January 31, 2014
I think most of us agree today that learning is almost always a bottleneck for our development projects. When asking people after completing a project how long it would take them to do the same thing all over again, the answers usually range between 10-50% of the time it took the first time. The second time around all obstacles involving learning would be removed and everyone could focus on producing. This is where agile methods and practices come in; designed to facilitate fast feedback and fast learning cycles to improve on the lead times.
When it comes to new product development (NPD) most organizations that I’ve come in contact with have a tendency to lose severe amounts of calendar time before the actual development begins. When I started looking into the Fuzzy Front End (FFE – “the phase between first consideration of an opportunity and when it is judged ready to enter the structured development process”) of NPD with a colleague of mine to see if- and how agile ways of working could help during this phase I came to realize that even though learning is what we try to do at this point, the real bottleneck is usually decision-making. Many organizations don’t have a set of business rules to guide them during the decision process for new products and even people on CxO positions are often paralyzed by the Parmenides fallacy; action is more dangerous than inaction.
It doesn’t make sense for us to speed up the other activities of the FFE if the organization is going to waste that time on procrastinating on decision-making. So what can we do to speed things up a notch? It’s been argued that the FFE-part of NPD has an inherent uncertainty and ambiguity to it that makes it an ill fit for structured processes. Be as it may with this (I’m quite certain that we can do innovation and be creative within a framework as well though), the decision process that runs in parallel with the creative processes can definitely be sped up. With a good enough set of decision rules, any company can limit the impact of decision-making as a bottleneck.
When entering the NPD-process, we should frame the research within the limits of our corporate strategy. This will tell us what kind of opportunities to look for. Do we have a plethora of service- and product options to explore or should we stay focused on a given market segment and type of solutions? Are we Google or are we a cab company.
We should decide beforehand on the level of risk that we’re willing to accept. Are we willing to explore completely new products? Are we prepared to explore new technologies? Are we willing to create new markets? Or should we perhaps stick with extended product capabilities?
What level of organizational change are we willing to accept in order to develop and/or produce new products or services? Can we kill an entire production unit and build a new service organization? Or do we have difficulty even to introduce a new role to our organization?
How much are we willing to invest in exploring new opportunities? What payback time do we expect?
Most of us aren’t working for companies like Gore, Google or 3M. We might like to believe that we have the freedom to explore all kind of opportunities but if we snap out of this dream before we act on it, we can become a lot faster at following up on new ideas. What we need at the beginning of our NPD process is to:
- Make all constraints explicit
- Decide what data is needed to make a decision
- Commit to innovation within these constraints
And don’t forget to combine fast decision-making with validated learning and agile practices to minimize the impact of poor choices, because the decisions will not always be perfect. But then again, neither were the decisions that used to slow us down.
January 27, 2014
Have you ever experienced working in- or with “teams” that never seem to get to a state of working together as a team? I put the word teams within quotation marks since these aren’t really teams, they’re just administrative units. This has happened to me a couple of times and no matter how much we struggled with trying to get everyone on the same page through working with visualization, teambuilding, meeting formats, goal setting, work spaces etc, everyone would go back to their desks and continue to work as fractions. I’ve gone through several phases of explanations and rationalizations in my attempts to explain to myself why we had these problems. A while back Esther Derby introduced me to Glenda Eoyang’s work describing the effects of containers on systems and that really put the spotlight on some of the driving forces behind our problems.
Basically a container is something that bounds one part of the system from another and constitutes a difference. Containers can be:
- something physical such as walls, desks or cubicles that separate people or unite people.
- of organizational nature; people reporting to different managers, belonging to different departments or being hired consultants as opposed to employees.
- something conceptual such as purpose or rules.
- behavioural, e.g culture or family situation.
The effects of these containers will greatly affect how people are going to work together. Some of them will work in favour of collaboration while others will drive a wedge between people. When I began to model the containers that I could identify within the troubled teams it was really easy to see how many things were pulling people apart instead of holding them together.
People may have been assigned to the “team” and in best case even be co-located. We might have a unifying goal of delivering a product or service but that’s where the positive forces ended. Then people would be experts belonging to different organizational units. They would be reporting to different managers. They could get input to their work from different sources. They would be seated together with a few people with the same kind of expertise. They belonged to different budgets. Their personal goals were set with different managers and not aligned. They belonged to different subteams. They would have to work on other projects outside of the dedicated “team”. Etc. Etc. Etc.
