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.

decision

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.

The Need to be Needed

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.”
etc.

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.

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:

  1. Set the stage
  2. Gather data
  3. Generate insights
  4. Decide what to do
  5. 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.”
  • etc

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
  • Productivity
  • Quality

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.

The vote

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.

  1. Well-being: “Getting more constructive feedback.”
  2. Productivity: “Discussing requirements and design before implementation.”
  3. Quality: “Getting more stable test-environments.”

Gather data

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.

Generate insights

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:

  1. A weekly feedback forum at Friday coffee.
  2. 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.

My learnings

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.

Edie

February 26, 2013

Tonight, just a month after I got the news about Charlie Seashore passing away, I read that Edie Seashore had followed him. I did not know Edie or Charlie very well, but I did have the privilege of meeting them for a week in Cape Cod last summer where they taught the course “Strategies & Skills for Consulting, Coaching, Change”. The way they shared their experience and wisdom during that week made me feel like I had known them a lot longer though.

Edie and Charlie’s signature combination of wisdom with humor and a love for each other and what they taught made them seem inseparable. Both of them were strong individual personalities that made deep impressions on me but when they spoke in front of us it was clear that they weren’t only Edie and Charlie; they were Edie AND Charlie, a union so much more than its parts. As sad as I am to hear that Edie is no longer among us, it seems natural that the bond between them was this strong.

I am not a religious person, but I have no difficulty imagining Edie and Charlie still being together in a good place. I am so happy that I got the chance to learn from such wonderful persons. Thank you!

Edie & Charlie at Cape Cod 2012

Edie & Charlie at Cape Cod 2012

High-fiving the office

February 21, 2013

This morning it took me fifteen minutes to walk past my team and get to my desk…

But that was this morning, let’s back up one month. Middle of January my team had a team building activity. Now, I know that teams aren’t built during an activity but there were reasons behind us having this activity. Anyway, as a final exercise we all got to close our eyes, relax and try to visualize what it would be like if everything in the workplace was going as we wanted. We then got to draw our internal images and present them to each other.

My drawing had two parts to it. One part showing a kanban board where work was flowing smoothly, representing how we worked well together as a team. The second part pictured me high-fiving my co-workers on my way to my desk, representing us having a great time together.

High-fiving

What I saw before me was how it would take me fifteen minutes every morning to move from the entrance to my desk because I high-fived everyone along the way, stopping to ask how they were doing and generally enjoy being with awesome people.

Some background might be in place here. My desk is at the opposite end of the building from the entrance, which means that I have to walk by the entire team every morning as I walk to my place. The thing is, that I’m an MBTI introvert. I enjoy people and company like most other people but it’s exhausting for me. Having a good time with other people makes me physically and mentally tired. Because of this I’ve been taking a detour every morning in order to get to my desk without having to pass anyone I know, that way I could save my energy for “more important stuff”.

As I looked at my drawings I realized that the first part was what we’re struggling with together as a team, but that the only thing standing between me and my vision in the second drawing was myself.

The day after the exercise I stopped for a minute after entering our floor. I took three deep breaths and began the walk to my desk. Only a few team members were at their desks so I walked up to the one colleague who I knew would understand the idea. I raised my hand and immediately got a slap. It felt good and we discussed the exercise for a while. The day after I repeated the ceremony but stopped by two of my colleagues on my way to my desk.

Since then I’ve been adding people to my daily routine and this morning I walked around high-fiving everyone at their desks, stopping to chat for a while; both personal stuff as well as job-related. I timed the walk and it took me fifteen minutes to get to my desk.

What I’ve noticed is that most people’s faces light up as I walk by for the daily slap. The guy next to me was a bit upset though, he didn’t want to always be the last one to get a high five.

I believe in the idea that we are our feelings. If I act happy, then I will be happy and I will feel happy. If I start the day with a smile and a high five, I will get a better day. Fake it till you make it so to speak. The bonus is that people around have to start their mornings with a smile and a high five as well.

