Agile

Moving from Project to Team based Funding in Agile

When we move to Agile we typically form our teams and then happily keep our waterfall project based funding structure in place.

We do this for a few reasons:

  1. We think it’s the only way to show the cost of the work that we are asking to be delivered.
  2. Projects are easily understood from an operational standpoint as they have a defined start and end date which is tightly aligned with the cost of the project.
  3. It’s the way we’ve always done it.

As part of our project based funding model we have an annual project funding request process, where we  spend weeks/months identifying the things that we think are important (note I’m not using the word valuable here) so that we can obtain funding.  Things move above or below the approval line and when the dust settles we have a book of work that is committed to, with freshly minted project plans and a cadre of project managers to manage the money we just gave to these projects.

An annual project funding request process also means that we ask for what we need and then everything else we may or may not need.  We ask for a Ferrari when perhaps all we need is a good dependable family sedan.

There is power in money, who has it and who controls it typically drives what gets funded and what doesn’t.  It’s not uncommon for Sr. Leadership to commit to work even though their team doesn’t have any experience in the product solely to get the money to keep their teams funded and employed.

If you see a lot of potential waste here then you are correct.  We see waste just in the amount of people and money needed to manage our project money.  If a money market fund had as much overhead associated with it, I and everyone else would leave because that overhead just cuts into profitability. 

Next let’s more waste related to developing the stuff we didn’t need and may not actually use.  All of this extra stuff we develop has an expense associated with it and this is a long term expense.  We have it built into our architecture negatively impacting our systems scalability, performance and security.  We have to test it every time we build new stuff.  Bet you didn’t take that into account when you did your Cost/Benefit analysis for the project.

When we move to Agile we have an ability to really simplify our IT funding function.  It’s really quite simple – it’s the cost of your team

In most organizations this cost typically hovers around ~$40k per sprint or over ~2 million annually.  So as a financial manager trying to manage things like cash flow, depreciation and the like, this makes financial reporting much simpler.  Each team becomes a fixed line item cost on my balance sheet and operating statements.  I don’t have to worry about cost overruns from project funding since the team is a fixed cost.  Product Owners ensure our teams work on the most valuable things in a consistent manner and at the end of the year we should/can be able to gauge the value of that work to some accuracy.

So here’s a challenge that we face, how do we actually assess value?  How do we value things like reducing technical debt to make applications technically better?  How do we value writing an input validation security framework that makes our application safer for the user and ourselves?  How do we value things that our customers aren’t asking for, but in the end benefit from?  That is the core element of software development, there is significant value in the things that the customer never sees yet we place little effort or priority in delivering these elements.  Instead we focus on the visual functionality and throw quality and architecture down the drain in favor of meeting project timelines.

If you get the fact that you have a fixed development cost it actually should foster better conversations regarding what is really valuable for the entire organization to be working on.  Not your pet projects, not the projects you agree to only to get funding to keep your people employed, that’s not how real value and efficiency happens and it’s time we stop thinking that it does.

Agile highlights very quickly that an organizations planning and funding functions are broken. It also typically becomes clear that we don’t have a real grasp on what our real value streams are and finding them often means removing political barriers that have built up over years.  Agile requires that we redefine what value is and organize our delivery across these streams over organizational silos.

The traditional PMO also goes under a dramatic shift, moving from managing projects and funding to ensuring that programs align to the organizations value streams, are well understood and organizational impediments are removed for the teams.

So if you are looking to move your organization to Agile you must understand that your funding and planning functions must change to align to a new mindset and paradigm.  Funding is easy in Agile, really it is (remember it’s the cost of your team), uncovering your value streams and maximizing the work that flows to your teams that delivers that value, now that’s harder (but not impossible).

Launching SoundAgile Consulting

I've been involved with Agile with many different organizations now for over 12 years. In these years I've primarily been involved with being a contributing individual over a being an Agile coach.

The business of Agile has grown to a significant size and has now become a product that is sold to businesses who want to move their organization to Agile.  The very people who started Agile off as a movement have splintered off into several factions, each having their own opinion or approach in how to help organizations adopt Agile as a capability within their organization.  We now have Scrum, SAFe, DAD and LeSS to name a few in our acronym vocabulary.

Agile can indeed bring about valuable changes to an organizations ability to deliver software product more quickly.  These areas of Agile are fairly thought out, User Stories, Continuous Integration, Automation and Scrum.  You can move your development teams to a faster pace with some focus on specific team and development techniques that require some time to learn with some level of ease.

What Agile is struggling with is at the organizational level.  The Agile manifesto is specifically focused on building software better with a goal of delivering high value and quality software to our organizations.  A noble cause for sure and one that was sorely needed, given the changes in our software capabilities over the past 20 years.

Sr. Leadership however hasn't changed much, still managing in a large up front analysis budgeting process which creates a painful friction between fast moving product delivery teams and slow moving hierarchical management structures .

For those organizations who are being sold Agile as a product that will deliver 'x' benefits know this about what is occurring.  These organizations are finding people who have done 'some' to 'no' real Agile, meaning they haven't actually worked on an Agile team. Getting people who have the 'right' certifications doesn't provide those people with the ability to coach teams in the reality of Agile, only the theory of Agile and their current frameworks.

They are also focused only on the product development area of your business, letting you believe that you will receive huge benefits from moving to Agile without the corresponding changes necessary throughout your entire organization to support a fast paced product delivery teams.

Agile is not a small change management effort, rather it is a multi-year impact to your organization, that if done well will lead you to great success.  If done poorly will provide you with significant pain without any corresponding benefits.

I've spent many years thinking about what I might offer from an Agile consulting perspective and I've come to the conclusion that any Agile 'consulting' work that I would want to engage in must include both Sr. Leadership down and the team level.

Another thing I have concluded is that successful organizations that want to become Agile, must do so with a much smaller footprint of coaching.  You don't need full-time coaches for a long period of time.  In relying on full time coaches you are asking them to be your organizational Agile cop over owning the change within your organization.  The most successful Agile organizations I've worked in never had an Agile coach. Let me repeat that, never had an Agile a coach.  Instead they owned the move to Agile from the top down.  They provided the opportunity for teams to be empowered and fail and were not afraid to change organizational processes when they became impediments to improving Agilty.

SoundAgile will provide two levels of support and coaching for your organization.

  1. Team Level - Coaching and training will be accomplished through a combination of online training videos, 1:1 coaching and targeted onsite sessions for specific techniques such as Discovery/User Story Mapping, User Story Writing and Behavior Driven Development.
  2. Management Level - This will cover every management level in your organization, especially focusing in on your most impacted people, your technology managers.  Coaching and training will again be accomplished utilizing videos, 1:1 coaching and probably most importantly, targeted 1-2 day sessions that will continue for a multi-year time period. These sessions will provide for a longer term inspect and adapt change management process.

I'm really excited to be launching SoundAgile and am looking forward to working with people and organizations as they engage and encounter this thing called Agile.

SoundAgile will be live within the next two weeks.  I look forward to working with people who are motivated to move to Agile and make it work for them and their organizations.

Management and Agile - To Succeed or Not to Succeed

As more and more larger organizations look to Agile as a means of delivering software to their customers the one thing that keeps coming back to me is that for any of this to work there has to be transparency and acceptance that a move to Agile will change your organization, not understanding this will court almost inevitable failure. Agile in itself is an aspirational desire to change the way that we deliver software, one that does away with the project processes that evolved over the years from Waterfall.  I know that waterfall feels sound and safe with all of its up front business analysis, project planning, Steering Committees and that all important Change Management process, but in reality it really is more of a facade than foundation.

Having managed work and projects in both worlds I have seen how it all works.  Recently I was told (in an Agile organization) that Project Managers are responsible for delivery and it was at that point that my thoughts crystallized around my own journey, Project Managers don't deliver, Teams do.

At it's heart Agile is about everyone doing their part to make our product delivery better, whatever that looks like for your organization in that moment in time.  Agile by itself is not prescriptive, the Scrum/Lean techniques and processes that have evolved from our Agile journey may be a bit more prescriptive and become more so when we add things like Scrum certifications to people's palmares.  We need remember that one of the key reasons that the manifesto came into being was an intense desire to find better ways to deliver software, which means the journey has no end and certifications and such are merely ways for us to have a shared language.  Let me repeat, once you commence on your Agile 'journey' it doesn't have an end, you will always be evaluating what you can do better.

So back to the question at hand, to succeed or not to succeed in Agile, what needs to happen?

