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.

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.)

That Isn’t What I Expected

Adverse surprises during a team driven project are about as welcome as whooping cough at a glassblowers convention. Minimizing the opportunity for surprises comes down to how well expectations are defined at the very beginning and how well they are managed during the course of the project. Unidentified expectations are like landmines in the project path. When they explode, it’s bad and the course of the project WILL change. Product owners can’t elucidate all the expectations a stakeholder may have, but with experience they can define the major ones. With practice and attention, experienced product owners can tease out all but the minor expectations that are often dependant on discovery within the project’s sprints.

Key to this skill is knowing the questions to ask at the beginning. In my experience, stakeholders rarely deliberately hold back their expectations. They just don’t know what they don’t know and it is the product owner’s responsibility to establish clarity around expectations. Intuitively obvious expectations rarely play out as such.

A few questions for stakeholders that I’ve found helpful:

  • What business problems do you intend to solve with this project?
  • What do you need to see to know the project is progressing?
  • What will you see when the project is done?
  • What is your availability commitment for the duration of the project?
  • How often to you expect to meet to review progress?
  • How long do YOU think it will take to complete the project?
  • To what extent are your functional groups integrated?
  • Describe your process from design to development to implementation?
  • Are there other stakeholders we need to know about and include?
  • What factors have helped and hurt success with past projects?

This is by no means an exhaustive list of questions. And they may even seem obvious. The answers, however, are almost never obvious.

I also find it effective to challenge stakeholders with scenarios.

  • What happens if we discover this project will take two months longer than expected?
  • What happens if we discover a desired solution is technically unfeasible?
  • How will you support us if we encounter significant delays from client deliverables?

Product owners need to keep pursuing clarity around expectations until they are satisfied they have a good understanding of how the people side of the project will unfold. This will go a long way to helping the development team handle the technical side of the project.

While stakeholders answer these questions, product owners need to pay attention not just the words stakeholders use, but how they answer as well. They need to be scanning for underlying assumptions that drive the answers. These often reflect relevant cultural drivers which can signal significant expectations seemingly unrelated to the project at hand.

For example, perhaps the product owner has established the expectation of a three business day turnaround for feedback from the stakeholder when asked to review periodic project deliverables. “We can complete our reviews within three business days and work to get them to you as fast as possible,” says the stakeholder somewhat hesitantly as he looks off into the distance. Where the pain begins is when the inattentive product owner discovers that, while the feedback may be ready, the client organization has a thick layer of compliance and the feedback is hung up in legal for an additional one to two weeks…every time. If the stakeholder’s responses reflect something less than 100% commitment, keep asking questions designed to surface underlying assumptions.

As each sprint concludes, and eventually the project as well, the savvy product owner knows their work with expectations isn’t complete. Retrospectives for each sprint, each release, and the project conclusion should make note of the expectations that were missed and consider questions that could have been asked that would have helped surface the surprise expectations sooner.

This is also an excellent time to consider if any of the existing expectations have changed or if it appears there may be new expectations emerging. Internal forces, such as changes in team composition, and external forces, such as shifting market demands, can significantly impact the set of expectations a product owner is tasked with managing.

If  you expected to read these kinds of things about surfacing stakeholder expectations, then you’re probably an experienced product owner.