Thursday, 29 September 2011

Pressure versus Urgency - is there a difference?

Last week I experienced an interesting interaction with the lead architect on my team, who'd been away for several days on a conference; and come back to find things not to his liking - the quality of the deliveries was not up to standard, people were not adhering to the architecture -- his take was that the team are under enormous pressure from me to get things done and delivered at the end of the sprint.

This caught me by surprise at first - how odd, I've not even started applying any pressure...But I've grown used to the different kinds of people on the project team; and hence didn't react negatively or emotionally.  My reaction:
"I appreciate your concern and understand where you're coming from. I think there's been a misunderstanding, perhaps due to my not making myself clear. There is a difference between Pressure and Urgency.  Yes, there's a sense of urgency around us finishing work according to plan because people are depending on work being created, but at no point should we compromise quality  - there was no pressure to take short-cuts; the architecture rules must be adhered to, no working off a branch, everything must be done on the main product, adhering to all quality standards..."

Having satisfied this architect, who left away happy that we were on the same page, I was still left with a sense of uncertainty myself. The team have probably got the concepts mixed up, although to be fair, there is rather a vague line between the two terms Pressure & Urgency -- but big difference with how these terms manifest themselves through action.  In the spirit of collaboration I then fired off an email to the team highlighting the difference in the context of our project and business needs, and then settled the matter at the retrospective. It turned out, as so often is the case with these things, the architect misunderstood what the team had been attempting, working on a branch only to prove concepts and theories that necessitate rapid development at the expense of some the architectural bottlenecks, i.e. we willingly broke the architecture to prove a few points....

Nevertheless, I still wonder if I may have unconsciously contributed to applying artificial pressure. I will explain the nature of my current project in a future post - Suffice to say my role is blurred, call it "Pseudo-Scum-Master-trying-to-balance-Hard-Delivery-Project-Manager-Development Manager-with-a-slight-touch-of-Product-and-Programme-Manager". I am seriously not blowing my own trumpet here, we are an evolving project team where the (unwritten) roles&responsibilities that were supposedly assumed well defined is in reality quite blurry - no surprise to software development projects, and especially not surprising when its an organisation's first attempt at truly in-house software development...

Definition of Pressure according to Free Dictionary
The ones that stand out for me are:

  • the act of pressing
  • the condition of being pressed
  • the application of continuous force by one body on another that it is touching; compression
  • a compelling or constraining influence, such as a moral force, on the mind or will: pressure to conform
  • urgent claim or demand: under the pressure of business
  • to force, as by overpowering influence or persuasion.
    an urgent claim or demand or series of urgent claims or demands to work under pressure
  • the quality or condition of being urgent; pressing importance: the urgency of the call for help; pleading with urgency.
  • a pressing necessity
  • all hands and the cook A state of emergency which of necessity becomes everyone’s top priority. This early American cowboy expression described the precarious state of affairs in which the herds were wild and all available persons were needed to bring the situation under control. Under normal circumstances, cowboys tended herds and cooks fed the cowhands; however, an emergency required that everyone chip in, temporarily ignoring differences of rank or task.
  • the state of being urgent; an earnest and insistent necessity
Agile lends itself well to Urgency
The very nature of Agile/Scrum with its fixed sprint cycles, the two-week time-box for example can be in itself quite pressurising. There is a natural sense of urgency to ensure that enough detailed planning is done up-front, the work is well understood and the team hit the ground running on day one of the sprint. In Ken Schwaber's Agile Project management with Scrum, he talks about how important it is to do detailed planning, that agile doesn't ignore sensible process; and the importance of delivering something at the end of the sprint.

Incidentally, the same architect who talked to me about pressure, at my interview took pride in saying that the team would do whatever it takes to finish the sprint  according to plan - work overtime, come in on weekends, etc - what gives? According to Dave@PracticalAgility, projects with urgent goals are prime agile candidates, but he also cautions not rushing along to do things quickly, and the importance of taking a pause - which coincidentally is what I've proposed to senior management just yesterday (only saw his post today as I googled on this subject)...

Is there really a difference between Urgency & Pressure?
Yes, there is. It's not just my take on it - Others outside of software face similar challenges. Take for example the Pressure VS Urgency from Real Estate, although software projects are a little more peculiar.

