Software Engineering Research in Product Development Flow

Research

Good research is critical to building the body of knowledge of software engineering, and understanding the principles on which our industry is built. Even more, without the solid foundation of theory that comes from research, it is difficult to scale the practices we use in industry beyond a limited context. Lero, the Irish Software Engineering Research Centre, hosted an Industry Research Day today, to highlight and share some of the great software engineering research work that goes on at the Centre.

There are some great talks from partner companies including IBM, Intel, and St. James’s Hospital, Dublin. There are keynotes by Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the current European European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, and Seán Sherlock, the current Minister of State for Research and Innovation. It is great to see the richness and variety of software engineering research going on in Ireland, and the support available at both an EU and national government level.

My talk is a short summary of my ongoing PhD research work. I talk about learning and feedback cycles, learning to see impediments to flow, and some examples of how to see impediments in your team and organisation. I also talked about some preliminary research results, including how to tell who is really influencing flow and impediments in your organisation, what reaction time can tell us about threats and opportunities, and how to empower teams and engage management through an impediment removal process.

Slides from my talk are available here:

Portfolio Management and Organization Flow

I’ll be speaking at RallyON Europe this September on the topic of Portfolio Management and Organization Flow.

Complexity of product development increases as we move from a single team or product focus to a cross-organisation portfolio focus. Organisation Flow is about achieving the Lean concept of flow at an organisation level, not just at the level of a single product or product line.

This session will look at an approach to portfolio backlog management, and describe how to manage the flow of work through a portfolio of multiple products delivered by 50 teams in 6 locations across the US, Europe, India and China.

We will include examples of some core metrics that help understand throughput and flow in the organisation. These metrics tell a story about what is happening in the organisation. Lessons from these stories include understanding impediments to flow, and understanding who and what in the organisation is influencing flow.

I did an interview last week with Hannah Shain from Rally. The recording from the interview is here:

There’s a great lineup of content for the conference. If you’re in London I hope to see you there!

Update: Here is the slide deck I used at the conference:

Lean Startup: It’s Not Just Technology, Lives are at Stake (Keynote)

I am in Belgrade today, where I was invited to give the Keynote address at the first Serbian ICT conference on Technology and Entrepreneurship. Its nice to be back in Belgrade, and great to see the growing technology sector here. The degree of innovation and entrepreneurship is impressive, and I’ve had some great conversations with people.

Understanding Your Customer

I was invited to talk about Lean Startup, Agile Development and Lean Product Development.

One thing I did in preparation for this conference was try to understand the attendees better. Basically, I wanted to treat my talk as a product, and the conference participants as my customers. I saw Jason Little do something similar at LESS 2012 last week in Estonia, using Twitter, and thought the ideas was cool.

I wanted to know some things about them, so I could tailor my talk to match their background and interests. I created a short survey using Survey Monkey, and asked the conference organisers to distribute the survey URL to all registered participants. Then, the morning of the conference, before I left my hotel room, I took a snapshot of the survey data and made some changes to the slides in my talk. I’m glad I did it. It was an interesting experiment for me, and something I would like to tweak and try again at future conferences. I’ve been getting some great feedback on the talk, and I’m sure that’s at least partly related to taking the time to understand the participants better.

The full survey results are in the slide deck. This one in particular helped me choose the appropriate clothes to wear (a few more CEOs and Execs and I would have had to put on a tie 😉 ):

And this one told me a lot about where they are coming from:

About the title

I took inspiration for the title from the famous Bill Shankly quote when talking about football:

Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.

Those of us who are passionate about technology and creating great teams and organisations, can relate to this. The separation between work and life starts to become blurred, because, if we are successful, our work is an enjoyable, fun, an enriching experience. There’s too much at stake for it to be otherwise. Jurgen Appelo has been writing lately about a similar theme. One of the messages of my keynote is that life is too short, and time too precious, to waste on something that you don’t enjoy and that is not having some positive impact in the world. Hence the title.

Themes

I knew from my survey that I could spend less time focusing on the basics of Lean Startup, Agile and Lean. That left me free to explore some topics in more depth.

This is what the survey revealed about the participant’s areas of interest:

The main themes of my talk today were:

  • Startups
  • Overcoming challenges, and not blaming “macroeconomic conditions beyond our control”
  • Myths of Product Development
  • Lean Startup, Agile, Lean Product Development
  • The importance of an Agile Mindset; Being Agile
  • Minimum Viable Product
  • The Fastest Learner Wins
  • Customer Development
  • Business Model Canvas
  • Lean Canvas
  • Perspectives on organisations as you grow and scale
  • Technical Debt
  • Portfolio Thinking
  • Value Streams
  • Waste, Value, Quality, Flow
  • PDSA
  • Lean Thinking and A3
  • Creativity; Innovation; Fostering Innovation

That’s a lot of things to touch on in 75 minutes, plus there was a video and a couple of songs, but it seemed to go down well and feedback was positive. I’ve been working more and more on incorporating stories into my talks, and relying more on visual images and much less on bullet points.

I wanted to emphasise the roll of Lean and Agile, not as ends in themselves, but as means to a better end. A means to creating great products and services that touch people’s lives. And, of course, creating a Lean organisation or fostering an agile mindset is a challenge.

We invest our lives and our lifetimes in the companies and ventures we get involved with. Life is short and time is precious, so let’s make sure its worth it.

Slides

The slide deck is available from my Slideshare account here:

Side note about SlideShare: My original slides had a black gradient background (and looked pretty cool, if I do say so myself!). When I uploaded them, SlideShare replaced the background with a white one. I could not find a way to get around this (in the limited time I had to try) so I created a version with white background, and tweaked some of the text appropriately. I would be grateful to hear if you know of a way to fix this in SlideShare. On the plus side, now I have two versions for different lighting environments.

 

Identifying and Managing Waste (LESS2012)

I gave two talks at this year’s Lean Enterprise Software and Systems (LESS 2012) conference in Tallinn, Estonia. The topic of the first was identifying and managing waste. (The second talk was about a related topic – applying the Value Stream Manager concept to software product development organisations.) Many Lean practitioners and researchers agree that the first step in creating a Lean organisation is learning to see waste.

I like to use a combination of serious games to identify wastes that are holding teams back. A combination of tools such as A3 Problem Solving, Kaizen Circles, and the Waste Matrix are great for managing these wastes.

Deming, among others, notes that 94% of the wastes (or loss) belong to the system, and are the responsibility of management. That leaves an amazing amount of opportunity for improvement if we can step back and see the system. In “The Lean Startup“, Eric Ries talks about the “criminal waste of human creativity and potential“, noting that “For all our vaunted efficiency in the making of things, our economy is still incredibly wasteful. This waste comes not from the inefficient organization of work but rather from working on the wrong things – and on an industrial scale. … It is hard to come by a solid estimate of just how wasteful modern work is.

My talk delved into some ways of categorising and quantifying the waste.

The summary from the talk is this:

  • There is waste in every system.
    • Learn to see it.
    • Eliminate it (or at least get it under control).
  • Develop people to be Problem Solvers.
  • You can have fun finding and eliminating waste by using serious games at work.
  • Use these techniques as part of your Continuous Improvement (Kaizen) efforts.
    • Release or Iteration Retrospectives are a great forum.
    • Dedicated Problem Solving Sessions
    • Continuous Improvement Circles
    • Strategy Sessions
    • Portfolio Management Sessions
    • Whenever you encounter a problem
  • Keep it Visible.

