Project Management

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

Go slow (to go fast later)

Should we hire full-time or contract agile coaches?

The only thing we have to fear on projects is...

Transparency improves customer satisfaction

Handling complexity requires psychological safety

What would I want to receive from my team members this holiday season?

With under a week till Christmas 2019, Mike Cohn wrote a good article about what wishes team members might want to have granted this holiday season from their Agile Leads, Product Owners and People Managers.

But even if each of these roles were to grant all the wishes which Mike listed, there is one more role which needs to be considered, namely their fellow team members.

Give me a hand

One of the differences between a group of individuals and a real team is that with the latter we will see team members helping each other out without an explicit request for assistance being made. While it is desirable for team members to ask for assistance during events such as a daily standup, many times the need for help might emerge suddenly and if someone else on the team sees that their teammate is struggling they can provide assistance in a timely manner.

This behavior is often seen in professional sport teams. When an ice hockey goaltender is caught far out of their net while clearing the puck, one of their other team members who has much less protective equipment might put themselves in the line of shots until the goalie is able to get back in the crease. You'll almost never hear the goalie verbally request this assistance, but the teammate sees the need and helps out regardless.

Help me improve

While there are always a few people who don't like hearing the truth, most of us prefer to find out when we could have done something better.

Retrospectives are one forum in which teams can share what's working well or poorly, but these events might not be the best setting for providing one-to-one feedback as they are a group ceremony and the feedback will usually have been delayed by a few days.

I've written previously about the importance of radical candor - most team members would want their peers to provide constructive feedback directly while still demonstrating that they care about them. This is especially critical when the behavior violates the working agreements defined by the team. If the offending team member does not receive direct and caring feedback, their behavior is likely to recur and they could find themselves isolated and ostracized by the rest of the team without knowing what they did to deserve this.

One way to turn these wishes into a self-fulfilling prophecy is to model the behaviors which we would like to see from our team members. When you perceive that a team mate needs help, ask if they would like it before they ask you for it. When you see them doing something wrong, ask for permission to provide them with feedback.

Let's be the change we wish to see within our teams!



Posted on: December 22, 2019 06:59 AM | Permalink | Comments (14)

Cultural transformations of high-performing teams

Categories: Agile, Team Building

While I was delivering a course on agile fundamentals this week, one of the learners in the class asked me how the mindset and behaviors normally associated with agile teams might impact or be impacted by culture. He suggested context (low or high) as a cultural characteristic which would influence the starting point for a team and which could then change as the team matures, but the same can be said for other cultural dimensions. (So thanks, Tony, this article is for you!)

Geert Hofstede's research into national culture identifies multiple dimensions which can be used to describe differences between countries. Some of these could be considered in addition to context when observing how such teams develop.

  • Context: When members have never worked together, a newly formed team will often exhibit low-context cultural behavior. Ground rules have to be developed, documentation needed to support delivery tends to be heavier and hand-offs are explicitly communicated. As the team matures, its culture shifts towards a higher context where interactions become more tacit than explicit. We often see this in the puck passes made by hockey players who have played together for a long time. Rather than having to yell out "Pass!" or "I'm open!", they seem to communicated with each other using telepathy!
  • Power Distance: Formal power, titles and status will generally be of greater importance to members early in the life of a team, but as the team matures, there is greater acceptance and less attention paid to formal power imbalances. My earlier article about the television show, The A-Team, referenced this with regards to the dynamics between Colonel John "Hannibal" Smith and the other members of the team.
  • Uncertainty Avoidance: When a team is newly formed, its members will have varying degrees of comfort with risk and ambiguity based on their individual risk appetites and that of the divisions or organizations they belong to. But as the level of psychological safety within the team increases, there should be a corresponding lowering of uncertainty avoidance. This doesn't mean that people will jump from being risk averse to becoming gamblers but rather that over time they will move down that continuum.
  • Assertiveness: Depending on the culture from which individual team members come from, they might exhibit high or low assertiveness when they first join the team. Over time, the team will become balanced between the two extremes. While higher degrees of empathy and collaboration will emerge as the team matures, we would also see all team members having the courage to speak truth to power or providing feedback with radical candor.
  • Long Term Orientation: This dimension considers the degree to which we value long-term gains over short-term ones. This may be impacted less by the stage in a team's development but more by the shift in collective mindset from traditional delivery emphasis on big, heavy [planning, requirements, design] upfront to the lean principle of deferring decisions till the last responsible moment.

Understanding culture across these dimensions can be helpful for leaders such as agile leads and functional managers to interpret the behaviors they observe so that they can better support the development of high-performing teams.

Posted on: December 01, 2019 06:59 AM | Permalink | Comments (9)

Small is beautiful for product backlog items

One of the reasons for having small work items at the top of a product backlog is so the team is able to complete them within a short amount of time. This benefit applies regardless of whether your team is using an iteration-based delivery approach or has adopted a lean continuous flow-based approach.

But what are some of the other benefits of having small work items?

  • While size does not always positively correlate with complexity, usually the smaller a work item, the easier it should be for team members to come to a shared understanding with the work item originator as to what is desired and how they will deliver it.
  • Smaller work items often require less documentation than larger ones.
  • It might be less challenging for team members who are new to test driven development to apply this practice for small work items.
  • If the team is using an iteration-based approach, the probability of getting a higher percentage of completed work items is greater if they forecast a larger number of small work items in an iteration as opposed to a smaller number of large ones.
  • The amount of re-work or wasted effort involved if a particular work item does not meet general or quality requirements should be lower.
  • If most work items for a release are small “enough”, the team has the ability to skip the use of story points or some other relative sizing method in favor of just tracking how many work items they can complete within a given amount of time.
  • Finally, splitting a large work item into small pieces provides greater feature choice to product owners when prioritizing the backlog.

