Agile Teams

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.

 

 

 

BDD - A team oriented activity

Probably one of the harder elements of Agile that teams struggle with is the art of collaboration. Our experiences over the years have taught us to treat functional groups such as BA's, Devs and QA as separate entities each with their own perspective and each distrustful of the others abilities to deliver.  How many times in QA do we hear the phrase 'Just toss it over to QA and let them deal with it'. 

We forget so easily that what we deliver for a customer is the sum total of our efforts, not just of individuals.  The Chicago Bulls were a good team with just Michael Jordan, but only when they were able to blend ALL of the skills of the team were they able to win championships.  Scrum is about team.
Getting your Scrum team to actually work as a team is one of the key efforts that everyone needs to make and BDD is a way that can help teams  work collaboratively to  build what I call contextually rich user stories.
You can't rely on just one or two people to write user stories and acceptance criteria as there is a limit to the context of what any one person can know.  With ever growing complexity in business and technology the more people who can collaborate the more context that is captured in the story.
Does it sound like heavy overhead?  It shouldn't.  I'm sure you have all spent hours pouring over Business or Product Development documents trying to glean enough information to build a design that will work for the next 6 months (which we know doesn't happen on any planet in this solar system).  We've always spent time trying to understand what is being asked for but in Agile we spend smaller increments of time on writing details that matter.
The most successful teams I've worked with have adopted this type of approach for building out BDD acceptance criteria:
  • Start of Sprint -
  1. During the first two days of the Sprint the QA lead and Product Owner work together to develop (and or complete) BDD acceptance criteria for the next upcoming sprint.
  2. By day three the development team should start delivering stories to QA for testing.  Additionally QA can begin their automation efforts via BDD examples with tools such as Cucumber, Fitnesse, Capybara....
  3. The engineering team needs to plan to complete all of the story development so that the last two days are open for them to  review the acceptance criteria and make changes/suggestions to the PO.  The team is also completing their designs for the upcoming sprint during the last two days and fixing any bugs that are discovered in testing.
BDD Planning Cycle v1.00
The key to this process is that before the team commits to the sprint they must all review and agree to the scope of the BDD acceptance test examples.  Without this discipline, the scope of the story and sprint will not be as precise.
As I've told my teams in the past, moving to writing BDD acceptance criteria is a mind shift in how you view both requirements and testing.  Both Development and QA can consume them for their individual efforts, but in the end, if they work against what is defined in the BDD they will both be on the same page functionally.
BDD takes the guess work out of what is being developed and that's a good thing.  For Sprints to go quickly and with high quality,  teams have to understand exactly what they are doing.  To steal from one of my favorite phrases from Bull Durham 'Don't think, it only hurts the ball club'.
BDD provides clarity for the entire team and makes demos go smoothly.
Ensuring that the team provides input, review and commitment to BDD acceptance criteria keeps everyone focused on doing just what is needed.

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.

Contextually Rich User Stories - The Importance of Details in Small Increments

Every software product that we build begins with a set of requirements. Teams or organizations who have utilized traditional requirements documentation efforts such as Product or Business requirements documents (PRD's or BRD's) typically have issues with translating their requirements process into user stories.  Instead of writing long passages of descriptive requirements that are heavy on the use of 'the user shall' we move to a smaller specification document that convey details to a specific individual feature.

What teams fail to realize is that their old requirements documents weren't all that good at conveying the necessary details that allow teams to delivery their product quickly and with quality.  You see evidence of this lack of clarity with the large number of change requests that are raised during waterfall projects.  In my pre-Agile years it was not uncommon for a typical 6 month project that I led to have over 100 change requests generated to convey the changing nature of the requirements (business, technical and UX).  The Agile manifesto addresses this reality by saying we accept change, why?  Because it's there it will happen, to deny it would be to deny the reality of product development, as we learn more we need to change our approach.

User stories, though small in format, need to have a specific level of detail if a team is to have the ability to accurately estimate and delivery the feature.

The basic User Story:

  • Story
  • Conversation
  • Acceptance Criteria

Can be deceptively simple to those who are just starting

In one organization I worked with as we moved into an Agile process the team looked at the User Story statement  as THE requirement.  It took awhile to get them to learn that successful teams use the User Story format as a specification and not a loose statement with no context associated with it.

An example of a solid User Story specification would look like this:

Story Format

Another important thing to note with this format is that the team is also collaboratively building Story acceptance criteria by using Behavior Driven Development (BDD) which directly feeds the test automation frameworks that most Agile teams utilize (Cucumber, Fitnesse, to name a few).

There are other efforts/processes that feed into getting the right amount of detail into the story such as Discovery and Pre-Planning and if these are missed you will not obtain the benefits of this format.

Over the past 5 years, teams I have engaged with, who have used this specific format for developing their User Stories have had a much greater success with both delivering on time and more importantly with higher quality.

