Relative Team Expertise and Story Sizing

In Parkinson’s Law of Triviality and Story Sizing, I touched on the issue of relative expertise among team members during collaborative efforts to size story cards. I’d like to expand on that idea by considering several types of team compositions.

Team 1 is a tight knit band of four software developers represented in Figure 1.

Figure 1 - Team 1
Figure 1 – Team 1

Their preferred domain and depth of experience is represented by the color and area of their respective circles. While they each have their own area of expertise, there is a significant overlap in common knowledge. All four of them understand the underlying architecture, common coding practices, and fundamental coding principles. Furthermore, there is a robust amount of inter-domain expertise. When needed, the HTML5/CSS developer can probably help out with JavaScript issues, for example. The probability of this team successfully working together to size the stories in the product backlog is high.

Team 1 represents a near-ideal team composition for a typical software related project. However, the real world isn’t so generous in it’s allocation of near-ideal, let alone ideal, teams. A typical team for a software related project is more likely to resemble Team 2, as represented in Figure 2.

Figure 2 - Team 2
Figure 2 – Team 2

In Team 2, the JavaScript developer is fresh out of college,  new to the company and new to the business. His real-world experience is limited so his circle of expertise is smaller relative to his teammates. The HTML5/CSS developer has been working for the company for 10 years and knows the business like the back of her hand. So she has a much wider view of how her work impacts the company and product development. As a team, there is much less overlap and options for helping each other through a sprint is diminished.  As for collaborative story sizing efforts, the HTML5/CSS and C# developers are likely to dominate the conversation while the JavaScript developer agrees with just about anything not JavaScript related.

As Agile practices become more ubiquitous in the business world, team composition beings to resemble Team 3, as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3 - Team 3
Figure 3 – Team 3

The mix now includes non-technical people – content developers and editors, strategists, and designers. Even assuming an equal level of experience in their respective domains, the company, and the business environment, there is very little overlap. Arriving at a consensus during a story sizing exercise now becomes a significant challenge. But again, the real world isn’t even so kind as this. We are increasingly more likely to encounter teams that resemble Team 4 as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4 - Team 4
Figure 4 – Team 4

As before, the relative circle of expertise among team members can vary quite a bit. When a team resembles the composition of Team 4, the software developers (HTML5/CSS and C#) will have trouble understanding what the Learning Strategist is asking for while the Learning Strategist may not understand why what he wants the software developers to deliver isn’t possible.

When I’ve attempted to facilitate story sizing sessions with teams that resemble Team 4 they either become quite contentious (and therefore time consuming) or team members that don’t have the expertise to understand a particular card simply accept the opinion of the stronger voices. Neither one of these situations is desirable.

To counteract these possibilities, I’ve found it much more effective to have the card assignee determine the card size (points and time estimate) and work to have the other team members ask questions about the work described on the card such that the assignee and the team better understand the context in which the card is positioned. The team members that lack domain expertise, it turns out, are in a good position to help craft good acceptance criteria.

  • Who will consume the work product that results from the card? (dependencies)
  • What cards need to be completed before a particular card can be worked on? (dependencies)
  • Is everything known about what a particular card needs before it can be completed? (dependencies, discovery, exploration)

At the end of a brief conversation where the entire team is working to evaluate the card for anything other than level of effort (time) and complexity (points), it is not uncommon for the assignee to reconsider their sizing, break the card into multiple cards, or determine the card shouldn’t be included in the sprint backlog. In short, it ends up being a much more productive conversation if teammates aren’t haggling over point distinctions or passively accepting what more experienced teammates are advocating. The benefit to the product owner is that they now have additional information that will undoubtedly influence the product backlog prioritization.

Minimum Viable Product – It’s What You Don’t See

Take a moment or two to gaze at the image below. What do you see?

Do you see white dots embedded within the grid connected by diagonal white lines? If you do, try and ignore them. Chances are, your brain won’t let you even though the white circles and diagonal lines don’t exist. Their “thereness” is created by the thin black lines. By carefully drawing a simple repetitive pattern of black lines, your brain has filled in the void and enhanced the image with white dots and diagonal white lines. You cannot not do this. This cognitive process is important to be aware of if you are a product owner because both your agile delivery team members and clients will run this program without fail.