So as an introvert, does this procedure consume energy? You bet it does, I have to brace myself every morning before I walk into the room.
Is it worth it? You bet it is!

Disclaimer: Not everyone enjoys a high five in the morning, especially if they’re in the middle of something and that’s okay too.

Charlie

January 23, 2013

I just learned tonight that Charlie Seashore passed away this Sunday. The news saddens me incredibly while I’m happy at the same time that I got the chance to meet Charlie and learn from him. For a week last summer, I attended the course “Strategies & Skills for Consulting, Coaching, Change” with Charlie and Edie. That week was one of the greatest learning experiences for me this far.

Charlie and Edie helped me look into myself as well as getting an outside perspective on how I and others interact. The insight and humor that Charlie brought to this week still astonishes me and I could only hope for having a fraction of his wisdom and mischievousness on my best day.

Several of the things I learned during my week in Cape Cod with the Seashores (and all the great sharing participants), are already a part of my work. Other parts are still being processed. One of the things that Charlie taught us about at the course was re-framing. To me, he seemed like a master of re-framing as he shared a number of his life experiences, but all of them in a positive light, and all of them as opportunities for learning. I’m fumbling right now as how to reframe today’s sad news and I would love to have had Charlie giving his view on this.

When I left Cape Cod and said good bye to Charlie and Edie after the course, I was wondering if I would ever get the opportunity to meet with them and to learn from them again. Now I know that I won’t get another chance to meet with Charlie. It saddens me incredibly while I’m happy at the same time that I got a chance to meet this great man and to learn from him.

My thoughts are with everyone close to Charlie, and especially with Edie. Thank you for sharing your time and wisdom with us. And Charlie, I don’t wanna grow up either.

Image

Charlie at Cape Cod 2012

That’s life … Not!

October 8, 2012

Do you remember the Smurfs? Little blue creatures with white hats. Three apples high. Very strong characters. The fact is that their personalities are so distinct that each one is named after it’s strongest character trait. We’ve got Clumsy Smurf, Happy Smurf, Angry Smurf, Grumpy Smurf and countless others.

They like to sing as well. At least here in Sweden they used to sing a song about everyone of us having an inner smurf. They were wrong. We don’t have ONE inner smurf; all of them live within all of us. Inside our heads, the entire smurf village is represented. Inside your head is a board of directors consisting of Papa Smurf, Angry Smurf, Poet Smurf and all the other smurfs.

Your board of directors

The problem is that we learn at an early age that all smurfs are not born equal. Sure, we cherish a couple of them; Pretty Smurf, Smart Smurf, Kind Smurf and a couple of others while we suppress most of them. We create rules along the road for which smurf to bring out at what occasion. One of the first things we learn as newborns is to bring out Scream Smurf when we want some attention. Then, while growing up, we create new rules that benefit us better in the new situations that we have to face. But somewhere along the way we stop evaluating our rules. The rules harden and become an integrated part of us and finally we sit there with a small number of smurfs that we only let out at very given occasions.

Not all smurfs are created equal

Clumsy Smurf, Greedy Smurf, Ugly Smurf and Crying Smurf are not let out into the open if we can stop them. Sometimes we can see them in other people, representing their bad sides and sometimes we can even hear them quietly inside our own heads but they make us feel ashamed and we shut them up as quickly as possible. We suppress Egotist Smurf until he’s no longer three apples high, but only a molding apple core sitting quietly in the corner.

When we restrain these alternative sides of ourselves, we also limit our emotional degrees of freedom. We’re stuck with only one possible emotion to bring out for each situation that we have to face. Remember that there are rules for how we should behave! The situations become governing for us and we feel cornered since we don’t have any freedom of choice on how to act. That’s also when we begin to blame our emotions on the world around us.

– Oh, you make me so mad when you talk like that!
– You make me sad when you act that way.
– You! You make me feel violated.

