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.

How To Run an Agile Death March

Found on the Internet…

An experienced scrum master describes their work cycles as going “from being very busy during sprint end/start weeks to be [sic] very bored.” While this scrum master works very hard to fill in the gaps with 1:1’s with the team members and providing regular training opportunities, they nonetheless ask the question, “Does anyone have any suggestions of things I am maybe not doing that I should be doing?” One response included the following:

“Now, it could be that you have worked to create a hyper-performing team and there is no further room for improvement. A measure of this is that velocity (or similar metric) has increased by an order of magnitude in the last year.

However, the most likely scenario is that you and your team have become ‘comfortable’ and velocity has not increased significantly in the last few Sprints and/or there is a high variance in velocity.”

This reflects a common misunderstanding of “velocity” and its confusion with “acceleration.” (It also reflects the “more is better” and “winners vs losers” thinking derived from the scrum sports metaphor and points as a way of keeping score. I’ve written about that elsewhere.) Neither does the commenter understand what “order of magnitude” means. A velocity that increases by an order of magnitude in a year isn’t a velocity, it’s an acceleration. That’s a bad thing. This wouldn’t be a “hyper-performing” team. This would be a team headed for a crash as a continual acceleration in story points completed is untenable. More and more points each sprint isn’t the goal of scrum. A product owner cannot predict when their team might complete a feature or a project if the delivery of work is accelerating throughout the project.

Assuming a typical project, something that continues for a year or more, the team and the project will eventually crash as they’ve been pressured to work more and more hours and cut more and more corners in the interests of completing more and more points. The accumulation of bugs, small and large, will slow progress. Team fatigue will increase and moral decrease, resulting in turn-over and further delays. In common parlance, this is referred to as a “death march.”

Strictly speaking, velocity is some displacement over time. In the case of scrum, it is the number of story points completed in a sprint. We’ve “displace” some number of story points from being “not done” to “done.” By itself, a single sprint’s velocity isn’t particularly useful. Looking at the velocity of a number of successive sprints, however, is useful. There are two pieces of information from looking at successive sprint velocities that, when considered together, can reveal useful aspects of how well a team is performing or not. The first is the average over the previous 5 to 8 sprints, a rolling average. As a yard stick, this can provide a measure of predictability. Using this average, a product owner can make a rough calculation for how many sprints remain before completing components or the project based on the story point information in the product backlog.

The measure of confidence for this prediction would come from an analysis of the variance demonstrated in the sprint velocity values over time. Figures 1 and 2 show the distinction between the value provided by a rolling average and the value provided by the variance in values over time.

Figure 1

Figure 2

In both cases the respective teams have an average velocity of 21 points per sprint. However, the variability in the values over time show that the team in Figure 1 would have a much higher level of confidence in any predictions based on their past performance than the team shown in Figure 2.

What matters is the trend, each sprint’s velocity over a number of sprints. The steady completion of story points (i.e. work) sprint to sprint is the desirable goal. Another way to say this is that a steady velocity makes it possible to predict project delivery dates. In real life, there will be a variance (up and down) of sprint velocity over time and the goal is to guide the project such that this variance is within a manageable range.

If a team were to set as its goal an increase in the number of story points completed from sprint to sprint then their performance chart might initially look like Figure 3.

Figure 3

Such a pace is unsustainable and eventually the team burns out. Fatigue, decreased moral, and overall dissatisfaction with the project cause team members to quit and progress grinds to a halt. The fallout of such a collapse is likely to include the buildup of significant technical debt and code errors as the run-up to the crescendo forced team members to cut corners, take shortcuts, and otherwise compromise the quality of their effort. [1] The resulting performance chart would look something like Figure 4.

Figure 4

All that said, I grant that there is merit in coaching teams to make reasonable improvements in their overall sprint performance. An increase in the overall average velocity might be one way to measure this. However, to press the team into achieving an order of magnitude increase in performance is a fools errand and more than likely to end in disaster for the team and the project.

References

[1] Lyneis, J.M, Ford, D.N. (2007). System dynamics applied to project management: a survey, assessment, and directions for future research. System Dynamics Review, 23 (2/3), 157-189.

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.

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.

Behind the Curtain: The Product Owner Role

When someone owns something they tend to keep a closer watch on where that something is and whether or not it’s in good working order. Owners are more sensitive to actions that may adversely affect the value of their investment. It’s the car you own vs the car you rent. This holds true for products, projects, and teams. For this reason the title of “product owner” is well suited to the responsibilities assigned to the role. The explicit call-out to ownership carries a lot of goodness related to responsibility, leadership, and action.

