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Twelve Awesome Interactive Facilitation Techniques for Agile Teams

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If you work with a team, and possibly, you are the Scrum Master or Lead or Product Owner, or just a Team Member trying to guide a conversation — then these interactive facilitation techniques are for you. But before we move on, let’s first get it out there that we may call these “Interactive Facilitation Techniques”, but they are really games. More specifically, games that help us at work. Using games — I mean interactive facilitation techniques — help us to effectively and easily facilitate discussions. Using these games to helps to drive good team behaviors (Blunt 1993) including cooperation, clarifying, inspiring, risk taking, harmonizing, and process checking. All the while, helping to overcome the destructive team behaviors of dominating, rushing, withdrawing, digressing, discounting, and blocking. That all being said, let’s get to it. The following list of games are those that I’ve personally used with teams that I see work really well and are easy to adapt. I’ve taken the liberty to group them by the team meetings where they make the most sense; however, as I previously said — they are easy to adapt and can be used for almost any activity.

General Brainstorming

Affinity Mapping – An oldie, but a goodie — this great way to collect, organize, and rationalize ideas — even large amounts of ideas. I’ve used this to help understand the objectives of meeting attendees and get everyone on the some page. Here’s a great a time-lapse video of a team using Affinity mapping to sort 500 pieces of customer feedback…

Dot Voting – Dot voting is a simple way to get a group of people to form consensus. This technique let’s everyone have a voice and it’s a quick and easy way to rank things. By the way, here’s a cool and FREE tool to do this with distributed teams … http://www.dotvoting.org

Pre-mortem – First off, let’s remember that words mean things and mortem is related to death. So I equate doing a pre-mortem to death planning including making your bucket list, understanding what things you should do to be health, and things to do to stay safe. The pre-mortem is a great risk management technique.

Discovery

Product BoxProduct Box – Also known as Vision Box, this is a great way to discover what customers think, a way to uncover expectations, and ultimately share – or gain a shared understanding of the product or project or release. I find the product box to be a great exercise for Release Planning and project chartering.

My Worst Nightmare – This is a great way to get into heads of the team and learn from their experiences, anxieties, and expectations. An easy way to express yourself, you use pictures. They say a picture is worth a thousand words and it’s true. I use this exercise to prime the pump on understanding objectives.

Spider Web – Another game from Innovation Games, Spider Web is a form of context diagramming, but it’s no the run-of-the-mill context diagramming. First, everyone get’s to draw, second — use pictures, and finally, no rules — lines can go from one item to another. You’ll find this a great game to understand information flows between people, systems, and organizations.

Requirements

Staple Yourself to Something – Have you ever found that getting started is the hardest thing to do? Well, this is the perfect game for you. This game involves mapping out processes, it helps to quickly get everyone on the same page as to how something should work. It helps with knowledge exchange, establishing process flow, and establishing a shared understanding.

Empathy Mapping – Establishing personas is a key activity at helping to understand our customers or the users of the systems we are building. This technique is a fast-and-easy way to do understand our users as a team. Even if you already understand your personas, let the team do this exercise and see what they discover.

Buy a Feature – Have you’ve ever been frustrated with stakeholders not being able to make prioritization decisions? Buy a Feature is an awesome way to help drive the discussions around prioritization. You may not land on the final ranking, but you will gain some awesome insight into what is important and where people are willing to negotiate.

White Elephant Sizing – This is the only way to estimate stories. Okay, not the only way, but it’s a good way. This game is a spin on the White Elephant gift exchange we do after the holidays. The values of this game are conversations and shared experiences of all the players. If you want to find a fast way to estimate, try this.

Retrospectives

SailboatSailboat and 4Ls – I’ve talked about both of these games before, and I play them regularly to help evaluate coaching sessions. I encourage folks to mix it up all the time with regards to retrospectives, and these two games are great ways to do it.

Learning Matrix – This one is from Diana Larson and Esther Derby’s Agile Retrospectives book. What I really like about it is that you find things to improve upon based on looking at what you are doing right. You review where things are going well and look at how applying what you are doing well to this things that are going wrong.

Check out the AgileBacon links page for sites that are all about Games that Work.

If Your Title Rhymes with “leaf”, “erector”, or “resident” – You Should Learn About Agile and Lean

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If you are reading this blog, then you are either part of an Agile transformation or you are someone considering an agile transformation. If you are someone that works in a management or simply a position of authority at your organization, if you don’t know much about Agile or Lean except that they are the latest buzzwords that don’t seem to go away — well, you should learn more about them. Because, the words might change a little, but the practices and principles have been around for a while and they are not going to go away anytime soon.