But before slicing our work items too small, we need to remember that size is just one of the criteria provided by Bill Wake when he came up with the INVEST acronym for assessing how good a story is. A work item which is too small might not be sufficient independent or provide value to a stakeholder.

But keeping these caveats in mind, good things come in small packages.

Posted on: November 24, 2019 06:59 AM | Permalink | Comments (15)

Do your performance evaluation and recognition systems support cross-functional teamwork?

While it is usually Wally who openly expresses those thoughts which we normally keep to ourselves, Dilbert is letting his inner voice do the talking in today's strip. Let's imagine for a moment that Dilbert's co-worker is part of a cross-functional team which Dilbert is part of. Dilbert's response might seem unnecessarily blunt, but this behavior is not uncommon in those companies which place an undue emphasis on individual recognition or which don't require managers to actively solicit feedback from outside of their own teams.

While most of us would consider ourselves to be helpful, without some measurement and organizational encouragement our willingness to help someone is likely to be reduced by our need to finish our own work as we know the latter is what is measured.

In many organizations, functional managers are under no obligation to solicit feedback from others about their staff's performance. While these managers might ask for input from within their own team, they might be reluctant to contact those co-workers who report to other functional managers. If they evaluate their team members' performance purely on achieving functional objectives or on how they interacted with others from within their own team, they might not consider whether someone works well within a cross-functional team. While this type of feedback is certainly available from project or other functional managers in a matrix structure, the functional manager might not always be open to soliciting or acting on the feedback. When objective feedback from co-workers outside of a manager's team is a required component of formal performance evaluations, it encourages both managers and team members to look beyond the walls of their own silos.

It is also quite common to find generous enterprise-level budgets for individual recognition but not as frequently for team recognition. With strategic or large projects, a project manager might have sufficient influence to secure budgetary approval for team-level rewards but this is usually not the case on smaller initiatives. Without equal weighting given to both individual and team recognition, it is no wonder that team members will prioritize individual success over that of the team they are on.

We want team members to feel confident that if they ask for help from a co-worker who happens to report to a different manager that there is a strong likelihood that they will get it. We would like to encourage team members to be willing to slow down their own activities if it helps their team get ahead. But when environmental factors such as performance evaluation systems and recognition programs discourage such behaviors it can be difficult to build high performing cross-functional teams.

Posted on: November 17, 2019 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (11)

I may be a "Crazy Fool" but I consider the A-Team to be agile!

When teaching agile classes, I'm occasionally asked if I could provide an example of an agile team from cinema or television. While the first Avengers movie does a good job of illustrating Bruce Tuckman's stages of team development (especially storming!), they are far from being agile.

The example I most frequently provide is that quintessential 1980's TV show, The A-Team. If your only exposure to The A-Team was the horrible 2010 movie starring Liam Neeson, you owe it to yourself to watch a few episodes of the original series. Keep in mind, this was the 80's so the show does glorify violence, isn't very politically correct and shows many tropes from that era, but it is still worth seeing!

Here are a few of the reasons for this:

  • The team is self-managing. True, they have been disavowed by their government and are being hunted by military police for a crime they didn't commit, but with each episode where they help a new client they figure out their way of working without being mired in bureaucracy or seeking guidance from outside the team.
  • Colonel John "Hannibal" Smith is the leader of the team, but acts as a servant-leader. While he leads planning efforts for their missions, he does this in an inclusive, collaborative manner and will defer to his other team members during the execution of their missions.
  • Plans are created, and Hannibal loves it when a plan comes together, but they are also willing to throw the plan away when it is no longer realistic.
  • They exploit the diversity of their team rather than being constrained by it. Bosco "B.A." Baracus might call H. M. "Howling Mad" Murdock a "crazy fool", but he respects Murdock's ability to fly almost any type of aircraft. Each team member brings a different, but complementary skill set to their missions. In this regard, they are a "whole team". Each is highly skilled at what they do which could have resulted in ego clashes, but they always put the team ahead of themselves.
  • They are comfortable with complex, uncertain situations. Every episode challenges them with a unique mission where their resources are constrained but they still manage to put together creative gadgets and weapons with common household items to help them succeed.
  • There is a high degree of psychological (if not physical!) safety within the team. They operate with true radical candor - while they care deeply about each other, they don't pull any punches when providing constructive feedback. They are also very supportive when a fellow team member takes a risk - they will always have that person's back!
  • They are working towards a shared, strategic vision. While most episodes focused on their helping clients through difficult situations, the team continued to work towards their overarching goal of clearing their names.

Finally, they are long-lived and stable, and as I wrote in my article from last week, this helps to overcome many of misinterpretations which can occur when we first work with someone. This is best illustrated in the following quote from "B.A." Baracus:

B.A. Baracus: You learn to love him, Mama. But it takes a long time. (Referring to Hannibal)
Amy: That's the same thing he said about you.



Posted on: November 03, 2019 07:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (10)

"Thus the metric system did not really catch on in the States, unless you count the increasing popularity of the nine-millimeter bullet."

- Dave Barry