governance

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!

A Hammerhead Shark versus James Bond in Speedos

A  Hammerhead Shark versus James Bond in SpeedosI’ve often found that most of the questioning about the worth of agile tends to come from the Project Management community. That’s not a criticism on PM’s but an acknowledgement that for them it’s probably more difficult to see how this agile concept can work.

Traditionally PM’s have tended to need their eyes pointing in different directions – one on the day to day development activities of the team, the detailed planning and daily progress, and one on the bigger picture, the long term roadmap and strategic planning side of a project. And, unless you’re a Hammerhead Shark – this is always going to be a tricky feat.

The trouble with agile, or more accurately, the trouble with some people’s interpretation of agile, is that it can be seen as an excuse to just focus on the tactical side of planning which leaves PM’s wondering what happens to all the stuff their other eye is usually pointing at.

So does being agile really mean ignoring the high level strategic side of managing and planning a project? Will the scent of burning Prince2 manuals soon pervade?

Fortunately this is not what agile means at all – in fact Scrum, which we all know and love, is pretty keen to remind us that we should still do release planning, risk management, and all those important things, it just doesn’t presume to tell us how to do them (in much the same way as it doesn’t tell us how to breathe, eat, sleep or do any other number of bodily functions we should still be doing whilst we’re Scrumming). What we are left to figure out for ourselves, as fully capable agile dudes, is how to ensure that we can stay agile for the long haul, which means having a sustainable and scalable approach to agility.

So how does that work? Is it really possible to add the governance, compliance, risk management and high level planning elements of managing a project to an agile approach without losing the agility? (Let’s hope so, for agile’s sake, because it is clearly and undeniably necessary).

Well, yes, of course, it is possible – otherwise agile just wouldn’t work. But it has to be done in a certain way. Let’s face it – you wouldn’t send James Bond out in full suit of armour, a wetsuit, padded ski suit and a parachute every time he went on a mission. Not only would it be a tad cumbersome, it would also be unnecessary (given that sometimes he gets away with just a small pair of Speedos). What you would do is give him exactly the right amount of kit required for a given situation. The same applies to agile. What’s needed is exactly the right amount of governance, planning and compliance for a given project – no more, no less.

So hang on – what have we got so far? James Bond in Speedos and a hammerhead shark. Which one is the PM? Well in a way it’s both, and neither. Confused? Good. Me too.

And I guess that is the point. A PM’s job is not easy and while they would love to be 007 in speedos (figuratively) – agile, unencumbered, able to work quickly and focus on getting the job done, they still need that hammerhead with one eye on all the ‘other stuff’.

I don’t think we can ever get rid of all that ‘other stuff’. It’s necessary and important. But we can minimise it so that only the right amount of ‘other stuff’ is put in place and we do what NEEDS TO BE DONE, building up from a minimal set (should I mention speedos again?) rather than starting out with everything, including the wetsuit and the parachute. This then, in essence, is the key to disciplined agile.

The PM still needs and will always need to be able to look at both the strategic and tactical side of a project, but with this approach maybe they need be less of a hammerhead. With agile self-organising teams the tactical planning side of a project is very much a team effort and, along with release and sprint burn-downs, daily stand-ups and sprint retrospectives, the tactical management is much less of an overhead.

So maybe, now, a normal shaped head will do, with just two eyes and some kind of innovative mechanism that will turn that head, allowing the PM to focus on the strategic but throw a glance towards the tactical when necessary.

Or maybe I’m just sticking my neck out.

Learn more about lightweight essential governance for agile projects.

Read the article: Agile and SEMAT - Perfect Partners.

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.

What does it mean for the enterprise to be agile?

What does it mean for the enterprise to be agile?Closely allied to establishing the business objectives in adopting agile practices, an understanding of what it means for an enterprise to be agile should be clear to everyone in the enterprise. This post summarizes what it means for an enterprise to be agile from the perspective of the senior executives and stakeholders.

“Agile” is a set of behaviors that help a business achieve its objectives. The most prevalent agile practice, Scrum, defines a set of project management-based behaviors that help practitioners (especially software practitioners) achieve those objectives. However, little is said in Scrum about how to be agile outside of the immediate environment of the Scrum teams. Team agility does not automatically engender enterprise agility.

Deciding where a so-called value chain starts and ends is going to vary according to the individual enterprise considerably, according to factors such as size, business area, degree of specialization, vendors and suppliers as part of the larger value chain (or even ‘ecosystem’). However, this is a bit like a “5 WHYS” analysis, you have to recognize where it makes sense to stop the analysis at. Mostly, a company’s corporate boundary makes a natural place to stop (though ideally the whole external supply chain would be synchronized and agile). However, this may be too great a challenge for many organisations to begin with, so smaller organizational units and business units within the enterprise may have to suffice for the initial vision and implementation.