  1. Trust - First and foremost we need to begin to build trust between Sr. Management and our Product Delivery teams.  If we have a history of delivering late, with fewer features and cost overruns it is really hard for that same management team to flip the switch once you say you are Agile and trust the very teams who haven't delivered in the past.  Trust is a two-way street and the great thing about Agile is that once you begin to master the techniques and methods that successful teams utilize trust is almost a by-product of that.
    1. Commitments - In Waterfall we are making a 'commitment' to deliver a set of value/features in a specified period of time based upon a business requirements document as guidance for what the business/customer is asking for.  When we make a commitment farther out into the future we become less and less accurate with our plans, it is the nature of the unknown unknowns in life.  Things change, they always do, so to expect that our business and software development teams, in today's ever-changing world, can predict 9-12 months in the future exactly what they are going to deliver is simply living in delusion.  Manage reality or it will manage you.  Commitments in Agile are much shorter in time, basically every 2 weeks.  These commitments however are based upon the Vision that YOU management need to provide.  You say you can't plan for the future every two weeks I would argue you can't plan much further out.  By planning and committing in shorter delivery increments, management get an opportunity to change direction without causing massive pain from already planned out work.  We need to be able to change direction or refocus efforts on the things that are most valuable to our business, not what we made big plans for last year that we thought we needed.  Locking in feature development that doesn't meet customer needs, simply wastes money and loses market share.  When teams make and keep their commitments to you, they gain confidence and you gain trust.
      1.  Context - In most waterfall projects we end up asking for absolutely everything we think we might need, when in reality sometimes 70% of what we asked for (or even less) is more than enough to meet the needs we were trying to address.  Focus on the most Valuable things your customer wants and move on to the next highest value work, not diminishing returns on things customers may not value as much as we might.  Teams want to work on what brings the most value to the organization, development teams when provided the transparency of why we need to do something can do amazing things.
    2. Self Organizing Teams - This one really causes I think the most concern for management.  You in essence are saying that the teams that you currently manage are better able to make decisions about how to delivery our products.  Guess what, they are.  These are people who work in the trenches every single day, know every single issue, impediment, risk, etc... associated with your current product delivery processes.  And every one of them has probably said something to the effect of, 'If I was in charge I'd to do X to fix this'.  I've been a Sr. Manager for many years and have built several high performing teams and one of the best things I can do for them is to provide guidance and vision for what I'm looking for and letting them solve the issues that deliver the solution.  I'm a smart guy but I don't have all of the answers and if you are the type of manager who believes that in order to be 'respected' you have to be the one to manage how Agile will change your product delivery processes you will fail personally and the organization will suffer as a whole.  Teams of people can solve major problems much more easily than one person can, so let them have the ability to self organize and empower them with making the necessary changes to improve your product delivery.
      1. Context - With great power comes great responsibility.  By ceding some level of daily control to your teams you are also doing so with the expectation that they deliver on what they commit to..  If they don't then they must provide a game plan based upon the Retrospective on how they will solve their inability to hit their commitments.
  2. Investment - Agile won't come without an investment cost associated with it.  If like many large organizations you have a mess of legacy code mixed with attempts at migrating to newer technology stacks, business requirements and rules imbedded in code with tribal knowledge scattered through the organization.  Agile requires speed in your product development processes which translates into several investment areas:
    1. Automation - When we say automate we mean across the entire spectrum of the organization, if it can be automated you should probably evaluate whether it can/should be.  More specifically we want to automate:
      1. Unit Tests - Developers should be writing unit tests for everything they build, preferably using XP techniques such as TDD (Test Driven Development).  These are not really hard processes but if you are starting from scratch there is both discipline and framework that needs to be built-in order to get to a mature state for test automation.  Unit tests need to be executed with every build, because with that comes fast feedback if something broke, fix it early and you increase speed and profitability.
      2. Integration Tests - Probably one of the harder areas to get high levels of automation in, primarily because the organization hasn't invested in the appropriate product like test environments.  Be prepared in your Agile journey to spend heavily on getting the right environments in place and highly available.  Testing the performance of your system right before you deliver is a recipe for disaster and delays (remember time is money).
      3. Functional Tests - These are the tests management is probably most familiar with and may even have reviewed at one point or another.  These are typically the manual tests that QA will execute at the end of your waterfall project, where we are not baking in Quality but testing out defects.  Building high levels of automated testing at the functional level gets to what I call, Progressive Regression.  Instead of running a final full regression at the end of a 6-9 month project, why not do it every single night?  You will need to again invest in physical environments but also in people training as many in the QA world are not equipped to handle the new role of a Software Engineer in Test.
        1. Word of Caution - Don't rely only on Test Automation in your functional testing efforts, you still need real people with hands on testing capabilities because at the end of the day automated testing cannot always tell you when something is bad from an experience or product flow perspective.
      4. Deployments - One of the hardest things that teams fail at is planning for deployments to their environments.  Making your deployment process as frictionless as possible is a high value target for your organization.  Many organizations don't have a fully functional DevOps org and many in this field are still struggling to figure out how to operate in an Agile world.  Let them figure it out and provide them with the tools that will support automation of critical deployment processes and hold them accountable to doing it.  To many times we purchase tools and then never make the time to actually use them, invest and utilize, that is the key to your ROI.
      5. None of the above work comes without an investment in both hardware and people.  Current requirements processes will change substantially as you move to an Agile cadence.  People will struggle to find their way, some level of productivity reduction is expected in the beginning of an Agile transformation. You as a Leader need to set a clear vision of why the organization needs to change, make it clear that the teams have accountability to deliver the work that they commit to and that you as a leader have accountability to provide them with space to learn, fail and finally improve.  Successful Agile includes failure because without it we aren't really learning from our mistakes, rather hiding the truth.  Agile done right makes everything visible, especially who is accountable for what.
  3. Patience - Nothing great was ever built-in a day or a week.  Odds are good that this will take more time than you thought it would, but also make it clear to the organization that an Agile death march is not something that you are taking on either.  Agile is about accountability and commitment, use these values to your benefit and identify those that simply can't or won't work in an Agile environment.

From a management perspective you need to understand your role in the success of any Agile transformation, it must also change the way you look at and manage your business.

Agile isn't Easy

Over the years I have seen many teams and organizations who start on their journey towards Agile product delivery make the mistake of thinking that Agile is easy, promotes freely changing direction and worse will fix all of your issues and make everything better quickly and easily.  The truth couldn't be further from the reality. There is no such thing as a perfect software development delivery process.  Unlike production lines for things such as automobiles where you have the same pieces going to together each and every time and each piece has a specific functionality, tolerance and timing, software development is the exact opposite.

Software development is about meeting changing needs across the dynamic nature of business  For example - You wouldn't see an automobile company add anew feature to a car on their assembly line over a 2-4 week time period.  They need time to design the entire process and ensure that the production line is capable of accepting the new change.

Traditional software development tends to align a bit more to the automobile example and in fact there are times where this type of rigid, pragmatic approach to product delivery is actually the correct process (Agile isn't for everyone nor for every situation).

However for those that are going to move to Agile you need understand that the type of discipline that you might use in the automobile example actually needs to exist in your Agile processes, seriously you ask? Yes - You need to be able to deliver high quality, well-tested and fully functional pieces of software every two weeks. Now are you seeing how difficult Agile can be?

If you think Agile is easy, then you are already on the path to failure and unmet expectations.

It is very common for teams who are moving to Agile to take their interpretation of the Agile Manifesto to the unhealthy extremes, for example:

  • Working Software Over Comprehensive Documentation

Many teams I've worked with take this to mean NO documentation and that couldn't be further from the truth.  We value working software over the need for documentation but I've never believed that you can have long-term success with your product without delivering some levels of documentation.  Without documentation your software knowledge becomes tribal and when your tribe leaves the team or your organization, well so does their knowledge.

There are way for teams to build documentation as part of their daily Sprint development work.  Using the combination of user stories and Behavior Driven Development (BDD) acceptance criteria as the foundational elements of your work you are creating your documentation as part of the work needed to deliver quickly.  The great value in BDD is that the acceptance criteria is written in English syntax and then translated into test automation.

This process of writing stories with BDD is supported by Gojko Adzics book, Specification by Example and allows us to deliver light weight documentation during our sprints.  I often see teams adding a story to a future sprint to handle their 'documentation' requirements of their previous work but I haven't seen this work long-term.  Functional development, dealing with bugs, etc... will ultimately push these stories down into the backlog, never to be seen again.

The process described above is not easy, but it can be done and the teams that can get to this level of capability will succeed in driving value to your organization every two weeks.

One of the things that I consistently tell organizations moving to Agile is that it will highlight every current weakness of your product/software delivery methods.  Agile is a game changer, it requires a mind shift in how you look at your product, the work that supports it and how you see the visualize the value your product delivers.  If you are a leader who is going to be uncomfortable finding out truths about your organizations inefficient manner of product delivery then you need to think twice about moving to Agile.

Do you have TITL (To Important to Lose) people in your organization?  If you do, then you need to really look at how they influence any changes in your organization.  Do you need to get their approval, gain their support, etc....?  If so you will find more often than not that Agile will scare the hell out of them.  Successful Agile teams/organizations understand that self organizing teams take away the need for many of the day-to-day management decisions our middle management layer makes.  Agile speed comes when you remove the friction of management layers and provide teams with a clear vision of what you want them to deliver.

You must be prepared for the resistance that you will face from your product delivery teams, not everyone wants to go to Agile  We become comfortable with what we know and do in our daily work life and in that comfort comes stasis.  If you are not prepared to lose people, especially your TITL people, then you need to question if Agile is really for you.