We can’t choose what will happen to us, but we can always choose how to handle the situations and the first step towards ownership of the situation is to take responsibility for our own feelings in it. The next time you feel anger building up inside you, try not to say that “You make me sad.“. Instead, try saying “I get sad when you talk like that.” or even better; “I’m making myself sad when you talk like that.

The rules that we have created for ourselves have at some point been useful to us but when we stop re-evaluating them, we also stop choosing rules and instead let the rules choose for us.

But what should we be doing instead? Should we throw out our old rules on how to act?

No! Don’t throw them out but start challenging them again. Evaluate them continuously and see which rules are still beneficial to you. And use them as guidelines instead of rules. There is always a choice. I can choose to get sad, I can choose to feel violated but I can also choose to ignore. I don’t have to be a victim of the circumstances because I can choose which smurf to bring out, they all belong to me.

I would like to highlight three things that we can always do to improve our possibilities for making conscious choices. These are not advanced methods and they’re not even separated from each other, they overlap quite a lot. But they do allow us to become and act as thinking creatures, capable of complex responses that match the situations we are faced with.

The first thing that often stands in our way of making a conscious choice is that we don’t take the time to consider our options.

Your kids walk up to you five minutes before dinnertime asking for ice cream.
NO!!!

You shot the answer at them in a fraction of a second as if this was a duel of life and death between you and the kid. But we don’t owe it to anyone to answer that quickly. We’re allowed to ask for time to think.

Wait a minute while I think about it.

What would happen if I let the kid have an ice cream before dinner today?
Would he get cavities? – Probably not.
Would I always have to let him have an ice cream before dinner?  -No.
Or could I let him have an ice cream just to make him happy today?
If I only take a couple of seconds to consider my options, I might realize that it could be okay for me to bring out Nice-Daddy-Smurf and let him have an ice cream today.

The second thing that has a tendency to get in the way between us and our possibilities to choose which Smurf to bring out is that we don’t listen to the person we’re interacting with. We think we recognize the situation the person is talking about quite fast and then we put it into our own context and spend the rest of the time trying to come up with a good reply for when it becomes our turn to speak. If instead, we could focus on the here and now and really listen to the person and validate that we’ve heard what she has to say, then we’d realize that the situation probably isn’t what we first thought. Once we see the complexity of the situation we are able to meet it with an equally complex response that works in the right direction, instead of just conveying our simple opinion on something we thought we had heard.

The third point I would like to suggest is to reframe the situations we face. If we can change our perspective, we will also be able find new ways to act and respond. Try to find new ways to describe what you experience and use positive or neutral terms to depict situations or actions. If your instinctive reaction to someone is that the person is irritable, see what happens to your feelings if you call the behaviour passionate instead. If someone seems fearful, try and see if your feelings change if you call him careful instead.

Assume the most generous interpretation of the world around you and you’ll definitely change your view on a lot of things. You will also learn to know a much larger portion of your inner smurf village.

Charlie Seashore – Master of reframing

This post is based on a lightning talk I recently gave (and messed up somewhat) and is heavily inspired and influenced by some awesome people that I’d like to recommend for further reading on the subject.

Beverly Patwell and Edie Seashore – Triple Impact Coaching
Barry Oshry – Seeing Systems: Unlocking the mysteries of organizational life
Virginia Satir – Your Many Faces

So we’re supposed to be working with continuous improvements now? Kaizen, Toyota Kata, Retrospectives, PDCA and what else? Don’t worry, I’m not going to bash any of these approaches, they’ve all got their merit. I just want to write some about the follow-up.

In order to see if our improvement efforts are giving us the expected benefit we need to measure something. It could be hard metrics such as velocity, cycle time or costs. Or it could be softer metrics such as happiness index, perceived workload or communication. We need at least to be able to express the metric in terms of “more of” or “less of” so we can see if we got more of what we wanted or less of what we didn’t want after implementing a change. But of course you already knew that.

What most people also know but have a tendency to forget is that there are no free lunches. There is always a tradeoff.

