Face It, Your Memory Stinks

Seriously, it really does. You can’t remember everything. No matter how good you are at “Simon“, your memory just isn’t good enough.

Okay, so I’m stating the obvious. If we all know we can’t remember everything, why is it then that in soooo many meetings, nobody writes down what was decided, discovered, or uncovered? Sure, there are some folks that are writing “something” down during meetings. But, those are typically their own personal notes, the stuff that applies to THEM and not the team-at-large. They could be doodles, or possibly an attempt to look like they are attentive to what’s going on, when in fact, they are actually zoned out (I’m guilty of that). Who’s recording the important knowledge for the benefit of the team and organization?

I was observing a planning session a while ago. The team asked a business SME to come in and answer some questions regarding complex business scenarios. It was a rich, active discussion. People were learning new things left an right. It was beautiful. This dialogue lasted about 20 minutes or so. Guess how many people wrote this incredibly critical information down? NONE. That’s right, not one person wrote anything down. Sadly, I’m starting to realize that this is a common occurrence.

This is why we have the same meetings over and over again. How many times have you been in a meeting and you think, “Huh? We’re having this meeting AGAIN!?!?”. There is a very simple solution. WRITE IT DOWN, send it out, and store that precious information in a central location that’s easy to get to (can you say “wiki”?).

Whose responsibility is it to make sure something is documented during these meetings? It’s everyone’s, including yours. If you see that information is just disappearing into thin air, don’t hesitate…ask “okay, so who wants to take notes?” If you get no volunteers, then announce that you will do it…and then take care of it.

Scrum Alone is Not Sufficient

There are some who believe that Scrum alone is sufficient to run complex, big, expensive, scary projects and/or programs.  Some people think that Scrum instructs us how to code. It does not.  It provides a framework and a set of principles (as does any sound agile methodology) on which to base our development and delivery practices and processes.  The only way that Scrum is sufficient alone is if the teams are completely self-organizing, highly skilled and efficient, the business has a clear, sound vision that is clearly understood and communicated, and the management fully supports the efforts put forth by the team.  I have never experienced nor have a heard of a company that attained this utopia.
Let’s talk about the real world.  Most developers are average at best, there are politics, hidden agendas, attitudes, kingdoms, and lots of other “stuff” that prevents this paradise.  Since that’s the case, you can’t be done at Scrum.
The Scrum framework provides guidance regarding key roles (Scrum Master, Product Owner, Team), ceremonies (sprint planning, daily scrum, retrospective, sprint review) and artifacts (product backlog, sprint backlog).  It provides no other guidance.  In Scrum, “the team” decides how to handle things.  How do we manage requirements?  The team decides.  How do we handle vendor relationships?  Let the team decide.  How do we make sure we are compliant?  Let the team decide.  I think you get the picture.
Below are some things that Scrum does not address.
  • How to code
  • How to test
  • How to manage code
  • How to manage risks
  • How to document and manage requirements
  • How to manage the budget
  • How to estimate
  • How to decide whether to build or buy
  • How to deploy into production
  • How to operationalize the product
  • How to train new users on the product
  • and the list goes on and on and on
My point is this…if you are successfully doing Scrum alone, good job.  But it’s not enough (unless you have achieved utopia).  The team likely will not have the knowledge or experience necessary to decide how to do EVERYTHING.  Now you need to take that next step.  Bring in CI and TDD.  Start measuring your productivity by bringing in some lean/six-sigma tools so you can better improve.  Heck, I think there’s even some stuff in the PMBOK that is pretty useful!

How Many Scrum Projects Can a Developer Be On?

This post was inspired from a question that was asked on the scrumdevelopment yahoo user group.  The question was regarding several things.  First, how to handle a developer on multiple Scrum projects, second how to sync the sprints, and third what tools can be used to handle the multiple projects.  I’m addressing the first and second aspects, and not the third about the tools.

Having developers on multiple projects is a very common thing. It is the wrong thing.  If the project solutions have to integrate eventually, then it makes more sense…but in that case, the developers on multiple projects should be used in a different capacity. More leadership and guidance and less actual coding.

If developers are on multiple projects and the projects are unrelated, you’ll have to stagger the sprints, i.e. they shouldn’t start and end on the same day. Imagine developers having to attend 3 sprint planning sessions in one day, 3 retrospectives in one day, 3 standups in one day. I tried that once with 4 projects…yeah it sucked. Developers on the teams were doing nothing but attending meetings. Their first impression of Scrum was “meeting hell”. Plus, you can only be in one place at once, so some of the projects suffered due to lack of attendance.