I know it sounds heartless, but I've been working for over 30 years and one of the first things I learned right out of college was that technology was disruptive and if you weren't on board with how it changes how you work you would be left behind. At one company I worked for many years ago, I saw Regional sales managers who had been with the company for over 30 years and when we rolled out a sales force tracking/marketing tool (which I led) there were several who refused to even turn on the computer, they were all let go within months.  As employees we have the obligation to continue to grow and learn and continue to make ourselves valuable to our organization and if we don't, then you as a leader have an obligation to make tough decisions that ensure that the organization is continuing to grow and not stagnate with old processes.  It's not personal it's business.

As you move to Agile you also need to understand the investment that needs to be made in your technology stack.  Many organizations have decades old technology stacks which have been shoe horned into the future and though you get by you won't be able to become Agile until you have a strong Continuous Integration framework, high levels of Unit, Integration and Functional test automation.  Getting to this will take time (and using the stories and BDD disciplines mentioned above will help you get there).  You simply can't go fast if you don't have the technology backbone that supports it.

Agile isn't easy by any stretch of the imagination, it requires thoughtful introspection, focus on continuous improvement, disciplined delivery and a tenacity for value and quality that is never satisfied.

Delivery Management vs Project Management

In Agile we have evolved from a 'project' oriented mindset to a product one. That is not to say that we don't undertake a something that looks like a project to build or enhance our products.  However in Product Management we are more focused on the ongoing nature of how our product will unfold, in shorter durations and without the end in site.

I believe successful Agile Project Managers need to focus on Delivery Management over Project Management.

What is the difference?

  1. Delivery Management - Is the management of work in an iterative fashion that focuses on delivering product that delights our customers.  It is not focused on Time, Scope and Budget, but rather on customer experience, high quality code and low defects. Delivery management focused on long-term value and benefits over planned short-term objectives.
  2. Project Management - is the application of processes, methods, knowledge, skills and experience to achieve the project objectives. A project is a unique, transient endeavour, undertaken to achieve planned objectives, which could be defined in terms of outputs, outcomes or benefits.

Having been a project manager in a waterfall/PMI world before my move to Agile some of the mental challenges I faced included:

  1. Lack of a plan - One of the first things I did as I was moving to Agile was to track the amount of 'change' that happened in one of my waterfall projects.  I created a Project Change Request for everything that was not originally identified in the Business Requirements and Technical Design Documents, assumptions that changed, scope, etc... This process drove my team absolutely crazy because as with all waterfall teams, we fear change requests, they are bad news to management.  However what this effort did was provide visibility to the type of change that happens in every single software development project (and these changes were never socialized outside of the team so they had nothing to worry about).
    1. Realization - 
      1. My project plans provided no real ability to know if a project was going to be successful, they looked good but didn't tell the real story of what was happening with the project team and what they were developing.
      2. Agile provided me with much more visibility to the real issues that a project team faced and that my project plan was really just a place holder for future Sprints.  I only needed to know that the Sprints were planned and then communicate what the team was committing to.  Once I had that information THEN I could hold them accountable.
  2. Story Points over Time bases estimates - I had a really hard time initially wrapping my head around Story points over time and spent many an hour mentally putting the points back into hours.
    1. Realization -
      1. I finally stopped thinking in time once my team started 'delivering' consistent points and work for every sprint.  At that point all I ended up needing to know was the story points of work begin committed to.  The point here is as a Project Manager you need to instill good estimation behaviors with your team and hold them accountable, that IS your job.
      2. Velocity is the primary data point you want to focus on, consistent velocity = consistent delivery.  It's not your job to determine the What for the product but it is your job to ensure that what they commit to does get Delivered (though if you work to be a valued member of the team, you should definitely be able to provide input).
  3. Status Reporting - Ah the bane of our existence as project managers and something that I had to deal with recently, the dreaded status report.  Honestly I hadn't been a project manager for many years and as a Manager I never needed one with Agile teams.  All I needed was a dashboard (Jira or Rally are the ones I'm most experienced with) to observe a teams backlog, Velocity and Progress towards a Roadmap they were working on.
    1. Realization - The status report will not every go away but I think you need to ensure that your reporting is consistent with the rest of your Agile processes.  Tools such as Jira and Rally provide you with abilities to manage Roadmaps, teams, budgets, etc... Everything is still there but your reporting needs to take advantage of the data elements within Agile, don't translate your Agile into a waterfall type status report.  This will only ensure that Sr. Management stays disconnected from Agile and the entire organization needs to be plugged into Agile and walk the walk.

If you are a traditional PMI type project manager and are moving to Agile here are some things you should consider:

  1. You are not responsible for the success of a project/ delivery - Yeah I know it sounds wrong, but in Agile it is the TEAM that is responsible for delivery.  You need to plug into your team, get to know what they do, the challenges that they face, become a sounding board for ideas, get your hands dirty, learn how to test, etc...Becoming a valued member of the team is what moved me out of Project Management and into Quality Assurance. 9
  2. Be an Agile advocate - Embrace agile so that you do more than go through the motions. Read, learn, join a meet up group, do more than just the minimum.  As a Project Manager you can help your organization get better at Being Agile, you have the connections and understanding of the organization that many in the technical side may not.
  3. Don't be Defensive- As you will learn, Retrospectives should be frank and open conversations about what is working and more importantly not working in your processes.  Encourage your team to openly talk about issues, but protect them so that they can continue to work effectively as a team, remember attack the problem not the person.  For example at Disney where I both QA Manager and individual contributor my duties as QA Manager were getting in the way of my ability to test and give good feedback to the team.  They rightly called me out in a retrospective as being the issue for them not moving as fast as they could.  I was not defensive but understanding, that is what you want in Agile, because they were absolutely correct, I was the problem at that point.

So as you look at what you manage in traditional project management, understand that it is not the Project that you are delivering but a Product and Products have much longer life spans than projects.

You need to keep your teams focused in consistent and disciplined delivery that brings real value to your organization. If you are working on something that doesn't have value you should be questioning and challenging your team as to why.

Agile isn't easy, though I think it is often thought of as easy.  No Agile is very disciplined and when you undertake Agile it will highlight every inefficiency and poor process that exists in your organization today.  You simply cannot go fast until you address these issues.  As a Project Manager you can help drive this change.

You Know You Aren't Agile If

Thought I'd start off the new year and take a page from Jeff Foxworthy and use is famous tag line for Agile. Though intended to bring some humor to the question it really is something that every organization typically asks themselves. Please add more :)

You know your not Agile if:

  • Your Product Owner drops by once in awhile to yell at the team for not giving them what they wanted
  • Your Product Owner is entirely responsible for writing User Stories
  • Your Development and QA teams are separate groups
  • Your teams treat missed commitments like a Hollywood marriage
  • Your team writes user stories in the current Sprint
  • A daily Scrum looks like a bunch of stoners standing around
  • Your product backlog changes more than Kim Kardashian changes her cloths.
  • You think MVP was Kevin Durant last year
  • You think BDD is something you do in the privacy of your own home

We spend a lot of time talking about what Agile looks like, should be etc... but at the end of the day Agile is about addressing the issues that keep you from being great and dealing with them in a manner which focuses on the what not the who.

There is no finger pointing in Agile (just like there is no crying in baseball).

Finding out what stops you from succeeding is a fundamental element of achieving greatness at anything.

You know your not Agile if you are asking yourself if you are or not.

GSD or Feeling Good about the Wrong Things

Over the past couple of years I have heard the term GSD used quite a bit as a means to describe high-performing individuals (note I did not say team). I have to admit that this is not an acronym that I was very familiar with, primarily GSD referred to my designation in college as someone who didn't want to join a fraternity, the politically correct term would be Gosh Darn Independent (And this is probably a great way to define who I have been throughout my career).

Before embarking on this post I did some quick google searches and came up with some thoughts on GSD:

  1. The Urban Dictionary definition:
    1. GSD is brought about through severe bout of procrastination, not getting work done on a regular basis, therefore needing to set aside long amounts of time to disappear and get shit done.
  2. What Spinks Thinks - http://whatspinksthinks.com/2013/11/04/get-shit-done-the-worst-startup-culture-ever/

The term, as it is used now is, Get Shit Done, which does sound great at first pass.  However when you start working with GSD as part of building a defined delivery process you start to see some very ugly things drop out of it:

  • Heros - Those great people who came in and saved the day and got some serious shit done under intense pressure.  Never mind that the day they were saving maybe shouldn't have happened in the first place or even worse, the situation requiring them to save the day via GSD was of their own making, convienently lost in the thrill of GSD.
  • Lack of Defined work - Who cares what I am doing so long as at the end of the day I can show you how much shit I got done.
  • Lack of Plans - See above.

The problem as I see it with GSD is that we aren't asking ourselves a basic question - Are we doing the right shit at the right time?

Yes getting 'shit' done is good and getting it in done makes us feel good, however if there is no real process behind your way of getting shit done then you will be destined for unpredictable delivery of the work that brings your organization the most value.

I find in my experience that GSD is more about individual glory over a team (see my blog on Teams Deliver) which I find troubling on so many levels.

Organizations spend lot's of money having their technology teams deliver features that they believe bring value to the business and even though there may be many ways of delivering this value, ie Agile, Waterfall, Lean, I have yet to see GSD making its way into main stream product and project management lexicon.