Tradeoffs

There is always a tradeoff and you need to identify it so you can ask yourself the question that Jerry Weinberg poses in The Secrets of Consulting;
“What are you willing to sacrifice?”

Don’t measure your progress in just one dimension, no metric should be evaluated on its own. Identify at least one possible tradeoff before you hop on your PDCA-cycle and start pedalling. Find a metric that allows you to follow-up on this possible tradeoff as well and then ask yourself what you’d be willing to sacrifice in this dimension to reach your goal in the dimension you wish to improve. Follow up on both of these metrics (or all, if you’ve identified more than one possible tradeoff) to see when the cost of your improvement efforts is exceeding the benefit.

As a leader – or team member as well for that matter, you are faced with a big problem every time you try to implement some sort of a change in your organization.
No, that’s not true. You face a lot of big problems, but one of the bigger ones is … you.

You are trying to interfere with a system without being able to see the entire system. You need to get a helicopter view of the landscape while at the same time being grounded as an important part of the very same landscape.

Most of us don’t understand how much we affect a system that we are a part of, and more importantly; we don’t understand in what ways we affect that system.
Our presence in a meeting can set the entire tone of it without us doing anything in particular. Likewise, we can also affect the outcome of a meeting just by being absent from it.

How do we interact with our systems? What messages do we send to them? Do you have a total coherence between your thoughts, your words and your actions? If not, what parts of your intentions and your communication are getting across? Vice versa; what parts of your coworkers’ true intentions get across to you.
How can we possibly know how a system will react to a particular change if we can’t see the entire system?

Being a lean/agile coach, I’d like to suggest that you get yourself a new set of eyes and ears. As a leader or team member, it’s your duty to be a part of the landscape. You must be the intricate part of the machinery that you are. I, as a coach on the other hand can reserve the right to stay outside your particular system. I can put my stethoscope to the heart of your organization and listen without the distorting filters of preconceptions and interfering echoes of my own actions.
(… at least for a while. Sooner or later we all get biased.)

There are also tools like the left hand column exercise and Virginia Satir’s interaction model that can help us learn to see how our own behaviors affect those around us. If we accept the help and take the time to study ourselves, we can begin to move out of our own blind spots and get our helicopters in the air.

There are probably as many ways to look at Scrum commitments as there are teams doing Scrum but I think that I have seen a couple of patterns emerge that I’d like to share with you.

The Galley Slaves

The first team I’d like you to meet is called the Galley Slaves. When we first meet the Galley Slaves they are in the middle of sprint planning.

PO: This is our prioritized backlog. I’d like to remind you all that we’re way behind for the next milestone so I want you to commit to as much as possible this sprint. We have to get the top 18 user stories into the sprint or we’ll never make it.

Team: But that adds up to 65 story points and we’ve only managed 45 during our last two sprints.

PO: Yes, but remember that Peter was home sick for three days last sprint and John had to stay home with his kids for two days the sprint before that. You should be able to make it. This is no time to under-commit.

Team: Okay. We will commit to the top 18 stories then.

So in this situation we have a PO or PM that’s pushing the team to take in more work than they should. This is not the first time it’s happening so the team has a history of missing their previous “commitments” and have a disadvantage when trying to convince the PO that they should do even less. The team might even feel bad about not meeting their previous commitments and have some delusion about being able to catch up.

Next time we meet the Galley Slaves is mid-sprint.

Team: It seems like Peter came back from sick leave a bit premature. He had to go back home again right after sprint planning. It also looks like John caught the same thing because we haven’t seen him since then either. We will never be able to finish all of this on time.

PO: But you made a commitment to these stories …  I’ve communicated that you would do this to upper management. It looks like you’ll have to work this weekend now.

At this point we get to see even more push from above. The team has made a promise and other people will get into trouble if they don’t meet it.

But who did actually make the commitment? Usually in cases like this, one part of the organization has made promises to another part of the organization and now people whose butts are on the line try to shift the blame further down the organization.

