Time After Time

October 20, 2014

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Last year I led an effort to implement time tracking for our teams. A quick warning is probably in order here:

Never, ever, be the person who introduces time tracking at a company. You will be reviled before the gods and your name shall be stricken from the roles of the Agile. People will avoid you at parties, your kids will spurn you, and your pets will pee in your shoes. On the bright side, that Darth Vader helmet you have sitting in the closet will suddenly seem like a good thing to wear around the office.

So, now that we have that out of the way, back to our story. So I was leading this effort to introduce time tracking to all of the developers in our little corner of the company. The idea that had lead to this little misadventure was simple enough: if we used a time tracking tool we will get more detailed information about where time is being spent on projects than if we just make some educated guesses using excel spreadsheets (our existing mechanism). This will give us higher quality information and we will enable us to automatically handle things like capitalization easily.

That was the idea. If we ask people to report their time daily, they will give us a more accurate picture of the time that they are spending on the work. Simple enough. Our old system of excel spreadsheets made a lot of assumptions that probably weren’t true. For example:

  • Everyone works an 8 hour day
  • Everyone on a team works on a given project at the same time
  • Team membership doesn’t change during the sprint

If you use those rules then you can come up with some rough estimates for how many hours the team put into any given project on a sprint by sprint basis. You have to assume that any errors or mistakes will just be averaged out over time. That makes the time tracking very simple to do, but it makes the finance guys twitchy. They get anxious because you are making a lot of assumptions about things that we all know probably aren’t true. And they really don’t like that “It all kinda works out on average” bit either.

So we decided to go down the path of detailed time tracking. Give up all hope ye who enter here. Detailed time tracking doesn’t assume much: every hour of the day must be accounted for. However there is one hidden assumption:

  • Everyone will bother to take the time to accurately report their time for every day.

And there’s the rub. Very few people actually report their time accurately. First, you have to understand that they are ticked off that they are even asked to enter time. Second, they are very likely already entering their time in other places, like agile project management tools, HR vacation tracking tools, contractor management tools, etc. A single person might have to enter their time in 4 different systems! All you have done is add one more tool to the list and it is definitely not welcome.

So how do they use it? They either book all 8 hours of their day to the project and copy and paste every day, or they take one example day and copy and paste that. You aren’t going to get the real data, because the people using the system don’t really want to give it to you. At the end of a long day, nobody wants to have to sit down and try and figure out how much of their day was wasted in all those godawful meetings. They just don’t.

Oh, I suppose you could try policing it better – good luck with that.

You might come away from this little diatribe with the impression that I dislike time tracking. That’s not true. I realize there is a legitimate need for it in our business. However implementing it is much tougher than I realized and it’s very easy to find that the benefits really aren’t that clear at the end of it all.


Superman Syndrome

October 19, 2014

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There you are, in your tenth meeting of the day. You haven’t even had lunch, just one meeting after another. You’d skip the meetings, but you are required and half the meetings are yours anyway. You finish the day without having accomplished one single thing (except a bunch of meetings). Your todo list has only grown longer and the only time remaining is after hours (because nobody can schedule a meeting then). If this is you, then you might have superman syndrome.

It’s pretty common in software development. The nicest people get sucked into it (no, really, they’re too damn nice). You are competent, eager to please, and really can’t say no. It’s a great ego boost – you are needed! Well, I’ve got some bad news: you’ve got Superman Syndrome.

That’s right, you got it bad. Now sit down. This is where we get to play product owner. Product owner of your life. Write down that list of all thing things you have to do. Go ahead, put it in priority order. That’s right, it’s not easy. Product ownership is a bitch. Good, now cancel all your meetings. I know it hurts. Do it anyway. Send some polite excuse about being behind in your work (because it’s true) and you’ll catch up with them later (maybe never).

Now take that one thing at the top of the list (it is just one thing, right?) and get to work. Here’s the new rule, you don’t get to work on anything else until that thing is done. Take comfort in the fact that you are working on the most important thing that you could be working on. No one can fault you for that. You see what we are doing is limiting your work in progress (WIP). Limiting the amount of work you take on is like kryptonite to Superman Syndrome.

While we’re at it, let’s just turn outlook off. Yeah, completely off. You have a WIP limit here too: twice a day. Once before lunch and once before you go home. That’s it. That’s all.

While we are having so much fun setting WIP limits, we might as well put a WIP limit on your meetings. That’s right, nobody can reasonably expect you to do your job AND attend every single meeting: so don’t. Set a reasonable limit (no more than 2 hours of meetings/day). That way you are available if the issue is REALLY important, but otherwise, they’ll have to just get along without you. Again, polite apologies all around.

