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.

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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.

 

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.

The Enemy of Agility is Ego

dunning-kruger-effect

Over the years I have discovered that the more I learn on any subject the more I come to realize that I know very little, it doesn’t seem to matter how much I study or how much I learn, the awareness of scope of my ignorance grows far faster.  Does that make me wise or just aware that I know very little?   I suspect that I’m slowly fighting my way out of the valley of despair.

No need to improve

One of the most challenging aspects of being an Agile Coach and working with teams is that to improve you first need to accept that there is room to improve. There are a some teams and team members that believe there is nothing more that they need to learn, they are so supremely confident in their own capability and knowledge that they refuse to consider that there could be a better way to do things than the way they have always done things.
On the other-hand I can’t be confident that there is a better way, only that we won’t find a better way unless we look. I don’t like the notion there is a ‘best practice’ as this limits our thinking. But this puts unwavering certainty that this is the ‘best practice’ against encouragement to explore the possibility of a better way, certainty is very powerful.

Sometimes this ‘certainty’ is founded in fear, especially when dealing with transformations where former roles are called into question, I find this an understandable reaction, but the situations I struggle with most are the team members that become blinkered to opportunities, they have found one way that works (even poorly) and simply are unwilling to try anything different. Their Ego, prevents them considering anything else.

As a coach I have no desire to force processes or ideas on people, only to open their minds that there could be opportunities and alternatives.  So it can be heartbreaking when people refuse to even consider alternatives, or worse impose their views on others through sheer force of will.

Perhaps I am mistaken and maybe the right answer is that if something isn’t broke don’t fix it, but that notion doesn’t sit well with me.

kruger calvin

So how do we persuade people to open themselves up to learning new things?

I recently had an experiences that I found tough, there was a QA who refused to ‘leave his column’ on the board, he would not do anything that was not ‘testing’ and resisted anyone working with him in ‘his column‘ thankfully it is not often I see that level of obstinance. But this situation was further compounded by the rest of the team enabling his behavior. The developers were all too happy not to be involved with the QA aspect and were seemingly unmoved by his unwillingness to cross boundaries.

The QA column was regularly a bottleneck but rather than addressing this the team wanted to mask the issue by pushing cards through and raising new cards for rework. What was tough was that the team saw no need to experiment with alternative ways of working: suggestions included either helping the QA, or even getting the QA involved earlier, and despite raising QA as a bottleneck repeatedly in retrospectives the team didn’t want to change behavior even in the form of an experiment.

As a coach you can shine a light but not force a change.  I felt the team was capable of far more but the team were getting things done and were seemingly content with the status quo. For me this is the dark side of coaching, where you must watch a team not reach their potential, out of respect for their independence.  Ultimately it is a trust issue as things so often are.

Ownership of Columns

In general I dislike explicit roles when there is a shared responsibility, and I dislike the notion that a column on a board is in anyway related to a person or a specific role, the board should reflect the progress of the work (stories) not ownership of the work and when the two become muddled people become defensive and territorial.

When there becomes an association between a column and a person the focus moves from getting a story done as a team, to moving a story on to the next column, we switch our context of efficiency to a narrower view.

This is often seen as a subtle and unimportant distinction. But when the team loses a cohesive sense of ownership for getting to done and can hand off responsibility to another sub section of the team, bad habits emerge. At it’s worst I have seen teams (thankfully not one I coached) where at stand-up one part of the team will brag about how many stories they are ahead of an other part (be it front and back end or Dev and QA). In one extreme case I saw a team decouple testing from development by splitting stories and I overheard one standup where the developers were gleeful that they were now 3 sprints ahead of testing (the sprints were 3-week sprints). It is 9 weeks before they will see value from their work or even know if their work had value, and yet they were so proud.

Dunning Kruger Effect

Adjusting your mindset to one of learning rather than certainty can be tough, especially for those that grew up in a culture that rewards confidence and certainty, but accepting that you don’t know everything and being aware that there is always the potential to improve can enable you to become far more capable, the only thing stopping you is your ego.

 

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.
Bertrand Russell

 

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.

5-focusing-steps-113297

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.

 

Practicing what you preach

For this blog post I’d like to make a change from my usual style and share a personal experience.

For the last few months I have taken on the role of Product Owner for a new product our company is developing. It is a bit of a change for the company as they have limited experience in developing their own products, most of the work is typically implementing work on behalf of clients where much of the product development is obfuscated from us.

It is also a big change for me. I have been coaching Product Ownership for a fairly long time now. I previously lead the company’s Product Ownership Chapter and I run a local Product Ownership Meet-Up event each month and I frequently teach Product Ownership and Story Writing workshops.
You might say I am becoming an expert in the theory of Product Ownership. So I could be forgiven for thinking I would find it easy. It is also not my first rodeo, I have been a Product Owner of sorts previously for both hardware and software products .

Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in their shoes. That way, you’ll be a mile from them, and you’ll have their shoes.