Here are the slides:

Who is Agile? Volume 1

Yves Hanoulle, along with a great team (including Andrea Chiou, Marcin Floryan, and others), is the creator of a new book, titled “Who is Agile?“. The book is an insight into many leaders in the Agile community. This is not a book on agile practices, tools or techniques. Rather, the book is about the people and groups that are part of the Agile community, and offers a glimpse into the minds of many people that we might otherwise only get to know through their books, papers, tweets, conference appearances and blogs. The book includes many famous authors, but also includes many people who are less well known, but active in the community in other ways. I was honoured to be included by Yves.

Another thing that is interesting about the book is the way it is published through Leanpub. Early versions are available now, and you get free updates each time updates are published. You also get to name your own price, within the bounds of a specified lower limit. The lower limit gets higher as new content is added, so the earlier you decide to purchase, the better the deal you get.

The first volume includes interviews with Johanna Rothman, Mary Poppendieck, Esther Derby, Don Gray, Jerry Weinberg, Rebecca Wirfs-Brock, Gojko Adzic, JB Rainsberger, Linda Rising, Lyssa Adkins, Jean Tabaka, Alistair Cockburn, Oana Juncu, Bob Marshall, Vickie Gray, Lisa Crispin, Liz Keogh, Ralph Miarka, Yuval Yeret and many other very interesting and inspiring people. I’m enjoying reading it, and getting to know them a little better.

Yves and team are already working on Volume 2. Check them out on Leanpub, and on Yves’ Web site.

LESS 2012 Conference on Agile-Lean Leadership and Management

The Lean Enterprise Software and Systems conference is a very special conference series that I have had the privilege to be involved with as both speaker and organizer since it began in 2010. LESS is the Lean and Agile conference with a specific focus on Leadership and Management. I am part of the organizing committee planning to bring the conference to Galway in 2013 – more on that later.Lean Systems Society Recognized Event

In the meantime, LESS 2012 is just around the corner, and will take place in Tallinn, Estonia from November 12th to November 14th. LESS 2012 is a Lean Systems Society Recognized Event.

Discount for Irish Community

If you are part of the Agile – Lean community in Ireland, contact me for a discount code that will get you a discount on conference registration. The final program will be announced in October. Already there are confirmed keynotes form Jurgen Appelo and Esko Kilpi. By registering now you will have the opportunity to shape the direction and content of the conference.

About LESS 2012

I am posting the following text at the request of the LESS organization group:

This year we have selected 5 main core topics for our learning journey:

  1. Lean/Agile product development: what are the latest developer in Lean/Agile? What have we, as a learning community experimented with in the last 12 months since we met in Stockholm for #LESS2011? This track will answer these questions and bring concrete examples of Lean/Agile product development from software and other industries.
  2. Lean Startup: an exciting new way to look at product and business development that brings together Lean and Agile approaches. How can Lean Startup revolutionize how we manage our businesses or develop our products?
  3. Beyond Budgeting: innovation comes in many forms. Beyond Budgeting started as a learning journey for management communities in Europe and is now a major active movement seeking a different approach to the management of organizations. In this track we will hear about the latest developments in the Beyond Budgeting community.
  4. Management Innovation: the world is changing fast, but management of organizations has been standing still. There are communities dedicated to changing how we view and understand the role of management. This track brings ideas from different communities with the focus on radical new ideas about managing organizations.
  5. Management Frameworks: often large changes start from specific problems that lead us to develop a specific tool or framework. In this track we intend to cover those practical steps in applying new ideas from several different communities.

The call of sessions is now open http://bit.ly/LESS2012_cfs.

We have also opened the preregistration for #LESS2012: http://bit.ly/NOOV0g

By preregistering you will get a chance to directly influence the format and content for the conference. Preregistering is your Real Option to have a say in how the conference is shaped. Preregister now and get a discount of 100eur in the final conference ticket. Preregistration ends on July 31st.

You can help spread the word about #LESS2012 by tweeting or posting on Facebook with the hash-tag #LESS2012 and linking to the conference web-site at http://www.less2012.org.

The #LESS organization group

Lessconf2012@gmail.com

Agile-Lean Event in Galway, September 2012

On Friday September 21st I will be hosting a session on Agile-Lean Software Development with Kieran Conboy from NUI, Galway. This is an open event for practitioners at all levels to share challenges, experiences and solutions to Agile and Lean adoption. We will provide an opportunity for you to get practical answers to real problems with Agile or Lean adoption within your organisation. Our intention is to create a regular sustainable forum for companies in the West of Ireland and beyond practicing Agile and Lean to come together and share experiences.

Why should I attend?

The growing popularity of Agile and Lean methods such as Scrum, eXtreme Programming, TDD and Kanban indicate a strong desire to improve how we work and how we create value for our customers. While there are many potential benefits to Agile and Lean adoption there is no recipe to follow that will guarantee success. We can, however, learn from one another’s experiences.

Where and when will the event take place?

Friday September 21st, 2012, 1st Floor, J. E. Cairnes Building, NUI Galway.

9:30 am – 10 am Registration, Complimentary Tea/Coffee and Networking
10 am – 1 pm Main event
1 pm – 2 pm Complimentary lunch, networking

How much does it cost and how can I register?

The event is free but with limited places. Please register your interest by emailing lorraine.morgan@nuigalway.ie or contacting Lorraine at (091) 49 2662.

What is the format of the event?

We will use a combination of hands-on exercises and open format to foster communication and collaboration among participants. You will have the opportunity to discuss any topic of interest and relevance to you in your Agile and Lean adoption. By the end of the gathering, all issues will receive full discussion, to the extent desired. A report of issues and discussions will be made available to participants.

The main event will be followed by a complimentary lunch, where participants will have a chance to mingle and network, as well as hear about some leading-edge research in Agile and Lean methods conducted by Lero at NUI Galway.

Download or view the official announcement here: Lero @ NUIG Agile Lean Event September 2012

Enjoy a Lean Coffee

What is Lean Coffee?

Jim Benson and Jeremy Lightsmith founded the Lean Coffee movement in Seattle in 2009. Since then, Lean Coffee events have sprung up around the world. The basic idea is for a group of people to get together to discuss topics around which they share a common interest, specifically around agile, lean, kanban, lean startup, etc. There is also an OpenCoffee movement, founded by Saul Klein in 2007. The intent behind OpenCoffee is to provide an open forum for investors, entrepreneurs and developers to come together, meet, discuss ideas, and find opportunities to work together.

The Lean Coffee format is essentially an approach to facilitating learning and collaboration through group discussions. The ‘Lean’ part of the name has its roots in Lean Thinking, and related areas of Lean Production, Lean Software, Lean Startup, etc. The ‘Coffee’ part of the name obviously comes from that nice drink that some of us are partial to. Meetups typically take place in the morning, at a local coffee house, at the same time and place each week.

Lean Coffee events are increasingly becoming a fixture at many conferences, in a similar way that Open Space has. We had a great Lean Coffee event at LESS2011 in Stockholm last year.

How it works

The Lean Coffee format has a lot in common with Open Space, particularly in the sense that you are asking people to move away from an agenda-driven gathering to a more open, collaborative, dynamic, emergent type of gathering.

