A 3-pipe problem

Sherlock Holmes was a master of deductive reasoning and problem solving, rarely was a problem beyond his capability. However, every once in a while he encountered problems that required a greater level of consideration, it would stretch his mind to it’s limits and required him not to be disturbed for an extended period, he described these as 3-pipe problems, he would need the time it took for him to smoke three pipes.

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I am no Holmes but I have the joy of a 3-pipe problem to immerse myself in. I have been asked to lead an endeavour to create, build and run a virtual office comprising of cross-functional teams that create software. The challenge is to grow an office but maintain agility, retain our company culture, and have the teams happy and engaged. Oh and be profitable too.

Where I have seen remote work successful in the past has been where there were clear tasks assigned and collaboration was a minor element of the work. My observations of many remote workplaces is that they focus on individual contributions, collaboration is asynchronous and there is a heavy overhead of management assigning tasks.

What I am envisioning is a workplace where the team is self organised, and whilst there is likely an increased element of asynchronous working it will be alongside effective collaboration. I see my role as identifying healthy boundaries that enable collaboration and creativity.

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Communication

Naturally communication is key, just as it is in brick and mortar offices, but when we are face to face we have a lifetime of skills to rely on. Instinctive awareness of body language, sensing mood and tone, not to mention touch – hand shakes and physical contact create bonds we don’t fully understand.

Remote teams communicating effectively is far more complex than simply joining a webex. I see the ability to communicate and collaborate as the number 1 challenge of this role.

Why this?

As an agile coach I strongly support the Agile manifesto (alongside Lean, ToC, and Lean Startup) and the manifesto favours individuals and interactions over processes and tools. It also advocates face to face communication. And yet I am taking on a role that is putting barriers between people and pretty soon I’ll be talking about how processes tools are vital for enhancing individuals in their interactions.

So why take on a job that seemingly flies in the face of this? The answer is twofold, First I believe the manifesto is a mindset for guiding teams in improving their way of working to get better at delivering software. I believe we can adhere to that mindset in this environment, I don’t see a conflict. Secondly I think that the focus and scope of the manifesto didn’t consider the larger picture and the changing state of the workers needs. Face to face is better – no argument from me, but it comes at a cost. We need to weigh up what is lost and what is gained from remote working and decide if what we gain is worth the sacrifice and I think with the right attitude, training and tools the desired outcome of effective collaboration can still be achieved and achieved in a way that is better for many team members.

What is more, I think this will be one of the most challenging coaching roles I have faced. Just like teams, coaching is far more effective face to face. The coaching may take on a different dynamic but I still very much see this as a coaching role.

Processes and Tools.

I warned you! To have effective communication and collaboration in a virtual workplace processes and tools are vital ,and are a prerequisite to the individuals and their interactions. But I don’t see a conflict here, in face to face communication there are processes and tools, we just don’t feel the need to mention them as they are natural to us.

Don’t shout, don’t mumble, don’t interrupt, pay attention, look at the speaker, be respectful. Lots of processes and a lot of non-verbal communication. And just watch for hand gestures or pens on post-it’s or whiteboards these are all tools, we hardly consider them that way and we certainly wouldn’t object to any of those processes or tools, they are necessary for our interactions.

In a virtual world the need is the same but the tools are different, tone of voice and body language are harder to decipher, so we need to be more attentive and more explicit. pen and paper are replaced with online collaboration tools, shared screens, electronic gestures and Slack messages to clarify misunderstandings.

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The scope of the task is daunting but I so excited about this. My employer is already a leader in Agile software delivery, this is the chance to demonstrate that we can be agile about flexible work environments without sacrificing what has made us successful: collaboration and self-organization.

This blog will continue to be Agile focused but I’ll also share some of the experiments as we discover what works for us.

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Rewarding voluntary overtime.

I was chatting to a friend recently, he is a manager of an IT department and I used to manage a software department before I became a Agile Coach so we tend to talk a lot about management techniques and especially how a lot of the successful traditional techniques map to an agile work environment.

It was performance review time and the topic of conversation got around to a frustrating belief by some staff that working long hours without being asked is something that should have an implied reward. That working long hours is in itself a reason to be praised.

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Warning signs

I can’t speak for all managers, but for the two of us I can say that we consider it to be the opposite, when someone works late on a regular basis without being asked, we see that as a bad thing, it is a red-flag. Certainly not to be commended and very likely a sign of deeper problems.