Agile and Lean are a set of ideas and principles that shape principles which guide our behaviors and foster the frameworks by which teams use to get things done. These have come about because there’s a recognition that trying to build things that are a result of complex cognitive thinking cannot be done well and in a timely manner to keep up with the demands of consumers. Couple these demands with an exponentially growing and aggressive competitive marketplace — the concepts of focusing on building the right thing and eliminating the waste that keeps us from delivering things right have naturally emerged. Agile and Lean are not old ideas, there’s been a ton of learning and shaping of these ideas and principles. New frameworks and or practices emerge daily as our products evolve and the people creating them do the same.

Why Should You Learn Agile and Lean?

clone_dollyHave you ever said, “Dolly is a great leader and worker, I wish we could just clone her and have ten Dolly’s.”

Or, how about, “I wish our team would just make a decision and get it done.”

Well, Agile and Lean values promote:
[list][list_item icon=”fa-star”]Empowerment[/list_item][list_item icon=”fa-star”]Trust[/list_item][list_item icon=”fa-star”]Commitment[/list_item][list_item icon=”fa-star”]Quality[/list_item][list_item icon=”fa-star”]Value[/list_item][list_item icon=”fa-star”]Team Work[/list_item][list_item icon=”fa-star”]Transparency[/list_item][/list] All of these things involve, giving teams information and the vision, and then getting out of the way to let them deliver.

Another thing to note about the values above are that they are generally practiced by all organizations and you’ll find aspects of each word above within the corporate mission statements. By learning more about Agile and Lean, you can learn how to help your teams or leadership leverage the organizations’ values and adapt those advocated throughout Agile and Lean adoptions.

The predominant reason organizations and teams adopt agile is to respond better to change — that is market changes. The other reasons are productivity and quality, all things that help us make products people want to buy, at the price they are willing to pay, and ultimately with the right level of quality that help mitigate long-term cost of supporting. A byproduct of agile adoptions is improved morale.

How You Learning Agile and Lean Can Help

cycle, loop or feedback conceptAgile and Lean advocates shrinking the feedback loops which improve communications amongst departments and ultimately help your employees make better decisions. Well, you understanding when the feedback loops happen, your role in the feedback loops, and the types of information shared at the different levels of the organization can help you keep yourself out of the way from the team. What I mean by this is that when sometimes things are going right, we’ll go back to what we are comfortable with and understand — and generally this means metrics and reports that may be costly to gather and result in anti-patterns for good team work.

The other value of you learning about Agile and Lean is that you can help facilitate the adoption by being a good leader and facilitating change practices. Keeping a level head when things aren’t going right, and providing guidance as to how best support the teams.

What Should You Do to Learn?

There’s a ton of reading materials out there. Just keep in mind that there’s a lot of books, articles, and blogs that focus on the practices and not as much on the strategic and scaling aspects around agile. This spaces is growing as organizations have realized that not only is there the “build better software” value, but the planning and practices around Enterprise Agile give organizations a framework to make better investments and harness the short feedback loops to improve ROI.

To help get you started, here are a few resources that have been recommended to me and I can vouch for their value of learning:

The Agile Executive Whitepaper, Jim Magers, VersionOne. Nice quick read and primer / introduction to agile.

The Concise Executive Guide to Agile, Israel Gat. Nice quick read that provides a deeper dive than the Agile Executive whitepaper.

Scaling Software Agility: Best Practices for Large Enterprises, Dean Leffingwell. Foundations for the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) which is being advocated as a framework for leveraging Agile and Lean in the enterprise.

Principles of Product Development Flow, Donald Reinerstsen. Helps explain the way Agile and Lean works in Product Development.

Training – Agile for Executives Workshop, VersionOne. This is a workshop that I’ve performed as well as my colleagues and it’s aimed at being a concise four hour session aimed at ensuring Executives understand the history, underpinnings, and execution models surrounding of Agile and Lean.

Words Mean Things – Waterfall

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If you are someone who is passionate about Agile, the word “Waterfall” is usually used in a derogatory manner or, at least, when you use it — you are making the stink eye. On the converse, if you are someone who practices what is popularly known as “Waterfall” Project Management you generally get offended or defensive when the phrase “Waterfall” is used.

Here’s how the conversation plays out:

Agile Practitioner – There’s no way I’ll ever work on a Waterfall project.

Waterfall Practitioner – There’s no way I’ll ever work on that Agile project.

