Software Development Today

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

ScanAgile 2015 submissions are open!


Just a quick note today to let you know that the Call for Sessions for ScanAgile, the Agile Finland annual conference is open for submissions.

You can read the whole call for sessions here. You will find the submission form in that page as well.

For me the most interesting tracks are:

  • Off-Piste: interesting lessons learned about being agile and agile related topics, from other industries 
  • Black Piste: Topics for experienced agile practitioners
These are just some of the tracks. In Scan Agile there will also be tracks for those starting up or that have already started but are in the early phases of their Agile transformation journey. 


The Agile Finland Community is very active and has a long history of agile adoption and promotion. They have some of the most advanced practitioners in the world, so I am really looking forward to see who the Scan Agile team chooses for the 2015 lineup of the conference! 


Hope to see many of you there! 

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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

5 No Estimates Decision-Making Strategies


One of the questions that I and other #NoEstimates proponents hear quite often is: How can we make decisions on what projects we should do next, without considering the estimated time it takes to deliver a set of functionality?

Although this is a valid question, I know there are many alternatives to the assumptions implicit in this question. These alternatives - which I cover in this post - have the side benefit of helping us focus on the most important work to achieve our business goals.

Below I list 5 different decision-making strategies (aka decision making models) that can be applied to our software projects without requiring a long winded, and error prone, estimation process up front.

What do you mean by decision-making strategy?

A decision-making strategy is a model, or an approach that helps you make allocation decisions (where to put more effort, or spend more time and/or money). However I would add one more characteristic: a decision-making strategy that helps you chose which software project to start must help you achieve business goals that you define for your business. More specifically, a decision-making strategy is an approach to making decisions that follows your existing business strategy.

Some possible goals for business strategies might be:

  • Growth: growing the number of customer or users, growing revenues, growing the number of markets served, etc.
  • Market segment focus/entry: entering a new market or increasing your market share in an existing market segment.
  • Profitability: improving or maintaining profitability.
  • Diversification: creating new revenue streams, entering new markets, adding products to the portfolio, etc.

Other types of business goals are possible, and it is also possible to mix several goals in one business strategy.

Different decision-making strategies should be considered for different business goals. The 5 different decision-making strategies listed below include examples of business goals they could help you achieve. But before going further, we must consider one key aspect of decision making: Risk Management.

The two questions that I will consider when defining a decision-making strategy are:

  • 1. How well does this decision proposal help us reach our business goals?
  • 2. Does the risk profile resulting from this decision fit our acceptable risk profile?

Are you taking into account the risks inherent in the decisions made with those frameworks?

All decisions have inherent risks, and we must consider risks before elaborating on the different possible decision-making strategies. If you decide to invest in a new and shiny technology for your product, how will that affect your risk profile?

A different risk profile requires different decisions

Each decision we make has an impact on the following risk dimensions:

  • Failing to meet the market needs (the risk of what).
  • Increasing your technical risks (the risk of how).
  • Contracting or committing to work which you are not able to staff or assign the necessary skills (the risk of who).
  • Deviating from the business goals and strategy of your organization (the risk of why).

The categorization above is not the only possible. However it is very practical, and maps well to decisions regarding which projects to invest in.

There may good reasons to accept increasing your risk exposure in one or more of these categories. This is true if increasing that exposure does not go beyond your acceptable risk profile. For example, you may accept a larger exposure to technical risks (the risk of how), if you believe that the project has a very low risk of missing market needs (the risk of what).

An example would be migrating an existing product to a new technology: you understand the market (the product has been meeting market needs), but you will take a risk with the technology with the aim to meet some other business need.

Aligning decisions with business goals: decision-making strategies

When making decisions regarding what project or work to undertake, we must consider the implications of that work in our business or strategic goals, therefore we must decide on the right decision-making strategy for our company at any time.

Decision-making Strategy 1: Do the most important strategic work first

If you are starting to implement a new strategy, you should allocate enough teams, and resources to the work that helps you validate and fine tune the selected strategy. This might take the form of prioritizing work that helps you enter a new segment, or find a more valuable niche in your current segment, etc. The focus in this decision-making approach is: validating the new strategy. Note that the goal is not "implement new strategy", but rather "validate new strategy". The difference is fundamental: when trying to validate a strategy you will want to create short-term experiments that are designed to validate your decision, instead of planning and executing a large project from start to end. The best way to run your strategy validation work is to the short-term experiments and re-prioritize your backlog of experiments based on the results of each experiment.