Try that on for a while and see how that works for you. Come back and chat with me when you think you are ready to change your WIP limits.

Now to take my own advice…wish me luck.

Yours truly,
Superman

Simplicity of Measure

October 18, 2014

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I got a fitbit bracelet the other day. It’s a pretty nifty gadget. It tracks the number of steps that I take in a day, as well as measuring movement while I’m asleep. I’ve been very impressed with the number of things that you can derive from a simple measure of the frequency of movement. You get number of steps, activity level, calories burned, sleep periods, and a few other metrics. All of that from one simple measure of how often my hand moves.  Admittedly, some of those measures are inferred based on some simple assumptions like how many calories that the average person burns in a fixed period of time. However there is nothing wrong with that, The measure doesn’t have to be 100% accurate in order for it to be useful to me. I can see the trends and understand if my calories burned is changing for the better or for the worse without having the exact number of calories that I burn in an hour. An approximation is certainly sufficient.

It’s really quite impressive that you can derive so much from a single metric. It made me wonder about the metrics that we keep on Agile teams. Whether it’s velocity or throughput, there are metrics that we use for a lot of different purposes. We use velocity to tell us how much work the team can take on per sprint. We derive duration using velocity. I like the notion of having a small set of metrics like velocity that we can use for a variety of measures.


Make Resolving Impediments a Habit

October 17, 2014

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I’ve talked a lot about the rigors of finding and resolving impediments for a team. There is one thing that I have left out: the people part. I learned this lesson at a conference that I was co-hosting. I had been in charge of setting up the food for the event. Getting the caterer, arranging for meals, that sort of thing. As you might imagine, it’s a pretty tough job to satisfy the dietary requirements for a very large group of people. I learned of whole categories of food allergies and needs that I had never even imagined existed! There was a little bit of every imaginable combination. Everything from your standard gluten free diet all the way to lacto-ovo-pesca-leguma-veganitarians (OK, I made that last one up).

We did the best we could to satisfy the needs of most folks and pretty much called it good. About halfway through the conference, someone mentioned that there was no food that fit in their dietary needs. I expressed my sympathies and referred them to the grocery store around the corner. I really didn’t give it another thought. A few minutes later, I heard the same complaint made by the same person, but this time the reply was, “I’ll get you something, I’ll be right back” And that person ran off to the store themselves. Wow!

I was humbled. The difference between my reaction and theirs was the difference between someone who could empathize and take action to resolve the impediment, and someone who couldn’t. The lesson I learned that day was that in order to help people with their impediments, it takes empathy. You have to feel their need, and be receptive to doing anything to help them out. I think I had missed that before. That willingness to serve the needs of others is really important. All the strategies in the world for resolving impediments won’t help anyone if you don’t care.


Keeping It In the Family

October 16, 2014

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I was asked the other day, “Do you use Scrum at home?” It’s not the first time that I’ve been asked this question. The honest answer is: no. Oh, I’ve used bits and pieces here and there. I’ve put together a taskboard to track work on the occasional big household project. I’ve even built a backlog from time to time. But that is about the extent of it. I’ve been married for nearly twenty years – I’m not about to screw it up with Scrum or any other method for that matter.

You won’t find me standing around with the kids doing a daily standup. There is no weekly planning meeting on my family calendar. And the only retrospective that I do is after getting caught leaving the toilet seat up (“Doh!”). Nope, I’ve got to be honest, my household isn’t very agile.

You might ask, “Why not?”

Dang, that’s a really good question. I’m not sure that I have a good answer. Maybe I just want to leave all that stuff at work. But if that were the case, then why do I go home and write this blog? No, that’s not it. Maybe there really has been no structure modelled in my family life before. In fact, the very idea of doing that kind of “work” at home makes me cringe a little bit. I guess I feel like we have things under control. Maybe I don’t even want that control. It’s really hard to say.

I think there is value in sharing the practical time management techniques that I use at work with my kids. I didn’t hesitate to introduce them to pomodoros when my daughter was struggling to stay focused on her homework. It felt really good to be able to introduce her to a tool that would help her be successful. She loves pomodoros! The kids like all the fooling around that I do with self-experiments around the house (“Hey! Look at Daddy!”). They always want to know what kind of nutty thing Dad is doing this week.

