Podcast with Cesar Abeid Posted

Cesar Abeid interviewed me, Project Management for You with Johanna Rothman. We talked about my tools for project management, whether you are managing a project for yourself or managing projects for others.

We talked about how to use timeboxes in the large and small, project charters, influence, servant leadership, a whole ton of topics.

I hope you listen. Also, check out Cesar’s kickstarter campaign, Project Management for You.

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Small Internal Releases Lead to Happy Customers

If you saw Large Program? Release More Often, you might have noted that I said,

You want to release all the time inside your building. You need the feedback, to watch the product grow.

Some of my clients have said, “But my customers don’t want the software that often.” That might be true.  You may have product constraints, also. If you are working on a hardware/software product, you can’t integrate the software with the hardware either until the hardware is ready or that often.

I’m not talking about releasing the product to the customers. I’m not talking about integrating the software with the hardware. I’m talking about small, frequent, fully functional releases that help you know that your software is actually done.

You don’t need hardening sprints. Or, if you do, you know it early. You know you have that technical debt now, not later. You can fix things when the problem is small. You see, I don’t believe in hardening sprints.

Hardening sprints mean you are not getting to done on your features. They might be too big. Your developers are not finishing the code, so the testers can’t finish the tests. Your testers might not be automating enough. Let’s not forget architectural debt. It could be any number of things. Hardening sprints are a sign that “the software is not done.” Wouldn’t you like to know that every three or four weeks, not every ten or twelve? You could fix it when the problem is small and easier to fix.

Here’s an example. I have a number of clients who develop software for the education market.  One of them said to me, “We can’t release all the time.”

I said, “Sure, you can’t release the grading software in the middle of the semester. You don’t want to upset the teachers. I get that. What about the how-to-buy-books module? Can you update that module?”

“Of course. That’s independent. We’re not sure anyone uses that in the middle of the semester anyway.”

I was pretty sure I knew better. Teachers are always asking students to buy books. Students procrastinate. Why do you think they call it “Student syndrome”? But I decided to keep my mouth shut. Maybe I didn’t know better. The client decided to try just updating the buy-the-book module as they fixed things.

The client cleaned up the UI and fixed irritating defects. They released internally every two weeks for about six weeks. They finally had the courage to release mid-semester. A couple of schools sent emails, asking why they waited so long to install these fixes. “Please fix the rest of these problems, as soon as you can. Please don’t wait.”

The client had never released this often before. It scared them. It didn’t scare their customers. Their customers were quite happy. And, the customers didn’t have all the interim releases; they had the planned mini-releases that the Product Owner planned.

My client still doesn’t release every day. They still have an internal process where they review their fixes for a couple of weeks before the fixes go live. They like that. But, they have a schedule of internal releases that is much shorter than what they used to have. They also release more often to their customers. The customers feel as if they have a “tighter” relationship with my client. Everyone is happier.

My client no longer has big-bang external releases. They have many small internal releases. They have happier customers.

That is what I invite you to consider.

Release externally whenever you want. That is a business decision. Separate that business decision from your ability to release internally all the time.

Consider moving to a continuous delivery model internally, or as close as you can get to continuous delivery internally. Now, you can decide what you release externally. That is a business decision.

What do you need to do to your planning, your stories, your technical practices to do so?

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Large Program? Release More Often

I’m working on the release planning chapter for Agile and Lean Program Management: Collaborating Across the Organization. There are many ways to plan releases. But the key? Release often. How often? I suggest once a month.

Yes, have a real, honest-to-goodness release once a month.

I bet that for some of you, this is counter-intuitive. “We have lots of teams. Lots of people. Our iterations are three weeks long. How can we release once a month?”

Okay, release every three weeks. I’m easy.

Look, the more people and teams on your program, the more feedback you need. The more chances you have for getting stuck, being in the death spiral of slowing inertia. What you want is to gain momentum.

Large programs magnify this problem.

If you want to succeed with a large agile program, you need to see progress, wherever it is. Hopefully, it’s all over the program. But, even if it’s not, you need to see it and get feedback. Waiting for feedback is deadly.

Here’s what you do:

  1. Shorten all iterations to two weeks or less. You then have a choice to release every two or four weeks.
  2. If you have three-week iterations, plan to release every three weeks.
  3. Make all features sufficiently small so that they fit into an iteration. This means you learn how to make your stories very small. Yes, you learn how. You learn what a feature set (also known as a theme) is. You learn to break down epics. You learn how to have multiple teams collaborate on one ranked backlog. Your teams start to swarm on features, so the teams complete one feature in one iteration or in flow.
  4. The teams integrate all the time. No staged integration.

