Feedback: victim or beneficiary?

Feedback takes many forms, some is explicit and some can be inferred, even the absence of interaction is a form of feedback. Some if obviously well-intentioned, and some less so, some is invited and some is thrust upon us.

When you accidentally cut someone off in traffic, the feedback they give may be in the form of a horn and a hand gesture.  There is no question this is feedback, it may even be useful when you have stripped away the anger and your defensive response – I did after all miss something, they are helping me see something I didn’t see myself and now I will at least have the option of improving my behavior in similar situations in the future.

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Improvement is MY choice

Please note the word ‘option’,  the decision to change my behavior is mine, I can choose whether I respond or how I respond, giving a peer feedback does not compel them to change the way you want them to, regardless of how forcefully you may give the feedback.

Many times you will receive conflicting feedback, or sometimes you just disagree with it. When someone gives you feedback and they are asking you to change behavior remember it is you that needs to change and there is no one Youer than You.  It is up to you, you can choose what or whether to change.

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A Feedback Culture

I work in an organization where there is a very strong culture of self-improvement and professional development, but there is also a distinct absence of management, we therefore rely heavily on feedback from our peers. Our internal processes encourage formal and informal peer feedback.

In an Agile community we rely heavily on feedback loops for improving our processes, stand-ups, demos retrospectives, not to mention the metrics we encourage in our development practices. These are all opportunities to respond to the feedback as a team to help us improve.

Peer Feedback

However, individual feedback from peers is much less structured and much less objective so it becomes much harder for the giver or receiver to be objective in the way they give or receive the feedback. Peer feedback is by nature personal and when things get personal the stakes get higher. We give feedback in a subjective way, and we receive and we respond to feedback in a subjective way, both are cursed with perspective.

Ostensibly the goal of feedback from the perspective of the giver is to affirm behavior we approve of (e.g. clapping and cheering) and to discourage behavior we dislike or disapprove of (booing).  Context is also a factor we may be motivated personally or professionally.

For the receiver of feedback it is ostensibly to aid us in seeing things we are unable to see, to gain another person’s perspective on something. We may get to see things we can’t or don’t see for ourselves e.g. Am I speaking too quietly.

Whether the feedback is invited (“Can you hear me?”) or not (“Speak up!”) we are benefiting from another’s perspective on a situation.

Attitude

Sound’s great! But the attitude of the giver and receiver play a much more significant role in peer to peer feedback, and in how effective or valuable that feedback is, and what the consequences on the relationship are.

Let’s go back to the person I accidentally cut-off in traffic. Whilst there is benefit in being reminded that I need to pay more attention to my blind-spots I doubt very much the person cut-off and is giving me hand-gestures was overly concerned with my personal development or in helping me become a better driver.  The reality is that their goal was not to help me improve, it was to vent their frustration, to express anger and to feel better in themselves by ranting at me, my welfare was not even remotely the concern.

And so it is with peer feedback, there are times when I really want to express my opinion, I don’t care whether the person improves, what matters to me is that I get my say and I can express MY feelings.  This can come off as spiteful rather than supportive. and leave the person feeling a victim.

Victim or Beneficiary

The “feedback culture” has created an opportunity for some people to express a desire to ask to “give feedback” when really they are taking an opportunity to give someone a piece of their mind in a situation where the ‘victim’ feels they cannot respond. By calling it feedback we get a free punch and if they react badly or refuse to be verbally punched we can claim they are not acting in the spirit of feedback.  I worry this is damaging our culture and is a misappropriation of feedback, the result is the artificial harmony we were trying to get away from. Dressing an attack up as feedback does not change it.

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Before giving another person ‘feedback’ we need to reflect on it ourselves and consider whether our true desire is to help the person improve. Do we truly desire the subject to be the beneficiary of our feedback or is the act of giving feedback more about satisfying your own need for satisfaction and they are just the victim of your feedback.