Decision-making Strategy 2: Do the highest technical risk work first

When you want to transition to a new architecture or adopt a new technology, you may want to start by doing the work that validates that technical decision. For example, if you are adopting a new technology to help you increase scalability of your platform, you can start by implementing the bottleneck functionality of your platform with the new technology. Then test if the gains in scalability are in line with your needs and/or expectations. Once you prove that the new technology fulfills your scalability needs, you should start to migrate all functionality to the new technology step by step in order of importance. This should be done using short-term implementation cycles that you can easily validate by releasing or testing the new implementation.

Decision-making Strategy 3: Do the easiest work first

Suppose you just expanded your team and want to make sure they get to know each other and learn to work together. This may be due to a strategic decision to start a new site in a new location. Selecting the easiest work first will give the new teams an opportunity to get to know each other, establish the processes they need to be effective, but still deliver concrete, valuable working software in a safe way.

Decision-making Strategy 4: Do the legal requirements first

In medical software there are regulations that must be met. Those regulations affect certain parts of the work/architecture. By delivering those parts first you can start the legal certification for your product before the product is fully implemented, and later - if needed - certify the changes you may still need to make to the original implementation. This allows you to improve significantly the time-to-market for your product. A medical organization that successfully adopted agile, used this project decision-making strategy with a considerable business advantage as they were able to start selling their product many months ahead of the scheduled release. They were able to go to market earlier because they successfully isolated and completed the work necessary to certify the key functionality of their product. Rather then trying to predict how long the whole project would take, they implemented the key legal requirements first, then started to collect feedback about the product from the market - gaining a significant advantage over their direct competitors.

Decision-making Strategy 5: Liability driven investment model

This approach is borrowed from a stock exchange investment strategy that aims to tackle a problem similar to what every bootstrapped business faces: what work should we do now, so that we can fund the business in the near future? In this approach we make decisions with the aim of generating the cash flows needed to fund future liabilities.

These are just 5 possible investment or decision-making strategies that can help you make project decisions, or even business decisions, without having to invest in estimation upfront.

None of these decision-making strategies guarantees success, but then again nothing does except hard work, perseverance and safe experiments!

In the upcoming workshops (Helsinki on Oct 23rd, Stockholm on Oct 30th) that me and Woody Zuill are hosting, we will discuss these and other decision-making strategies that you can take and start applying immediately. We will also discuss how these decision making models are applicable in day to day decisions as much as strategic decisions.

If you want to know more about what we will cover in our world-premiere #NoEstimates workshops don't hesitate to get in touch!

Your ideas about decision-making strategies that do not require estimation

You may have used other decision-making strategies that are not covered here. Please share your stories and experiences below so that we can start collecting ideas on how to make good decisions without the need to invest time and money into a wasteful process like estimation.

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Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Lean Change Management: A Truly Agile Change Management approach


"I've been working in this company for a long time, we've tried everything. We've tried involving the teams, we've tried training senior management, but nothing sticks! We say we want to be agile, but..."

Many people in organizations that try to adopt agile will have said this at some point. Not every company fails to adopt agile, but many do.

Why does this happen, what prevents us from successfully adopting agile practices?

Learning from our mistakes

Actually, this section should be called learning from our experiments. Why? Because every change in an organization is an experiment. It may work, it may not work - but for sure it will help you learn more about the organization you work for.

I learned this approach from reading Jason Little's Lean Change Management. Probably the most important book about Agile adoption to be published this year. I liked his approach to how change can be implemented in an organization.

He describes a framework for change that is cyclical (just like agile methods):

  • Generate or gain insights: in this step we - who are involved in the change - do small experiments (like for example asking questions) to generate insights into how the organization works, and what possible things we could use to help people embrace the next steps of change.
  • Define options: in this step we list what are the options we have. What experiments could we run that would help us towards our Vision for the change.
  • Select and run experiments: each option will, after being selected, be transformed into an experiment. Each experiment will have a step of actions, people to involve, expected outcomes, etc.
  • Review, learn and...: After the experiments are concluded (and sometimes right after starting those experiments) we gain even more insights that we can feed right back into what Jason call the Lean Change Management Cycle.