Think of the black lines as the minimum viable product definition for one of your sprints. When shown to your team or your client, they will naturally fill the void for what’s next or what’s missing. Maybe as a statement, most likely as a question. But what if the product owner defined the minimum viable product further and presented, metaphorically, something like this:

By removing the white space from the original image there are fewer possibilities for your team and the client to explore. We’ve reduced their response to our proposed solution to a “yes” or “no” and in doing so have started moving down the path of near endless cycles of the product owner guessing what the client wants and the agile delivery team guessing what the product owner wants. Both the client and the team will grow increasingly frustrated at the lack of progress. Played out too long, the client is likely to doubt our skills and competency at finding a solution.

On the other hand, by strategically limiting the information presented in the minimum viable product (or effort, if you like) we invite the client and the agile delivery team to explore the white space. This will make them co-creators of the solution and more fully invested in its success. Since they co-created the solution, they are much more likely to view the solution as brilliant, perfect, and the shiniest of shiny objects.

I can’t remember where I heard or read this, but in the first image the idea is that the black lines are you talking and the white spaces are you listening.

The Passing of a Master

It has been several months since news of Emily Busch ‘s unexpected death and I still wrestle with the thought I shall never have the privilege of again practicing Aikido with her at Nippon Kan. The blow to Homa Sensei is undoubtedly far greater. I do not know his pain, but I am familiar with it.

Looking at the growing stack of draft posts, I see about a dozen on the subject of mastery. I feel I have a lot to contribute to this subject, particularly in regard to Agile practices. And yet, I hesitate due to a sense that I still have more to learn before I’m in a position to teach on the subject. In no small measure this hesitation is counseled by having met and studied with a great many truly masterful people across a wide variety of human experience.

Emily was one of those masters.

Not only was she a master of Aikido (6th degree black belt and Sensei at Nippon Kan), she was a master jeweler. She designed and made the wedding rings for both my first and second wife along with several beautiful pendants and a set of ear rings for one of my nieces. I never had a personal jeweler before Emily and shall not have another before my time is finished on this earth.

For all her skill and mastery, she very much understood the importance of service. There was no task that needed attention at the dojo or in preparation for a seminar that was beneath her rank. And I wonder how many patrons to Domo restaurant knew they had their order taken and served by a 6th degree black belt.

Emily had already achieved the rank of black belt by the time I began practicing at Nippon Kan in 1989. My very early memories from practicing with her are of her patience and ability to skillfully instruct a 6’5″ oaf like me in the ways of Aikido – both on and off the mat. I don’t know if Emily even weighed 120 pounds, but that never stopped her from putting my sorry ass on the mat or sending me over her shoulder. Even so, I never matched Emily’s skill, even on my good days.

Those mastery related posts will have to wait a while longer. And in the wider view, my respect for those whom make claim to be masters without having done the work and earned the title have lost a little more of my respect.

Emily Sensei will be missed.

What does Agile documentation look like?

Reading through Dusty Phillips’ second edition of “Python 3 Object-oriented Programming,” this quote caught my attention:

Further, the most important person you will ever have to communicate with is yourself. We all think we can remember the design decisions we’ve made, but there will always be the Why did I do that? moments hiding in our future. If we keep the scraps of papers we did our initial diagramming on when we started a design, we’ll eventually find them a useful reference.

That strikes me as a good benchmark for acceptable documentation in Agile. Whether coder, UI/UX designer, data architect, or whatever, if you are keeping a good record of what you decided and why, you’ll probably be able to recreate the rationale for why things got to be the way they are for anybody who needs to know. Especially if that anybody is you. And there is a good chance that someone following in your footsteps will be able to pick up the same rationale even in your absence. All this without putting an unnecessary burden on project progress for the sake of detailed documentation.

Of course, what qualifies as “good” is the tricky part. A suggested threshold would be to specify only as much information as makes sense or for what is known given the current situation. Documentation should be subject to iterative practices just as much as code.

False Barriers to Implementing Scrum – II

In a previous post, I described several barriers to implementing scrum. Recently, an additional example came to light similar to the mistake of elevating scrum or Agile to a philosophy.

