Time-boxes, goals and realizing outcomes

Goal is defined as:

the end toward which effort is directed” or “the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result.

I don’t understand the debate over the Sprint Goal.

I also don’t understand how a teams can function and focus without goals (be they implicit or explicit although I would suggest that there is a danger in not making goals explicit).

If a team carves out a fixed set of time (a time-box) to do some work, they already have, albeit implicitly, established a goal i.e. completing a certain amount of work in a certain amount of time.  I don’t consider this type of a goal to be a best goal we could come up with because it’s output focused and you know I favor outcomes over outputs.  I will concede however, that this type of goal is probably better than no goal at all.

From the Scrum Guide, the Sprint Goal is:

an objective that will be met within the Sprint through the implementation of the Product Backlog, and it provides guidance to the Development Team on why it is building the Increment.

Seems pretty straightforward to me with a lot of latitude for the Scrum team to create their goal.  What do you think?

If your time-boxed work period has no goals, no aims, no objectives, no desired end what exactly is your team doing?  Where are you headed?

(I’m pretty sure some folks reading this are thinking to themselves that time-boxing is an archaic practice and should be dropped altogether.  Stay tuned for my next post).

And while this post has focused up till this point on teams working with time-boxes, I will go even further to suggest that any team that is developing and delivering software in support of a broader organizational vision – yes I’m looking at all the teams that say they are using Kanban out there –  that doesn’t have time-bound (see Agile Manifesto Principle #3)  goals is operating irresponsibly.

Goal are very useful.  Use them wisely.  Use them well.

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Projects Are Temporary…

I recently tweeted the following: 

Projects are meant to be temporary/transient endeavors for creating ‘new’ things. Both the PMI and PRINCE2 definitions of project management makes this very clear.  A review of project definitions show that projects are temporary because they have a defined beginning and a defined end.  The end is defined before we even start the project.  Aspects of the project such as the funding, the team(s) and other resources needed by the project are also intended to be temporary as the endeavor is transient.  Projects are also intended to be unique or as I like to put it, one-and-done type endeavors. When the project is done, it’s (supposed to be) done.

Examples of projects abound.  We don’t need to look very far to find them. Right now, the road that runs through my village in Eastern Nigeria is being tarred – it is a project.  It’s a temporary endeavor with a clearly defined end that was established at the onset of the endeavor.  Other examples include endeavors such as remodeling your kitchen, building a fence, moving servers from one datacenter to another datacenter or helping your 3rd grader come up with a collage of his Nigerian heritage.  You get the point; projects are temporary one-and-done type endeavors.


As the diagram above shows, not all endeavors are “temporary, one and done”.  The category that is of the most interest to us is that of endeavors that are long-lived with repeating activity as most of the software developed in organizations belongs to this category (regardless of whether the software is for external or internal use) as the software is evolved until it is no longer needed or used by anyone.

It’s imperative that organizations understand the nature of their endeavors so that they pick the most appropriate approach for handling them. Long-lived endeavors need an approach that is different from the “project” approach. Treating long-lived software development endeavors as if they are projects yields sub-optimal results.  These sub-optimal results will be the focus of my next post on this subject.

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Predictability in Software Development – Part III

In Part I and Part II of this series, I challenged the popular perspective on predictability in software (product) development and suggested that if an organization needs to respond rapidly to the changes in its ecosystem, it needs to value adaptability over predictability at least “in the large”.  However if innovation is not critical, then valuing predictability over adaptability may be the better thing to do.

What role (if any) does predictability play in product development?  This is especially important because – as mentioned in the first post of this series – many people in positions of significant authority demand predictability from their teams.

Even though it would seem that I’ve spoken against predictability, I do believe that there is often a need for teams to be predictable however I just consider this need to be predictable in the small.  Teams that are predictable in the small consistently complete about the same amount of work over a series of short time periods. Candidly, “short time periods” is dependent on your strategic and operational approaches to addressing business opportunities.  As a rule of thumb, however, I recommend that ‘small’ be 4 weeks or less.