However, I’ve never felt a compelling need to have any kind of formal family meeting at all. Call me a bit waterfall. I guess when it comes to my family I only want to give them the techniques that they need for the problems they have. I don’t want to burden them with a framework. Got a problem with focus? Use pomodoros. Does the problem seem too large? Break it down into stories. No progress? Try iterating.

When I can provide a helpful technique that solves their problems (agile or not), I feel like Superman. Seriously folks, there is no better feeling in the world. There is no preaching. I don’t lecture them on the perils of waterfall. To my kids a waterfall is something you ride a log down at Disneyland. I aim to keep it that way as long as possible.

I guess, in retrospect it’s not such a bad approach for introducing agile practices for anyone, regardless of whether they are in your family or not. In fact, why would you treat a team any differently than your family? Aren’t they just that – your extended family? Can we use this to inform how we approach introducing Agile Practices to our teams?

Maybe we just introduce them to the tools they need to solve the problem that they have in the moment. Perhaps that’s how we start. That’s how we demonstrate value and earn trust. Not by dumping some framework they must comply with on their heads.

Hmmm….I think I’ve been doing it wrong.

Introduce agile practices to your team like you would to your family. Give them only what they need and let them figure out the rest.


Satisfaction

October 16, 2014

As some of you may know, I’m building a boat in my brother’s garage. We had a big milestone the other day: we finished painting the bottom and rolled the boat over to finish the topsides. From a distance it looks great!

Up close is another story though. Up close you can find ripples in the paint from where the fiberglass wasn’t sufficiently well sanded. There are other places where you can see fine lines in the paint due to underlying patterns in the filler compound. Add to that the fact that the paint has rough areas where the roller left a pattern. And don’t even get me started about that flat spot.

I see all of these imperfections and more. It’s pretty rough.
—–
I’ve worked with teams like that too. From a distance, everything looks great. You are hitting your milestones and everyone is pleased.

But get close and you find all sorts of flaws. They’re not using story points. They won’t keep their burn down chart up to date. They don’t even know what an acceptance test is. They’re pretty rough. Maybe we should just keep them in the garage…
—–
But around this time, along comes my brother. He takes one look at the boat and says, “Damn! That’s beautiful!” So I point out a flaw. He waves it off and says, “The only boat without scrapes and dents is in the showroom. This boat is going to sail!” Not to be dissuaded, I point out another flaw. He looks at me and says, “Will it float?”
My answer, “Yes.”
“OK then. Let’s get this thing in the water.”

And so we go back to work, and somehow it is OK. I stop worrying and focus on what remains to be done.
—–
Sometimes someone visits the office. Someone I really respect and admire. I show them around and they say, “Wow, what a great team!” So I walk them over to the story board and point out that it’s out of date. They look at me and say, “That’s cool. Not many people even use physical dashboards.” I tell them that the team doesn’t use story points. They look at me and say, “Does the team deliver?”
My answer, “Yes.”
“OK then. Let’s sling some code.”
—–
And so I’m reminded not to be such a damn perfectionist.
Love your boat.
Love your team.


Continuous Improvement vs. Continuous Change

October 14, 2014

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I’m a little down on the notion of continuous improvement these days. It’s not that it doesn’t happen – it does…sometimes. I simply fear that it promises too much. I think part of it is the terminology. You see in the real world continuous improvement is neither truly continuous or necessarily an improvement.

To begin with, I’ve critiqued the notion of continuously improving before from the point of view that keeping any process happening full time is ludicrous. Certainly once every sprint is nowhere near continuous. I guess maybe it is continuous when you compare it to other more plan driven methods, but that’s far from continuous in my book.

No, the part that I find most objectionable is the improving part. You see, it’s misleading. It suggests to me that every change is an improvement. That every effort is a step forward, not back. And that is simply not how it works. It would be better labelled periodic experimentation, or punctuated mutation. You see, in the real world, when we change something, we never really know if it’s going to work out or not. There are 50/50 odds that the change will actually make things worse! 

Of course that’s a good thing. We learn a little either way. Hopefully.

The problem I have with continuous improvement is that it sets up an unreasonable expectation in those we sell it to. To restate the sales pitch: every change will be an improvement and they happen all the time.

If every change were really an improvement, I would be worried that I had been transported to an alternative universe. That I was being monitored by aliens. That there was a black helicopter hovering over my house. I’d be making a tin foil bunny suit. Fortunately I know what universe I’m in, that there aren’t any black helicopters over my house, and tin foil tends to chafe in the damnedest places. Not too sure about the aliens…

Fortunately, many of my efforts at improvement fail. And that’s the way it should be.


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