Agile

Evaluate your ceremonies with a W5 check

I’m midway through Priya Parker’s book The Art of Gathering and her insights into how to make an event a meaningful gathering rather than “just another boring meeting” are apropos to ceremonies. A common complaint many team members raise in the early days of an agile journey is that it feels like they are in too many meetings. This shows that they aren’t perceiving the value of the ceremonies and, if these concerns aren’t addressed quickly, the team members are likely to disengage.

One way to evaluate your ceremonies is to do a W5 assessment on them.

Why

Without a shared understanding of the purpose for the ceremonies, misalignment of expectations and behaviors may emerge. It is critical that a newly formed team understands why each ceremony is needed, but as the team evolves, the purpose of each should be reviewed to ensure it remains relevant. One way to gauge this is to ask each team member to summarize what they believe the purpose of the ceremony to be in three words or less.

What

Once there is clarity on why, we need to confirm that the outcomes of ceremonies are being realized and are in line with the purpose for conducting the ceremonies. Poll team members on their perception of the effectiveness and efficiency of producing those outcomes.

Who

A common challenge with agile ceremonies and most recurring events is that, over time, you might pick up a number of participants who “just want to observe” or “need to be kept in the loop”. If everyone is needed, no one is needed. A self-disciplined, self-managing team will weed out those stakeholders who aren’t required but will be equally diligent on ensuring the right participants are at each ceremony. For example, conducting a sprint review without adequate representation from those who will be consuming the outputs of the team is a waste of time. Who is also about the role each participant plays. While new teams might lean on the Scrum Master to facilitate most ceremonies, over time, this can become a shared responsibility, giving each team member a chance to develop their facilitation abilities.

When

It is a good practice to hold ceremonies at the same day and time but the timing that seemed ideal in earlier sprints may not suit all participants in later ones. It is also worth evaluating the duration of the ceremonies as they should be long enough to meet the purpose and achieve the expected outcomes and no longer. If certain team members are missing certain ceremonies, it is worth confirming whether the timing is still suitable for all participants.

Where

Whether it is physical meeting rooms or virtual video conferences or collaboration environments, it is important to ensure that the location supports the purpose and approach and doesn’t detract from it. In physical settings, this could be as simple as the arrangement of chairs around a table and the availability of white board space for spontaneous collaborative activity. Consider alternative environments for physical ceremonies. Could it be possible to conduct some in a more dynamic manner – perhaps as a walking meeting? In virtual sessions, this means ensuring that the tools provided (e.g. polls, whiteboards) are functional and everyone knows how to use them in advance of the ceremony.

How frequently ceremony reviews should take place will vary and one trigger for a health check might be to have team members vote every few weeks or every couple of sprints on how valuable they feel each ceremony is.

To paraphrase Chris Fussell “If your team is trying to be more agile, stop and think, ‘Are my ceremonies actually productive, or are we merely having ceremonies for ceremonies’ sake?’

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Breaking habits requires substituting one routine for another

I was asked to facilitate a lessons learned session for a program team using a retrospective format. After the team had brainstormed, prioritized and discussed most of the challenges they had faced, it became clear to them that there were only a couple of root causes for most of the main pain points they had identified. Neither of those root causes was a true learning but rather they were just simple reminders of good practices to follow for large, complex programs. I then asked them the somewhat rhetorical question: “Remembering now what should have been done then, how will you ensure that this doesn’t happen on a future program?”

A project team I’ve been working with has struggled with judging how many work items they can successfully complete within a sprint. In the retrospective for their last sprint, they identified a number of simple, effective ideas for resolving this chronic concern. Again, I challenged them with the same question: “You’ve come up with a great list of ideas, but how will you ensure that you actually act on those the next time you are sprint planning?”

Both of these experiences reminded me of how difficult it is to break habits.

In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg has written about the three part neurological loop governing habits which was discovered by MIT researchers: a cue, a routine and a reward.

In the project team’s case, the routine has been to accept more work items than they can complete in a sprint even when historical evidence shows this tactic hasn’t worked out well. The cue is that moment in the sprint planning ceremony when the team makes their sprint forecast. It’s hard to say what the reward has been but perhaps it’s the temporary high which comes when we take on a significant challenge as a team.

To break habits, we need to find a way to substitute a different routine for the old one and soliciting the help of a close, trusted colleague might be one way to do this.

The team could designate a single individual to come to the sprint planning ceremony with a stuffed pig or some other visual gag which represents gluttony. Then, when the team is about to forecast how much they will accept in the sprint, that team member could hold up the pig and say “Oink! Oink!” to remind all of them to be a little more conservative. While the team might not bask in the short term glow of having accepted a bloated sprint forecast, they will enjoy the much more rewarding experience during their sprint review when the product owner and other stakeholders congratulate them for improving their predictability.

Breaking habits is hard to do but by identifying cues and implementing good routines to swap in for the old ones, we can prevail.

 

 

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How do you know when your agile ceremonies are Done?

In last week’s article, I wrote about the benefits of having a Definition of Ready for agile ceremonies as one method of ensuring that they are adding value and not being perceived as just more wasteful meetings.

But how do we know that we achieved what we were hoping to from the ceremonies? A Product Owner might walk out of a sprint planning session feeling happy that the team will be delivering a major feature but some team members might feel that they have accepted more product backlog items than can be completed in a quality manner while working reasonable hours.

The Scrum Guide encourages Scrum Teams to create a definition for what “Done” means for product backlog items and for product increments. This ensures consistency in understanding across all stakeholders and ensures that expectations have been met. The same approach could be utilized to ensure that teams aren’t just going through agile ceremony motions.

Here are a few examples of “Doneness” questions for the same ceremonies I had written about in last week’s article.

Sprint Planning

  • Have one or a few key goals for the sprint been articulated by the Product Owner?
  • Does the entire team understand why the goals are important and how they connect back to the product vision or roadmap?
  • Has the Product Owner collaborated with key solution (“How”) stakeholders such that product quality and technical debt were considered when populating the sprint backlog?
  • Has each team member assessed their available capacity and used that knowledge when contributing to the team’s sprint commitment?
  • Does each team member have a “sufficient” understanding of the sprint backlog items to feel confident in the team’s sizing of those items?
  • Has the team reviewed the top ideas from the previous retrospective, shared them with the Product Owner and agreed to act on those in the current sprint?

Scrum/Daily Standup

  • Does each team member feel the team is aligned to doing the highest priority work in support of the sprint and product release goals?
  • Does each team member have a general understanding of what everyone else is working on and the dependencies between each other’s work?
  • Have all potential and realized impediments for the day’s work been surfaced and either addressed or have an owner identified to address them after the standup?

Sprint Review

  • Do the invited stakeholders understand what was completed in the previous sprint?
  • Has feedback been received on all completed product backlog items?
  • Have any new requirements or ideas raised during the ceremony been added to the product backlog or at least captured by the Product Owner?
  • Has the team been given a chance to share their thoughts on the previous sprint?

Sprint Retrospective

  • Did every team member get a chance to contribute to the discussion and did they?
  • Have some improvement ideas been identified and is there a plan in place to act on those, ideally in the upcoming sprint?
  • Did the team assess not just “what” they did, but “how” they did it?
  • Did every team member feel it was a safe environment to share their thoughts?

Similar to a normal Definition of Done, there is no single set of guidelines which should be adopted by all teams and these guidelines may evolve over time as the team inspects and adapts their ways of working. But, as usual, caveat agilist: Focus on the outcomes, not the processes.

“If you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you’ll never get it done.” – Bruce Lee

 

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

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