Agile

Sun and planets of the solar systems

A company is not a tree: an alternative map

It seems that everyone dislikes hierarchy in organizations. Even the people at the top of the hierarchy seem to want to get away from the idea. But… the moment we start talking about organizations everyone starts talking about who’s at the top, the CEO, and who reports to who. Try to draw it out and you end up with some sort of inverted tree.

Part of the problem is that we all want, indeed need, structure. Saying “there is a bunch of people” isn’t enough. We need some way of understanding who is who and where they all fit in. Perhaps we cling to hierarchy because we lack a better model to conceptualise our organizations and who they fit together.

Programmers and business designers aren’t the only ones who want to think of things in a neat tree like hierarchies. I was recently introduced to Christopher Alexander’s essay “A city is not a tree” in which he rails against the same idea. Living in London and I while I could imagine constructing a hierarchy on some criteria I immediately know it would be wrong. It would not capture the true nature of London. Neither Oxford Street or Threadneedle Street are at the top, they would be contenders but in different way. Each part place places multiple roles. There isn’t one centre, there are many centres.

Maps help use make sense of places like London but even here we use different maps with different conventions depending on what we want to do: the Tube map is very different to a visitors map which is different to a map of boroughs, we use different maps for different things. And maps shape our thinking and action – consider the Google map of central London with selective information trying to be useful but also trying to s ell things.

Manager at the centre of the solar system

We need maps of our organizations to understand them but in drawing the map we shape our thinking. If we want to move away from hierarchical thinking we need another way of mapping our organizations.

So let me suggest a different way of thinking about an organization, a way I find useful, a way I briefly mention in my “Reawakening Agile with OKRs” presentation: concentric circles – think of it as our solar system with plants (teams) orbiting the sun (leadership.)

Rather than think of your supreme leader at the top of an organization with everyone else below them – an idea that just shouts “inferior” – think of the supreme leader as the centre of the organization. After all, everyone in the company has a relationship with that person even if relationship with them in the same way that every asteroid in the solar system has a relationship with the sun.

The sun, the leader, exerts a force on everything, everyone, else. Some people are close to the centre and close to the leader – they feel a lot of the leaders force. Others are far away, some are so remote the leader struggles to exert any influence.

And while I say “leader” it might be better to think about the leadership team. Close in there isn’t just one leader, even here leadership is split between a CEO, CFO, and even the board. Nobody has total authority, everyone needs to work with others.

You might also add on the communication paths, some teams communicate with other teams a lot, and some teams hardly at all.

Like the solar system there are alternative centres. Earth has but one Moon, that is influenced by the sun but Earth is a far bigger influence. Jupiter has dozens of moons and exerts a lot more influence on its moons than the sun does. Thats not unlike the way some teams and leaders operate.

These satellites influence each other too – maybe not something astronomers see much but some teams follow similar orbits to others and can influence them. Imagine Mars came close enough to Earth at times to influence the seas the way the moon did – even if they only occurred occasionally it would be meaningful. In a company some teams influence others, one team uses the work of another, or they serve the same customers, or the can disrupt the other.

If we are to navigate our organizations without repeatedly referring to tops and bottoms, ups and down, superiors and inferiors, then we need to start changing the models we use to guide us.

This view might also answer another question I raised a few years ago. In Programmers Rorschach Test I noted that organizational charts look exactly like the structure charts I was taught at University. These were an alternative to flow-charts for structured programming in Pascal like languages.

Think about that: organizational design looks exactly like structured programming: Conway’s Law again.

So what does Object Oriented programming look like? Perhaps the solar system provides an answer: lots of independent objects following their own paths but exerting forces on others.

Add asteroids, comets and dwarf planets to planets and moons and you have plenty of ideas to model with.


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What are the first steps in setting OKRs?

“What do you see as the first steps in setting OKRs?”

I’d like to share my answer to this question, it came as a follow up to a presented “Reawakening Agile with OKRs” to a company last week. This is also an opportunity to expand my thinking.

First we need to make some assumptions and decide policies.

I’m going to assume that the team know what OKRs are, why they are being introduced and what is expected of them in setting OKRs. So, if this assumption does not hold true then before you set the OKRs establish some shared understanding on these points. Perhaps get an introduction to OKRs for the team. (I’ve started work on another video tutorial series, an introduction to OKRs and agile.) Next get some guidance from those suggesting the team use OKRs on what they expect.