If the projects have to integrate, the sprints should sync up, as the goal is potentially shippable software…and you can’t ship unless you integrate.

Either way, it is bad to have developers on more than one…”maybe” two projects. The cost of context switching is too high. I know it sounds impossible to have developers on only one project, but if you make it happen, you will not regret it. It’s just scary because we’ve been trained that “multi-tasking is good”. That is a big fat lie.

The Role of the Architect in Scrum

This question comes up over an over, so I thought I’d address it quickly.

Remember that in an ideal Scrum team, the team is completely self organizing.  There are no titles to worry about.  The team will discover the strengths and weaknesses of each member, and continuously evolve, i.e. inspect and adapt, to discover new ways of delivering high quality value to the business.

But, guess what.  In the real world, we have titles to deal with.  Now, I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.

As we all know, the title “Architect” in the context of software means very different things given the organization.  I’ve seen it range from really good coder to more of a project manager-y type of position.  I think this lack of clear role in the industry overall has lead the folks in this title to, at times, become “chickens” that like to cluck and flap their wings to distract the team.

So, what should the architect do?  Well, let’s remember that in Scrum, team are self organizing.  They collectively come up with the technical solutions.  They also come up with development standards.  If the team is generally not high performing, or are missing some necessary skills, then the architect should be a mentor and a coach for that team until they can fly on their own.

What if the teams are high performing?  If there is an organizational need due to a highly complex business need, i.e. insurance, taxes, financial transactions, etc., then the architect should focus on the high level roadmap to ensure that the backbone of the technology is strong.  This is especially true in a SOA environment.

Creating the Sprint Backlog in New Scrum Teams

If you’re new to Scrum, here is something you need to know about teams first trying it out…ready??

…drumroll…

The team doesn’t know what they need to do

There, I said it. Whew, glad I got that off my chest.

In Scrum, we ask team members to break product backlog items (typically stories), into tasks that take 16 hours or less to complete. You will find that, most of the time, the team will have incredible difficulty in doing this, and they will likely come up with tasks such as “analyze, code, test”. Bleh. Those are B.S. tasks that really don’t mean anything. It’s hard to define “DONE” for those types of tasks. You may have to accept those tasks in the beginning, but it is your responsibility as a Scrum Master to coach the team into creatively thinking through task definition.

Here are some reasons I think teams may have a hard time defining tasks.  It is best to look at all of these as impediments, and your job as a Scrum Master is to remove them.

  • Lack of Empowerment
    Teams under the tyranny of “traditional” development are rarely empowered. They are used to being told what to do. While creating solutions, team members will actually do what needs to be done and then move on to the next thing. The problem is that they’ve never had to articulate the steps they take to complete what they need to complete.  And, to top it off, managers rarely understand what it “really” takes to deliver a solution. 

    This will not be a quick fix.  You will have to work with leadership and come up with a strategic plan on how to empower people.  In the meantime, even though you tell the team “your empowered’, if the rest of the organization does not support it, there will be constant struggle.  However, as a leader, it is your job to work both sides of the fence, i.e the team and the organization.

  • Fear
    In an extreme command-and-control environment, people lose all common sense. They are not confident making any decisions, let alone actually thinking for themselves. 

    Here, the team will need lots of praise and protection.  If they know that you have their back, they will, over time, come out of their shells.

  • Lack of Knowledge or Skills 

    If the team is new to that domain, or the team just does not have the skills, i.e. a Cobol programmer “trying out” Java development, there is no way they can effectively decompose stories into tasks.

    This is one of the toughest situations to deal with.  If the team is just the wrong team, the only thing that can be done is to escalate this impediment to leadership.  This one is particularly hard because I guarantee that there will be others who think some of those on the team DO have the knowledge and skills, likely because those folks are “well liked” or popular.  Just remember to be honest always, and over time, change will happen.

  • “The Dominator” 

    Sometimes there is one person on the team who holds the key. They know the domain, they know the technology. No one else does. THEY are the ones who define the tasks. If the tasks aren’t good enough, who cares, as long as “The Dominator” is okay with them. This is a tricky one. It is your responsibility to either a) get them off the team or b) clearly set the expectations and time-box the needed change in behavior.

If you are a Scrum Master or coach on this team and you don’t have “tribal” knowledge, it will be a true test of your patience.

But, hope is not lost! A while ago, I was in this situation. I was in a sprint planning session, and I saw the familiar signs emerging…”Ummm…yeah…we need to analyze”. “Oh, I suppose we need to code too”. UGH. I was helpless. Luckily, there was a strong technical lead attending that understood the domain and technology. He patiently walked the team through the decomposition of the stories into “real” tasks. It was a real humbling experience for me. I thought I could get ANY team to decompose stories into meaningful tasks. Boy, was I wrong.

