Book Review: Tribes – We Need You to Lead Us

Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us by Seth Godin

Reading Godin is a lot like going for an enjoyable mountain hike and finding a handful of small gold nuggets along the way. No heavy effort to dig for miles in order to find the deeper, richer vein of wealth. Just enough interesting shiny bits of useful wisdom scattered along the trail to invite the reader to explore further.

“Tribes” isn’t so much about the composition and character of tribes, per se, but more a call to serve as a leader for tribes yet to be formed. “Human beings can’t help it,” he writes. “[W]e need to belong. One of the most powerful of our survival mechanisms is to be part of a tribe, to contribute to (and take from) a group of like-minded people.” But left to their own devices, tribes dissolve or evolve into something directionless, perhaps unruly. What they need to persist is some form of leadership to set the rules and customs.

Speaking to aspiring or future leaders, Godin presents what he views as the biggest blocker to people stepping up and fulfilling leadership roles.

The only shortcut in this book, the only technique or how-to or inside info is this: the levers are here. The proof is here. The power is here. The only thing holding you back is your own fear….Dr. Laurence Peter is famous for proposing that “in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” In other words, when you do a great job, you get promoted. And that process repeats itself until finally you end up in a job you can’t handle….I’d like to paraphrase the Peter Principle. I think what actually happens is that “in every organization everyone rises to the level at which they become paralyzed with fear.”

And the source of that fear is rooted in misaligned beliefs about criticism and failure.

As with almost everything I read, my eye is searching for ways the information I’m acquiring can be applied to improving team performance. The notion of tribes appeals to me from a social community perspective. I firmly believe there are deep psychological patterns in the human mind that unconsciously gravitate toward the idea of belonging to a tribal structure. And yet, there are limitations to that structure in the 21st Century business world. As Godin notes, “[I]n addition to the messages that go from the marketer or the leader to the tribe, there are the messages that go sideways, from member to member, and back to the leader as well.” What about communication between tribes? How might we avoid the formation of silos and corporate turf battles? These are questions for which I’ll need to continue searching as they are not addressed in “Tribes.”

Written more than ten years ago, there are elements of the book that have not aged well. For example, writing at a time which many today are considering the Golden Age of the Internet, Godin observes “In the nonsquishy tribal world of this decade, Twitter and blogs and online videos and countless other techniques contribute to an entirely new dimension of what it means to be part of a tribe.” And later, while writing about how easy it is for tribes to connect, communicate, and spread messages: “The tribe thrives; it delivers value and it spreads. Internet folks call this viral activity, or a virtuous cycle.” More commonly today the technology noted by Godin – particularly Facebook and Twitter – have resulted in the formation of more mobs than tribes and the cycles are 2019 are more vicious than they are virtuous.

However, I don’t think Godin was casting his gaze into the future through entirely rose colored glasses. He notes that crowds (and their blunt force object version: mobs) and tribes are “[t]wo different things: A crowd is a tribe without a leader. A crowd is a tribe without communication. Most organizations spend their time marketing to the crowd. Smart organizations assemble the tribe. Crowds are interesting, and they can create all sorts of worthwhile artifacts and market effects. But tribes are longer lasting and more effective.”

Several of the gold nuggets I picked up pointed to the importance of systemic thinking and analysis:

Leaders don’t care very much for organizational structure or the official blessing of whatever factory they work for. They use passion and ideas to lead people, as opposed to using threats and bureaucracy to manage them. Leaders must become aware of how the organization works, because this awareness allows them to change it.

Working in an environment that’s static is no fun. Even worse, working for an organization that is busy fighting off change is horrible.

When you fall in love with the system, you lose the ability to grow.

The status quo is persistent and resistant.

The last quote is a clear reflection of Shalloway’s Corollary. The status quo is the system pushing back.

I’ll round out this review with a few quotes that apply to a life in general.

Leaders have followers. Managers have employees.

If you need the alternative to be better than the status quo from the very start, you’ll never begin.

Life’s too short to fight the forces of change. Life’s too short to hate what you do all day. Life’s way too short to make mediocre stuff.

Defending mediocrity is exhausting.

Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, maybe you ought to set up a life you don’t need to escape from.

People don’t believe what you tell them. They rarely believe what you show them. They often believe what their friends tell them. They always believe what they tell themselves. What leaders do: they give people stories they can tell themselves. Stories about the future and about change.