I’m sorry to say I hear of plenty of cases were these things don’t happen. Teams are told: “thou shalt use OKRs.”

It would also help if those suggesting OKRs have spelt out what they see as success (100% of OKRs complete? 70%? Or, as I prefer: benefit delivered.) But you know what? If you don’t know this you can clarify it later, nice to know in advance but in a pinch, not essential.

Next I suggest Think Team – I’m skeptical about individual OKRs so don’t set OKRs on anything smaller than a team level. While it might help if the “next level up” set OKRs first if the team start first then the team clearly own the OKRs. So, while there are advantages to knowing the priorities higher up there are also advantages to taking the initiative.

If you want to set some kind of individual objectives then my advice is: wait while you learn. Get some experience at the team level with OKRs before thinking about individual goals. Or perhaps, for the first two quarters make everyone’s individual goal “learn how to work with OKRs by working with OKRs.”

It will also help if you have some idea of how your OKRs are going to line up against any backlog you have. Are the OKRs reverse engineered from the backlog? Or do the OKRs have priority over the backlog? Or, as I suggest, use OKRs as a story generating machine instead of having a backlog?

Similarly, if you team needs to “keep the lights on” and do “business as usual” stuff in addition to OKRs you need to know in advance. That will soak up capacity. So how do you reflect that in your OKRs? – in Succeeding with OKRs in Agile I suggest a OKR-Zero for this type of stuff.

Now to set OKRs I suggest at least two meetings – and preferably not too many more. The first meeting is a drafting meeting. You might think of it as a big brainstorm. Get ideas out on the table, talk about priorities. Aim to get a rough draft of some candidate OKRs.

Before that first drafting meeting someone – Team Leader, Manager, Scrum Master, Agile Coach, whoever – needs to confirm what the timeline is. Are the OKRs to run over 13 weeks? – or is it Christmas so this a 15 week quarter? Or maybe you only have 10 weeks this time. The deadlines are important. Don’t plan OKRs without knowing when the first and last days of the cycle are.

It helps if team members have given a little pre-thought to what they would like to see in the OKRs. Now I don’t want a lot of pre-work. And I especially don’t want lots of planning because that a) detracts from they current cycle and b) potentially limits ambition when setting the OKRs. Still a little forethought – think of it like writing your Christmas list.

This suggestion is particularly important to the Product Owner. Since team team are aiming to delivery benefits to others (customers, users, stakeholder, whoever) it is natural that the Product Owner takes a lead in drafting meetings. Whatever title you give this person this is the person who is charged with listening to customer requests, understanding non-customer users, liaising with stakeholders and understanding the business/product strategy and knowing what would be beneficial to who. So it makes sense for this person to have plenty of ideas on what to do.

In the run up to OKR setting is Product Owners need to bring all their homework together and decide what outcomes they would like. The Product Owner needs to present this thinking to the team in OKRs setting and work with the other team members to craft OKRs which reflect those asks. Most importantly of all, they have to understand the implications when some items don’t make the cut.

Thus the Product Owner will walk into the OKR planning meeting with the longest Christmas wish-list of any team member. But they will not get everything on that list, far from it.

Once you have your draft OKRs take a break. At least an overnight break, or maybe a few days.

Do any more homework that is needed (e.g. check requests with customers, show draft to partner teams and managers for feedback, check availability or timelines of people or equipment that might expect to need, etc.)

The second meeting is there to firm up the draft. Ideally after some reflection and some homework everything in the draft looks good, all you need to do is tighten it up and declare it final.

But there is every chance your draft contained six desirable objectives and it needs some reflection and some homework before you can reduce it to three. It may also be that that homework turns up a problem, a priority that had not been appreciated or a block that wasn’t foreseen. In which case you need to revisit the draft.

Setting OKRs inevitably means making choice about what will be done and what will not be done. I’ve heard of teams who have “do not do” lists in parallel with OKRs. This is because OKRs implement strategy and if the strategy is lacking or unclear then OKRs will make that clear, and hopefully seed a conversation.

