Meetings meetings and more meetings

BureauWhy on earth do I need to spend so much of my time in a meeting?  This is an absolutely sane question that most of the team members wind up asking at some point in time while I am coaching an organization towards more adaptive management techniques.

Regardless of the role, there are other things beyond meetings that we have traditionally declared to be productive use of time.  If you are a developer, then we declare productivity to be associated with time spent writing software.  If you are a product manager, then we declare productivity to be associated with time spent defining the next version of a product or understanding the market’s demands.  Whatever the role, its rare for an organization or a profession to associate meeting time with high productivity.

From this perspective, it makes a ton of sense when people beg the question,

“Why on earth do I need to spend so much of my time in a meeting?”.

Here’s my usual answer:

“What defines a productive minute, is it one that is spent focusing on your craft or is it a minute that is spent delivering value to the organization as quickly as possible?”

I tend to think that a productive minute is one that is spent delivering value to the organization as quickly as possible.  So, while the time spent practicing a craft is absolutely a critical part of getting value to the organization it is a waste if the individual is not hyper focused on the actual needs of the organization.  And this is where meetings come into the picture.

Effective meetings will have a specific theme and will enable a team to establish high clarity  around the needs of the organization and teach accountability.  For most of the teams that I coach this involves a few specific themes:

(1) Daily Standup – This is a quick touchpoint that is oriented around maintaining accountability within a team as each member takes a minute to update the other team members about the progress she has made over the past 24 hours, progress that she expects to make over the next 24 hours, and any issues or concerns that she needs help addressing.

(2) Tactical Meeting – This is an hour or more and has a very specific purpose, dealing with short term tactics such as creating clarity around near term market needs or ensuring that the team is successful in meeting its commitments.

(3) Strategic Meeting – This is usually a half day or more and is focused creating clarity about how to move the organization forward with a focus on the longer term vision and strategies.

What’s your take, are meetings useful in your organization?  Do your meetings have specific themes or are they a mix-mash of agenda topics?

Team World Vision’s Virtual 6k for Water, will you join?

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Join me on World Water Day (March 22, 2015) as I run/walk Team WorldVision’s virtual 6K for Water in North Atlanta.

6K is the average distance that people in Africa have to walk for water. On World Water Day, thousands of people across neighborhoods, city streets, and country roads will be walking and running 6 Kilometers (3.72 miles) for children in Africa.

When you sign up, Team WorldVision will send you a t-shirt and a race bib with a photo of a child that will get clean water from your registration. This is your chance to invite your whole family to make a difference regardless of age.  If you are in Atlanta and want to join myself and others look for the “North Atlanta – Big Creek Greenway” team when you register at http://www.TeamWorldVision.org/6k.

Running with a Vision

Child&Vulture - Kevin Carter

“Kevin-Carter-Child-Vulture-Sudan” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kevin-Carter-Child-Vulture-Sudan.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Kevin-Carter-Child-Vulture-Sudan.jpg

I’ll never forget the first time that I saw this picture of a child in Sudan that was trying to reach a feeding center.  It was almost 10 years after this picture was taken that I first received it by way of email from one of my friends.  He like many who had experienced the photo was in shock and felt the need to spread the word, that this was happening in our world.  So, he sent a copy to me.  This picture had a profound impact on my heart.  The thing that surprised me was how I initially chose to deal with the picture.  My initial reaction was one of anger and shock

“this is terrible, how can we let this happen in our world”.

My second reaction was to compartmentalize and depersonalize the situation…

“there is nothing I can do about it, this terrible picture is a result of evil people who are being allowed to steal from children and families without anyone fighting back”.

I was too caught up in trying to solve the whole problem and was overwhelmed by the need and so I sought the safety of blaming others for the problem.  I was wrong.  This picture is not a rare event that only happened 20 years ago.  This picture is happening all over today and we can help.  More amazingly, to help I don’t have to move my family to Sudan or any other part of the world.  Trustworthy humanitarian organizations like World Vision are filling the gap between your home and the field where children and families are suffering.

This is personal, and I am running with a vision.  In 2013 I learned about Team World Vision, an extension of World Vision that helps to engage the community in taking steps to raise awareness of the needs and raising funds to meet the need.  

Here is my challenge, don’t seek comfort when you hear of the needs in our world.  Seek ways to help, join me in getting involved with the solution.  You may not be able to solve all of the world’s problems; but, together if we each carry the part that we can carry we will make a significant impact on the lives of those who are neglected by their governments and communities.

