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10 Minute Training: Agile Documentation – What Do We Need To Keep?

July 23rd, 2011 2 comments

This is my second 10 Minute Training session in a series. In this episode I dive into how to identify what documentation we should keep and how we might be able to determine what documentation we may be able to get rid of. Hope you enjoy and would love your feedback or questions.

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10 Min. Training: 3 Ingredients for a GREAT Product Owner

May 20th, 2011 4 comments

Starting something new, something a little more dynamic than just a written blog.  Take a few minutes, watch my very first 10 Minute Training segment on which ingredients are required for in order to have a GREAT Agile product owner.

(Hint: You might want to maximize the screen in order to see the elements of the slides I display.)

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Agile is not a Condiment

December 5th, 2010 3 comments

I coach teams and organizations from size 1 to 1000 to adopt and assimilate Agile into their processes, organization and culture.   As I look at the agile adoption curve, I would say we are somewhere in the early majority phase.  This means more and more folks are adopting Agile and making some of the same mistakes along the way.  The biggest mistake I see is folks just simply adopting the most convenient or appealing principles and practices.  Teams lull themselves into a false sense of belief by adopting the some practices and believe they are Agile and will be granted all the promises of Agile.  It just simply doesn’t work this way.  Either things get worse or only marginally improve.  It’s a Cargo Cult Agile mentality.

I often stop and reflect on the benefits of the two major Agile methodologies, especially Scrum and Extreme Programming (XP).  There is some amount of beauty and perfection in these methodologies.  Both are found on Agile Principles and Values, but tackle the beast of software development from different perspectives.  Scrum is like a great seven-course meal.  We have our Product Owner, Scrum Master, Team, Sprint, Daily Standup, Demo, and Retrospective.   All seven pieces are critical and you can’t just leave one out. Doing so would be the equivalent of a seven courses meal with only 4 or 5 courses.  XP on the other hand is like a great recipe.   Every practice feeds off one another just like every step in a great recipe is crucial to each and every other step.  Skipping a step or leaving out an ingredient is going to make for a really bad experience.  I’ve gone back and forth over time debating if the Agile evangelists are really right when they say you have to adopt all of the XP practices to really be successful. I have come to realize that they’re probably not too far from the truth, each of these practices really feed off one another.  Pairing forces developers to collaborate at the lowest and simplest level, 2 people.  We must have tests to provide a safety net for refactoring.  Test Driven Development (TDD) insures we have the tests by doing them first. Once we have tests we can leverage them for continuous integration and as a more effective and executable documentation. Each practice supports one another and is marginalized without these supporting practices.   You can’t just decide to take a few of these practices and expect them to work in harmony.   You got to follow the recipe to create a great seven-course meal or a great main dish.   Failure to do so will leave a bad taste in your mouth like crème brulee and hot sauce.

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The Apoptosis of a Waterfall Approach

December 1st, 2010 3 comments

Upon its birth it was already destined to die.  Much like every other living creature on this planet, there was only a finite amount of time this being would be allowed to create its imprint upon the world.  Some like him are blessed with longer lives, while others are condemned from birth to have even shorter lives than his own.  Although seemingly dismal, it is all part of the plan.  It is part of life’s grand scheme to allow for this death in an effort to spawn rebirth.  Each of us are comprised with billions of these single minded mission suicide operatives that seek a solitary purpose before experiencing a pre-programmed death.  These creatures are inhabitants within each of us, they are our cells, and each of our cells live a life pre-programmed for death.  This design, this beautiful design, is called cell apoptosis.  It is nature’s plan to allow for functioning cells to serve a purpose before allowing younger cells to take their place.  It is the cycle of natural life.  And it seems many things imitate this natural cycle.

In the 1970′s, as projects grew larger and larger in scope, there was a concerted push to ensure that costly changes late in a project cycle were avoided at all costs.  These “defects” of process were identified as common enemies to a successful project lifecycle, and were one of the primary motivations to move to a more structured approach of project and product management.  Out of this effort grew what would become known as the “Waterfall Model” of product development.  This approach called for all planning, extremely detailed planning, to be conducted up-front, before any actual development work was started.  The thought, very rational at the time, was that any time spent up-front in initial planning was an investment that would pay dividends compared to a lack of detailed initial planning that could ultimately yield many costly changes late in the cycle.