Enough for now. I hope you found that interesting. If anyone out there has any more questions about OKRs please let me know and I’ll see if I can answer them here.

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Child at steps in image Jukan Tateisi in Unsplash.

Why I worry about the future of conference speakers

I speak at a lot of conferences and meet-ups, too many. I shouldn’t complain I’ve got books to sell! I’ve also been involved in organizing many conferences – ACCU, EuroPLoP and Agile on the Beach for the last 10 years. There are some trends emerging which worry me and I want to record. So not my usual blog post but I hope this will interest a few people.

Now so many presentations are done remotely I can speak to groups all over the world, last week I spoke to an internal company group in Florida and a couple of months ago to a meet-up in Sydney. I say Florida and Sydney but the attendees were from all over the world, Florida was just the home of the company and Sydney were the group physically met before you-know-what happened.

Increasingly “big name” speakers – maybe me, certainly people bigger than me, people with serious book sales and name recognition in the tech/agile community – are turning up at local meetings and small conferences which are now online. That is good because these groups get to hear directly from people with big ideas.

But, the fact that the big names (and here I probably include myself) are speaking to such groups means others aren’t. In particular local people, new voices, people just starting on the speaking circuit or people who will probably only ever speak to a few events organised by people they know.

My worry is that as more events move online we are perpetuating the winner-take-all culture and making it harder for new people to get started.

Arguably that is offset by fact that more conferences are reviewing submissions anonymously. However I’m not sure anonymous review is a good thing. As a reviewer I normally have two pieces of information: the talk description and the bio of the submitter. I’m looking for an interesting talk and an interesting speaker. Without the bio I only have the talk description to go on. If I select a big name I know I’m selecting a name, when I’m reviewing someone I don’t know I think of them differently.

Consequently reviews are going to favour those who can write stronger, better, descriptions. It may be naturally talented writers, or those who have had the chance to hone the description over previous submissions and presentations. Again favouring the established speakers.

Adding to that is the fact that some speakers work for companies who will help them prepare talks and descriptions. This is more likely in consultancies – or those successful enough to pay for professional help. One comment I heard from conference attendees regularly is that they prefer to hear from non-consultants, those doing actual work, rather than consultants who may have a service to sell. (There are more consultants on the speaking circuit than non-consultants because they have more time and greater motivation to be seen speaking.)

So while well intentioned anonymous review may end up having the opposite effect of that intended.

Next I’m worried about the increased use of online submission systems which create a common pool of speakers – I’ve thought about this long and hard because I looked into this when developing Mimas years ago.

At first this looks great for speakers because they can easily submit too many different conferences. It is good for conferences too because it simplifies submission and increases the pool of speakers. But again this can back-fire.

I once shared a taxi with a speaker whose next conference was in South Africa. He had never heard of the conference but an online system prompted him to submit and guess what, he was accepted! Great but…

As a conference organizer I’ve had to manage over 300 submissions for less than 40 speaking slots. To do the submitters justice requires a lot of review work. A 1:8 ratio is extreme, most conferences it is closer to 1:3 or 1:4. How many conferences can do that?

The last year I ran Agile on the Beach reviews I had over 50 reviewers. That itself makes more work. How many conferences can handle that? Some conferences don’t even have that many attendees.

I used two review rounds, again more work.

And, to be honest, if I have 30 submissions to review, the one I review first will get more thought than the one I review last. Again those who can craft a good description are more likely to get through.

So, common, pooled, online submission systems will increase the number of speakers. Less work for speakers makes more work for organisers. Either conferences will need to invest more in reviewing work or they will end up taking the people they recognise when the cloak of anonymity is raised.

And how are new speakers to improve if they don’t get selected?

Very very few conferences give feedback on submissions to those who submit and are not selected. And as the number of submissions rises the work needed to give feedback also rises. (Particularly since raw comments from reviewers often contradict.)

(Perhaps the thing I am most proud of about Agile on the Beach is that I gave feedback to everyone who submitted. That came at a cost to the conference, and even more, at a cost to me. Ultimately I had to write Mimas to do what I wanted to do and that took a lot more work than I was ever prepared to admit to myself.)