In a conversation with a colleague, we were exploring ways on how we might drive interest for browsing the growing wealth of Agile related information being added to the company wiki.  It’s an impressive collection of experiences of how other teams have solved a wide array of interesting problems using Agile principles and practices. Knowing that we cannot personally attend to every need on every project team, we were talking through various ways to develop the capacity for exploration and self-education. I think I must have used the phrase “the information is out there and readily available” a couple of times to many because my colleague reacted to where I put the bar by comparing learning Agile to surgery.

Using the surgery metaphor, she pressed the comparison that all the information she needs about surgery is “out there and readily available” but even if she knew all that information she likely wouldn’t be a good surgeon. Fair point that experience and practice are important. And if that is the case, then everyone should be taking every opportunity they can to practice good agile rather than regressing to old habits.

More importantly, perhaps, is the misapplied metaphor. Practicing agile isn’t as complicated as surgery or rocket science or any other such endeavor that requires years of deep study and practice. Comparing it to something like that places the prospects of doing well in a short amount of time mentally beyond the reach of any potential practitioners.

Perhaps a better metaphor is the opening of a new rail line in the city. A good measure of effort needs to be expended to educate the public on the line’s availability, the schedules, how to purchase fares, where the connections are, what are the safety features, etc. Having done that, having “put the information out there where it is generally available,” it is a reasonable expectation that the public will make the effort to find it when they need it. It is unreasonable, and unscaleable, to build such a system and then expect that every passenger will be personally escorted from their front door to their seat on the train.

It is also interesting to consider what this does to the “empathy scale” when such an overextended metaphor is applied to efforts such as learning to practice Agile. If we frame learning Agile as similar to surgery then as people work to implement Agile are we more inclined to have an excessive amount of empathy for their struggles and be more accepting or accommodating of their short comings?

“Not to worry that you still don’t have a well formed product backlog. This is like surgery, after all.”

Are we as an organization and each of our employees better served by the application of a more appropriate metaphor, one that matches the skill and expectations of the task?

“We’ve provided instruction as to what a product backlog is and how to create one. We’ve guided you as you’ve practiced refining a product backlog. You know where to find suggestions for improving your skills for product backlog stewardship (wiki, books, colleagues, etc). Now role up your sleeves and do the work.”

Successful coaching for developing the ability in team members for actively seeking answers requires skillfully letting them struggle and fail in recoverable ways. It is possible to hold their hand too long. To use another metaphor, provide whatever guidance and instruction you need to so they know how to fish, then let them alone to practice casting their own line.


Photo credit: langll

How to know when Agile is working

On a recent flight into Houston, my plane was diverted to Austin due to weather. Before we could land at Austin, we were re-diverted back to Houston. I’ve no idea why the gears aligned this way, but this meant we were out-of-sequence with the baggage handling system and our luggage didn’t arrive at the claim carousel for close to an hour and a half. Leading up to the luggage arrival was an unfortunate display from an increasingly agitated young couple. They were loudly communicating their frustration to an airport employee with unknown authority. Their frustration was understandable in light of the fact that flights were undoubtedly going to be missed.

At one point, the woman exclaimed, “This isn’t how this is supposed to work!”

I matched this with a similar comment from one of the developers on one of my project teams. Stressed with the workload he had committed to, he declared there are too many meetings and therefore “the agile process is not working!” When explored, it turned out some version of this sentiment was common among the software development staff.

In both cases, the process was working. It just wasn’t working as desired or expected based on past experience. In both cases, present events were immune to expectations. The fact that our luggage almost always shows up on time and that agile frequently goes smoothly belies how susceptible the two processes actually are to unknown variables that can disrupt the usual flow of events.

There is a difference with agile, however. When practiced well, it adapts to the vagaries of human experience. We expect the unexpected, even if we don’t know what form that may take.

There is an assumption being made by the developers in that “working agile” makes work easy and stress free. I’ve never found that. And I don’t know anyone who has. It stresses teams differently than waterfall. I’ve experienced high stress developing code under both agile and waterfall. With agile, however, teams have a better shot at deciding for themselves the stress they want to take on. But there will be stress. Unstressed coders deliver code of questionable value and quality, if they deliver at all.

