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.

Agile Planning – I have a need a need for speed

Working at Disney a number of years ago was in so many ways transformative for me (not sure why I left) because it provided me with an opportunity to work with an organization that needed to get better at delivering software for our partners and we ended up choosing Agile as our path.

Disney was the place where I had the opportunity to help build an Agile process from Requirements to Delivery and what we discovered was that we needed to develop an effective planning process that allowed us to build a solid backlog of work before we just started coding.  I here that so often in organizations that are just starting to adopt Agile.  I think a statement I heard recently is descriptive of organizations that just start coding – Shoot and Point.

Disney is a largely creative driven organization (Not surprising) and because of this we typically had a disconnect between our creative (UX) groups and the Product Delivery teams.  The UX team primarily worked independently of the PD teams and as was the case when I arrived, UX would deliver a creative design that didn’t align to our technical capabilities.  This is a common issue in today’s web development environment.

Our first ‘Release’ Planing went very poorly and after a round of retrospectives we came up with a format that at first pass you would say wasn’t Agile (trust me we used that phrase a lot in the early days of our becoming Agile).  But in the end this first step of Discovery ended up being what I believe is the most critical element of being able to go fast in Agile.

The basic process that we ended up with was as follows:

  • Pre-Discovery – Sr level PD, PO, UX, Marketing and other Stakeholders would review a specific new feature that was being considered. The group would utilize several tools such as Mind Mapping to understand the scope, parameters and potential dependencies at a high level.  If the feature work was approved then we went to the next phase.
  • Discovery – Depending uponthe the size of the potential project Scrum teams and extended stakeholders would meet to go through a low-level review for that feature development.  For many of our larger efforts it was not uncommon for us to sequester the teams into a room to work through the entire effort, UX to QA to Delivery.
    • Process
      • Kick off – Have your PM or PO along with the key stakeholder(s) of the effort describe WHY this feature is so important.  We learned in our process development that it helped our PD teams to have an understanding as to why this feature was important to the organization.  It helped them feel connected to the value that was being delivered and not simply code jockeys running a race.
      • Competitive Review – Another great exercise was to have the entire team go out and find competitive features that we either did or didn’t like and describe why.  This helped the next phase of our Discovery process as we worked to define what our feature sets would ultimately look like
      • UX and Story Development – This was the primary scope of our Agile workshops.  Typically led by the UX lead for the project we would begin developing low-fi wireframes and discuss the issues, constraints and code complexity that the low-fi would entail.  We discovered in this process that we could work through the types of issues that come much later in a typical product delivery effort.
        • Outcomes
          • UX ended up with designs that they could utilize to develop prototypes that would be used in User testing prior to any significant development work being completed.  This allowed changes to UX to be found at the very beginning of the PD process rather than at the end when refactoring consumes a much larger amount of time and leads to lower quality of code.
          • PD ended up with a solid design at the beginning of the PD process which led to high quality code and higher levels test automation.
          • QA ended upon with an ability to write higher quality acceptance criteria which lead to high quality in the delivery and higher levels of test automation (sensing a theme here?)
          • User Story development was done during the Discovery phase and with it I was able to have a fairly accurate model to predict the number of stories at the beginning of the Discovery phase (typically between 100-120 higher level Epics, we strove for stories to be between 21-34 points in this phase as PD would start fairly quickly after the discovery phase 2-3 weeks) and how many that would translate into for a full project (typically 350 – 400).  This provided me with input as to how many BDD acceptance criteria would come out of this as we used a marker to determine when a story should be broken down – More than 7 variables in the BDD would be an indication that it’s time to think about breaking down the story and more than 14 tests in a single test scenario would also trigger the conversation of whether to add a scenario to a story or create a new story.
            • Benefit – Keeping your BDD test automation in small increments makes it much easier to understand what broke, who probably broke it and what is needed to fix it.

I know this doesn’t ‘Sound’ Agile (like the name of my company), but in my experience doing this small amount of work up front does provide teams the base to go really fast once the PD process begins.

I have used this process now for many years and when we do it right it’s like writing a symphony, all of the moving pieces make beautiful music.  When it isn’t done right, then all you get is noise.

This process probably does work for larger and more complex organizations over small organizations, but really would you start building a house with no blueprints and no idea of what you wanted?  If you had builders just show up and you told them I need a house to live in and I need it fast you will get that, but I doubt it will be anything that you want. And in reality it wouldn’t be done fast as they probably wouldn’t have the right materials scheduled to arrive at the right time.  I have my roofing supplies but the foundation company can’t some for a month, see what I am getting at?

Slow down a bit, understand what you want, how to get it and then go fast to get it.

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.