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Demystifying Agile: Rants of a Madman on Getting Started – Part 2

March 3, 2012

So, do you have a cadence yet?  Has the team been able to lay out a series of equally spaced milestones to break up the work?  Have these created both a steady cadence and rallying points for the team to get behind?  No?  Then come back later…  I mean it.  Go away…  :O)

Okay, so you are still with me so I can only assume you have a cadence going: Your team has a drummer and a heartbeat.  That or you are curious as to how this cadence is going to be leveraged and have decided you are going to read ahead anyways.  Either way is fantastic!  Now let’s start doing something meaningful with that cadence.  Worst case perhaps this will even help you as you try to establish your cadence.

Most projects, especially those who have failed, have held some sort of post mortem exercise.  The politically correct folks here in Portland like to call these things “Retrospectives” and it looks like the name proliferated and stuck.  You’ve been to some of these meetings and they are pretty much the same:

  • Everybody is quiet and afraid to say anything out of fear that somebody in “Management” will remember that they are a troublemaker.
  • Ralph sits in the corner, twitching and fidgeting in his seat, getting more and more antsy.
  • He finally cannot take the silence and others looking at him–he explodes in full scale rant with a list of things that really screwed up the project and made it impossible for he or others on the team to succeed.
  • Others begin to join in, dog piling on top of carnage that Ralph unleashed.
  • After about an hour of spastic complaining everybody lets out a lethargic sigh of relief as they realize that they feel better, albeit exhausted.
  • Despair quickly kicks in as everybody has the shared cosmic epiphany that nothing will ever change.
  • Everybody leaves the room wondering why they just wasted the last hour (or two) of their lives.

Sound familiar?  Here is your chance to actually change things…

Imagine a world where every three weeks (or whatever cadence you selected, which is wrong simply because it doesn’t agree with my ideal Goldilocks iteration length) you can have a similar experience, but where something productive actually happens both during and after the meeting.  Agile teams that tend to work best are those which are able to ratchet things up over time.  Not because somebody told them to, but because they were able to collectively empower themselves to do so.  Here’s how they do it…

At the end of every iteration somebody on the team (don’t get me started on the defined roles of Scrum masters and Product Owners—that’s another rant) solicits from all the team members a list of the top 2-3 things that the team should Start Doing, Stop Doing, Keep Doing.  The list is really limited to the top two to three bulleted things in each category from each person.  This isn’t the opportunity for somebody to write a tome or a manifesto or for Ralph’s head to explode.  The coordinator of this effort pulls these 3 types of lists together, grouping like/similar things.  The list is then shared with the team before the meeting (effective meeting management is yet another rant for a later day) and the team meets for an hour to review, discuss, and decide on top one or two things from the list to take action on in the next iteration.

There are many reasons why I’ve seen this approach work.  First of all you are not waiting for the Titanic to actually sink before gathering up the survivors to ask “What went wrong?”  You are taking advantage of the natural rhythm of the team as it works through its iteration cadence to have both timely and meaningful discussions as to what should change to make life better for the team and the project overall.

The second reason is you are having a very focused and structured (Agilist zealots don’t you dare lecture me on “structured” and “unstructured”) discussion on what the team shouldn’t screw around with (the “Keep Doing” list), what the team should absolutely quit doing (the “Stop Doing” list), and what the team should strongly consider to try to do (the “Start Doing” list).  This focused discussion around these 3 key points helps the team to focus on what can be done differently, based on timely input from this latest iteration, helping to ensure that the session is not simply a chorus from an open mic “Complainapocalypse” concert.

The third reason that I’ve seen this work is that the team decides on the one or two things that they will take real action on in the next iteration.  That’s right only the top one or two things are chosen each time.  Remember that you are not trying to boil the ocean—it is impossible and just annoys the fish. You have to take the results and take real action to remediate.

So, give it a try.  With each iteration the team should hold its retrospectives.  Identify what it is the team wants to do to ratchet things up, make them actionable, and hold yourselves accountable for following through on those changes.  Like shampooing make sure that you rinse, repeat…   These retrospectives should become part of the cadence and rhythm for the team with each iteration.

Here is my promise to you:  Six months from now after you have 8 iterations and retrospectives behind you you’ll be amazed by the 8 to 16 changes you’ve made; fast forward a year after having 17 iterations and retrospectives behind you and you’ll be absolutely floored by the 16 to 32 changes you’ve made and their positive impact on both your team and your own personal psyche.  Again, just trust me…

About this series:  I love Agile; I also hate Agile.  I love how it can free teams to truly delight customers while delivering high quality products on time.  I hate how Agile zealots can use the Tower of Agile Babble to confuse the heck out of teams trying Agile on for size.  My goal is to help new teams actually embrace and become Agile without having to learn all of the pomp and circumstance in one big fat swallow.

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From → Agile, Software

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