At my last organization I asked a Scrum team to utilize this process during the Pre-Planning phase of their project.  After the project I learned that the Product Owner had been very worried about the team using precious 'development' time to talk through the work and build out the context of the user stories. After the project was completed he could state without reservation that taking the time to build out contextually rich user stories with the team had produced two key results:

  1. The team delivered on time and with more features than he had originally promised the client.
  2. When he delivered the demo to the client he had high confidence in the product as it met all of the context that had been build out and there were only 2 minor UI issues that were identified during the 3 iteration project.

Take away - Don't run before you are ready and get the context right before developing.

Hurdling through Product Delivery part 2

article-1255763-08965ee6000005dc-57_468x286.jpg

article-1255763-08965EE6000005DC-57_468x286 Product delivery is a discipline that requires the involvement of all segments of an organization:

  1. Customers and Stakeholders
  2. Product Owner
  3. Scrum Master
  4. Delivery Team - UX/Dev/QA
  5. Operations
  6. Services and other specialized teams that touch the product in anyway as it moves from concept to delivery to production.

As I mentioned in my previous entry, maximizing the smoothness of product delivery is like running the hurdles.  How so?

What happens when you first start running the hurdles with no experience?  You stand at the starting line and then you start to run.  As you approach the first hurdle you try to determine how you are going to make that first jump.

Is that first approach smooth?  Probably not.  You probably came up to that first hurdle and maybe stutter-stepped before trying to jump or even had to stop before you actually tried to get over the hurdle.   Why?  Because you didn't know what to expect, you didn't know what you didn't know as you ran toward that first hurdle.  Maybe you made it over all of the hurdles but it probably wasn't pretty, perhaps you fell a few times in the process.

So with skinned knees and wounded pride you make your way back to the starting line and you try again and again and again.

In this process you are setting your baseline performance.  Are you getting better with each attempt?  Hopefully....because we really want to be a successful sprinter.

As you continue training, perhaps even getting a coach, you start to break down your individual steps as as you go from hurdle to hurdle.  Over time and through practice and experimentation you make small changes in order to maximize your speed and efficiency in getting to, over and past each hurdle.  Not paying atttention to how you land after a hurdle means you may not approch thet next hurdle most efficiently.  As you continue this practice and feedback loop (Retrospective) you can begin to reach ever higher levels of speed and success.

Eventually you don't see the hurdles, they are just part of the process of completing the race.  They aren't obstacles anymore.

This approach is how athletes get to world class levels.

How is Product Delivery like running the hurdles?  With each step from ideation to delivery there are hurdles that we face that keep the entire delivery process from being efficienct and effective.

And more importantly, whereas a sprinter has the luxury of knowing that their hurdles are 30ft apart and either 39"-42" tall, Agile Product Delivery teams don't always know where their hurdles are at, but through effective use of Scrum, teams can begin to identify where the hurdles are and start the process of learning how to approach and exit each of those hurdles, using Retrospectives.

We too can get to a point where our hurdles are just part of the process and if you aren't running the hurdles anymore what are you running?  A sprint.....

What are some of the common hurdles that we face in Agile Product Delivery?

  • UX Design not clear
  • Lack of Product Vision
  • Poorly formed product backlog/user stories
  • Lack of technical excellence - Continuous Integration, Automation, code reviews.

Successful Agile delivery is all about identifying your hurdles, getting them lined up appropriately and working to maximize the efficiency of the steps we need to take to get to the end.

As with world class athletes we need to continue to evaluate our approach and drive world class product delivery for our customers.

Delivering Software Fast is Like Running the Hurdles

I had the opportunity to attend a couple of Dan North's Deliberate Discovery sessions at the Better Software East conference this month and as he talked about how we want to deliver software faster I started to envision that delivery of software is much more about running the 100 meter hurdles than it is about running the 100 meter sprint. With the 100 meter sprint the runner knows that from start to finish there are no obstacles and that they can maximize their speed through focus on the finish line.

Organizations aren't like that, we pose so many different hurdles that even if you believe that you are running a sprint, in reality you are probably running the hurdles.

With hurdles a sprinter must continue to work on the way that they will approach the first hurdle and then the next and so on and so forth.  Along the way anything might 'trip' them up.  When they clip the top of the hurdle they have to make adjustments almost in mid air to try to recover.  The ability for great hurdlers to continue to work on their approach to each hurdle ensure that they can run fast competitive races.

Software development is very much like the hurdles.  Even if your Engineering team is able to deliver features quickly, if your Product Development or QA groups aren't aligned with that speed then no matter how fast you run between one hurdle you will be struggling to make the next one because you haven't optimized the steps in front and behind the hurdle that you do well.

In order to deliver software fast organizations need to look at each of their Product and Software Development cycles so that each one maximizes the delivery of the previous steps. More to come on this......

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