The protocol, borrowed and modified from the Sydney Lean Coffee group and Limited WIP Society, is as follows:

  1. Everyone offers topics they are interested in discussing by writing them on index cards (or sticky notes).
  2. Everyone presents his or her topic as an Elevator Pitch (max 1 minute per topic).
  3. Use dot voting to vote on each of the topics.  Each person gets two votes. You can only vote once per topic.
  4. Prepare three columns on a table or wall. Call them “Planned”, “In Progress” and “Done”. Add all topics to the “Planned” column, with those that received the highest votes at the top.
  5. Discuss each topic in turn. Move the index card for the topic into the “In Progress” column. Initially, ask the proposer to explain the topic, then go round the table to give an opportunity for everyone to provide an initial comment, then open discussion.
  6. When the topic is done, move on to the next one.  The topic proposer decides when the topic is done, and moves the index card to the “Done” column.  If someone disagrees, then s/he can raise a new topic.  Expect to discuss 3-4 topics over the space of an hour or so.
  7. Consider time boxing each topic to 15 minutes max.
  8. At the end of the overall Lean Coffee session, run a quick retrospective.  What did you like? What didn’t you like? What are ideas for improvement?

As a variation, particularly if you have a large group, consider splitting into sub-groups if people are particularly passionate about specific topics. Then get back together after the topic discussion to present highlights to, and get feedback from, the wider group.

Lean Coffee at work

The idea and format for Lean Coffee is very simple and effective. It can be used in work too. For example, consider hosting a Lean Coffee event every week in your office. It can be a great way to share experiences and challenges across teams and gather interested people who don’t normally get to discuss these topics together.

If you find your retrospectives are becoming routine, then this is a good way to break out of the rut. There is no leader or facilitator required. The team can self-organize a Lean Coffee style event without any preparation. The team decides which topics to discuss, and how long to spend on each topic.

The only prerequisites are a set of index cards or sticky notes, a set of Sharpies, and some interested and willing people.

Lean Coffee at Agile Lean Galway

We’re going to try running the next Agile Lean Galway meetup as a Lean Coffee event. All our meetups so far have been upstairs in the Dail Bar, Middle Street, Galway.

We’ll kick off at 7pm. Sign up if you are interested in coming along.

Come along if you

  • have heard about Agile and Lean and want to know more
  • are trying to implement Lean thinking at your organization and could use some advice and guidance
  • know a lot about agile and lean and would like to share your knowledge and find out what others are doing
  • like coffee and interesting conversation about agile, lean, etc.
  • don’t like coffee, and just want to join the conversation

If we like the format, and the idea, and there’s enough interest, then maybe we’ll spin off Lean Coffee Galway as a separate event. Maybe as an early morning coffee event?

References

Some sites for Lean Coffee Meetups around the world:

Writings about Lean Coffee

Kaizen Games: Identifying and Managing Waste in Agile Teams

Kaizen is a Japanese term that means ‘continuous improvement’. Creating a culture of continuous improvement is one of the cornerstones of becoming an agile, lean-thinking organization.

It is generally accepted that the first step towards creating a truly lean organization is to identify and manage waste. I prefer to say ‘manage’ rather than ‘eliminate’ because you may choose to live with some waste in your organization, because the cost of completely eliminating it would be prohibitive, at least right now. Discussion of waste can be an emotive topic, so we need techniques that allow for a positive and constructive discussion, while also unearthing some of the deep issues that prevent teams and organizations from reaching their potential.

We can use serious games to identify and manage waste in a constructive and positive way. Games also help to engage people as part of an overall continuous improvement effort.

Workshops for Playing Games

I run workshops based on these techniques. I ran a variation of these workshops at the Agile India 2012 conference in Bengaluru, India this weekend (February 2012). Feedback for the session was very positive, and people were very engaged in the session, so thanks again to all who came along. We had over 100 people in the workshop, which felt a bit daunting at first, but turned out great. There was a lot of energy in the room.

The slides from the Agile India 2012 workshop are here:

The workshop generally runs in three parts. In the first part, we talk about some basic concepts and why it is important to look at waste in teams and organizations. In this part, I talk about the eight wastes of product development, influenced largely by the work of the Poppendiecks, Liker, Womack & Jones, etc.

Depending on the number of workshop participants, we usually split into smaller groups of 6-8 people.

The second part is an exercise to identify waste. I like to use the Speedboat Game for this. Although traditionally used as a means of understanding what customers do not like about our products, I have found it to be a very effective tool over the years for understanding what is not working well within a team or an organization.

The third part is an exercise to manage waste. I present a number of tools, including Value Stream Mapping, Value Network Mapping, A3 Problem Solving Reports, and a Waste Matrix. Each has a different purpose and are presented as complimentary tools in a tool set, rather than mutually exclusive options. Participants then choose a tool, and we play a game to take one or more of the wastes from Part 1, and show how the tool can be used to manage the waste(s).

Post-Game analysis is an important part of the session, giving people a chance to reflect and learn from each other.

Summary

Agile development aims to make the process of software development more effective and efficient for teams. However, agile product teams operate within a broad and complex system, and the scope of what the team can control is often limited by constraints imposed by the system, hence adopting a systems perspective is useful. Waste can and does occur in agile teams. Sometimes that waste is within the control of the team to manage; sometimes the broader system of which the team is part causes the waste. Using serious games provides a productive and constructive way of dealing with what can otherwise be an emotive topic. Used alone or with more traditional lean tools such as Value Network Maps, 5 Whys and A3 Reports, the combination of multiple games can engage stakeholders and contribute to a Kaizen effort in the organization. Serious games can be just as effective in creating a continuous improvement culture, and creating a more lean thinking organization, as they have been in product marketing. The Speedboat game in particular is very useful for generating large amounts of practical data about the wastes that are holding back a team. It is critical to follow up on the wastes identified using Speedboat. Turning the creation of A3 reports and Waste Matrices into collaborative activities helps with that.

Try it out with your team. Have fun fighting waste!

ALE Ireland First Meetup in Galway February 2012

Claudio Perrone and I have been talking for a while about trying to arrange an Agile / Lean meetup in Galway. Claudio is Italian, living and working in Dublin, with a fondness for Galway having married a Galway girl. We had a small meetup in Dublin last September, but didn’t put a lot of effort into advertising that. Our friend Mike Sutton is also in Galway at the moment. Seems like fate is presenting us with a great opportunity to get together and talk about Agile, Lean and maybe some other things too. Claudio and Mike are very experienced agile and lean practitioners, as well as great coaches (and generally just great guys to meet up and chat with!). They both work internationally with lots of companies. I have gotten to know Claudio and Mike through various conferences and events that we have all been speaking at or involved in organizing. On a parallel conversation, I have also been talking with Colm O’hEocha, Frederic Oehl, and Alan Spencer about arranging a series of meetups in Dublin. Colm (based in Galway) and Frederic (living and working in Dublin too) will also be at next Monday’s meetup.

This is the first of what we hope will be a series of meetups. We decided to keep this first meetup pretty informal, so a pub/restaurant will work just fine. We had discussed holding it in a local company, or booking a venue, but let’s see if there’s much of an appetite first. If more than a few people turn up, and we want to do this on a regular basis, we can talk about how people want it to work.

What’s the Agenda?

There is no agenda for the meetup. Anything that comes under the umbrella of agile and lean is fair game for discussion. It does not matter if you are a veteran practitioner, a complete novice, or somewhere in between. It does not matter what role you play or job title you have. Bring ideas, questions, challenges, problems, suggestions, experiences, or just bring yourself. You might learn something from the conversation, or you might help someone else. You might discover something totally unexpected.

Claudio and I will prepare 1-page “Cheat Sheets” on a couple of topics to jump start some conversations. We can use these if we need some inspiration to get started. Feel free to do the same if you want to.

