An Agile Team Task by Any Other Name – A To Do

in Agile/Agile Engineering/Leadership by
Sprint Planning Hell

Let me first say, I know the idea of task decomposition is fairly well covered and some might call it a basic practice of any team; however, as a coach helping teams to adopt agile software development, I don’t always see teams finding this practice of defining “how to get to done” as a natural team planning activity. Instead, I see teams getting frustrated with a clunky approach or a high-level of disengaged team members or a member of the process police controlling the meeting that is distinctly a team meeting or I still see the “lead” define the tasks and simply dole them out.

Defining “How” to get stuff done as a team should be the straightforward activity around software development. It should be an engaging activity of brainstorming, learning, sometimes arguing, and ultimately a good feeling of “let’s git’r done.” All-too-often it seems like a torture technique riddled with challenges. These challenges are often rooted simply in poor practices, some of the which include:

  • Creating faux work breakdown structures (yes, I said it — WBS) of standard tasks (e.g. each story has “Design”, “Code”, “Review”, “Test”, “Deploy” tasks). Some would argue this is not a poor practice, but tasks should have context and be relative. Not to mention, this is kinda mundane, requires no thought, and is flat out lazy and contrived.
  • Focusing on the accuracy of hour level estimation. If we are consistent with relative estimation and looking at cycle time, we can come up with the “low risk” and lean approach to determine which stories to work on. Estimation at this level is more of a measure of certainty.
  • Creating tasks and tests that are ginormous — like a 40 hour task for a two week iteration. If someone tells me that it’s going to take 40 hours, then I view that as high risk and we need to keep talking about it to better understand it.
  • On the other hand, creating micro tasks — yes, so many that the Task board looks like like a sticky note factory exploded on the wall or invoke pagination within the tool.
  • Having the developer and tester creating tasks and tests in isolation without any conversation with each other or the rest of the team.
  • Oh yeah, let’s not forget when I get asked about reports that measure how underutilized people might be. Often the focus of understanding “How” becomes simply an exercise to maximize utilization.

That last point about utilization, it seems like a frequent driver of the planning exercise. It’s odd in that sometimes people think that if we don’t have a plan with everything defined that we are going to do before we go do it; well — when the stuff we do get done is complete, we’ll simply stop working and sit there and stare at each other. I’m pretty sure that this is never the case and if it is, either get new people or look in the mirror.

Does any of this sound familiar? Does any of this frustrate you?

Well, I have a few ideas for you to try — most of these are common sense and talked about by others, but it’s always good to mix it up and try something different to get out of the rut or remove the pain associated with planning.

First, abandon planning using ideal hours — I know, I’m crazy — but hear me out. The common rule for any to do or task is that it should take no more than a day to get completed, ideally less. Tobias Mayer’s book called The People’s Scrum contains a curated set of his past blog posts, one in particular called, “When is Scrum not Scrum?” explains his reasoning for non-estimated, day or less tasks — (1) eases tracking – just burndown tasks — the burndown is number of remaining open tasks and (2) it helps to unearth unforeseen impediments that are often just part of what we normally do. While these are great, I would add that focusing on estimates and accuracy of the estimates actually just results in taking the eye off quality and flow of value.

Next, decompose just enough stories to commit to the goal and get started. The Scrum Guide is pretty clear about this:

… enough work is planned during Sprint Planning for the Development Team to forecast what it believes it can do in the upcoming Sprint. Work planned for the first days of the Sprint by the Development Team is decomposed by the end of this meeting.

Now, new teams may need to decompose all stories during a sprint planning, but teams that have been together for a while may be able to quickly determine what stories to do in the next two weeks, how they fit a incremental goal, and then just go. Don’t make your sprint planning meetings more painful — if you are planning for 2 hours and you have enough work to start the sprint, then go start.