I need your help, share this, comment on it and let’s work together to raise awareness and help meet the needs for funds.  You may still be tempted to ask “If I help one or two people what difference will it make” and please challenge that thought by remembering that it makes all the difference in the world to the person that receives your help.

Join the team, donate to the team or find another way to get involved.  Make this personal.

Read more about my race experience with Hood To Coast ’14 here.

Scrum: Committing while discovering

towingiceberg

committing while discovering

One of the more common themes that I come across while working with teams is the question of “how can we make a sprint commitment if we are still discovering how to solve for a story or set of stories”.

This is a great question. I may have lost some of you already due to my use of commitment and scrum in the same sentence 🙂

Hang with me if you will for a moment and then share your thoughts.

First a bit about my perspective on commitment and scrum: I feel that making a commitment in scrum helps to maintain transparency for both the delivery teams and also the stakeholders.  I think that Scrum has a great tool in the use of both velocity and story points. Story points are an entirely nebulous unit of measurement that is usually derived from a combination of (1) complexity, (2) time, and (3) uncertainty or risk. Velocity is the average number of story points a team is able to complete during a normal sprint.  So, the team’s velocity reflects how many of these points a team can usually complete within their next sprint, or their capacity.

I coach teams that they will usually need to look at a story roughly 3 times (or more) before it is committed to as part of a sprint. This usually takes place during regular backlog refinement sessions and then finally during the sprint planning session. During these sessions, if the team feels there is a lot of uncertainty around “how” the story will be fulfilled the points for the story should be relatively higher that it would be had the uncertainty been low. This could mean that a story that would have been rated as “5 points” if there were low uncertainty may now be ranked as an 8, 13, 20 or even 40 now depending on how large the uncertainty is.

So, given all of this, how do I answer the initial question of “how can we make a sprint commitment if we are still discovering how to solve for a story or set of stories”?

I generally advise teams not to take on stories that are larger than an 8 or 13 (depending on the relative sizes of their stories) into their sprint. If the uncertainty is high enough that they are not able to take the story in, then I will typically recommend that they try to split out the uncertainty from the story in the form of new risk stories. The original story will then be made dependent on the new risk stories. Each of these risk stories will then have a specific question or concern that needs to be clarified. The team can then decide if this clarification will take place as a part of a backlog refining session or if they are comfortable allocating a portion of the sprint’s capacity towards answer/resolving the risk. Once resolved, the original story is unblocked and allowed into the next sprint.

Thoughts?

Thanks!

Trust me… Agile just won’t work here…

I usually smile when I hear a statement like this: “Our culture is way too …” fill in the blank “Agile just won’t work here!”

Why do I smile?  I find that people are typically referring to a common belief that in order to be “agile” an organization’s culture needs be one of “trust”.  The belief is that an organization should trust its people to:
(1) make the right decisions, and
(2) do their best to deliver products and services that will make the business succeed.

All good stuff, very good in fact.  But, good or not, its a really steep hill to climb for an organization’s culture to go from (a) low-trust: managing projects for performance against their time, cost and scope commitments while focusing on departmental efficiencies to (b) high-trust: self-managed delivery systems that act responsibly within the available time and budget.

As we see in HBR’s article on organizational culture “Culture is powerfully shaped by incentives”.  As a result, we need to figure out how to (a) build trust, and (b) change the incentives.  Doing this is actually fairly straight-forward if you are working with your business’ leadership and solving for their issues.  What are their issues?  In most organizations, their issues are how to make and meet commitments in a way that is within their defined budget.

Becoming agile isn’t about using this method or that method.  It’s not even about trust.  Its about creating a system that can respond to change in a way that creates safety for the business’ leadership by respecting their immediate needs.  So, instead of trying to just go out and be agile, I think we need to start with a business need and find ways to meet it while creating safety for the individuals involved.  We need to create a roadmap to go from point a to b.

Most business leaders are desperate for better ways to deliver against their commitments while having the ability to adapt their plans along the way when things change.  Most leaders are absolutely thrilled to trust their people; but, remember, to establish the trust we have to be willing to first make and meet commitments in a way that shows them we can be trusted.

Thoughts?

How do I prioritize work?