Agile and Changing Requirements or Design

I hear this (or some version) more frequently in recent years than in past:

Agile is all about changing requirements at anytime during a project, even at the very end.

I attribute the increased frequency to the increased popularity of Agile methods and practices.

That the “Responding to change over following a plan” Agile Manifesto value is cherry picked so frequently is probably due to a couple of factors:

  • It’s human nature for a person to resist being cornered into doing something they don’t want to do. So this value gets them out of performing a task.
  • The person doesn’t understand the problem or doesn’t have a solution. So this value buys them time to figure out how to solve the problem. Once they do have a solution, well, it’s time to change the design or the requirements to fit the solution. This reason isn’t necessary bad unless it’s the de facto solution strategy.

The intent behind the “Responding to change” value, and the way successful Agile is practiced, does not allow for constant and unending change. Taken to it’s logical conclusion, nothing would ever be completed and certainly nothing would ever be released to the market.

I’m not going to rehash the importance of the preposition in the value statement. Any need to explain the relativity implied by it’s use has become a useful signal for me to spend my energies elsewhere. But for those who are not challenged by the grammar, I’d like to say a few thing about how to know when change is appropriate and when it’s important to follow a plan.

The key is recognizing and tracking decision points. With traditional project management, decisions are built-in to the project plan. Every possible bit of work is defined and laid out on a Gantt chart, like the steel rails of a train track. Deviation from this path would be actively discouraged, if it were considered at all.

Using an Agile process, decision points that consider possible changes in direction are built into the process – daily scrums, sprint planning, backlog refinement, reviews and demonstrations at the end of sprints and releases, retrospectives, acceptance criteria, definitions of done, continuous integration – these all reflect deliberate opportunities in the process to evaluate progress and determine whether any changes need to be made. These are all activities that represent decisions or agreements to lock in work definitions for short periods of time.

For example, at sprint planning, a decision is made to complete a block of work in a specified period of time – often two weeks. After that, the work is reviewed and decisions are made as to whether or not that work satisfies the sprint goal and, by extension, the product vision. At this point, the product definition is specifically opened up for feedback from the stakeholders and any proposed changes are discussed. Except under unique circumstances, changes are not introduced mid-sprint and the teams stick to the plan.

Undoing decisions or agreements only happens if there is supporting information, such as technical infeasibility or a significant market shift. Undoing decisions and agreements doesn’t happen just because “Agile is all about changing requirements.” Agile supports changing requirements when there is good reason to do so, irrespective of the original plan. With traditional project management, it’s all about following the plan and change at any point is resisted.

This is the difference. With traditional project management, decisions are built-in to the project plan. With Agile they are adapted in.

The Value of “Good Enough for Now”

I’ve been giving some more thought to the idea of “good enough” as one of the criteria for defining minimum viable/valuable products. I still stand by everything I wrote in my original “The Value of ‘Good Enough’” article. What’s different is that I’ve started to use the phrase “good enough for now.” Reason being, the phrase “good enough” seems to imply an end state. “Good enough” is an outcome. If it is early in a project, people generally have a problem with that. They have some version of an end state that is a significant mismatch with the “good enough” product today. The idea of settling for “good enough” at this point makes it difficult for them to know when to stop work on an interim phase and collect feedback.

“Good enough for now” implies there is more work to be done and the product isn’t in some sort of finished state that they’ll have to settle for. “Good enough for now” is a transitory state in the process. I’m finding that I can more easily gain agreement that a story is finished and get people to move forward to the next “good enough for now” by including the time qualifier.

Agile Money

In a recent conversation with colleagues we were debating the merits of using story point velocity as a metric for team performance and, more specifically, how it relates to determining a team’s predictability. That is to say, how reliable the team is at completing the work they have promised to complete. At one point, the question of what is a story point came up and we hit on the idea of story points not being “points” at all. Rather, they are more like currency. This solved a number of issues for us.

