Process Peeves

Thoughts on simple optimizations that could make daily processes better…

Finding the right retrospective rhythm

What’s the appropriate frequency for conducting retrospectives? If you follow the Scrum methodology or a hybrid of it, you’ll likely say at the end of every sprint, once the sprint review, showcase or demo has taken place.

For teams which are learning to be agile, that is the right answer. It takes a few sprints for a new team to develop the mutual trust and psychological safety required to have a productive retrospective. In those early sprints, there might be a reluctance to identify problems for fear of offending team members, a tendency to identify symptoms rather than real issues or to generate a long list of “did wells” and “do betters”. Team velocity has also not stabilized and hence there is ample opportunity to increase it through incremental improvement on each sprint.

But what happens once a team has worked together for many sprints?

Answering the same questions sprint-over-sprint gets old really fast. To try to resolve this, the agile community has been very creative at coming up with alternate methods of eliciting valuable input using materials such as Lego bricks or Play-Doh. But while such variety might make for a fun team activity and should reduce the potential for team member disengagement, will repeating this ceremony every sprint always generate value? And if it doesn’t, why are we doing it?

On projects where the team has gelled and their delivery process is in control, there is often a natural transition from team level continuous improvement to team members practicing personal kaizen.

But this shouldn’t mean that we stop doing retrospectives. To do so would be to repeat that mistake of traditional lessons learned practices of identifying them too late in the lifecycle to provide much value to the originating project. For teams which are delivering change every few sprints, a release might provide a good opportunity to hold a productive retrospective, but that might still not be often enough.

Team self-awareness needs to be at a relatively high level so that an individual team member can identify the benefit of conducting a retrospective, but to help bring some consistency to the process, the team could proactively define trigger events. Examples of such triggers could include velocity falling outside of the team’s expectations, quality dramatically improving or dropping, unexpected feedback or outcomes from a sprint review, or the departure or arrival of a team member.

So what is the right retrospective rhythm?

Just in time to generate value for subsequent delivery efforts.



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

All form and no (agile) substance?

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr’s warning reminds us that it is very easy to ignore the Manifesto for Agile Software Development’s value statements.

We might have done away with heavy project governance, premature or excessive planning, and documentation for documentation’s sake, but if we don’t remind ourselves why our team performs specific agile ceremonies, we are no better than our brethren toiling under the burden of traditional, one size fits all delivery practices.

Let’s start with sprints. Short time horizons should focus our efforts towards delivering value early and regularly while having fixed time boxes enables forecasting when we should be able to complete a release. But if we start treating sprints as phases (e.g. development, testing) or we batch work items within sprints in a waterfall manner, we haven’t really gained benefits from this approach. Similarly, if we don’t respect sprint end dates or we regularly modify the duration of our sprints we can’t forecast effectively.

How about your daily standups or scrums? These are meant to serve as micro-planning opportunities to align team members towards accomplishing sprint goals. They also provide an opportunity to surface blockers in a transparent, safe fashion to ensure these get resolved in an efficient and effective manner. But if team members are absent, we don’t start or end on time, one person monopolizes the discussion, or they turn into status meetings, why hold them at all?

Velocity enables teams to assess their throughput sprint over sprint. Used correctly and with the right underlying discipline on work sizing and backlog management, velocity can help a team forecast. But obsessing over velocity is as bad as focusing on percentage work complete in traditional approaches. When abused velocity leads to progressively reducing quality, erosion of team morale and unhealthy comparisons between team members or teams.

Showcases or demoes give a regular opportunity for key stakeholders to view what has been completed, to provide feedback to ensure that what is delivered meets customer needs, to maintain sponsor commitment and to provide a forum for visible recognition of the team’s hard work. But holding these ceremonies when there is nothing meaningful to demonstrate provides limited benefit to the invitees. Having the agile lead or other team member be the only person conducting the demoes doesn’t give everyone a chance to have their day of glory. And having team members get defensive when constructive feedback is provided about a feature which doesn’t quite hit the mark is just going to further the gap between the delivery team and the customer.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss” – Pete Townshend




Categories: Agile, Process Peeves, Project Management | Tags: , | 2 Comments

Efficient project governance should not be an oxymoron!

red-tapeLook up governance in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary and you’ll find this definition “The way that a city, company, etc., is controlled by the people who run it“. This is certainly an appropriate meaning of the phrase when applied to corporate governance, but is not the most empowering vision for how projects need to be governed.

Most staff would view governance as a necessary evil. Governance is a great example of what a lean management professional would call business non-value add – those activities which don’t directly add value to a process but are required for legal or other compliance purposes.

After all, when was the last time you heard a project manager or executive sponsor demand “We need more governance over our project!”?

So long as governance is treated as controls exercised over a project team as opposed to practices supporting them it will continue to have negative connotations.

In many organizations, project governance introduces additional layers of administrative workload for the team in the form of checklists, presentations and formal reviews. It’s common to find financial or other objective-based thresholds supporting progressively greater levels of governance.

This approach generates unintended consequences. Teams and stakeholders chafe over the effort and costs of satisfying complex, onerous governance requirements and sponsors will go out of their way to keep their projects below a threshold.

The issue therefore is not with governance itself but rather how it usually gets implemented.

So what should right-sized governance look like?

  • Like good insurance, the perceived and tangible benefits need to significantly outweigh the costs. This means that governance should consume the core deliverables and other outputs of a project rather than requiring the creation or population of new artifacts or systems.
  • It needs to take complexity and context into consideration and not merely be driven by project costs.
  • It should be exception-driven focusing on tighter management of the few with minimal oversight over the many.

By doing this, project managers, team members and key stakeholders are more likely to welcome governance as a critical ingredient to achieving their desired outcomes rather than an impediment to project delivery.


Categories: Process Peeves, Project Management | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

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