The more accurate assessment to make here is that the developers aren’t practicing agile as well as they could. That’s fundamentally different from “agile isn’t working.” In particular, the developers didn’t understand what they had committed to. Every single sprint planning session I’ve run (and the way I coach them to be run) begins with challenging the team members to think about things that may impact the work they will commit to in the next sprint – vacations, family obligations, doctor visits, other projects, stubbed toes, alien abductions – anything that may limit the effort they can commit to. What occurred with the developers was a failure to take responsibility for their actions and decisions, a measure of dishonesty (albeit unintended) to themselves and their team mates by saying “yes” to work and later wishing “no.”

Underlying this insight into developer workload may be something much more unsettling. If anyone on your team has committed to more than they can complete and has done so for a number of sprints, your project may be at risk. The safe assumption would be that the project has a hidden fragility that will surprise you when it breaks. Project time lines, deliverables, and quality will suffer not solely because there are too many meetings, but because the team does not have a good understanding of what they need to complete and what they can commit to. What is the potential impact on other projects (internal and client) knowing that one or more of the team members is over committing? What delays, quality issues, or major pivots are looming out there ready to cause significant disruptions?

The resolution to this issue requires time and the following actions:

  • Coaching for creating and refining story cards
  • Coaching for understanding how to estimate work efforts (points and/or time)
  • Develop skills in the development staff for recognizing card dependencies
  • Develop skills for time management
  • Find ways to modify the work environment such that it is easier for developers to focus on work for extended periods of time
  • Evaluate the meeting load to determine if there are extraneous meetings
  • Based on metrics, specifically limit each developer’s work commitment for several sprints such that it falls within their ability to complete

Image credit: Prawny

False Barriers to Implementing Scrum

When my experience with scrum began to transition from developer to scrum master and on to mentor and coach, early frustrations could have been summed up in the phrase, “Why can’t people just follow a simple framework?” The passage of time and considerable experience has greatly informed my understanding of what may inhibit or prevent intelligent and capable people from picking up and applying a straightforward framework like scrum.

At the top of this list of insights has to be the tendency of practitioners to place elaborate decorations around their understanding of scrum. In doing so, they make scrum practices less accessible. The framework itself can make this a challenge. Early on, while serving in the role of mentor, I would introduce scrum with an almost clinical textbook approach: define the terms, describe the process, and show the obligatory recursive work flow diagrams. In short order, I’d be treading water (barely) in endlessly circuitous debates on topics like the differences between epics and stories. I wrote about this phenomenon in a previous post as it relates to story points. So how can we avoid being captured by Parkinson’s law of triviality and other cognitive traps?

Words Matter

I discovered that the word “epic” brought forth fatigue inducing memories of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and Shakespeare. Instant block. Solution out of reach. It was like putting a priceless, gold-plated, antique picture frame around the picture postcard of a jackalope your cousin Eddie sent you on his way through Wyoming. Supertanker loads of precious time were wasted in endless debates about whether or not something was an epic or a story. So, no more talk of epics. I started calling them “story categories.” Or “chapters.” Or “story bundles.” Whatever it took to get teams onto the idea that “epics” are just one of the dimensions to a story map or product backlog that helps the product owner and agile delivery team keep a sense of overall project scope. Story writing progress accelerated and teams were doing a decent job of creating “epics” without knowing they had done so. Fine tuning their understanding and use of formal scrum epics came later and with much greater ease.

“Sprint” is another unfortunate word in formal scrum. With few exceptions, the people that have been on my numerous scrum teams haven’t sprinted anywhere in decades. Sprinting is something one watches televised from some far away place every four years. Maybe. Given its fundamental tenets and principles, who’s to say a team can’t find a word for the concept of a “sprint” that makes sense to them. The salient rule, it would seem, is that whatever word they choose, the team fully understand that “it” is a time-boxed commitment for completing a defined set of work tasks. And if “tide,” “phase,” or “iteration” gets the team successfully through a project using scrum than who am I to wear a the badge of “Language Police?”

A good coach meets the novice at their level and then builds their expertise over time, structured in a way that matches and challenges the learner’s capacity to learn. I recall from my early Aikido practice the marked difference between instructors who stressed using the correct Japanese name for a technique over those that focused more on learning the physical techniques and described them in a language I could understand. Once I’d learned the physical patterns the verbal names came much more easily.