First, it interrupts the all too common assumption that story points (and by extension, velocities) can be compared between teams. Experienced scrum practitioners know this isn’t true and that nothing good can come from normalizing story points and sprint velocities between teams. And yet this is something non-agile savvy management types are want to do. Thinking of a story’s effort in terms of currency carries with it the implicit assumption that one team’s “dollars” are not another team’s “rubles” or another teams “euros.” At the very least, an exchange evaluation would need to occur. Nonetheless, dollars, rubles, and euros convey an agreement of value, a store of value that serves as a reliable predictor of exchange. X number of story points will deliver Y value from the product backlog.

The second thing thinking about effort as currency accomplished was to clarify the consequences of populating the product backlog with a lot of busy work or non-value adding work tasks. By reducing the value of the story currency, the measure of the level of effort becomes inflated and the ability of the story currency to function as a store of value is diminished.

There are a host of other interesting economics derived thought experiments that can be played out with this frame around story effort. What’s the effect of supply and demand on available story currency (points)? What’s the state of the currency supply (resource availability)? Is there such a thing as counterfeit story currency? If so, what’s that look like? How might this mesh with the idea of technical or dark debt?

Try this out at your next backlog refinement session (or whenever it is you plan to size story efforts): Ask the team what you would have to pay them in order to complete the work. Choose whatever measure you wish – dollars, chickens, cookies – and use that as a basis for determining the effort needed to complete the story. You might also include in the conversation the consequences to the team – using the same measures – if they do not deliver on their promise.

Openness, Grapevines, and Strangleholds

If you truly value openness on your Agile teams, you must untangle them from the grapevine.

Openness is one of the core scrum values. As stated on Scrum.org:

“The scrum team and it’s stakeholders agree to be open about all the work and the challenges with performing the work.”

This is a very broad statement, encompassing not only openness around work products and processes, but also each individual’s responsibility for ensuring that any challenges related to overall team performance are identified, acknowledged, and resolved. In my experience, issues with openness related to work products or the processes that impact them are relatively straightforward to recognize and resolve. If a key tool, for example, is mis-configured or ill-suited to what the team needs to accomplish than the need to focus on issues with the tool should be obvious. If there is an information hoarder on the team preventing the free flow of information, this will reveal itself within a few sprints after a string of unknown dependencies or misaligned deliverables have had a negative impact on the team’s performance. Similarly, if a team member is struggling with a particular story card and for whatever reason lacks the initiative to ask for help, this will reveal itself in short order.

Satisfying the need for openness around individual and team performance, however, is a much more difficult behavior to measure. Everyone – and by “everyone” I mean everyone – is by nature very sensitive to being called out as having come up short in any way. Maybe it’s a surprise to them. Maybe it isn’t. But it’s always a hot button. As much as we’d like to avoiding treading across this terrain, it’s precisely this hypersensitivity that points to where we need to go to make the most effective changes that impact team performance.

At the top of my list of things to constantly scan for at the team level are the degrees of separation (space and time) between a problem and the people who are part of the problem. Variously referred to as “the grapevine”, back channeling, or triangulation, it can be one of the most corrosive behaviors to a team’s trust and their ability to collaborate effectively. From his research over the past 30 years, Joseph Grenny [1] has observed “that you can largely predict the health of an organization by measuring the average lag time between identifying and discussing problems.” I’ve found this to be true. Triangulation and back-channeling adds significantly to the lag time.

To illustrate the problem and a possible solution: I was a newly hired scrum master responsible for two teams, about 15 people in total. At the end of my first week I was approached by one of the other scrum masters in the company. “Greg,” they said in a whisper, “You’ve triggered someone’s PTSD by using a bad word.” [2]

Not an easy thing to learn, having been on the job for less than a week. Double so because I couldn’t for the life of me think of what I could have said that would have “triggered” a PTSD response. This set me back on my heels but I did manage to ask the scrum master to please ask this individual to reach out to me so I could speak with them one-to-one and apologize. At the very least, suggest they contact HR as a PTSD response triggered by a word is a sign that someone needs help beyond what any one of us can provide. My colleague’s responses was “I’ll pass that on to the person who told me about this.”

“Hold up a minute. Your knowledge of this issue is second hand?”

Indeed it was. Someone told someone who told the scrum master who then told me. Knowing this, I retracted my request for the scrum master to pass along my request. The problem here was the grapevine and a different tack was needed. I coached the scrum master to 1) never bring something like this to me again, 2) inform the person who told you this tale that you will not be passing anything like this along to me in the future, and 3) to coach that person to do the same to the person who told them. The person for whom this was an issue should either come to me directly or to my manager. I then coached my manager and my product owners that if anyone were to approach them with a complaint like this to listen carefully to the person, acknowledge that you heard them, and to also encourage them to speak directly with me.