ALE Ireland

We will have this meetup under the umbrella of the Agile Lean Europe network – a network for collaboration of Agile & Lean thinkers and practitioners who are based in Europe. Last September’s ALE2011 Conference in Berlin was a great success, and the philosophy of sharing ALE Logo - Smallknowledge and bringing people together is appropriate. We’re interested in meeting like-minded people who are enthusiastic about improving their workplaces and lives through agile and lean thinking, and maybe changing the world along the way. We would like to see a community emerging where we can learn from each other and share experiences.

How do we know who else is coming?

We decided to forgo any sort of formality, including a registration system, for this meet up. If you are thinking about coming along, or just want to chat or introduce yourself, please log a comment below, or Tweet using the hashtag #aleireland so we have some idea who might show up. If you want to just show up on Monday, that’s fine too.

We hope to see you there!

Who’s in charge of this?

You are! I’m just sending out the invite. Others are free to send out invites too. This is my personal Blog, not a community Blog. There is no centralized ownership. This meetup, and any future meetups, will go in whatever direction decided by the people who show up.

Date and Time

Monday February 6th 2012, at 7:00 pm.

Location

We’ll meet at the Dail Bar on Middle Street in Galway City. Here are directions courtesy of Google Maps, for those not familiar with it:

What We Did at The ALE2011 Retrospective

Olaf and I were chatting on the first morning of the first ever ALE conference when he suggested I facilitate the retrospective at the end of the conference. Facilitating a session with 200+ very smart and very vocal people, many of whom are expert retrospective facilitators, and all of whom would have high expectations, was a pretty scary thought. But also a great opportunity to have some fun and do something that would be an experience I would not forget.

Preparation

In Open Space sessions, hallway discussions, the bar and other forums, I tried to talk with as many people as possible about how they felt about the ALE Network and what comes next. At least three of the Open Space sessions focused on improving the ALE Network. Ivana Gancheva hosted a session on improving the network, and making the conference better. Vasco Duarte and Eelco Rustenburg both had sessions related to getting managers more involved in the community, and in agile and lean generally. I had some discussions with all of them, and with Jurgen Appelo and Olaf Lewitz about their goals. We all agreed that the retrospective should focus on the ALE Network, not just the conference. We also wanted to come out of it with some concrete milestones and actions.

Exercises

Opening Activities

Rain Dance

I wanted to open with something that would be memorable, a little unusual and also fun. The Rain Dance is a game I learned many years ago at a Pattern Writing workshop, and have used it in a few workshops since. I had never used it in such a large group, but, if it worked out, I thought it could be a lot of fun. This game is used in many different settings. It is a traditional Native American game used to teach children (fortunately I was with a bunch of people who enjoy games!) about rhythms, art and culture. It has been applied to many different settings including workshops for improvisation, music, software patterns and other group settings.

The idea is to simulate the sound of a thunderstorm, creating the sounds of rain that build up to a thunderstorm, and then calms down again as the storm passes. The effect can be quite powerful.

To start, everyone stands in a large circle. With 200+ people the circle took up the entire circumference of the large conference room. One by one, everyone performs the following actions:

  1. Rub your hands together.
  2. Tap two fingers of your right hand against the palm of your left hand.
  3. Snap your fingers on both hands.
  4. Clap your thighs.
  5. Stamp your feet.

These actions are performed in a circle, starting with the facilitator (me!), and moving to the left, going around the circle one by one. The next action is introduced when everyone in the circle is performing the first. Participants keep the previous action going until the new one reaches them around the circle. You then repeat the 5 steps in reverse order. This gives the effect of the storm building gradually, reaching a thunderous climax, and then declining gradually.

The Rain Dance was recorded on video so if it turns out OK and we get permission, I’ll try to post it or link to it when it becomes available.

Project History

We wanted to focus the retrospective on the ALE Network itself, not just the ALE2011 conference. The conference is an important milestone – an intersection in the continuing story of the ALE Network. We thought it would be a good idea to bring everyone up to speed with the history and origins of ALE before looking at how to take it forward. Jurgen talked about the history of ALE, from early discussions and ideas, to discussions at Play4Agile, starting the LinkedIn group, the gathering at XP2011 in Madrid, and up to the present day.

Data Gathering Activities

I used two main exercises for data gathering: Speedboat and Starfish. I split the 200 or so participants into 8 groups. All groups got to take part in both exercises.

Participants at the ALE2011 Retrospective

Participants at the ALE2011 Retrospective

Participants at the ALE2011 Retrospective

Participants at the ALE2011 Retrospective

Speedboat

Speedboat is a game from Luke Hohmann‘s Innovation Games. It is a great way to understand what your customers don’t like about your product. I often use it in other settings too, e.g., at retrospectives to help teams or organizations understand what about the way they are working is holding them back.

Retrospective at ALE2011

Retrospective at ALE2011

Retrospective at ALE2011

Retrospective at ALE2011

The speedboat acts as a metaphor for your product or organization. In this case, the speedboat acted as a metaphor for the ALE Network. We wanted to understand what was holding us back from achieving some of the targets we had set ourselves earlier in the year, including in Madrid.

A Group Playing the Speedboat Game at the ALE2011 Retrospective

Speedboat Game

Starfish

The Starfish is a retrospective technique I learned from Nick Oostvogels and Pat Kua at XP2011. You can read Nick’s Blog post about it. It was great that Nick was at ALE2011 and participated in the retrospective. I’m always looking for new techniques that will help add a different dimension to retrospectives, or help teams break out of a rut of using the same techniques over and over again. I love the Starfish exercise, and have used it several times since XP2011. I have used it in Sprint and Release retrospectives with teams, and also in workshops with managers, Scrum Masters, Product Owners, and program managers.

For ALE2011 I wanted to use it get data about

  1. What we’re doing as a community that’s working well
  2. Things we need to do more of
  3. Things we need to do less of
  4. Things we should stop doing
  5. Things we should try
A Group Using the Starfish Exercise at the ALE2011 Retrospective

Starfish Exercise

Retrospective at ALE2011

Retrospective at ALE2011

Data Analysis

Each group had 30 seconds to present the output of their Speedboat exercise. 30 seconds might not sound like a lot, but it does force you to be concise. I asked that subsequent groups to not just repeat what previous groups had already contributed. We started with group 1 and went through to group 8.

Retrospective at ALE2011

Retrospective at ALE2011

After group 8 presented their Speedboat output, I asked them to present their Starfish output – focusing mainly on things to keep, things to do more of and things to try. We did the same with all of the other groups, ending back at group 1.

Reporting Back to the Wider Group at the ALE2011 Retrospective

Reporting Back

By now we had heard from each of the groups about some of the major obstacles holding us back as a community, some of the things that were working well, things we want to do more of, and some new things to try. It was time to turn this into something concrete we could act on.

Creating a Plan

Remember the Future

Remember the Future is a great technique for creating a vision of what you want to achieve. However, instead of thinking about it in terms of what you want to do or what you will do, you move your thinking forward to a point in time that comes after the time period you are considering, and look back at what you actually did. The difference in perspective is remarkable.

The time horizon we considered was the coming 12 months. What is it we want to have achieved when we look back after 12 months? So, we looked to a point in time 13 months out and talked about what we achieved.

We created the timeline on one wall of the conference room, with milestones at 3 months, 6 months, 9 months and 12 months. There are different ways to get the data  you want for this exercise. In the interests of time I asked everyone to act as one group, write their item on a Post It note, step forward and describe it to the group, and then place it at the appropriate milestone on the time line.