I used to pride myself on being a good manager, I felt I was fair and sought to do what was best for my employees and the business, sometimes it was a fine line and often not easy. But one of my strongest principles was to be fair. I would never assign someone more work than I felt they could handle (that is not to say I didn’t seek to challenge them), I would generally discuss in advance what they felt was fair and I would always say very clearly that they should come back to me if they had problems, and I would review on a regular basis – usually at least weekly.

As an Agile Coach I have obviously changed my behaviour a lot and learned so much along the way but generally speaking it could be said that the roles are reversed, the team decide what they feel they can commit to and they review with each other on a regular basis (at the daily stand-up) and can ask if they need help, they should assign themselves small chunks of work and no more than can be reasonably achieved.

Salary man working overtime Overload. Cartoon Illustration.

Have I assigned too much?

In either of these scenarios there should be no scope for voluntary, unpaid, overtime.  In the case of assigned work: if you cannot get it done in the allotted time then it is a failure of my management – either I have incorrectly assessed the amount of work or I have misjudged the individuals capability to do it, and unless I have opportunity to be aware of that I cannot correct my behaviour and the cycle will repeat.

The same is true in Agile, whichever chosen framework you use the model is built on empirical evidence, if your forecasts are off you learn and adjust next time. Working overtime hides problems and perpetuates failing cycles, it also causes an imbalance in the team, it makes pair programming difficult and sends mixed messages to others. Very simply as a team manager or a self-organizing Team you cannot fix a problem you don’t know about.  Overtime is analogous to cards not on the board, it is hiding work, this is very damaging to a self-organising team.

Rewarding bad behaviour

So should you reward someone for working late, for their dedication and loyalty? or should they be reprimanded for their lack of transparency, or their inefficiency of working? Are they displaying a lack of courage in not challenging an unrealistic expectation? Are they stretching work to appear more busy? Should we reward their failure to communicate an excessive workload, or for failing to ask for help with their lack of knowledge/training/understanding to achieve the objective at hand?

As a manager if I ask you to work overtime I would do so with a very heavy heart, I know that it is not good for you, I know it is not good for the business and any gain is short-term and short-lived. It will only be in exceptional circumstances, where there is justification or benefit in working overtime.

As a member of a self-organizing team you should set those same standards for yourself: You should know that it is not good for you or the team, You should know it is not good for the business and any gain is short-lived.

So if you do voluntary overtime which conflicts with our team plans or expectations please don’t expect to be rewarded for it. That may sound harsh but I value communication far more than I value you giving extra time, especially if by doing so it is hiding problems elsewhere that we could and should be addressing.

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Clarification

This is not a call to work to rule, this is a request to understand the difference between being a team player and expecting recognition and reward for setting yourself up as a martyr. By doing so, try to understand that you are working against the interests of the team, this is not behaviour we should be rewarding.

Sometimes it is necessary to work overtime but this should be a deliberate team decision with a clear objective. It should be open and transparent and should not be one person acting alone.

*Note when I saw reward, this is everything from a positive comment from leadership to financial reward. Sometimes leadership even acknowledging this behaviour is seen as a reward, the belief that your actions were noticed is quite an incentive for some.

Explaining Herbie…

I have been asked by a friend to write an article explaining the concepts of Herbie from the book “The Goal” in a more accessible way. The book itself is amazing but in my opinion the language used in the 5-focusing steps has tried too hard to be scientific and precise that it makes it harder to understand. My annotations simplify the terms but likely lose some of the precision of the wording, I offer this as an introduction to the topic but encourage reading the book to get the full impact, I cannot do it justice here.

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Herbie is a character from the book “The Goal” he was used in the story as a metaphor for a system constraint and the impact it has on your delivery. I’d highly encourage you to read the book but hopefully it is not essential to be able to follow the explanation, the purpose of the metaphor was to make the thought processes relate-able, hopefully this helps.

TOC 5 Steps

The 5 focusing steps

  1. Identify the system constraint
  2. Exploit the constraint
    (Make the best use of what you currently have)
  3. Subordinate everything to the constraint
    (Make decisions based on the constraint, the system should run at the pace of the constraint)
  4. Elevate the constraint
    (Make improvements to the constraint)
  5. Repeat the steps

Step 1: Identify the constraint

We need to figure out which part of the system is holding us back the most – limiting our ability.  We should know that only an improvement at the constraint makes a difference.

