Product-centric teams have skin in the game!

I’m midway through Nassim Taleb‘s latest book, Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life. As is usual with Taleb’s writing, he provides thorough but humorous coverage of a concept which can be applied to many contexts. The premise of this book is that without skin in the game, asymmetries emerge which encourage unfairness, poor decision making and can contribute to a lack of understanding of realities.

One of the key principles discussed in the book is that there should be a negative incentive or cost to decision makers when things go wrong. Without this, we have an asymmetry since risks get transferred away from those who should have been held responsible. A common example of this is seen in companies where sales teams are compensated for initial sales but are not held accountable to some degree for customer satisfaction beyond the point of purchase. This can encourage salespeople to over-promise with inevitable expectation shortfalls. Another highly publicized example is that of the financial company executives who were never jailed for poor decision making which led to the 2008 financial crisis.

This principle can also be applied to some project teams.

There are industries such as large scale construction where the cost of poor quality in extreme cases (e.g. a bridge collapse) will result in punitive consequences to the engineers who were involved. However, in other domains such as software development for internal use where deadlines may be emphasized higher than product quality, there is no such downside. The teams who delivered the buggy release will have likely disbanded and the team members will have moved on to different departments or projects before the real cost of ownership is understood by the business owners.

On the other hand, when there is a product-centric model delivered by long-lived teams, there’s greater skin in the game. Escaped defects are no longer the responsibility of an operational group or some future project team. Quality issues will come home to roost in the delivery team’s backlog and the Product Owner has an incentive to focus on improved quality if he or she doesn’t want to have ongoing uncomfortable stakeholder interactions.

Taleb also states that skin in the game supports the principle of survival of the fittest. Product Owners or teams which consistently miss the mark with their releases are unlikely to be around for long in product-centric contexts whereas in project-centric organizations, it may be easier for individual mediocrity to fester if there isn’t ongoing vigilance.

“Skin in the game prevents systems from rotting” – Nassim Taleb





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How effective are your agile ceremonies?

We hope that by conducting effective ceremonies we will achieve the agile trinity of improved value delivery, better quality and more fun.

But these objectives might be reached via multiple paths so we might not be able to prove causality between our ceremonies and those objectives.

We could ask our team members to tell us whether they see the value in the ceremonies and their perceptions are certainly important but is that enough? Can we identify measures which we could directly attribute to specific ceremonies so that we know if they are generating sufficient value?

Each agile framework provides its own ceremonies but given that Scrum is still the most commonly referenced one, let’s focus on that framework’s events.

The Scrum Guide calls sprints the heart of Scrum as these time boxes set the cadence for all other events. But to know if the Scrum heart is healthy we could track achievement of goals and value delivered sprint-over-sprint.

Sprint planning should answer the “what” and “how” of delivery for an upcoming sprint. Measuring its duration, quantifying the variation between what was expected to be delivered and what was actually delivered, and confirming whether the team is working at a sustainable pace might help assess the ceremony’s effectiveness.

The daily scrum helps the team align themselves towards the accomplishment of sprint goals and to collaborate better. It should also reduce bad surprises and the need for traditional status meetings. To see if it is adding value, we could check how many work items are completed and measure how many unanticipated impediments are encountered each day.

The sprint review provides an opportunity to inspect what was accomplished and adapt the backlog accordingly. We can measure how many new requirements and course corrections emerged from the discussions. We could also conduct regular surveys with key participating stakeholders to gauge their satisfaction with the product and with the team.

Finally we come to the sprint retrospective. To gauge whether this ceremony is more than just a frequent “lessons learned” session, we could track the ratio of improvement ideas generated compared with how many were actually executed and provided expected benefits.

Agile ceremonies should add value. If not, we are just adopting the form of agility with none of its substance.




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Improving organizational culture through retrospective recognition

After observing the frenzied shoppers competing with one another at Black Friday sales this week, one might be forgiven for forgetting that Thanksgiving was originally about expressing gratitude.

The Scrum Guide doesn’t specifically identify expressions of appreciation as a key ingredient of sprint retrospectives, but it does list activities which can incorporate appreciation such as the inspection of team member interactions and the role of the Scrum Master in encouraging the team to not only be more effective but to also have a more enjoyable time in the next sprint.

Retrospective facilitators often encourage participants to identify what went well or what they liked. This provides a good opportunity for team members to appreciate the efforts of others during the past sprint in a genuine, heartfelt manner.

Similar to identifying opportunities for improvement, team members should not only recognize big accomplishments but also small ones which can add up over time. We are quick to recognize a team member who dropped what they were doing to help us out for a couple of hours on a really tricky issue, but how about that team member who took us out for a coffee because they happened to notice that we seemed to be particularly stressed on a given day?

Just as with providing constructive feedback, we shouldn’t wait for an upcoming retrospective to recognize one another, but this ceremony provides a good opportunity to provide belated thanks to those whose efforts made a difference over the past sprint. A Scrum Master might introduce this practice in one retrospective using chocolates or some other small gift to be given by team members to those whom they wish to recognize. In subsequent retrospectives, the team can identify novel ways to do this to keep the practice fresh.

A recent Washington Post article described how kindness can be contagious.

Anyone who has participated in or initiated a “pay it forward” chain would likely agree with the article’s author. When someone verbally appreciates what we do, we feel an urge to do likewise. Expressing positive sentiments to one another on a regular basis might incrementally improve culture within our teams, our departments and eventually our overall organization.




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