Thanks for a great 2014

December 31, 2014

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“Cheers to a new year and another chance for us to get it right.” -Oprah Winfrey

This blog was first started back in 2007. Since then, I’ve published 258 posts on topics that ranged from outright rants, to humor, to reviews and recommendations. Everything on the topic of Agile software development processes.

Originally the idea was to dedicate the blog exclusively to the tools used on agile projects (hence the title). Obviously I didn’t end up confining myself to just discussing tools. After all, we agilists prefer interactions over processes and tools. So I ended up writing on a variety of agile topics. Most of the topics were things that simply came spontaneously. The ideas arising from my work, my reading or simply my feelings.

Looking back, some my posts were insightful, and others were simply boring. Occasionally I have taken what felt like significant risks with the material I’ve posted by saying things that I knew would not be popular or well received. In some ways that has made writing a blog like this very liberating.

Things began slowly in 2014 with just one post in March. After 200 posts, I think it’s fair to say that I was running out of steam. It wasn’t until August, when an old colleague of mine noted that I hadn’t been writing much, that things began to change. The writing engine fired up and I began posting again.

At this point, I started a new blog, onestandardman. The idea was to focus on a long-standing fascination of mine: Self-experimentation. I wanted to run experiments serially and share the results.

So now I was writing two blogs! In fact, this just seemed to grease the writing gears for me. For 35 days, I kept up a blistering pace of writing, posting twice a day. Once to each blog. September was a ferociously productive month for me.

The interesting thing was that in the past, I had a hard time keeping my writing quality high when I wrote with such frequency. This time quality was not a problem. The material just kept on coming and all I had to do was write whatever the voices in my head were telling me. Eventually, the writing pace slowed to a more sustainable level of 2-3 times per week.

It has been a wonderful year. I’ve encountered greater challenges this year than ever before. Thanks for being there.

 


Roles Considered Harmful

December 27, 2014

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“Man’s role is uncertain, undefined, and perhaps unnecessary.” – Margaret Mead

So there I was talking to a team that was split across two locations. There was the usual set of complaints that you might expect from a scenario where a team is divided across geophysical locations: miscommunication, delay, misunderstandings, etc.

In this case, the QA folks happened to be in one location and the development folks in another. As we talked through some of these issues, I couldn’t help but point out that the root cause – that separation between the two groups, could easily be solved: just split into two teams by location. Of course, that would leave us with a team of developers without any QA. Working with dev only teams doesn’t bother me (been there, done that, got the merit badge), but it was a different question altogether for this team member I was talking to. For them, the entire idea of removing a role from the team was completely untenable.

The first objection was, “If we don’t have QA on the team, who will keep developers under control? ”

Whoa! What? Back up the truck!

Who will keep the developers under control? Seriously?

At this point, I shifted gears and started asking questions about the team roles. I was concerned with this QA role that ‘controls’ cowboy developers. Why do we need to ‘control’ anybody in the first place? How exactly do you exert this control? What would happen if you didn’t control them?

It was quite an eye opening conversation. The more I looked at it, the more I realized that the roles of QA and developer had an astonishing amount of baggage associated with them. The QA role is the only role that can test code. The developer role is the only one that can write code. One can’t possibly be trusted to do the other’s job. It would be a lapse of ethical integrity!

Oh my God! Do people hear themselves when they utter this tripe?

Apparently not. No wonder we avoid creating roles or minimize them in some processes (i.e. Scrum, or better yet, swarming). It’s awfully easy to come to the conclusion that roles carry as much dysfunction as they do benefit for a team. They invite definition and structure, but in doing so they also create walls and barriers to effectiveness and efficiency.

As soon as you create a role that is entirely responsible for quality (or anything else for that matter), you do three things:

  1. You define their job, and by doing so, you make a distinction between “the things that I do” and “the things that you do”. It starts to define what you can and can’t do. That’s useful if you are trying to subdivide work. But not so useful if you are trying to create dynamic, flexible teams that adapt themselves to unanticipated changes. You know…Agile?
  2. You create an in-group and an out-group. In psychological terms, you are creating an “us” vs. “them” distinction which almost inevitably leads to conflict.
  3. With these foundations, our thinking is constrained about how the process of value creation should work. The distinctions that we hold in our heads are what we use in order to create the boundaries of our processes. We find these boundaries between Dev and QA, sales and product, managers and teams, and yes, even Scrum Masters and coaches. They’re everywhere.

Obviously, roles can have profound impacts on how people think about their relationship with the people they work together with. So what can we do about it?

As I asked further questions, it became apparent to me where I might go. Talking to the team would be a complete waste of time. They didn’t define the roles. They were hired for the roles that their managers defined. So step one is talking to the managers.

Of course managers are people too. They are only trying to fit in the hierarchy and culture of the company. Eliminating roles would be a very threatening thing to a manager whose whole career has been based on making and supporting such roles. So we can’t expect a whole lot of help from there either.
Of course you could just show them…

There are some talented developers I know, coaches really, who are very good at working side by side with teams and demonstrating by example how to blur the distinctions between roles. You can even do it yourself with other managers. Build those relationships. Help them out. Show them how it feels to have someone else help out that doesn’t have the same role as they do.