Continuing my educational tour of the world of GSD I found a posting from two guys named Daniel Epstein and Pascal Finnette who appear to be individuals who provide support, coaching and services to technology entrepreneurs specifically regarding GSD:

  1. GYSHIDO - A movement started a few years ago dedicated to The Art of Getting Your Shit Done.  They identified that their most intrinsic value as employees was that they got shit done, but in looking at their code of honor I see elements of good process, so is it possible thatGSD has some value?  Too soon to tell.  But here is their code of honor:
    1. Relentless focus - Focus on the 10% of your activities which drive most of the value. Relentlessly.
    2. Boring consistency - Do the right things over and over again. Consistency forms habits. Habits make hard things effortless.
    3. No Bullshit - Don't bullshit yourself or others. Apply brutal honesty and transparency to everything you do.
    4. No Meetings - Meetings come in only two forms: Standing or social. If it's social, it's over breakfast, lunch, coffee, dinner or drinks. If not - don't sit down.
    5. Follow up - Don't let others wait for your part of the job. Ever.
    6. Don't be an Asshole

As I read through their ethics I believe (I haven't talked with these guys) that their process could align with the agile type world.  Why?

  • Many of the elements of what they believe is good GDS is what I consider good behavior of Agile teams:
    • Focus on the work that delivers the most value - Agile, 2 week sprints, deliver production ready features continually.
    • Consistency - Keep your Scrum Teams together, let them improve in estimation, execution, test automation, boring?  maybe, get shit done fast?  yes
    • No Bullshit - Retrospectives ask us to be brutally honest when things are working and fix what doesn't work.  Attack the problem not the person (see number 6 - Don't be an Asshole)
    • Follow-up - In Agile I always talk about how we need to think of minutes over hours when resolving issues that are blocking us from completing our work.

Agile teams focus on identifying the valuable 'thing' that we need to deliver and then develop lightweight plans to deliver it incrementally. I suspect that GSD has its roots in waterfall SDLC where a project would roll happily along, green week after week, oblivious or ignorant to how the project was actually unfolding.  Decisions made by the team that never surfaced had large impacts on scope and viability of the project.

GSD I believe emanates from the need for a project team to 'pull a rabbit' out of the hat in order to deliver the project 'on-time'.  My years as a waterfall PM saw this time and time again.  We fool ourselves into thinking that we can predict a large project from beginning to end all up front, you can't, period.

So when you are rewarded in a GSD organization they are ultimately is saying that the organization values chaos over effective planning and delivery.

 

Agile Transformation - Coaching needs and requirements

Having been involved in Agile for over 10 years, and for most of these years I have  helped organizations switch to Agile, I have (I believe) a great grasp of what needs to happen when your organization decides to 'Go Agile'. Yes the larger the organization the more that the organizational change element is brought in to the mix, and for this post I want to focus on the elements of Agile coaching as it relates to these larger transformation efforts, which with SAFe is a hot area of growth for Agile consulting.

With the large Agile transformations I've been involved with I have identified what I believe are the three main types of coaches you are likely to come across in an Agile transformation:

  1. Those that have had experience in the trenches, who have led Scrum teams, built the products that are delivered to the business.
  2. Those that have primarily been involved with Agile 'transformations' at the management level.
  3. Those that have taken the necessary courses to 'become' Agile and may have been  a Project Manager in another life. (I'm not denigrating PM's as I was a PM who first experienced Agile from this perspective, I'm rather saying that there are coaches who haven't actually been involved with Agile, but have gone out and obtained Agile certifications, making them 'look' like people who have the right 'credentials' when people who don't know Agile are looking to hire coaches)

Let's talk about what each one brings to the table and what you need to look for when bringing on a coach to support your specific Agile transformation.

  1. Coaches from the Trenches
    1. Key Benefits- These individuals bring a wealth of experience with how to operationalize Agile. They get it, they believe in it and they now what works, how to make course corrections when something isn't working AND they have huge levels of creditability with technical teams.  They talk the talk and can walk the walk.
    2. Key Weaknesses - If there is one the weakness with this type of coach is that in larger scaled Agile transformations, there are very specific processes and formats that get rolled out to the entire organization so that everyone is doing the same thing.  Sounds right doesn't it?  This individual will want to work out what works for their team and not always align to the Transformation processes, causing frustration between the coach and the group leading the transformation.
    3. Things to think about - Agile is not like making cars where every production line making car X has to be doing the same thing so that you maximize the speed of the process and build in your quality and productivity INTO the process.  Agile isn't like that, rather Agile is a framework that should allow for each Scrum team the flexibility to determine WHAT works for them without being prescriptive.
      1. My Input When I am helping an organization move to Agile I like 'sprinkle' the framework and tenants of Agile to the teams and then let the teams iterate on the process that works for them.  I give them the things I look for to determine how they are doing, such as stable velocity, good backlog and effective and accurate estimation (which of course feeds the stable velocity).  The 'from the Trenches' individual is one who will succeed very will in this type of environment and not very well in an extremely structured Agile process.
  2. Coaches who were Managers - These individuals have typically seen their organization have success with Agile and have made the decision to move into an Agile career.
    1. Key Benefits - As with the from the Trenches coach, this individual does 'get it' and has an ability to gain creditability with upper management and can convey the higher level benefits to them.  This individual talks the talk of management and understands how to get in the head of management to help them understand their responsibilities in helping a transformation succeed.
    2. Key Weaknesses - So far I see way more of these individuals as coaches than I do the in the trenches coaches.  This can cause issues because they can sometimes tend to take a more hands off approach in working with their teams and don't have the experience nor creditability to work with the technical teams in a direct manner.  They simply don't have the technical and Agile chops to help the team grow and aren't as adept and making course corrections to the process.  Here you are seeing the effects of Top down driven Agile over bottom up (which I'm more a proponent of).
    3. Things to Think about - Consider having these types of coaches run more of the program level coaching, working more closely with upper management to help them mature in their thinking and protect the teams as they figure out how to be successful in their Agile processes.
  3. Certification Coaches - As I indicated these are the people who have been involved with software development for many years, perhaps in the project management career path and have taken Certified Scrum Master classes and maybe Certified Product Owner.  Though they understand 'software development' they don't, IMHO, understand Product Development and all that this implies in an Agile world.
    1. Key Benefits - Of the three types of coaches, these individuals probably offer the least from a benefits perspective if expected to lead an Agile transformation effort.  These types of individuals understand the basics of Agile and run teams from that perspective.  Not having worked in the trenches they haven't yet had the opportunity to deal with real world Agile and the challenges it presents.  This is not to say that these individuals don't have the skills, knowledge or capabilities to be great coaches but what I am saying is that if you have a large number of coaches fall into this group then your PD teams will be at a disadvantage and this individual will struggle to gain creditability with their Scrum teams and your Agile adoption will fail.
    2. Key Weaknessess - As stated above, these coaches tend to not yet have the creditability or depth of knowledge to be as effective as coaching types 1 and 2, they will need to be partnered with more experienced coaches to enable them to be successful and grown their Agile skills.
    3. Things to Think about - Look for people who can demonstrate servant leadership in their past experience, this is a key behavior of successful PM's, Tech Leads and Managers.  I believe my success in Agile is primarily due to the fact that I am a servant leader by nature.

When you go looking for coaches consider your organizations size, current development maturity and honest assessment of the problems you face with your current Product Delivery processes.  And I do mean HONEST, if you can't take honesty then Agile is not for you.  The Continuous Improvement element of Agile demands honesty and if you are an organization that doesn't want to hear that you PD teams have issues then you will continue to have a less efficient model of delivering value to your customers (and isn't that what ALL of this is really about?)

These will provide you insight into what you will need to move towards Agile.

Also try to avoid labeling your coaches when they come in such as that one is our BDD expert, that one is our blah blah expert. This will tend to keep other coaches from participating and sharing their skills for a specific area and ensure that you processes for that specific area of expertise will suffer ( I speak from experience on this one ).

Agile Planning - I have a need a need for speed

Working at Disney a number of years ago was in so many ways transformative for me (not sure why I left) because it provided me with an opportunity to work with an organization that needed to get better at delivering software for our partners and we ended up choosing Agile as our path. Disney was the place where I had the opportunity to help build an Agile process from Requirements to Delivery and what we discovered was that we needed to develop an effective planning process that allowed us to build a solid backlog of work before we just started coding.  I here that so often in organizations that are just starting to adopt Agile.  I think a statement I heard recently is descriptive of organizations that just start coding - Shoot and Point.

Disney is a largely creative driven organization (Not surprising) and because of this we typically had a disconnect between our creative (UX) groups and the Product Delivery teams.  The UX team primarily worked independently of the PD teams and as was the case when I arrived, UX would deliver a creative design that didn't align to our technical capabilities.  This is a common issue in today's web development environment.

Our first 'Release' Planing went very poorly and after a round of retrospectives we came up with a format that at first pass you would say wasn't Agile (trust me we used that phrase a lot in the early days of our becoming Agile).  But in the end this first step of Discovery ended up being what I believe is the most critical element of being able to go fast in Agile.