Another side-effect of common submission systems is that conferences organisers have easy access to alternative speakers. There has always been a bottomless pit of people wanting to speak but now they are easy to find. This further reduces the speakers power to ask for travel costs, let alone actual payment. Few speakers get paid for speaking at conferences or meet-ups, with luck the organiser can pay travel costs. This already means those who are successful and can afford the time, and travel costs, are at an advantage. (And again favours consultants for whom speaking is marketing. Consultancies may actively encourage their people to speak, while work-a-day companies are frequently less than keen on employees taking time away from work.)

All-in-all I think well intentioned moves (online talks, anonymous review and pooled submmision platforms) are actually making it harder for new voices to get heard. As so often happens in technology the winners win more and a greater divide opens up.

I don’t know what the answers are. Maybe my concerns are misplaced. But I worry.


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How I prioritise planning over plans

You might think that I’m a really organized person. After all, I spend a good chunk of my life helping other people be more organized about their work – and not just organized, prioritised, effective, and all those other good things. That might be true, people who know me well say I’m really well organized. But I always feel I’m faking it. I’m really disorganized.

As I spend a lot of time working by myself, for myself, and interleaving clients I need to organize my days. Over the years I’ve tried man different ways of organizing myself. Todo lists in my notebook are the main mechanism. Notebook and todo-list works well for the medium range but for the actual work of today its not so effective. I have, and sometimes use, a whiteboard: write out a list of things todo today and tick them as I do them. I’ve use post-it notes: write out all the things I need to do on one post-it each, prioritise them down the side of my desk and tick them as I do them.

In general I find that a system works for a while, maybe even a few of weeks but it decays. Perhaps its too routine, perhaps I’m over familiar. After a while I need a change. So after a period in the doldrums I bring back an old system or invent a new one.

During the last year of house-arrest I’ve found organizing myself really hard. A few months ago I came up with a new system: good old index cards. Extra big ones. On the left are the mundane or household things I need to do. On the right the important business stuff todo.

The keys to making any one of my systems work are:

1. The power of the (big red) tick. Being able to tick things off and mark them as done. Perhaps thats why electronic systems never work for me.

2. Prioritisation: Recognising that some things are more important and need to be done sooner or require more time. Accept some things fall off the bottom and don’t get done.

3. Limiting WIP, work in progress. It is easy to put too many things down, not do them, and write them down again tomorrow.

4. Sticking to the list and not getting distracted.

5. Rewrite the list every day

Now the last three there: prioritisation, limiting WIP and not getting distracted require personal discipline. I have to force myself to work within my system. Sometimes that is hard but if I don’t do it the system breaks down. And actually, that is usually why the system periodically requires reinventing.

For example: many of my cards list “EM, SL and LN” – short for E-Mail, Slack and LinkedIn. Messages arrive for me on all three and there are conversations I sometimes want to join in. But, very little on any of them is so important that is needs to be looked at at 9am. Everything on Slack and LinkedIn can wait, and almost everything on e-mail can wait. So a quick e-mail triage at 9am and pushing the rest until later in the day allows focus on important stuff. Unfortunately, because EM, SL and LN all generate dopamine it it very difficult to prevent myself from being distracted by them.

Rewriting the list everyday helps focus because I’m saying “this is what I will do.” For years I found that every time my notebook todo list ran out of space and I rewrote it I was much more productive that day – plus it was a cathartic experience. Arguably rewriting my list everyday is a waste of time because some items carry over and some items repeat. But the actual process of doing it, the planning rather than the plan, creates focus and motivation.

As you might have guess by now, a lot of this carrie directly over to my clients and their teams: prioritise the work, limit wip, let work fall off, stick to the system and the difficulties of discipline. Of course, what I’m describing is a system that emphasises planning over plans.

Another issue I regularly run up against is the “second priority” problem. Once all the pressing, really important and urgent stuff is done where do I put my attention? When I have three or four lower priority things to do it can be hard to choose which one to do and to stick with it. It can help to time-box the work, write “45” next to the work item and when I start work on it set a timer to stop after 45 minutes. I may not have done everything but I will have made progress and will at least have broken the second priority logjam.

Sometimes it’s hard to address an issue because it not clear what needs doing. When todo items are transactional “call X”, “write Y” it is easy to close them off. But sometimes hard to know what “Website” actually involves, I’m the one who decided I should work on my website, I’m the one doing the work, but what exactly should I be doing? And even if I know I should be, say: “updating keywords” what keywords? where? Even thought I can see something needs attention I don’t know what.