Spirit of improvement

Please understand that I am not saying that the horn and the hand gesture are not feedback – clearly they are. Nor that I can’t respond to the feedback and improve. It is a question of the spirit of the feedback as much as the  message itself.  If I feel the feedback is given in the spirit of helping me I am far more likely to respond favorably, if I see the feedback as a veiled attack I am as likely to resent the message and in some extreme cases I may retaliate – I am less likely to see it as an opportunity for improvement.

Is your true desire is to help the person improve or do you want to make them feel bad? Do you want a good relationship in future? Then perhaps be more considerate of your approach.  We all make mistakes, and we can all improve so let’s make the effort to be kinder in our delivery of the message – not necessarily the subject. Feedback needs to be clear and should not shy from difficult issues but the delivery can make all the difference.

TRUNK Test

When we rely so heavily on relationships and on feedback it is important to apply the TRUNK test for offering feedback:

Is what you are about to say TRue, Useful, Necessary, and Kind?

 

 

 

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Goldratt User Stories

As a product owner we should be building products to deliver on the Vision and a set of  defined objectives or success criteria. But often our plan is not closely mapped to those criteria or it can be difficult to measure whether we have achieved our Vision or delivered on our objective.

Let’s change the way we write stories

So I wondered if we could expand on a desire for delivering measurable value by changing the way we both plan projects/product and write our user stories?

 

Tell me how you measure me and I’ll tell you how I will behave.

Eli Goldratt

 

The notion of this is that rather than defining our User Stories in terms of behaviour, or actions or activities –  in which we primarily focus on the ‘What’ we should change, our start point should become us defining the “needle we want to move”  Let us start with the measurement of success. Understanding how we will be measured and identifying behaviour that impacts the measurement.

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E.g. our goal is to increase the number of items per basket for online sales, our measurement is therefore the average number of items sold per transaction.

Equally it could be to increase the average value of the basket per transaction, or increase the number of units sold of high profit products

Hypothesis rather than Story

Our ‘story’ then would be to ask the Product Owner and Team to identify one or more hypothesis for ways that could impact that measurement. The notion being that a hypothesis must be tested before the story could be considered done.

This could take the form or a brainstorm session to identify the more traditional stories or it could simply be left for the team (in conjunction with the PO) to determine the best way (possibly two or three alternatives) to achieve the desired outcome after the story has been pulled.

This is building on the principle:

The best architectures, requirements, and designs
emerge from self-organizing teams.

Already happening?

You could argue that this is already the role of the Product Owner and that the Product already does this, and in identifying and prioritizing stories they have already considered the impact.  In some cases I would agree with you, in a few cases I have seen products or projects with clear objectives in terms of the goal of the product and even sometimes a measure of success in terms of measurable objectives.

I have yet to see the end goals mapped even at a high level to the stories and features, in most cases success criteria are wooly or undefined and more often than not the Product Owner and team will brainstorm stories (story mapping) without reference to the goals, and even Impact Mapping often will not extend to measurable goals.

That is not to say that the Product Owner is not considering this holistically, the measurements are generally part of the consideration but many stories creep in that have no material benefit or impact on the success criteria of the product.

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Measurements for Goals as the basis for Story Mapping

For reference I love Story Mapping, I consider it my favourite tool for Product Ownership and have been known to rave a little too much about it on occasion.

The start point in story mapping is typically to identify themes of user activities (you could call them epics but don’t get hung up on terminology they are essentially big rocks and then we will progressively break them down in to smaller rocks arranged underneath the big rocks.

We can then prioritise the work in the context of the whole rather than being constrained by a linear backlog which makes the context difficult to visualise.

It is also a fantastic tool for explaining the product for release planning and forecasting and so on. Like I say one of my favourite tools.

But what if instead of starting with activities or big stories, what if we started with our measurable goals or success criteria.   e.g. new subscribers per month, revenue per visit, time to achieve objective using application etc.  And we then identify stories that best enable us to achieve that goal.