Remember this picture, the potential for release frequency?

Potential Release Frequency

Potential for Release Frequency

That’s the release frequency outside your building.

I’m talking about your internal releasing right now. You want to release all the time inside your building. You need the feedback, to watch the product grow.

In agile, we’re fond of saying, “If it hurts, do it more often.” That might not be so helpful. Here’s a potential translation:  “Your stuff is too big. Make it smaller.”

Make your release planning smaller. Make your stories smaller. Integrate smaller chunks at one time. Move one story across the board at one time. Make your batches smaller for everything.

When you make everything smaller (remember Short is Beautiful?), you can go bigger.

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Management Feedback: Are You Abrasive or Assertive?

Let me guess. If you are a successful woman, in the past, you’ve been told you’re too abrasive, too direct, maybe even too assertive. Too much. See The One Word Men Never See In Their Performance Reviews.

Here’s the problem. You might be.

I was.

But never in the “examples” my bosses provided. The “examples” they provided were the ones when I advocated for my staff. The ones where I made my managers uncomfortable. The examples, where, if I had different anatomy, they would have relaxed afterwards, and we’d gone out for a beer.

But we didn’t.

Because my bosses could never get over the fact that I was a woman, and “women didn’t act this way.” Now, this was more than 20 years ago. (I’ve been a consultant for 20 years.) But, based on the Fast Company article, it doesn’t seem like enough culture has changed.

Middle and senior managers, here’s the deal: At work, you want your managers to advocate for their people. You want this. This is a form of problem-solving. Your first-line and middle managers see a problem. If they don’t have the entire context, explain the context to them. Now, does that change anything?

If it does, you, senior or middle manager, have been derelict in your management responsibility. Your first-line manager might have been able to solve the problem with his/her staff without being abrasive if you had explained the context earlier. Maybe you need to have more one-on-ones. Maybe all your first-line managers could have solved this problem in your staff meeting, as a cross-functional team. Are you canceling one-on-ones or canceling problem-solving meetings? Don’t do that.

Do you have a first-line manager who doesn’t want to be a manager? Maybe you fell prey to the myth of promoting the best technical person into a management position. You are not alone. Find someone who wants to work with people, and ask that person to try  management.

We all need feedback. Managers need feedback, too. Because managers leverage the work of others, they need feedback even more than technical people.

If you think a manager on your management team is “too” abrasive or assertive,” ask yourself, is this person female? Then ask yourself, “Would I say the same thing if this person looked as if she could be a large sports figure, male attributes and all?”

You see, the fact that I have the physical attributes of a short, kind-of cute woman has not bothered me one bit. I feel seven feet tall. I often act like it. I am not afraid to take chances or calculated risks. I am not afraid to talk to anyone in the organization about anything. How else would I accomplish the work that needs to be done? (You may have noticed that I write tall, too.)

Abrasive and assertive are code words for fearless problem solvers. Don’t penalize the women—or the men—in your organization who are fearless problem solvers.

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Scale Agile With Small-World Networks Posted

I posted my most recent Pragmatic Manager newsletter, Scale Agile With Small-World Networks on my site.

This is a way you can scale agile out, not up. No hierarchies needed.

Small-world networks take advantage of the fact that people want to help other people in the organization. Unless you have created MBOs (Management By Objectives) that make people not want to help others, people want to see the entire product succeed. That means they want to help others. Small-world networks also take advantage of the best network in your organization—the rumor mill.

If you enjoy reading this newsletter, please do subscribe. I let my readers know about specials that I run for my books and when new books come out first.

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One Experimental Possibility: Self-Organization from Component Teams to Feature Teams

If you are organized as platform team, middleware, and front-end teams, you have a  component team organization. That made sense at one point in your history. But if you are transitioning to agile or have transitioned, and if you want to use agile on a program, that might not make much sense now.

If you have a program,  you  have many people in your teams. Your platform team might not be 7 people, but several teams, maybe 50 people, if you are large enough for a program. Your middleware teams could be another 100 people, and your front-end teams could be another 100 people. You have lots of people and lots of teams.

I bet you do not have an even ratio of platform, middleware, and front-end teams. You have experts, here, there, and everywhere. And, if you are anything like my clients, you have trouble releasing features in an agile program.

What are the problems?

  • You have experts embedded in a wide variety of teams
  • The experts need to multitask to serve a variety of projects, so you incur a cost of delay to multitasking and queues
  • You are not releasing features. You have trouble when the components come together.

Even if the teams are agile, your program, the collection of projects is not agile.

What can you do?