Herbie: In the example of Herbie, he was observed as holding everyone back he was slow and the rest of the group had to regularly stop to wait for him to catch up or were racing ahead.  In the case of Herbie the constraint was evident through observation.

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Reality:  There are different ways to identify a system constraint sometimes observation and experience is sufficient, or metrics can help.  The simplest way is to look at your work is it piling up somewhere? Do you have a lot of stories in Dev Done, or waiting on PO approval or needing wire-frames? Piles of work are a sign of a constraint.

Another common constraint are blockers, if you are consistently waiting on another team, another person or another resource this is a sign of a constraint, we may use blocker clustering or other root-cause technique to see if there is a common theme to delays.

The third most common technique is to review cycle-time for stories, look for stories that are taking longer than others see if there is a pattern, common aspects, this could be a constraint that may be improved.

Step 2: Exploit the constraint (Optimize)

Before we consider adding capacity, we should make the best use of the capacity we already have. We ‘Exploit’ in this sense means doing everything possible to use the constraint to its fullest capacity. This is also the easiest and generally cheapest improvement you can make to your system.

Herbie: In order to maximise the performance of Herbie, the contents of his backpack were shared out so he could concentrate on the most important task of walking.  Making the others slower (less efficient) by carrying his stuff was unimportant as Herbie sets the pace for the entire group.

We could also have ensured that he got his lunch first so could start sooner, and others could have covered his chores so he was more rested – our goal is to get the best out of Herbie on his most important task – walking.

Reality: In our systems we need to identify what the most important task is, typically this is getting a story to done and the software in the hands of the user.  So when you identify your constraint look for anything they are doing that is not helping to move stories or for anything they are doing that someone else could do. Are they filling in paperwork that someone else could do? does this task really require their expertise? Could you make them a coffee so they could focus. (This is not encouragement to over-work, breaks socialising and generally a healthy working environment always takes priority).

 

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Step 3: Subordinate the non-constraints

The job of all non-constraints is to subordinate their decisions to the constraint’s needs.

That sounds extreme wording but essentially it means that no mater how fast you go, if you are dependent on someone slower you are wasting your efforts, so work at the pace of the constraint, you have reserves so you can catch-up if necessary.  Use the time saved to help optimize the rest of the system.

We do this as step 3 because it is more disruptive and more costly than step 2.

Herbie: In the story Herbie was put at the front and the rest of the group were told not to overtake him. When Herbie was able to go faster there was no one in front to delay him so we got the best from him and as the others were able to go faster overall they were able to make up any delays. The goal was only achieved when everyone was done so there is no benefit in getting ahead.

Reality: Don’t let work pile up, if we limit Work in progress we focus on flow rather than utilization, put effort where it has most impact on the whole system.  In the case of dependencies on 3rd parties, could you give them advance notice so they are better prepared and can respond sooner. If you are dependent on a 3rd party could you see if there is a time/day they can respond more quickly, could you tailor your process to be more convenient for them? Tailor your process to maximise the effectiveness of the constraint, and this is the tough bit – even if that means making the process worse for others.

Tailor your process to maximise the effectiveness of the constraint,  even if that means making the process worse for others.

Step 4: Elevate the constraint

Only once we’ve completed the previous steps does it make sense to add more constraint capacity, and thereby increase system performance. Because adding capacity is tremendously expensive in terms of time and money, we do it as a last resort, not a first step.

Herbie: In the case of Herbie, we could get him doing fitness training so he is quicker, or buy him a bicycle.

Reality:  This is typically where you spend money, hire more people, get better/more equipment. Invest in training or education. Remember improvements here improve your entire system so the investment must be calculated based on system income not local costs. Maybe you ship parts by air, maybe you fly in an expensive expert, maybe you lose money on this aspect of a project so that the project as a whole makes more money. Keep the focus on the gain to the entire system and not get distracted by the cost at one stage.

Step 5: Return to step 1

The inevitable result of the first four steps, and the reason this is a “continuous” improvement method, is that the constraint will inevitably move somewhere else.

This step insists that you start back at the beginning, and don’t let inertia become the constraint.

