Agile Product Delivery

Top Down or Bottom Up - Large Scale Agile Adoption

So I've worked in both large and small organizations where we have gone through an Agile adoption or the phrase of the day, Transformation. Having seen both sides of the coin I started realizing that you have two paths to take when considering moving your organization to an Agile delivery methodology.

I use the phrase delivery, because I think at the end of the day that is what we are talking about.  Strip away the manifesto's goals of conversation over documentation, accepting change, etc...What are are really talking about is moving an organization from a Project delivery methodology to one that is Product delivery oriented.

What is the difference?  From a Management perspective actually quite large.

  1. Project Delivery - These have very strong controls which move people to a new project.  Budgets are set up for the specific time period of the project and then up front requirements and design are completed in order to ensure that the project is fully ready to be engaged.  Project Managers manage all facets of the project via extensive project planning and plans.  Management receives up dates as to the project progress on a regular schedule, usually weekly. Resources are assigned either in full or in part, yet no one actually monitors nor can they really manage whether or not someone is working 25% on a particular project.  Projects tend to focus on reporting and there is high pressure to ensure that individual projects are green, which drives teams to deliver on the easiest and often less valuable parts of the project first and only at the end of the project is the hard work tackled, which reveals itself as budget overruns or timeline delays (or worse delivery of reduced scope).  Project reporting is elaborate and management receives project reports that are often sanitized.  Value is typically not delivered to the organization until the end of the project.
  2. Product Delivery - The work that is done for a Product is centered around a value stream it delivers and the work is ongoing.  Teams are funded as a whole and are kept together long-term in order to maximize their productivity.  Work is planned out in short increments called Release Plans that span anywhere from 6-12 weeks, with 2 week sprints.  Management receives regular updates (2 weeks) but can access information radiators at anytime, transparency is the key and goal with Agile Product Delivery.  Teams commit to work in 2 week sprints and their commitment is key to building trust with Management.  As time goes by management can trust that both a teams abilities and productivity can be counted on.  Teams are focused on delivering high quality code to production every two weeks which brings value to the organizations investment in them along with the increased value in terms of new sales, reduced costs, etc...Feedback loops via Product Demonstrations provides management the ability to assess where they are going with the product and deliver not what was asked for up front (Project Delivery) but rather what is actually needed (Product Delivery).

So what does the difference between Project and Product delivery approaches have to do with Agile adoption, well everything.

Most Agile adoptions begin at the bottom of the organization with the teams tasked with developing new software.  These efforts are borne, as the Agile manifesto was, out of frustration with how software was being developed in their respective organizations.  Often management is aware of the issues these teams face but are unable or unwilling to make any changes to how things are currently working and why would they?  You learn very early in your career that rocking the boat is not something that goes over well with organizations, my first boss told me I couldn't by computers that weren't from IBM because you don't get fired if you buy IBM. The message is that if anything goes wrong you need to point to well-known names, processes, etc.. with which to blame or use as support.  To think that this doesn't go on today is to place your head in the proverbial sand.

Though we can have great success with bottom up Agile adoptions with respect to improved productivity within small groups/teams, the overall Project oriented organization is typically still in place.  Management still wants to see project plans, have things 'planned' out for up to an entire year, they aren't comfortable with the fuzzy feel of product roadmaps.  They want commitments, even false ones, so that when things fail they can point to the fact that they had all of their planning in place.

For Agile to really take hold, Sr. Leaders need to change the way that they manage both their people and the work.  It starts first I think in understanding that we have not learned how to speak to management very well yet from an Agile/Scrum perspective.

We need to understand what management is really concerned about and then center our product delivery efforts around that.  One of the problems that we face with some of our leaders is that they themselves don't always know what to be focused on, they are looking at multiple balls in the air but at the end of the day as a Sr. Leader I think I have just a few things I should be focused on:

  1. Growth - This is often related to sales, market and revenue.
  2. Profits - Tightly aligned with the first item, our ability to make a consistent profit is what helps us continue to reinvest in our company.  Ever increasing revenue or sales without corresponding profits will eventually lead a company into bankruptcy, money isn't free and it is not endlessly available, in spite of what we think we see with new technology organizations.
  3. Organizational Excellence - Because none of the above can happen unless you have a great organization.