You can ask the organization to try this as an experiment, for no longer than 2 weeks:

  • The only measure of success is running tested features. And, no one, especially no manager, gets to compare teams. This is an experiment that the organization is going to learn from. Some teams will have small and easy features. Some teams will not. This is not a competition. If you start comparing teams, the teams will game this measure and the organization will lose the learning. It’s not about the number of features. It’s about learning how to manage the stream of features through feature teams.
  • Ask three teams to volunteer: one platform, one middleware, and one front-end team. If more teams want to volunteer, fine. But you need three.
  • Those teams stop multitasking. Those teams agree on one ranked backlog among the three teams.  (I know, this might be the most difficult thing your organization has tried. I know you have experts. Ignore the fact you need experts everywhere. Agree on only one ranked backlog.)
  • Ask these three teams to self-organize as feature teams for now. No changing managers. No changing desks. They get to decide how to organize. If you are a manager, no decreeing who is a feature team with whom. Let the teams decide who is on what team. This works best in one large room. However, I have seen geographically distributed teams who were desperate to release a feature do this over distance.
  • Ask the Product Owner for these teams to make the stories as small as they can make them, preferably one or two team-days or less. This could be a huge challenge for the Product Owner. That’s okay. This is an experiment. I recommend a kanban board and limiting work in progress for this experiment.
  • Tell the teams that if they don’t have the expert they need for a story, that’s okay. They can pair, swarm, or mob together to get the story done. But, they are not allowed to interrupt another team.
  • The teams work on their backlog for this experiment (not any longer). They see what happens when everyone works in feature teams of their own making and no one multitasks, to get features to done. Remember, this is an experiment.
  • Retrospect at the end of this experiment so they can see what happened.
  • Decide what to do next. This is an experiment.

To sum: One self-organizing team, composed of platform, middleware, and front-end people. One backlog. One product owner. No longer than two weeks. Visualize the workflow. Limit work in progress. The only measure of success is running, tested features. No multitasking. Retrospect at the end. See what happens.

There are many things that can go wrong. But, there are many possibilities of learning here. This works best if the managers step back and don’t interfere. It works best with collocated teams. You can do this (and I have) with geographically distributed teams.

When I’ve facilitated this, the teams learn tons about how to work together and what they needed to do for their program. In several organizations, they wanted to do this again as an experiment.

Managers have to allow the teams to organize the way the product requires. Otherwise, you have Conway’s Law in spades.

When I have done this, I have had these results:

  • Most of the time, the teams were able to finish some of the features in their backlog without too much trouble. These features required some of the team to work together, either discussing the feature, or pairing.
  • They were able to finish most of the features in their backlog with a little trouble. These features required the entire team to work together.
  • Some of their features were too large to finish in the timebox.

These results don’t surprise me. I bet they don’t surprise you.

Every so often, teams have trouble finishing any features. They learned that they did not have sufficient expertise to do anything on their features in their backlog. One team spiked a feature for a day, swarming on it. They had more questions than when they started. They needed an expert who was in another team.

If you put the focus on releasing running, tested features, that is what people will do. But you have to focus on it.

Component teams aren’t bad, per se. But component teams don’t get you running, tested features. This is one possibility. Based on your experiment and reflection, you could try something else.

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Change is Learning: No Silver Bullets or Quick Fixes

Way back when I was a developer, my professors taught me structured design and design by contract. Those were supposed to be the silver bullets for programming.  You see, if you specified things enough, and structured things enough, everything would all work out.

I thought I was the only idiot that structure and specification didn’t work for. Why did I have to iterate and increment?

At my first job, we had design reviews and code reviews. I learned a lot. I worked on a government contract, and the government mandated those reviews. They were useful, and they were supposed to be a silver bullet. Because we implemented features (yes, back in the ’70s, we implemented features), the reviews were helpful in the small.

But, I worked on a program. There is just so much design by contract can do for a program. I was in Boston. I had questions for my counterpart in New Mexico. I was not allowed to talk to that person. (To this day, I don’t know who that person was. That person was part of another subcontractor.) I had to send my questions up through the project management layers to the program team and down the other side. My questions never did get answered. I left that company before I knew if my code worked with the entire system.

I transitioned into project management, program management and people management. I have seen my share of fads, bullets, and fixes for the software departments.

As a director in the early ’90’s I got sent to TQM school (Total Quality Management). My company thought it would change the way we managed, and revolutionize our organization. It would be our “silver bullet.” I’m pretty sure those were somebody’s words. They weren’t mine.

I got a certificate for my five days of intensive training (powerpoint and calculations). I might still have it somewhere.

