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The $788,217 Printer Stand. Order Yours Today, Just Not from an Agile Team.

June 13th, 2009 5 comments

Our development team did not set out to build the most expensive printer stand in the history of printer stands, but build it we did.  We actually set out to build some cutting edge handhelds loaded with bleeding edge software that would enable a more immersive retail shopping experience (I won’t give too many more details, as I don’t want to name names.)  Here is the quick story how we made history (that is if you are talking about the history of expensive printer stands)…expensive_printer

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It was a great day when I was informed that I would be managing the team that was selected to deliver a very forward looking product for one of our largest retail customers.  We were excited, nervous, and wanted to make sure that we got this right, as this was not only a project that could seriously boost our careers, but it was a product that could possibly get some major exposure.  In preparation for this project, we did what we thought best to do in a situation like this, we prepared.  In preparation for our preparation, we prepared again, and then we planned, and then we planned on doing some more preparation before our final planning session, before the kickoff planning session with the customer.  I could go on and on, but I think it is clear that we spent a good deal of time making sure that we were as prepared as possible before the project was even officially started.

The project kick-0ff meeting with the customer went flawlessly, and this was due (in my opinion) to two major factors.  First, we were prepared (and by we, I mean the development team), having done the requisite research into how we were going to deliver the product, what was the most appropriate technology for the development of the product, and what we would need to know and what we would need to be good at in order to meet the customer’s expectations.  Second, the customer was prepared, and was able to very clearly identify the specific requirements for the product.  They had done a lot of research into the needs and wants of their customers, and then very carefully translated that information into what the product should look like in order to serve those needs.  We, as a united team, as a single unit, as customer and vendor, were ready to change the retail world, and it was with that level of excitement that we launched our project.

We had originally estimated that the requirements gathering phase for this innovative product to take between 1-2 months, but here we were 6 months later, just wrapping up the specifics of the product.  And when I say specifics, I mean detailed, technical specifications on each and every nook and cranny on the hardware and every technical crevice in the software.  We were so well planned, and had an equally detailed project plan to match, that we could say with relative certainty when we would be taking lunch months later.  We had solidified the next 10 months of our lives into daily bites of planned progress, and the plan was our bible, our map, our GPS device that was going to guide us to a success, fortune, and fame.  The plan was done, and the plan was good, so off we went.

The plan did guide our efforts well.  Along the way we diligently hit each of our milestones, our sign-offs, and our module demonstrations.  We were, in short, meeting every project expectation and constraint,  and in the end delivered ahead of schedule, on budget, and even incorporated some small additional functionality.  Speaking solely in project terms, we did what was traditionally thought of as the impossible, and it was good.

The good times our team experienced, the excitement of relishing our success, was soon dashed by a much greater failure.  Although ‘we’, as the development team, were successful in meeting our obligations to the customer, no one was keeping an eye on the turbulent market conditions to ensure that the product we were building would have an audience when we were done.  This ‘market viability study’ was done in great detail during the project justification phase (the “should we spend this money to build this product, and will we make money doing it” phase).  But once that initial assessment was done, it was never revisited, and the product we ultimately delivered did not have the market that was anticipated a year earlier.  In fact, the market had changed substantially, but no one was watching.

If you haven’t guessed already, this happened quite some time ago, when I followed a waterfall type of approach to project management.  We followed the mantra, plan the work and then work the plan, which may work some of the time, but completely ignores the realities of a rapidly changing marketplace and a competitive landscape.  Our development team, and even more painfully, our customer experienced first hand something that I will never forget…

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We did have a brilliant product.  But that brilliant product existed only in the imaginations of those with the idea to build it.  If we could have snapped our fingers and instantaneously had this product available, it likely would have been successful, but we couldn’t, and it wasn’t.  It took time to plan and then build this product, during which time the anticipated customer base that we believed would want our product had changed their needs and wants, essentially killing our product before we even completed it.  The hand held devices and all of the project documentation eventually made their way into a large cardboard box, which shortly thereafter was used to support my personal office printer.  It was somewhat devastating the day that I realized that what we had ultimately built and delivered was a $788,217 printer stand.

What does building the world’s most expensive printer stand have to do with agile teams?

Plenty.

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Agile teams recognize that in order to truly define our efforts as successful, we must to do more than simply meet budget, schedule, and scope obligations.  We must keep our eye on the bigger picture, which means that we may need to change course mid-way through a project.  We must do this if we believe that the ultimate destination for our product will be better.  Had we kept our eye on the marketplace, had we been more keenly aware of the shifting winds that were all around us, we could have responded by modifying our design, usability, and primary use of the product we were building.  We could have had a chance to meet the needs of the market with a product that suited those requirements.  But the only requirements we focused on, the only requirements that guided our efforts were those requirements defined months before we would ever be ready to deliver.  The world was changing all around us, but no one cared to watch.   Or perhaps even worse, no one watching cared.