Agile actually addresses all of the above, yet we spend more time talking about how we will improve our individual work efforts which causes us to  fail to tie this to the needs of management.  Management on the other hand often views the improvements that come from the bottom up approach as more of an anomaly rather than an organizational improvement worth adopting.

Trust is the missing component when it comes to conveying how Agile will make the entire organization better.

Agile isn't easy and it requires skills that frankly many of our Sr. Leaders lack or don't fully utilize and the politics of most organizations reward behavior that doesn't align with Agile principles such as transparency, open honest conversation and openly questioning the status quo.  We have people in power who got there by way of the non-Agile status quo and changing that means they have to learn how the new game is played in order to stay on top, it's much easier to keep things they way they are over learning how to navigate the new.

So how do we speak to our Sr. Leaders with respect to Agile?

  1. Better ROI - Talk to any Finance executive about what they look at when purchasing a piece of equipment that will deliver revenue and you will hear them talk about Net Present Value of the investment, Positive Cash Flow and Depreciation costs.
    1. We improve ROI in Agile due to our focus on only the most valuable items.  In non-Agile project work often are working on features/functionality that may be important to someone inside the organization yet will bring little or no value to the organization.
    2. When we are able to start talking about the value streams of our organization, be they revenue, cost reduction or improving our brand image we begin to be able to have a better ROI conversation with management.
    3. We also positively impact ROI via higher levels of productivity gained with dedicated teams.
  2. Flexibility - One of the most important elements that 21st century organizations require is the ability to be flexible enough to react to market forces or reactions.  Financing large projects far out into the future with the expectation of some level of return and no we don't really have great track records of predicting future ROI out very far into the future.  With Agile we provide the framework to identify the most valuable work for the business in small planning windows.
    1. Sr. Management needs to understand that this flexibility comes with an obligation to have consistent short term review windows as the team progresses so that we deliver what is actually needed and not what we thought we wanted.  You may have thought you needed a Ferrari when in fact what you needed was a mini-van, we provide the framework to course correct via Sprint reviews every two weeks.  If you plan all of your project up front for the Ferrari, we'll certainly try to make that happen, but in reality as the end of the project nears you will probably get the car but with a lawnmower engine and no brakes, it may look like a Ferrari but it won't operate like one nor will it provide the value the organization really needed.
  3. Predictability - Another key element that we deliver with Agile is predictability and accountability.  Your teams will be much more accurate in planning and delivering in short-term 2 week sprints with a planning horizon of 6-8 weeks.  What management needs to look for is consistent delivery of the committed work that the team makes, commitment is everything.  What Wall Street analysts look for is a business that can provide a solid ROI, react responsibly to their competitors or even better be a market leaders and provide predictable results year in and year out.

So the question at hand is what is better a Top Down or Bottom Up adoption?  My money for long-term success is on the organization that can consume what Agile really means, not just to their development teams but the organization as a whole.  You can't BE Agile if you don't make the paradigm shift from command and control to one of collaborative and collective delivery.

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.

Baking In Quality with Agile

One of the things that I love about Agile and especially the related techniques of BDD and Test Automation is that if done correctly your teams are essentially baking Quality into your products AS they develop, not after. Traditional SDLC (read waterfall) took a very linear approach to project delivery which in turn translated into a similar approach to how we developed and delivered our software products.

In our traditional delivery methods, quality was not 'baked' in but tested out and we never ever got to the point where we are able to test out all of the 'defects' that are found, instead we create a bug database where 'bugs' go to die.  Every organization typically has some form of a bug database with bugs that were 'found' sometimes years ago and were never fixed (of course begging the question were they ever bugs in the first place?)  In Agile we really don't want to see a bug database because we should be instilling a zero defect policy for each sprint, meaning that we should never be introducing new tech debt into our product.

As I progressed on my Agile journey I came to realize that there are actually two types of 'bugs' that we encounter when we develop software:

  1. Bugs as Missed or Undefined Requirements
  2. Bugs as True Bugs

-- Bugs as Missed or Undefined Requirements - I will argue (and in a book that I am starting to write about this topic) that a majority of the bugs that we find and document aren't really bugs at all, but rather functionality that has been misinterpreted based upon the requirements definition that comes out of segregated development processes, ie Write Requirements, Develop Software, Test Software and Deploy Software.