Times were different then.  At that time there was a need to ensure that every last detail was known before beginning an expensive development effort.  Most of the projects that employed this methodology during this period were of a non-complex nature.  In simpler terms, they were more closely aligned with construction types of efforts as opposed to the complex nature of software development, especially considering the software development done today.  Why would I refer to construction efforts/projects on a non-complex nature?  Because back then success was generally a product of how closely the execution of the plan matched the plan.  It was thought that the final product of these efforts should match the original plan precisely, and any major deviations from the plan were categorized simply as defects.  And rightly so.  Construction can take this approach.  In fact, construction types of projects should take this approach.  These types of projects should not evolve over their construction efforts, as this may yield a poorly delivered product or a deliverable that does not match the expectations that were set during the planning efforts.

Software is different.  Software is knowledge work.  What we are building is generally based on a description from our customer of a product that does not exist.  When utilizing a waterfall approach to project management, our attempt to capture this description of an imagined product from our customer takes the form of a detailed specification.  And in our effort to reduce the perceived risk of change, we capture that all important signature to ensure that we discourage change along the way.  Even for software, this approach once worked, and worked well.  But as software became more complex, more innovative, and as product refresh cycles shrank, the need to be increasingly more responsive was seen as a compelling competing force working against efforts to guard against mid-stream product specification change.  As markets shifted, as companies competed, the waterfall model was quickly becoming a dinosaur in a world that no longer favored the large, lumbering behemoth that waterfall represented.  The pre-programmed death of a once useful approach was being triggered.

Waterfall, although not dead, is laboring through what seems to me to be a labored death march.  And although this is an agile blog, you are not going to hear me herald agile as the final, ultimate victor.  Perhaps if it were only a match between the two development approaches, but it is not.  The lifespan of the development lifecycle will go on and new players will emerge based our learning and understanding that has evolved along the way.  And as waterfall dwindles in effectiveness when applied to software development projects, agile is gaining a foothold.  Agile exploits today’s realities, just as waterfall did when it was king.  Waterfall is a victim of its own apoptosis.  It was destined, although not designed, to be obsolete, preordained to die the moment Winston Royce inadvertently wrote it into being.  Agile’s birth benefits from the pain that has been caused by utilizing waterfall in world that cannot wait for the long cycles that waterfall requires.  Death is always spurned by, and simultaneously allows for, rebirth.

Welcome to the world Agile. You have been around for awhile now.  You are becoming more and more well known.  You success has been widely documented.  You are past the dreaded chasm that many new beings are never able to cross.  You are now mainstream.  You are in your prime.  It is possible that your best years lie ahead of you.  It is possible that your best years are behind you.  But make no mistake, your own clock is ticking.  But that is the beauty of nature, every apoptotic cycle not involves the death of one being, it provides the energy for the creation of another.

I make my living providing agile training and coaching.  I am extremely passionate about the type of change that an agile transformation can mean to a company.  I have seen incredible results from the principled based approach that agile represents.  I hope that agile stays around for a long time.  But not longer than its usefulness.  And that is one of the great tenets of agile.  In the DNA of these agile principles is the idea that our organisms, our teams, our approach, our methodology, our framework, our everything should always be evolving as we learn more, as we experience more, as we become more.

It is truly a beautiful aspect of agile that from it’s own birth it recognizes that in its current form it had already predicted its own death.  But this is what makes agile a distinguished and impressive approach to product development and delivery.  Agile, I am your biggest fan, but I will not cry when you are gone, for your existence supplied the knowledge and energy for whatever is coming next.

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The Roar on the Other Side of Silence

May 2nd, 2010 7 comments

I love to watch television shows about the natural universe.  The content of these television programs simply fascinates me at a visceral level I don’t experience with other subjects.  I wonder at the possibilities of the cosmos, the history of the universe, the beginnings of consciousness in pre-historic humanoid brains, and the other organisms we share this planet with.  I think about how humans may be connected with animals, how our culture and community may be connected with our past, and how each of us may have more in common with each other through a shared historical experience than we allow ourselves to believe.  I love to ponder about the nature of simply being.  I think about this topic because on a regular basis I get to see a wide variety of people and get to see how they relate to job and their team, how they choose to exist professionally.

I frequently work with teams of people from a range of companies, industries, and backgrounds, and its during these sessions that I think back to those larger thoughts about how we experience our lives as individuals and as members of teams.  What makes some teams click, thrive, and deliver?  How do some groups of people truly share a common goal and work creatively to achieve it?  Why do some groups of people seem to only suffer through projects and then deliver dismal results, consistently?  What is the definable difference between the experiences of these different groups?  Why are some people happy with their job, their company, their project, their healthcare, their family, their car, their house, their spouse, their life, while others would seemingly choose to be dissatisfied no matter what they may be blessed with?  Where are the connection of neurons responsible for our ability to be happy and productive on a team?  And does this ability to choose happiness relate to better relationships and results at work?  How do I grant the gift of effortless success and indomitable growth to teams that struggle endlessly to achieve even modestly positive results?