Having been a product owner and having coached product owners, I have a deep respect for anyone who takes on the challenges associated with this role. In my view, it’s the most difficult position to fill on an Agile team. For starters, there are all the things a product owner is responsible for as described in any decent book on scrum: setting the product vision and road map, ordering the product backlog, creating epics and story cards, defining acceptance criteria, etc. What’s often missing from the standard set of bullet items is the “how” for doing them well. Newly minted product owners are usually left to their own devices for figuring this out. And unfortunately, in this short post I won’t be offering any how-to guidance for developing any of the skills generally recognized to be part of the product owner role.

What I’d most like to achieve in this post is calling out several of the key skills associated with quality product ownership that are usually omitted from the books and trainings – the beyond-the-basics items that any product owner will want to include in their continuous learning journey with Agile. In no particular order…

  • Product owners must be superb negotiators when working with stakeholders and team members. The techniques used for each group are different so it’s important to understand the motivations that drive them. I’ve found Jim Camp’s “Start with No” and Chris Voss’ “Never Split the Difference” to be particularly helpful in this regard.
  • One of the four values stated in the Agile Manifesto is “Responding to change over following a plan.” Unfortunately, this is often construed to mean any change at any time is valuable. This Agile value isn’t a directive for maximum entropy and chaos. Product owners must remain vigilant to scope changes. And the boundaries for scope are defined by the decisions product owners make. So product owners must be decisive and committed to the decisions, agreements, and promises that have been made with stakeholders and the team.
  • Product owners need to have a good sense for when experimentation may be needed to sort out any complex or risky features in the project – creating spikes or proof-of-concept work early enough in the project so as to avoid any costly pivots later in the project.
  • Even with experimentation, making the call to pivot will require a product owner’s clear understanding of past events and any path forward that offers the greatest chance for success. As the sage says, predictions are difficult to make, particularly about the future. The expectation isn’t for clairvoyance, rather for the ability to pay close attention to what the (non-vanity) data are telling them.
  • Understanding how to work through failures and dealing with “The Dip,” as Seth Godin calls it, are also important skills for a product owner. The team and the stakeholders are going to look to the product owner’s leadership to demonstrate confidence that they are on the right track.

More than other roles on an Agile team, the product owner must be a truly well-rounded and experienced individual. Paradoxically, it is a role that is both constrained by the highly visible nature of the position and dynamic due to the skill set required to maximize the chances for project success.

Behind the Curtain: The Scrum Master Role

It is popular to characterize the scrum master role as following a “servant leader” style of engagement with scrum teams. Beyond that, not much else is offered to help unpack just what that means. The more you read about “servant leadership” the more confused you’re likely to get. A lot of what’s available on the Internet and offered in trainings ends up being contradictory and overburdening to someone just trying to help their team excel. Telling someone they’ll need to become a “servant leader” can be like telling them to go away closer.

So let’s unpack that moniker a little and state what it means in more practical terms for the average, yet effective, scrum master.

To begin, it’s most helpful to put a little space between the two skills. As a scrum master you’ll need to serve. As a scrum master you’ll need to lead. When you’re a good scrum master you’ll know when to do each of those and how. Someone who tries to do both at once usually ends up succeeding at neither.

As a servant, a scrum master has to keep a vigilant eye on making sure their servant behaviors are in the best interests of helping the delivery team succeed. If the scrum master lets the role devolve to little more than an admin to the product owner or the team then they’ve lost their way. It will certainly seem easier to write the story cards for the team, for example, rather than spend the time coaching them how to write story cards. This is a case where leadership is needed. On the other hand, if someone on the team is blocked by a dependency due to a past due deliverable from another team, then the scrum master would indeed serve the best interests of the team by working with the other team to resolve the dependency rather than require the delivery team member to shift focus away from completing work in the queue.

As a leader, a scrum master has to recognize any constraints the context places on the scope of their responsibilities. In meet-ups and conferences I’ve heard people say the scrum master “should be the team spiritual leader,” the team “therapist,” or “a shaman,” and able to administer to the team’s emotional needs. I take a more pragmatic approach and believe a scrum master should be able to recognize when someone on their team is in need of a qualified professional and, if necessary, assist them in finding the help they need. (HR departments exists, in part, to handle these situations.) This is still good leadership. It’s important to recognize the limits of one’s own capabilities and qualifications. Scrum master as therapist is a quagmire, to be sure, and I’ve yet to meet one with the boots to handle it.

