Memorial Day, 2020

I have forgotten where I discovered this picture. It was many years ago. I do not know who these men are or when and where this picture was taken. (If you know, please drop me a line.) I’ve copies of it on virtually every chunk of technology I own that’s capable of showing pictures as a frequent reminder and image for contemplation. It is rich in meaning in many different ways.

Judging by the amount of surrounding destruction, I’d guess these men are deep into Europe, perhaps even Germany. The uniforms suggest Spring, perhaps. Not warm enough for Summer, not cold enough for Winter. Perhaps they are toasting VE day, perhaps having survived the liberation of yet another city, perhaps having survived a recent battle, or maybe just celebrating being alive in the moment.

The soldier on the left appears to have what looks like a Thompson submachine gun on his lap, suggesting things in the area are not as casual as the wine bottle and raised glasses might suggest.

To all who have served us in the defense of Freedom and Liberty: My sincere and deep appreciation and most humble thanks.

Time Out!

In Estimating Effort – An Explicitly Implicit Approach I stated that time cannot be one of the attributes the team uses to describe what they mean by “effort.” The importance of this warrants the need for a deeper dive into the rationale behind this rule and how excluding time can lead to better predictability for team performance.

The primary objective for coaching teams to think about effort independent of time constraints is so that they can improve their skills for thinking about the actual work involved. Certainly they will spend time completing the work. But the simple passage of time won’t get the work done. Someone has to actually DO something. That something is the effort.

For example, maybe someone on the team says the product backlog item requires a lot of documentation. It isn’t complex and there aren’t any dependencies, it’s just going to take a lot of time – 7 days, maybe. So they want to give that PBI an effort value of 5 or 8 (or 5 or 8 story points, if that’s what you’re using) because it’s going to take a lot of time.

Remember, the purpose of these criteria is to generate a conversation around what the actual effort is. The criteria are just a set of guideposts that help the team hold a meaningful conversation about the effort.  So when someone on a team insists that they estimate using time, I ask them “What are you doing as the time you’ve estimated is passing? Are you just sitting there, watching the seconds tick away?” Of course they aren’t just sitting there. I’m asking the questions to elicit a comment about the actual work they are doing. Maybe they answer with something a little less vague, like “typing words.” That’s good. “What’s the difference between typing those words in a word processor and typing code in Vim?”

Continuing down this line of inquiry usually leads to the realization that typing documentation has many similar traits to coding. It can be complex. It may have dependencies.  It may require research for accuracy and it certainly will need a lot of debugging (professional writers call this “editing.”) Coders typically don’t like writing documentation. To them it’s just about the tedium of banging something out that’s not as fun as code. Sussing out the effort like this will lead to better acceptance criteria and definition of done associated with the PBI.

The downside of time estimates is that they hide all manner of sins and rabbit holes. The planning fallacy, precision bias, availability heuristic, and survivorship bias are just a few of the mental obstacles guaranteed to reduce the accuracy of time estimates. Or you may have to deal with a team member who wants to estimate using time because they know full well it offers the opportunity to hide slow work. (Gamers gotta game.) When teams have run the gauntlet of effort criteria, they are more likely to end up with a better picture of how much work they are being asked to do when time is excluded from the conversation. Effort criteria force the team to be more explicit about the activities they are engaged with as the clock ticks.

The investment in identifying time-independent effort criteria yields further benefits in the retrospective. Was the team unable to complete a PBI in the sprint? Was all the work finished two days early? Have a look at the effort criteria and ask which of them were a factor in making the PBIs a bigger or smaller effort than initially estimated. This is how teams learn and improve their skill at estimating. The better they are at estimating the more predictable their productivity.

OK, so let’s say you have a team doing a great job of determining the effort needed to complete a PBI and they do so without including time. No doubt, management will be unimpressed. They want time estimates. Good news! We can give them time estimates…in two week increments.