The basic process that we ended up with was as follows:

  • Pre-Discovery - Sr level PD, PO, UX, Marketing and other Stakeholders would review a specific new feature that was being considered. The group would utilize several tools such as Mind Mapping to understand the scope, parameters and potential dependencies at a high level.  If the feature work was approved then we went to the next phase.
  • Discovery - Depending uponthe the size of the potential project Scrum teams and extended stakeholders would meet to go through a low-level review for that feature development.  For many of our larger efforts it was not uncommon for us to sequester the teams into a room to work through the entire effort, UX to QA to Delivery.
    • Process
      • Kick off - Have your PM or PO along with the key stakeholder(s) of the effort describe WHY this feature is so important.  We learned in our process development that it helped our PD teams to have an understanding as to why this feature was important to the organization.  It helped them feel connected to the value that was being delivered and not simply code jockeys running a race.
      • Competitive Review - Another great exercise was to have the entire team go out and find competitive features that we either did or didn't like and describe why.  This helped the next phase of our Discovery process as we worked to define what our feature sets would ultimately look like
      • UX and Story Development - This was the primary scope of our Agile workshops.  Typically led by the UX lead for the project we would begin developing low-fi wireframes and discuss the issues, constraints and code complexity that the low-fi would entail.  We discovered in this process that we could work through the types of issues that come much later in a typical product delivery effort.
        • Outcomes -
          • UX ended up with designs that they could utilize to develop prototypes that would be used in User testing prior to any significant development work being completed.  This allowed changes to UX to be found at the very beginning of the PD process rather than at the end when refactoring consumes a much larger amount of time and leads to lower quality of code.
          • PD ended up with a solid design at the beginning of the PD process which led to high quality code and higher levels test automation.
          • QA ended upon with an ability to write higher quality acceptance criteria which lead to high quality in the delivery and higher levels of test automation (sensing a theme here?)
          • User Story development was done during the Discovery phase and with it I was able to have a fairly accurate model to predict the number of stories at the beginning of the Discovery phase (typically between 100-120 higher level Epics, we strove for stories to be between 21-34 points in this phase as PD would start fairly quickly after the discovery phase 2-3 weeks) and how many that would translate into for a full project (typically 350 - 400).  This provided me with input as to how many BDD acceptance criteria would come out of this as we used a marker to determine when a story should be broken down - More than 7 variables in the BDD would be an indication that it's time to think about breaking down the story and more than 14 tests in a single test scenario would also trigger the conversation of whether to add a scenario to a story or create a new story.
            • Benefit - Keeping your BDD test automation in small increments makes it much easier to understand what broke, who probably broke it and what is needed to fix it.

I know this doesn't 'Sound' Agile (like the name of my company), but in my experience doing this small amount of work up front does provide teams the base to go really fast once the PD process begins.

I have used this process now for many years and when we do it right it's like writing a symphony, all of the moving pieces make beautiful music.  When it isn't done right, then all you get is noise.

This process probably does work for larger and more complex organizations over small organizations, but really would you start building a house with no blueprints and no idea of what you wanted?  If you had builders just show up and you told them I need a house to live in and I need it fast you will get that, but I doubt it will be anything that you want. And in reality it wouldn't be done fast as they probably wouldn't have the right materials scheduled to arrive at the right time.  I have my roofing supplies but the foundation company can't some for a month, see what I am getting at?

Slow down a bit, understand what you want, how to get it and then go fast to get it.

Agile - The Ugly Truth

If you are an organization that is considering moving to Agile, especially a larger one, there is an Ugly Truth that Agile consulting firms don't want you to know: You don't need coaches to come in full-time to help you on your journey......

Sure you can spend a ton of money on people who will come in and tell you how you should be doing standup, scrum, retrospectives, etc....Try to get everyone to do the same thing across your organization.  The Truth? In successful Agile organizations everyone can be different, that's ok.  Yes you want some consistency but doing things by rote doesn't get you where you want to go.

In the coaching world we talk about organizations Doing Agile who never get to Being Agile.  What's the difference??  Everything.

Yes the basics of Agile include things such as standup, retros, sprint planning and release planning, but those are the basics that can make you feel like you are Agile, but that's about it.

Agile IS transformative process and one that if you as an organization buy into, will receive great value from in the form of valued delivered in a more consistent manner.

I remember years ago when I was managing a technical project that required that I purchase some hardware and though I had found a better deal with a different vendor, my boss told me to buy the IBM hardware (at a much higher price) with the advice - 'You don't get fired for buying IBM'.

I think that many large organizations fall into this mindset and when trying to move to Agile  They fall into the mistaken belief that if you hire one of the large Agile coaching groups or hire Agile consultants, that you will ensure success or at the very least not get fired because you hired 'Agile professionals'.

Yes you do need people who can provide support in the important areas that Agile truly needs to have in order to bring the value you desire from it:

  1. Automation - Develop, implement and improve your test automation frameworks.  This includes unit, integration and functional areas.  You MUST make this investment and you need to get to high levels of automation, because without it you cannot go fast, time for testing will hold you back.
  2. Planning and Estimation - An area that is very much overlooked when moving your product development teams to Agile is the need for these teams to form a strong working relationship and learn how to plan in estimate in Agile.  The notion, especially for larger organizations, that you don't need to do some level of up front planning is a sure way to fail and fast.
  3. Organizational change - Probably more than anything you need to understand that your organization will change, significantly in many ways, when you move to Agile.  You need to prepare your managers to let go and let their teams own their deliverables (trust me if you give this to people they will own it).  You as an organization need to understand that your management group will change, you will need fewer managers (sorry folks that is a reality).  Though in reality many of your current managers were placed in these roles as more as a retention means over a true management track that the organization has defined.  These people need to move into your Tech Lead roles, they run their scrum teams, own the technical and architectural elements of their product code.  Managers will oversee several Scrum Teams and will be focused on larger concepts such as technical roadmaps, cross organizational planning and staff development.

So the Ugly Truth is that you don't need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on coaches who will tell your teams what to do.  Instead hire people who have been on the ground, who can help your teams learn the skills they need such as TDD, BDD, User Story Mapping and Estimating.

Start small and grow the process into the organization.  You need to get your processes working on a small-scale and then move outwards into the organization.  The people who are successful in your pilot groups become your sales people for the next groups.  Trust me, I listen to the people who actually do the work more than I ever do people who try to provide me basic information that I can find anywhere online.

 

The Myth of Rockstars - Teams Deliver Not Individuals

Over the years I've had the opportunity to work with numerous software development teams in both large and small organizations many of whom have a singular focus of hiring technical rock stars. Though it sounds like something we should all aspire to, I think that we often lose sight of how great a team is when everyone works together over the individual rock star mentality

Point in case the 2014 Chicago Bulls.  They yet again lost their rock star (Derrick Rose) due to injury and the team could have just thrown in the towel, but they didn't.  They weren't considered 'rock stars' by how people in the NBA view talent , but they had something that rock stars don't always have, commitment to the team.  A selfless focus on what they had to do to win a game in the NBA and for several months they had the best record in the NBA from January through March.

Another Bulls analogy would be the championship Bulls of the 1990's.  Until Coach Jackson was able to get Michael Jordan to work as a team member and not be the rock star that he obviously was, the Bulls didn't win a championship.  Only when Michael began to work within the team structure were the Bulls able to win six championships.

The point here is that rock stars often can't/don't deliver for a team, rather they achieve greatness within the context of themselves.  Many technical rock stars are singularly focused on achieving technical dominance based upon this mythical rock star status we give to them.  This leads all to often to these individuals climbing into leadership roles for which they have no real skills to succeed with.

Teams that deliver understand that we all must sacrifice something of ourselves for the betterment of the team.  Rock stars don't see it that way and those that never see it that way are destined to be winners to themselves and not to a greater good.

Sports unfortunately is often the best analogy to teams and in Agile our Scrum concepts come from a team formation from Rugby, so perhaps the sports analogies are appropriate in most cases when talking about technical teams that deliver.

Agile is all about delivery, and fast.  But with speed comes the need for discipline, multiple disciplines in a Scrum team.  Everyone, and I mean everyone, has to pitch in.  If you are a Java developer and you have legacy C++ code, guess what??  You need to learn from C++ so that when time is tight and the delivery important you can step in and help out.  That's teamwork, no rock star needed, just a willingness to put yourself out for your team.  If you are a developer and there needs to be testing in order to close out the Sprint, guess what?? You need to test.  It's amazing what you will learn when you test your own code from another perspective.

When I'm hiring I look for people who have had broad level of experiences.  People who have done just one thing but are considered a Rock Star for it, aren't really my interest.  Great products and high quality come from those with well rounded backgrounds, who see the edges as places that we need to explore.

Great teams have that, broad level's of experience.

So when you are thinking about building a team remember that an organization, any part of it, is a sum of the total parts, not just the rock stars.

 

 

 

Security and Compliance in Agile

It's been awhile since I last posted anything but that's because I've been knee-deep in helping a Security and Compliance team move from a traditional waterfall approach to an Agile approach to developing and managing their work. Talk to any development group in a large organization, especially one that is Agile, and say the words Governance or Compliance (or worse Audit) and you will get a collective shudder and the sound of everyone running for the door.