Agile teams embrace change. Change happens, and when it doesn’t, it is more likely that you simply are not in tune with change that would guide you to a better result.  I remember back in those dark waterfall days thinking that if changed happened, it would be bad news, something to worry about.  My approach in today’s agile environment is just the opposite, if I have not been aware of any change throughout the course of the project, I worry that I may be missing the changing needs and wants that will translate to a more successful product.

You may have experienced building your own exorbitantly priced printer stand, but don’t worry.  These experiences that don’t kill us (or our careers) only make us stronger and smarter, so long as we listen to what our experience is telling us.  My experience was a great instructor, showing me clearly that in today’s rapidly changing software development environment to ignore a shifting market landscape, to believe that a static world is waiting while we develop, or to pretend that change doesn’t happen, will only result in something less than the success that may have been possible.  In order to survive and thrive, we must adapt.

In order to truly be agile, we must expect change to happen.  And when it happens, we can greet it with a smile, knowing that a better outcome is now possible.

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Why Agile Teams Need to Embrace Risk

May 28th, 2009 2 comments

When I first started providing Agile training for software development teams looking to abandon their waterfall approach, I found myself consistently working with mavericks, teams of developers looking to push the envelope on what was possible.  These teams were on the bleeding edge of innovation, and as such, they often were habitual practitioners of risk taking.  Not the risk that those of us with a project management background may have traditionally defined it as, but a simple willingness to explore the unknown in search for a better outcome, where such an outcome is not guaranteed.

Those teams from just a few years ago are no longer the risk takers they once were.  Those teams have been replaced by teams comprised of nervous individuals, afraid to do much of anything that does not come neatly packaged with a guaranteed outcome.  The willingness to risk has been wholly replaced by an inflexible adherence to metrics that measure the team’s ability to meet expectations and estimates, but say nothing about product quality and the importance of a happy customer.

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Software development teams are losing sight of what is truly important.  These teams are worried more about satisfying internally defined processes as opposed to building great software and endeavoring to satisfy their customer.  And sadly I am seeing this trend on the rise rather than the decline.  In this battered economy, I am seeing teams of talented people under-promising in their efforts and estimates, so that they can minimize the risk of falling short on a deadline or a deliverable.  I am not saying that missing a deadline or deliverable is a good thing only that  I am seeing these teams behave from a place of fear because their employers are rewarding the wrong results and inadvertently punishing, or at the very least discouraging, the right behaviors.

How have we so quickly become adept at management from this place of fear?  Is it the economy that has created this fear based professional economy of cowards?  Partially, possibly, but I started seeing this trend before the economy passed the event horizon.  So what type of organization, company, culture, or management approach is cultivating this crop of individuals?  (I use the word ‘individuals’ loosely, based on the herd mentality I have also noticed.)  What is being put in the drinking water at these IT companies?  Probably most importantly, what can we do to reverse course on what is likely to become the silent killer of innovation and workplace happiness.

The answer is simple.

Failed efforts to improve must be celebrated.
Failed attempts at a new approach must be cheered.
Failed attempts at doing anything out the circle of comfort must be rewarded.
Failure itself must be de-stigmatized.
Failure as a term must be taken off our list of bad corporate words.
Failure must be redefined as the hallmark of a team on a path towards greatness.
To be great, we must fail.

Failure is a product of good Agile teams.
Failure is an absolute necessity for great Agile teams.
Failure redraws the lines that bound the area of comfort which typically define an average team’s actions, as they rarely or never act outside of this zone.  They rarely act outside of this zone because anything over this line represents effort without a guarantee of positive outcome.failgreatly

For great Agile teams, this line, this ‘boundary’ defines the point at which they have the possibility of improving, growing, producing results that exceed their own expectations or understanding.  This line does not bound their actions, it simply provides measure against which they can judge their ability and extent to act outside this zone.  Great teams are defined by their ability to constantly re-evaluate and re-draw this line.  The ‘boundary’ for great teams fails to bind at all and becomes a reflection of the great team’s greatness.

When I began training teams on the tenets of Agile, I trained great teams.  Today I see average teams.  And the discouraging trend is towards average being the preference.

Now I am not all about simply pointing out doom and gloom trends as I see them, I would also like to offer a practical approach to how to stem this tide.  I stated above that we need to embrace failure.  Sure, I said that in a very specific way to elicit some response, but in truth if we, as a team, only pursue those actions that have a guarantee of successful outcome, then we will only ever produce the known.  Agile teams, with short design and production cycles can actually fail, and fail quickly, while still being successful.  Short term failures are then replaced with the possibility of long term innovation.

If you always do what you have always done, then expect to get what you always got. Agile teams embrace change and often strike out into the unknown for nothing more than the possibility that they may be able to create something greater than for which they could have planned.  Agile teams are those mavericks from the past.  They are the explorers.  We must encourage breaking the chains that I see are binding teams today, teams that see their boundary as insurmountable.  We are creating teams, environments, and cultures of mediocrity.  Nothing great was ever created by individuals that made their decisions from fear.

We are either growing or dying.  We are either deciding to do great things or deciding to shrink our influence.  The decision is ours to make.  And I know what I have decided.

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