Servant leader aside, the “master” in “scrum master” is the source of no end of grief. It’s partly to blame for the tendency in people to ascribe super powers to the scrum master role, such as those described above. In addition, the “master” part of the title implies “boss” or “manager.” It is a common occurrence for team members to address their stand-up conversation to me – as scrum master – rather than the team. I have to interrupt and specifically direct the individual to speak to the team. I’ve had team members share that they assumed I was going to take what was communicated in the stand-up and report directly to the product owner or the department head or even higher in the organization. “How come you’re not taking notes?”, they ask.”The stand-up is for you, not for me. Take your own notes, if you wish,” I reply. (I do take notes, but only for the purpose of following-up on certain issues or capturing action items for myself – things I need to do to remove impediments that are outside the team’s ability to resolve, for example.)

All the downside of what I’ve describe so far can be amplified by the Dunning–Kruger afflicted scrum master. Amplified again if they are “certified.” To paraphrase from the hacker culture on how you know you’re a hacker (in the classical sense), you aren’t a scrum master until someone else calls you a scrum master. There is always more to learn and apply. A scrum master who remains attentive to that fact will naturally develop quality servant and strong leadership skills.

Finally, the scrum master role is often a thankless job. When new to a team and working to establish trust and credibility the scrum master will need to build respect but often won’t be liked during the process. Shifting individuals out of their comfort zone, changing bad habits, or negotiating 21st Century sensitivities is no easy task even when people like and respect you. So a quality scrum master will work to establish respect first and let the liking follow in due course.

Having succeed at this the scrum master’s business will likely shift to the background. So much so some may wonder why they’re taking up space on the team. Working to establish and maintain this level of performance with a team while remaining in the background is at the heart of the servant part of servant/leader.

Clouds and Windmills

I recently resigned from the company I had been employed by for over 5 years. The reason? It was time.

During my tenure1 I had the opportunity to re-define my career several times within the organization in a way that added value and kept life productive, challenging, and rewarding. Each re-definition involved a rather extensive mind mapping exercises with hundreds of nodes to described what was working, what wasn’t working, what needed fixing, and where I believed I could add the highest value.

This past spring events prompted another iteration of this process. It began with the question “What wouldn’t happen if I didn’t go to work today?”2 This is the flip of asking “What do I do at work?” The latter is a little self-serving. We all want to believe we are adding value and are earning our pay. The answer is highly filtered through biases, justifications, excuses, and rationalizations. But if in the midsts of a meeting you ask yourself, “What would be different if I were not present or otherwise not participating?”, the answer can be a little unsettling.

This time around, in addition to mind mapping skills, I was equipped with the truly inspiring work of Tanmay Vora and his sketchnote project. Buy me a beer some day and I’ll let you in on a few of my discoveries. Suffice it to say, the overall picture wasn’t good. I was getting the feeling this re-definition cycle was going to include a new employer.

A cascade of follow-on questions flowed from this iteration’s initial question. At the top:

  1. Why am I staying?
  2. Is this work aligned with my purpose?
  3. Have my purpose and life goals changed?

The answers:

  1. The paycheck
  2. No.
  3. A little.

Of course, it wasn’t this simple. The organization changed, as did I, in a myriad of ways. While exploring these questions, I was reminded of a story my Aikido teacher, Gaku Homma, would tell when describing his school. He said it was like a rope. In the beginning, it had just a few threads that joined with him to form a simple string. Not very strong. Not very obvious. But very flexible. Over time, more and more students joined his school and wove their practice into Nippon Kan’s history. Each new thread subtlety changed the character of the emerging rope. More threads, more strength, and more visibility. Eventually, an equilibrium emerges. Some of those threads stop after a few short weeks of classes, other’s (like mine) are 25 years long before they stop, and for a few their thread ends in a much more significant way.

Homma Sensi has achieved something very difficult. The threads that form Nippon Kan’s history are very strong, very obvious, and yet remain very flexible. Even so, there came a time when the right decision for me was to leave, taking with me a powerful set of skills, many good memories, and friendships. The same was true for my previous employer. Their rope is bending in a way that is misaligned with my purpose and goals. Neither good nor bad. Just different. Better to leave with many friendships intact and a strong sense of having added value to the organization during my tenure.

The world is full of opportunities. And sometimes you have to deliberately and intentionally clear all the collected clutter from your mental workspace so those opportunities have a place to land. Be attentive to moments like this before your career is remembered only as someone who yells at clouds and tilts at windmills.


1 By the numbers…

1,788 Stand-ups
1,441 Wiki/Knowledgebase Contributions
311 Sprint/Release Planning Sessions
279 Reviews
189 Retrospectives
101 Projects
31 Internal Meet-ups
22 Agile Cafés
10 Newsletters
5.5 Years
3 Distinct Job Titles
1 Wild Ride

2 My thanks to colleague Lennie Noiles and his presentation on Powerful Questions. While Lennie didn’t ask me this particular question, it was inspired by his presentation.

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)