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Voices on Project Management offers insights, tips, advice and personal stories from project managers in different regions and industries. The goal is to get you thinking, and spark a discussion. So, if you read something that you agree with--or even disagree with--leave a comment.

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Viewing Posts by Soma Bhattacharya

3 Common Complaints on Scrum Teams

Categories: Agile

By Soma Bhattacharya

In discussions I’ve heard within Scrum teams over the years, three common concerns often come up:
1. “We need longer sprints.”
2. “We always have spillovers and can’t seem to fix them.”
3. “Ad hoc tasks always mess up sprint planning.”

I think this often originates from general discomfort people have when problems surface; but for me,
dealing with things like this is exactly what agile is all about. So, here’s an alternative way to think
about these three problems:
1. Sprint durations: It’s common knowledge that with the change of a sprint duration, the team
capacity changes as well. So, when teams complain about needing longer sprints to finish the
work, it’s clearly due to a lack of planning (and having no time to cover up the lack of it). So
instead of bringing up what needs to be ready during planning, teams will usually take it all on
because someone has told them to. This can be easily resolved by the team simply looking at
its velocity trend and recognizing how much work can be taken and delivered.


2. Spillovers: These are not the villain here. What matters most is discovering why the
spillovers are happening. Sometimes when ad hoc works comes in, instead of going for a
tradeoff (because capacity is limited), teams just take it all on and then end up with a
spillover. Oftentimes, waiting for a dependency with other teams or external partners messes
things up. Teams refrain from speaking even if they see risks because everyone is waiting for
someone else to raise the flag. This is where team empowerment and decision making can
be improved upon.


3. Unplanned work: Sprint reviews can be a good platform to talk about unplanned work
seeping in. The best way to bring that up can be to see what the percentage of unplanned
work is within a team’s capacity. A simple way to track this is by creating a user story and
keep adding to its unplanned work, along with the time spent. So, during a sprint review, the
spillovers or tradeoffs are easy to talk about—and the “blame” (if any) doesn’t always fall on
the team. Everyone gets the needed clarity.


Being agile is very different from just being part of standups. The main issue is that leadership often
does not sponsor the agile teams—and in the process there’s more confusion. The team is forced to
attend agile ceremonies, but sees no benefits because it is still forced to work on things that weren’t in
the plan. Bringing up blockers (and how much time is spent on them) or costs will allow a simple
decision to be made: Do you want to continue being agile? And if “yes,” how much decision making is
the team empowered to make?


What common issues have you encountered on your Scrum teams, and how have you dealt with
them?

Posted by Soma Bhattacharya on: June 29, 2022 11:56 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Agile Adoption Is Up…So Why Do Teams Hate It?

Categories: Agile

By Soma Bhattacharya

Sometimes I read an article where someone mentions that “agile is dead,” or that it doesn’t work anymore. I have to pause and think where this comes from. Honestly, I don’t know. What I do know is that agile never said it would work for everyone.

Most teams and organizations working in agile either step into it by accident or want to try the “trend” to figure out it works for them, then continue working with it. I reached out to my friends who are certified trainers in agile, and they mentioned that they are busier than ever. That world has opened up because trainings are now online, which means you don’t have to travel anymore to take classes or get certified. In addition, the 15th Annual State of Agile Report notes a growth in agile adoption from 37% in 2020 to 86% in 2021. So it looks like agile is still very much alive.

Certification or not, agile is always the most natural way of working. At least, that’s what I think. Why?

  1. You work in tight-knit teams, keep distractions limited and get the work done.
  2. You are transparent in your communication because the team is small and a safe place for anyone to open up.
  3. You plan but always adapt and adjust the work because you are flexible.
  4. You demonstrate the work, and the feedback is used to course correct

So, what’s not to like about it? Not everyone agrees; in reality, things can seem more challenging for some.

Here’s why teams don’t want to go agile:

  1. Lack of empowerment and support of teams: Decisions made by teams are later turned down by managers. I have been in situations where someone from the team pulled me aside and said, “All that planning was for nothing, we were just told ‘forget the process, and this is what you have to deliver by end of the month.’”
  2. Reluctance to plan for sprints and releases because everything will change later anyway: Being flexible and agile is often used as a workaround for a lack of getting your homework done before coming to the meetings.
  3. Forced to deliver even when things are out of team capacity: Burnout is real, and there’s a reason capacity planning is in place. So, going out of your way to enforce more doesn’t really help in the long term (think bad quality and reworks).
  4. The influencer of the team is always involved in estimations and decisions: Planning poker is barely implemented because one person makes the call. Whatever happened to coming to conclusions about the story points and the estimations? New team members are never encouraged to talk about their side of estimation…so yeah, no prizes for guessing why estimations never work.
  5. Why speak up when it’s already decided? Team culture always influences team behavior. So, imagine new members when they see that everything is decided. It tells them that it’s not required to speak up to air their opinions.
  6. The same old retrospectives…and no one does anything about it: A team stops doing retros because similar points keep coming up without any action items being attached to them; the solutions aren’t there, and the problems remain.
  7. The stand-ups literally never end: Teams have multiple discussions where more members join than are required—and it goes on for more than an hour. (Oh, by the way: Just because you do stand-ups doesn’t mean you’re agile.)
  8. I get appraised based on what I did, not how I worked as part of the team: Time is wasted. The appraisal system that rewards individuals and not teams is controversial. Imagine if team performance didn’t matter…what should you focus on?
  9. We might say we’re an agile team—but in reality, we don’t follow agile principles: Everyone calls us agile, but as a team we only do what we are told—and no, we are not self-organizing because no one empowered us to do that.
  10. Everyone uses agile as an excuse to not do the prep or work because everything will be done “just in time”: Instead of excuses, just make it work. Try, experiment, fail and rebuild your agile culture again.

I don’t know about your experiences, but from what I have seen, agile is usually welcomed by the teams—the problems creep in later, as it’s not something management buys into (and it’s not just me: the Annual State of Agile Report also mentions challenges in adoption like “not enough leadership participation” or “inadequate management support and sponsorship”).

I know those who are happy being agile are aligned at all levels and are working on being a better team every day. It’s all about individuals and interactions over processes and tools, right?

What have you heard from colleagues about why agile isn’t always embraced?

Posted by Soma Bhattacharya on: March 24, 2022 11:46 AM | Permalink | Comments (9)

3 Ways to Challenge the Agile Norm

Categories: Agile

 By Soma Bhattacharya

Never fear challenging the norm.

A standup seems like the norm for any agile team, part of the identity associated with being agile. As many of us all now work remotely, it seems that the right way to start the day is by attending the standup and getting the status items, questioning team members—and dealing with interruptions from multiple stakeholders.

Whether you like it or not, there’s no one rule for getting the standup done. It’s about connecting with the team and being there for each other without ruthless questioning.

So, if you are not answering the standard three questions (What have you completed? What will you do next? What is getting in your way?), what else can you do? Here are what I call the three acts:

  1. Socialization: Working alone from home for more than a year under pressure and deadlines hasn’t been all cozy, so take the time to just catch up with each other. Listen and get to know each other. Simple games like this one can help you still feel like part of a team and that you aren’t working in silos: The scrum master as the facilitator can ask the team to write down “one act that makes you feel proud,” written anonymously on (virtual) sticky notes and tacked to the team board. During the standup, ask team members to identify who wrote which sticky note. It’s fun, and you get to know each other—especially any members that have joined most recently and never met the team face to face. It gives them a better idea of who everyone is, and knowing something personal will always make you work better around them. No one forgets a good story.
  2. Intrigue: Look at the burndown chart, as this will allow conversations to start naturally on how things are working out for the team. This ensures there is no finger pointing and brings the group together. Decisions are made by the team based on the data and the general team trend. I find it far more effective than just the three questions. Another tip that always helps: Look at the buffer usage as a health check for the teams. Start with a 10% buffer in sprint estimation. Look at the burndown, and if you see the buffer is being completely utilized, find ways to uncover why and where the estimation went wrong, or if more tasks are being added later. Increase the buffer and continue to keep on checking on the team trend; you will either fix the leak or find the root cause.
  3. The wrap: Support and positivity should always be the closing thoughts. Even if the team is behind schedule, team members should find ways to work together and use the learnings for better estimations and strategies next time. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Your behavior, bonding and team experiences matter in keeping the team together during these trying times.

Changing the norms to ensure things are working for you—and keeping it that way—is agile. No one shoe fits all, so find what your team needs and try it out!

Posted by Soma Bhattacharya on: July 20, 2021 03:52 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)

Rethinking Agile as Bold, Kind and Human

by Soma Bhattacharya

Agile has become ubiquitous in project management, with teams using it to spark out-of-the-box thinking and drive countless projects across the finish line. Yet almost as quickly as the approach popped up, companies and project leaders began to oversell it—and what seemed to be a radical way of thinking has become mired in repetition and monotony.  