Try different techniques for this meeting that encourage engagement. For example:

Taskstorming. A simple approach where the team selects which stories they are going to work on based on past velocity and then, interviews the Product Owner on each. During the interview, the teams is noting on sticky notes the tests and tasks. Once a goal emerges, then it’s time to task [and test] storm. On a whiteboard, write the title and draw a large box for each story. Now have the team place their stickies up on each story. Duplicates can be discussed as well as someone can put up something that doesn’t make sense to anyone else — well discuss it. Through this process, let the conversations flow – observe a story with a ton of task, then maybe it should be broken apart? Taskstorming not only makes the meeting more efficient, but it’ll make it more effective because everyone is involved and engaged in the process. At the end, have folks pair up and help get the data captured in your favorite tool (which means VersionOne).

Other techniques you can try include Task-n-Tell and Test First Tasking.

Finally, as I’ve mentioned in a couple past blogs, put this on the team – this is a team activity. If you are a team member, take ownership of this meeting and you lead it. The Scrum Master or Lead or Facilitator of the team would typically do this, but if you find them directing or assigning tasks out without engagement. Well you have a problem and the best way to change it is for a team member to take over. If you are a Scrum Master or Lead and you are struggling with getting the team engaged, try something new — don’t be insane. Try introducing a facilitation game or asking someone else to facilitate (not the product owner or anyone else in a position of authority).

No one should suffer through a sprint planning meeting. Yes they can be hard, but they shouldn’t be torture — so, inspect and adapt. Time to make them fun and effective.

Remember that at the end of the day, tasking is simply defining the proverbial To Do list to get a story done.

Cold Day = Bacon, Black-Bean Chili

in Bacon by
Chili

Well it is very cold outside — even in Atlanta, Georgia.  When it’s cold — it’s time for one of our favorite household recipes which is Bacon, Black-Bean Chili.  If you happen to be a chili fan, this is a recipe you’ll love.  I usually add some extra jalapeno and every once in a while, I’ll inlcude smoked brisket as the meat.

Here’s the recipe from Food.com.  And here’s a good one for the brisket style from epicurious.com.

10 Causes of Chaos in Agile Software Development

in Agile/Agile Engineering/Product Management/Project Management by
exhausted-student-with-laptop

“Everything is so chaotic”
“Seems like we are constantly in a state of chaos.”
“Is agile always crazy and chaotic?”

Chaos is a word I hear a lot lately while working with software development teams that are either initially adopting agile software development or possibly undergoing a Lean/Agile reshaping to improve their existing agile approaches. I am often asked if the chaos will subside, and — the good news, it will — to a certain extent. But to best understand when things will slow down (or even if they’ll slow down), it’s good to explore some of the causes that make things chaotic with software development.

And in my world, there’s no better way to assess than to make a top 10 list:

1. New Teams Forming.

New Team

This one is obvious — as people come together to work with one another there’s a feeling out period. Usually during this period, teams are learning how to collaborate and work through conflicts. In addition to the people learning to work with one another, there are plenty of established organizational structure and culture barriers that slow the progress of a team forming.

2. Process Learning.

Complex Process

Another obvious one. Although most agile process frameworks (e.g. Scrum or Extreme Programming) are fairly easy and well documented, it takes time and practice to learn the mechanics. Couple this with #1, and well — there can be some real challenges to getting things done.

3. HEAVY Learning Mode.

Tired Student

This may seem redundant, but it really cannot go under emphacized. In addition to learning about each other and learning the process frameworks, as engineers — we are constantly learning about technologies, learning about our products, learning about our customers, well — just getting smarter. Needless to say, this all adds up.

4. Greenhorns.

Crab Fishing Greenhorn

If you ever have watched the Deadliest Catch on Discovery Channel, you get to see the struggles and pains of the first time deckhands – called Greenhorns. They are often way over their heads, running into challenges around every corner, and are just flat out exhausted. In addition to physically and mentally killing themselves, they are trying to prove themselves. Well, this is true with just about every new team member. Not only are they dealing with items 1-3 above, the intensity of the learning is magnified and until they have some wins and time under their belt, chaos exists.