This should be the strategy for anyone with complaints that do not rise to the level of needing HR intervention. The goal of this approach is to develop behaviors around personal complaints such that everyone on the team knows they have a third person to talk to and that the issue isn’t going to be resolved unless they talked directly to the person with whom they have an issue. It’s a good strategy for cutting the grapevines and short circuiting triangulation (or in my case the quadrangulation.) To seal the strategy, I gave a blanket apology to each of my teams the following Monday and let them know what I requested of my manager and product owners.

The objective was to establish a practice of resolving issues like this at the team level. It’s highly unlikely (and in my case 100% certain) that a person new to a job would have prior knowledge of sensitive words and purposely use language that upsets their new co-workers. The presupposition of malice or an assumption that a new hire should know such things suggested a number of systemic issues with the teams, something later revealed to be accurate. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that in this organization the grapevine supplanted instant messaging and email as the primary communication channel. With the cooperation of my manager and product owners, several sizable branches to the grapevine had been cut away. Indeed, there was a marked increase in the teams attention at stand-ups and the retrospectives became more animated and productive in the weeks that followed.

Each situation is unique, but the intervention pattern is more broadly applicable: Reduce the number of node hops and associated lag time between the people directly involved with any issues around openness. This in and of itself may not resolve the issues. It didn’t in the example described above. But it does significantly reduce the barriers to applying subsequent techniques for working through the issues to a successful resolution. Removing the grapevine changes the conversation.

References

[1] Grenny, J. (2016, August 19). How to Make Feedback Feel Normal. Harvard Business Review, Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/08/how-to-make-feedback-feel-normal

[2] The “bad” word was “refinement.” The team had been using the word “grooming” to refer to backlog refinement and I had suggested we use the more generally accepted word. Apparently, a previous scrum master for the team had been, shall we say, overly zealous in pressing this same recommendation such that it was a rather traumatic experience for someone on the one of the teams. It later became known that this event was grossly exaggerated, “crying PTSD” as a variation of “crying wolf,” and that the reporting scrum master was probably working to establish a superior position. It would have worked, had I simply cowered and accepted the report as complete and accurate. The strategy described in this article proved effective at preventing this type of behavior.

Collaboration vs Clobber-ation – Redux

I was taken to task for “not being a team player” in my example of walking away from an opportunity to co-develop a training program with a difficult Agile coach. It was easy to set this criticism aside as the person offering it was in no position to be familiar with the context or full story. Nonetheless, the comment gave me pause to consider more deeply the rationale behind my decision. What experiential factors did I leverage when coming to this seemingly snap decision?

I can think of five context characteristics to consider when attempting to collaborate in an environment charged with conflict.

First, is the disagreement over the details of the work to be done? My peer and I didn’t have agreement on whether or not it was important or useful to include information on basic story sizing as part of the story splitting presentation. I wanted to include this information, my peer did not.

Second, is there a disagreement over how the work is to be done? I wanted to preface the story splitting section with a story sizing section whereas my peer was intent on eviscerating the story sizing section to such an extent as to make it meaningless.

Third, is there any type of struggle around status or who “should” be in charge? My peer demonstrated unambiguous behavior that she was “The Coach” for the company and that anything that may be presented to employees should be an expression of her authorship. When she instructed me to send my deck of slides to her for “revision” and I refused, she visibly bristled. By this point, I wasn’t about to release my copyrighted material into her possession.

Fourth, are there corporate politics that promote – intentionally or unintentionally – silos and turf protection? My client’s organization could be be held forth as a textbook example of Conway’s Law. The product reflected an uncounted number of incomplete efforts and failed attempts at unifying the underlying architecture. The Agile Coach’s behavior was just one more example of someone in the organization working to put their stamp of value on the ever-growing edifice of corporate blobness.

Finally, is there a conflict of personalities or communication styles? Again, this was true in this case. I wanted to co-create whereas my peer wanted to commandeer and direct. I wanted to present, she wanted to interrupt.

