Launching SoundAgile Consulting

I’ve been involved with Agile with many different organizations now for over 12 years.

In these years I’ve primarily been involved with being a contributing individual over a being an Agile coach.

The business of Agile has grown to a significant size and has now become a product that is sold to businesses who want to move their organization to Agile.  The very people who started Agile off as a movement have splintered off into several factions, each having their own opinion or approach in how to help organizations adopt Agile as a capability within their organization.  We now have Scrum, SAFe, DAD and LeSS to name a few in our acronym vocabulary.

Agile can indeed bring about valuable changes to an organizations ability to deliver software product more quickly.  These areas of Agile are fairly thought out, User Stories, Continuous Integration, Automation and Scrum.  You can move your development teams to a faster pace with some focus on specific team and development techniques that require some time to learn with some level of ease.

What Agile is struggling with is at the organizational level.  The Agile manifesto is specifically focused on building software better with a goal of delivering high value and quality software to our organizations.  A noble cause for sure and one that was sorely needed, given the changes in our software capabilities over the past 20 years.

Sr. Leadership however hasn’t changed much, still managing in a large up front analysis budgeting process which creates a painful friction between fast moving product delivery teams and slow moving hierarchical management structures .

For those organizations who are being sold Agile as a product that will deliver ‘x’ benefits know this about what is occurring.  These organizations are finding people who have done ‘some’ to ‘no’ real Agile, meaning they haven’t actually worked on an Agile team. Getting people who have the ‘right’ certifications doesn’t provide those people with the ability to coach teams in the reality of Agile, only the theory of Agile and their current frameworks.

They are also focused only on the product development area of your business, letting you believe that you will receive huge benefits from moving to Agile without the corresponding changes necessary throughout your entire organization to support a fast paced product delivery teams.

Agile is not a small change management effort, rather it is a multi-year impact to your organization, that if done well will lead you to great success.  If done poorly will provide you with significant pain without any corresponding benefits.

I’ve spent many years thinking about what I might offer from an Agile consulting perspective and I’ve come to the conclusion that any Agile ‘consulting’ work that I would want to engage in must include both Sr. Leadership down and the team level.

Another thing I have concluded is that successful organizations that want to become Agile, must do so with a much smaller footprint of coaching.  You don’t need full-time coaches for a long period of time.  In relying on full time coaches you are asking them to be your organizational Agile cop over owning the change within your organization.  The most successful Agile organizations I’ve worked in never had an Agile coach. Let me repeat that, never had an Agile a coach.  Instead they owned the move to Agile from the top down.  They provided the opportunity for teams to be empowered and fail and were not afraid to change organizational processes when they became impediments to improving Agilty.

SoundAgile will provide two levels of support and coaching for your organization.

  1. Team Level – Coaching and training will be accomplished through a combination of online training videos, 1:1 coaching and targeted onsite sessions for specific techniques such as Discovery/User Story Mapping, User Story Writing and Behavior Driven Development.
  2. Management Level – This will cover every management level in your organization, especially focusing in on your most impacted people, your technology managers.  Coaching and training will again be accomplished utilizing videos, 1:1 coaching and probably most importantly, targeted 1-2 day sessions that will continue for a multi-year time period. These sessions will provide for a longer term inspect and adapt change management process.

I’m really excited to be launching SoundAgile and am looking forward to working with people and organizations as they engage and encounter this thing called Agile.

SoundAgile will be live within the next two weeks.  I look forward to working with people who are motivated to move to Agile and make it work for them and their organizations.

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GSD or Feeling Good about the Wrong Things

Over the past couple of years I have heard the term GSD used quite a bit as a means to describe high-performing individuals (note I did not say team).

I have to admit that this is not an acronym that I was very familiar with, primarily GSD referred to my designation in college as someone who didn’t want to join a fraternity, the politically correct term would be Gosh Darn Independent (And this is probably a great way to define who I have been throughout my career).

Before embarking on this post I did some quick google searches and came up with some thoughts on GSD:

  1. The Urban Dictionary definition:
    1. GSD is brought about through severe bout of procrastination, not getting work done on a regular basis, therefore needing to set aside long amounts of time to disappear and get shit done.
  2. What Spinks Thinks – http://whatspinksthinks.com/2013/11/04/get-shit-done-the-worst-startup-culture-ever/

The term, as it is used now is, Get Shit Done, which does sound great at first pass.  However when you start working with GSD as part of building a defined delivery process you start to see some very ugly things drop out of it:

  • Heros – Those great people who came in and saved the day and got some serious shit done under intense pressure.  Never mind that the day they were saving maybe shouldn’t have happened in the first place or even worse, the situation requiring them to save the day via GSD was of their own making, convienently lost in the thrill of GSD.
  • Lack of Defined work – Who cares what I am doing so long as at the end of the day I can show you how much shit I got done.
  • Lack of Plans – See above.

The problem as I see it with GSD is that we aren’t asking ourselves a basic question – Are we doing the right shit at the right time?

Yes getting ‘shit’ done is good and getting it in done makes us feel good, however if there is no real process behind your way of getting shit done then you will be destined for unpredictable delivery of the work that brings your organization the most value.

I find in my experience that GSD is more about individual glory over a team (see my blog on Teams Deliver) which I find troubling on so many levels.

Organizations spend lot’s of money having their technology teams deliver features that they believe bring value to the business and even though there may be many ways of delivering this value, ie Agile, Waterfall, Lean, I have yet to see GSD making its way into main stream product and project management lexicon.