Remembering the Future at the ALE2011 Retrospective

Remember the Future

People were then asked to put their name or Twitter ID on a Post It if they wanted to contribute to achieving that goal. If you weren’t there, or you forgot to add your name, don’t worry. You’ll have an opportunity to sign up to lead or contribute in an area in the next week or so when the output gets published.

Roadmap for future ALE Conferences

We wanted to create a roadmap for the next three years of conference locations. However, the conference attendees are a subset of the ALE Network. We wanted to make sure that as many people as possible from the ALE community had a chance to provide input on the location. What we decided to try wast this: create a shortlist at the conference and then use the LinkedIn group to decide the final locations.

The only constraint on location, same as for ALE2011, is that it must be a reasonably central European location (which unfortunately rules out Galway) that is relatively easily accessible from a majority of ALE Network countries.

Creating a Shortlist for a Roadmap of Future Conferences at the ALE2011 Retrospective

Conference Roadmap Shortlist

I’ll publish the shortlist over on the LinkedIn group. Let’s see how the voting goes.

Closing Remarks

Jurgen closed the retrospective, and encouraged everyone there to sign the ALE Network book that he started in Madrid.

Thanks

First, a big thank you to Olaf Lewitz for encouraging me to facilitate the retrospective and for trusting me with the responsibility. Thanks to all of you who were there and who contributed so enthusiastically. And finally, thanks for the kind feedback on Twitter and elsewhere. It was an honor to facilitate the first ALE Unconference retrospective.

Next Steps

I need to transcribe all the wonderful data produced by the ALE2011 participants. I’ll publish that in a separate post, either here or on the ALE Network site.

Call for Help

I’ll be looking for some help with the transcription. I want to make sure I don’t become a bottleneck for getting the retrospective output published. There are about 20 photographs that capture the core output of the Starfish and Speedboat. Each photo captures lots of Post It notes. We need to transcribe the text in these photos. It would be cool if we could Crowdsource the transcription. If a few people take one photo each we’ll get it done pretty quickly. Let me know if you’re willing to help out and I’ll send you a JPEG.

Happy Memories of the ALE2011 Spouse and Kids Program

I was having lunch with Jurgen, Olaf and others at XP2011 in Madrid earlier this year. The details for what would become the first ALE conference would start to be worked out later that week. Jurgen asked me if I had any thoughts about what we could do that would be a little different. I thought it would be good to find a way to include spouses and children in the conference program – not just bring them to wherever city the conference was going to be in, but actually integrate them into the conference.

The Spouses and Kids Program

Monika KoniecznyOlga Woronowicz and Christiane Lewitz took on the job of leading the Spouse and Kids Program and did a great job organizing the program. Mornings were filled with games and other activities in the conference hotel. There was a trip organized for each day after lunch. On Wednesday, there was a visit to Berlin Zoo. On Thursday, it was the Berlin Communications Museum. On Friday they had a dinosaur tour at the Natural History Museum.

Post-It Art

Last week I wrote about Post-It Wars, and how we tried it out at work. I had the chance to hang out with families of other conference attendees (and my own family) at ALE2011, so I got them all to play too. We started off in the room that was reserved for families. The kids had a great time. After some negotiation, they quickly agreed on the music, picking out the Beatles and Bob Marley. Music blaring, they got to work. It was amazing to watch as a group of kids who had never met until a few hours earlier came together to create pictures using Post It Notes.

ALE2011 Kids Making Post It Art

ALE2011 Kids Making Post It Art

While the other conference attendees were in one of the sessions, we broke out into the coffee break area (bringing music with us) and used the windows there too (top left). The parents got in on the action too, and had fun with it. I got some pictures of the work-in-progress from outside the hotel (top right), and their work attracted the attention of some passers by (bottom center).

ALE2011 Post-It Art Collage 1

ALE2011 Kids Make Post-It Art

ALE2011 Kids Making Spongebob

ALE2011 Kids Making Spongebob

ALE2011 Kids Making Spongebob

ALE2011 Kids Making Spongebob

ALE2011 Kids Making Apple Logo

ALE2011 Kids Making Apple Logo

The hotel windows provided a great canvas to work from, and fortunately the hotel staff were very understanding 🙂 Here is what their work looked like from outside the hotel:

ALE2011 Kids Make Post-It Art

Afterwards, we went outside to admire their great art work. Never one to pass up on some fun, Mike came too 🙂

The ALE2011 Post-It Wars Team

The ALE2011 Post-It Wars Team

Some of the kids put their new skills to good use at Thursday night’s dinner.

Marshmallow Challenge

The Marshmallow Challenge is a fun game that I often play with teams. You can play it with friends and family too. At ALE2011 I played it with the ALE families. This time they picked Red Hot Chilli Peppers, U2, Bon Jovi and the Beatles. Rock’n’Roll!

ALE2011 Families Play the Marshmallow Challenge

ALE2011 Families Play the Marshmallow Challenge

ALE2011 Families Play the Marshmallow Challenge

ALE2011 Families Play the Marshmallow Challenge

ALE2011 Families Play the Marshmallow Challenge

ALE2011 Families Play the Marshmallow Challenge

ALE2011 Families Play the Marshmallow Challenge

ALE2011 Families Play the Marshmallow Challenge

Other Games and Activities

Oana Jancu, whose kids were also there, taught everyone ‘Where Are Your Keys?“, an amazing game for learning new skills, particularly new languages. The kids used the game to learn some Portuguese, French, and Irish. Monika played lots of games, arts and crafts activities.  Christiane spent all day Wednesday and Friday with the families. She taught them origami and brought them to the Zoo and Natural History Museum.

ALE2011 Spouse and Kids: Zoo Tour -The Elephants at Berlin Zoo

Learning About Elephants at Berlin Zoo

That’s an elephant’s tooth the tour guide is holding.

ALE2011 Spouse and Kids: Zoo Tour - Watching the Monkeys at Berlin Zoo

Watching the Monkeys at Berlin Zoo

ALE2011 Spouse and Kids: Zoo Tour - Feeding the Monkeys at Berlin Zoo

Feeding the Monkeys at Berlin Zoo

Why Include Spouse and Children in a Conference?

There are at least three big reasons why I think its important to include a Spouse and Kids Program in the conference:

  1. Some of us attend a lot of conferences. That’s a lot of time away from home and family. Being able to bring them with us and hang out during and around the conference is a good thing. Even if you go to only one conference, it’s still nice to be able to bring your spouse and kids. Of course you can bring your family on any trip; the difference with ALE2011 is they were an integrated part of the conference. I like that my wife and children could meet some of the people I have come to know and consider friends. It’s fantastic that my kids can have the opportunity to make friends with other kids from around the world. Vasco tweeted that it made his quality of life better; I concur.
  2. It gives our families a chance to see what we do at conferences. It can be hard sometimes to explain to our families what we do for a living. This gives them some insights.
  3. It is an opportunity to inspire kids to consider a career in our industry. Many countries are struggling to find people with the right skills to fill job vacancies, and there is a growing shortage of children (particularly girls) taking science, maths and engineering courses in school and university. This is a real crisis for our profession. Attending a fun conference can leave them with positive feelings and memories. If they can see that what we do can be a fun and rewarding path, and spread the word to their friends, that can only be a good thing for the future of our industry.
ALE2011 Kids Post-It Art Team with Ice Cream

ALE2011 Kids Post-It Art Team with Ice Cream

Looking Ahead

It was a great pleasure to meet and spend time with the families of Oana, Vasco, Kurt, Andrea and others. I hope this is a tradition we can continue at ALE conferences, and maybe even extend to some other conferences. Based on feedback so far, including the retrospective output, it seems to have been a positive experience overall. Let’s see how we can make it even better for next time.