The Mojito method of change

The overall cycle for Lean Change Management is then complemented in the book with concrete practices that Jason used and explains how to use in the book. Jason uses the story of The Commission to describe how to apply the different practices he used. For example, in Chapter 8 he goes into details of how he used the Change Canvas to create alignment in a major change for a large (and slow moving) organization.

Jason also reviews several change frameworks (Kotter's 8 steps, McKinsey's 7S, OCAI, ADKAR, etc.) and how he took the best out of each framework to help him walk through the Lean Change Management cycle.

The most important book about Agile adoption right now

After having worked on this book for almost a year together with Jason, I can say that I am very proud to be part of what I think is a critical knowledge area for any Agile Coach out there. Jason's book describes a very practical approach to changing any organization - which is what Agile adoption is all about.

For this reason I'd say that any Agile Coach out there should read the book and learn the practices and methods that Jason describes. The practices and ideas he describes will be key tools for anyone wanting to change their organization and adopt Agile in the process.

Here's where you can find more details about what the book includes.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The No Estimates principle: The importance of knowing when you are wrong


You started the project. You spent hours, no: days! estimating the project. The project starts and your confidence in its success is high.

Everything goes well at the start, but at some point you find the project is late. What happened? How can you be wrong about estimates?

This story very common in software projects. So common, that I bet you have lived through it many times in your life. I know I have!

Let’s get over it. We’re always wrong about estimation. Sometimes more, sometimes less and very, very rarely we are wrong in a way that makes us happy: we overestimated something and can deliver the project ahead of (the inflated?) schedule.

We’re always wrong about estimation.

Being wrong about estimates is the status quo. Get over it. Now let’s take advantage of being wrong! You can save the project by being wrong. Here’s why...

The art of being wrong about software estimates

Knowing you are wrong about your estimates is not difficult after the fact, when you compare estimates to actuals. The difficult part is to make a prediction in a way that can tested regularly, and very early on - when you still have time to change the project.

Software project estimates as they are usually done, delay the feedback for the “on time” performance to a point in time when there’s very little we can do about it. Goldratt grasped this problem and made a radical suggestion: cut all estimates in half, and use the rest of the time as a project buffer. Pretty crazy hein? Well, it worked because it forced projects to face their failures much earlier than they would otherwise. Failing to meet a deadline early on in the life-cycle of the project gave them a very powerful tool in project management: time to react!

The #NoEstimates approach to being wrong...and learning from it

In this video I explain shortly how I make predictions about a possible release date for the project based on available data. Once I make a release date prediction, I validate it as soon as possible, and typically every week. This approach allows me to learn early enough when I’m wrong and then adjust the project as needed.

We’re always wrong, the important thing is to find out how wrong, as early as possible

After each delivery (whether it is a feature or a timebox like a sprint), I update my prediction for the release date of the project based on the lead time or throughput rate so far. After updating the release date projection, I can see whether it has changed enough to require a reaction by the project team. I can make this update to the project schedule without gathering the whole team (or "the chosen ones") into a room for an ungodly long estimation meeting.

If the date has not changed outside the originally interval, or if the delivery rate is stable (see the video), then I don’t need to react.

When the release date projection changes to a time outside the original interval, or the throughput rate has become unstable (did you see the video?), then you need to react. At first to investigate the situation, and later to adjust the parameters in your project if needed.

Conclusion

The #NoEstimates approach I advocate will allow you to know when the project has changed enough to warrant a reaction. I make a prediction, and (at least) every week I review that prediction and take action.

Estimates, done the traditional way, also give you this information, but too late. This happens because of the big-batch thinking the reliance on estimations enables (larger work items are ok if you estimate), and because of the delayed dependency integration it enables (estimated projects typically allow for teams that are dependent to work separately because of the agreed plan).

The #NoEstimates approach I advocate has one goal: reduce feedback cycle. These short feedback cycles will allow you to recognise early enough how wrong you were about your predictions, and then you can make the necessary adjustments!

Picture credit: John Hammink, follow him on twitter

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Monday, September 15, 2014

The Release Paradox: releasing less often makes your teams slower and decreases quality


Herman is a typical agile coach. He works with teams to help them learn how to deliver high-quality software quickly.

Many teams want to focus on design, architecture, or (sometimes) even on business value. But they are usually not in a hurry to release quickly.