Seeing all these forces working against us made it clear that we had a snowball’s chance in hell of building teams that would actually work as teams. For every action we took to align the team members there would be ten other actions around us that pulled us apart. My guess is that if we would have come much further if we would have focused more of our energy on identifying and redesigning the root causes of the forces pulling people away from each other instead of performing a tug of war with these forces.
Some time ago I was asked to work with a “team” that “had problems delivering” and “the few things that did come out of the team was of poor quality” and as if that wasn’t enough, “people were generally not happy about working in the team”.
The “team” – it turned out, consisted of a handful of developers. They got their work from a couple of different business analysts in different parts of the organization and when they were done coding, assigned the work to some testers in another part of the organization. Before taking on the assignment I made one request and that was to get to work with all three disciplines as one team; requirements, development and test. We did a lot of different things together in order to overcome the challenges but the one thing that made it at all possible for us to create a high performing team was the tearing down of old containers and building a new one around the team.
I’m sad to say that the reason I’m so certain about the power of the containers in this case was that as it turned out, the company structure wouldn’t allow for this organization in the long run. Soon after I left the team, group managers once again split the team into three parts; requirements, development and test, each group with their own team lead. None of the other practices we had put in place were strong enough to withstand this break-up and pretty soon everything was back to square one again.
My lesson from working with this team was that it’s not enough to learn to see these invisible structures, we also need to see the incentive systems that put them in place. But I’ll save that for a later post.
January 20, 2014
I’ve noticed that a lot of organizations seem to have problems with Scrum of Scrums. Some coaches refrain from recommending them altogether while others might use them with low expectations. Without making too many generalizations I’d like to describe one of my more positive experiences using Scrum of Scrums – as an indicator of our ability to work together.
My assignment was to coach a Scrum project with ~100 members and seven development teams distributed over three countries. One of the pains that were brought to my attention early on was how dysfunctional the Scrum of Scrums was. All the ScrumMasters and the project manager would have a teleconference three times a week where the ScrumMasters would take turns giving status reports(!) and complaining about the problems they had. I was approached by some of the ScrumMasters asking me if we shouldn’t have the meeting less frequently since “nothing new is being said. The same problems are being brought up in every meeting.”. I asked them if they thought the real problem was the frequency of the meetings or their inability to solve problems between the meetings. They kind of recognized my point and agreed to continue with the three weekly meetings for a while longer.
We began to move away from giving status reports and I also suggested that they started to write down the issues that were being brought up and make sure that unless someone claimed responsibility for actually working on an issue, they wouldn’t be allowed to keep complaining about it in this forum. My idea of writing down the issue was to create an excel-sheet or something similar in a shared folder but apparently in this organization, there would have to be a JIRA project to store such information. It also turned out that it would take about a month to create said JIRA project.
Since I had a hard time seeing that JIRA would be the way this problem got resolved, I also started working on other things in parallel. The first thing we did was to get all the ScrumMasters together to get to know each other. I managed to get the funding to fly all ScrumMasters to one of our sites and hold a retrospective and some other workshops. It was a great day with people getting to know each other but it still wouldn’t be enough. When, towards the end of that day, I asked if everyone in the room had everyone else on speed dial, the frightening answer was that no-one had anyone else’s phone number in their cells. Getting this problem solved was easy, the problem was to get everyone to use the phone numbers.
After this day together, I began requesting from each ScrumMaster to call all the others’ on a daily basis. Whether they had an issue to talk about or not, they should at least make a social call to see how the others’ were doing. This didn’t happen immediately; most thought that they’d get away without making the calls but I kept asking them about it in our one-on-one’s.
I can’t tell exactly when the transformation happened, but before the new JIRA project had been set up, I noticed that fewer and fewer issues were being brought up during the Scrum of Scrums. Instead people were having social discussions and talking about problems in a past tense. When I started inquiring about this I learned that there were still a great deal of issues but now they were being solved outside of the Scrum of Scrums. The teams (or at least their ScrumMasters) had begun caring about each other. One team even offered to send some of their developers to another country to help one of the teams there before the other team had worked up the courage to ask for external help.
In a little more than a month we went from having a meeting that didn’t help us coordinate any issues or solve any problems at all, to holding a meeting where there were no issues to coordinate and no problems to solve. This made me realize that the daily stand-up and the Scrum of Scrums might not really be any solutions in themselves, but rather indicators of how well we communicate within our teams – outside of the meetings.