The truth is this: Every organization has to protect their customers and their brand.  We do this in many different ways, but one thing that we don't do well typically is ensuring that our Product Development teams actually know what these groups do and the value that they can bring in knowledge to developers.  We often view developers as people who know everything, hell they can code to make features come to life so they must also know about secure coding practices and the like (guess what, they don't)

Security Governance and Compliance shouldn't be considered necessary evils, rather they should be considered insurance policies that we take out every time we push code to production.  You wouldn't think about driving a car without insurance because if you do hit someone and injure them, it will cost you a boat load of money.  Yes the odds may be small but taking that risk is one that most people won't take.  We should look at our Security and Governance in the same light, in fact an even brighter light because very few drivers are out there actually trying to hit you to hurt you, whereas hackers are doing just that to your site day in and day out.

With the speed at which hackers and attackers are figuring out new ways to breach our security protocols Security and Compliance teams need to work in a much faster pace.  Think incremental improvements over gold plating a solution.

In Agile teams are focused on delivering value to the business every two weeks and as they go through their process of iterative design and development we also focus on technical excellence.  Product Development teams need to be able to get fast feedback on security questions so that they can incorporate Security changes before development begins.  As a Product Owner you have to understand that the velocity of your team to deliver value MUST include time for them to refactor code and implement ever better secure code, it's simply not up for negotiation if you want a high quality secure product that your customers engage in.

The teams that I'm working with have been willing to engage and somewhat leery in moving to Agile and we are tackling how to handle a team that doesn't deliver code and whose work doesn't necessarily fit into a strict 2 week timeframe.  Additionally these teams aren't used to thinking in short increments so breaking down their work doesn't come naturally, but they are finding ways to do it and they seem to like the visibility and transparency Agile provides.

For Story estimation I developed a quick and easy way for them to estimate their work, taking into account that we don't have true Scrum teams but loosely aligned people working on distinctly disparate tracks of work, it looks like this:

  1. 13 points - One person working one Story for the entire sprint.  This would typically fall into the same category as a Research spike.
  2. 8 points - One person working one story for half of the sprint
  3. 1-5 points - One person working one story for 1, 2, 3 or 4 days.

Some of the team has started to use this and we are starting to see what our potential team velocity might be.  This will help us next year when we do our Roadmap planning.

Additionally since we are using Rally, I've created six-week release windows that teams can align their work to and then assign the iteration that they will complete the work.  With both the Release and Iteration views I can see what the team is planning and what they are executing.

Perhaps the biggest challenge that we need to address next is how do we build a plan for work that may span 1-3 years in duration.  The team has commented several times that moving to Agile is hard since they are used to doing everything in a Waterfall method yet the reality is that whether we are doing Agile or Waterfall as a Program Manager I would expect them to identify high level milestones, understand and describe how the project will unfold.  None of this can't be done in Agile.

The notion that Agile isn't about planning has always amused me since I know that in Agile if you are doing it right it is all about PLANNING.  One thing that differentiates Agile from Waterfall from a Project Management perspective is that we don't have a change management process.  I think we have believed that laying out a project in a Gantt chart with tons of up front planning that really results in Change Requests was effective.  Instead identify the key milestones that make up the project, commit to those and then understand that we'll change along the way but the key business value that we are delivering shouldn't.  If it does then you aren't working on the right stuff.

To those Information Security Management groups who think that they can't be 'Agile', think again.

 

 

 

 

 

Scaling Governance in Agile

Large organizations who move towards and Agile delivery model may struggle with how to scale any governance model.

I think if you polled most Agilists about governance in general, you would tend to get a shutter and an ugly stare.  Indeed we want to address technical excellence during our sprints but what we often fail to understand is that software engineers are not omniscient when it comes to all of the areas of technical acumen related to performance, security and other compliance type efforts.
As an organization grows and becomes more and more global it finds itself dealing with many different governing bodies that each have different requirements for how we deal with data protection, which in turn relates to how we develop our software.
Having run PCI compliance for a large organization I know first hand that providing specific information to developers with respect to what to look for just in a code review is an important first step.
Governance is needed for most organizations as a first defense when something happens with respect to security/privacy.  Organizations need processes in place to provide evidence to governing bodies, courts and legal inquires regarding how we protect our product our customers information.
Governance can include both standards and artifacts.  For example PCI compliance requires that we provide evidence of compliance with respect to their 13 security requirements.   From a software development standpoint these include such activities as code reviews that are focused on security, software development cycle, evidence of secure development and test practices in addition other efforts such as  Penetration testing and other monitoring capabilities.
In Agile we need to think of this in a light weight manner.  At one organization we implemented a set of standardized stories, non-functional, that were to be included into a teams feature development sprints.  For teams that are working on several sprint efforts before going into production this can work very well as the team is addressing this as part of the planning and estimation.  When the code is delivered to production the completed and accepted user stories (which have context as to what was completed) serve as the artifact for the PCI compliance (or other) auditors.
The engineers liked this because they were creating artifacts as they developed and from an organization standpoint we gained confidence in the fact that our code was being developed against high quality standards.
For Governance activities that relate to more ongoing product sustainment efforts the same standards need to apply however the manner in which we apply them within each sprint may be different that new product type efforts.  Automated testing and monitoring form a larger basis of maintaining the standard levels that we established in earlier cycles.
Recently I heard a statistic that said 90% of attacks can be mitigated by the basic block and tackle work that teams can do on a regular basis.
Governance doesn't have to be a bad name in the Agile space, we need to view it as part of our technical excellence efforts that form the basis of high performing Agile teams.
I think Governance is an area in Agile that is ripe for development especially at scale.

Agile Testing

I was saddened to see that a meetup group that I managed for over two years was coming to an end because there wasn't anyone who wanted to take on the leadership role.  When I started at a Northern Virginia startup as QA Manager I was tasked with taking on the leadership role of the DC Agile Software Testers (DCAST) meetup. When I took over we had 25 people and when I left the group two years later  we had grown to a robust 450 and had developed a reputation as a place where QA professionals could meet to learn how they could be successful in an Agile environment.

I've always said that QA is the last to come around when organizations move towards Agile.  Early on in my career in Agile the QA leaders would tell me 'yeah you guys develop however you want and when you are done, then we'll test'.    The notion that QA couldn't test anything until everything was done (though in reality it never was) was strong.  The feeling of power in finding defects that were typically not defects but mis-interpretations of requirements was palpable.  The force was strong with us then. (cue the light saber sound).

With DCAST I saw quickly that the people who were coming didn't understand how they could engage in the process and more importantly they didn't understand how they could deliver 'quality' without having the entire feature delivered for testing.  Iterative testing just didn't compute.

There are many things that QA teams need to understand in order to be successful in Agile.  Some of the key elements include:

  1. Automation - For QA this needs to be a key focus of development.  Automation builds what I call 'progressive regression'.  Instead of thinking of regression as the final end to end activity, look at it as a growing entity.  With waterfall development and more manual focused testing, you get an opportunity to perform a full regression test potentially just once at the very end of the development cycle.   This leaves little time to deal with defects that arise from your testing.  With automation and continuous integration you are effectively performing a regression test of your developed features every night.
  2. Behaviour Driven Development (BDD) - The two-pronged effort to quickly develop and manage your test automation suite utilizes example based test development like BDD as your test acceptance framework.  What BDD does is ensure that the entire team is reviewing the acceptance tests that will ultimately be developed as part of the automation suite.  This process ensures highly contextual user stories that clearly define the behavior of the feature and keeps everyone focused on exactly what needs to be developed (nothing more nothing less)
  3. Parallel Teamwork - With the use of BDD, QA can develop their automation code while feature development is in flight.  If the teams are working from the same story specifications then when the code is checked in the automation should be able to run with few errors.  This is a key process to develop in order for teams to deliver quickly.  By not having parallel efforts, teams will typically fall into the cadence of having automation developed in the next sprint.  Once you go down this road you will typically see automation efforts begin to fall further behind as QA will start manually testing in order to 'stay on top of testing'.
  4. Sprint Management - QA teams need to work with their team to ensure that work is being delivered throughout the entire sprint.  A common problem teams face in Agile is that we fall into the 'mini-waterfall' process where developers deliver the features in the last day or two of the sprint.  This leaves very little time for QA to perform ad-hoc and manual break testing along with fixing any automation breaks that have occurred once the code is checked in.
  5. Zero Defect Policy - This is key.  Teams need to develop a working agreement that enforces a zero defect policy for new feature work in a Sprint.  This means that the team does not receive credit for any stories that can't be closed out with zero defects.  This focus ensures that the entire team is focused on delivering quality.
  6. Quality is EVERYONE'S responsibility - There is no such thing as 'toss it over to QA' in an Agile world.  Hey Developers, you have to help test if you deliver something late.   Don't let your software engineers tell you that they don't test.  All great developers have to be good testers ( you know TDD kind of focuses on writing tests).  The entire team is responsible for quality not just your test engineers.   Note - QA Managers this concept in no way removes the need for your existent, rather like Engineering Managers your role changes.  You should actually have time to be strategic and plan out future testing platforms and approaches for your team.

I'm glad to have led DCAST as it provided me an opportunity to help QA professionals grow their understanding of the activities and process all good Agile teams exhibit.