Post-It Wars Day 2: Who Lives in a Pineapple Under the Sea?

Yesterday I wrote about how I discovered the fascinating world of Post-It Wars. Today I enlisted some willing and enthusiastic program managers and an engineer and we made this:

Post-It Wars - Spongebob - Inside

He looks like this from outside the building:

Post-It Wars - Spongebob - Outside

The owner of this office had left early for a long weekend break. He’ll be back on Tuesday 🙂

Post-It Wars - Pacman

We got the inspiration for these ones from this Web site. I think the next challenge is to start creating some new designs. This one in Paris, for example, sets a pretty high bar:

Assassins Creed in Post-It Notes

What does this have to do with software development?

It’s amazing what a group of intrinsically motivated people can do when they get together, find a sense of purpose and are given the opportunity to unleash their creativity and talent. Maybe there’s a lesson there for how we build products?

ALE2011, here we come!

There’s been a great uptake today of people interested and willing to play in Berlin next week at the ALE2011 Conference. It’s going to be fun!

Post-It Wars: Bring It On!

Today I entered the world of Post-It Wars. I have a feeling life is going to be somehow different from now on. In a good way.

Work Should be Fun!

We had come to the end of a long day of planning and product strategy. A very productive day, but exhausting for everyone. John, one of the development managers, said “Let’s try something fun for 10 minutes”. He showed us an online article in the Guardian about something very cool happening in France. Some office workers there have started to create window art with Post-It Notes. They look amazing. We had to try it.

We only had a few minutes, so we quickly settled on one to try out. Here it is, our very first entry into Post-It Wars. The start of something big, I suspect.

Agile Teams - Post It Wars - Darth Vader

Come to the Dark Side - We Have Colorful Post-Its!

I took some pictures form the outside on my way home:

Post-It Wars - View from the Outside

Post-It Wars - View from the Outside

I showed the photos to my kids when I got home. They loved it. They want to come in at the weekend and make one.

Anyone for Post-It Wars at ALE2011?

This would be a great activity for next week’s ALE Conference too. We’ve got a special program for spouses and children, so whole families could take part. We could have each country build one. We could have everyone build one huge one. Check out these amazing ones from France. I’m excited. Bring lots of Post-Its!

Take up the Challenge

The gauntlet is down. I’m going to try to start a competition between our agile teams at work. Let’s see who can come up with the best Post-It art. I see a lot of potential in this as an activity during retrospectives, project kick-offs, or generally just to have some fun. Try it out at work with your teams. I can’t wait to see your pictures.

Beyond Transition: Establishing An Agile Office

Agile transition takes time; it is not a discrete event. When transitioning to agility it is important to put in place structures that will ensure that agile survives long after the initial transition period. One way to create such a structure is to establish an Agile Office (and I’m not referring to furniture or desk layout). However, an Agile Office is not the same thing as an Agile PMO (more on that another time).

We established an Agile Office in our Business Unit in September 2010. Our Agile Office is responsible for the organization’s ongoing agile adoption and continuous improvement through agile practices and lean thinking. We accomplish this through direct engagement with the organization’s senior leadership, management, and product teams.

Agile Office at Agile 2011

I will be talking about the concept of an Agile Office, and our experiences, at this year’s Agile 2011 conference in Salt Lake City. My talk (Wednesday August 10th at 10:00 am) is part of the Insights Stage and describes the experiences of Cisco’s Unified Communications Business Unit in establishing an Agile Office. I’ll describe the history behind establishing the Agile Office, the governance model, where it fits in the organization structure, engagement model, primary activities, challenges faced, and the stakeholders with whom we operate.

There is an accompanying paper too, that will be published as part of the conference proceedings. I was very fortunate to have Johanna Rothman as my shepherd for the paper. Working with her, and benefitting from her guidance, was a fantastic experience for which I am extremely grateful.

If you’re in Salt Lake City, come along and say hello. I’d love to share experiences and discuss how other organizations are dealing with the challenges of sustaining agility and leanness after the initial transition period. What support structures are you putting in place?

 

 

International Conference on Lean Enterprise Software and Systems (LESS 2011)

Marketed as the only Agile and Lean Leadership conference in Europe, the International Conference on Lean Enterprise Software and Systems (LESS) began in Helsinki last year with the first conference in the series, LESS 2010. This year the journey continues in Stockholm with LESS 2011, from Sunday October 30th through to Wednesday November 2nd. The LESS conferences bring together diverse communities and influences, including Agile, Lean, Complexity, Systems Thinking, Organization Transformation and Beyond Budgeting. Last year’s conference in Helsinki was a great experience. The range of sessions and topics was amazing, as was the quality of the speakers and the general organization of the conference as a whole. They set a high bar. I’m very much looking forward to Stockholm this year.

Organization Transformation Track

I am this year’s Chair for the Organization Transformation track. This is a topic close to my heart (and my day job). We’re planning to put together an exciting full-day program that showcases some of the great work in industry and research. We’re interested in case studies, success stories, challenges, lessons learned, practices, models, techniques, and topics generally related to the theme of organization transformation. Cases where the desired transformation did not work out are also valuable and welcome. This track will be of real benefit to anyone undertaking agile and/or lean adoption in their own organizations, or to those guiding the transformation of other organizations.

Call for Papers

The Call for Papers is open until Monday August 15th. You can submit regular talks (50 minutes), workshop proposals (50 + 50), research reports (20 minutes) or scientific papers (20 minutes).

If there is a short topic you are particularly passionate about but is not long enough for a full talk, then consider submitting a 10-minute lightening talk proposal. Lightening talks are a great way to inform and inspire other people, and can be a great catalyst for hallway conversations or Open Space sessions.

You can submit talks here: http://less2011.leanssc.org/call-for-papers/

Tracks and Themes

There are four tracks at this year’s conference. From the conference Web site:

  • Lean and Agile Product Development – A growing community with active researchers and practitioners world-wide
  • Complexity and Systems Thinking – A variety of topics that bring a completely different perspective into the world of business and management. Cutting edge ideas that the community is starting to apply to daily work
  • Beyond Budgeting – A novel approach to company management and strategy. Because the world changes constantly, companies, not just projects, must adapt to the new conditions
  • Transforming Organizations – Agile and Lean adoption leads to changes in our organizations. How to support the needed organization transformation? What is the state of the art when it comes to supporting and encouraging transformation?

Registration

You can register to attend here http://less2011.leanssc.org/register/ and it is still early enough to avail of the very generous early bird discount. I hope to see lots of you there!

ALE Conference 2011 – Submit a Talk, Bring Your Family

The ALE Network, brainchild of Jurgen Appelo, is rapidly gaining momentum. What started as an idea has grown into a movement. Jurgen writes about The Birth of a Network over on his Blog.

The first ALE Conference will take place in Berlin from September 7th to 9th 2011. Olaf has written about how he got into ALE, and all about organizing the conference here and here.

The build-up is very exciting. Already there’s a great lineup of keynote speakers. The quality and content of the proposed talks promises to be very high, with a real diversity of input from across Europe. Plus, there’s an Open Space that Mike Sutton will facilitate – not to be missed!

