Thursday, February 26, 2015

When Process Junkies Are Parents - Personal Kanban

It all started a fine Thursday evening when my wife and I got home. Our daughter was in trouble with her grades and was falling behind on her schoolwork. We sat down and started reviewing where she stood with everything and what problems she was having and quickly figured out the issues. She had too many things going on at the same time. She was not sure about what to prioritize. There was no certainty whether the items she believed to be done, were actually completed.

Earlier in the day there was a Kanban training for a team that I was helping conduct and a lot of the issues/solutions we were talking about in the training seemed to be similar to the ones that we were talking about with our daughter. My wife and I, both running Kanban teams, we had an obvious solution to all problems - "You need a Kanban board". The following was the result.

Miranda(my daughter) seems to love it. Her WIP limit on the Doing column is 2. This helps her concentrate on fewer items at a time and also helps her pull the most urgent ones forward. Everything goes through a parent sign-off before it is considered closed. This helps ensure that everything that we consider done has been reviewed for completeness and quality. Miranda gets a constant visualization of her progress on tasks and so do we. There is no mis-communication on whether a task was finished or not.

Watching Miranda achieve productivity with her board made me think of my own problems with prioritization of work items. I have numerous things pushed onto my backlog and I try to get too many of them done at the same time. The solution again was obvious - I needed my own board. I would love a physical board, but since I work on items both at the office and at work, that was not going to work. Physical boards are great information radiators(exactly what Miranda needed), but are just too cumbersome to carry around if you need them in two places. So, I found an app that worked with my favourite browser, Chrome - Kanban-chi and have been using it since. As you can see this post is, as of right now in my Doing column.

I have to say, it has come the full circle. From the things I have learned working with my team to what Dan Vacanti,  Mike Longin and myself talk about in Kanban training to the working needs of my daughter back to how I can best manage my work. Sometimes, it seems, we know the answers, it just takes questions that are closer to home to help see the right context. I am sure I will still have some issues managing flow on my work items, but making consistent progress should not be a problem. I recommend personal Kanban to anyone who is willing to give it a try. If it can work for a 20-things-thrown-at-me-a-day-middle-manager and for a school going teenager, it can work for anybody. Also having a Unicorn and a couple of Pandas(I think thats what they are) drawn on your board helps as well.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Retrospectives - Objective Vs Subjective

Traditionally Agile teams run retrospectives to facilitate learning, development and improvement of the team. My teams have been doing the same over the past ten years. We have tried multiple different formats to get the right outcomes. We have been through it all and we have all been through it - lack of participation, finger pointing, irrelevant topics, lack of prioritization of issues, many a time one of these problems or another hinder the effectiveness of a retrospective. Recently my team moved to a more objective retrospective from a completely subjective form of retrospective.

Subjective Retrospectives

The most common form of retrospective employed is the subjective form. This shows up in numerous variations. It consists of collection and listing of ideas/topics, prioritization, either by moderator or by the participants via voting, discussion and finally extraction of action items. This method, as you can see can range from almost autocratic to a fully team driven setup. There is a middle way, which I like to call guided setup where the facilitator coaxes the team along through the process.

Autocratic Guided Team Driven
Team Lead/Scrum Master/Coach comes up with list of items to be reviewed during the retrospective. Team Lead/Scrum Master/Coach helps seed ideas for discussion and encourages team members to add topics for discussion. Team creates list of items to be discussed with every one having equal access to introducing topics.
Team Lead provides the priority of topics to be covered in the retrospective.Team Lead helps the team prioritize the topics to be discussed.Team votes on the list that they have prepared and generates a prioritized list.
Team Lead presents his/her thoughts on the topics and prompts discussion/feedback on these topics. Team goes through the topics in priority order and Team Lead helps seed discussion if no discussion seems to emerge organically. Team goes through the prioritized topics and discusses/reviews each item to generate next steps.

