Planning Feedback: Don’t Panic!

September 9, 2014

Ring the Alarm

So the other day a VP asked our team for an estimate on a project. Now, putting aside whatever feelings you may have about the usefulness of estimates, we did a little planning, a little investigating, a little debating, and came up with an estimate for the project. I brought the estimate back to the VP and then the fireworks began. Apparently he had been thinking of a different number than we had given him. He wanted it done in half the time that we had forecast.


Now at this point in the story a lot of teams will panic and come back with one of two reactions:

  1. Fight – “We can’t do that! That’s not Agile” (or some variation on that tired theme)
  2. Cave – “We have no choice…”

But wait a second, there is a middle path. You can agree, but ask what can be compromised in terms of scope or other project constraints. You see, a new project is not just a learning process for you. Its also  learning process for the customer too. When  you get that first feedback, DON’T PANIC!

There is one important part of the planning process that I often see get lost: iteration. Doing a single round of planning and then presenting it to your customer as “Take it or leave it” isn’t what I’d call much of a dialog.

What we should be doing is some lightweight planning then review with the customer. “That’s horrible!” They cry, and then you say, “So what number were you thinking of?” And they return with something totally preposterous. OK, that’s cool. “Is there functionality we can drop to hit that date?”


Of course not. So you go back, you scratch your head, cut out all the fluff you can find…and you still are way off the desired estimate. So then you take it back to them and say, “Hey look, I know this isn’t what you wanted, but here is the ABSOLUTE minimum we can get away with.” At which point, the customer looks at you with a tear in their eye and says these magic words, “What CAN you give me?”

Now you have a real negotiation! It may not always play out this way, but hopefully you get the point. You can’t freak out when they give you that first reaction. Stay cool – this is the first time they’ve had to test their fantasies against your capabilities. They need to learn too. So give your stakeholders a chance to work together with you on figuring out just what is possible. Negotiate. The more iterations you go through, the better your chances of coming to an agreement that everyone agrees is the best.

XP2011 Evaluations

May 14, 2011

If there is one thing that I would add to XP2011 I think it would be some sort of speaker evaluation system. Right now there is nothing and I think the conference organizers are missing a great opportunity for some feedback for the speakers that they invite to the conference. Of course in the absence of any conference organized feedback system, there are still some reasonable alternatives:

  1. Each speaker can gather feedback on their own in their session. That’s what we did in our Silo Busting tutorial this year and we got some constructive ideas out of it. By collecting the feedback myself, I get useful information for improvement, but the conference organizers don’t.
  2. Speakers can use an online evaluation service like SpeakerRate. I noticed at least one speaker using this service and requesting feedback via twitter. I’m going to have to give this a try.
  3. You can try to use social media like twitter to collect tweets about your session.
So why do I care? First, I want that feedback for my own use, and I want it from a source that is relatively unbiased. That unbiased part is a little tricky when you are the one soliciting the feedback – in my experience people often won’t say the really useful stuff to your face (although there have been some exceptions). Now, I’m tempted to say that conference organizers could also use the information for evaluating speakers future conferences but…I’m not so sure about that for the following reasons:
  1. I don’t know of any conference where historical data on speaker performance is used. That’s not to say that it isn’t used anywhere, just not at the few conferences that I speak at (as far as I know).
  2. I’m not sure that a rating that is only updated once a year or less is really going to have any relevance. Sometimes you blow a presentation. The jetlag gets you, your suitcase gets lost, you have a family crisis and aren’t as prepared as usual. Any number of things can happen that really have no bearing on your ability as a speaker on a given subject. Other times you rock the house. Let’s face it: audiences are fickle beasts.
The most well organized conferences that I have spoken at have made some sort of attempt to capture session feedback from the attendees. Regardless, there are things that we can do as speakers to own the responsibility for obtaining this feedback. Perhaps doing it ourselves is most within the spirit of XP. What do you think?

Keep it Small

April 7, 2010

I learned a good lesson today. When tackling impediments, sometimes it pays to take on the small stuff first. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. Feedback: taking on the small issues first allows you more rapid feedback regarding your change efforts.
  2. Momentum: Building on a few small successes can make it easier to take on the bigger issues.
  3. Credibility: With each small achievement you build more credibility within the organization.

If you are like me, you love a big challenge and tend to “swing for the fences”. Well, there’s nothing wrong with that, but next time I might take a swing at the small stuff first.