Industry Sofa

I am part of the Industry Sofa (although Andrea Heck from Siemens is really the main Industry Sofa person, and does all the real work 🙂 ). See ‘Why Sofas?’ for more.

You can submit talks here until July 7th: http://ale2011.eu/call-for-speakers-and-review-process/

You can register to attend here: http://ale2011.eu/registration/

Program for Spouse and Children

Just one of the many things that sets this conference apart is the inclusion of spouses and children in the program. There is a dedicated ‘Spouse and Kids’ organizing sofa, and there will be special activities organized to help them feel part of the conference. For those of us that go to a lot of conferences it’s great to have something that acknowledges the important contributions our families make. As far as I know this is the first conference to have such a theme.

Using Silent Grouping to Size User Stories

Introduction

User stories are used to describe the functionality delivered in a product or system. Planning Poker is a common technique for sizing user stories, but it can sometimes be challenging. It can be time consuming and teams can get bogged down in unnecessary discussion. There is a technique called Silent Grouping that can be used to compliment Planning Poker, allowing large sets of user stories to be sized in minutes. Silent Grouping has several advantages. It is fast, which in turn leads to significant time and cost savings.

The Silent Grouping Technique

Background

Silent Grouping is a facilitation technique for getting people to group related items without talking. Jean Tabaka has a summary of the technique in her book ‘Collaboration Explained’ as part of a set of techniques used to help teams process large amounts of information. Jean’s variation of the technique is described in the context of conducting a retrospective, but it is equally applicable to grouping user stories.

Overview

There are variations in how this technique is applied. I usually apply the technique in four parts: preparation, individual placement, group placement, and, finally, discussion and reflection. Each part serves a specific purpose, as shown in the table:

Part

Goals

Preparation

Lay the ground rules; set expectations

Round 1: Individual Placement

Quickly get an initial size estimate for all of the user stories

Round 2: Group Placement

Give everyone an opportunity to (silently) provide input to all user stories

Discussion and Reflection

Resolve any disputes; reflect on experience; gain consensus before moving on; discuss insights

Preparation

The facilitator prepares the board. The columns represent the groups referred to in the name of the technique. The team needs to decide on a scale to use for user story point sizes. Many agile teams now use the Fibonacci sequence for user story point sizes. The user stories should be placed somewhere visible and easily accessible so a smooth flow can be established. Pinning or sticking them to an adjacent wall space or laying them out on a table works well. The board should look like this before the team begins:

Blank Sizing Wall for Silent Grouping

It is a good idea to prepare a Parking Lot for any user stories whose grouping cannot be agreed. I usually put this just beside the Grouping board.

Choose and agree a mid-size user story for starting off. This is the bench mark against which the first few user stories will be compared. After that, triangulation will take over and people will size the current user story against all currently sized user stories.

If the team is new to Silent Grouping, the facilitator explains the technique as part of the preparation, and answers any questions.

Round 1: Individual Placement

Team members take turns, one at a time, to place one user story on the board. The goal in this round is to get all the user stories on the board, and hence get an initial size estimate for all user stories.

I find that simply forming a line is the easiest way to run this part of the exercise. As each person takes their turn, they rejoin the back of the line.

Round 2: Group Placement

The team stands around the board. At this point all user stories are on the board. Team members take turns stepping forward and moving one user story at a time. The goal in this round is to get to team consensus on the size of all the user stories.

There can be contention in this round. A user story can get moved repeatedly, e.g., one team member can move a user story, e.g., from a 5 to an 8, and another team member can move it back to a 5. The team has been instructed to consider why the user story might have been moved. Very often, this act of observation and conscious consideration is enough to resolve the disagreement, and the parties will agree on a size without any verbal discussion.

It can happen that two or more people will move a user story back and forth between two (or more) columns, and nobody is prepared to compromise. This is generally a signal that more discussion is required for this specific user story. As the facilitator, when you observe this interaction just remove the user story form the board and place it in the Parking Lot that you prepared earlier. In practice I have found that this tends to occur relatively rarely.

Risks to watch out for in this round include people not participating. This can take a number of forms. They can stand back and just observe, and not size anything after Round 1. They can become disengaged and not observe the proceedings at all. Both of these can be signs of underlying issues. This is where the skill and experience of the facilitator is important, first in recognizing the symptoms, and then dealing with it.

Discussion and Reflection

The facilitator facilitates a short discussion between the team to gauge the level of confidence in the sizes. The Fist of Five is a good technique to use here. It quickly gives a sense for how confident the team is in the sizing that they just performed.

Full Sizing Wall for Silent Grouping of User Stories

Variations

I used to use a ‘?’ column to group user stories that people felt could not be sized because there were too many unknowns. Planning Poker has a ‘?’ card too. However, I found that this provided too easy a way out. I want to provide a situation where teams are forced to either make a decision or openly disagree with each other and question the size of the user story. Decide what’s appropriate for you, but these days I prefer to not use the ‘?’ column.

Summary of Benefits

I have observed the following benefits from using the Silent Grouping technique:

  • It is very fast. You can size large sets of user stories in minutes.
  • It is scalable. I have used this technique with up to 8 Scrum Teams (55 people) in parallel, to size 677 user stories in 28 minutes.
  • It very quickly surfaces any unknowns or areas of disagreement within the team.
  • It is inclusive. Everyone gets the opportunity to comment on all user stories.
  • It works well as a compliment to Planning Poker. You can size initial benchmark user stories using Planning Poker. For any user stories that don’t gain consensus during Silent Grouping, you can size those with Planning Poker.
  • Because the Silent Grouping technique explicitly disallows talking, it is easier for more introverted team members to exert their influence. Conversely, it is harder for more dominant team members to exert their influence just by force of argument or discussion – something that can happen in Planning Poker.
  • If there are language barriers in your team, e.g., if you work with global teams who do not share a common first language ( a very common scenario these days), then Silent Grouping is a good leveler.
  • You can sometimes observe a noticeable delay among Planning Poker players as they wait for others to show their hand first. With Silent Grouping, particularly in Round 1, people must make a decision themselves without influence from others.
  • Silent Grouping applies the wisdom of the entire team to quickly size large sets of user stories. Just like in James Surowiecki’s book, the team will be familiar with the problem domain already. E.g., in one of the early examples in Surowiecki’s book, the people guessing the weight of the cow were all experienced farmers. If it is a truly new problem domain for the team then they need to spend some time before sizing just getting familiar with the problem domain.

Playing Silent Grouping at the XP2011 Conference

I had prepared some slides for my session at the XP2011 Conference, but as it turned out, I did not use the slides. Instead, I decided to run an actual Silent Grouping session. I asked for seven volunteers to pretend to be a Scrum team, and one other volunteer to be a time keeper.

XP 2011 Participants Playing Silent Grouping

When teaching this technique it’s useful to have a backlog of user stories already prepared. Rather than try to come up with a contrived product example, I like to use animals. Most people are familiar with most types of animals, so it makes for a good problem domain. To simulate reality, add in a couple of unfamiliar animals, or some that might appear to be ambiguous. For the XP Conference I used 42 sticky notes with stickers of animals. Some animals were represented more than once.

The team sized all 42 user stories in about six minutes.

Animal User Stories After Silent Grouping

Several people who came to my session at the XP Conference tried it out when they got back to work, including @ruby_gem.