Regardless of which of these subjective retrospective methods are used the most important piece is to derive action items and to have individuals be responsible for the completion of these. From a casual reading of the above table, it would seem that a team should never use the Autocratic model, should sometimes use the Guided and almost exclusively use the Team Driven approach. That maybe ideal, but unfortunately, is not real. Depending on how mature the team is, any of these approaches would be appropriate. A team with little agile experience might actually benefit a lot more by employing the Autocratic model as they might need more externally imposed discipline and help identifying the issues and the priority of those issues affecting their agility.

Objective Retrospectives

My team has started using metrics for retrospectives. We look at our scatterplot which plots our stories along the axes of dates and days taken to close the story. We then, talk about the stories that are the outliers on the higher end and figure out why they took longer than other stories. This ends up becoming a very direct discussion about why things are taking longer than they should and exposes process inefficiencies very explicitly. I found that this helped the team identify direct impact action items that improve the team's efficiency. For example in the plot below, the stories in the red circles are the ones we would concentrate on in the retrospective.

Objective retrospectives do have the side-effect of the team trying to game the system to make the numbers look good. That, in my opinion is not a bad thing if you choose the metric you are using well. I find days to finish a story to be a good metric as in order to make it look better, your direct options are to either create smaller stories or reduce the number of items you are working on. Both of these are positives in any agile system. Lets say you chose a different metric, velocity for example, gaming the system there could be achieved by overestimation of stories. The idea is to pick a metric that reveals inefficiency and making that metric better improves the team overall.

We did notice an issue with the objective retrospectives. There are certain things, that dont show up as data points on the scatterplot. There are both positive and negative subjective comments that are left over to be covered after the objective retros are done. The team going forward is now doing a split review where we start with the objective and cover what is slowing down progress and then do a shortened subjective Team Driven retrospective to cover any other topics that need to be discussed.


Regardless of the method you employ, it is the willingness of the participants to improve as a team that is critical. That is why sometimes the Autocratic or Guided subjective retrospectives might be the right place to start for teams new to retrospectives as a tool for improvement. Objective retrospectives make sure that you talk about everything that is slowing down the team's work. The priority goes to the issues that create the greatest slowdowns and you can easily see the results the next time you review the data. Subjective retrospectives still have their place, but a mature team should be able to derive most of the value out of a retrospective via the objective method.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Are You Experienced - How does UX fit in with an Agile team?

UX has in many cases been an afterthought on fast moving projects. There are distinct ways to approach the integration of the user experience process into the product development process and we will explore a couple of these here. To get more insight, I interviewed two UX designers that I have worked with to get feedback on how two different styles of integration affect them, the teams and the product as well. Details of what seems to work and what does not are presented below.

The least effective approach towards UX that I have observed is the retroactive approach, where the rest of the development process is agile, but interaction with the user experience group is in a waterfall manner. Team produces a product as the business analyst and/or product owner specifies it and then it is sent over to the User Experience group for evaluation. UX makes recommendations and based on the time available in the project or whether the dev team has moved on to other features, the recommendations are implemented or put on the backlog for "future".

The second approach is also that of UX as a service but more in step with dev teams. The UX group advises the analysts and works with them during the initial design phase of the project. There is a primary resource assigned to the team that can be reached out to at any point of the development process. The primary resource attends sprint reviews and gives feedback to the product analysts, if they see any need for a design change. This is a much more "agile" approach as it makes it possible for the team to get feedback, at least at the end of every iteration.

The third approach is the one where dedicated user experience resources are a part of the team. They are embedded and function just like every other member of the team, being involved in stories from kickoff to reviews. They are able to provide constant feedback and get an idea of the technical constraints the team is working under. At the same time the dedicated resources are able to provide a slight paradigm shift in the mindset of the team. The entire team can benefit by becoming slightly more user focused as that is the perspective the user experience folks use to look at the product.

