Alphas

The Power of Checklists

The Power of ChecklistsSurgeons, astronauts, airline pilots and software professionals. What do all these people have in common? Well, for one, all of these professionals are very highly trained – in most cases in takes many years to reach a point where you can practice without supervision.

But even highly trained, experienced professionals can have a bad day, and make the occasional mistake. The problem is, if you’re an astronaut, airline pilot, or surgeon, and you make a mistake, lives can be lost. Software development, perhaps, is somewhat less life-critical, most of the time.

Simple checklists can help reduce human error dramatically. Some reports suggest that surgical checklists introduced by the World Health Organization have helped reduce mortality rates in major surgery by as much as 47%. Neil Armstrong had a checklist printed on the back of his glove (pictured), to ensure he remembered the important things as he made history as the first person to walk on the moon.

So if checklists can save lives, keep aircraft in the air, and help take people to the moon and back, why not utilize them to keep software projects on track, and help maximize the delivery of value, and minimize the risk of project failure?

Checklists help highly trained professionals focus on, and remember, the stuff that is important, and critical to the success of the endeavor they are working on. Unlike traditional process documentation, checklists are, by definition, lean, light and concise, so work well with agile development. The point is that they don’t burden a professional with lots of extra things to remember, or try to be prescriptive about how things are done – experienced professionals can generally be trusted to do the job properly, and make the right decisions when circumstances demand it – a checklist simply acts as an “aide-memoir” so nothing vital is forgotten.

So what does a software project checklist look like? Fortunately, some smart people have already done some work in this area, identifying a core set of checklists that can be applied to any software project, regardless of practices being applied, life-cycle being followed, or the technology or languages being used. They have been particularly effective when used in conjunction with agile approaches such as Scrum. These checklists are available in card form as Alpha State Cards, or as an iOS app.

You can learn more about the checklists by attending this free webinar.

Your feedback is welcomed!

Alpha State Cards in Practice: Experiences from an Agile Trainer

Having had the opportunity to incorporate the Alpha State Cards within some recent training classes I have been delighted to see the enthusiastic reaction they receive. The cards are great at bringing what can sometimes be complex and difficult concepts to life and making them of real practical value to people.

In each Agile training class I deliver now, I use the cards to support an exercise that challenges the groups to determine the current status of a sample software development project. In the discussions afterwards, the groups have consistently reported:

  • They were really impressed on how the cards enabled more effective team communication and collaboration
  • The cards demonstrated in both a tangible and visual way that significant progress was being made, as the Alpha State Cards made it quick and easy to cut through the “noise” to the heart of what mattered
  • The whole experience showed how quick it was to come to a useful conclusion and each group found it an enjoyable way to work

When asked how the cards might support other team activities the feedback included the following:

  • The cards offer a great set of objectives to assist with task identification, task planning and  prioritization activities
  • The states on the card provide a basis for simplifying governance objectives and evaluation criteria, as well as making the whole process leaner
  • Revisiting the card abacus during iteration reviews to demonstrate iteration progress from a state perspective
  • They recognize the ability for the cards to advance and retreat along the abacus, to reflect significant change impacting one or more Alphas

I get a lot of satisfaction from using the cards in these courses as they really act to break down the barriers early in the course by helping the attendees to relax and to build their confidence working collaboratively together. They also gain a sense of experiencing something not only new, but highly effective too, and something they can easily apply back on their own projects to add value and improve ways of working.

For me as a trainer and coach, the cards significantly contribute towards an enhanced learning experience, and in so doing, increase the knowledge retention for the key learning points. The bottom line is it’s best to use the cards in a group situation to truly appreciate their value.

The Alpha State Cards, games and further guidance is available here if you want to try them yourself.

Also there is now a Alpha State Card LinkedIn group which is a great place to share ideas & ask questions about using the cards.

Balancing Agility with Governance

Balancing Agility with GovernanceIt’s not often that I get the opportunity to help facilitate at an agile conference, but yesterday I did just that. I had the pleasure of helping Ian Spence deliver his session at RallyON 2013 in London. The theme of the session was about balancing the goals of agility with the need for governance, compliance and standards.

Most of us by now are familiar with the agile manifesto, and how it states “while we value the things on the right, we value the things on the left more” i.e. individuals and interactions are more valuable than processes and tools, but there is still some value in the latter. The point of the session was that we need to achieve a balance between agility and other things like governance, compliance and standards – things which are very often thought of as conflicting with agile and therefore “the enemy”! This is especially true in large organisations. But people whose job is to implement governance regimes, ensure compliance, and that standards are followed, are also people – people that agile development teams need to interact with.