With the team focused on figuring out time independent effort values for every PBI in the backlog and an ongoing experience of how much effort they can reliably complete in two week increments, product owners can provide a reasonable forecast for when the release or project will be complete. The team focuses on accurate time independent effort estimates. The scrum master and product owner worry about the performance metrics and time projections.

It’s surprising how hard of a sell this can be for teams. They are hard wired to think in terms of time because that’s what traditional project management has hounded them for since before coding was a thing. I tell teams, “With Agile and scrum, you no longer have to worry about time. That’s the product owner’s job. But you do have to develop very good skills at estimating effort.” It’s common for them to have a hard time adjusting to the new paradigm.

Estimating Effort – An Explicitly Implicit Approach

It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.Unknown

Sage advice.

So why bother estimating the amount of work needed to complete a product backlog item? After all, since estimates are about the future the probability is high that they will be wrong. Actually, they may very well be guaranteed to be wrong. It’s just that some of the guesses will be more accurate than others. And if they happen to match what the effort ended up to be, they just look like they were “right.”

I’ve written in the past expressing my thoughts about estimating the effort needed to complete product backlog items, particularly with respect to story points. I believe working to find a relative gauge to how well teams are estimating work is important. Without them, cognitive biases such as the optimism bias and planning fallacy can significantly distort a project delivery timeline. However, the phrase “story point” is burdened with a lot of baggage. It has been abused and misused such that invoking the phrase often causes more harm than good.

I’ve been experimenting recently with a different approach to estimating effort. The method I’ll describe in this post got a bit of a boost after listening to a recent interview with Psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman. In this interview, Kahneman describes an experience he had while serving in the Israeli army some sixty years ago. He was assigned the job of setting up an interview process that would determine how well a recruit would do as a combat soldier. For this process, he selected six traits and instructed the interviewers to ask questions designed to evaluate each trait independently and score them. The interviewers were not happy with this approach. As a compromise, Kahneman instructed the interviewers, when they were finished asking about the six traits, to close their eyes and just jot down a number they felt matched how good a soldier the recruit might be. What he discovered:

When we validated the results of the interview, it was a big improvement on what had gone on before. But the other surprise was that the final intuitive judgments added, it was good. It was as good as the average of the six traits, and not the same. It added information, so actually we ended up with a score that was half determined by the specific ratings, and the intuition got half the weight. That, by the way, stayed in the Israeli army for well over 50 years.Daniel Kahneman

This intuitive evaluation made by the interviewers is similar to what Agile methods ask of development teams when determining a value for “story points.” T-shirt sizes, planning poker, dot voting, affinity mapping and many similar techniques are all designed to elicit an intuitive sense of the effort involved. If there is a disagreement between team members, than a dialog follows to understand what the discrepancy is all about. This continues until there is alignment on what the team believes the effort to be. When it works, it works well.

So on to the details of the approach I’ve been experimenting with. (It doesn’t have a name yet.) The result of this approach is a number I call the “effort value.” The word “value” is a reference to the actual elementary mathematics value being derived. Much like the answer to the question “What value results from adding 2 and 2?” Answer: 4. The word “value” also suggests an intrinsic worth, something beyond a hard number. My theory is that this will help teams think beyond the mere number and think also about the value they are delivering to stakeholders. The word “point” correlates to a hard number and lacks any association to intrinsic worth or value.

Changing the words introduces a simple and small shift that nonetheless has a significant impact. With the change, teams are more open to considering a different approach to determining estimates.

So how is the effort value derived?

I begin by having the team define 4-5 characteristics or attributes that, to them, describe what they mean by “effort.” It is important for the team to define these attributes. By doing so, they own the definition and it becomes much harder for them to dismiss the attributes as “someone else’s” and thereby object to their use in deriving an effort value. These attributes can be anything that is meaningful to the team. Examples:

  • Complexity – Is the work straightforward (e.g. code a bubble sort function) or does it involve interrelated systems (e.g. code a predictive inventory control algorithm)?
  • Dependencies – How dependent is the product backlog item on other backlog items or other teams?
  • Familiarity – Is this work very similar to work the team has done in the past or something quite new? Tasking a coder with documenting a piece of straightforward code may actually be a difficult effort because the coding language they spend most of their day with is familiar whereas writing clear sentences that non-technical people can understand is unfamiliar.
  • Information – Is the detail in the product backlog item complete? Are the acceptance criteria and definition of done clear?
  • Technical Debt Risk – Does the PBI require any refactoring of related code? Is any technical debt being incurred with the PBI?
  • Design Stability – Is there a lot of discovery and exploration needed to complete the PBI?
  • Confidence for Completing a PBI within the Sprint – This category may roll up several categories.
  • Tedium – Perhaps the effort involves a lot of repetitive copy and paste that nonetheless requires careful attention to avoid simple mistakes.

The team can define any attribute they wish. However, there are a few criteria to consider:

  • Keep the list limited to 4-6 attributes. More than that risks turning the derivation of an effort value into the equivalent of a product backlog item navel-gazing exercise.
  • Time cannot be one of the attributes.
  • The attributes should be reasonable. Assessing a product backlog item’s effort value by evaluating it’s “aura” or the current position of the stars are generally not useful attributes. On the other hand, I’ve listened to arguments against evaluating estimates in terms of “complexity” as being similarly useless. I see the point of those arguments, but my view is that the attributes must first and foremost be meaningful to the entire team. In the end, it’s an educated guess and arguments about the definition of terms like “complexity” are counterproductive to the overall intent of deriving an effort value.

Each of these attributes is then given a scale, the same scale for each attribute – 1 to 10, 1 to 15 – whatever the team feels is most appropriate. The team then goes through each of these attributes and evaluates the product backlog item attribute on the scale. (NB: After nine months of Plan-Do-Check-Adapt, a better approach for scoring the attributes has been determined.) The low number on the scale represents very little impact. If dependency, for example, is one of the attributes then a 1 might mean that the product backlog item is entirely self-contained. A 10 might represent a case where the product backlog item is dependent on several other product backlog items or perhaps the output from other teams.

When this is done, ask the team where on the modified Fibonacci scale they think this particular product backlog item’s effort value should be. If they’re struggling you can do the math: find the average for all the attributes and match that number in the modified Fibonacci scale. If the average is a decimal, for example 3.1, match the value to the next highest modified Fibonacci scale number. In this case the value would be 5. Then ask the team if they feel that number it’s a good representation of the effort value for the product backlog item.

This may seem like a lot of unnecessary gyrations, but for technical people it’s a simple process they can understand. The bonus is a number they can calculate. The number isn’t what’s important here. What’s important is the conversation that happens around the attributes and what the team feels about the number that results from the conversation. This exercise is meant to develop their intuitive muscles for considering multiple aspects and dimensions behind the “effort” needed for them to get the work done.

Use this process enough times and eventually calculating the average can be dropped from the process. Continue using this process and eventually calculating the numbers for the individual attributes can be dropped from the process. I don’t know if it’s a good idea to drop the use of the attributes for generating the needed conversation around the effort needed, but it will certainly be valuable to reconsider the list of attributes from time to time so as to fine tune the list to match what the team feels is important.

With this approach I’m turning the estimation process on its head (or back on its feet, if Kahneman is right.) Rather than seek the intuitive response first (e.g. t-shirt size) and elicit details later if there is a mismatch between team members, this method seeks to better prime and develop the team’s intuition about the effort value by having them explicitly consider a list of self-selected attributes (or traits) for effort first and then include an intuitive evaluation for effort.

Don’t try to form an intuition quickly, which was what we normally do. Focus on the separate points, and then when you have the whole profile, then you can have an intuition and it’s going to be better. Because people form intuitions too quickly, and the rapid intuitions are not particularly good. If you delay intuition until you have more information, it’s going to be better.Daniel Kahneman

Update

See Time Out! and Determining Effort Value – Tactics for additional information on this technique.