Being Agile - Say it, Do it, Prove it

I was working with a team recently and as we talked about all of the planning that Agile entails, I broke it down into very simple terms - Say it , Do it , Prove it. That is really what Agile is about.  Anything else outside of these three concepts is noise to your ability to deliver product and services to internal and external customers.  As Product Owners in an Agile organization, you need to understand all of the effort and dynamics involved in getting your teams to Say it, Do it, Prove it.

Delivering what you say you are going to deliver is the best way to build credibility with your stakeholders.

For Agile teams, this translates into being effective at decomposing your stories into small enough increments so that you are confident in your understanding of the user story and estimates that the team believes in.

  1. Say it = Release Planning and Backlog Grooming -
    1. Starting at a high level, the Product Owner is responsible for saying what is important to the organization from a value standpoint and beginning the process of developing a user story backlog that supports this vision.
    2. User story decomposition is so important to effective Agile teams and the Product Owner must start with a set of well-formed stories that provide context to the team.
    3. What is 'context'?   Context is anything that provides definition.  It is basically what the product should do from a functional standpoint.  One of the biggest mistakes many teams make is writing declarative stories that start with the 'How'.  This,\ in turn,  puts the technical team on the defensive as they may have many different ways to implement the feature.  As a Product Owner, be sure to steer clear of writing stories that define how you think the feature story should be implemented.  I know that as we all become well versed in technology there is a strong desire to show off our technical chops, however, as a PO you need to provide context from a business standpoint that your tech teams can consume. I've heard time and again from engineers that they would really like to understand how what they are developing delivers business value or solves a particular pain point for the customer.  The team works much more effectively when they are completely grounded in the business context of what they are building.
  2. Do it = Sprint execution 
    1. An important element for teams to address once they are ready to take stories into a sprint, is that the goal during the Release Planning and Backlog Grooming activities was to begin to build out the context of 'How' the story will be implemented.  It is so important for teams to understand that there is essentially a handoff from the PO to the Scrum Team and that each of them is responsible for building what I call contextually rich user stories.  Gojko Adzic calls this Specifications by Example.  Effective teams who deliver fast and with high quality work closely as a team.
    2.  I believe that the combination of User driven stories and context driven specifications (examples) forms an extremely strong definition of both Ready and Done. which is why I coach my teams to utilize BDD as the basis for developing their User Story acceptance criteria.  The team works together to complete BDD acceptance criteria forming a clear understanding of the boundaries of the feature.  This provides the PO with a concise view of what to expect during the Demo.
    3. Another key benefit of writing BDD as part of your user story writing is that the test automation engineers can easily consume this as part of their code development for the automation.  PO's should push to get to this level of context as it also means that your test engineers can start developing their test automation code once the story is ready for development.  They can essentially perform TDD in that they can write their automation before the feature is actually developed.  Once developed the automation should run cleanly and both speed and quality are attained.
    4. The goal of teams should be to deliver user stories that do not require much further elaboration once the sprint begins.  You want your teams focused on delivery ,not on discovery.
  3. Prove it = Retrospective
    1. You have done all of the work to clearly define your user stories with high levels of context.  With all of this effort, the Retrospective should be an easy affair to show the work that was defined in the stories.  The PO should not have any surprises.  In fact, if the team misses any test scenarios after the story has been started, the PO should consider that more of a missed requirement over anything else.  Since the entire team developed the stories,  there can be no finger-pointing at anyone.  It was a shared miss and everyone must accept it.

It sounds really simple when broken down into these 3 basics phrases.  The truth is that 'Being Agile' is much more involved than simply 'Doing Agile'.

"Being Agile" means exposing all of the inefficiencies in your product development processes.  It requires that the organization be completely honest in assessing what is not working and committing to letting the teams that do the work fix these processes.  You cannot top down drive the type of organizational change that is required for Agile continuous improvement.  Real organizational change is fostered at the top but truly owned by the Scrum teams that form in support of any Agile adoption.

Agile, Change and the things we can do

We home school our children and a few years ago my wife decided to utilize stories and a Kanban board to manage the kids work flow every day. Doing this provided her the ability to build a backlog of work tasks that our children were going to work on (no we didn't have them perform estimations or commitments :) )  Each day she puts up the work that they need to complete in the Not Started column and then the kids can decide which ones that they want to work on and pull the ticket into the In Progress column.

Once they are done with a ticket my wife reviews the work and if accepted moves the ticket to Accepted.  This approach provided our kids with some level of control over their work flow and also an understanding that they weren't done until Mom signed off on their work.  This way of managing their work provide them visibility to how much is left for the day and more importantly the topics that cause them more trouble.

Now that my daughter is working on her first business/website (she's 13) we are using an Agile Discovery process where we are building a User Story backlog (she's learning VOC) and developing low-fi wireframes (she's learning design) for her website where she will be selling her customized jewelry made out of recycled products, photography of the animals she has seen across the country and raising awareness of animal conservation.  She's now comfortable with an Agile process because we laid the groundwork during school.  I think in many ways teachers could utilize this process which would provide visibility to high performing individuals and those that are struggling.  Taking a page from Scrum perhaps the high performing individuals can provide support to the ones that may be struggling, just like we would expect our Scrum teams to do when someone is struggling with a particularly gnarly code problem.

Agile is most commonly associated with Software Development, but really the iterative continuous improvement concepts apply to anything you want to focus on.

Agile can be applied to changing your habits.  For example if you want to lose weight, write an Epic stating that value of losing weight, then write several thematic user stories with your intermediate goals and then write stories for your sprints with specific activities you need to accomplish (exercise, etc...) put it on the wall for your Kanban tracking.  If necessary have a standup with people who are supporting you so you can report on your progress, impediments (Ben and Jerry's is right next to my office...)

An underlying principle of Agile is the need to change behavior, not just of the teams building your product but those that want them built.  You can't have a smooth running organization if you don't address the intrinsic  behavior of people in general.  Agile can provide the framework for helping make this change by providing a shared language.

When we work in an organization we may think we are all working towards an end goal (ie making great products, making money, etc...) but as soon as an organization begins to grow people who don't know each other and who may have no shared experiences need to start communicating.

I recently completed McCarthy's Core Protocol training  and one of the things I came away from it was that getting people to have a shared framework of communication is the most important thing that high performing teams and organizations should focus on, the rest will come as a result of this effort.  If you deliver this you deliver the ability for these teams to produce great product anywhere/anytime.

Think about it this way - We are all organic systems, who behave based upon the experiences that we take in over our life time.  Since no two humans are organically the same ( not even your own family) we end up with an ineffective communication driven by our life experiences and trained responses.

Core Protocols and in my mind Agile, provide a framework to establish a common language, just as we do with disparate technical systems (isn't that what a service based architecture is all about?), we write code that provides a common communication protocol between them, removing the impediment their different languages pose to having them communication effectively.

As you begin to start to adopt Agile understand that though the practices you read about, such a Release Planning, etc... are extremely important, the need to provide your teams and organizations a shared communication framework are equally important to long-term success.

Sound Agile - Aligning Agile with Soundness

As I indicated in my last post I renamed my blog to Sound Agile and I'll be writing about Agile from the perspective of Soundness and how organizations should be evaluating their Agile adoption. I spent quite a bit of time trying to decide what I wanted to name my consulting business and blog (both are called Sound Agile) and I ultimately wanted to convey what I have seen as successful with respect to the teams and organizations I have worked with over the past 10 years.

Thanks to my wife for providing me a word that when I looked at it provided me with the right context to what I had been trying to convey.

Sound: 

adjective

1. free from injury, damage, defect, disease, etc.; in good condition; healthy; robust: a sound heart; a sound mind.

Supporting Manifesto - Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.

a. Free from Defect - Speaks to Quality that we strive for in Agile. b. Healthy - Speaks to your employees health and well-being c. Robust - Speaks to building scalable products. d. Sound Mind - Speaks to teams keeping a clear and open mind to improve

2. financially strong, secure, or reliable: a sound business; sound investments.

Supporting Manifesto - Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.

a. Sound business/investment - Speaks to the value proposition that Agile focuses on. b. Financially strong, secure and reliable - Speaks to the ability of Agile teams to delivery products that are foundational to your organizations long term health and security.

3. Competent, sensible, or valid: sound judgment - This speaks to trusting that the people that you are hire are compentent and when following Agile ceremonies such as Standups, Retrospectives and Planning are able to deliver product that is built on solid decisions.

4. Having no defect as to truth, justice, wisdom, or reason: sound advice. - This speaks to the continuous improvement and Retrospectives that drive this effort.

5. Of substantial or enduring character: sound moral values - Speaks to team commitments, believing and supporting themselves, the foundation of Scrum.

We spend so much time writing and talking about things that we should, could, might do to deliver Agile,  We hear people talk about how 'Agile' are you, tell people that doesn't 'Sound Agile' and I think we have muddied the waters of what Agile should be.

When you hear Sound Agile you may be inclined to add an additional adjective 'Sounds Like Agile' and to some degree that is expected.  My focus however will be on the soundness of Agile from the perspective of organizational change an area that isn't really talked about as much as the other elements of day to day Scrum.

I look forward to comments and input to my blog as my writings will form the basis for the types of coaching and consulting I hope to do in the future.