Continuing my educational tour of the world of GSD I found a posting from two guys named Daniel Epstein and Pascal Finnette who appear to be individuals who provide support, coaching and services to technology entrepreneurs specifically regarding GSD:

  1. GYSHIDO – A movement started a few years ago dedicated to The Art of Getting Your Shit Done.  They identified that their most intrinsic value as employees was that they got shit done, but in looking at their code of honor I see elements of good process, so is it possible thatGSD has some value?  Too soon to tell.  But here is their code of honor:
    1. Relentless focus – Focus on the 10% of your activities which drive most of the value. Relentlessly.
    2. Boring consistency – Do the right things over and over again. Consistency forms habits. Habits make hard things effortless.
    3. No Bullshit – Don’t bullshit yourself or others. Apply brutal honesty and transparency to everything you do.
    4. No Meetings – Meetings come in only two forms: Standing or social. If it’s social, it’s over breakfast, lunch, coffee, dinner or drinks. If not – don’t sit down.
    5. Follow up – Don’t let others wait for your part of the job. Ever.
    6. Don’t be an Asshole

As I read through their ethics I believe (I haven’t talked with these guys) that their process could align with the agile type world.  Why?

  • Many of the elements of what they believe is good GDS is what I consider good behavior of Agile teams:
    • Focus on the work that delivers the most value – Agile, 2 week sprints, deliver production ready features continually.
    • Consistency – Keep your Scrum Teams together, let them improve in estimation, execution, test automation, boring?  maybe, get shit done fast?  yes
    • No Bullshit – Retrospectives ask us to be brutally honest when things are working and fix what doesn’t work.  Attack the problem not the person (see number 6 – Don’t be an Asshole)
    • Follow-up – In Agile I always talk about how we need to think of minutes over hours when resolving issues that are blocking us from completing our work.

Agile teams focus on identifying the valuable ‘thing’ that we need to deliver and then develop lightweight plans to deliver it incrementally.
I suspect that GSD has its roots in waterfall SDLC where a project would roll happily along, green week after week, oblivious or ignorant to how the project was actually unfolding.  Decisions made by the team that never surfaced had large impacts on scope and viability of the project.

GSD I believe emanates from the need for a project team to ‘pull a rabbit’ out of the hat in order to deliver the project ‘on-time’.  My years as a waterfall PM saw this time and time again.  We fool ourselves into thinking that we can predict a large project from beginning to end all up front, you can’t, period.

So when you are rewarded in a GSD organization they are ultimately is saying that the organization values chaos over effective planning and delivery.

 

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.

Rear View Mirrors aka Mater Vision (Retrospective Habits for Agile Teams)

250px-MaterCars

One of my favorite movies is Cars and specifically the character Mater, rusty and crusty but full of humorous and unintended sage advice.

During one point in the movie, Mater starts driving in reverse, on the road, off the road and Lightening McQueen is very impressed and asks Mater how he drives so well and his answer was, Rear View Mirrors to which he adds I don’t need to know where I’m going if I already know where I been.

I started thinking about how this applies to high functioning Agile teams and their ability to provide predictability to their organizations.

More specifically I’m talking about how Retrospectives act as our rear view mirrors providing us with key visibility to where we were just at and an opportunity to reflect on where we want to go.

As an Agile team we constantly reflect (via Retrospectives) on where we were just at so that where we are going is incrementally improved, much like Mater and his rear view mirrors.  He’s constantly reflecting on where he’s been such that he’s already where he needs to be before he gets there…

For organizations that are starting to adopt Agile ensuring that your teams utilize the Retrospective process is key to seeing the types of productivity improvements that Agile can and should deliver.

Retrospectives need to be both a no holds barred conversation about what did and did not work, but the team needs to ensure that it’s also a safe place in which to talk about the issues that keep us from being really successful.  As a manager or management team you need to back away from the team and give them room to organize themselves.  As I’ve said before if a team feels empowered and is clear on the vision of the organization they are capable of solving both team and organizational issues that you didn’t think were easily solved.

Traits and habits of good Retrospectives are actually very simple:

  1. Have it consistently after each iteration.
  2. Hold the Retrospective right after your demo while all of the iteration context and issues are fresh in your mind.
  3. Each Retrospective should start with review of any action items from the previous sprint.
    1. Scrum Master – Ensure that this happens as this is the key to having the team feel like the issues that are causing problems are actually being addressed.
    2. Scrum Team – You need to commit to addressing the action items identified in a Sprint to ensure that you are applying continuous improvement to your teams processes.
  4. Working Agreements – The team needs to have a set of agreements by which their Retrospective will be run, follow these agreements, which should include:
    1. Respect your team members – Allow them to call you out if necessary if you were in fact a blocker (I have been and no it’s not nice to hear that, but your teammates are relying on you to make sure that they are successful.)
    2. Attack the problem not the person – This is key, you all want to be successful, don’t take things personally, ask questions and come up with solutions that might work.
    3. Understand that not every idea you have will make things better, be prepared to fail.
  5. Keep the Retrospective to the members of the Team that are responsible for delivering the work (aka Individual Contributors).  Managers and Stakeholders should not attend.  As a Scrum Master you may have to tactfully address this if these individuals want to attend.
  6. Relax, we aren’t trying to solve world peace.

Continuous Improvement leads to predictable velocity providing you with the ability to be like Mater.