People Under Pressure Don't Think Faster!
Tom DeMarco dedicates chapter 15 "Think Fast" of The Deadline to the effects of pressure. The Deadline is an interesting tale as it covers almost every experience one encounters in software projects, especially the unrealistic and nonsensical demands from senior management placed on their underlings, with the poor project manager acting as the buffer. "Think Fast" is about the main stakeholder changing direction and enforcing his might just because he can, and this sets the team down the road of discussing & modelling the effects of pressure. It concludes by asking the ever-knowing Oracle:

Why does the effect of pressure on programmers max out after only 6% productivity gain?

Oracle replies:


DeMarco then summarises the effects of pressure (Page 199, The Deadline):

  • People under pressure don't think any faster
  • Extended overtime is a productivity-reduction tactic
  • Short bursts of pressure and even overtime may be a useful tactic as they focus people and increase the sense that the work is important, but extended pressure is always a mistake
  • Perhaps managers make so much use of pressure because they don't know what else to do, or are daunted by how difficult the alternatives are
  • Terrible suspicion: The real reason for use of pressure and overtime may be to make everyone look better when the project fails
The same message is discussed in the more serious book, outside of the novel context, in DeMarco's "Slack", Chapter 7, titled "The Cost of Pressure". Hopefully you can see this snapshot, please get a copy of this book.

Essentially confirming what is now well known: Pressure has limited capacity to reduce delivery time, maybe 10 or 15 percent at the most. Excessive pressure weakens performance. The model is divided into 3 regions:

  • Region 1: workers respond to increasing pressure, eliminating waste, staying late, focus on critical path - falsely suggesting improved delivery
  • Region 2: workers are getting tired, feeling pressure from home, doing other stuff "undertime" - no motivation, unwilling to sustain, resigning to ignorance
  • Region 3: workers are polishing up CVs and beginning to look elsewhere
Closing Summary - Software projects can't hide from Pressure/Urgency
I have in the past worked on many a demanding project and I've always challenged management's decisions of increasing the pressure points, always quick to point out that adding pressure doesn't make people work any faster, it'll take as long as it takes, people will leave the project, etc. I must admit though, that I've come to learn there is indeed a difference between urgency and pressure; but it takes some tact to get it right. When people are motivated by an urgent need - urgent needs can be good motivators - people surprise themselves - problems are solved in novel ways, there is more focus and concentration. There is a natural pressure of course, but not the kind of pressure from a demanding boss expecting results now now now - if the urgency is communicated well, it brings out the best in people. If it's just imposed pressure, people turn to acid and can't wait to leave the project.

Applied in bursts, pressure/urgency can be a great tool - ultimately though, you're working through people - so ensure people are rewarded and appreciated for their efforts!

I have personally been on projects that may have seemed like Death Marches, but appreciated the sense of urgency to get things done, the reward was self-gratification is seeing the product deployed in tens of millions of people's homes, or providing crucial services to improving the company's bottom-line. Yes, some  projects could definitely been managed differently to avoid burnout, but sometimes, in the world of business this is an unfortunate reality; and especially in today's globalised economy - the hard truth of the matter is, engineers are a dime a dozen..

It is still important though to make sure your team understands the context of the business, the phase of the project and have a sense of awareness of the demands being placed on them, giving them the right and freedom to express concerns of pressure impacting the deliveries.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Practical Retrospective on Agile Retrospectives...

If you read my previous posts on Agile, you'll know that I'm not claiming to be an Agile expert, nor a pukka Agile practitioner that abhors classic project management principles, evangelising the merits of Agile/Scrum to everyone, etc - but I do believe in the core principles of the method and am applying as many of these principles in my day-to-day activities in my current company, where I'm a part-time Scrum Master.

I'd like to share my experience with running Retrospectives. Reading about the topic is one thing, going on a training course or seminar is definitely enlightening, but practising the thing in real world scenario is another experience all together. It is especially challenging when the team are used to doing it a certain way, have certain misconceptions or are not familiar with the goal of the process.