I talked to a couple of folks that I have worked with to get their feedback on the last two approaches outlined here. Lauren Martin and Bruno Torquato agreed to participate and help me out in drawing out the distinction in outcomes from the two approaches. Here are the advantages of both approaches as outlined by them.
  • Advantages of UX as a service
    • Creative Inspiration  - Lauren points out that being in the same space as other UX designers helps promote an environment where since everyone is involved in a similar creative activity, creative inspiration flows a lot more freely. This is harder to attain in an agile team setting where you are separated from the broader UX team/department.
    • Mentoring and Sharing - Working as one group providing a UX service, allows for opportunities to mentor less experienced team members and also the ability to share ideas and discoveries. "Cross pollination of ideas" according to Bruno is more natural and less forced as it has to be with UX being embedded on agile teams.
    • Planning and Execution - Lauren feels that it is easier to create plans and help with the long term execution of these plans. Also there are fewer ad-hoc requests from the team that could potentially derail the longer term plans,
    • Objective Perspective - "Outside perspective can give you space to provide insight", says Bruno. He believes that the deliverables that he provides are not "colored by the immediate needs" of the team when working in a UX as a service mode. It allows the designers space to provide insight that might be lost with the embedded perspective.
  • Advantages of Embedded UX
    • Greater Visibility and Understanding - There is increased visibility into the processes used by the designers. Lauren believes this helps the "team have a broader understanding" of what designers do and how they get to the resulting deliverables.
    • Team Ownership - Embedding user experience designers in the teams helps the team own the user experience as a collective. This enables Bruno to disseminate his "perspective and have the rest of the team take ownership" of the design as well.
    • Realistic Expectations - With the increased visibility and understanding come more realistic expectations from the team. It becomes easier for the team to understand whet the designer is shooting for. Rather than finished full scale designs being passed to the team, designers can work on a small scale where expectations are clearer.
    • Immediate Iterations - Desk checks and story reviews help make sure that design can be iterated upon quickly and at times almost as soon as it is implemented. Sometimes, this is before it is implemented, if the team has technical limitations or any other obstacles that come up, the designer can help remove those or modify the design as needed.

Both Lauren and Bruno made excellent points that can not be summarized simply as advantages of these systems. They both at this point work as embedded designers an agile teams. Lauren remarked how when being embedded, at times "creative flow is almost impossible to attain". On her team, the two designers have had to split responsibilities between "just in time and work ahead" responsibilities to make sure they can maintain creative flow and respond to team requests.

Bruno makes a point about the being within the team lays "more importance on developing relationships within the team" and the fact that the dynamic within the team  can help with having more momentum with the project. Another advantage of team specificity mentioned by Bruno is being able to adopt process to product , i.e. use the ideal process based on team and product type.

Last bit though, my favourite quote from the interviews -
"It still depends on the team, and the system does not matter as much"- Lauren.
Rings very true, raising the team's consciousness is more important than the system the UX folks work in. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Leading Agile Teams : Effective Process Improvements On Teams

This is the last post in the Leading Agile series based on the four interviews with team leads at my organization.  Below are the responses to the question "What changes have you made in processes on the team that have helped the team become more agile and/or productive?".  There were multiple improvements pointed out by the participants, but the graphic below shows the ones that they considered to be the ones that had the biggest impact.

Other changes that the interviewees mentioned as having an impact -
  • Involving UX designers earlier in the process
  • Switching to a purely electronic board from a physical board
  • Having cells own story creation
  • Developing leadership within the team
  • Moving merging of code from separate departments much earlier in the process.
  • Blurring the lines between teams that share the codebase.

Finally, a heartfelt thank you to the interviewees for their participation. It was a lot of fun putting this together and I have learned a lot through the interviews and the reevaluation of our conversations. Thanks Again.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Leading Agile Teams : Conditions Teams Thrive In - II

In the last post we saw the infographic that included comments from four of the Team Leads that were interviewed for this series of posts. Here are some thoughts on the responses that were gathered.

Yvette Gaitan

"When the team has the proper tools available to do its work. Adequate communication from upstream teams about changes so that we are better prepared. Communication and team-wide awareness of the correct priorities in a space where priorities are constantly changing."

Yvette's team is often downstream from numerous other development teams. That explains the emphasis on communication both within and without the team. Agile environments are characterized by change and the ability of the team to adapt to such changes. Yvette's team seems to do this well as long as the priorities have been well communicated. They seemed to have understood that change is inevitable, but getting a heads up puts them ahead of the game.
Specialized tools that take the tasks that the team performs and automates them are always beneficial and welcome, regardless of team, methodology or industry. If the team is in unique situations and is given the bandwidth to come up with tools and processes that make them more efficient, the effects can be long lasting.