So, am I organized? or disorganized?

Well, I think this goes back to my dyslexia. Dyslexics are frequently disorganised because many (including me) suffer with poor short term memory. Left to myself I can be very disorganized.

But, dyslexics over compensate. A reoccurring pattern with dyslexics is that we have to create our own learning strategies and solutions to our own problems. Sometimes we over compensate and something we are bad at naturally becomes something we are very good at.

That I think is why other people think I’m really well organized and I think I’m badly organized.

And it is those ways of thinking and approaching organization – and work to do – which carries over to my professional work. Call it neurodiversity if you like.


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Online User Stories tutorials now complete

Better User Stories
As a Product Owner I want to write better stories

I’m pleased to announce I’ve released the last of my online User Stories tutorials (part 5: Workflow and Lifecycle) and with that the whole series is complete. You can now buy the entire User Stories set of 5 tutorials as one package at a 40% discount to buying the tutorials individually.

The package includes over six hours of video commentary, exercises, quizzes, downloads and both ebook and audio book versions of Little Book of Requirements and User Stories.

Blog readers can get a further 25% off the price with the code: “blogoct21” until the end of this month, October 2021.

In addition, the first 3 people to use that code will receive a free print copy of The Art of Agile Product Ownership.

The 5 tutorials are:

These tutorials turned ouit to be a lot more work than I expected (where have i heard that before?). The core material is based on the Requirements, Backlogs and User Stories workshop that I have been running for a few years and last year converted to a series of online webinars. In the process the material has become a lot more focused.

Please, let me know what you think, in the comments section below or in the feedback forms at the end of each tutorial in the series.

7 habits of highly effective software development?

“Most of us think we don’t have enough time to exercise. What a distorted paradigm! We don’t have not to.” Stephen R. Covey

Try reading that quote again and substituting the word “refactor” for “exercise.” Or try substitute the words “test first”, or “technical excellence” for “exercise.”

It was Craig Girvan of Head Forwards at Agile on the Beach this month who pointed out to me that one of the most famous management books of all time actually contains an edict to pursue technical excellence and refactoring.

Read this snippet form The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and as you do so think about software development, and specifically the technical quality of the code being cut:

“We are instruments of our own performance, and to be effective, we need to recognize the importance of taking time to sharpen the saw”

Whether you think of the skills of the engineers building the system, the system itself, the technology which powers the system or the process that build the code into an executable there is a resonance.

On of the things Covey emphasis in the book is that the be effective one needs not just productive capacity (“PC”, the capability to produce something) but to maintain that ability and enhance that capacity. Hence his advice to: sharpen the saw. That means using some of your PC to create more PC in future, grow the pie if you like. This is a theme he returns too many times in the book.

And that is exactly the thinking we need to put behind our software development teams: it is not just about producing something for today, it is about increasing our capability for tomorrow. Of course there is a balance, one needs to both produce today and enhance for tomorrow, find the sweat spot is hard.

In the race to deliver value today we sometimes loose that. We forget that enhancing our capability creates value because it helps us create more value tomorrow – that capability is itself valuable. In part the problem is because investing in capability enhancements has a longer payback period, the return on those investments will not be seen immediately while directing our efforts to today will deliver returns real soon.

The old “jam today or more jam tomorrow” problem. It is a balance, and getting that balance right is incredibly difficult.

But it is exactly that philosophy that lead Microsoft and Amazon to reinvest all their profits for many years. Rather than pay shareholders dividends they prefer to invest in themselves so their future capacity is greater. And because of that promise their share rise in value and shareholders benefit more than if they had paid dividends.