So, if you’re in this situation, determine the “root cause” of why the team can’t decompose stories into meaningful tasks. If it’s an impediment, handle the impediment. If it’s because you are lacking the knowledge necessary to coach the team, find someone there who can.

Evangelizing Scrum, or Anything, is Hard

Ever since I discovered lean/agile, I’ve been very perplexed about something. Why do so many people feel passionate, and sometimes offended, when I introduce it? Seriously, offended. Like I just called their baby ugly. I was taken-aback at first, now I’m used to it. I think I’ve learned to dodge most of the stones that people throw over the years.

Lean/agile begins with principles, with practices emerging from these principles (see previous blog post about agile principles).

I think a lot of blame (yes, I’m pointing fingers) comes from people who don’t understand agile, then implement it…POORLY. I’ve heard so many horror stories about failed Scrum or Extreme Programming implementations. I’ve taught quite a few classes about agile/lean methods, and in every course, I ask the students if they’ve been involved in some kind of agile implementation. For everyone that said they had been involved, they said that it sucked…100% of the time. As they expanded on the sucky-ness, I just cringed. The leaders of the implementation just didn’t get it. They didn’t understand that it’s about principles, not about index cards and stand-ups.

Now, let me relate this religion. I’ve been a Christian for close to 20 years. Every time I get into any kind of conversation (which I rarely start), people immediately become offended. Why? Because like the poorly executed agile implementations, there are many poorly executed “Christian” implementations.

As humans, it is so much easier to just follow rules than to rely on our own judgement. That’s why empowerment is rejected so many times at the lowest level. If someone is empowered, then they are also accountable. Who wants THAT??

Christianity is not about rules. If anyone tells you that, then they need to go to Christianity 101 class. Christianity is about a relationship, and principles. If you follow the principles, the “practices” will follow.

Let’s look at the greatest principles (commandments) given by Jesus “Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind”, then “Love your neighbor as yourself”.

What’s interesting, is that if you take these to heart, then the 10 commandments (don’t lie, murder, steal, etc.) will follow…right? The greatest principles will naturally manifest themselves in the 10 commandments.

If a Christian truly loved their neighbors as themselves, I think you would see a lot more philanthropy and a welcoming attitude towards others.

Here’s the intro into the song “What if I Stumble” by DC Talk that summarizes my point beautifully:

The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.

Since in general, the “implementation” of Christianity has ignored the primary principles, the understanding from the non-Christian population is that Christians are ignorant, stupid, hypocritical, judgmental, and hateful. Are Christians doing anything to change this image? Not really.

So, when “evangelizing” given this climate, people become hostile and have a desire to throw (verbal) stones.

Now, back to agile/lean. Generally speaking, many folks believe agile is nothing but cowboy coding, no documentation, speed not quality, and screw “the business”. When “evangelizing” given this climate, people become hostile and have a desire to throw (verbal) stones.

Evangelizing anything that is based on principles stirs emotion and is fraught with mis-understandings. Typically our first instinct is to run from the conflict that arises and just become complacent and accepting of dysfunction and misunderstanding. We need to be brave, and stand by our principles. In doing so, we need to continue to come up with ways to communicate the truth.

The Cross Functional Team vs. the Functional Community

An agile team consists of everyone it takes to deliver value to the customer.  The typical team consists of analysts, developers,  and testers. Of course the team is not limited to these roles.  The team could also include technical documenters, DBAs, or whoever else has a hand in creating value.

In traditional organizations, “team” is defined as a functional group.  The development “team”, the “testing” team, the “analyst” team, etc.  This makes sense in a traditional, waterfall-ish environment.

In an agile, cross-functional environment, it is not helpful to define “teams” around functions.  Okay, “maybe” its okay in a production support capacity, but that’s still pushing it as there will still need to be cross-functional work with production support.

Teams have a common, unified goal. Functional “teams” do not.  For example, a functional “team” that consists of a dozen Java programmers, with each programmer on a different project, can hardly be called a “team”.  They have no common goal, other than to adhere to the (hopefully) high development standards that have been put in place.

I propose that instead of calling these functional groups “teams”, we call them communities.  Here’s a simple definition of community that I found on dictionary.com: “A group of people having common interests“.  The Java “community” will work together to make sure that they have common standards of excellence, share knowledge and experiences, and provide each other guidance as needed.  However, these people will have different goals, depending on the project on which they have been assigned.