Take my current team for example - we're a team of 20 developers & testers, with a handful of business analysts, graphics artists that make up the product team. We're working on an advanced user interface for STB EPGs. It's no typical project because 18 months down the line the requirements for the UI completely changed [maybe it is your typical S/W project :-)] and we're dealing with a lot of uncertainty.  I'll discuss the nature of this challenge in a future post, and how different streams of Agile can be applied to remedy the situation.

Focussing on the retrospectives for now, you need to understand the nature of the team. A Scrum Master is not just a buffer, is not just someone who can facilitate and remove impediments, is not just someone who knows and applies Scrum processes properly. A Scrum Master must also be in-tune with detecting the make-up of the team, understanding the nature of each individual, and apply different tactics for different people. Whatever management courses teaches you about knowing the characteristics of your people, their temperaments, strength deployment index & motivational values -- all of this must be noted and applied in the daily management of Scrum teams.

It is especially relevant when it comes to running a retrospective.  In my team for example, we've got two development units. One unit comprises a team of contractors from India, being led by an Indian who's been living in South Africa for the last seven years. Most of the guys are from the same region Kerala, and gel quite well as a unit.  The second unit is dominated by white South Africans, mostly Afrikaners & a native SA Indian. The former unit, is quite reserved and look for direction from the team leader. Generally the team leader speaks on behalf of the team - this is typical culture of the Indian way of working.  The latter unit however, is a very loud, outspoken team - people are not afraid of talking (mostly out of turn), and venting their issues.  In the midst of each team, are representatives from the Product team, consisting of very experienced analysts (who've never used Agile before, as well as some really new people who've not worked with STBs before). The product team supply the work to the development units, and thus are part of both teams retrospectives. So we two separate retrospectives (we also do two, now going on three, separate stand-ups, planning meetings & planning reviews).

We run two week sprints, we've just finishing Sprint 23. Up until Sprint 21, the retrospectives was all about - "What are the issues, How can we fix them...". In Sprint 22, we introduced the "What's worked well, What's not worked so well & should stop,  What can we do better/You like to add".  I kept the format of the previous retrospective, but introduced a the retrospective as a game. Essentially my message to the team was that Sprints are personal experiences for each member, it's an individual experience - so we want to hear from each team member on his/her take of the Sprint...

The rules of the game:

  • Each member in the team must express an opinion - must voice something.  (The Indian team are normally reserved, and leave the talking to the team leader). Enforcing this rule, then compels people to participate
  • Don't be afraid to say anything - we will not judge you, interrupt you or challenge your response (Some members are really loud, physically imposing, sometimes intimidating and rash when speaking that can be misunderstood by most people as being directed personal jabs, people are shy or insecure about saying something that makes them look stupid) - So remove all of that out, and create an atmosphere of safety
  • No speaking out-of-turn - Wait for your turn to speak please. Stop loud people in their tracks, they must observe the rules
  • Give everyone a chance to have his/her say. You can only comment on what topic at a time - e.g. first round looks at "What is working well" - repeat as required until you run out of suggestions, then start the next topic
  • Do not try to solve problems in detail in the retrospective - we identify the top 10 burning issues that must be resolved in the next sprint, assign owners to actions
  • Keep-to-time: Strong time-keeping, do not stray off-topic. Force people to stick to the topics
  • Allow a few minutes of silence time for people to collect their thoughts and write their suggestions/concerns on a post-it (We usually provide food during the retrospective as we run this over lunch period - so it's a good ice breaker, eat and think about what you're going to say)
The result??

It was amazing - the Indian team participated fully. We heard each member speak, some for the first time. People observed the rules as best as they could, and enjoyed contributing. So quite positive for this team. The second unit shared similar response, although it was much easier to get this team to speak (it's usually hard to get them to shut-up!) - but with the rules in place, even the loud-mouths had to hold their tongue, wait for their turn, etc. We also didn't end up trashing other people's ideas - and we tried to stick to the time limit. 

A lot of good stuff came out of the retrospective - I hope we can carry this forward.  To conclude, Retrospectives can be fun, but some work is required upfront to ensure that not only you as the Scrum Master gets the results you need, but also the team should leave the session having felt they've made valuable contributions, listened and paid cognisance to other people's problems and most importantly, trust the outputs of the session will create value going forward....