There may very well be some overlap so there maybe the notion of tagging a secondary objective, but imagine if this helps us weed out stories that are not taking us to our goal or have limited value in the context of our goal.

We would ask which of these stories has the potential to move the needle the most? and prioritise accordingly.

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Make it measurable

Focusing our efforts on measurable impact to the product should implicitly be the goal of any Product Owner so why not make it our explicit goal?

 

 

 

 

 

How do I know I am delivering Value?

Many of us are relatively familiar with the notion that stories should be expressed in terms of value delivered (Why) and how important the “Why” is for being able to maximize the outcome for the customer–

 

Who: As a …

What: I want to :

Why: So that …

 

When we talk of good stories we refer to INVEST as a means of helping validate that our stories are well written, I think this is a great tool for helping write user stories, we may even include Acceptance Criteria to help the team identify that the story has been completed in such a way that the value is best able to be realized, but I’d like to propose going a step further.

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Expected Vs Actual

Whichever way the story is written the assumption is that the PO has determined the value of the story and prioritized it accordingly, but value is a very nebulous term and encapsulates all sorts of things many of which are assumptions or just plain guesses or personal preferences. We are also making the assumption that the story will successfully deliver the value we intend.  Rather than accepting that it is a hypothesis that it will achieve our goal.

Up to this point we are assuming that the Product Owner is always making the right decisions, and their assumptions of the value delivered by a story are infallible. Speaking as a Product Owner, that is a rather hopeful assumption, often value judgements are little more than educated guesses, certainly they are very subjective opinions on value. Even market research is guesswork to some extent and particularly with new products or internal systems there is little opportunity for effective predictions of value.  I don’t want to take anything away from the PO and their authority on making these judgements that is after all their role.  But as a PO I would very much value a feedback loop which would enable me to validate that my decisions were right or wrong and give me the opportunity to course correct accordingly.

In other words it is necessary for us to make judgement calls but getting feedback on the accuracy or otherwise of those decisions would be hugely beneficial.

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So what can we do?

We could add to the Acceptance Criteria to include some additional validation. Our Acceptance Criteria helps us validate that a story is implemented the way we intend it to be implemented, it does not however always enable us to measure whether the value is fully realized.

For example:

Assumption: We believe that adding a picture to listings on a product website will increase sales by 10% (our market research says so).

As an online customer,

I want like to see pictures of products

So that I can make more informed buying decisions (and thus buy more products) –

(Business Value: Marketing estimates sales increase of 10%)

 

Our Acceptance Criteria may stipulate positioning of the picture, the size and what to display if a picture is not available. We may even add some performance Acceptance Criteria such as average page load time. But that is not enough to validate that the value was achieved.

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How do we validate that a story delivers Value

But how do we validate that this story does actually deliver the value we expect – whilst we can be confident that having a picture fulfils some aspects of the value – the better informed decisions, it might be that we are missing out by not having the ability to zoom on the picture, or it may be that our users are not bothered by the picture at all and would prefer another feature such as the “lead time” or “quantity in stock”

Validation Criteria

What if as part of this story we not only implement the feature to show the picture but we also include analytic measurements on the page load times, and even a measurement for the number of sales of a product or products per day and then evaluate 50% of users with the new feature and 50% without the pictures and compared the results. Or we could conduct focus groups on this feature or usability studies to get more subjective but detailed feedback.

As part of the story we could add an additional layer of Validation Criteria, this would be similar to Acceptance Criteria but would be a way to measure the value actually realized by the user

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What do we gain?

Would including functionality or activities that enable us to measure that we have delivered the value we are expecting make the stories better? Would that information help shape our product and build a better product? Would it help us prioritize our backlog as we get a better understanding of value actually delivered vs value expected to be delivered?

We could either add stories for these measurements or consider these to be encapsulated in the delivery of this story.

Essentially we are asking whether feedback is valuable and if it is – how valuable is it to us.

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Return on Investment:

When discussing this with a colleague the first response was that this is putting more upfront work and that is a challenge for the ‘lazy’. In Agile ‘Lazy’ is a virtue so this is important feedback.