Agile Practitioner – Waterfall projects are never successful and I hate being told what to do.

Waterfall Practitioner – Well at least we do work and don’t practice that Agile witchcraft and all that kumbaya mumbo-jumbo.

Agile Practitioner – Well, your mama said Waterfall is for losers.

Waterfall Practitioner – Don’t be talking about my mama …

[chaos ensues]

Winston and Murphy

The sad part about this dialog is that although it’s somewhat fictitious — I’ve heard similar arguments at organizations and with colleagues that work across all spectrums of the project management continuum. The funny part about the dialog above and, in particular, the word Waterfall — no one is really clear who started calling it Waterfall. It’s obvious that when diagramming out a sequential process, it looks like a waterfall.

waterfalldiag

Often, people credit Dr. Winston Royce with waterfall, especially with respects to software engineering when, in 1970, he wrote a part in a white paper that describes this project management approach (read it here). The funny thing is that he goes on in that same white paper that is credited for starting the waterfall practices to describing how risky it is and that in order to mitigate the risks, each stage of the process should do things iteratively and incrementally.

Waterfall Project Management is really Sequential Project Management. Meaning we perform a sequence of activities and there are generally stages, maybe with sign-offs, and usually hand-offs to another group of people that are charged with performing the next sequence and consuming the output of the previous sequence. Some refer to this as Traditional Project Management, but in most environments its called Waterfall.

I’m not going to discuss the differences between the two and which approach I think is better — it should be clear since you are reading an agile blog. I will say that I think that the merits of each approach are obvious and each approach has challenges. The usage of one approach over the other really depends on the project and possibly the people engaged. What I am going to say is that the world we all live in today, it is very likely that we’ll have a mix of projects using a more Agile approach and one using a more Sequential approach. Sometimes, we’ll have to join forces and combine the output of these approaches into one. Of course, we are learning and adapting ways to do this, but that too is another discussion altogether.

Let’s face it, when words start dividing people, we probably shouldn’t use them any more. Instead call the project management approaches what they are – iterative and incremental, or sequential, or continuous, or simply ad-hoc. Also, be aware that moniker we place on people isn’t really on the people, it’s on the processes by which they may operate in and they may be really comfortable in that process. Generally, they’ve put in a lot of blood and sweat to make it work. Sometimes we need to put the monikers aside and focus on “individuals and interactions over process and tools” (crazy how I got the Agile Manifesto into this blog, isn’t it?).

For now on, be aware and instead of calling it Waterfall, try Sequential Project Management or even Traditional Project Management — unless you want to get in an argument about “your mama.”

Behaviors and Culture Can Impair Creating Good Product

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When we think culture, we often think about nationality and or regional cultures. Culture is often a dinner discussion with my wife and friends, it’s great to reflect upon how our upbringing, surroundings, and maybe even our genetics drive our work habits, how we work with others, and how we see and work with authority. Culture is a difficult thing to work with because it’s engrained in us.

A few weeks ago, VersionOne released the 7th Annual State of Agile Survey. Within the survey, it is obvious that culture is the leading challenge to all aspects of agile adoptions and transformations. There were two questions within the survey that really highlighted the cultural challenges (note, I plucked out the key responses that impact culture – be sure to check out the full survey):

Concerns about Adoption

  • Lack of Upfront Planning – 34%
  • Loss of Management Control – 31%
  • Management Opposition – 27%
  • Dev Team Opposed to Change – 18%

Specific Organizational Failures Behind Agile Failures

  • Failure to integrate people – 34%
  • Failure to teach team-based culture – 28%

Prior to the survey being released, I already started making a list of those human behaviors and or cultural behaviors that I’ve seen impact the ability of an organization to build good software, let alone those behaviors that negatively impact an organization’s agile initiatives. Here’s my list:

  • Controlled manFear of Losing Control. This is primarily an individual fear; however, it can also be engrained in the organization. I’ve heard, “if I don’t put these controls on how the team works and if I’m not making decisions, when they screw up — I’m the one that is going to hang.” Of course, the idea of control being lost ultimately becomes a myth, because we generally see everyone’s engagement raise up a notch or two. Thus, resulting in more people being involved in making the decisions at the proper levels — hence scaling the organization.
  • Gate Keeper Culture. Often a subset or product of Fear of Losing Control, this is the manager or director who acts the liaison between his or her direct reports and the rest of the organization. I’ve seen and even lived in environments where all communications have to go up and down the ladder. Or, where in order to talk to someone on the “protected” team, you have to walk past the Gatekeeper and they then take the message or grant permission as long as they are part of the discussion.
  • Measurement of Success is Based upon “On Budget and On Time”. Many organizations, especially IT organizations live in the world where they try only be concerned with what they can control — and that is generally, “we deliver what was signed off and will do it based on a budget and set schedule.” Well, we fail to recognize that we should be measured based on the success of the product either in the marketplace or the usage internally. The funny part is when we time box and quit focusing on the when and who, and instead focus on the what — everyone is happier including the development teams.
  • “What’s My Role” Fear. This is the protectionist behavior where managers and or team members don’t see a fit for themselves or don’t find a fit for themselves as an agile transformation takes place. These team members or managers generally start start creating barriers to deflect blame while at the same time climbing to the roof-tops to shout out about the failures of the team and process. If others are looking at the right thing (e.g. product moving out successfully
  • Victim Mentality. Have you ever heard, “it’s always been that way and it’ll never change”? Well, this is the typical response for the person who either doesn’t want to deal with change — or they’ve been told “NO” so much, they just give up. Personally I used to be one of these people, then I learned quickly — if you don’t ask, you don’t get. And, if it is something that could have really positive results — isn’t it worth the risk?
  • photodune-3820842-young-superhero-sSuper Hero Culture. Now don’t get me wrong, I appreciate hard work and stepping up your game to make sure we succeed as a team. But constantly over committing and being let to overcommit constantly is not a good thing. I’ve also seen that individual who loves to be on a pedestal, thus when we start working more as a team — they’ll often be the person making back room deals to do more work or take on the clandestine project that our Scrum Master isn’t supposed to know about. Again, hard work is great — but we have to respect the concepts of sustainable pace, transparency, and “The Team”. Remember we regularly deliver value.
  • Us/Them Culture. This one is obvious, but it takes on a few forms including department silos, role based silos, and Ivory Tower silos. Department silos exist when we have complex solutions that require the integration of products from multiple departments and a bad or no rapport between the teams. Role based silos will generally exist in early agile adoptions where the value of diversification and cross-functional teams have not been visible yet. And Ivory Tower silos are those “I’m a Director” or “I’m the Product Manager” and you just do what I say — this never results in team work, unless the team is conspiring together to take down the Tower. If people talk about the managers in the organization as “The Suits”, then you might have some Ivory Tower silos and possibly going in the opposite direction.

What challenges, either culturally or behavioral, have you’ve experienced? I’m interested to here about those that not only impacted your agile implementation, but those that impacted delivery good product.

Words Mean Things – Inspect & Adapt

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At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.Agile Manifesto (agilemanifesto.org)

In case you weren’t aware, this is the 12th Principle of the Agile Manifesto and it is often translated into “inspect & adapt.” Of the twelve principles, this is definitely the one that everyone can easily relate to. The team should look at what they are doing, look at how they are doing, and adjust. This is primarily for the team and I would argue that it’s mostly about the process (and maybe people stuff), but it could be around the product and or project if we are doing this in respect to a specific release or even the outcome of the sprint.

With Scrum, there is a ceremony (a.k.a. meeting) that is called a Retrospective. Other frameworks and processes have adopted the spirit of this meeting and there are a bunch of creative ways to conduct the retrospective. If they are kept fairly informal, transparent, and candid — then they can be hugely valuable — especially when they are actionable.

But this blog is not about the retrospective, instead it’s about the terms and maybe even way we speak of the concept “inspect.”

inspect. v. To examine critically or carefully; especially, to search out problems or determine condition; to scrutinize.

If you’re development shop is worth its salt, then you are constantly inspecting. Let’s face it, the feedback loop with following iterative development, using continuous integration, employing automated testing, and on a cross-functional team is really tight. This means that we are constantly re-digesting information from our feedback loop — so inspection is constant.

photodune-3550517-innovation-sI propose this, instead of “Inspect and Adapt”, shouldn’t we “Innovate and Adapt.” Now I cannot take credit for this change of terms, I was driving home one day from the office and I heard a post-season interview with the Atlanta Falcons’ head coach Mike Smith. He was talking about the fact that the team has reviewed all the tape from the year and now it’s time to innovate and adapt. He went on to say that seeing one’s issues and or challenges is not enough, they have to find ways to beat the competition and be better — that requires innovation.

innovate. v. To alter, to change into something new.

So instead of simply looking and digesting, let’s imagine and innovate. Once we innovate, we adapt the new ideas to our team, we continue inspecting our feedback loops, and we continue our innovation.

Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quick, and get on with improving your other innovations.Steve Jobs

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