Language is such an imprecise way of communicating that it almost virtually guarantees that if you have more than 1 person developing the software for your product you will get different interpretations of how to implement the requirement functionally.

Remember the old 'The System Shall' statement? that is commonly used in writing Business Requirements documents?  I always thought that this missed the scope of the requirement, what about what the System Shall Not Do?.  We focus so much on happy path for our functional development that we miss large segments of functionality based upon what an application shouldn't be allowed to do.

Let's take an example of an English word to convey what I'm meaning:

What do you think of when you see the word - BASS

Do you think of this:

Bass_Guitar

OR this?

Bass_Fish

These have the same spelling in the English language yet they have two entirely different meanings. Our life experiences become a prism for how we interpret what we read and how we react to it. (PS, I'm a musician so I think of the instrument before the fish)

Teams that rely on written requirements documents that are reviewed and worked on independently, meaning developers develop the code/functionality and then pass it on to testers will inherently have issues/bugs related to how something was interpreted and then developed.  In the above example the developers may have thought they were delivering a bass guitar, but the testers were expecting a bass fish (yeah extreme I know) but I believe this is the root of many of our issues when trying to deliver what the business expected in the first place.

-- Bugs as True Bugs - I believe that true bugs are more technical than functional (or should be).  Bugs related to how integration happens are very common because although we can describe the behavior of our feature we can't always anticipate issues related to how independent systems will work together.  Many 'true' bugs in Agile are caught in the moment and fixed before they ever make their way to production.  For the Finance people out there this is a tremendous cost saving that has been proven time and again.  ROI is greatly enhanced when you deal with tech debt up front rather over time.  And please don't ever think really that it is more important to get 'something' to production over making sure that the product is operationally sound.

So what to do?

To address the  inherent limitations with our  communication, we need to abstract our thinking into more concrete descriptions of behavior over broad-based statements such as the System Shall.

User Stories and the corresponding BDD acceptance criteria are a great way to do this as a BDD example table clearly defines the behavior of our product functionality via outcome based upon inputs.  The 'language' of BDD is unique so that everyone can begin to have a shared understanding of what the story and behavior of the product(aka system) will do.  BDD abstracts our communication and removes individual interpretation.

In Agile we start by ensuring that the teams understand that they OWN the quality of their delivery. One of the things that I absolutely love about high performing Agile team is that there is no finger-pointing, if a Sprint fails to deliver what the team committed to then everyone shares the blame, not just an individual or functional group.

How we bake quality into our products is by understanding how to write User Stories that provide context without the ability to misinterpret the meaning of the requirements.

To do this we must first ensure that we have a well written user story, what does that look like?

A good user story needs to identify the What and then the Value statement.  Many teams that I have worked with start to write stories that only identify the actor and What but leave out the value statement, which is really the proof that what we are working on is of sufficient value to devote our resources to.  A good user story should never have any Creative or Technical design conveyed, I know that many people like to show their technical knowledge by writing stories that convey what they think the design or system will need to utilize, but all that does is start the team down a path before exploring all options.

Behavior over language interpretation is what you are striving for when writing contextually rich user stories.

BDD with its accompanied Example statements takes an otherwise basic user story and brings it to life.  Much like we do when we take basic ingredients for cookies and then bring them together in the right amounts to deliver awesomeness every time.

Software quality is much like baking, you need:

  • The right ingredients - Good individual team members, honest communication, commitment to quality
  • The right process - Write good user stories, add quality BDD acceptance criteria, code and test in parallel and then deliver, involve the entire team in writing BDD, involve the entire team in the estimation process.

By taking the time to build contextually rich user stories and define the story with BDD acceptance you move towards a shared understanding of the 'behavior of your product' over one that is driven by functional requirements.  Requirements tend to convey to little of behavior and focus more on the big win that is being conveyed to Sr. Management regarding what is being delivered.

