Easy in theory, difficult in practice

My musings on project management, project portfolio management and change management. I'm a firm believer that a pragmatic approach to organizational change that addresses process & technology, but primarily, people will maximize chances for success. This blog contains articles which I've previously written and published as well as new content.

About this Blog


Recent Posts

Our stories aren't getting done!

The silver lining on the people management cloud of project-oriented structures

What challenges do distributed teams pose to others?

What can we do when a team member isn't pulling their weight?

How do you know if your team is being agile?

Our stories aren't getting done!

Categories: Agile, Project Management

It is common to see teams new to those agile frameworks which use time boxes struggling to define product backlog items small enough to get completed within a sprint and still represent value. If they have been used to traditional, predictive delivery approaches, they would have been encouraged to decompose scope down to a manageable level of control, but these work packages would still usually be larger than what is expected of a sprint backlog item.

Some teams respond to this challenge by using long sprints.

While this gives them the opportunity to complete more work within a sprint, it has downsides. The team might be inclined to batch their work by completing one stage of their delivery process for a number of sprint backlog items rather than completing these items individually over the life of the sprint. Long sprints might also reduce the team's inclination to sufficiently refine and split stories.

Other teams try to avoid the challenge entirely by skipping sprints in favor of a continuous flow approach. A mature team can effectively use this delivery method, but new teams without coaching support might end up with an ever-growing work-in-progress backlog as work commences on a work item but as soon as it gets blocked another work item gets pulled.

Shorter sprints make it harder for a team to ignore the reasons for why their work items aren't getting done, including:

  • Vagueness or ambiguity with the work item. If the team accepts the work item into a sprint without shared understanding on what is required, significant effort can be spent in gaining that understanding or in doing rework if their original understanding wasn't complete. This can often be addressed through effective look ahead planning a sprint before that work item is accepted by the team.
  • Underestimating the size of the work item. While occasional under or overestimation are common cause variations for mature teams working on a product which they are comfortable with, chronic underestimation might point to over-optimism or a lack of sufficient diversity within the team.
  • Lots of external dependencies. The effort of the team for work items might be manageable but if they are relying on external partners for some of the work, they may not have sufficient influence over these partners to ensure that the work can get completed on time. If this is the case for a few product backlog items, it might be something they have to live with in the near term, but if it is happening every sprint, it shows they are not truly a "whole" team.
  • Excessive multitasking. Whether it is distractions from outside the team's product work or it is taking on multiple work items at the same time, context-switching can rob the team of the ability to complete a single work item in a short amount of time.

While there is no silver bullet to deal with these causes, if a team remains true to the pillars of inspection and adaptation, their ability to deliver consistently should improve over time.


Posted on: August 18, 2019 10:41 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

The silver lining on the people management cloud of project-oriented structures

While the relative level of formal authority vested in a project manager is greater in project-oriented (formerly projectized) organization structures than in matrix ones, the downside of this authority is that the project manager will spend much more time on people management administrative activities such as performance evaluations, hiring and supporting their professional development. While this is important work, it doesn't directly relate to the management of their projects and they might perceive it as a distraction.

In addition, in those organizations which are purely project-oriented (i.e. everything they do is project work with no functional or matrix structures to be found elsewhere within their walls), when projects end, if the team members who were contributing to them cannot be deployed to different projects then they may find themselves out of a job which is likely to stress their project managers even more at the very time when they are trying to line up other projects for themselves.

But there is a silver lining to this people management cloud.

Having these responsibilities will force the project manager to learn about the hopes, dreams and career aspirations of their direct reports. This should provide them with a greater ability to enable them to connect the team members' individual purposes to the success objectives of the project. They will also be better positioned to understand the competencies over which their staff wish to gain mastery which they can use to identify opportunities for personal development for these team members. Finally, even as project managers working in matrix structures will need to learn how to effective delegate, empowering their staff to work with autonomy is even more critical when there is a formal reporting relationship in place.

Project managers in project-oriented organizations might chafe at the additional responsibilities they have to shoulder, but these also give them more power to inspire their team members.

Posted on: August 11, 2019 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)

What challenges do distributed teams pose to others?

Face-to-face communication around a shared modeling surface such as a whiteboard is considered to be a highly effective method of creating shared understanding. When team members are distributed, collaboration tools can help with reducing misunderstandings and miscommunications between team members but can't fully eliminate those.

But what about the impacts of distribution on other roles such as agile leads or senior stakeholders?

To an outsider, an agile lead's visible contribution in the early stages of team formation might be the facilitation of agile ceremonies but this is really just the tip of the iceberg. If the team is maturing, any team member should be able to run ceremonies. The greater value brought by an agile lead in such cases occurs outside of ceremonies, through actions such as suggesting opportunities for increased collaboration between team members, coaching individual team members and working with key stakeholders outside of the team.

With co-located teams, agile leads often identify coaching opportunities osmotically by just being present with the team. A casual comment might spur an agile lead to have a conversation which might avoid hours of unnecessary work. But with distributed teams, unless the agile lead is plugged into all the conversations taking place between team members and with external stakeholders, there is an increased likelihood of missing a coaching moment or being unable to help the team to address a blocker in a timely manner.