Jack Handey

It’ll be easy he said…

Maybe it is because I have been coaching for quite a while now, but the transition back has been far harder than I expected. I am (too) impatient to see progress, I am finding it irritating to write stories for things that I find obvious or repetitive. I found myself tempted to make unilateral decisions rather than involve the team; I wanted to get involved in technical decisions; initially I hadn’t made time to create personas;  I was using expediency as a very poor excuse for not doing activities that I believe add value. (all things I used to coach against). In short I am a bad bad man, and a hypocrite too.

roadmap

We did however create a pretty good Story Map and Road Map, the team got together with some subject matter experts and over a few good discussion and we developed a pretty good understanding of our road-map and high level priorities, still at a high level but with enough understanding to make prioritization decisions. We have got in the habit of writing enough stories for the next week or two and there are a good set of wireframes to enable us to start getting feedback on our designs before we commit to the code. We have found a great balance between getting knowledge value, and then delivering working value.

As the product has progressed we have maintained the Road Map turned it into a living user story map and used it for forecasting and release projections and planning, such a simple tool but so effective for enhancing communication. It’s simplicity served us well, communication became very easy internally and externally, and when when we needed to the forecast was very straight forward – and informative.

user-story-mapping

Delivery Pipeline

The aspect I am most pleased with is that one of our first priorities was setting up a delivery pipeline alongside the first stories so now every commit we are able to deploy directly to an environment reflective of our customer (no mocks) and a releasable package is created after every check-in.  I cannot understate the significance of this and how this one decision has made almost every other aspect of the delivery process easier.

There are certainly things we could be doing better, but overall I am very pleased with what we have done and I am really impressed with the team, they are an exceptional team that makes my job easy. But most of all I feel I have a much better appreciation for some of the issues that Product Owners are facing and I am reminded what a challenging and important role it is in shaping a product, conversely my hope is that I have made the team’s job easier, being on hand to clarify my understanding of customer needs, making design decisions promptly and making clear the priorities. The joy of being part of a team is that we each contribute something vital to the success and we only succeed together.

I have worked to get and interpret valuable feedback from customers and stakeholders, and as ever this is a challenging task. It would be easy to pass on every request and turn it in to a story, but this is OUR product and our role is to interpret requests in the context of our vision, and the reality is that we reject more suggestions than we adopt, every person you ask has a different and often conflicting opinion of what is needed and that filtering process is challenging and daunting, I hope I have shielded the team from the frustrations that entails. But for product owners out there this filtering is one of the hardest but most important parts of the role.

leap faith

Challenges

The role itself is paradoxical at times, some days it feels like there is little to do, but everyone else is busy, other days you are making decisions that will determine whether the product will be a success or not.

Early on in the process it was hard to convey credibility, I am no SME in the domain and our teams are not used to decisions being made in-house, my vision was questioned, it took a lot of will to maintain my course and build trust, I had a rocky couple of months. I controversially chose to go against some of the key stakeholders and not implement some features they wanted, I was vindicated later, but I knew this was a risk and could easily have gone the other way.

This is the hardest aspect of the job especially when you want this to be a team activity and for the team to share responsibility and credit, but the reality is that the role of the PO is to get feedback from the stakeholders and the team, and then make a decision, that decision can be lonely as there is a lot of subjectivity and rarely a consensus.

Product development is very different to project delivery it is much more fluid and we have evolved a lot over the last 6 months the product has grown and improved and now we have two releases under our belt and a happy customer it is an exciting time for us.

DevOps-cycle-Extended

DevOps

I cannot overstate how happy I am with the team or how successful I feel this has gone, I feel like a minor player in such a great team – which I hope is reflective of how well we have worked together and that it means I played my role effectively – although I am pretty sure I was the bottleneck more often than I would have liked.

I will say that we got lucky with the first customer and the support of stakeholders and the team have made it very easy for me.  But the one thing that has made this most successful in my mind was the decision to deploy the very first story to a production like environment – that one decision set the stage for a smooth progression and confidence with every subsequent story. I’d encourage that to be the first decision any new team makes.

I was doing a demo the other day and as I was presenting I am thinking (with a disappointing amount of surprise) “Wow – what an amazing product this is” it looks as good as any product out there. Somehow being involved in the process meant I didn’t take the time to sit back and see what we had achieved until that moment.

This is only the first major release and we have many more to come as the product evolves and customer numbers grow. Naturally there are still a few quirks to iron out.

It is my hope that I have learned a lot from this project and be able to use the experience to be a better coach, I’ll be more able to empathize and advise with Product Owners and perhaps be more confident that when challenged I can still apply some of that theory and speak with confidence when I am coaching others.

I hope you will forgive the obvious pride at being part of this team, but aside from that it has served as a reminder to me how difficult being a Product Owner is and how much software is a team sport and the whole team should take pride in the outcome, without any one of us it would not have been successful.