What I Learned From My Daughter’s First Grade Classroom

September 10, 2009

The new school year is beginning and my daughter is starting first grade. I had an opportunity to go to her elementary school open house the other day. A word to the wise: never let an Agile development geek into a first grade classroom. I thought I had died and gone to information heaven. I took a camera with me and took some pictures of the kinds of information that they put on the walls in a children’s classroom. It was amazing! In the meantime, my wife fervently denied that she was with the dork taking all the pictures of the walls. Here’s what I discovered before I was escorted from the building:


The first grade classroom is the prototype for a learning environment. These folks are the undisputed masters of the information radiator.  Everywhere you look there is information being displayed. The variety of different kinds of information displayed is amazing! The density of information here is incredible! In one corner of the room I see the following information:

  • Monthly calendar
  • Weather graph
  • Password(???)
  • The alphabet
  • A tally of how many days they’ve been in school
  • Numbers from 1-10
  • Days of the week
  • A chart of all numbers from 1-200
  • A list of who has lost a tooth (Try that on your team! If the number is greater than five, you may be working in a biker bar)
  • And a few other things I can’t quite interpret

What else can we see going on here? Well for one thing, there is LOTS of color. It catches the eye, calls attention to certain details, and livens things up quite a bit. It’s like an interior decorator went nuts in the place. Next, you may observe that much of the information is presented using multiple modalities. Multiple modalities? OK, they use pictures AND words AND color AND shapes. A lot of effort is being made to transmit information in a variety of different ways. Now, just for giggles, what if you were going to put together this exact same board for your team at the office? What would it contain? Here’s how I might do it:

  • Monthly calendar – team vacations, releases, events, barbecues
  • Release graph – How many releases per week are we doing?
  • Word of the day (“Spurtle” – yeah, it’s a word)
  • A quick reference containing all of the major Ruby commands (pick your API/Language, etc)
  • A tally of how many days they’ve been working on a project/sprint/release
  • Numbers from 1, 0 (hey, it’s computer science, you only need two numbers!)
  • List of major business holidays (they always sneak up on me)
  • A chart of all error codes used in our project
  • A ladder of World of Warcraft names/rankings

Hmmm. That’s actually not a bad list. Give it a little color, play with the “modalities” and I just might have some pretty compelling information there. I wonder what else the first graders have to teach us? How about this:


I see at least three things here that I could try out with my team back at the office. First, there is information about today: we have the date, and then  below it is the day’s schedule. Now, I don’t know about you, but back at the office, I don’t have anything like a daily schedule posted on the wall with my team. We all have outlook, and perhaps some would say that’s enough, but for me it’s not quite the same. Outlook reflects MY schedule, not the team’s schedule. And there are significant team events that could use some advertising: Planning meetings, releases, retrospectives, reviews, scrum of scrums, and so on. I know that where I work, everyone is left to their own devices to manage these things and show up or not. Nothing wrong with that, but what if we had a daily schedule, a reminder if you will, that sat next to our task board at our standup meeting? Frankly, I think it might be useful. As a scrum master, it might be a way for me to rather subtly remind the team of the big commitments for the day. Or not.

Let’s move on from the schedule stuff. What’s up with the bottles of ketchup, mayo, and mustard? OK, it may be a little cheesy, but if you look at the image closely you will see that these are clever little symbols for “Catch-Up”, “May Do”, and “Must Do’s”. Do you track Catch-Up work on your team? No? Me either…wait a second…we do keep a list of technical debt. Isn’t technical debt a kind of  Catch up work? So keeping that list of catch up items makes a lot of sense to me. Also, the “May Do’s” and “Must Do’s” make a lot of sense to me as well. I think that defining work as “Must Do” will help the team prioritize the work that is most important (assuming you don’t abuse it) and the “May Do’s” gives the team the ability to identify the things that are available to be pulled on their own initiative. Adding may do and must do to a team’s daily activities would certainly be interesting to try out. I can see pros and cons to doing it. Maybe we could even use these criteria to categorize our backlogs? It’s a possibility…

How about the noise level trumpet off in the corner there? In the wonderful Agile Open Space that you work in, do you ever have issues with noise? Here is your answer! I wonder how well that actually works in a room full of first graders? OK, I’m not going to give them grief for this – it’s probably an experiment.

Here’s another gem that I captured before being chased out of the room by a rather menacing looking old battle axe with a broom (where DO they get these people?):


Would you look at that! They use the “Fist of Five” in first grade too! I was wondering where that technique came from! I need a copy of this poster for my team!


Ooh! Look here! They are graphing their moods over time! Cool! I’ve seen other teams do this, but I’ve never tried it myself. It seems like an idea with some real merit. It certainly makes sense to track the teams mood. It would be very interesting to review information like this at team retrospectives. It would certainly provide an interesting metric to compare against recent “improvements” or other team experiments. One other thing I want to point out here: these teachers seem to think that these information radiators are so important that they will try and cram them just about anywhere! Anyplace is game: the backside of a bookshelf, the side of a locker, the face of a cabinet – any place they will fit. Look around your office. Are you using all the space you have available?

Here’s a quick challenge: So what do you think this is?