In the end, I think it comes down to people being able to experience what not having hard defined roles is like. You can’t talk them into it. You just need to roll up your sleeves and demonstrate with them.

“I’m not playing a role. I’m being myself, whatever the hell that is.” – Bea Arthur

References
Scrum Masters Considered Harmful, Paul Hodgetts
Us and Them: The Science of Identity, David Berreby


The Ultimate Project

December 24, 2014

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Delivering toys to 7.125 billion people in one night.

Dang.

Now that’s a project. It kind of puts my own project management hassles in a different perspective. I guess I’m going to have to stop whining about my project headaches. I mean, 7.125 billion? How many servers is that? Well, if we’re talking about the same Santa, I guess the answer is 1. Now that’s multitasking!

As I watch my family and I gear up for another Christmas, I’ve realized we are a pretty agile bunch. There are multiple projects in flight at any given time: hanging christmas lights, picking a tree, wrapping presents, cooking, to name just a few. Things are handed off from person to person with very little regard for role or authority. There is a definition of done – and a very real deadline! There’s plenty of pressure (especially at the mall). Everyone is committed. It’s crazy. Frankly its a beautiful project to be a part of.

I don’t have any startling observations here. I’m just kind of happy to be bumbling along in my own projects with my favorite team (my family).

For those of you working on your own holiday projects, I just wanted to say Merry Christmas folks!


Push v. Pull: Part 2

December 19, 2014

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Full of new enthusiasm courtesy of his impromptu mentor Rex, Peter was eager to try some of them out in the next race. He went home and immediately proceeded to write down some ideas for “pulling” with instead of pushing the team, like Rex had advised.

After giving it a little thought, here are a couple of the things he came up with:

  1. I will let people know what I see happening so that everyone on the boat has the same information that I do and can act accordingly.
  2. I will ask for feedback. For example: As we complete a tack, ask the jib trimmer if he feels enough pressure on the sail. Adjust my driving to help compensate.

There, he thought, that seemed like a reasonable place to start.

So when the next race came around, Peter shared his ideas with the team (well, those that came back anyway). The team was cautiously receptive. That was good enough for Peter.

So once more they went back out onto the race course. This time it went better. They managed to get a start in the middle of the fleet, and they even managed to hang on to their position all the way to the windward mark. That’s when things got complicated.

Things got crowded at the mark and Peter’s boat lost a lot of ground. They managed to to claw back some ground against the competition on the final run, but they were still in the last half of the finishers – definitely not where Peter wanted to be. On the bright side, instead of fleeing the boat when they reached the dock, the team decided to join Peter for a beer back at the clubhouse.

After having a round with the team, Peter found Rex. “So how did it go?” Rex asked.

“A little better. We did great on the first beat and managed to keep up with the pack.” Said Peter.

“I saw you were in the game. Nice job!”

“Yeah, but we blew it at the first mark.” Said a rather dejected Peter.

“What happened?”

“Well, we tried out some of the stuff that you recommended. I came up with a few ideas and shared them with the team. They seemed to work, but then things got stressful and I forgot to do the stuff I’d committed to doing. I couldn’t help it. There was just too much going on.”
Rex shook his head, “Actually I kind of expected that. It happens a lot to folks when they start pulling. Don’t sweat it, you’re off to a promising start.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, it’s like this: you understood the idea I was trying to convey. That’s a good start, but what you need to do is to show everyone how it works. You need to set the example.”

“I still don’t get it.”

“Let’s take a concrete example: before the next race, here’s what I want you to do. Switch places with anyone on your crew. It could be the trimmers, the bowman, the pit. Anybody at all. Your job for that race? To dedicate every ounce of your passion to performing the best you can. Bring all the love you have for sailing to the role. Show everyone what that looks like.”

“But if I do that who will drive the boat?” asked Peter.

“It really doesn’t matter. It can be anybody – after all, steering isn’t that hard.”

“Wait a second, I spent a lot of money on a boat so that I could be the man at the tiller.” protested Peter.
Rex nodded his head, “Precisely, and until you learn to share that passion and that responsibility with everyone on the boat, you will never win a race.”

“What if I’m not that good at the role? Won’t people just think I suck?”

“No, in fact you will probably gain some credibility with the team if they see you failing – what matters is that you are working along side them pulling for the win.”

“I don’t know…I just want a good crew that will help me win races.” said Peter.

“A good crew is something that you build together. It has to be a joint enterprise that everyone has a stake in. I don’t know of any better technique to get there than by pulling.”

Peter put his head in his hands and groaned. This really was a lot more than he had bargained for. He just wanted to win a race! It was infuriating!

Peter looked back at Rex, “OK, man. I’ll give it some thought. I’ve really got to wrap my head around this.”

Rex winked at him and replied, “Take all the time you need.”