The Flagellants

The second team I’d like you to meet are called the Flagellants. The flagellants were a medieval brotherhood that thought they could scourge themselves to absolution. In 1417 the church banned the flagellant movement but they are still very much alive in modern-day corporations.

Let’s see how sprint planning goes for the Flagellants.

PO: This is our prioritized backlog. I’d like for you to pick from the top the stories that you think you’ll be able to finish during this sprint.

Team: Okay, we’ll have to bring in at least the top 18 stories if we’re going to make the next milestone in two sprints.

PO: That will be 65 story points and you’ve only managed to deliver 45 points per sprint the last two sprints. Do you really think you can make this?

Team: If we are to get everything into the next release, we will have to go for it. So we will commit to these 18 stories.

This team obviously feels a strong responsibility for the entire product. As with the Galley Slaves, the Flagellants have a history of not meeting their commitments and they really want to make up for it. Every time.

Now we meet the Flagellants mid-sprint.

PO: So, how’s your commitment coming along? Your burndown chart has been flatlining for three days now and it was quite flat even before that.

Team: Yeah, but we’re on top of that. Peter has cancelled his vacation and we’ve all decided to work Saturday as well so we will catch up. You know we had some database problems at the beginning of the sprint but it looks like we will be able to solve those now.

This team if full of optimists, no doubt about that. They always believe that the last hurdle has been passed and everything will be downhill from now. They also make a commitment at the wrong level. A sprint level commitment can be contained and controlled to quite a large extent by the team but any promises made by the organization on release- or product level are outside of the team’s control.

Team Alfa

Finally I’d like to present you with team Alfa. These are my favorites. Let’s watch their sprint planning.

PO: This is our prioritized backlog. I’d like for you to pick from the top the stories that you think you’ll be able to finish during this sprint.

Team: We have picked these 12 stories. They correspond to our velocity during the last three sprints and we feel confident that we will be able to finish them. This is our commitment and we will do our best to deliver these stories during the upcoming sprint.

This looks healthy to me. The team is looking at their history and they make a commitment that is both feasible from a historic perspective and it is a commitment that they actually believe in themselves.

But alas, even team Alfa can run into troubles. Let’s listen in on them mid-sprint.

Team: Unfortunately we’ve fallen behind since this one story called for changes in a database outside of our control. We didn’t see that one coming. We have tried to work around the problem; Peter stayed here until eight o’clock last night but this will take quite some time to handle. We don’t think that we’ll be able to do the last two of the stories that we initially committed to anymore.

PO: Okay. Let me take the last two stories back to the backlog and re-plan them for the next sprint. In the meantime you do your best on the rest. Does that sound like a plan?

We will always make estimates that don’t come true. There will always be unforeseen events happening. What we need to do is to accept this as a fact and adjust our game to the reality.

Conclusion

What will happen to teams like the Galley Slaves and the Flagellants in the long run?

  • We will get quality issues. When we start looking at commitments as truly fixed, our sprints become miniature projects with fixed time, fixed resources and fixed scope. The only dimension left for the teams to compromise with is quality.
  • Disappointments. The teams will get disappointed in themselves for not meeting their commitments and they will lose credibility towards the rest of the organization.
  • Burnout. No one is able to handle this much negative pressure and overtime in the long run. The Flagellants are in the worst positions since they really don’t have anyone to complain to.

The reasons that we ask for commitments are that we want to be able to look into the future for planning purposes and because it gives the team a good intermediary goal to work towards. That is; prognosis to see what will be ready when and the motivational factor from having clear expectations set by oneself.

What we need to remember about these commitments is that they are still based on estimates and estimates come with a confidence level. We need to inspect and adapt even within the sprints.

Everyone is entitled to their view on what a commitment are but there are two parts of the agile manifesto that (in my eyes) trump any personal interpretations of the term commitment:

“Responding to change over following a plan.”

And

“Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able
to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.”

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