January 10, 2014
“A bee is never as busy as it seems; it’s just that it can’t buzz any slower.” – Kin Hubbard
A while back I was coaching a project that was to a large extent staffed by people being experts in narrow fields of expertise that also had other commitments outside of the project preventing them from having any slack time what-so-ever. This constituted quite a big challenge because they all took turns to act as bottlenecks in the process so I decided to run a retrospective focused entirely on how we could free up more of their time in order to improve the flow of work.
The initial reaction I got was almost enough to give up on the idea entirely. Almost everyone started moaning about management and the organization being the problem.
“Tell them to not dump all this work on us.”
“As long as we have to do projects as well as maintenance this will always be a problem.”
“I have to support so many projects that I’ll never be able to set aside any slack time.”
With the support of the project manager though, I decided to run the retrospective despite the chorus of geese shaking off the water. The setup was quite simple; we divided into groups of three and I asked each group to work according to the Iroquois “Rule of Six” to come up with at least six plausible reasons for why key people in the project were constantly overloaded with work. I asked them to specifically look for reasons that were in our reach to act upon. The result was amazing. All groups managed to present at least a handful of reasons showing how we all were responsible of creating this problem.
“I say yes to almost anything.”
“I don’t trust other people to do a good job.”
“I ask other people to help me with stuff without checking if it’s prioritized.”
“I don’t prioritize the work that comes in.”
“I create work that has not been asked for.”
I was overwhelmed with the candidness and maturity in the answers. This was great; we had found so many things that we would be able to act on in order to ease up on our own as well as our peer’s workloads. With this smörgåsbord of possible actions I didn’t want to do a prioritization to select one or two to implement during the upcoming sprint. Instead I asked if we could take as homework to do a daily act of kindness to ourselves and someone else. Could we at least once a day stop to think if we were about to act according to one of the patterns that we had found and instead take another road?
This is where things started to get interesting again. Amidst the nods and yesses I detected some hesitation as well. The hesitation wasn’t spoken out loud in any way but it was in the air so I asked for a fist of five. Could everyone on the count of three please raise a hand showing their commitment to this homework by showing any number of fingers between one and five?
- Five fingers being “YES! I’m really committed to this, count on me.”
- One finger might as well be the middle one; “There’s no way in hell that I’m doing this.”
All people raised four or five fingers except the three persons being the most overburdened, they only held up one or two fingers.
When I asked what made them hesitant about doing this daily act of saying no to another task or not handing unprioritized work over to a fellow project member, they all fell back to the initial reaction of pointing outside their own sphere of control: “It’s not possible to say no.”
“If there’s a production problem it has to be done.”
“We have to do this even if it’s not prioritized.”
“Quality will suffer if we don’t do this.”
I’m not entirely sure if the conclusion I came to after this meeting was correct or not but I suspect that these people thrive on being busy. It could be external factors such as explicit or implicit rewards and/or threats that make people act in ways that puts them in the center of everything but having seen the same people end up in these situations time after time in different positions at different companies make me think that the problem often is self constructed. Some internal belief system or internal reward system make some people act in ways that is hazardous to not only their own health but also the productivity of the team that they work with. I don’t have a turnkey solution for this problem but I would ask everyone to consider this possibility before going about redesigning the organization or taking any other measures on the system.
The problem might not be that we force people to work too much, it could very well be that we allow them to work too much.
January 8, 2014
I love retrospectives and I love experimenting with different formats for my retrospectives. Today I tried a couple of new things that worked quite well so I thought I’d share this format with anyone interested.
The background is that I’ve just started coaching a somewhat new team that’s been going through a lot of changes lately. They had no history of doing retrospectives together so we had to start from scratch.
I almost always base my retrospectives on the setup described by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen in their excellent book:
- Set the stage
- Gather data
- Generate insights
- Decide what to do
- Close the retrospective
Normally I add the step “Follow up the last retrospective” between steps 1 and 2 as well but this time there was no retrospective to follow up on so I skipped that one. Instead I added another item; “Set a challenge”. I’ll get back to that though.
Set the stage
I explained why we do retrospectives and went through the agenda. Then we took a look at Norm Kerth’s Retrospective Prime Directive and I made sure that everyone was committed to follow it. Finally we did a check in. Today’s check in was to answer the question: “If I was a weather, what weather would I be right now?”