It’s nearly 20 years since I read 7 Habits but after Craig’s observation I fished out my copy. What struck me was how the 7 Habits themselves could be seen as a software development method in their own right:

  1. Be proactive: teams are experts in delivering useful digital products, they should be finding what is needed and working to deliver it. Simply doing what you are told is not enough. The days of sitting around waiting for a requirements document or specification are over.
  2. Begin with the end in mind: what could be more outcome focused than that? It’s not about the myriad of stories and features you will develop, its the ultimate goals that is important
  3. Put first things first: some will see this as a mandate to design the thing up front, I don’t, I see this as an instruction to start delivering value and testing hypothesis immediately. For Covey it is simply about prioritisation, “organize and execute around priorities” – simply decide what are the priorities today and get on with them.
  4. Think Win/Win: too often in development we frame decisions in confrontational terms, “Users v. developers”, “The business v. coders”, “Programmers v. testers”. One side “wins” at the others expense. We need to stop that, and we need to stop seeing the divisions. (Similar to David Cote’s argument in Winning now, Winning later.)
  5. Seek to understand first, then be understood: what a brilliant way of saying “Listen to customers” and then frame technical discussions in terms the audience will understand.
  6. Synergize: this overlaps with #4 in my mind. Covey says it is about recognising that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. What better description of a software system could you want? All those little parts, functions, classes, modules, all working together to produce a useful whole. Yet this is one of the most difficult problems in software engineering, approaching it from either the parts or the whole creates problems. Instead we need to build something small that works, some parts that work together, and then grow it, organically.
  7. Sharpen the saw: work to have more capability tomorrow than you have today, which is where we came in

So maybe 7 Habits is a development method in disguise, or maybe its a way of thinking that should inform our approach. In fact, as I said, I read the book nearly 20 years ago, I suspect much of this has seeped into my general thinking and, without me knowing it, informed my approach.

The book may have become a cliche itself but I would still recommend reading 7 Habits.

Saw images from Luke Milburn on Wikicommons, Creative Commons License.


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Questioning the great work from home experiment

18 months ago everyone who worked in an office was sent home, and told “work from home.” Suddenly even the most anti-work from home companies and bosses had to accept it. Even the slowest, bureaucratic, IT departments had to support remote working.

In many ways it has been a great experiment – an experiment that is judged a success because people have been more productive than expected. And look… the western economies are still here. Indeed, some businesses have boomed.

But, I don’t think that was the great experiment. To my mind the great experiment starts now – now that people are getting the option to work in the office or work from home, now that big-bad-managers can lean on people to go into the office and start using “presenteeism” again.

There are a few of points about the great work from home which I think are generally missed. It is because these points no longer apply which makes me thing now is the true experiment. I’ve also got a bunch of concerns, I’m not convinced that surviving the last 18 months by working-from-home is the way we should carry on.

First, the great work-from-home was egalitarian: it wasn’t a privilege or a punishment. Nor was it self-selecting: whether you wanted to or not you did it.

Second, everyone had to do it so everything was online. There were no meetings with some people in one room and others hanging on the end of a telephone, the kitchen was no longer a place for side chats and the smokers couldn’t have their own meetings outside the back door.

Third there was no end date: there was no option to say “we’ll decide it when we are all in the office.”

Finally, last but not least: at least initially it was existing people and teams so relationships and social-capital already existed People were used to working together already.

Bringing in new people, “onboarding” and “enculturing” is always hard, its a lot harder online – and being honest, one of the things I find hardest is finding my way into a new team when everything is online.

As work-from-home has gone on teams have had to learn to recruit and incorporate new people online.

Now, as people drift back to the office – at different paces in different places – these points don’t hold. Now being in the office or not is often a choice, it is no longer whole teams so those side conversations are back.

To my mind this is an even bigger experiment than the great work-from-home; and I think it is going to prove more difficult for companies and teams to navigate.

Personally, I’m really lucky, I’ve had my office in my home for years so I’m all set up for it. But I’m sick of working in the same place day-after-day for months on end. While I’m sure many people never want to see an office again I think there will be many others who are keen to go back to the office.

Next, I have a few fears about the extended remote working model. First off is mental health: without an office, without the journey to and from the office, without the change of clothes that all involves there is less separation between work and home. Without dividing lines that means work impinges on home time and it is difficult to escape work stress.

Second, online working is far more dependent on the written form. That means that those of us who struggle with the written form are at a disadvantage.

Yes I know I’m a bad example, I write too much. But look at all my grammatical and spelling foibles – I’m dyslexic. I’ve learned to be good at writing but really I’d rather be talking.

As e-mail replaces the telephone, Slack replaces the talking across the desk, WhatsApp replaces coffee conversations those of us who struggle with writing are disadvantaged.