For example, let’s say that a team forecasts the completion of ten items each iteration over the course of four two-week iterations and then has the following results:

Forecasted Delivered
Iteration 1 10 8
Iteration 2 10 11
Iteration 3 10 9
Iteration 4 10 9

Even though the team never delivered exactly ten items, we can see that they completed about the same amount of work in each iteration.  A basic understanding of variation will help us understand that the team exhibits predictability.

But wait a second, this seems to be all about outputs and I thought we were all about outcomes?  Actually we care about both outcomes and outputs and even though we value outcomes over outputs, we know that our outputs are needed for our desired outcomes to be realized.  So, understanding how much work we can complete in the small can help us determine what outcomes can be achieved in the small.

What practices can an organization and their teams adopt in order to help them be predictable in the small? Here are three:

Bite Small, Chew Fast

As a team, focus on value adding items that can be completed in a couple of days. Use techniques such as INVEST (for user stories) to decompose large initiatives into small chunks of value.

Less Is More

Take an essentialist approach to how much work the team takes on.  Less is often more. Minimize the amount of work that is progress.  Team members with different skills should collaborate on work items with the goal of finishing the work items as quickly as is possible.

Minimize Process Loss

Ivan Steiner came up with the equation AP = PP  – PL; that is, the actual productivity of a group equals its potential productivity minus process losses.  Process losses are those things that prevent our teams from being as productive as they could be.  They dampen the good we could potentially do.

Teams need to take the time to reflect on the things that are negatively impacting their performance and then address those things with both rigor and discipline.

(To be fair, these three things are good for any Agile team to pay attention to regardless of whether they have predictability demands or not)

The Conclusion of the Matter

And yet with all this talk about predictability, I’d be remiss if I didn’t make observations about predictability and the potential unintended consequences that arise from pursuing it in an unbridled manner:

  1. Describing knowledge work teams (especially product development teams) as factories or engines needs to be done with care.  Software development teams are not machines that are executing repetitive or pre-programmed activities.  Innovation means discovery.
  2. Just because a team is predictable doesn’t mean they are high performing or that they are delivering value. (Subject of a future post).
  3. Predictability, even in the small, is often at odds with innovation and creativity.  If you are challenging your teams to be creative and innovative and also demanding high levels of predictability from them, something will have to give.  Eventually.

So after three posts on predictability, where have we landed?  Are we adaptable in the large? Are we predictable in the small?  If you’re part of a real Agile organization, then adaptability and predictability are characteristics that your organizational operating model needs to support.  Its critical that leaders provide their teams with clarity on the business landscape and guidance how they need to balance the attributes of adaptability and predictability in software (product) development.

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Velocity is NOT about Productivity

I happen to participate in a couple of Lean and Agile subject matter groups on LinkedIn. This is my way of learning and sharing.  In my opinion, any serious Agile practitioner should join and participate in such types of groups (no it’s doesn’t have to be on LinkedIn). I personally learn more from these groups than from workshops and certifications classes.

I’ve observed over the past year that not a week or two goes by without someone having a question around Agile velocity on one of these discussion groups.  Interestingly enough, their questions are never about how to use velocity for forecasting and/or planning. No, the questions are always about how to increase or improve their team velocity.  As an example, check out this very recent velocity conversation.

Why are so many of the velocity questions focused primarily on productivity?

Unfortunately, many of these well-intentioned posters find themselves in organizations where velocity is considered to be a primary measure of productivity.  Not only do organizational leaders use velocity as a measure of productivity, we find some Agile practitioners (sometimes unintentionally) doing so as well.  I’ve seen postings on LinkedIn where teams are congratulated for increasing their velocity.  I’m saddened and disappointed that in 2016 we’re still talking about velocity in this way.  I’m not sure what got us here but instead of simply complaining, I am compelled to share my thoughts in the hopes that it may help someone or some organization now or in the future.  Paraphrasing Peter Block, start with the room you’re currently in.