 

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A second example of the steps being applied…

 

Identify

Access to overworked Doctors in an emergency – constraint is a shortage of Doctors:

Exploit: Make the best use of what you currently have

  • Ensure Doctor is not doing any activity that someone else could do. All admin work is removed, prep work done by nurses or other staff.
  • Vacations/time off is deferred,
  • Doctors may work overtime so long as it doesn’t risk the patient or cause the Doctor to quit

Subordinate: Make decisions based on the constraint, the system should run at the pace of the constraint

  • Any non-urgent treatment is stopped until emergency is over.
  • Cases are prioritized so Doctors are only working on the most urgent cases.
  • Patients are only ‘prepped’ according to the capacity of the Doctors.
  • Patients are prepped in advance so that the Doctor is never waiting.
  • It may be quicker for a Doctor to move between patients rather than them coming to the Doctor.

Elevate: Make improvements to the constraint

Now we look to increase the number of Doctors or their effectiveness

  • transferring Doctors from other areas withing the organisation
  • recruiting more Doctors even at inflated rates or short term contracts,
  • any increase is an increase so we can hire someone that is semi-retired or part-time.
  • We may automate activities or buy tools to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the doctor.
  • We could train Nurse to perform some of the Doctor’s activities

Repeat

We look and see whether the Doctors are still the constraint or whether there is a new constraint.

 

Summary:

There may be a little ambiguity with some of these improvements, e.g. A Doctor moving between patients may be considered elevating or subordinating, but it doesn’t matter it is an improvement, it is a thinking process and some changes don’t neatly fit into one category, don’t let that distract you from the thinking process itself.

 

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The Goal by Eli Goldratt

This book uses a production plant as a metaphor for delivering value to your customers. The emphasis is on the manufacturing equivalent of delivering working software, doing it regularly, and that delivery is not about development, OR production OR deployment it is about everything – essentially encouraging Dev Ops.  It also has a lot to say about how the only Done that matters is to have it in your customers’ hands.

Read it!  This is hands down the best book on Agility I have ever read.  There are many others by this author all of which are great but this is my favourite.

Isn’t it obvious?

I occasionally get asked why and how I became an Agile Coach and whether it is a fulfilling role. When I began my career I certainly had no intention or expectation to be here, I was a software developer, I loved writing code and like most developers I wanted to create something that made a difference.

What followed was 15 years of… I want to say frustration but that is unfair because I generally loved my work and got to create some great software, but I always had this belief that there was a better way, a more effective way to get the job done, I dabbled in project management and team management believing I could do better than those I had worked for in the past.  My problem and I suspect it is a very common problem is that I spent a lot of effort trying to do my job better, to be more efficient, more effective, to deliver more etc. etc. It turns out that was wrong and I was wasting a lot of effort and not getting the results I expected.

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And then quite by accident (and for all the wrong reasons) I stumbled on to Scrum. I was running a software department and we were forever fire-fighting and I saw Scrum as a tool I could use to control the workflow and manage the demands on the team. It worked, and in the breathing room it created I was inspired to look deeper, beyond Scrum to Agile, and then Lean and Systems thinking and the Theory of Constraints and then I saw it. I felt like I had discovered the meaning of the universe, and once you see it you can’t un-see it, you see it everywhere, it feels like it is staring you in the face.

There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact. 
― Arthur Conan Doyle

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Of course I hadn’t discovered anything, I had just opened my eyes and it was right there in front of me and it was so unbelievably obvious that it almost feels stupid writing this.

And it is this simple:

All we have to do is work on the thing that adds the most value and stop working on things that don’t add value.

Work on the thing that adds the most value and stop working on things that don’t add value.

So I said it was simple but it took me 15 years to start to understand it and nearly 10 years later I am still figuring it out, because whilst it is so simple that it should have been obvious all along, it is also remarkably difficult to do.

What is Value?

The primary problem is to understand what value is. figuring out your value stream in a system is key, and to be fair most businesses do this to some extent, but most individuals do not understand how they fit into the system they are in, nor do they understand how their local system fits into the big picture.

We cannot see the value we contribute to the system and when we don’t see what is most valuable, we do what we see as most valuable in our line of sight. Crazy as that sounds it is nearly always the wrong thing, optimizing for us nearly always optimizes against the larger system. The bigger the organisation the more this happens and the more inefficient it gets.

opportunity cost

  • the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen.

Another aspect is that so much value is obfuscated, it gets lost in opportunity cost which is invisible on balance sheets and yet is likely the biggest cost you pay when developing software. Or cash flow, leverage and return on investment, these are fundamental aspects of successful business but they are generally encapsulated and decoupled from the parts of the business that can impact them most – especially IT and software product development. Many projects get given budgets and time lines, which is a horrible way to run a business and it cripples cash flow, it also significantly limits investment opportunities and increases risk significantly.  But worst of all it delays delivering value.