Persistent group chat tools such as Slack or Microsoft Teams can help the agile lead to be somewhat aware of what's going on, but it is rare that all members of a team would conduct all of their interactions through these platforms. Online work management tools such as JIRA or Rally can capture significant updates for the team's work items, but it is rare that an agile lead will review all changes to those work items even if team members have been diligent about regularly updating them.

In such cases, eliminating or reducing the level of multitasking will be critical as the impacts of context switching are compounded with distributed team members.

With senior stakeholders, even if good information radiators have been constructed and published, lacking in-person access to the team might increase the number of ad hoc requests for updates as there is less opportunity for them to observe how the work is being done. It might also put a greater emphasis on regular showcases or frequent product reviews as the primary method of soliciting product feedback rather than the preferred ability to drop by and see the latest build as the need arises. This might increase the time it takes these stakeholders to begin to trust the team's capabilities. Similarly, because  team members won't have regular in-person contact with these senior stakeholders, they may also take more time to start to trust them. Bringing the team together with key senior stakeholders on a periodic basis is one way to address these concerns, but this can be an expensive proposition.

With ever increasing needs to tap into dispersed skill sets and to support flexible working arrangements for team members, distributed teaming is here to stay. Acknowledging that more effort will need to be spent overcoming distance challenges is an important step to managing expectations with this way of working.

Posted on: August 04, 2019 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)

What can we do when a team member isn't pulling their weight?

One of the learners in a class I taught asked me how self-organizing teams would handle the situation where a single team member is not performing a fair share of the work.

In a traditional, push-based work assignment model, this issue can also occur. Usually whoever has pushed the work onto the low performer will follow up with them in a timely manner and take direct steps to ensure that performance improves, the work gets re-balanced or the team member is replaced.

But with a pull-based approach where individual team members sign up for work items as capacity frees up and where the focus is on how much is getting completed by the team as a whole, the concern is that someone could take advantage of this by letting their peers take on the more challenging work items leaving them with a relatively lighter work load. From the outside, it would appear that the work is getting done but the contribution imbalance will be less evident.

On a mature self-organized team this is not likely to be an ongoing concern. Team members recognize the importance of demonstrating courage and showing respect for the team and will exert the necessary social pressure on the low performer so that they will either feel embarrassed and start to improve or will be transferred out of the team. If the team uses agile ceremonies such as sprint planning, daily standups or retrospectives, these provide an opportunity to provide feedback with radical candor to the low performer.

But on those teams which are relatively new to working in this manner, the team members might not possess the confidence to openly discuss or challenge such dysfunctions. Passive aggressive behavior might occur such as remaining silent during a retrospective and complaining around the water cooler afterwards.

In such cases, the agile lead or Scrum Master might need to get involved to eliminate the impediment. This intervention could start in a subtle manner such as asking the individual at a daily standup if they feel comfortable with their workload for the day compared with their team members, or "seeding" the conversation during a retrospective when the topic turns to what could be improved. They might encourage other team members to ask the individual to give them a hand with their work items or to conduct a non-solo work experiment (e.g. pair programming).

If this soft approach doesn't work, the Scrum Master may have to more drastic steps such as confronting the individual one-on-one, speaking with their manager or some other type of escalation.

Deferring decision making to the Last Responsible Moment is a lean principle. While a Scrum Master shouldn't intervene if the rest of the team can address an issue for themselves, they should have the judgment to know when they will need to take a more direct approach.


Posted on: July 28, 2019 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (14)

How do you know if your team is being agile?

Categories: Agile, Change Management

It is easy to say that demonstrating behaviors consistent with the values and principles of the Manifesto is proof of agility but this test leaves significant wiggle room for interpretation and for exception cases which fall through the cracks of the four values and twelve principles.

It is also somewhat of a cop-out to plagiarize Justice Potter Stewart's famous phrase "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of behaviors, practices or methods I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["agile"], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the team involved in this case is not that." This method opens the door to framework fanaticism and furthering the conceit of "there's only one right way to be agile".

Here are three questions you might consider asking:

  1. Is the team improving across the three dimensions of delivering business value early & frequently, improving product quality and making people awesome (as per Modern Agile)? A team might be capable of improving their performance along one or even two out of the three dimensions, but this often comes at the cost of the third. One could consider these three dimensions to be an agile equivalent of the project management iron triangle.
  2. Are regular feedback loops well established for both the product itself and delivery process and do these loops result in changes to the "what" and the "how"? Whether these loops follow a fixed cadence (e.g. reviews & retrospectives tied to the the heartbeat of a sprint) or are performed on a just-in-time basis when a continuous flow delivery approach is utilized, they demonstrate that the team possesses the humility and understanding that there will always been the need to inspect and adapt.
  3. Is there evidence of the team truly self-organizing when it comes to how their work is done as well as how they interact within the team and with key stakeholders? Key characteristics such as courage, respect and collaboration should be evident.

Agility should never be treated as "the" goal but rather as a catalyst towards achieving one or more business goals. But defining what it means to "be" agile in terms of the outcomes we want to realize can help us understand whether we are making a difference or not.

Posted on: July 21, 2019 06:59 AM | Permalink | Comments (7)

"I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing - that it was all started by a mouse."

- Walt Disney