Michael Longin

"Informal attitude in the team room, balanced with structure through formal plannings, reviews and retrospectives.  Knowing that we are set up for success, but failure is OK.  Provide a safe failure environment and help people while they are failing.  Feeling of influence in the product."

A team working together day in and day out develops its own personality. For the team to develop both informal interactions to cope with the high pace and formal attitudes to achieve structure as Mike points out. Mike talks about a safe failure environment and contrasts it with being set up for success. This is important for the team and the organization as a whole. This means that plans are set up so that the team succeeds and there is no organizational backlash if the team happens to fail. Another important snippet here is "help people while they are failing", as signs of failure and opportunities to avoid/readjust are often present long before failure actually happens. 
Most development teams I have talked to mention this last point of having influence in the product. This is probably the single most empowering notion I have come across when talking to my colleagues. Influence leads to ownership, which helps make the team excited about the problems they are solving and the solutions they are creating.


"We work well under stress, specially when something has gone wrong. Team closes a lot of stories towards the end of the release. It helps the team to see where it stands in comparison to other teams."

Here we see a team that is under pressure and as a result has learned to deal with it by coming together and pushing hard. When things go wrong, teams come together and tackle the problem head on. This team seems to do that. What might be missing though, is the same coming together to come up with processes to prevent things from going wrong. The team here also seems to have a competitive spirit and takes pride in excelling especially in comparison to other teams in the organization. 
While this team is obviously working hard and producing results, there is something amiss in release planning for the team if end of release is when the pace picks up. This is not ideal. Teams should not need stress to perform well, in fact, stress, although sometimes unavoidable should be prompting reflection and change in team behaviour.

Mariana Sabogal

"Having a collaborative Product Owner is a great help. Team's feedback taken into account during planning, specially the technical perspective. This gives the team feeling of ownership."

Mariana reiterates the point that Mike has also made. Team having an influence in the product empowers them and gives them ownership.  Making technical feedback a part of the planning is a great way to get technical debt prioritized as well. Both Mariana and Mike talked about being closer to the customer and having input into the product as being a great components of getting the most out of teams. It would be good to clarify here that these are independent observations.
The importance of a collaborative Product Owner cannot be undervalued as Mariana notes. There are ample examples of a non-involved or no-collaborative Product Owner running teams off-course and being an impediment instead of a problem solver. Mariana feels that whenever she is working with a Product Owner that works well with her team, performance and productivity of the team is very high for that time period.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Leading Agile Teams : Obstacles and Improvements

Leaders of agile teams often see some common issues crop up on teams. Very often, the issues faced by a team are particular to the situations the team finds itself in. The same applies to the leaders of these teams. They face unique obstacles depending on the teams they are on. Being a team lead is about adopting new practices, modifying existing processes and removing unnecessary clutter from the team's systems. I asked four team leads about the obstacles they face and the changes they have made on the teams to make the team more agile and/or productive. These are the same folks that participated in the last post. Below are the responses.

What have been the biggest obstacles that you have faced as a lead?

"Acting as a manager, without being a manager.", according to Mariana has been one of the biggest obstacles for her. She does feel that she has been "Lucky to have been on the team for a long time". This has helped her garner the respect of her teammates and which in turn has helped her fill the "manager" role. There are other little things that she feels hold her back - Not having "admin rights" in issue tracking tools, having to keep track of PTO for team members and other small added on responsibilities.

Mariana sees the ambiguity of an agile team lead's responsibilities as an issue. Is she a manager? If so, should she be given rights to perform other managerial functions? Is she a project manager? If so, should she have full admin access to project management tools? The ambiguity in role definition leads to the ambiguity in rights(admin or managerial) provided. This is not necessarily a negative though. The ambiguity leaves space for Team Leads to better define their own roles according to the needs of the team.