First of all, let’s agree on what velocity in the context of Agile software development is. Operational definitions are extremely important and I think defining velocity will do us some good.  Velocity can simply be defined as the:

Sum of effort estimates completed in an iteration (see the Agile Alliance reference for more information of velocity).

Any other usage of the term in an Agile software development context is a redefinition of the term.  Agile velocity doesn’t refer to how fast a team works.  It’s not even the count of items completed in an iteration (that could be throughput). It how much of our effort estimates did we complete in an iteration.  No more, no less.  That simple.

As the Agile Alliance article makes clear, velocity is primarily a planning instrument. Carefully read the article as it provides a pretty good explanation of the purpose of velocity and what it should be used for.  Pay attention to the common pitfalls as well.

(However I must point out that many Agile teams effectively forecast and plan without using velocity.  Stated differently, velocity is not a requirement for forecasting and planning.)

But maybe you still think that we should be able to use velocity to gauge how productive our team is.  Maybe the information presented so far is not convincing enough for you. In that case, let’s take a moment to dissect what it means for a team to increase its velocity.

If velocity is the sum of our effort estimates, increasing our velocity would mean that we have to increase the sum of our effort estimates completed.  On the surface, it may seem that this would be easy to do.  All a team has to do is increase the number of items it completes and their velocity will increase.  However, completing more items doesn’t assure us of a velocity increase because we can’t assume that our estimates are the same or larger than our estimates for previous iterations.  In fact they could be smaller and our velocity could actually decrease and yet it would be a good thing!

For example, let’s assume a team had a velocity of 20 points in Iteration 1, which meant they completed 4 stories each estimated at 5 points.  Then in Iteration 2, they had a velocity of 18 points after completing 6 stories, which were estimated at 3 points each. Were they less productive in Iteration 2 because their velocity went down?  What if they completed 7 stories in Iteration 3 and each of those stories has an estimate of 1 point? Are they still less productive?  How do we know?

Don’t forget that velocity is calculated using “effort estimates”.  Estimates are subject to many factors that I won’t get into in this article and yet its important to remind ourselves that each iteration the team is solving problems they have never solved before. The team effort estimates could go up due uncertainty and complexity and it would have nothing to do with how productive they are.

Determining how productive a team is based on how much of their “effort estimates” they complete totally misses the point.  I think Deming would refer to this as management malpractice.  It’s that bad.

And yet teams can easily increase their velocity.  In fact, it’s not hard at all.  All they need to do is make their effort estimates larger.  I’ve seen many teams do this in my career. I’m not sure your organization really wants that.  Riffing off of Goldratt:

Tell me how you’ll measure me and I’ll show you how I’ll behave.

So encouraging teams to increase their velocity is simply something organizations that are intentionally adopting Agile should not be doing especially if they don’t want their teams to game the system.  I will go further to suggest that using velocity to determine predictability (in the small) is in serious danger of missing the point of velocity as well. There are there better ways to do this and I will be addressing that point as I finish my series on predictability.  If you missed the first two posts, check out Part I and Part II.

After all this talk on velocity, I am moved to remind us that the primary measure of progress for an Agile team (and organization) is the amount of software that has been delivered to users and that the users find valuable. All other measures are secondary and tertiary.  Velocity can be used to help forecast and plan (and there are possibly better alternatives to it) but let’s not use velocity as a measure of productivity.  If you must use velocity, use it responsibly.

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Predictability in Software Development – Part II

My previous post asserted that predictability at the business or organizational level is having teams that consistently deliver solutions that enable desired business outcomes. These organizations and business are predictable in the large.  Predictable organizations have the ability to change course even as the ecosystem they are a part of changes.  Ergo,  my second assertion:

Your company values adaptability over predictability 

This is not to suggest that predictability is not important.  In fact, it is quite the opposite. In the ever-changing business landscape that now confronts us, organizations are required to adapt in order to survive.  In order to be predictable, organizations must be able to adapt.