Anyway, theory over, it was time to play some games – card games to be precise. Ian introduced Alpha State Cards, a simple tool for understanding project health and progress, by focusing on underlying performance indicators – indicators that are essential to all software endeavors regardless of method, process, life-cycle or practices being followed.

We only played a couple of these games: the first was using the cards to understand the state of an example project, the second to determine the required state of key project indicators before a team would be ready to start sprinting. But it was enough to see that a simple lightweight card-based approach could be a useful addition to one's agile toolkit, and help facilitate conversations between different stakeholders in an entirely method-neutral manner.

Ian then showed us how, using the cards to create checkpoints, a lean and lightweight governance model can be quickly constructed: one that is based on objective outcomes, rather than documentation.

The games, and the cards, are both available here if you want to try them out.

Making the Next Wave in the Agile World – Finding the Kernel of Software Engineering

The 6th annual Agile China was held in Beijing from September 1 – 3, 2011. Agile China is a summit of agile world enthusiasts gathering in China. For the past five years, it’s attracted world-class agile experts, such as Martin Fowler, Kent Beck, Dave Thomas, James Grenning, and Mary Poppendieck et al, and tens of  thousands of attendees across China and overseas. It represents the highest level of development and adoption of agile development in China.

This year’s conference proved to be another successful event. The three-day event was packed by some 700 attendees. The conference was opened by Mr. Wang Jun, General Secretary of China System and Software Process Improvement Association, the host of the conference, and keynote by Linda Rising, the authour of “Fearless Change”, followed by parallel sessions on agile training camp, agile new trend, and agile testing and quality control. People gathered to share their experience and to explore new ideas and  trends. The conference atmosphere was full of energy and excitement. Particularly, I truly enjoyed the free style of discussions and presentations – in a real agile spirit. Read More

The kernel Journals 9: Is our way of working fit-for-purpose?

The kernel Journals 9: Is our way of working fit for purpose?We have seen in the previous kernel journals that a process kernel, defined in terms of the key domain entities, or Alphas, and their value state progressions, can give us a simple, shared view of what each and every project has to achieve (which is common across all projects), that is distinct and separate from how they might go about doing it (which may vary from project to project).

Read More

The Kernel Journals 7: SatNav for Software Development Projects

In the last Kernel Journal we looked at the problem that Barry Boehm was aiming to solve back in 1995 when he first proposed his three standard process milestones (which later gained industry prominence as the milestones in the Unified Software Development Process and the Rational Unified Process), namely that “the proliferation of software process models provides flexibility”, but leaves us “with no common anchor points around which to plan and control.” [Barry Boehm, November 1995]. We looked at how a small set of domain entities with simple state progression models (which we call “Alphas”) can make these common anchor points much more practical and useful while ensuring that they remain process-neutral and do not become “document-driven”.

The alphas, when used with common milestones such as the Unified Process Milestones, can actually give us much more than this – they can provide a project status and health dashboard that can be used by the customer and supplier organizations to assess the current status and health of any / all projects, irrespective of which processes or practices they are following. The graphic below shows just such a dashboard, with a set of kernel alphas and a traffic-light status for each alpha, which is derived by comparing where the project is now (the state machine to the left of each traffic light) with where it needs to be to achieve the next project milestone (the state machine to the right of each traffic light).The Kernel Journals 7: SatNav for Software Development Projects

In Kernel Journal 5: “Making the Invisible Visible” I described how we can easily “skin” a process kernel, by providing a portal for projects to capture, share and agree the essential project information that is needed to achieve each state progression (for example, using a set of templated Wiki pages). Once we have done this, we can make the alpha dashboard much more useful to the project teams themselves, by flagging which sections of the project portal need to be updated and agreed to get the project to where it needs to go next.

This gives us the equivalent of a Satellite Navigation System for our software projects project that enables us to:

  • Set our journey destination and waypoints (milestones)
  • Track where we are now, compared to where we want to be
  • Get guidance on what to do next in order to progress towards our destination.


 

The Kernel Journals 5: Making the Invisible, Visible

The Kernel Journals 5: Making the Invisible, VisibleThe kernel Alphas are the core, key, critical, central, essential conceptual entities that we need to manage and progress in a controlled way in order to ensure a successful outcome for our project. But, like all concepts, they have the distinct disadvantage of being invisible. A project manager is convinced that his project is important and that managing its progression to a successful conclusion is critical. But if, as an outside assessor, I were to say “bring me this project of which you speak so that I may gaze upon it and assess its status” he would be stumped. He can show me plans, people, documents, but he can’t show me “the project”. These key concepts are the elephants in the room that no one can see because …  well , because they are invisible. To be useful, they need to be made visible and real, so normal people can interact with them.

Read More