Well, as my daughter ever-so-patiently explained to me, this is their “Job Wall”. I like the beehive image – after all we Agilista’s like to “swarm” don’t we? It seems that everyone has regular tasks that they are responsible for. These are tracked here. I like the way it makes responsibilities explicit for everyone involved. It makes me wonder where the teachers get all this stuff? Of course if I were to show up with this silly little beehive, I’m pretty sure that the team would laugh me out of the room. Of course that never stopped me in the past…

You know, if they ever  lift the restraining order and let me back on school property again, I’m definitely going to take some more pictures of the classroom walls. How come more offices don’t look like this? Why aren’t the environments we work in as information rich as the ones that children work and play in? I presume that in the office we are learning too, right?

No More “Gifts & Greats”

May 21, 2009

presentEsther Derby has a wonderful post about the “Praise Sandwich” that critiques the compliment-defect-compliment model of feedback. That reminded me of another feedback technique: “Gifts and Greats”. They’ve been very popular in the Agile community for a while (I can’t recall where they came from). Just to be perfectly clear: I hate them. The technique is really quite simple:

  1. Start with the gift: some feedback that highlights a weakness or area for improvement. Preferably something painful that only one “who really cares” would share.
  2. Attempt to soften the blow with some sort of observation of a strength of yours.

It’s sort of a one-two punch. Usually I’m left reeling from the first punch and never even hear the compliment that follows. For a while I thought I just didn’t handle feedback well. That may be true, but I’m coming to realize that not only does this “Gifts and Greats” technique not work for me – it probably doesn’t work well for some other people too. In fact, in my opinion it is downright counter productive for some of us.

I want to own up to the fact that this technique doesn’t work for me. Perhaps it works well for others – otherwise I imagine it wouldn’t be so popular. My own consideration of this sort of feedback suggests that the feedback mechanism needs to be tailored to the audience. As much as I dislike the sandwich approach, there may be appropriate times to use it (I’m having trouble coming up with a good example though). The same may apply to “Gifts and Greats”. Perhaps in the right context they work well. What ever the context, use them with care.

For now, no gifts for me please.

Give the 360 Back to the Team

January 26, 2009


Tired of doing the same old retrospective every sprint? You know how it goes: what went right/what needs improvement/action items. Are you running out of ideas for improvements?

Here’s an idea: at the end of each sprint do a 360 review. Use a survey tool and have every member of the team review each other’s performance in the past sprint. Just a couple of questions would do it. A good tool would summarize the data for each team member. Then, based on that feedback, each individual on the team would have a really good starting point for a discussion about how they can improve their performance in their next sprint.

Imagine doing a 360 every two weeks. Imagine changing the questions every two weeks to meet changing conditions that the team encounters. Imagine having up-to-date feedback on your performance as seen by your peers every sprint.

I offer this notion as a counterpoint to the traditional 360 review that is run by the corporation/HR. You know the one where you have to review a bunch of people you don’t necessarily know, then sit in an uncomfortable meeting with your manager where they review your personality flaws revealed by your peers. Instead, the 360 is for your use only. You decide what to do with it. Nobody else, not the scrum master, no one else is privy to the results.

I’ve done 360 reviews at a couple of different places (it had nothing to do with Agile). In most cases it was a top-down driven process. Questions were determined by my managers (and their managers) and when the results were tabulated they were given to your manager first. Then your manager would review the results with you. Recently however I found myself at a company where they wanted to do things differently. Privacy was a much bigger concern in this culture. People didn’t want anyone to see their results – not even HR.

At first I found this preoccupation with privacy perplexing (I’m very trusting by nature). However, as we went through the process I realized that the privacy actually seemed to improve the 360 review. It keep the feedback limited to the person who needed it most (the person being reviewed), without exposing it to the judgement of others (managers, HR, etc.). Whether or not you wanted to actually *do* anything about the feedback was purely up to you. It took the pressure off the situation – and I usually find that to be a good thing. If my salary isn’t hanging in the balance, I usually make much better decisions.

The more I thought about it, the more I thought we should be able to do a 360 review as frequently as we want to (assuming we can keep them low cost/low effort). Better yet, if the team controls the questions that are asked, then perhaps the team can change the questions frequently to match the changing nature of the problems they face. That seems to offer a unique opportunity to provide honest, anonymous feedback for team mates. 

An agile purist might maintain that a team should be able to give each other that sort of feedback without the 360. We should be able to critique each other face to face. Perhaps. There are some teams that are very good at that (very few that I’ve worked with). For the rest, the 360 might be worth experimenting with.

What sorts of questions might you ask in this kind of 360? Here are a few ideas for categories of questions based on the Scrum Values as described by Ken Schwaber:

  1. Commitment
  2. Focus
  3. Openness
  4. Respect
  5. Courage
  6. Technical Skills
  7. Domain knowledge

If you are thinking of trying this out, here are a couple of tools that might be useful for implementing a cheap 360 for your team:

Feedback is good. I’m thinking of using this sort of survey for my presentations.