Two Problems

So that is actually two problems, first is that we need to figure out what is valuable and then we have to communicate that to those doing the work.

In that sentence is the heart of being an Agile Coach, my role has become one of helping organisations understand their value stream, especially how software impacts and interacts with it, helping visualise that value and prioritise it and then to help communicate that to those that will create the software and deliver that value as quickly as possible.

  • Discover what our goal is – how do we deliver value? What outcome are we trying to achieve? 
  • Communicate that to everyone so we each know how we help to get towards the goal and how we avoid getting in the way.

 

Unfortunately the majority of the time is spent dealing with people that are just like I was, they are doing their very best to be as efficient and possible in their domain, simply because they cannot trace what they are doing to the value delivered.  So I spend much of my time doing my best to help them see that often what they are doing is at best not achieving anything useful and more often is actually damaging to the bigger picture.

Example

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Let me give an example that a friend of mine shared recently:  My friend was baking some cakes for an event and needed to bake 10 cakes, but only had one oven. Her husband offered to help out and so she asked him to measure out the ingredients for the cakes in advance so that it would be quicker to get the next cake in the oven.

When she came to get the ingredients for the cake, they were not ready, her husband had optimised for himself and not for the goal.  He concluded it would be much more efficient for him to measure out 10 batches of flour then 10 of… etc.  after all he knew they would be needed later and it was quicker and far more efficient for him to do that than to do small batches and keep switching.

The result was that whilst he was being efficient for himself, the system grinds to a halt and must wait, his efficiency came at the cost of massive losses to value delivery (cakes baked).

Perhaps if he had understood the full picture, and how his contribution impacted the value stream he would have planned his work differently? He would have prepared one cake at a time even though it was less efficient for him. Together they would have reached the true goal more quickly.

But the funniest part of this story for me was that she was so frustrated,  she thought it was obvious, and he thought he was being efficient.  Those opposing view points are so common in this line of work.

When you see it, it is obvious but until you do it remains an enigma.

Why be a coach?

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Now imagine that confusion on an industrial scale, a whole organisation of people conscientiously working hard in the belief they are being efficient but still struggling to deliver software, delivering software that is not what is wanted, features that are not needed, struggling with integration and so on.  Then this loony guy comes in and says that you might actually contribute more by being less efficient.  – I’m the loony guy and I love it.

Agile is a mindset for getting better at delivering software and coaching is about helping you. But my goal is not to help you improve just a part of the system, the goal is to help you improve the system, and that starts by helping you and the whole organisation see the system. and learn how to communicate where we can add value.

Obviously there is a lot more to Agile than communication and value, but in my experience if you figure those out the rest falls in to place.

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There are a handful of books that I repeatedly recommend, all of which display true Agility and yet to be contrary not one is about ‘Agile’

The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni 

This talks about being clear in your goal and how to communicate it to your organisation, it is not quite as specific as I am hinting at in the article as we must delve deeper but it is an amazing book and the emphasis is on over-communication.

The Goal by Eli Goldratt

This book uses a production plant as a metaphor for delivering value to your customers. The emphasis is on the manufacturing equivalent of delivering working software, doing it regularly, and that delivery is not about development, OR production OR deployment it is about everything – essentially encouraging Dev Ops.  It also has a lot to say about the non-sense of Dev-Done and how the only Done that matters is to have it in your customers’ hands.

Read it!  This is hands down the best book on Agility I have ever read.  There are many others by this author all of which are great but this is my favourite.

The 5-Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni

I wholeheartedly subscribe to the Lencioni school of thought on many things (hence two books by him in this short list). On team building this is one of the best books out there, it describes the stages of team development, and you see this time and time again. Team dynamics are such a crucial part of agility and fundamental to success, this helps teams see those stages and is a great tool for helping teams bond.

 

What does agility mean to you?

It seems like there is a very personal level to what Agile Software Development means, as far as I can tell there is no consistent common understanding of what agility means. Some see it as a framework, others as a mindset.

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For me it means two things.

We have agility in our planning. We expect and encourage our plan to change as we better understand what we are delivering.

And

We have agility in our operations. We expect and encourage our tools processes and methods to change as we discover better ways of doing things.