Agile is a very disciplined delivery process and in order to bake the quality into your product you need to develop efficient processes that keep the User Story/BDD train running smoothly.  If you are entering a sprint and then writing your BDD then you are already behind, you need to develop a process by which teams are working on current sprint development AND building context for the next one.  It can be done and when it is you get what I call progressive regression with the automation that comes out of your BDD work.

Agile is very disciplined and to think that going Agile will make your current life easier, well guess again.  What Agile will do is highlight EVERY current weakness you have in your current product delivery process and then focus your attention on finding ways of improving on them.

For those of you looking for workshops regarding User Story/BDD techniques, please reach out to me at soundagile@gmail.com.

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.

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 Planning and Delivery

Agile is often viewed as the way that small organizations and teams can build product quickly and in fact I believe that to be true. Being quick and nimble allows smaller/growing organizations the ability to get into a market quickly and deliver features that larger organizations haven't delivered yet or haven't thought of.

This very ability to deliver new features to a market that desires them is the very reason that larger organizations need to change the way that they deliver their product.  As an organization becomes larger, the entropy that comes from that growth causes the organization to stop being a market leader and start being a market follower.

In the technological world we live in, you can go from market leader to out of business in just a few short years.  I read an article recently that suggests that Walmart is starting to show signs that its dominance in retail may be coming to an end.  I wouldn't be surprised, as I think they have lost sight of the fact that low prices don't always solve the things we as consumers value.  Walmart isn't a market leader anymore, they may just not have come to that realization.

It's this lag in reality when big companies start falling behind  Somewhere along the way almost every organization will lose its way, lose site of the very thing that caused them to be great in the first place.

When you look around in the Agile learning space you see many of the original creators of Agile and Scrum trying to figure out how to help large organizations get past their own entropy.  I don't think that Agile can help, it can highlight where your planning and delivery processes are inefficient but it doesn't provide the language that senior management needs to hear in order to effect real change.

If we want to help organizations transform and be 'agile' then we need to speak in the langauge of management, which is money.  I've yet to have a cogent conversation with management regarding how their lack of focus costs them money and more importantly fails to deliver the speed to market that they need in order to stay market leaders.

If you think that Agile provides you with a means to quickly change product direction in order to play defense or catchup when new features that you have been planning on are released by a competitor, then you are missing the point.  Agile does accept that change will happen, but we expect that the change will take the form of measured change in how we can make the product more valuable, not wholesale changes in direction.

Changing direction within a Sprint is something I've seen several times and it's almost always driven by management.  Whether you have too many idea's/opportunities or are just trying to stay relevant give you team time to work on one thing at a time.  Context switching reduces productivity and that you can translate into money.

The example I've been using recently is this:

If you managed your Sprints the way you manage your money you would go broke.  Take this example for consideration (note this is what good Agile teams should be forcing into the planning conversation).

Consider a team that has planned 20 points for the current sprint and someone (Product Owner, Sr. Management) has decided that something else is more important, like completing a feature for a key client.  The appropriate response from your Agile team is 'Great, let the team review the request and provide an estimate'.  Right there you have probably lost 2-3 points in analysis and estimation by the team.  Once they have completed their estimation, they come back to you and tell you that it's a 5 point effort.

You think to yourself great we can do that in this sprint,  let's do it.  A good Agile team will tell you yes we can do it but you need to remove 2-3 points for the estimation effort AND 5 points for the new work that you want us to take on in the current sprint.  So you have LOST 7-8 points of productivity, aka value) to get 5 points of value.

If you invested 8 dollars into a business and only were able to get 5 dollars back you would quickly realize that you can't sustain that monetarily, right?

Put this to your executives next time you have a priority conversation.  I didn't even bring in the  technical debt we typically take on to hack something together and the lack of testing that will happen because we weren't ready to take on the work (read no automation).

As a Finance guy I would say that this is a bad investment.  Yes I want to satisfy my customer but if they are a good customer you should be able to have an ability to manage their expectations so that the team can take on the work in the next Sprint.  Depending on when the request came in they may only have to wait 2 weeks.

Effective teams I've worked with use this process as a first line of defense against changing priorities within a Sprint.

PMO Role in Agile

If you lead a PMO or are a PM and your organization is embarking on an Agile adoption you are probably thinking so how do I fit into this new paradigm and still manage the work that I'm currently managing (it won't manage itself is what you are thinking) ?