(I will concede that it is possible that your business cares about predictability more than it cares about anything else.  I just don’t interact with a lot of those organizations these days.)  

Organizations that possess a high degree of adaptability have the capacity to change course in a largely frictionless manner.  They have the characteristic of responding to changes in the ecosystem and changing direction as needed, effectively and efficiently.

An organization can only adapt as quickly as its component parts can adapt.  More specifically, a product organization’s ability to adapt is a function of their individual product development teams ability to adapt.

Agile places tremendous value on teams being able to adapt as change emerges.   In fact the Agile Manifesto states that we value:

Responding to change over following a plan

and backs that up  with following the principle of:

Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage value number

Many Agile practices enable teams be in position to respond to change in a productive manner.  Here are a couple of them (in case you’re not familiar with Agile practices):

  • Focusing on the “what” over the “how”
  • Working in small increments of value (days not weeks or months worth of work)
  • Short delivery cycles; weeks over months
  • Stakeholder feedback on a regular cadence
  • Pair-programming/test-driven development
  • Continuously running automated test suites that validate product suite
  • Feature teams developing features
  • (I’m sure you can add more to this list)
  • Etc etc etc

Teams that leverage all these practices (and more) are in a position to respond to change very effectively.  I find however that many organizations that claim to “be Agile” are only partially committed to a few of these practices and then wonder why it’s so difficult for them to change direction.  Coincidentally, these organizations seem to also believe that Agile is about delivering software faster.  (If that’s you, it’s possible that you’ve been misled).  To top it off, these organizations often respond to their inability to adapt by instituting heavy processes and protocols that are focused on ensuring that they won’t have to adapt!

Here is a thought exercise for you: If at this very moment, your team was asked to stop working on a particular initiative and release it into production so that your customer could start using it and the team could start working on a different mission, would your team be able to do it?  How many days, weeks or months would it take for your team to be able to release a product increment at this very moment?  Would you be able to release anything at all?

If an organization desires to be predictable in the large, its teams need to be able to effectively adapt in the small.  When teams holistically adopt Agile-based approaches to software development, they place themselves in a position where they can respond to change in a predictable way.  Could your organization and teams benefit from this ability?

But wait, we’re not done yet.  There is the little matter of predictability in the small. My next post will be about that.  Stay tuned!

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Predictability in Software Development – Part I

Recently, I’ve been part of few conversations regarding predictability and commitments.  It is the opinion of some that Agile teams should be able to make and keep their Sprint commitments as it pertains to outputs (points, stories, card counts).  It has also been suggested that measuring a team’s consistency on delivering on committed deliverables (outputs) is a good metric.  After all, the thing our businesses values the most is predictability.

Here is the challenge I have with these assertions.  They are based on the premise that the team should know enough about how they will address problems such that they can make a highly confident prediction on what they will complete before they actually start the work i.e. pull it into a Sprint (or do something equivalent).  Is this the case for the problems your teams solve? Is your team highly certain on how to solve problems (both functionally and technically) before they actually start solving them?

The Chinese restaurant around the corner from my house is very good at telling me how long it will take for my vegetable fried rice order to be ready because they do that multiple times a day.  My barber is very good at telling me how long it will take to cut my hair because he’s done it for me for the last five or so years (and I haven’t changed my style).  The folks who change my oil are pretty good at letting me know when to come and pick up my car.  They’ve been changing my oil for almost eight years.  Are your teams solving the same (or similar) problems from Sprint to Sprint?

I often find teams spending a ton of time (days) upfront trying to determine what needs to be done so that they can make and meet their commitments.  If they discover that they will not be able to meet their commitments,they take shortcuts (specifically in code quality) to ensure the commitment is met. When they don’t meet their commitments, they begin to look for someone on the team to blame.  If they can’t find someone on their team, they look for someone on some other team.  Are these the behaviors you want on your team(s) and in your organization?  To be fair, with a heavy dose of upfront planning, a set of stable requirements, stable technology, stable team (and a bunch of other stable factors), you may be able to achieve such predictability in a non-damaging manner.  What are you willing to pay to reduce uncertainty to a point where your team always deliver output targets?