Planning

Agility in planning means making a plan: ‘failure to plan’ as they say is ‘planning to fail’, and that failure is probably more certain than than it was when we had an inflexible plan.  There is a great deal of value in planning, we learn a lot and by setting a sense of direction we create focus.

The trick is that if we understand what we are planning and why we are planning, we can do it in the most efficient and effective way. We don’t need a lot of planning or a lot of detail, planning doesn’t need to be a massive overhead.

If we limit the granularity of our plan in relation to how far ahead we are planning then we allow for that plan to adapt as we get more information.  We can get all the benefit of having a plan without the overhead and without being restricted if and when the plan needs to change.

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Process

I believe process is vital to success in business, whether we are building software or hiring or in a factory, even sales has a process.  But a process must be flexible, we must be able to adapt when things change and we must be able to react to exceptions.

We mustn’t ever get to a point where we declare this is the ‘best’ way of doing something or ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’   As soon as we stop looking we prove ourselves right, if we only know one way to do something it is definitely the best that we know of. Our ignorance ensures that we are right.  But if getting better is more important than being blissfully ignorant then we must look for ways to improve, we need to observe and we need to experiment. We should never let entropy set in, we should always be seeking to improve.

The very best processes build in opportunities for reflection and improvement, ensuring a mindset that there is always a better way, is far healthier than one of complacency.

One of my favourite ‘processes’ comes from the Theory of Constraints, it starts with the assumption that something can be improved and the first step is to identify the one area that would most benefit from improvement, it ends with a refusal to accept inertia.

TOC 5 Steps

 

Summary

For many Agile is about the framework, or the tools, for others it is the people and their ability to self-organise.  I don’t want to devalue those aspects but I see those as a means to achieve the agility in planning and process.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, what does Agile mean to you?

 

 

 

The 3 Elusive Qualities of a Product Owner

It may sound overly simplistic but in my experience products generally succeed or fail in correlation to the effectiveness of Product Ownership on the team. Mainly because we under-appreciate the importance and the difficulty of the Product Ownership aspects in the product creation process. In my opinion the choice of this role is far more important than the coach or other team members. The role is full spectrum, they go all the way from discovery to delivery and more.

Ironically, we tend to think of software applications as being primarily technical objectives, our focus is too often on the quality and ability of the engineers, the architecture and design. We will spend time on process and optimization and efficiency.  All the while forgetting that the most common and most consistent failure of all software products is that no matter how good the quality, how optimized or efficient it is, or how good the engineers are that built it – if you build the wrong thing it is a failure.  A perfectly designed but unused product is worthless.

History if full of great products that missed the mark, how many apps have you downloaded to your phone that are no longer used or were never used after the first 30 seconds.  There are many many more products that fail to ever get in the hands of customers at all. Internal IT products are often culprits of this, the assumption seems to be that because the users are forced to use the product we don’t have to actually ask them what they want or how they will use it, we build great products that don’t fulfill the actual user need.

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I think probably my favorite and most over used quote is:

There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.

Peter Drucker

I use the quote far too frequently but in 25 years developing software this remains the most frequent sight I see, more products fail for not meeting the most basic customer needs than for any other reason. And yet when I say this, it generally gets scoffed at, until you start asking how many people have worked on products that have been abandoned or shelved mid development. Teams rarely believe their product is at risk of being cancelled, or are too far removed from the customer to appreciate that the user liking and using the product is infinitely more important than whether they are efficiently re-using a section of code. We have created a mindset that ‘done’ is delivering code.  A product/feature/story is only really done when the customer is using it.

Product Ownership does not need to be a single person in that role, but it should be a mindset within the team.  Ideally I’d love for this to be a shared responsibility. Unfortunately in my experience a true appreciation of Product Ownership is as scarce as Hen’s Teeth, and generally unappreciated and vastly underpaid, those that do it well make it look easy and doing it badly or being indecisive can really destroy a product so it can be a risk to spread the responsibility beyond one person.   I have heard people talk of teams where the teams do it well and they don’t need a PO, but I have yet to see this for myself.  Because of this experience I think of the Product Owner as the most important ‘hire’ for the team, getting the right person in this role can be crucial to the success of the product.

A good PO these days is hard to find…

So why is a good Product Owner so hard to find and what makes the role so difficult?

1: Differentiating what is needed from what is wanted

A significant part of the role is identifying what is needed to solve your users problems or to fulfill their needs, to enable them to be better at their job, or to maximize their fun or relaxation.   The role is about understanding the problem and creating a vision of how that could be solved – not the technical solution but discerning the true need or true problem.