Technology isn't important, Product is

We are so enamored with technology today, what it can do, the excitement it brings to us as technologists that we have lost sight of the fact that technology isn't the end game for a business. Why?  Because if your organization could figure out a way to run their business so that it wasn't dependent upon technology they would do it in a heartbeat.   The people who own and run businesses don't care about the underlying technology, even those who classify themselves as technology companies.  At the end of the day technology enables the business to develop product.  They aren't in the business of  developing technology as  end product and I think that goes for companies who deliver 'technical' products.

Many teams I've worked on in the past 10 years have isolated themselves from the organization, instead telling stakeholders they were  focusing on technical excellence.  Leaving the stakeholders wondering why they weren't delivering what they wanted all in the name of technical excellence.

I worked on one project that was so late that the business ending up exiting the market that they were in.  In response the Development manager said if only the stakeholders knew how cool the technology was that they had worked on they would change their mind.  Really?  They could care less, all they wanted was a product that would keep them in the market and making money.

Though the amount of information we can process has exploded we aren't really solving really new problems, they are just much larger in scale and are required with much higher availability.  At the end of the day business runs on information that drives product decisions that build value.  Like any other part of the organization we are responsible for delivering value, not technology.

If we could deliver data to our business without all of this cool technology like hadoop, etc....they would be just as satisfied.

We should spend much more time on how we can deliver what we need for the business with less over building systems that continually build in complexity because we aren't product focused.  Think about it, organizations that deliver at scale, such as car manufacturers continue to refine their processes so that complexity is removed, whereas we seem to have to add complexity in order to deliver value.  They add technology where it makes sense not just because it's the latest thing.

Technology isn't important but our technical product is.  We have architects, tech leads, dev managers, however I don't often see them actually defining the technical product that the business needs, rather they evaluate specific pieces of it, SQL server over Oracle, Java over .Net, etc.....and with each iteration individual personalities can influence the type of technology being implemented, often times in direct competition with the documented tech stack that company operates in.

What we end up with is a technology product that doesn't scale well and adds cost to the organization in both resources and revenue delays.  When confronted with the mess we've made we tell the organization that can solve the problem with a new platform.  Unfortunately we often fail to fully deliver on that promise for the same reasons that we got into the situation in the first place.

This is not to say that we don't try to build systems right. Executives also need to bear responsibility for not providing the Engineers you have hired the support and time necessary to actually build technical products that deliver value to your business product, they are one and the same in today's world.

When your technical team is forced to meet dates, the inherent compromises that need to be made typically result in short cuts to your technical product in order to deliver the most for your business product.  You can do this in the short term, but if you don't provide your teams time to shore up these short cuts your technical debt continues to grow.  And like any debt you eventually have to pay it.  Pay it at the end of every release like a credit card you won't incur finance charges.  Continue to pay just the minimum and you eventually can go bankrupt.

Agile and the Management Impact

You're a technology manager in an organization that has decided that they are going to adopt Agile.  Thunk......now what? You've spent years becoming the high performing manager you are today, managing the day-to-day details of your team, holding things together, making decisions big and small....You are the leader, success of your team hinges on your ability to make decisions that impact the way the team works. Your team is successful because of your management efforts....Sound like you?

This Agile thing is telling me that my teams are now going to be 'self-organizing' and be able to make decisions on their own...what the heck am I going to do?

Managers who are asked to move their organization to Agile may often believe like they are providing the path to the doorway out of the company.  This resistance can be one of the primary impediments to successful Agile adoption and as an organization Sr. Management needs to be aware of this paradigm and provide support to middle managers that Agile is not about replacing them but truly about getting them into a position where they are focused in the truly valuable parts of their job - Strategic Planning, Employee Development..the bigger picture.

Stephen Covey teaches that successful managers are the ones who are able to remove themselves from the quadrant of activities that are Urgent and Important and focus on the activities that were Important but Not Urgent, meaning remove yourself from day-to-day decision-making over planning and strategy development.

So many of us can get sucked into the day-to-day minutiae of our teams that we end up ignoring the bigger picture areas which should be our focus.  Why?  Because dealing with Important and Urgent activities is an addictive feeling, you feel like you are making important decisions when in fact your team is probably more than capable of making them without you.

Agile provides your team with leadership opportunities that aren't found in more traditional process control organizations.  Step back and let your team grow.  I've been amazed how teams, when given the opportunity, can solve process issues and impediments to productivity that I would have never thought of.  The collective minds of your organization are capable of great things.

As a manager you need and want to embrace this power and provide support for you team.  Let them help you and help the organization deliver on the promise that Agile provides.

How can you help?

  • Understand that for your teams to succeed they need to fail, yes I said that.
  • Don't attend their ceremonies (standups, retrospectives)  Why?  The team needs to be able to speak openly and honestly about what is working and not working without you being present.
  • Use the working metrics available to you, velocity, burndown.  If your team says they are going to do 'x' story points and they do that consistently, what else do you need to know?
  • Don't force your opinions on what they 'SHOULD' be doing.  Have confidence that you have hired great people and they like you want to succeed.
  • Work closely with the Product Owner and Scrum Master to discuss any concerns you have.  Understand why things are working a certain way before leveling your judgement.
  • Don't act as a Scrum Master or Product Owner of the team. Why?  You manage their careers and it's highly unlikely that the team will receive the benefits of iterative continuous improvement if they don't feel confident that they can say when things aren't working well.
  • Don't believe that everything is great the way it is, anything can be improved.

Agile will provide transparency with respect to the areas of your organization that isn't working efficiently.  As a management team you will need to focus your attention on addressing these impediments as your Agile teams mature.  If these hurdles and impediments aren't dealt with you will reach a ceiling on the ROI that Agile can provide.  As with your teams, management needs to be honest with themselves about broader organizational issues so that a stronger and more effective organization emerges.

Agile isn't just about delivering software faster, it's much more than that.  Understanding that will make the transition your Agile smoother.

Agile Discovery - Addressing fixed date/scope projects through upfront planning

Most of the Agile projects (perhaps all) that I have worked on over the years have started with an express understanding of scope AND a fixed date for the delivery.  One of the common myths I think people have about Agile is that when you 'go' Agile this issue goes away, it doesn't. By ignoring the need for some level of planning prior to taking on an Agile project, teams start with a deficit of knowledge (ie well groomed story backlog).

I'm a huge proponent of having teams take on their project backlog with an initial Discovery workshop that includes the entire team and can take anywhere from 1-5 days depending upon the size and scope of the project being considered.

I've used this approach to plan out a 6 month release with tremendous success, typically delivering more value than the stakeholder asked for and with virtually no defects.

I think this planning effort is key for teams to realize high levels of iteration productivity.  The time to build context in your stories and features is not after the iteration (or train) has left the station.

Many of you, especially Product Owners, will make the assumption that it's a waste of time for the team to perform a Discovery session that builds out stories and acceptance criteria at a lower level for more than an iteration out.  The concern that everyone has is that if we don't start coding immediately we'll be behind and won't make our commitment.  The truth?  Having a user story backlog that is well formed and understood by the team allows the team to stay focused and productive over trying to design and address context while trying to actually code the feature.

What do I mean by Discovery?

Once a team receives a project from their stakeholders with a set date for delivery, the 'scope' of the project then becomes the key to meeting the delivery expectations.

If the team just starts coding with the first few stories that are available they are already in story deficit, they don't have enough work to keep the iteration engine going, meaning Backlog Grooming, Pre-Iteration Planning and Current Iteration planning.  High functioning Agile teams understand that the iteration engine only works when you have a product backlog that is clearly prioritized, has sufficient context and can be worked on with no real impediments.

For example if a team has a six month project which consists of 12 two week iterations the team needs to identify the following:

  • Story Themes - What are the functional slices of the features/product you are delivering.  Themes form the basis for building your release plan.  Themes will hold the high level user stories that are identified in Discovery, typically greater than 40 points.
  • Epics - These are the larger User Stories that are identified during discovery as they relate to the Story Themes.  These will typically be larger than 40 points.
  • Features - As Epics are decomposed they are further brought into focus as distinct features that can be worked on a independent units of work.  Features will typically be sized between 21-40 points and have a much greater shared understanding by the team of what it will take to deliver this.
  • User Stories - As teams continue to decompose Features that are able to get to the granular set of work, complete with Acceptance Criteria (such as BDD).  These are the items that are addressed in iteration planning.

My experience over the years has seen teams be able to spend anywhere from 2-5 days working through the Themes, Epics and Features such that we have a strong understanding of how the project will unfold from a release standpoint and a lower level set of Features and User Stories that help UX work ahead of the Delivery team.  This process has proven successful for the teams I've worked with who have tried it.

I'm not suggesting that an entire 12 iteration project needs to be flushed out to the user story task level, however getting further than the Epic level with a few features and a few stories will allow teams to be very focused on iteration level delivery on a consistent basis.

This effort can provide a higher level confidence level for the team with a small spike of investment in upfront planning.

Planning is an important element of successful Agile teams, don't short change it when working through new features/functionality.

Member Login
Welcome, (First Name)!

Forgot? Show
Log In
Enter Member Area
My Profile Not a member? Sign up. Log Out