Organizations who are now moving towards Agile as a product delivery/SDLC method will find themselves trying to figure out where their PMO and subsequent Project Managers will fit.

The problems they face are several:
Traditional Project Managers:
  • Are experienced at managing to a specific plan and resolving resource issues that their specific projects are facing.  They are not typically assigned to just one project and the people they work with come and go with much frequency.  Project Managers have been for many years the ones who provide confidence that 'someone' has their hands on the pulse of the projects that are designed to deliver value to the organization.
  • Don't typically look at their projects as value driven, rather they are priority and resource driven.  Their focus when they are assigned to a project is about who is on my team, who can I steal from other projects and creating a plan that is often not vetted by the very people who will actually do the work and socializing that with Sr Management.
  • Traditional Project Managers are excellent deflectors of blame (yep I learned quickly how to push off issues on to someone else)
  • Are not typically contributing members of the team.
I don't say these things to make Project Managers angry, I was once a PM and a very good one at that (or so I believe).  And I'm not at all implying that there isn't a role for PM's in Agile, but I will suggest that how you think as a PM will need to change.
For starters you need to find a way to be a contributing member of the team and not just someone who sits on the sidelines like a reporter and records what is going on to report out.
The thing that was different about me was that I always managed my teams more like a Scrum Master would.  I found ways to contribute, I gained the trust of my team, I protected them and provided guidance for individuals when they were struggling with something about the organization that didn't make sense.  This process of engagement led me out of the PM role and ultimately into QA Management so there are growth opportunities for PM's if you are open to learning new things.
If the team needs help in testing, learn something new and help out.
Most Agilists' may tell you that the Scrum Master and Project Manager role are completely different.  Though they are different I would argue that project managers can fill the void of Scrum Master and gain great insight to their projects and be on point to resolve impediments more easily than be bystanders to the entire Agile process.
Here are some key areas that Project Managers should focus on during an Agile Transformation:
  1. Planning - Is not a function of setting forth an unyielding plan.  Rather planning by the team is to facilitate an ever growing understanding of what the team is building.  Big Up Front Requirements convey a static nature to projects that simply doesn't exist.  If you disagree actually track the number of times the team has to change their plans (for architecture, etc..) during a typical non-Agile project.  Teams that try to predict the future are destined to be wrong a majority of the time.  You need to become comfortable with a plan that identifies in detail only 4 weeks out.
    1. Goal - Be an active member of the team and be able to understand both the technical issues that are facing the team and bring them a clear understanding of dependencies with projects and teams that aren't in their viewfinder.
    2. GoalLearn different Agile planning techniques.  One of the key things that people miss in Agile adoption is that Planning needs to take place more often and that some level of upfront Discovery is not a bad thing.
  2. Scrum/Agile  Activities - A Project Manager for a Scrum Team needs to:
    1. Ensure that their teams are performing effective User Story development with techniques such as BDD and Specification by Example.
    2. Ensure that their teams have a well groomed set of stories in their backlog
    3. Ensure that their teams have effective Sprint Planning and Estimation sessions
    4. Ensure that the teams utilize their Retrospectives to drive continuous improvement
      1. Goal - Become an Agile evangilist, learn everything you can about Scrum, Story writing, TDD, Continuous Integration, User Story Mappiing, BDD, Specification by Example.
  3. Program Management - Is driven by the overall roadmap.  Ensuring that Scrum teams are aligning their user stories to appropriate Road Map Items keeps the organization focused on execution progress/success and provides the PMO with a clear view to all of the work that they are managing.  As an organization scales this is no small feat, so getting large sets of teams to keep up with story writing and roadmap linking is an administrative task that teams quickly tire of.  Project Managers need to provide support and assistance with the management of these types of activities in conjunction with their PO and Scrum Master.
  4. Technical Knowledge - Though this isn't as big of a problem as it was 10 years ago, many Project Managers simply don't understand the underlying technical platform that their teams are working in.  I personally don't think that you can be an effective project manager unless you have this knowledge.  Take the time to learn, your team will appreciate it and you will be able to have better fact based conversations with your Stakeholders regarding issues that delay delivery of projects.
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