I believe some of the mass movement to Kanban is as a result of the commitment pressure uninformed leaders place on their teams.  The distortion of Scrum – Dark Scrum – has led teams to look for alternatives. Unfortunately, this is the wrong reason to make process changes but people will do what they need to do to feel safe (and in the process mask real problems).

My tone so far probably leaves you thinking that I believe we need to punt on predictability in its entirety in software development and just let things evolve as they may.  That’s not the case. However I do strongly believe that it’s critical that we (especially business leaders) appreciate the uniqueness of software development and the challenges around predictability that it presents.

What does predictability really mean in software development?  Is it that a team consistently completes a certain number of points or stories in a given Sprint?  Would that make them predictable?  Possibly, but that’s not my opinion.

Agile is concerned with managing the unpredictable nature of software development and delivering on business outcomes ergo Agile teams that are “predictable” are teams that consistently deliver solutions that enable desired business outcomes.  My next post will look into this further.

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Does Your Agile Process Mimic a Production Line ?

Disclaimer: This post is for individuals, teams and organizations genuinely interested in Agile.

I am noticing a certain trend in software development where teams make their software development process mimic a production line by treating each software development activity as a separate station.  Their “boards” make every activity a separate column.   A number of teams do this in the name of implementing the Kanban Method while others do it because it represents what they are used to.  Why is this the case?

Two reasons immediately come to mind (I’m sure you can think of more):

  • Work items take more than a few days to complete
  • Work items are acted upon in a sequential manner

If your work items consistently take more than a few days to complete, what actions is the team taking to address this?  Have you asked yourselves why?  Is the nature of the work such that working software cannot be completed in a few days?  Everything has to take a few weeks or months?  Is the team focused on too much stuff at the same time?  Maybe everyone is working on their own unique items and is not working together (collaborating) to complete items in a timely manner?  It is a known fact that the less work we have in progress, the more we get done and the less time it takes. In spite of this known fact, many organizations/teams/individuals fail woefully at limiting work in progress.

I still find teams that believe software development has to be sequential (in the small) just like a production line.  Many have described this as mini-waterfall.   Each role on the team represents its own “workstation” and for the work item to be completed, it needs to pass through all the workstations via hand-offs.  A classic indicator of this is a team where the testers complain that they have no time to test in the Sprint (another reason why teams abandon time-boxes for Proto-Kanban).  For example, a user story would “flow” in this manner:

Analysis -> Design -> Code -> Test -> Deploy

(The fact of the matter is that if it takes a few days to complete a user story, these activities would overlap to the point that making them explicit would provide little value.)

What if instead of having work move in a sequential manner we have all the roles performing their activities on the user story concurrently?    What if the work item was the center of the universe with multiple actors acting on it at the same time?  What could happen then?

There are some major implications with this approach.  For starters, it would mean we focus multiple team members and roles on as few work items as is possible.  A business analyst, engineer and tester (for example) all working together at the same time on the same thing.  If you don’t think this is possible, let’s have a chat.  Or perform a Google search.  Or ask an Agile practitioner.

This is a fundamental shift in the way we traditionally approach how we work in software development. (In the first Kanban system I ever designed, it was a rule that more than one person should be working on a item that was in development.  Team members and partners in the other departments initially found it strange as they were not used this but eventually came to appreciate this approach as it enabled us to deliver software more effectively.)

The feedback I receive from people when I bring topics like this up is that things are working just fine and hence they have no reason to do anything different.  No reason to decrease the time it takes to complete user stories. No reason to change the way they work on their work items.   In my opinion, these people have totally missed an important point about Agile (and Lean) and that is the relentless commitment to continuous improvement. The commitment to finding better ways to do our jobs even when the current ways seems to work well.  The commitment to being the best we can be. These individuals, teams and organizations are completely missing a critical component of the Agile mindset. 

So does your Agile process have to mimic a production line?

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