-master (is that you?) who is interested. Or it may be a stakeholder, project sponsor or anyone else as well. Understanding who is concerned about improvement in team's velocity can help you in several ways in the steps that follow.

Step 2. Why are they asking - their motivation?

Before you jump into a solution, identify why they are asking the team to increase its velocity. What's in it for them (who want the team to improve)? As you dig deep into the reason for asking, you will likely discover the intent (good, bad, helpful, unhelpful) of the person asking the question. You will become sensitive to their needs and discover their situation. Are they interested in improving communications and flow of value or do they have a personal gain in mind by highlighting the problem? Answering why will help not just with framing the response better but also with taking more informed actions. Whatever the reason is, think about how that can help you drive improvements.

Step 3. Draw insights - Where are the problems, what are the solutions?

Based on your study of your context, would it be fair to say there are potential opportunities for improvement? Where could the team do better?

Imagine a team delivering really really fast but the customers are not responding favorably. Could it be lack of quality or delivery of functionality that customers do not need? In either case, increasing velocity may not be the best solution. We need to think smarter.

Try these questions first:
  1. Is the team delivering new features and improvements frequently? 
  2. How are customers reacting to the product deliveries and latest features? 
  3. Is the team generally enjoying their work and having fun?

If you spot problems while answering these questions, search deeper. Here are just a few examples of what you could explore.


  • Do measures such as velocity drive positive behaviors in your organization? If not what can be done to fix that situation?
  • Are the roles well defined? Is there sufficient empowerment? Are the roles of PO, SM and Development team clearly understood?
  • How is communication between the team members?
  • How strong is the leadership for your team, project and the organization?

Process questions:

  • How do you assess progress towards an important goal? Do you have an objective method?
  • Are team members working on multiple diverging goals and functionalities and have high work in progress?
  • How are releases managed and rolled out - small chunks or big rocks?
  • What is the team doing to continuously learn from its journey?
  • How are (Scrum) meetings running?

Technology questions:

  • How is the team doing on the account of technical debt?
  • Is there sufficient test automation and continuous integration?
  • How is your quality? Do you have a huge bug backlog?

Draw insights together with the entire team to understand all perspectives and see what can be done. Dig into the backlog, measurements that the team thinks are relevant, such as velocity, cycle time, defect trends, automation, build failure rate etc. Looking for problems, and asking why over and over again, should give you new insights on what can be done.

Shortlist a few experiments to try out.

Step 4. Sell, Try, Feedback, Repeat (Go to step 1)!

As you go through this exercise, you may come up with a range of solution(s). Some solutions may require senior management intervention, others may need more involvement from the team.
Now it is time to channel the conversations around the solutions, convince the stakeholders to try them out. Clarify how you will be reviewing the outcome - set a time-frame for that. Try the solution and get more feedback! You may have to repeat this several times, to continually get the results you are hoping for (including but not limited to an improved velocity, as that may not be the real goal you are after).

Good luck!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

There's hope (usually!)...

Imagine things are going completely out of control; ownership and accountability are minimal; there is little willingness to collaborate and not enough leadership to make it happen. You are down with dismay and disbelief at how things are going... feeling blue and nothing seems to move despite your best effort? Imagine yourself stuck in the moment unable to get out! 

Damn.. we wish never to be confronted with a situation like that. Nevertheless stuff happens, at times all we can do is think, and think hard what we should do but answers don't come easy or fast. How can we help change the situation for the better? That is the agile mindset isn't it - inspect and adapt until we find an answer?

What to do?

Should you stay hopeful or quit in despair!? 

I hate to say it, quitting could be an option if you are desperate. It could work in the short term and give you relief, but what would you achieve, what would you solve by quitting? Why not let someone else deal with the mess? Quitting is usually the easy way out, though not always the best.

Why should you care? Before you decide whether to quit or to persevere, try answering these questions:
  • Would you learn something new that would prepare you for even greater challenges if you continued to persist instead of quitting?
  • Would you get a similar opportunity again... an opportunity to be a part of the solution to a very big or complex problem? 
  • Could this be an avenue for you develop and practicing your skills in a particular area that you really want to learn?
  • How will the decision impact the organization that you work for, and your colleagues?
  • What will make you happy? What about your family and your friends?
I think:
  • If you are a kind of person who gets a kick out of bringing positive changes, you will likely enjoy persisting. Things usually change, and although they sometimes change for the worse, but they usually (eventually) change for the better. 
  • If you enjoy learning, you will likely want to try and persist longer. You will also try to experiment with options you have not tried before and there is god chance you will succeed when others see value.. and they eventually will.
  • If you are very competitive (and perhaps driven by how fast you rise in your career charts!), you will likely calculate the risk/reward possibility around your situation and decide accordingly.


