Cultivate teams with lessons from your garden

With the return of warmer temperatures to North America, Spring provides us with the opportunity to spend a few hours each week gardening. Gardening is a great way to beat stress and the returns from a visual and potentially culinary perspective are compelling. But it also provides us with a number of lessons which can be applied to developing and sustaining teams.

Neither under nor over water

There is an art to correctly watering one’s lawn. Water it infrequently and too little and the grass will go dormant or will start to resemble the Sahara desert. Water too frequently and the grass roots will remain near the surface instead of growing deep and you will encourage the growth of fungi and weeds. Recognizing team members works the same way – neglect them and their engagement will diminish, but go overboard with praise and recognition will lose all meaning.

Weed promptly

Weeds grow in even the best maintained gardens regardless of the volume of herbicides used. Procrastinating on removing them can result in their proliferation. The same is true of unhealthy team member conflict or other dysfunctions. Turn a blind eye to this and the issue will fester and spread the way unchecked weed growth can choke out good plants.

Let the land go fallow

Letting a vegetable patch recover for a season or two after you have harvested is a good practice. While it can be tempting to plan work to 100% of available team member capacity, this approach rarely provides time for learning. The best source of learning may be work experience, but there is also benefit in giving team members a chance to step away from the daily work once in a while to attend a conference, watch a webinar or read a book or two. While giving them a break and a chance to recharge their batteries, it will also provide an opportunity to bring new ideas into the mix when they return from their training.

Variety is the spice of life

Perhaps you really like roses so you might decide to only plant rose bushes in your garden. But this won’t necessarily give you the best looking garden. Mixing it up by planting a variety of plants could provide the benefit of flowers throughout the year. It will also hedge (no pun intended) your bets against insect infestation or diseases targeting a single plant type which could wipe out your entire garden. It might be tempting to staff a team with people that are just like you, but you will get much better outcomes if you encourage diversity.

Thomas Jefferson might have been speaking about team building when he said “No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden.


Categories: Project Management | Tags: , | 1 Comment

Agile transformations should lead with changing mindset and behavior rather than practices

Like most North American kids growing up in an urban environment, my son learned to drive cars with an automatic transmission. Now that he’s been driving for a year, I’m starting to teach him to handle a manual transmission. While the most visible aspect of this is shifting, the exquisite art (to quote the Bride) lies in the proper use of the clutch. Once a driver develops the feel for a clutch and is able to find that sweet spot between dormant and stalling so that they can get a car rolling without the use of the gas pedal, the rest is mere mechanics.

Golf presents a similar scenario – learning to swing a club is secondary to mastering weight transfer. Through practice, once that skill becomes second nature, the rest of the swing will come. But if we start with the top down approach of learning to swing using the shoulders and arms, it will take much longer to develop a good swing.

Agile works much the same way.

Just because we divide our project’s timeline into sprints, conduct daily standups and bi-weekly retrospectives and ask our teams to self-organize, if the underlying behaviors of senior leaders, mid-level managers and team members don’t change, we are just putting lipstick on a pig.

Behavior and mindset changes don’t happen overnight and it’s not easy to confirm what has changed the way one can when introducing a practice or tool change.

This reinforces the importance of a change strategy for all levels of stakeholders involved with the project. While they might appreciate the benefits of agile delivery, if they haven’t reflected on the mindset changes required, stakeholders will act like chickens when we’d need them to be pigs. Senior leaders, delivery and control partners need to understand how they will need to adapt before they are put on the spot to support an agile project. Embracing the change won’t happen overnight which is why effective coaching is required to enable them to become the advocates we need to champion changes with their peers.

The challenge is that there is usually a demand to demonstrate value from a change in delivery approach within a reasonably short time.

That is why it is best to start with one or two small projects to provide a safe opportunity to try, fail, learn and improve.

Start with practices and tools and Cargo Cult behavior is almost a guarantee.

Categories: Agile, Facilitating Organization Change, Project Management | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

What stories do your charts tell?

Organizing the delivery of project scope into sprints provides stakeholders with an opportunity to objectively assess progress at regular intervals. Comparing what was delivered against what remains in the overall release or project backlog helps us understand when we might be done. Looking at what the team was able to complete in relation to what they committed to complete at the beginning of the sprint can help us assess their self-discipline and delivery maturity.

Tools such as sprint burn-down, velocity and release burn-up charts can provide stakeholders with the power to interpret how a team is doing, but as usual, with great power comes greater responsibility.

Let’s look at two examples which illustrate the danger of drawing conclusions from such charts.

At first glance, the sprint burn-down chart above might be a sign that a team is not delivering in an agile manner and are batching work items till the very end of their sprints which would seem to indicate immaturity.

But before jumping to conclusions, what else might cause a similar sprint burn-down pattern?

  • Work items have actually been completed but the supporting work item tracking tool has not been updated yet. This would be an indicator of poor discipline but not necessarily immaturity.
  • The pod’s Definition of Done includes a task which can only be completed at the very end of sprints – for example, testing within a shared environment, or the completion of independent testing by a team outside of the pod. This should not be a cause for concern if such a constraint cannot be avoided.

How about the following velocity chart which illustrates what a pod has completed compared with what they committed to complete for three sprints?

One conclusion could be that this is an immature pod as they are chronically over-committing and under-delivering. But another interpretation is that the sponsor or some other senior stakeholder is the one demonstrating poor behavior by ignoring the better judgment of the pod and mandating the number of work items which have to be completed each sprint. Addressing that issue will be very different than if the former interpretation is the accurate one.

You can use all the quantitative data you can get, but you still have to distrust it and use your own intelligence and judgment – Alvin Toffler

Categories: Agile, Project Management | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

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