Next, I’m concerned for younger people, those who only entered the work force recently. How are they to learn about their job? How are they to learn work culture, let along specific company culture if there is no office?

And most those same people are often in a more difficult position. They are stilling with their parents in their childhood bedroom, or they are living in a house share with problematic internet. In short, younger people need the office more and they need older people as role models and teachers.

Finally, I feel a lot of technology people – programmers specifically – are very keen to push back on any suggestion that face-to-face communication, and co-location, has any advantages. It seems very acceptable to say “We can do everything online, there is no difference.”

I beg to differ. If only because without body language, without facial expressions, without seeing how people react then communication is less – the old “80% of communication is non-verbal” idea. You can do a lot online, but you can also do a lot in person.

Unfortunately I don’t see this debate. I don’t see people discussing “what is best done online” and “what is best done in person.” I see my fellow digital workers being very quick to push back on anyone that questions online working.

Perhaps it’s me, but I feel the technology community is so anti-office work that I have hesitated even to voice these concerns. Anyone else share these views? Or am I persona non-grata?


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Splitting & slicing user stories

I’m please to announce the fourth part of my User Stories tutorial is now available.

User Stories by example, part 4: Splitting stories

In this tutorial I look at 10 days to split a story and illustrate each with examples and exercises.

I have one more part of this tutorial series to deliver, Workflow and Lifecycle, hopefully I’ll have that out in the next month.

Until then please try the tutorial and let me know what you think.

The Sprint Goal?

Hi Allan, what do you think of this as a Spring Goal?
  • Prototype store locator
  • Deploy product selector to live
  • Fix accessibility defects identified by client
  • Complete visual design of search feature
  • Security fixes & updates
  • Team improvement: refactor VX tables, page template processor”

I answer:

“This looks more like a sprint backlog than a sprint goal.”

This e-mail exchange sums up the problem with the sprint goal, or rather, the sprint goal as it so often ends up being used.

The sprint goal has always been part of Scrum even if it has often been forgotten. The idea behind it was to say: “What is the outcome this team needs to make happen this sprint?” The goal was meant to be a non-trivial thing, a meaningful step forward, an outcome, perhaps a challenge, certainly a rallying point.

However the sprint goal fell into disuse. When I used to run teams I never used it – partly because my teams have never used strict Scrum but also because most of the teams I worked with had multiple things happening. The teams were expected to make progress across a broad front. Conversely the sprint goal focuses the team on a single thing.

My experience was far from unique. And, if I’m being honest, in the days when I gave agile training regularly I never talked about it much. Again, most of the teams I encountered were expected to “deliver stuff” it was more a case of “burning down the backlog.”

When I did see the sprint goal used it was normally used in reverse. Rather than teams setting a goal and asking “What do we need to do to make this happen?” teams would decide on a collection of stories from the backlog and then ask “What is the goal we can write that describes this collection of items?” In such cases the goal might as well be “Do stuff” or perhaps “Do the collection of stories we think we can do.”

The goal was meaningless so why bother?

Yet I detect a change in the air. In the last few years I’ve heard the sprint goal talked about more and I’ve observed teams setting a goal more often. Plus, as I wrote in Succeeding with OKRs in Agile, a sprint goal sits well with OKRs – it also provides a way to cut through the tyranny of the backlog.

Unfortunately I have to report the teams I see setting sprint goals are still setting goals about “Do these stories from the backlog.”

Why is this?

Perhaps it is because the sprint goal is misunderstood or perhaps it is because people are aiming to tick off as many Scrum practices as they can, maybe they feel they must use the goal because Scrum lists it.

I’m sure both of these reasons are at play but I think the main reason is because of backlog fetish and the expectation that teams “do the backlog.” Teams – and especially product owners – don’t have the skills or aren’t being given the authority to make decisions about what to do based on fresh information arriving from customers, analytics and analysis.

That is: most teams are still expected to burn-down the backlog.

Well, it is one way of working, I understand the logic, and burning-down a backlog with Scrum is probably still better than ticking off use cases from a requirements document in a waterfall; but it still leaves so much opportunity unrealised. Things could be so much better if teams really worked to sprint goals and OKRs rather than labouring under the tyranny of the backlog.