 In short...

Whatever you do depends a lot on your situation, and the kind of challenges you are built for as a person - your strengths, weaknesses, values and motivations. Give it a thought, introspect a little and make your choice. Good luck!

Saturday, May 30, 2015

So, why plan? A note to self..

Would life be easier if we did not have to think about planning? Let's face it, whether it is about running our day to day routine or even something as simple as paying a visit to the neighborhood grocery store there is planning involved. Imagine taking a vacation without planning where you will go, what you will do while you are there, how long will stay and what you need to bring with you. Or imagine not thinking about how much you need to earn, to save and to invest to meet your worldly needs.. Well lets just keep those worries aside for a few minutes shall we and think about how planning can actually help! Yes that's right, no matter how much burdensome it might sound, planning can help.

What is planning?

The simplest definition of planning that I have come across is "decide on and arrange in advance". I like this because this definition is light, it does not say how much detail we need to plan in, but an important thing that it does say is that planning happens in advance.

Why plan?

There are many reasons why we plan. Our limited information about the future and vision of what we want to do with that information in order to achieve a specific objective gives us an opportunity to play with creative alternatives and paths to get there. Applying constraints helps us narrow down our search of solutions, breaking them down into chunks or steps that are (hopefully) easy to understand and sequence as necessary. When steps and solutions are not known we put on our experimentation hats and navigate our way to discovering the possibilities.

Use the plan as a defense strategy

So what should I tell my teams when they get planning? What are the things I need to keep in mind but don't come easy, specially with Scrum? In my note to self, I include the following.


Plan just in time, and just enough.. 

Plan early but not too early. Have a high level roadmap that (can change and) tells the team the path we will take if things went all-right. Planning too much too soon could mean a lot of wasted effort and repetition. Planning too little could mean little predictability in outcomes for initiatives that span multiple sprints. So lets groom our backlog stories and have them ready for a few (may be two to four) sprints to come. Lets find that right balance for our team where Sprint planning sessions do not become painful and burdensome.


Plan based on data..

More often than note, teams are asked to meet an "aggressive targets". In other words, there is a huge tendency to ask for deliveries tied to dates without understanding scope and effort involved. These dates are usually based on business constraints and are tight (more often than not). So, organizations and teams find themselves in situations where teams are unable to deliver as some say - "on time" and "within budget". Lets avoid that for our team through scientific and consistent use of measures such as velocity and cycle time. Lets make forecasts based on data so that business understands our non-trivial effort and can make realistic, prudent decisions on scope and priority.


Maintain discipline, Estimate or #NoEstimate..

There is much debate on whether to do estimates or not. What seems more important to me than that debate is to agree on an approach that works for our team and for your organization and follow it with discipline. When we estimate, lets spend little time estimating, after all estimates do not produce value for customer, working software hopefully does. Estimates are just that - "estimates", they are "not actuals".


High priority, High risk first..

What should the team work on first and what should it work on later? There are multiple factors that decide this, chief among them are dependencies, customer feedback and risk. The product owner plays an important role balancing all aspects while deciding the order so that team delivers value while making continuous progress. So lets keep in mind the problem we are trying to solve, and order our backlog on the basis of that. Lets identify those things that are not clear and run spikes. Lets reduce the risk early as early as we can, so that we do not embarrass ourselves in front of our stakeholders and customers when the time comes.

Minimize hand-offs, eliminate technical debt..

Lots of times, teams work with other teams to deliver an experience or functionality. Many times this needs dependency management, and back and forth discussions. This can lead to side effects such as reduced velocity, need for additional testing to retain quality, development of interfaces and/or APIs etc. When we get into such situations, lets find out if we can minimize dependencies through techniques like creating mockups, and integrate early and often. Let us ferociously automate testing and deployment (at all levels) so that we can identify and resolve issues quickly.

Plan often and monitor, welcome change..

Lastly, should planning be one time? Absolutely not! The team should be ready to embrace change as they get better insights into customer needs and potential solutions. Lets dispassionately accept new stories, reject old ones that are no longer useful and update ones that need to be updated. Once again, an active Product owner and Team partnership can make a big difference. It is not as important to stick to the initial plan as it is to fulfill needs of the customers.