Slide Deck

The slide deck is here:

Research Paper

My talk at XP2011 was based on a research paper that I submitted to the conference, and was published as part of the conference proceedings. I was delighted to be named in the final four at the conference banquet for the award for Best Research Paper.

The paper draws on experiences of seven Scrum teams as examples. The paper shows how to apply the technique with co-located teams, and includes an example of how it was used with distributed teams. The paper is 15 pages long and contains some data, charts and more detail on the technique and its application. The proceedings are available from Springer.

Let me know how you get on

I keep records every time I run this, and I also keep records of other ScrumMasters and coaches that use it. I would love to hear how Silent Grouping works out for you. Get in touch and let me know the following. I’ll be happy to credit you in any future papers.

  • Team size
  • Number of user stories
  • Time to size the user stories
  • Number of user stories that needed discussion afterwards
  • Number of user stories sized with Planning Poker
  • Any comments, experiences or insights from you or your team

Definition of Ready

Introduction

Many agile teams are familiar with Definition of Done as a set of agreements that let everyone know when a user story (or a sprint or a release) is really done, and all necessary activities are complete. Definition of Ready is a set of agreements that lets everyone know when something is ready to begin, e.g., when a user story is ready to be taken into a sprint, or when all necessary conditions are right for a team to start a sprint.

Life of a User Story

The typical life of a User Story is shown in the following diagram:

Life of a User Story from Concept to Happy User

At some point in time someone will have an idea or concept for a new feature. The concept will be expressed as one or more user stories, and get added to a product backlog. The team, working together, will figure out how to turn this concept, expressed as one or more user stories, into a real product feature that delights end users. That’s the abridged version; all sorts of interesting things happen along the way.

Viewed another way, we can consider the level of focus that a user story gets at different times.

The life of a User Story in a typical Scrum project

The horizontal axis represents time. The vertical axis examines the level of focus on the user story from the perspective of the Product Owner and the Delivery Team. Of course there are other stakeholders in the user story, but these are the two perspectives I want to consider right now.

Let’s assume we’re talking about a typical Scrum team, although the details are similar for any other agile process. At some point before the Sprint starts (represented by Sstart) the Product Owner has a high degree of focus on the user story. They are trying to figure out what the value is for the user, and how to express that as a user story. As we approach the start of the Sprint, the rest of the team increases their focus on the user story. As part of their Backlog Grooming and look-ahead planning activities the team will start to consider the user story’s general feasibility, acceptance criteria, dependencies and related details. The team will size the user story, and maybe even start to think about the tasks.

Between Sstart and Send the team works on delivering the user story. The team gets into more detail than the Product Owner during this period, as they figure out the software design, test cases, user experience details, implementation details, and generally work towards getting the user story Done (according to the team’s own Definition of Done) and Accepted by the Product Owner. The Product Owner is involved every step of the way – the intention of the diagram is to convey that the team is bringing a higher degree of focus during this time.

After the user story has been accepted the team’s focus changes to the next user story.

At some point after the Sprint ends (represented by Send) the team is considering the product as a whole, and preparing to ship it. By this time the user story has been combined with many others to form a complete product.

Synchronization points

The Product Owner and Delivery Team work at different cadences. They focus on different things at different times. Time-boxed iterations (or Sprints) are one way to synchronize their different areas of focus. Having a Definition of Ready that serves as a set of mutual agreements between Product Owner and the rest of the team brings a focus to upcoming Sprint synchronization points.

Why Have a Definition of Ready?

A Definition of Ready lets everyone know when a User Story is really ready to be taken into a Sprint. It does not need to be “100% defined” with all acceptance criteria, etc. but it should be “ready enough” so that the team is confident they can successfully deliver the user story.

It will save a lot of time if each user story meets Definition of Ready before the Sprint Planning meeting, but it is also OK to work on the user story during the Sprint Planning meeting to bring it to Ready.

Sample Definition of Ready

This section shows a sample Definition of Ready for a user story, and a sample Definition of Ready for a Sprint. I generally use these as baselines or starting points, and work with teams at the start of a project or release to customize the Definition of Ready for their product and environment.

Definition of Ready for a User Story

  • User Story defined
  • User Story Acceptance Criteria defined
  • User Story dependencies identified
  • User Story sized by Delivery Team
  • Scrum Team accepts User Experience artefacts
  • Performance criteria identified, where appropriate
  • Person who will accept the User Story is identified
  • Team has a good idea what it will mean to Demo the User Story
Most of these bullet points are targeting specific problems I have encountered on projects over the years. A little preparation can go a long way towards helping the team delivery user stories. When I presented this at XP 2011, one of the participants suggested adding that last bullet point. I like that suggestion.
I advocate that teams do not commit to taking a user story into a Sprint unless there is sufficient clarity and evidence of commitment from Product Owners. Remember the “3 Cs” of a user story (Card, Confirmation, Conversation). There’s a balance here, and judgement and common sense need to be applied. We don’t want to replace the Conversation aspect. I am not suggesting to turn user stories into specifications. I am suggesting that Product Owners and teams give themselves a greater chance at successful delivery of user stories by considering some issues ahead of the Sprint.

Definition of Ready for a Sprint

  • The Sprint Backlog is prioritized
  • The Spring Backlog contains all defects, User Stories and other work that the team is committing to
  • No hidden work
  • All team members have calculated their capacity for the Sprint
    • Fulltime on project = X hours per day
  • All User Stories meet Definition of Ready

Examples of ‘other work’ might include lab setup, build environment maintenance, creating a test application.

Scrum Masters, working with Product Owners and the rest of team, can use this to prepare for upcoming Sprints.

Slides

These are the slides from my talk at XP 2011 in Madrid:

Conclusion

Try using Definition of Ready to bring a focus to Backlog Grooming meetings and Look-Ahead planning activities. Product Owners can use it as a guide when preparing user stories for upcoming Sprints. Teams can use it as a checklist to make sure that they have an increased chance of success in delivering the completed user story, and that there is enough thought gone into the user story before they start to deliver it.

Nanny McPhee’s Advice for Agile Coaches and ScrumMasters

Nanny McPheeNanny McPhee, though never working as an agile coach or ScrumMaster, knows a thing or two about organization dynamics. New to this particular group, she brings a wealth of experience and a toolbox of techniques and practices. She has a sponsor; someone that invited her in, who sees the need for her presence and who wants the overall group to improve – for their own sakes as well as for the long-term well-being of the broader group and their wide community of stakeholders. Not all the people involved either agree they need to improve, or want to improve. The status quo suits them just fine, and not everyone welcomes her, or her ideas.

She has a very apt quote from the first movie:

There is something you should understand about the way I work. When you need me but do not want me, then I must stay. When you want me but no longer need me, then I have to go. It’s rather sad, really, but there it is.

Nanny McPhee faces an uphill battle, but is undaunted. Her experience helps her to understand the situation, and identify ways to help individuals and, with time, the entire group. Eventually she helps the group to reach a point where they can carry on without her, building on the foundation she helped them to lay. Part of her engagement with the group is to recognize when they no longer need her, and can continue to make improvements themselves.

Although I had seen this family movie when it first came out, it was Olaf Lewitz who pointed out the relevance of the quote to me at a coaching workshop on a Friday afternoon in Trondheim, on the last day of XP2010. Since then I noticed that Lyssa Adkins used the quote too in Chapter 4 of her excellent book, ‘Coaching Agile Teams’.

Who knows what’s next for Nanny McPhee and her reach in the agile community? Maybe a keynote or invited talk at Agile 2011 or XP 2011?