To help me answer these questions, I turned to an insightful book The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization. In the book authors Katzenback and Smith define a team as “a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and a common approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.”  Although I agree wholeheartedly with their definition, the book did not satisfy the curiosity I had about what components make certain teams tick and others tock.  I needed an understanding at a deeper level, I needed to examine the DNA of teams.  So instead of reading more about teams from a business perspective, I instead looked into those double helixes that seem to determine everything about us, our very own DNA, to see if any insight could be found.

The human genome project promised to finally unlock the secret recipe for what makes us who we are.  And like so many other great scientific promises of the past, it failed to yield an answer to everything, but rather provided a perfect foundation for even greater questions.  Although our DNA provides the building blocks for our physical being, it cannot alone explain the curiosities of individuals, from our personalities, to our attitudes, to our propensity for success, or our ability to trudge inexorably to failure.  This mysterious exclusion is expressed effectively in the observation of identical twins, where the DNA encoding remains identical, but where nearly all else is unique, especially when the brain is examined.

Like our DNA, we often cannot choose the members that make up our team, but equally similar to DNA, it is not simply the members of our team that pre-determine our possibilities.  Too often I hear individuals complain that consistent success would be possible if only they were assigned to the right team or if the right team were assigned to them.  This superficial failure of perspective can often become a self-fullfilling prophecy, yielding the expected negative results as a consequence of subconscious actions driven in support of the consciously expected outcome.  As with many mysteries of life, perspective and belief are more powerful than we allow ourselves to consider.  We seem to be more content to apply unreasoned reasons to our perceived consequences rather than seeking to drive meaning from those things for which we could have affected the outcome.

Recent discoveries in the world of science confirm the notion that we are more than our parts, both on the individual and team levels.  These scientific revelations point to a beautiful aspect of life that affirms that we are not limited by our structure, but are allowed infinite possibilities through the wonder of chaos; an inability and impossibility of perfectly predicting results based solely on observing conditions, thus free will is born and an infinite number of possible minds follows.  Author Jonah Lehrer states “that [this] is the triumph of DNA; it makes us without determining us.  The invention of neural plasticity, which is encoded by the genome, lets each of us transcend our genome.  We emerge, character-like, from the vague alphabet of our text.”  And as is true for individuals, it is equally true for how effectives teams can be, regardless of their own DNA, regardless of the individual components of the team.

Supporting these ideas, in a 2002 Science paper entitled “Stochastic Gene Expression in a Single Cell” Michael Elowitz of Caltech demonstrated that biological “noise” (a scientific synonym for chaos) is inherent in gene expression.  His results further solidified the unfolding scientific belief that it was this “noise” that held most of the possibilities for emergence in design for organisms, which contradicted the earlier collective belief that natural selection alone held this potential.  These discoveries, by extension, illuminated the idea that without this inclusion of chaos, then every cell that was created by the same DNA would operate, behave, and produce the same results, but we know that this is not the case.  In fact, without this beautiful inclusion to our evolution, we would not experience the diversity of life that we do.

Digging more deeply into what constitutes success in these complex adaptive systems (organized as teams), yields the result that diversity in experience, knowledge, personality, and drive is what allow them to truly excel.  The equivalent in nature was captured by Darwin when he wrote that ”the more diversified the descendants from any one species become in structure, constitution, and habits, by so much will they be better enabled to seize on many and widely diversified places in the polity of nature.”  A team’s diversity is one its greatest strengths, so long as the diversity is expressed and exercised regularly.

Teams are not doomed to failure as an inevitable consequence of the composition of it’s members.  Similarly, individuals are not merely limited to the sum of their specific DNA coded sequences.  And if these statements are true, how do we then affect better outcomes from both teams and individuals?  Just as individuals are formed by their experiences that shape their neurons, bringing temporary neural order to chaos, so too can teams also allow their experience to help bring consistency in results to their previously unpredictable outcomes.  But in order to make this happen, teams need two very important components in place: 1. An ability to clearly define their current state set against their preferred results (this allows the team to define the state of dissonance between reality and possibility, thus developing creative tension in the structure).  2. A mechanism that allows the team to utilize experience to shape future team decisions.

I am a firm believer that:

- Given the opportunity, most people would rather succeed than fail.
- People are very well aware of organizational constraints that limit their ability to achieve and succeed.
- Most people feel limited in their ability to affect change in their job.