Henry Ford With 1921 Model T
Henry Ford stood next to his ‘Faster Horse’

 If I had asked people what they wantedthey would have said faster horses.

Henry Ford

The reason this skill is so tough is that users rarely know what they need, typically a user’s vision is constrained by what they currently do. As a result many products become re-works of a paper system or re-engineering an old system.  A poor product owner gives a customer what they want or what they ask for, a good product owner listens and watches and blends wants and needs to solve the customer’s problem and give them what they need.

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I often seen backlogs that are full of stories that are unfiltered customer requests, it is lazy and it is easier to do what is asked. But to find what is needed typically requires experimentation, feedback, conversations and observation. It is far harder to build what is needed than it is to build what is asked for.   Similarly this can manifest itself when department managers decide what their team needs or wants without involving them in the discussion, a good Product Owner will spend time with the users of the product and ideally see how they use it.

A Product Owner with the creativity, the initiative and the Vision to create a great Product is worth their weight in gold,

2: Understanding what is required to create a successful application

A second aspect of the role is the one I see most frequently overlooked. Perhaps because of the emphasis on 1, the need to understand the business, I see people choosing someone from the business to become the Product Owner, their knowledge of the business is seen as their primary qualification and in many cases their only qualification for the role.  And worse they are often asked to do the role in addition to their normal job.

However, a great Product Owner understands not only what to build but is familiar with the development process, they understand the ebbs and flows, they understand the implications of technical debt, automation and testing. The understand how crucial it is to have working software in the hands of users as soon as possible. I am sorry to say that business POs often lack this knowledge and experience, they will mistakenly perceive a desire for a fully working product rather than appreciate the value of early feedback. Many are plagued with the last bus syndrome, trying to include every imaginable feature rather than working towards a minimum feature set to get feedback and derive value early.

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Personally I’d invariably trade an experienced Product Owner with zero business knowledge for an expert in the business with zero software delivery experience.  Business knowledge can be gleaned from effective conversation, observation and feedback. The understanding of a good Agile Software Development lifecycle is far harder to learn and there is no substitute for experience.

Typically the best products result from experiments, reviews and feedback, a willingness to be flexible and respond. The other disagreeable quality of a Product Owner taken from the business is that their knowledge is about how the work is done now, and they are often blinkered to the possibilities.

Remember that the Product Owner sets priorities and interprets the Vision, they have more influence on the product creation than anyone.  Their choice of priorities can profoundly impact the value, and the quality of the product. If they lack the understanding of the importance of testing, feedback and good software principles it can lead to conflict and disharmony in a team.

3: Communicating effectively with both technical and business stakeholders

Finally there is a need for effective communication.  We always talk about effective communication to the point that it becomes background noise.  But the importance cannot be overstated.

A great Product Owner, listens, they observe, they probe and they reflect.  The ask for feedback and they read between the lines, they watch body language, they see and hear what isn’t said as much as what is said.   When it comes to understanding the user they have great attention to detail and they look intently for pain points and points of pleasure, they are looking for a way to serve their users in the best way they can. Most of us think of communication as speaking, but for a Product Owner watching and listening are so very important.  Empathy with the user, the customer and the ability to communicate using their terms and understanding their domain and conversing with them in a meaningful way is crucial, and if you don’t understand the terms develop an attitude of attentive student ask questions and show you are interested and are learning.

A great Product Owner learns to say ‘No’ powerfully respectfully and does so in a way that conveys they understanding to the person asking, a great Product Owner should not be seen as an obstacle or a hurdle but a steward of good decisions. The word ‘No’ should be delivered in a way that leaves me feeling confident that the Product Owner will deliver the best product within the parameters and leaving me confident that this decision is right even if it is not what I initially wanted.  The Product Owner should be able to convey the implications of saying ‘Yes’ so that I understand why I am being told No.  A great Product Owner has any number of tools that can help people see this and yet we regularly see backlogs full of feature requests that will never see the light of day because the PO doesn’t feel capable or sufficiently empowered to say NO!