5. When Quality is NOT Built-In.

Rolex Quality Built In

It is my opinion that in software development, over the years we’ve invented this approach to quality that is “risky and invites failure.” [1] Yes, I stole that — in most software development shops, quality is something that is done by different people to ensure “separation of duties” and because of the mentality that developers make bad testers. Couple that with the attitude that QA Engineers can’t or don’t necessarily need to know how to code, we have what we do today — a ton of end-of-stream testing, out-of-band automation efforts, and honestly, even the staunches of agile shops struggling with testing and ensuring quality. Without quality weaved into the Design>Build>Test cycle, we tend to see a lot more of these noisy things called Defects. Defects take a ton more time and energy than building it right in the first place.

6. Quality Automation Doesn’t Exist.

Sonar Dashboard

Without automation your going to find it almost impossible or at least extremely constraining to effectively and efficiently deliver with quality in a predictable manner. Similar to the “build quality in” challenges, teams often struggle because of their estimation processes calls quality out separately (which makes it a target for evil doers) and often it doesn’t account for the work around automation. Many organizations adopting agile software development don’t have an automation strategy for their legacy code. Therefore, they tend to have bouts of analysis paralysis around the problem space or they simply say, “our product or software is too hard to automate the testing” — so they won’t try. The other challenge around automation is some see it solely as an end-of-line UI automation thing where a couple engineers work on it — test automation is a holistic challenge and needs to be treated as such.

7. Lack of Cadence.

Perpetual Motion - Agile CadenceWhen teams are starting out, they don’t realize that the first thing to establish is their cadence — get their schedule in place and time box everything. The cadence surrounds the process touch points that require formal communication which help us to build habits; thus, making the process aspects of agile software development more muscle memory. If you feel like you are always in meetings or your iteration meetings are not occurring at the same Bat-Time and same Bat-Place, it might be time to reset — your cadence is lost.

8. Unpredictable Release Cycles.

Roll Dice

This one is an enigma, because there are teams I run into that say, “our product is to large and complex to release in short cycles” and then there are those that say, “we just release when we have to, it could be twice today or two weeks from now.” Looking at these two statements, they appear to be opposite in cause — however, it all comes down to #7 above and understanding what is the ideal batch size that reduces thrashing, allows for tighter alignment amongst teams, reduces “Integration Hell”, and prevents the amoeba style releases that never seem to end.

9. Deadline Rich Environment.

Deadline

Projects are the problem — or at least the traditional sense and meaning of a project drives the idea of fixed scope and fixed schedule. Let’s look at the PMI definition of what is a project?

It’s a temporary group activity designed to produce a unique product, service or result.

A project is temporary in that it has a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore defined scope and resources.

At the end of the day, we drive our business off the idea of push for a date — we get emails from colleagues asking “when?”, we get emails from tools telling us “now!”, and we have other teams telling us “yesterday!” Ultimately, projects drive expectations which are generally dates, we can’t seem to get away from them until everyone realizes, we should design and define scope to fit the schedule, not the schedule to fix the scope — because the schedule usually flexes in these situations not the scope.

10. Estimation (and for that matter, Capacity) is Not Understood.

Voodoo-doll

We often see teams measuring productivity units of time versus being measured as units of value. This is the case even in mature agile shops. Everyone is so focused on trying to come up with a voodoo formula to determine capacity of a team or organization and another voodoo formula to normalize story points across teams in order to build a long-term plan based on the cooked up numbers. The funny thing is that in many cases the approach used for estimation doesn’t really changed once an organization starts using agile — everyone continues to predictively plan what we really don’t know. Agile Software Development is an adaptive approach to estimation and capacity. We work with what we know, we measure value, we assess complexity, and we often simply size efforts based on relative uncertainty. If people would just keep it simple, try to get all stories to the same level or near the same level of certainty, and do the same with the to-do’s (a.k.a. tasks and tests) — then in a couple iterations, teams should be able to just count the stories and count the to-dos accomplished within a time box and use that for planning. Oh, if only it could be that simple … it is.