Full disclosure: this is not as easy when there are multiple scrum teams in the same organization that eventually rotate team members. Similarly, integrating new hires with scrum experience is much easier when the language is shared. But to start, if the block to familiarization with the scrum process revolves around semantic debates it makes sense to adapt the words so that the team can adopt the process then evolve the words to match more closely those reflected in the scrum framework.

Philosophy, System, Mindset, or Process

A similar fate awaited team members that had latched onto the idea that scrum or agile in general is a philosophy. I watched something similar happen in the late 1980’s when the tools and techniques of total quality management evolved into monolithic world views and corporate religions. More recently, I’ve attended meet-ups where conversations about “What is Agile?” include describing the scrum master as “therapist” or “spiritual guide.” Yikes! That’s some pretty significant mission creep.

I’m certain fields like philosophy and psychotherapy could benefit from many of the principles and practices found in agile. But it would be a significant category error to place agile at the same level as those fields of study. If you think tasking an agile novice with writing an “epic” is daunting, try telling them they will need to study and fully understand the “philosophy of agile” before they become good agile practitioners.

The issue is that it puts the idea of practicing agile essentially out of reach for the new practitioner or business leader thinking about adopting agile. The furthest up this scale I’m willing to push agile is that it is a mindset. An adaptive way of thinking about how work gets done. From this frame I can leverage a wide variety of common, real-life experiences that will help those new to agile understand how it can help them succeed in their work life.

Out in the wild, best to work the system and process angles if you want meaningful work to actually get done.

Parkinson’s Law of Triviality and Story Sizing

From  Infogalactic: Parkinson’s law of triviality

Parkinson observed and illustrated that a committee whose job was to approve plans for a nuclear power plant spent the majority of its time on discussions about relatively trivial and unimportant but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bike-shed, while neglecting the non-trivial proposed design of the nuclear power plant itself, which is far more important but also a far more difficult and complex task to criticise constructively.

I see this phenomenon in play during team story sizing exercises in the following scenarios.

  1. In the context of the story being sized, the relative expertise of each of the team members is close to equal in terms of experience and depth of knowledge. The assumption is that if everyone on the team is equally qualified to estimate the effort and complexity of a particular story then the estimation process should move along quickly. With a skilled team, this does, indeed, occur. If it is a newly formed team or if the team is new to agile principles and practices, Parkinson’s Law of Triviality can come into play as the effort quickly gets lost in the weeds.
  2. In the context of the story being sized, the relative expertise of the team members is not near parity and yet each of the individual team members has a great deal of expertise in the context of their respective functional areas. What I’ve observed happening is that the team members least qualified to evaluate the particular story feel the need to assert their expertise and express an opinion. I recall an instance where a software developer estimated it would take 8 hours of coding work to place a “Print This” button on a particular screen. The credentialed learning strategist (who asked for the print button and has no coding experience) seemed incredulous that such an effort would require so much time. A lengthy and unproductive argument ensued.

To prevent this I focus my coaching efforts primarily on the product owner as they will be interacting with the team on this effort during product backlog refinement session more frequently than I. They need to watch for:

  1. Strong emotional response by team members when a size or time estimate is proposed.
  2. Conversations that drop further and further into design details.
  3. Conversations that begin to explore multiple “what if” scenarios.

The point isn’t to prevent each of these behaviors from occurring. Rather manage them. If there is a strong emotional response, quickly get to the “why” behind that response. Does the team member have a legitimate objection or does their response lack foundation?

Every team meeting is an opportunity to clarify the bigger picture for the team so a little bit of conversation around design and risks is a good thing. It’s important to time box those conversations and agree to take the conversation off-line from the backlog refinement session.

When coaching the team, I focus primarily on the skills needed to effectively size an effort. Within this context I can also address the issue of relative expertise and how to leverage and value the opinions expressed by team member who may not entirely understand the skill needed to complete a particular story.

(John Cook cites another interesting example of Parkinson’s Law of Triviality (a.k.a. the bike shed principle) from Michael Beirut’s book How to involving the design of several logos.)

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