Naturally there is an overhead in this but as with all feedback loops the information is valuable, knowledge is power and we just need to tune our efforts – our feedback volume to the right level to get valuable information with the minimum necessary effort. Another example of an Andon Cord where if the effort is too much and producing either too much information or nothing of value then we need to retune our feedback loops to give us enough valuable feedback to act.

Also many of these measurements will be applicable to multiple stories so the investment may end up being very limited but the feedback may be far reaching, and once automated the ongoing feedback can be tweaked to add extra sensors to give us more and more valuable information.

Some examples of value assessing measurements:

  • Website analytics: hit rates, click through rates, hot spots etc.  The cost of these is minimal and is often something that can be applied even after development.
  • We could write stories to build into our application measurement for how our product is used, or the performance of our product,
  • We could add usability testing or focus groups, surveys of users
  • By using feature flags we could set up effective A-B testing to get feedback on structured hypothesis validation.

Please note that not all measurements need to be software driven – increased subscribers say may be measured entirely independently of your application.

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Vision

But ultimately the biggest change would be in your initial vision creation, do you know your product goals and do you have a way to measure success.

Is your goal increased sales, or time saved, or efficiency improvements, or increased users or cost saving and regardless of your goals do you have a plan for measuring whether your product is achieving your goals.

This may seem like stating the obvious but I cannot count the number of projects I have been on where the stated aims were cost-saving or revenue generating and numbers were stated and yet after the project was authorized no one ever went back and assessed whether the project was a success or achieved any of it’s aims. Having an aim was enough to get the project started.  Claiming a 10% increase in sales or reduction in costs should be something you can measure so measure it.

Ironically being able to map a story to one of your stated goals for the product could be another way to filter unnecessary stories if the expected impact is not one of your product goals.

Summary

This is a very simple change to your story writing process – an extra little consideration that could have significant implications to the success of your product, the addition of a very valuable feedback loop on value delivered (rather than value expected)

As a …

I want to …

So that …

And I can verify this by …

 

Post Script:

I presented this notion to a Product Ownership Meetup and the response was amazing the conversation was full of so many great ideas, and examples of how some of the product owners are already putting this in to practice – not explicitly but have made usability and measuring usage a key part of their Product Ownership methodology. I love the conversations this group has each month, but this month I came away with so many new things to think about.

The highlight of which was Goldratt Users stories – which will be the subject of my next blog.

Tell me how you measure me and I’ll tell you how I will behave – Eli Goldratt

Practically Agile

As a coach it is very easy to get wrapped up in theory rather than practice, the topic itself is challenging because it is so simple to understand but so difficult to execute. We see so many Agile Transformations fail, so many poor implementations of Kanban or Scrum and at times it feels great other time so futile, the concepts are neither complex, nor new, but they are very difficult to implement effectively and in a lasting manner.

Successful Agile Software Development is in my opinion based on three similar but intertwining thought processes and if any one is absent the strength of the whole is significantly diminished.

  • Systems Thinking
  • Community Context
  • Reflective Practice and Application

Sometimes we get focused too heavily on the principles and the values but the Manifesto begins with what I think is a statement more important than the rest.

Manifesto for Agile Software Development
We are uncovering better ways of developing
software by doing it and helping others do it.

At the very heart the manifesto is about getting better at delivering software.

We are uncovering better ways” – it is a journey of discovery, we do not have all the answers.  “by doing it and by helping others do it” – It is not just theory, and we share our successes with others so they can benefit from our past successes and failures.

Systems Thinking

It sounds grand and perhaps I would be better served coming up with a less grandiose title but essentially the issue here is that YOU are not the center of the universe. You could mean you personally, or your team.

Systems Thinking = YOU are not the center of the universe

The goal is effective Agile Software Development, solving a problem for a user, with software.  Our system is the whole process from identifying a need, through to the delivery of a solution, and that solution being used to satisfy a need.

