Moving People Between Teams

December 23, 2010

So, let’s pretend that you are working someplace where you have two or more teams working on development projects. Furthermore, let’s say that those teams have been in the same configuration (same folks doing the same thing) for 3 or more years. Things might start to get a little stale right? Teams might start to get a bit isolated, each focusing on their own areas of domain expertise. You might find it very difficult to introduce change in this kind of environment – in fact, I can almost guarantee that people will tend to resist change in a scenario like this.

So then I wake up screaming in the middle of the night.

Wait…we’re not talking about me. Really. So this “friend” of mine thinks he has a problem and he wants to stir things up a bit. The idea is to start moving people between the teams. People get experience with different domains, different teams, different technologies, etc. So what strategy should you use that will provide some structure for this type of team swapping that won’t seem totally arbitrary and capricious and will be respectful of the people involved? So I had a few ideas that I shared with my “friend”:

  • Musical Chairs: everyone swaps one seat on the team, if you don’t have a seat you go to another team


  • Playground Picking: just like picking teams for kickball, every once in a while you get everybody together, pick captains, and let them select their own teams

  • Core + Float: keep “essential” people on the team together, and give journeymen on the team the opportunity to work with whichever team they like

  • Sprint Rotations: each sprint, rotate a different person on the team to another team.

How would you stir things up on your teams?


Practice #2: Break It Down

December 18, 2010

How do you go about memorizing a poem? When I do it, I usually break it down into individual lines or phrases and memorize each one piece by piece. Then I put it all together as I build up a collection of individual lines that I’ve memorized. I suspect it works that way for a lot of things we learn. First we break it down into manageable chunks and then we master the smaller units one at time.

One of the things that coaches do in sports is analyze a skill that a player demonstrates. As they do so, they break it down into smaller components. It could be a batters swing that is broken down into the component arm movements, shoulder movements, head movements, hip rotation and foot placement. Overall, the player coordinates all of these pieces into a single unit that we see as the resulting swing, but to the experienced coach, they see much more. The coach may notice that part of the motion isn’t being executed properly. Then they call the players attention to the issue and perhaps they ask them to practice just that part of the motion in isolation. When they have mastered the motion in isolation, they bring it all back together again – hopefully with the end result of a home run hit on game day.

The same thing applies in weightlifting. You may find that you are stalled out in trying to make progress on one of your lifts. A coach will look at the way you perform the lift, and break it down into its component parts. Usually there are sticking points or weak areas in most people’s lifts. Typically a coach helps you identify these problem areas and recommends some exercises that isolate and address that weak area. So you practice just the top part of the lift, or perhaps just the lift off the chest – and you do it over and over again until you have mastered just that small portion of the overall exercise. Then you put it all together again to perform what is hopefully a successful lift.

Obviously it’s not hard to find examples of how we break things down into smaller pieces in order to refine or improve them. So how can we do this as a practice for our projects? First we have to understand what all the components are of the exercise we are planning to perform. Let’s take a scrum planning meeting for example. In a typical sprint planing meeting you might break it down into the following parts:

  1. Pre-planning: This includes backlog preparation (Are the stories understandable? are they sized? Have they been prioritized?) Is the product owner ready to discuss and elaborate on the features? Has the planning meeting been scheduled? Is the agenda well defined?
  2. Kicking off the meeting: Are the right people there? Is the agenda understood and mutually agreed upon? Are all the materials (sticky notes, whiteboards, etc.) necessary for facilitating the meeting present?
  3. Reviewing the stories: Is the team asking questions? Is the product owner prepared to answer them? Are open issues and risks being captured from these conversations? Are new stories being created/deleted?
  4. Designing: Is the team prepared with resources to support detailed planning? Are designs/code/tests being proposed? Are requests for additional information being satisfied? Are tasks being captured? Are the tasks getting sized?
  5. Commitment: Is the team able to negotiate stories with the product owner? Are there caveats or exceptions that need to be noted? Areas for further exploration?
  6. Wrap up: are the notes from the meeting posted someplace for reference later in the sprint? Are there any remaining issues or reservations that need to be addressed?

In broad terms, these are all the things that make up a planning meeting. Doing any one of these things poorly may have an adverse impact on the performance of the team later in the sprint. So there is some pressure to get this meeting right. Inevitably, if you are anything like me, you look at this list and wince a bit – you’re probably seeing things that you could improve. Bingo! That’s what we want to practice! Each of these things can be practiced in isolation.

So, unless we can convince ourselves that we run the perfect planning meeting, the perfect stand-up, the perfect retrospective, then we need to be practicing. All of these activities can be broken down into smaller parts – and it’s very likely that we all do some parts better than others. So let’s start practicing!

Practice #1 – Speed Drills

December 17, 2010

In Daniel Coyle’s book The Talent Code, he talks about the different ways that people practice that ultimately enable them to achieve extraordinary results. One the things that he mentions is that a key component of deliberate practice is to speed up or slow down the exercise at hand. He gives some great examples of musicians who are asked to play their music so slowly that the tune would not be recognizable by someone listening to them. Alternatively they are asked to play the music as fast as possible, sort of like a 33 RPM record being played at 78 RPM. What does manipulating the speed do for us? Well, for one thing, it highlights mistakes. Mistakes that you might miss playing at regular tempo may be more readily detected when the pace is dramatically slowed down or sped up.

This strategy is also used by athletes. Dramatically slowing down an exercise is used to detect and fix weaknesses in form. Speeding up the exercise is also used to force mistakes that might normally not occur. The idea is to use varying speed to highlight flaws in performance, which in turn enhances learning. It’s pretty apparent how these strategies apply in music and sports, but how could we apply variations in speed to coaching software teams? A few ideas:

  1. Vary the length of the time boxes that you do development in. Yeah, you heard me right. Try dramatically shrinking the sprint length down to one week, one day, one hour. On the flip side, you could extend it – double it, triple it, quadruple the sprint duration. I know there are those who will try to convince you that this is a “bad thing”, but take it from me, you won’t go to hell for trying this. Shucks, try eliminating the sprints entirely (an infinite time box?).
  2. Vary the length of some of the meetings. If your planning meetings are usually an hour, try all day. If they are 4 hours long, try 10 minutes. Is your stand-up meeting always 15 minutes? How about making it thirty seconds!
  3. Speed up your retrospectives. What would happen if it was like a stream of consciousness game – each person has to blurt out the first thing that comes to mind to describe the sprint. If you don’t answer in 2 seconds then you move on to the next person.
  4. How slowly can you write code? As an exercise you might find that changing your development pace will have interesting effects. Try out the Pomodoro technique.

Will you make mistakes if you do these things? Hell yes! That’s the point! If you want to learn you need to make mistakes. That means you and your team have to be able to change the variables (in this case: time) in order to push your boundaries and learn new things. What I’m talking about is experimenting with the constraints that you apply to yourself and your team. You can’t experiment like that without breaking a few rules. Let’s face it, if you don’t find anything useful by experimenting with the speed of different activities, you can always return to the status quo and blame me.