"Keeping the team motivated" for our anonymous participant is one of the bigger challenges. Another major challenge for him is to "distribute workload within the team evenly" and "balance capabilities within the team". He feels that "high, mid and low level performers" should be teamed up with each other on projects to promote knowledge transfer and help low performers improve.

Keeping a large team motivated can be a tough ask for any leader. It is rightly pointed out as an obstacles as the variety of personalities on agile teams is often large and what helps them get motivated is different in case of every person. Agile throws a bunch of individuals into a team room and they have to sink or swim together. The desire to help them work together in the best possible scenarios is another challenge that is well noted here.

"Recognizing that I am the leader, not the secretary" for the team was Mike's biggest obstacle that he feels he has overcome. He says that Team Leads need to "understand that the team needs your direction". The have "to be the de-facto leaders of the team."

Mike is an experienced LPE and understands his role well. He seems to understand the value of a strong leader on the team and the importance of the direction that leader provides. Agile leads are 'servant leaders', but if you let the former part of the phrase dominate, the role becomes more secretarial rather than one in a well balanced leadership capacity. Since the Agile leads usually emerge from within the team, it is a tough concept to grab at the onset. Emerging as a leader of your peers, who you are technically on par with is a skill that every agile lead has to slowly develop.

"Resistance to change within and with-out the team" has been one of the greatest challenges for Yvette. "Effective communication of constraints to other teams" that her team supports especially in terms of "being recognized as a part of development rather than support for deadlines".

Yvette's team is client facing and any process changes proposed are often heavily scrutinized because they can have deep impacts. As a true lead though, she has not been afraid to propose and make these changes. Although the team can be an entity onto itself, it often, especially in Yvette's team's case, has direct upstream dependencies on other teams. These teams all have the same deadlines and while other teams are working towards their deadlines, Yvette's team is coming up with ways to avoid a time crunch due to the dependencies.

What would be one thing you would change in order to improve your team?

"Get the team more exposure to the customers", says Mariana is the primary change that she would make to help the team. She says "it adds meaning to the team's work".

Mariana touches upon an aspect of agile that has not been as broadly explored at many organizations. Getting every member of the team to understand the customer's needs and pain points gives the team a stronger connection to what they are building. This in turn helps them make better decisions regarding design, prioritization and even to some extent implementation.

Shortening "the time it takes from a story to move from code complete to close" is the critical change that the anonymous participant would like to see on his team.

Projects where there is a direct imbalance between how long a story spends in engineering vs testing can see the backlog getting stuck in one stage of the development cycle. There are multiple strategies to counter this, and the one that would work best, would depend on the team itself.  Some strategies that I have seen work successfully have been pairing Devs with QAs to help develop the automation for the tests the QAs write, introducing more tech debt type items that the devs can work on, while QAs catch up, or have strict discipline with keeping the number of total stories in progress limited. Only criteria for the strategy adopted, it has to suit the team well.

Mike believes that getting "TRADE(Yvette's triage team) coverage" for his team and getting help with "external escalation management" is the primary thing that will help them improve. Mike also mentions "getting away from UI automation" as another major improvement that can be introduced.

Having another group triage issues to determine if the issues are real functional issues is a double edged sword. It protects the team from unnecessary interruptions, especially from issues cause due to product knowledge gap, but at the same time pushes the responsibility of closing that gap towards the users instead of pushing the product designers to improve the usability and to make the product more intuitive to use.

Yvette believes that "greater cross-training" is the one major improvement she will make to her team. She also wants to "make the check-in process for customs water-tight".

Yvette's team works in a high pace environment and cross training often takes a back seat. Her team might benefit from pairing techniques to get team members comfortable with working in different areas. CI and a stable build/code check in process is at the base of all successful agile engineering practices. Getting another team(or department in this case) to adopt agile practices can be a tough sell, but at the same time, having a partially agile organization can be an impediment to whichever agile team has to interact with a non-agile part of the organization.

Once again, it was great to review all the information that was passed on to me by this varied group of leaders. I have learned a lot from their experiences and we have had some very interesting conversations with them about the same. Once again, hoping to continue to have these interactions with the same folks and a larger group.