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Agile Checklist from the Trenches

I've been working on projects for a number of years now. Whilst I'm not claiming to be a certified Scrum Master (which personally I don't think you really need to get certification), if you go about managing projects with a sense of common sense and realism, adhering to core principles, not only adopting a process but ensuring consistent implementation of the processes -- then you're bound to be successful.

Most of my experience with Agile/Scrum comes from running multi-site projects, with teams situated in different parts of the world, with shared product ownership. One can maintain the spirit of Scrum in such projects, but it requires some management and oversight...compared to the classic small person teams of 10-30 people located under one roof, in the same building, on the same floor. Physical location is important. It is really quite interesting the effects of geographical location of development teams plays on the success of the project, the dynamics of the team, and the overall end-goal of product quality. It's not as straightforward as this, just Google for "multi-site software development". But still, on principle, managing a small local team of mixed individuals versus a global team, incurs less management overhead but share underlying Scrum philosophies.

This post is a brain dump of my lessons learnt and observations so far with Scrum/Agile, the headings comes from an Agile Refresher workshop I attended last year at my previous company but the explanations are all my own opinion.

Hopefully you apply some of these learnings to of your own Scrum projects:

Best Practices - multi region projects

1. Team Setup

  • No one man teams
    • Ensure all people are given equal opportunity to choose tasks, even though there might be an expert in the team that can do most, if not all the jobs on his/her own. Avoid allocating work to specific technical experts, embrace knowledge sharing. Use the experts to help with user stories and work distribution
  • Consider and assign people with multi site collaboration skills
    • Working in a multi-site team requires to have people who are skilled at soft skills, a natural talent for bringing people together and engaging in meaningful discussions despite cultural differences.
  • Consider if you have to duplicate roles on sites, e.g. have a proxy Product Owner (PO) or Development Owner (DO)
    • If the local and off-site teams are equally sized requiring similar management overheads, consider adding proxies on the remote site - as this enables some central control and synchrony. Challenge with this of course is for the local & remote POs to communicate and understand each other well
2. Align Expectations
  • Set clear vision and get team buy-in
    • It's important to set clear goals for the project, and directions for all the teams. Propose, instead of direct how the project will be structured, involve the team in fleshing out the organisational structure since the team members know best what their strength's and weaknesses are - bring all of this to light at the start of the project creates an atmosphere of inclusion, better chances of getting team buy-in, because the team will have contributed to defining the vision and be determined from day one to actively contribute to the success of the project
  • Define roles and responsibilities
    • This is important to all development processes, not just multi-regional.  Clear roles and responsibilities must be defined so that people understand what's expected of them. In local and remote teams, this thus avoids duplication of work, people are less-likely to step on each other's toes, or choose work without first understanding the process of getting new work assigned to the backlog. In the case of strong minded technical people who are confident and self-motivated, try to give some responsibility and autonomy to these guys for example, being the proxy PO or DO. 
  • Define decision process
    • This is quite important in keeping with defining the roles and responsibilities. Decisions need to be made quickly, it's about reacting to the current need, wearing the hat of pragmatism. Beware of strong minded and loud personalities, ensure that everyone buys-in to the decision process - be clear as to where the buck stops! 
  • Define success criteria (for a  multi regional collaboration)
    • In the end we not only want the project to be successful in terms of meeting its objectives, we want the team, the people that led to completing the project, finish the project feeling a sense of accomplishment, having learnt something and for the team to grow from the experience. 
3. Communication
  • Set-up Communication Structure
    • Face-to-Face
      • This is always preferred where practical. Certainly with local on-site teams, F2F should be encouraged. Discourage email and phone calls especially when the team is co-located. Be sure though to limit the number of meetings - meetings must have a purpose and add value to the project.
    • Video Conference (weekly)
      • The next best thing to face-to-face is Video conference - especially with remote teams. Ensure you have the right tools that enable a please VC experience.
    • Email Distribution Group
      • Setting up an email distribution group is useful for quick, directed communication. Beware of unnecessary email though.
    • Reporting (team internal, group, external stakeholders, etc)
      • Agree on the reporting mechanisms up-front, with clear owners for reporting. Keep the local Scrum management fluid, less admin heavy and try to make public whatever the team is up to. Do not spend too much time generating reports that no one will read.