No work environment is free of these characteristics and it may be they are all present in some degree or another. I expect these characteristics to be in place no matter where I work. However, in this case, it was clear to me we were not in alignment with any of these characteristics and each of them were present at very high levels. Sorting this out wasn’t worth my time at just about any price. Certainly not at the price I was being paid. Walking away wasn’t going to burn any bridges as there were no bridges in existence to begin with.

Behind the Curtain: The Delivery Team Member Role

Even with the formalization of Agile practices into numerous frameworks and methodologies, I have to say not much has changed for the software developer or engineer with respect to how they get work done. I’m not referring to technology. The changes in what software developers and engineers use to get work done has been seismic. The biggest shift in the “how,” in my experience, is that what were once underground practices are now openly accepted and encouraged.

When I was coding full time, in the pre-Agile days and under the burden of CMM, we followed all the practices for documenting use cases, hammering out technical and functional specs, and laboriously talking through requirements. (I smile when I hear developers today complain about the burden of meetings under Scrum.) And when it came time to actually code, I and my fellow developers set the multiple binders of documentation aside and engaged in many then unnamed Agile practices. We mixed and matched use cases in a way that allowed for more efficient coding of larger functional components. We “huddled” each morning in the passage way to cube pods to discuss dependencies and brainstorm solutions to technical challenges. Each of these became more efficiently organized in Agile as backlog refinement and daily stand-ups. We had numerous other loose practices that were not described in tomes such as CMM.

But Agile delivery teams today are frequently composed of more than just technical functional domains. There may be non-technical expertise included as integral members of the team. Learning strategists, content editors, creative illustrators, and marketing experts may be part of the team, depending on the objectives of the project. Consequently, this represents a significant challenge to technical members of the team (i.e. software development and  tech QA) who are unused to working with non-technical team members. Twenty years ago a developer who might say “Leave me alone so I can code.” would have been viewed as a dedicated worker. Today, it’s a sign that the developer risks working in isolation and consequently delivering something that is mis-matched with the work being done by the rest of the team.

On an Agile delivery team, whether composed of a diverse set of functional domains or exclusively technical experts, individual team members need to be thinking of the larger picture and the impact of their work on that of their team mates and the overall work flow. They need to be much more attentive to market influences than in the past. The half-life of major versions, let along entire products, is such that most software products outside a special niche can’t survive without leveraging Agile principles and practices. Their knowledge must expand beyond just their functional domain. The extent to which they possess this knowledge is reflected in the day-to-day behaviors displayed by the team and it’s individuals.

  • Is everyone on the team sensitive and respectful of everyone else’s time? This means following through on commitments and promises, including agreed upon meeting start times. One person showing up five minutes late to a 15 minute stand-up has just missed out on a third of the meeting at least. If the team waits for everyone to show up before starting, the late individual has just squandered 5 minutes multiplied by the number of team mates. For a 6 member team, that’s a half hour. And if it happens every day, that’s 2.5 hours a week. It adds up quickly. Habitual late-comers are also signaling a lack of respect to other team members. They are implicitly saying “Me and my time is more important than anyone else on the team.” Unchecked, this quickly spills over into other areas of the team’s interactions. Enforcing an on-time rule like this is key to encouraging the personal discipline necessary to work effectively as a team. When a scrum master keeps the team in line with a few basic items like this, the larger discipline issues never seem to arise. As U.S. Army General Ann Dunwoody (ret.) succinctly points out in her book, never walk by a mistake. Doing so gives implicit acceptance for the transgression. Problems blossom from there, and it isn’t a pretty flower. (As a scrum master, I cannot “make” someone show up on time. But I can address the respect aspect of this issue by always starting on time. That way, late-comers stand out as late, not more important. Over time, this tends to correct the lateness issue as well.)
  • Everyone on the team must be capable of tracking a constantly evolving set of dependencies and knowing where their work fits within the flow. To whom will they be delivering work? From whom are they expecting completed work? The answer to these questions may not be a name on the immediate team. Scrum masters must periodically explicitly ask these questions if the connections aren’t coming out naturally during stand-ups. Developing this behavior is about coaching the team to look beyond the work on their desk and understand how they are connected to the larger effort. Software programmers seem to have a natural tendency to build walls around their work. Software engineers less so. And on teams with diverse functional groups it is important for both the scrum master and product owner to be watchful for when barriers appear for reasons that have more to due to lack of familiarity across functional domains than anything else.
  • Is the entire team actively and consistently engaged with identifying and writing stories?
  • Is the team capable and willing to cross domain boundaries and help? Are they interested in learning about other parts of the product and business?