Recently Herman conveyed a story to me that illustrates how releasing quickly can help teams deliver high-quality software much faster than if they would focus on quality in the first place. This is the case of a team that was working on a long overdue project. They had used a traditional and linear process in the past and had been able to release software only very recently, after more than 12 months of work on the latest release.

Not surprisingly, they were having trouble releasing regularly. The software was not stable; once it was live it had many problems that needed to be fixed quickly, and worst of all: all of this was having a direct impact on the company’s business.

The teams were extremely busy fixing the problems they had added to the product in the last year and could not focus on solving the root causes of those problems.

They were in full-fledged firefighting mode. They worked hard every day to fix yet another problem and release yet another hot fix.

This lasted for a few weeks, but once the fire-fighting mode was over, Herman worked with the teams to improve their release frequency. During their work with Herman, those teams went from one year without any release to a regular release every two weeks.

At first the releases were not always possible, but with time they improve their processes, removed the obstacles preventing them from releasing every two weeks and started releasing regularly.

What happened next was surprising for the teams. The list of problems after each release did not grow - as they expected - but instead shrank.

When some problems came in from the customers after a 2-week release, they were also much faster to fix the problem and quicker to release a fix if that was required. When the fix was not critical, they waited for the following release which was, after all, only 2 weeks away.

By focusing on releasing every two weeks, Herman’s teams were able to focus on small, incremental changes to their product. That, in turn, enabled them to fine-tune their development and release processes.

Here are some of the key changes the teams implemented
  1. They started with a 4 week release cycle, and fine-tuned their daily builds and release testing process to enable a release every 2 weeks.
  2. They invested time and energy to improve their test automation strategy and automated the critical tests to enable them to run “enough” tests to be confident that the quality was at release level.
  3. They had some teams on maintenance duty in the first few iterations to make sure that any problem found after release could quickly be fixed, and released to customers if necessary.
  4. They changed their source code management strategy to enable some teams to work on longer term changes while others worked on the next release.
  5. They involved all teams necessary to complete a release in their iterations. This affected especially: production/operations team, localization team, documentation team, marketing team, and other teams when needed.
This list of changes was the result of the drive to complete each release and learning from the failures in the previous release. Some changes were harder to implement, and especially the testing strategy to allow for 2-week release cycles had to be changed and adjusted several times.

One of the key problems the teams had to solve, was the lack of coordination with departments that directly contributed to the release but were not previously involved in their day-to-day work.

This process lasted several months, and would not have been possible without a clear Vision set forth by the teams in cooperation with Herman, who helped them discover the right way to reach that Vision within their context.

Herman’s work as a coach was that of a catalyst for management and the teams in that organization. He was able to create in their minds a clear picture of what was possible. Once that was clear, the teams and the management took ownership of the process and achieved a step-change in their ability to fulfill market demands and customer needs.

Customers have no reason to change provider as they have an ever-improving experience when using this company’s services.

Today, this organization releases a new version of their product every two weeks. Unaware of it, their customers receive regular improvements to the product they use, and have no reason to change provider as they have an ever-improving experience when using this company’s services.

Picture credit: John Hammink, follow him on twitter

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Monday, September 08, 2014

How to create a knowledge worker Gemba

I am a big fan of the work by Jim Benson and Tonianne Barry ever since I read their book: Personal Kanban.

In this article Jim describes an idea that I would like to highlight and expand. He says: we need a knowledge worker Gemba. He goes on to describe how to create that Gemba:

  • Create a workcell for knowledge work: Where you can actually observe the team work and interact
  • Make work explicit: Without being able to visualize the work in progress, you will not be able to understand the impact of certain dynamics between the team members. Also, you will miss the necessary information that will allow you to understand the obstacles to flow in the team - what prevents value from being delivered.

These are just some steps you can take right now to understand deeply how work gets done in your team, your organization or by yourself if you are an independent knowledge worker. This understanding, in turn will help you define concrete changes to the way work gets done in a way that can be measured and understood.

I've tried the same idea for my own work and described it here. How about you? What have you tried to implement to create visibility and understanding in your work?

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

How to choose the right project? Decision making frameworks for software organizations


Frameworks to choose the best projects in organizations are a dime a dozen.

We have our NPV (net present value), we have our customized Criteria Matrix, we have Strategic alignment, we have Risk/Value scoring, and the list goes on and on.

In every organization there will a preference for one of these or similar methods to choose where to invest people’s precious time and money.