Show your work

A presentation I gave last week sparked the need to reach back into personal history and ask when I first programed a computer. That would be high school. On an HP 9320 using HP Educational Basic and an optical card reader. The cards looked like this:

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What occurred to me was that in the early days – before persistent storage like cassette tapes, floppy disks, and hard drives – a software developer could actually hold their program in their hands. Much like a woodworker or a glass blower or a baker or a candlestick maker, we could actually show something to friends and family! Woe to the student who literally dropped their program in the hallway.

Then that went away. Keyboards soaked up our coding thoughts and stored them in places impossible to see. We could only tell people about what we had created, often using lots of hand waving and so much jargon that it undoubtedly must have seemed as if we were speaking a foreign language. In fact, the effort pretty much resembled the same fish-that-got-away story told by Uncle Bert every Thanksgiving. “I had to parse a data file THIIIIIIIIIS BIG using nothing but Python as an ETL tool!”

Yawn.

This is at the heart of why it is I burned out on writing code as a profession. There was no longer anything satisfying about it. At least, not in the way one gets satisfaction from working with wood or clay or fabric or cooking ingredients. The first time I created a predictive inventory control algorithm was a lot of fun and satisfying. But there were only 4-5 people on the planet who could appreciate what I’d done and since it was proprietary, I couldn’t share it. And just how many JavaScript-based menu systems can you write before the challenge becomes a task and eventually a tedious chore.

Way bigger yawn.

I’ve found my way back into coding. A little. Python, several JavaScript libraries, and SQL are where I spend most of my time. What I code is what serves me. Tools for my use only. Tools that free up my time or help me achieve greater things in other areas of my life.

I can compare this to woodworking. (Something I very much enjoy and from which I derive a great deal of satisfaction.) If I’m making something for someone else, I put in extra effort to make it beautiful and functional. To do that, I may need to make a number of tools to support the effort – saw fences, jigs, and clamps. These hand-made tools certainly don’t look very pretty. They may not even be distinguishable from scrap wood to anybody but myself. But they do a great job of helping me achieve greater things. Things I can actually show and handle. And if the power goes down in the neighborhood, they’ll still be there when the lights come back on.

Heroes

A bit of a break from what could be considered the usual theme of this blog to recognize several amazing heroes from World War II – Major General Maurice Rose and Corporal Clarence Smoyer. Both have a connection to Colorado, at least for today.

General Rose was educated in Denver and graduated from East High School in 1916. He lied about his age so that he could join the Colorado National Guard after graduating high school. Seventy four years ago today, General Rose was killed in action. He was the highest-ranking American killed by enemy fire in the European Theater of Operations during World War II. Rose Medical Center in Denver is named in his honor.

Corporal Smoyer, at age 95, is still with us. He served under General Rose and was in Denver today for a book signing – Adam Makos’ latest book, “Spearhead.” It was well worth the two hour wait to shake the man’s hand, thank him for his service, and – a distant third on the list – receive an autographed copy of the book.

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The plan was for Corporal Smoyer to ride in on a tank and stop in front of Union Station, the site of uncounted final “goodbye’s” during the war. Eighty trains a day, the Union Station historian said, arrived and departed from Denver in the early 1940’s carrying many young men on their way to war. Given it was a cold, wet, rainy-snowy day in Denver, the turnout was actually quite good.

Corporal Smoyer had ample escort!

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At long last, the Corporal arrived, mounted atop a WWII era Stewart tank. Although not the tank in which Corporal Smoyer went to war, it is the only civilian owned operable tank in Colorado.

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It took a little time to help the 95 year old soldier down from his mount. With his feet on solid ground, Corporal Smoyer stepped over to the Stewart tank and hung his handicap parking placard on the cannon barrel. Well play, sir. Well played.

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After a brief recounting of several stories and the unveiling of a commemorative painting to be hung in Union Station, he was off to begin signing copies of the book.

Today I shook the hand of a hero and am feeling profoundly grateful to Corporal Smoyer and all the men and women from his time that defeated a fearsome evil and preserved the Freedom of which I am a direct beneficiary.

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