Product owners and scrum masters need to be constantly scanning for these and other signs of disengagement as well as opportunities to connect cross functional needs.

The Path to Mastery: Begin with the Fundamentals

Somewhere along the path of studying Aikido for 25  years I found a useful perspective on the art that applies to a lot of skills in life.  Aikido is easy to understand. It’s a way of living that leaves behind it a trail of techniques. What’s hard is overcoming the unending stream of little frustrations and often self-imposed limitations. What’s hard is learning how to make getting up part of falling down. What’s hard is healing after getting hurt. What’s hard is learning the importance of recognizing when a white belt is more of a master than you are. In short, what’s hard is mastering the art.

The same can be said about practicing Agile. Agile is easy to understand. It is four fundamental values and twelve principles. The rest is just a trail of techniques and supporting tools – rapid application development, XP, scrum, Kanban, Lean, SAFe, TDD, BDD, stories, sprints, stand-ups – all just variations from a very simple foundation and adapted to meet the prevailing circumstances. Learning how to apply the best technique for a given situation is learned by walking the path toward mastery – working through the endless stream of frustrations and limitations, learning how to make failing part of succeeding, recognizing when you’re not the smartest person in the room, and learning how to heal after getting hurt.

If an Aikidoka is attempting to apply a particular technique to an opponent  and it isn’t working, their choices are to change how they’re performing the technique, change the technique, or invent a new technique based on the fundamentals. Expecting the world to adapt to how you think it should go is a fool’s path. Opponents in life – whether real people, ideas, or situations – are notoriously uncompromising in this regard.  The laws of physics, as they say, don’t much care about what’s going on inside your skull. They stubbornly refuse to accommodate your beliefs about how things “should” go.

The same applies to Agile practices. If something doesn’t seem to be working, it’s time to step in front of the Agile mirror and ask yourself a few questions. What is it about the fundamentals you’re not paying attention to? Which of the values are out of balance? What technique is being misapplied? What different technique will better serve? If your team or organization needs to practice Lean ScrumXPban SAFe-ly than do that. Be bold in your quest to find what works best for your team. The hue and cry you hear won’t be from the gods, only those who think they are – mere mortals more intent on ossifying Agile as policy, preserving their status, or preventing the perceived corruption of their legacy.

But I’m getting ahead of things. Before you can competently discern which practices a situation needs and how to best structure them you must know the fundamentals.

There are no shortcuts.

In this series of posts I hope to open a dialog about mastering Agile practices. We’ll begin by studying several maps that have been created over time that describe the path toward mastery, discuss the benefits and shortcomings of each of these maps, and explore the reasons why many people have a difficult time following these maps. From there we’ll move into the fundamentals of Agile practices and see how a solid understanding of these fundamentals can be used to respond to a wide variety of situations and contexts. Along the way we’ll discover how to develop an Agile mindset.

Agile Team Composition: Generalists versus Specialists

Estimating levels of effort for a set of tasks by a group of individuals well qualified to complete those tasks can efficiently and reliable be determined with a collaborative estimation process like planning poker. Such teams have a good measure of skill overlap. In the context of the problem set, each of the team members are generalist in the sense  it’s possible for any one team member to work on a variety of cross functional tasks during a sprint. Differences in preferred coding language among team members, for example, is less an issue when everyone understands advanced coding practices and the underlying architecture for the solution.

With a set of complimentary technical skills it’s is easier agree on work estimates. There are other benefits that flow from well-matched teams. A stable sprint velocity emerges much sooner. There is greater cross functional participation. And re-balancing the work load when “disruptors” occur – like vacations, illness, uncommon feature requests, etc. – is easier to coordinate.

Once the set of tasks starts to include items that fall outside the expertise of the group and the group begins to include cross functional team members, a process like planning poker becomes increasingly less reliable. The issue is the mismatch between relative scales of expertise. A content editor is likely to have very little insight into the effort required to modify a production database schema. Their estimation may be little more than a guess based on what they think it “should” be. Similarly for a coder faced with estimating the effort needed to translate 5,000 words of text from English to Latvian. Unless, of course, you have an English speaking coder on your team who speaks fluent Latvian.