- “I’m sunny.”
- “I’m sunny with some wind, because I’ve had some trouble with my computer today.”
- “I’m a big dark cloud.”
Since we had one big dark cloud in the group, I asked everyone who had something on their mind that bothered them to write this down on a piece of paper and put it away in a pocket until after the retro. This is a symbolic action but it often helps people to mentally put their problems away for a while.
Set a challenge
I had never tried this before but as a way of focusing the retrospective I wanted to try and turn it inside-out or upside-down and start with what we wanted to achieve. I asked the participants to work in groups of two and come up with a challenge for the team in three different dimensions:
- Well-being of the team members
The reason for having these three dimensions was to find a balance between things that could possibly be compromised if only one or two of the dimensions were considered. I asked them for small and concrete challenges that could be tried within one month. No high goals that the team would have to live by for their rest of their lives, just simple, measurable challenges to experiment with.
The groups came up with a lot of great suggestions in all three dimensions. Several groups had come up with duplicates but I thought all ideas were really good. Now we needed to narrow the field and select just one challenge in each dimension.
I’ve been using dot voting a lot in the past but for a while now I’ve had a nagging feeling that it doesn’t produce great outcomes. Small issues that are only important to a minority can easily be selected before more important issues that would benefit a larger group depending on people’s tactics. I decided to try a (for me at least) new way of voting that I came up with. I based the idea on the concept “fist of five” and decided to call it commitment voting. I asked everyone to put a vote on all alternatives. They should give each alternative a vote between 1 and 3.
1 was a disqualifier or veto. “I’m actively taking a stand against this.” If anyone put a 1 on an alternative it would mean that the group wasn’t committed to that alternative and it was taken off the board. (This is probably a sign that we need to talk more about this as well.)
2 would mean, “I’m standing behind this.”
3 would mean, “I’m highly committed to this. I could take lead on making sure it happens.”
A couple of the alternatives got 1’s but most of them were 2’s and 3’s. The positive thing about getting some 1’s was that people felt it was ok to say ‘No’. To me, this was a healthy sign. After counting the 2’s and 3’s in the rest of the alternatives, we were left with one winner in each category.
- Well-being: “Getting more constructive feedback.”
- Productivity: “Discussing requirements and design before implementation.”
- Quality: “Getting more stable test-environments.”
I then asked the participants to pair up again, but in new constellations. After telling them about Jerry Weinberg’s Rule of Three and the Iroquois Rule of Six, I asked them to come up with six plausible explanations to why we hadn’t already solved the three challenges historically. I asked for six reasons because:
“for each apparent phenomenon, devise at least six plausible explanations, every one of which can indeed explain the phenomenon. There are probably 60, but if you devise six, this will sensitize you to the vast array of potential options and prevent you from locking in on the first thing that sounds “right” as The Truth. This attitude supports the mind in discovering new ways of perceiving, keeping our perceptual biases in check while allowing them their say.”
After a while someone said: “We’re on par with the old dude now but we’re still getting our asses kicked by the Indians.”
Since we were running out of time I let them get away with the reasons they had managed to come up with by then. It varied between the challenges and the groups but all of them had come up with several good explanations for each challenge.
After getting all possible explanations to why we hadn’t already solved the challenges in the past, up on the wall, the participants did an affinity mapping. They got a handful of different groups under each challenge; “Lack of knowledge”, “Lack of time”, “Lack of common process”, “Lack of communication” etc.
Decide what to do
Based on the challenges and the insights on what had been stopping the team in the past, we had a discussion on what we could do to meet our challenges in the near future. We agreed on two actions before we ran out of time:
- A weekly feedback forum at Friday coffee.
- Regular pre-planning meetings with representatives from all disciplines.
Closing the retrospective
I finished off by thanking everyone for their active participation and asking them for some thoughts on the retrospective and the format. The feedback was very positive and they felt that this was something that they should have done all along.
As always, time is almost never enough. Guiding people through a process like this while at the same time giving some space for discussions takes longer time than expected.
Setting a challenge at the beginning of the retrospective and then looking back to see why we haven’t met it before worked very well. The one problem I could see with this was that we only focused on problems when looking back. I’d like to also look at strengths and positives. I might compensate this by doing an Appreciative Inquiry retrospective the next time.
My commitment voting-scheme worked better than I had expected. I’ll definitely try this more in the future instead of dot voting.