Our system is not coding; it is not moving a card from one column to the next.

Having great code on a branch that will not get to the user for months or years (if ever) is not satisfying customers, however proud you are of it. The same is true for designs or perfect architecture for features not needed .

Transformation failures

In my experience I would attribute a significant majority of unsuccessful transformations (and many business failures) as a result of a failure by members of the team to grasp that they are contributors to a larger system, it sounds insensitive, but you are just a link in a chain, a cog in the machine. Focusing too much on one small part is not helping the organisation or the system as a whole.

And yet we expend a lot of effort on improving local efficiency, and at the same time failing to grasp that your efficiency is irrelevant without context.  By focusing on your own local efficiency is at best doing nothing for the larger system and at worst making the larger system less efficient – by not focusing on what is needed.  The obsession with coding efficiency in particular kills a great many software products. I see teams actually proud of a growing pile of stories in need of testing, or a team dedicated to front end UI proud of having endless features complete against mocks and how the back end teams can’t keep up. Sadly these teams seem oblivious to the fact that they are not adding value to the system.

Community Context

Systems thinking refers to the context and the domain but within that is a team – often many teams. The teams are a collection of individuals – all distinct and all different, and your ability to work together (or not) can determine how well you are able to produce software. Teams that bond and grow together achieve amazing things, teams that fail to establish trust can and do churn without making much progress.

An understanding that software development is about people first and foremost, may sound an odd statement when media presents it as a lonely and socially awkward enterprise. But all aspects are about interactions, within the team, with users, with stakeholders, with other teams, the list goes on, but effective communication drives software development.

Those that master the understanding that product creation is a people centered activity and overwhelmingly a team activity will thrive, we build cross functional teams in the belief that self-organisation and motivated groups produce great software – and they do.

It can be tough adjusting from thinking about you as an individual to you as a member of a larger community, but when we can act in a way that best serves our community rather than ourselves we start to become a high performing team, it is worth noting that you do not create a high performing team by simply grouping a number of high performing individuals, often that is a disaster.  High performing teams arise when we learn that we are more that the sum of our parts.

The second part of this is that part of being in a community is sharing knowledge and offering support. The manifesto calls out that part of being agile is not just doing it but helping others do it.  We find ways to grow as individuals and together.

Reflective Practice and Application

Finally and this is the pillar that binds it together and makes it so strong.  We take time to reflect often, so much so that we become skilled in self-reflection and in giving feedback to others to aid their self-reflection.

I believe every team – not just technical teams should take a break and reflect regularly, no matter what you do, you can improve, but you need an environment conducive for that thought process. An hour away from your normal environment may end up being the most productive hour of your week if you can learn to reflect effectively.

Facilitating Retrospectives

Facilitating retrospectives is a difficult skill, getting past the noise to get at the real issues can be difficult and takes skill and practice, but both the facilitator and teams get better at this over time, especially if they reflect on how to improve this skill.

As a group and individually we should take time to identify learning opportunities, we continually observe ourselves and our teams looking for ways to improve. We learn to give and receive feedback in a way that helps us grow – not to diminish us.

We challenge our thinking, we question our beliefs and we look for ways to grow.

We learn how to experiment in structured ways trying new things and observing, we learn the value of metrics and measurements, both in our team and our products.

But the learning and reflection is for nothing if we do not apply what we learn, the application becomes yet another skill we can develop, may of us can become analytical and observant but continue to do the same things despite what we see.

If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got

Learning to apply our observations and reflections in a structured an effective way is another challenge, and bringing this back full circle to systems thinking we should focus on the area that is holding us back the most and deal with that alone, and then repeat the process.

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Trying to fix too many things or focus on too much at once can lead to confusion and particularly if you are measuring impact of changes if you change more than one thing it can be very difficult to know which one had impact.

Summary

All three of these thought processes overlap, intertwine and often depend on each other, but when bound together are extremely strong, and we can and will get better at delivering software and helping others to do it.