These distinctions are easy to spot in project work. When knowledge and solution domains have a great deal of overlap, generalization allows for a lot of high quality collaboration. However, when an Agile team is formed to solve problems that do not have a purely technical solution, specialization rather than generalization has a greater influence on overall success. The risk is that with very little overlap specialized team expertise can result in either shallow solutions or wasteful speculation – waste that isn’t discovered until much later. Moreover, re-balancing the team becomes problematic and most often results in delays and missed commitments due to the limited ability for cross functional participation among team mates.

The challenge for teams where knowledge and solution domains have minimal overlap is to manage the specialized expertise domains in a way that is optimally useful, That is, reliable, predictable, and actionable. Success becomes increasingly dependent on how good an organization is at estimating levels of effort when the team is composed of specialists.

One approach I experimented with was to add a second dimension to the estimation: a weight factor to the estimator’s level of expertise relative to the nature of the card being considered. The idea is that with a weighted expertise factor calibrated to the problem and solution contexts, a more reliable velocity emerges over time. In practice, was difficult to implement. Teams spent valuable time challenging what the weighted factor should be and less experienced team members felt their opinion had been, quite literally, discounted.

The approach I’ve had the most success with on teams with diverse expertise is to have story cards sized by the individual assigned to complete the work. This still happens in a collaborative refinement or planning session so that other team members can contribute information that is often outside the perspective of the work assignee. Dependencies, past experience with similar work on other projects, missing acceptance criteria, or a refinement to the story card’s minimum viable product (MVP) definition are all examples of the kind of information team members have contributed. This invariably results in an adjustment to the overall level of effort estimate on the story card. It also has made details about the story card more explicit to the team in a way that a conversation focused on story point values doesn’t seem to achieve. The conversation shifts from “What are the points?” to “What’s the work needed to complete this story card?”

I’ve also observed that by focusing ownership of the estimate on the work assignee, accountability and transparency tend to increase. Potential blockers are surfaced sooner and team members communicate issues and dependencies more freely with each other. Of course, this isn’t always the case and in a future post we’ll explore aspects of team composition and dynamics that facilitate or prevent quality collaboration.

Story Points and Fuzzy Bunnies

The scrum framework is forever tied to the language of sports in general and rugby in particular. We organize our project work around goals, sprints, points, and daily scrums. An unfortunate consequence of organizing projects around a sports metaphor is that the language of gaming ends up driving behavior. For example, people have a natural inclination to associate the idea of story points to a measure of success rather than an indicator of the effort required to complete the story. The more points you have, the more successful you are. This is reflected in an actual quote from a retrospective on things a team did well:

We completed the highest number of points in this sprint than in any other sprint so far.

This was a team that lost sight of the fact they were the only team on the field. They were certain to be the winning team. They were also destine to be he losing team. They were focused on story point acceleration rather than a constant, predictable velocity.

More and more I’m finding less and less value in using story points as an indicator for level of effort estimation. If Atlassian made it easy to change the label on JIRA’s story point field, I’d change it to “Fuzzy Bunnies” just to drive this idea home. You don’t want more and more fuzzy bunnies, you want no more than the number you can commit to taking care of in a certain span of time typically referred to as a “sprint.” A team that decides to take on the care and feeding of 50 fuzzy bunnies over the next two weeks but has demonstrated – sprint after sprint – they can only keep 25 alive is going to lose a lot of fuzzy bunnies over the course of the project.

It is difficult for people new to scrum or Agile to grasp the purpose behind an abstract idea like story points. Consequently, they are unskilled in how to use them as a measure of performance and improvement. Developing this skill can take considerable time and effort. The care and feeding of fuzzy bunnies, however, they get. Particularly with teams that include non-technical domains of expertise, such as content development or learning strategy.

A note here for scrum masters. Unless you want to exchange your scrum master stripes for a saddle and spurs, be wary of your team turning story pointing into an animal farm. Sizing story cards to match the exact size and temperament from all manner of animals would be just as cumbersome as the sporting method of story points. So, watch where you throw your rope, Agile cowboys and cowgirls.

(This article cross-posted at LinkedIn)


Image credit: tsaiproject (Modified in accordance with Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)