Are all these frameworks good? No, but they aren’t bad either. They all have some potential positive impact, at least when it comes to reflection. They help executive teams reflect on where they want to take their organizations, and how each potential project will help (or hinder) those objectives.

So far, so good.

“Everybody’s got a plan, until they get punched in the face” ~Tyson

Surviving wrong decisions made with perfect data

However, reality is seldom as structured and predictable as the plans make it out to be. Despite the obvious value that the frameworks above have for decision making, they can’t be perfect because they lack one crucial aspect of reality: feedback.

Models lack on critical property of reality: feedback.

As soon as we start executing a particular project, we have chosen a path and have made allocation of people’s time and money. That, in turn, sets in motion a series of other decisions: we may hire some people, we may subcontract part of the project, etc.

All of these subsequent decisions will have even further impacts as the projects go on, and they may lead to even more decisions being made. Each of these decisions will also have an impact on the outcome of the chosen projects, as well as on other sub-decisions for each project. Perhaps the simplest example being the conflicts that arise from certain tasks for different projects having to be executed by the same people (shared skills or knowledge).

And at this point we have to ask: even assuming that we had perfect data when we chose the project based on one of the frameworks above, how do we make sure that we are still working on the most important and valuable projects for our organization?

Independently from the decisions made in the past, how do we ensure we are working on the most important work today?

The feedback bytes back

This illustrates one of the most common problems with decision making frameworks: their static nature. They are about making decisions "now", not "continuously". Decision making frameworks are great at the time when you need to make a decision, but once the wheels are in motion, you will need to adapt. You will need to understand and harness the feedback of your decisions and change what is needed to make sure you are still focusing on the most valuable work for your organization.

All decision frameworks have one critical shortcoming: they are static by design.

How do we improve decision making after the fact?

First, we must understand that any work that is “in flight” (aka in progress) in IT projects has a value of zero, i.e., in IT projects no work has value until it is in use by someone, somewhere. And at that point it has both value (the benefit) and cost (how much we spend maintaining that functionality).

This dynamic means that even if you have chosen the right project to start with, you have to make sure that you can stop any project, at any time. Otherwise you will have committed to invest more time and more money (by making irreversible “big bang” decisions) into projects that may prove to be much less valuable than you expected when you started them. This phenomenon of continuing to invest beyond the project benefit/cost trade-off point is known as Sunk Cost Fallacy and is a very common problem in software organizations: because reversing a decision made using a trustworthy process is very difficult, both practically (stop project = loose all value) and due to bureaucracy (how do we prove that the decision to stop is better than the decision to start the project?)

Can we treat the Sunk Cost Fallacy syndrome?

While using the decision frameworks listed above (or others), don’t forget that the most important decision you can make is to keep your options open in a way that allows you to stop work on projects that prove less valuable than expected, and to invest more in projects that prove more valuable than expected.

In my own practice this is one of the reasons why I focus on one of the #NoEstimates rules: Always know what is the most valuable thing to work on, and work only on that.

So my suggestion is: even when you score projects and make decisions on those scores, always keep in mind that you may be wrong. So, invest in small increments into the projects you believe are valuable, but be ready to reassess and stop investing if those projects prove less valuable than other projects that will become relevant later on.

The #NoEstimates approach I use allows me to do this at three levels:

  • a) Portfolio level: by reviewing constant progress in each project and assess value delivered. As well as constantly preparing to stop each project by releasing regularly to a production-like environment. Portfolio flexibility.
  • b) Project level: by separating each piece of value (User Story or Feature) into an independent work package that can be delivered independently from all other project work. Scope flexibility.
  • c) User Story / Feature level: by keeping User Stories and Features as small as possible (1 day for User Stories, 1-2 weeks for Features), and releasing them independently at fixed time intervals. Work item flexibility

Do you want to know more about adaptive decision frameworks? Woody Zuill and myself will be hosting a workshop in Helsinki to present our #NoEstimates ideas and to discuss decision making frameworks for software projects that build on our #NoEstimates work.

You can sign up here. But before you do, email me and get a special discount code.

If you manage software organizations and projects, there will be other interesting workshops for you in the same days. For example, the #MobProgramming workshop where Woody Zuill shows you how he has been able to help his teams significantly improve their well-being and performance. #MobProgramming may well be a breakthrough in Agile management.

Picture credit: John Hammink, follow him on twitter

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