Okay, this was just my brainstorming or brain dump (literally) of ten things that cause chaos in software development, in particular in the situations where an agile adoption or reshaping is underway. Just keep in mind, change is constant in business — now, more so than ever. Software development is complex, so are people. The great thing about tomorrow is, we don’t know what is going to happen. So, just practice and keep in mind, if today is bad — then there’s tomorrow.

Friday is Always Better with Bacon

in Bacon/Humor by
Friday in Bacon

Problem Solved: Formula to figure out How Much Detail is Required with Agile Requirements

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WARNING: Shameless plug for my session at Agile2014 ahead.

I recently got the priviledge to listen to Alistair Cockburn talk to a small group at the VersionOne offices. He told the story about Kent Beck and how the idea of how the user story on notecards was born (I’ve read about this before, but it was great hearing it from Alistair). He talked about how the card was just that — a card with a title that reminded the developer and the target customer/user what they were building, maybe there were a few notes jotted down on the card. The narrative about the story wasn’t captured on the card — the details were verbally communicated because the developer and customer were all in close proximity of one another — they did this crazy thing, they simply walked down the hallway and talked.

In addition to this story, Alistair spoke about his experiences with a team that had development in Singapore and the business folks and architecture worked in the states. The company was having challenges with the team in Singapore at getting things done efficiently and, in some cases, getting things done right. It seemed like there was an inordinate amount of time that had to be spent on discussing requirements and getting questions worked out. The company decided to send some of the business and architect team members to Singapore to work out some improvements. When they did — the quality and productivity went up. When they returned, it took just a couple weeks before productivity slipped and all gains were lost. The reason for these results seems obvious — timezones, communication barriers, and not being able to have impromptu conversations can have a great impact on how well teams understand the requirements especially since a lot of conversations capture the specifics.

Hearing these two stories triggered some ideas in my head, and I thought — why can’t there be a simple formula we can use to gauge the amount of detail (words) we capture in a story to make it work. Through some hard work — I’ve now have that formula.

Here are some factors that I think go into figuring this out:

  • Complexity – just how well does the team understand the story and how hard the team thinks it will be, either from experience or flat out guessing. Usually captured as story points.
  • Difference in Timezones – the number of hours that separate us greatly impacts how fast communications can happen, especially if the communications occur near the bookend points of the day.
  • Auditing Requirements – audits are generally costly and require an additional amount of documentation overhead.
  • Multiple Offices – when people are in different buildings, it raises the amount of details that have to be captured.
  • Offices on Different Continents – although this somewhat relates to timezones, there is also the fact that people speak different languages. Even if they all agree to use english as the primary business language, there’s still slang, accents, and even cultural differences that impact communications.

How Long the Team has Worked Together – knowing each other is key, we figure out accents, we are able to exchange less verbal words, and we learn how to work with one another — what level of information is required to work effectively as a team.

So I reached out to some friends and the folks at Tagri Tech, and with their help — here’s the formula we came up with:

Amount of Words in Story = (Complexity * (1+ max absolute difference between timezones) * (1 + # of annual audits) * (Total # of locations * # of continents)) / (# of quarters the team has worked together)

And here’s the formula in action:

Documentation Formula

Multiple simulations have been ran and I found that the formula works in less than 0.01% of the situations. The people I’ve been working with at Tagri Tech’s statistics analysis department have ascertained that every team is different, and every product is different — this means that no matter how much documentation you have — the people involved in creating the documentation or the target consumer of the documentation really are not going to read it. They found that while some documentation like compliance reporting and end user documentation are necessary, much of the collaboration level docs are only consumed by the person that created it.

Ultimately, Teams will generally work together to figure out how much details are truly required to facilitate working effectively. If your teams are having challenges with how much documentation is required within Agile Software Development projects, then please come to Agile 2014 and check out my session on Friday at 9AM in the Sanibel room, we’ll talk about some ways teams can workout their own formula.

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