So what is the answer?  How do we elicit better results from our teams?

If you are still with me this far, then it is only fair that I provide you an answer, right?  Unfortunately, as much as I would like to, I cannot provide an answer, only a direction.

The potential source for your organization’s power lies in the unexplored richness of experience and understanding held by your people.  You may believe that your organization actively solicits input and feedback, but if your organization is like most, you don’t, at least not well enough.  You will know when you have breached the barrier that separates average teams and corporate culture from their extraordinary equivalents.  You will know because you will discover the roar that exists on the other side of silence.  Do not dig unprepared for what you may find, the roar is often deafening.

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The Secret Sauce to a Hyper-Productive Team

April 4th, 2010 No comments

As I travel from city to city working with various teams from a wide range of industries, I have noticed some commonalities in the dynamics present in these teams.  Some of these teams represent those that I feel a deep sense of compassion for…ones that are lacking inspired direction, lacking enthusiasm, lacking a sincere desire to produce a product above and beyond the gathered specs, teams drowning amidst a sea of corporate culture that does not seek to produce the best product, but rather satisfy the demands of its own structure.  Then there are those teams that seem to possess a magical quality where they can accomplish anything, overcome any obstacle, and are adept at creating the right amount and type of team culture that supports their objectives.

Seeing this huge gap between team types begs the obvious question, what is the difference between the teams?  Is it company size? No. Is it the industry?  Nope, seen great teams in every industry including DoD, government, tech, and finance. Is it the goodies provided for free in the kitchen?  Maybe, but I don’t think so.

So what is the secret sauce of these hyper-productive teams?

As you might guess, it is not any one thing, but a combination of many different factors that all support the single-headed direction to support the creation and continued operation of a highly productive team.  So what are the ingredients?  Here is my unscientific, and definitely un-exhaustive list:

  1. Great people.
    We cannot pretend that only process matters.  Spend any amount of time digging into great teams and you are likely to find a fair number of great people, people that would be great on any team.  Get enough of them together and you have a good shot at a great team.
  2. Organizational culture supportive of making mistakes in pursuit of greater return results.
    Teams that are comfortable at making mistakes often find that they also produce extraordinary results.  True success is often comprised of multiple failed efforts that did not sink the team, but rather allowed the team to learn things they could not have learned otherwise.  Working within a corporate culture that recognizes this is a key component to super teams.
  3. True team based delivery culture (which means this is also taken into account during things like individual’s annual reviews.)
    Teams that recognize that we are not simply individuals working in close proximity, but a team where we must all be engaged with one another’s work.  I tell teams looking to achieve amazing results that each member of the team must care as much about their neighbor’s work as they do their own.
  4. Team members that share a sense of purpose, vision, and passion for their work.
    If team members believe that they are contributing to something greater than their individual part, then they will care at a much greater level than their individual contribution.  Work to ensure that a team can share this vision and goals begin to shape themselves.  Better yet, teams begin to manage their own incremental improvement, otherwise know as the team holy grail.
  5. A company that cares as much (if not more) about their employees as they do about their customers.
    At the base of it all, we must feel appreciated at our place of work, or we may not be able to cobble together the above components.  Companies that treat their employees as commodities will likely only experience amazing, hyper-productive teams sporadically, rather than as a expected result of a team-based product development environment.

[Let me state clearly, this list could likely be much, much longer, so please feel free to add to it in the comments. Whole books can, and have, been written on the subject.]

A the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle states “any system development activity inevitably changes the environment  out of which the need for the system arose” so true is it that any team activity will likely change the culture out of which it was born.  Corporate culture, although seemingly unchangeable when our teams operate seemingly at its mercy, is always in flux, as this cultural effect evolved not from proclaimed edict, but the work done by teams and the resulting response from the company in which they operate.  Changing this culture to enable and encourage hyper-productive teams is a joint effort from the great team that seeks to produce extraordinary results and the company that chooses to support the behavior that these teams exhibit.  Although it sounds like an easy choice for companies to make, you would be surprised just how often I encounter organizations that seem to want to thwart these great teams.

Have you had the pleasure of working on a team that was hyper-productive?  One that truly exemplified the notion that the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts?  What was the secret that you found to be the linchpin to success?  Did you notice that happy teams produce better results?  Did you notice that teams that have fun together are able to more easily maneuver around obstacles that might otherwise sink an average team?  I hope so, because it is these experiences that will continue to push me to better define what those magical, secret ingredients are for those teams that define what it truly means to get work done.  And as my friend Rod Behbood says, “Do Work Son.”

Happy Easter everyone!

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