Value is a funny thing.  In enterprise agile coaching, I’m frequently encountering teams that are trying to either (1) complete every single project at the same time because they are all equally valuable, or (2) using a nebulous unit of sorts (say a 100 point scale) to indicate how valuable a work item may be.

In the first case, its usually pretty straight forward to identify that all of the projects are not truly equal in importance and we limit the number of work items to the actual capacity of the delivery system.

In the second case, a team has typically taken my advice and is now trying to figure out what work items are really the next most valuable the business.  Frequently these teams will ask for a value scale, one that helps them to figure out if they need to build item ‘A’ or item ‘B’ next.  My answer in this case is almost always a question.  It goes something like this:

Me: “Which of the two items have a higher cost of delay?”
Team: “I don’t know, I think item ‘B’; but, if we ask person A or B from some other part of the organization they would probably say item ‘A’.”
Me:: “Well, do you know the cost of delay for both items, it should be simple math to choose between them if you do”
Team: “No, we have a guess, but we really don’t know”

It is usually around this time that the team’s will start asking for a method or system that can be used to help establish value for work. My answer is usually a bit over simplified; but, then again, perhaps it isn’t. My answer is usually ‘currency’. If the business exists to make money, then the value we are placing on work should always tie back to the potential for currency.

If a team is making tradeoffs based on value, I would like to see how that work item will turn into real money for the business.

What are your thoughts? Have you found any other approaches that work equally well?

Are we succeeding with an enterprise transformation?

Over the past few years I’ve had the amazing opportunity to work with over 65 different teams in various levels of small, medium, and large businesses.  In each case I was either leading the teams or advising the teams on how to become more adaptive.  When I joined LeadingAgile, I was thrilled to have access to the systems and tools that Mike and Dennis had employed and discovered while working with the hundreds (if not thousands) of teams that they had coached over the years.

One of the first tools that I encountered was a set of adoption attributes that we could share with a team to would help the team learn about how teams operates when they are valuing: (1) individuals and interactions over processes and tools,  (2) working software over comprehensive documentation, (3) collaboration over contract negotiation, and (4) responding to change over following a plan… or the agile manifesto.

From the adoption attributes I was able to work with a team to both show them the areas where they were seeing good adoption as well as the areas where they need to grow.  This was incredibly helpful for the team and me as it provided a spot light into areas where I could target coaching while at the same time giving the team the opportunity to grant me permission to coach in that area.

As time went on, I had more and more opportunities to participate in organizational assessments that were aimed at understanding the organization’s business drivers, identifying their change management concerns, and identifying a pilot slice of the to-be value delivery structure where the transformation should start.  Throughout this process I learned more and more on the adoption attributes and began thinking holistically around how to establish a repeatable system of transformation that was oriented around multiple phases of adoption.

Phase 1: Become predictable

Phase 2: Make risk and dependencies visible

Phase 3: Organize around capabilities to reduce or eliminate external dependencies

Phase 4: Streamline the delivery system

Phase 5: Fast ROI with quality and predictability (end-state business drivers)

This proved really helpful when framing up a roadmap for a transformation and thinking about it as an iterative and incremental process.  I was able to work with both teams and business leaders to clarify a pathway towards the end-state that didn’t require me to solve all of the adoption problems at the same time.  My initial hypothesis was that each of the phases would have different metrics to inform me that the key goal of the phase had been accomplished.

What I found, though, was that changing the metrics from phase to phase inspired confusion about how to know if the organization’s transformation was succeeding in delivering on the initial business drivers.  In addition, I found that hitting phase 5 based on the adoption characteristics would indicate that a slice of the organization has adopted practices that could help deliver the business drivers in spirit; but, isn’t actually using business metrics to help them clarify along the way to ensure that they are able to deliver fast roi with quality and predictability.

My question then became, how can I best use the business drivers’ key performance indicators as a focusing point for throughout the transformation.  One of the tools I came across for connecting the various perspectives of a organizations health to the organizations KPI’s was the balanced scorecard.

So… here is my question/new hypothesis: is it true that for a transformation to really deliver the end-state goal, it needs to be measured through the organization’s balanced scorecard or other business metric dashboard?  I think this is true and I also would advise that a transformation not be nesessarily deemed a success until the scorecard demonstrates that the business is responding to change, accomplishing fast ROI with the desire quality and predictability within their markets.

Thoughts?

Thanks!

Read the next article in this series