So if you want some practical advice: if you are setting sprint goals in reverse just give up, accept that you “do backlog items” and save yourself the time of inventing a goal.

And if you are not setting a sprint goal: have a serious talk about it as a team, examine what having a sprint goal would mean and how you might work differently. Then experiment with using a sprint goal for a few sprints.

This advice goes doubly if you are a Product Owner, seriously using sprint goals is going to relieve you of a lot of backlog administration but means you will need to think hard about goals and what will really improve your product.


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Unplanned work after the sprint starts?

“Should unplanned work be allowed after the sprint starts?”

One of those questions which comes up again and again. And it came up last week when I visited a clients offices – yes I actually visited a client! The answer to this question is, as often happens: It depends. So let me give you my thinking.

First, many teams have a rule that work must be scheduled in the sprint planning meeting, after which this is fixed. Teams have a right to make this rule so if this is a team rule – what Kanban folk call a policy – then work is not allowed in.

This rule is based on a strict interpretation of Scrum. The thinking – particularly in early implemenations of Scrum – was that changing priorities was a big problem for teams and therefore fixing the work to be done for a few weeks made sense. In the event of that things did change the team would declare an “abnormal termination of sprint” and move to start a new sprint with new priorities.

Now for some teams this makes complete sense. Barring work from entering the sprint after planning makes complete sense. Equally it makes sense for team members to only do work scheduled in the sprint and refuse all other work. So, it depends… when a team is troubled by new work appearing, priorities changing, and when a team are expected to deliver something new – when their overarching priority is not support but building something new – then this approach makes complete sense.

But, don’t follow this rule just because you think Scrum says so. I just had a quick look at the latest Scrum Guide doesn’t actually mention abnormal termination of sprint. It does say “No changes are made that would endanger the Sprint Goal” which then leads us into a conversation about the sprint goal but let’s hold that for now.

Now ring fencing the team and the sprint like this solves one set of problems but it creates another set. If the team are aiming to be reactive why would they not pick up work?

And as teams increasingly become DevOps or SecDevOps, or BizDev, or whatever, things get more complicated. It would be irresponsible to hold a “no work enters the sprint” if the live server was down or a security hole had been found. But at the same time, being hyper-reactive has a downside because the team would be constant distracted.

Ultimately it is the Product Owner who should have the final say on whether work is unplanned work is accepted or not but when you have a customer on the phone someone else may be forced into a decision.

I apply two tests: is the unplanned work really urgent? – or could it wait a few days and be considered in the next sprint. (Or even queued in the backlog for longer.)

Second, is the unplanned work valuable? – namely, is it more valuable than the work the team are doing and would be displaced by this work. Ideally it would valuable enough to justify the disruption it causes by late entry too.

Hence I like to talk about urgent but valuable unplanned work. Just because something appears after sprint planning doesn’t mean it is not valuable. If the work is urgent, and if it is valuable enough, then it deserves to enter the sprint and get done.

However I like to build in two feedback loops. First, as the work arises, does the person raising the work understand the disruption this will cause? Are they prepared to accept that some other work may not get done?

I like to make this real: pull up your board and show the requester the consequences. Let them prioritise the work against the current planned work. This can make the unplanned work go away.

Second, mark the late-breaking work so you can track it through the system – on a physical board I would use a yellow card. At the end of the sprint review how many yellow cards you have and talk about whether the right decision was made.

Over time, as you build up your data – and stock of done yellow cards – you can reason about the cards and decide your long term action. For example,

You might want to make an allowance in sprint planning for unplanned work: suppose your team averages 3 yellow cards a sprint, then, when you are planning the sprint allow space for them.

If you have many yellow cards regularly you might even want to move to a Kanban model or split the team.

Review the requests, what are the common themes? – is there a module which is particularly troublesome, would some remedial work help reduce the unplanned work.

Or is there someone in particular who raises unplanned work? Should the team leaders talk to this person and see if they could change their behaviour, perhaps they could make their requests a few days earlier.

Maybe you want to ring-fence a team member to deal with unplanned work while the rest of the team pushes on with the main work.

As I said at the top of this post, the unplanned work question comes up a lot. I discussed it in Xanpan so if you want more examples go there. And if you have any other suggestions please comment on this post.


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