Agile was about being open and transparent, and people having the utmost importance in the process. Now, if you ask anyone about agile, it’s all about the three questions: What have you completed since the last meeting? What do you plan to complete by the next meeting? What’s getting in your way? There’s also the fear of being constantly monitored and the fact your performance is measured by your team’s velocity. 

Breaking out of this mold can prove difficult—who has the time? But with much of the world working from home, now might be the best chance to rethink agile as boldkind and human

Let’s look at how that might work.

Agile is bold: Challenge the process. Question what’s right for your team and be open to experiment. To get everyone engaged, encourage team members to ask questions. And try incorporating at least one fun icebreaker in each team standup to get people to open up and spark discussion. 

Agile is kind: Just because the data seems all over the place or you don’t achieve a desired project outcome, the team is not always wrong. Look for insights, do anonymous retrospectives, dig deeper and listen more. Avoid making assumptions. Instead, remain empathetic and open as you talk through challenges and navigate team members to arrive at a solution. 

Agile is human: Agile won’t work if the team can’t work together and it’s up to leaders to foster a sense of camaraderie. One way to build this spirit of collaboration and rapport is through simple exercises, like using a sticky note or sharable spreadsheet where team members anonymously write one thing they’re good at or that they’re proud of outside of work. Then allow other team members to guess that person’s identity. This isn’t about who wins, but it gets the entire team to communicate in a low-stakes environment.  

What are the biggest challenges your team has come across with agile—and how have you overcome them?

Posted by Soma Bhattacharya on: February 23, 2021 12:10 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

6 Ways to Keep Agile Teams on Track

Categories: Agile, Leadership

By Soma Bhattacharya

Agile teams are being tested. The world has changed, and many teams—no matter what their structure was prior to the pandemic—are working from home, on top of dealing with increased COVID-19 challenges. While the demand for deliverables and work continues, the roles, responsibilities and efficiency of agile teams come into question. 

An agile team can, in most cases, work around the uncertainty and still get things done. To keep your agile teams moving forward, implement these six strategies:

1. Focus on the planning.

Yes, everything is subject to change, but planning is essential. This exercise (release planning, grooming or sprint planning) allows team members to understand the upcoming work and ask the right questions on time. Additionally, it’s a great way to train team members to provide estimates after going through the requirements in detail. This allows for better planning, wonderful execution and timely delivery instead of spillovers. Teams can use a variety of platforms available online to get the training done. Tools aren’t as important as the interaction itself. 

2. Track team health.

I always think the organic way to look at team health is through the consumption of buffer percentage. It is simple because during planning, your team assigns hours to tasks and you get the total hours you will need to complete the user stories. You also know the team’s total capacity (availability of the team during the sprint). Create a team buffer of about 10 percent and then plan for the sprint.

If during the course of the sprint your team consumes the buffer and still has spillover, you can increase the buffer. Track the consumption of the buffer percentage and determine if the team is estimating correctly, and if they are clear about the user stories. Buffers can let you know the team’s performance and, with it, the trend of the team’s deliverables. 

3. Prioritize retrospectives.

Teams must have a growth mindset, and nothing is better for fostering one than the ingrained cultural habit of retrospectives in agile teams. There are creative ways of conducting retrospectives during these times, even if they require workarounds. For example, perhaps instead of just focusing on the work and aligned data, retrospectives can include personal challenges as well. This not only allows the team to gather and feel seen and heard, it also allows teams to evolve and see if there are ways to reduce personal challenges. 

4. Encourage leadership.

Leadership shouldn’t be limited to just a coach or the leadership team. In fact, team members should be trained to make decisions when it comes to work or conflict management. I have always found that when the team lead or management encourages an open mindset for teams, teams take up challenges or new learnings because of the support they receive. These teams always perform better in the long run. 

5. Determine the happiness index.

Apart from other team data, there should be an insight that allows you to understand how a team is doing emotionally. In a 2013 Harvard Business Review article, Rosabeth Moss Kanter explains that a happy team can better handle complex problems. Finding the happiness index is one of the most revelatory exercises you can do with a team. Simply ask everyone to rate their happiness working with the team on a scale of 1 to 5 and why. Keep it anonymous so people share honestly, and you will be surprised what comes out. These are all hints that can lead you to identify unresolved conflicts, build retention and discover serious issues. 

6. Take action.

Many of us have good intentions. But unless there are actions that follow, trust falls apart. Be careful in committing too much and always follow up, whether it involves actions required from the last retrospective or something that has come to your attention.

What are some ways you keep your agile team on track? Share in the comments below. 

Posted by Soma Bhattacharya on: August 18, 2020 03:18 PM | Permalink | Comments (6)
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