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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.

What Does Every Agile Development Team Want?

in Agile/Agile Engineering by

Win! Duh, Winning!

Okay, I know that is so 2011. But it is only human nature to want to not be put in a losing position, in fact we talk a lot about winning. We are naturally competitive, some folks more so than others — you know who you are. This may be an evolutionary thing because of our need to be adaptive. I’m not saying we are totally dog-eat-dog. We like to be able to look back and see that we did our best or that we delivered the best as a team. In my opinion, we win when we meet or deliver beyond our own expectations as well as the expectations that we helped others to set.

As an agile development team, when we set commitments at the beginning of the iteration, we are setting expectations to win. If we miss our commitments — clearly we are not winning. This sometimes can be compounded when teams don’t even try to innovate and adapt in an effort to overcome our missed commitments. In these cases they are complacent, and they quit trying to get better, which means they clearly are not going to win. My guess is that most people on these teams are not very happy, and especially not happy to be on a losing team.

Let’s face it, winning is hard. Outsiders (a.k.a. stakeholders including customers, executives, management, and other teams) will levy expectations upon us and the team, many times these expectations seem unrealistic and, at times, seem maliciously imposed. Also, in order to win, you sometimes have to lose — winning takes practice, which means you and your team will likely fail before you win. Often winning is hard because we are trying to do so as a team. Becoming a team is a whole blog on it’s own; however, remember that in Agile we measure outcomes based on the team. So we win and lose together.

I am not really the one to ask about winning and I know there is not one single formula to winning. That being said, I have made some observations of winning teams, they are:

Set Proper Expectations. I think this goes without saying, we’ve talked about it before — part of being successful means setting the right expectations and having all the right parties in the room to agree together on expectations. This doesn’t mean that at times we shouldn’t stretch ourselves to be better, but the rules of winning should be agreed upon before we try to win.

Be Consistent. Now, you can consistently lose, but we are not primarily talking about losing here. When I say “be consistent,” maybe I should say “establish consistency.” In that we should establish consistency in both the Demand side and Supply side of the delivery equation. Smoothing out peaks and valleys improves the likelihood of meeting shared expectations and making the act of setting shared expectations easier.

Try. If you don’t try, you can’t win — ’nuff said. Well, let’s be a little more specific. Teams that don’t try to set the right expectations, or teams that waiver from their end goal because they are not on board simply will not win. These are the teams that are often the superheroes and they’ll end up within Sprint Burndowns that never reach zero.

Rely on Strengths of Team Members. Everyone on a team has different skills and strengths — both tangible and intangible. Although it is sometimes good to work outside your comfort zone so that you can develop, when teams constantly do this or team members take on activities that reside more in their weakness zone, it’s really hard to get things done and meet expectations. Try creating a skills catalog for your team and try out Strengths Finder. Doing this together and making it visible helps team members to put themselves and others in positions to win.

Embrace Adversity and Diversity. We should not only embrace adversity (a.k.a. challenges and failures), we should also embrace diversity (a.k.a. team member differences). When something goes wrong, it should always be a learning experience, even if that learning is, “we shouldn’t do that again.” A team that picks themselves up after failure and moves on is generally a stronger team in the end. From a diversity perspective, with Agile teams we look to build cross-functional expertise. Well, it’s also good to build cross-cultural teams. I’m not talking about putting someone on a team who is totally a bad fit, but instead — introduce a team member that will bring new ideas and approaches to solve a problem. Plus, with diversity generally comes new experiences — which is usually a good thing.

Tennis PracticePractice. It goes without saying, you don’t get good at something without some practice — look at professional sports teams. Yes, there are those of us who are naturals at certain things — but even the naturals need to practice. When we practice, we learn – we learn new ways, better ways, and ways not to do something. Yes, we might experience beginners luck every-now-and-then; however, by practicing what is often unnatural to us becomes natural — then we can focus on the next level of challenges.

Apply New Techniques and Tools. As we practice, we should always be looking to find a new way to do something or seek out opportunities to improve some aspect of what we do with tools. Although I work for a tool vendor, I’ll be the first to say that tools don’t always solve a teams problems — people have to solve the problem. But tools and new techniques can improve the way we do something or make a solution more reachable. Not to mention, new techniques and tools can make solutions more effective and efficient.

Put Our Best Foot Forward. Simply put, don’t put anything out there unless it is something you would put your name on and parade it in front of the world. A team I once worked with used to have “Good Code, Bad Code” sessions. This was a community of practice meeting where the developers would present examples of either good code or bad code. The author of the code generally remained anonymous; however, you were really nervous that it might be your code about to flash up on the screen as an example of bad code.  This type of discussion really forced everyone to raise their game, but at the same time if your code was brought up — you had the opportunity to discuss the circumstances and understand a different way.  Nonetheless, you always tried to put your best foot forward.

So those are the observations and experiences I’ve had around winning teams. In your experience, what makes up winning teams? Or, is something I said something you agree or disagree with? I really think teams want to be successful, it’s human nature. It doesn’t mean we always have to win, but it sure is fun and everything is easier.

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