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But the PO must also communicate with the development team, they must understand technical development terms, to have a grasp of the technical implementation, even if they do not have authority over the ‘How’ I’d expect them to have a vested interest in understanding it.  They also need to be able to communicate the business needs and the business terms in a meaningful way to the development team, This requires a versatility in speech and communication that is unusual to say the least.  Being respected and understood by both the business and the technical team is a major feat, and as we all know any cloistered group speaks in three letter acronyms that only they understand and the audible sign when they have to explain to an unlearned outsider can demoralize the best of us.  Do not underestimate this ability.

But there is more, they need the creativity to communicate design ideas or if the ideas come from others the scope to understand that creativity, to imagine what could be and express that to the business and to the technical team.  And then we get into the really tricky realm of the stakeholders as opposed to the users, this generally is the group that funds the product, they want to see progress, they want to see good stewardship of their investment, they may ask for forecasts and may even press for commitments.

We have now loaded our Product Owner with the need to communicate with senior people that make financial decisions, to express Risk and Forecasts in a manner that it concise but meaningful, we want to be transparent and informative, but confident.  If we are using forecasts especially mathematical forecasts we had better understand them and be able to back them up with explanation and confidence.  A Product Owner my stand their ground in the face of authority and speak truth to power. A Product Owner that makes unrealistic commitments or promises, will lose the confidence of her team and her stakeholders in a flash.

If a Product is to be sold it is likely that you will need to be involved in Sales and Marketing, which brings a whole host of other skills and communication issues to bear, understanding the implication to the market, and how you measure that and how you engage with that is a new realm of understanding and confusion.

A great Product Owner is a master communicator, they have an insatiable desire for knowledge, to understand and be understood.

Summary

As you can see the skill set of a great Product Owner is monumental, and yet the good ones make it look easy.  If you have a mindset suited to Product Ownership it is likely you already have good communication skills and enjoy learning more domains.

It is likely you are the sort of person that thrives on the delivery of a product and revels in the feedback, enjoying the flexibility and change, is unmoved at the thought of redoing something twice or even more to get it right.

Solving problem is a thrill and being able to see beyond the obvious and draw out information from users and then present something back is a joy.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t incredibly difficult, overwhelming at times and sadly unappreciated, and very often underpaid.

At some point the industry dismissed all these skills as unimportant and we see a flurry of Product Owners that write stories exactly as dictated by users, that input data into forecasting tools without the vaguest notion of what the forecasts mean or how they are calculated.

As I said at the start a great Product Owner is the lynchpin of a great Product, we should be seeking them out and rewarding them appropriately, you will be amazed at what can be achieved with the right person in that role.

 

 

A tale of two engineers.

There are two ships traveling a busy shipping route, each ship has a complex engine and the engineering team has a chief engineer. Both ships are a similar age and size.

The first ship has a very busy chief engineer running this way and that, fixing any and every problem that comes up, he knows every inch of the engine and many parts of it are custom made by him. He is dirty and oily and hard working, whenever there is a problem – and there are many problems – he is on hand to fix it. He is dedicated and hard working, he works long hours and is always ready and willing to get his hands dirty. Without him the ship couldn’t function.

The second chief engineer has spent his time not fixing things, if a part is unreliable he has replaced it, if a component is troublesome it is gone. If there is a problem he ensures one of his team fixes it (with guidance initially) and will encourage them to spread the knowledge so that after a while he rarely if ever gets his hands dirty. He is rarely dirty or oily and it is a very rare situation to see him fixing anything. On many voyages he can seemingly sit there with his feet up doing very little in maintaining the ship and can use his time on other productive activities. Frankly if he missed a voyage the ship would probably run just fine without him.

Now which in your opinion is the better chief engineer?  I know which one I would rather have on my team.

It is often said that the goal of a good Scrum Master is to make themselves redundant, I take exception to this a little I think as in the tale above it is possible to create a situation where you are not necessarily needed all the time. But I wonder how long a team would last as a top-performing team if the Scrum Master was taken away, perhaps in the short term no one would notice, but growing and shaping and coaching a team takes time and effort, but slipping back into bad habits can happen quickly. Creating a situation where the Scrum Master has time to do other things is a good thing and a reflection of success not a sign he is not needed. A Scrum Master that is essential to a team is one that has failed, in fact if ever you feel you have an employee you are overly dependent on you have a serious issue.

How many top athletes would say “I’ve reached me peak I no longer need my coach”? My guess is that if they feel they have reached their peak they will seek out a new coach that can push those limits further.

A good coach or Scrum Master guides the team to independence, and then pushes their limits further.  They may be more useful elsewhere but that is very different from becoming redundant.