    • Iteration planning
      • This might come as a surprise to most people new to Scrum, but you have to have a clearly defined iteration planning process, including pre-planning, analysis and design, etc - ensure the planning sessions are well communicated in advance, keeping an up-to-date backlog that is publicly accessible is also good practice.
    • Demos
      • Demos are key to communicating to stakeholders the progress of the project. Ensure regular demos are held, made publicly available - communicate via email, wiki or blog - but get the message out to your target audience!
  • Shape Communication Culture
    • No matter what school of project management you come from, there is an underlying problem in all: Communication, communication, communication. Instil this culture by:
      • Provide feedback
        • Continuously seek out opportunities to provide feedback at team level, or even at individual level.
      • Create Information flow (using email group and other means)
        • Don't hide information - open and transparency helps as long as you're confident the team can deal with this information, otherwise it has to be limited information flow
      • Make sure everyone has the necessary information, be inclusive
        • Everyone one the team must have the information to help them get the job done - there should be no secrecy
  • Be open about language issues - create a culture where it's OK to ask for repetitions
    • This is important because for most remote teams, their first language is most likely to differ from the core team on location. Cut-short whatever cultural blame-games are going on, instil openness and be frank that there is the language barrier - the team must respect this difference and be patient to repeat discussions or instructions if required.
4. Agile/Scrum
  • Create common understanding of what Agile means for your project, including Retrospectives every iteration, Shared Backlogs, Iteration Demos, etc.
    • It is important the entire team understand what Agile/Scrum means and how the project is going to adopt those principles. Get all misunderstandings corrected and clarified at the outset, for e.g. the myth that documentation is not required, etc, etc.
5. Team Building
  • Early Face-to-Face meeting - cross pollination
    • As pointed out above, face-to-face is personal, adds human touch - helps with getting to know one another. This should be encouraged
  • Build Trust
    • Generally managers (POs/DOs) take a long time to build trust - ensure that when people come to you to solve problems/impediments, that you act immediately. This will instil confidence in the team that management is listening and can be counted on to solve issues. Protect the team if things are not going well - managers are a shield to the team.
  • Create Team Spirit (we want the team to succeed)
    • As covered above, encourage peer dialogue, pair programming, etc. Promote team exercises, challenge team in other ways to possibly solve problems not related to work - all of this will get people to gel together, building team spirit
  • Be Respectful
    • Especially with multi-site teams with cultural differences, respect is important. This can be learnt by promoting cultural awareness. Where the POs/DOs are senior technical people themselves, allow yourself to step away from the problems and let the problems be solved by the team
  • Empower - give people responsibilities equally across regions
    • Where there is interest from people who have shown competence and can be trusted, then continue to add more responsibilities. Where teams are separated geographically and the skills are equally matched ensure that work is evenly distributed. Where there is a skills gap, try to bridge that gap with doing knowledge share sessions, etc - promote cross functional knowledge, avoid domain experts.
  • Recognise Success/Failure equally
    • Remember we're all in this to learn. We're working with people - projects will come and go, but the people will most likely remain the same.  Reward successes, and see failures as just delayed successes. Failure is just one step to success, to wisdom - try to understand the reason for the failure and then help the team to overcome this.  Make sure the team adopts a "no-blame, no name-and-shame" attitude.
6. Management
  • Project Management (PO & DO) to follow team closely
    • Multi-site development teams require some close management, not micro-management - but POs/DOs/PMs must ensure there isn't any hidden festering issues. All the while the management team must adopt the stuff described in the above points
  • Be aware of the culture you have in the project/team
    • Management team must be aware of the culture of the project, and have realistic expectations
  • Intervene when experiencing problems, e.g. by doing Force Field Analysis / Root Cause analysis with the team
    • Where required, if you spot the team going down the wrong path - then step in and offer assistance. Don't dictate, be tactful in approaching the problem - ensure you get to the root cause
  • Exchange ideas/best practices between projects, e.g. knowledge-bridge
    • Helping other projects out as a result of learnings from your project is a nice way to network, promote knowledge-sharing and instil values in the company of sharing knowledge rather than having competing teams
  • Inspect and Adapt
    • As always, no process is perfect. Neither is a process static. You have to continuously reflect on your processes, team, behaviours, outputs, etc and be willing to change direction, adapt your processes and be open with failure as well...