As a reference point, for a hardware-based product company, the groups that might be considered for inclusion in the scope for enterprise agility could look like: Sales, Marketing, HR, Executive Management, Software Engineering, Hardware Engineering, Product Definition, Product Releasing, Product Testing, Technical Documentation, Project Management, Programme Management, Quality Assurance. Where any of these groups are excluded, there will probably be a detrimental reduction in overall agility.

Here are some of the major characteristics that an agile enterprise will typically exhibit, at the ‘manager’ and ‘senior executive’ levels (some apply more to some groups than others):

  • Commitment through close involvement and engagement with agile teams
  • Removal of organisational impediments and issues
  • Flexibly determining release content and being responsive to change: based on sustainable organisational capacity and economic value (including cost of delay); taking into account (test) results and feedback
  • Be Servant Leaders: inspire, motivate, lead by example: including: allowing teams to self-organise - “Self-organisation does not mean that workers instead of managers engineer an organisation design. It does not mean letting people do whatever they want to do. It means that management commits to guiding the evolution of behaviours that emerge from the interaction of independent agents instead of specifying in advance what effective behaviour is.” – Philip Anderson, The Biology of Business
  • Demonstrating trust, especially in avoiding delving into (and controlling) the detail: but note also that trust is engendered by successful delivery
  • Focusing on throughput of (valuable) work rather than on 100% Resource Utilization
  • Recognizing the differences between repeatable and highly variable knowledge work (avoid purely “widget engineering”)
  • Evolving legacy practices into new (e.g. by evaluating and challenging old Ways of Working): powerful corporate forces can be afoot, so this is not easy.

Leffingwell’s Scaled Agile Framework provides a suitable structure for scaling Scrum to enterprise levels and fills in on many of the executive roles and functions required for success in agile at the enterprise level.

Some useful links:

Next Stop Agile: All Change?

“Before we become agile, do we really need to change everything?”

I was recently asked this question by a client who is just starting on their agile journey.

The potential of agile to change everything often leads people to think that they have to change everything before they can become agile. Instead of seeing opportunities and potential they see obstacles and barriers, to the extent that they’re sometimes too scared to even dip their toes in the agile waters.

The introduction of agile values, and in particular agile practices such as iterative planning and backlog-driven development, will lead to changes in the quality and timeliness of the software produced. This in turn will provide you with lots of opportunities to improve other things such as organizational structures, communication channels, and funding procedures.

To get started there are a few things that definitely need to be changed. These will be focussed in three key areas:

  • Resourcing teams – the agile and iterative approach requires cross-functional teams. Testers for example will now be needed through-out the project, as will test environments;
  • Reporting progress – the regular iterative assessments can be used to replace monthly or other reports. There will be a switch towards concrete measures and away from “pseudo-measures” such as earned value;
  • Planning projects – projects will now be iterative and incremental rather than waterfall. The number and nature of the milestones will change, although you may choose to start your initial agile projects with a “requirements” phase and end with and “acceptance testing” phase. Note: the development will still be done iteratively with testing done every iteration - there will just be some priming of the pump before the iterations start, and some additional acceptance testing once the development is complete.

Once the teams have developed the capability to produce high quality software quickly and effectively, the door opens for even more improvements – in particular:

  • Just in time and just enough requirements – affecting the product owners, product managers and the business
  • Progressive funding models – affecting how you fund your projects
  • Agile contracts with suppliers – affecting your supplier relationships and contracts
  • Improved team cohesion and longevity – affecting line management and resourcing
  • Agile business change – affecting business projects and business programmes
  • Tools and infrastructure – affecting licensing and environments

And finally, opportunities are opened up for an agile organization, with further improvements to:

  • Line management
  • HR
  • Governance
  • Organizational Structures
  • Company Culture

It is always a good idea to brief all the management and business people involved in the projects and teams as they will be affected by the initial round of change, and will benefit from seeing the opportunities that an improved, agile, software development approach will provide.

The good thing is you don’t need to change everything at once, or even at all in many cases. Personally I would always bed in the first round of changes before worrying about the second and third lists of things. This approach values individuals and interactions over processes and tools, as it enables the development teams to improve without dictating to the other parties involved in the business. Once they see the opportunities opened up by agile development practices they will also want to embrace agility and improve their own ways of working.

The Kernel Journals 4: A Cure for Document and Template Addiction

The Kernel Journals 4: A Cure for Document and Template AddictionMany organizations have achieved a degree of process maturity (reliability, discipline, consistency) only by paying a very heavy price – they have become addicted to documents and document templates.

Unfortunately, it can happen all too easily. Most processes end up being document-centric even though they never set out to be so. They start by offering useful process guidance on how to progress the project in a controlled way, in the form of a set of activities, each of which is defined in terms of the artifacts it produces. Most artifacts are documents of some kind and the process helpfully comes with templates for each document – a template is better than having to start with a blank sheet of paper, after all. The project milestones we need to pass through are evidenced using the documents, and the whole thing hangs together nicely. Read More