I became excellent at calculating many costs: the cost of quality, the cost of not doing things right,  the cost of technical debt, even what we might consider the cost of delay. I dutifully explained these costs to my senior management. Was I able to persuade my company of the cost of not doing the right thing, even though I was a middle manager, a program manager, and had been TQM’d?

No. My management was too concerned that doing things “right” would prevent us from making money. I had data—yes, data—that proved them wrong. But their belief systems overcame my data.

Later, after I started my consulting business, many of my clients fell into the ISO 9000 and the CMM/CMMI quick fix/silver bullet traps. The ISO joke made the rounds: “You could specify a cement life jacket with ISO, as long as you define the right process for creating it.” Well, no. But the jokes still persisted. (Many people find value in ISO. Some do not.)

And, with the CMM/CMMI? Oh, my clients had binders full of documentation, but they weren’t releasing software. They hired me on the side, because their silver bullet of CMM/CMMI process wasn’t working. Somehow, my approaches of timeboxes and increments, and iterations, and thinking about their projects was. (Many people find  value in using CMM/CMMI. Some do not.)

Now we have agile. If you read my work, you know I lean towards agile and lean. At the same time, I say that agile is not for everyone. Agile is not a silver bullet.

We have no silver bullets in software.

We have difficult problems to solve. We must think about our approaches, each and every time. We must consider our context. That why I wrote Manage It! Your Guide to Modern, Pragmatic Project Management. Because every single project is unique. That’s why I’m writing Agile and Lean Program Management: Collaborating Across the Organization. That book is a principle-based approach to program management, to scaling agile past one or two teams. Not a one-size fits all approach to program management.

And, because we have no silver bullets in software, and because we have no quick fixes, my management myth this month is We Need a Quick Fix or a Silver Bullet.

It’s very tempting to think that transitioning to agile might be a quick fix or a silver bullet. Transitioning to agile or lean might help you. It won’t be quick.

Any transition is a change. Change takes time. Change is learning. Developing software is learning. You can help yourself learn faster with some approaches: make value obvious instead of tasks, get feedback often, visualize your work, etc. For many of you starting your agile journey, these are cultural changes.

The more you challenge the culture, the longer the change takes because people need to learn what to do and how to work. Cultural change is not a silver bullet. It is certainly not a quick fix.

Read Management Myth 33: We Need a Quick Fix or a Silver Bullet.

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Projects Where You Can’t Predict an End Date

Do you have projects where you can’t predict an end date? These tend to be a job search, a change project, and with a tip of the hat to Cesar Abeid, your life. I like to call these “emergent” projects.

You might prefer to call them “adaptable” projects, but to me, every project has to be adaptable. These projects are emergent. You need to plan, but not too much. You need to replan. You need to take advantage of serendipity.

My column this quarter for projectmanagement.com is Applying Agile to Emergent Projects. (Free registration required.)

Enjoy!

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Cost, Value & Investment: How Much Will This Project Cost? Part 2

This post is continued from Cost, Value & Investment: How Much Will This Project Cost, Part 1

We’ve established that you need to know how much this project will cost. I’m assuming you have more than a small project.

If you have to estimate a project, please read the series starting at Estimating the Unknown: Dates or Budget, Part 1. Or, you could get Essays on Estimation. I’m in the midst of fixing it so it reads like a real book. I have more tips on estimation there.

For a program, each team does this for its own ranked backlog:

  • Take every item on the backlog and roadmap, and use whatever relative sizing approach you use now to estimate. You want to use relative sizing, because you need to estimate everything on the backlog.
  • Tip: If each item on the backlog/roadmap is about team-day or smaller, this is easy. The farther out you go, the more uncertainty you have and the more difficult the estimation is. That’s why this is a tip.
  • Walk through the entire backlog, estimating as you proceed. Don’t worry about how large the features are. Keep a count of the large features. Decide as a team if this feature is larger than two or three team-days. If it is, keep a count of those features. The larger the features, the more uncertainty you have in your estimate.
  • Add up your estimate of relative points. Add up the number of large features. Now, you have a relative estimate, which based on your previous velocity means something to you. You also have a number of large features, which will decrease the confidence in that estimate.
  • Do you have 50 features, of which only five are large? Maybe you have 75% confidence in your estimate. On the other hand, maybe all your features are large. I might only have 5-10% confidence in the estimate. Why? Because the team hasn’t completed any work yet and you have no idea how long your work will take.
Technical Program with Communities of Practice

Technical Program with Communities of Practice

As a software program team, get together, and assess the total estimate. Why the program team? Because the program team is the cross-functional team whose job is to get the software product to done. It’s not just the software teams—it’s everyone involved in the technical program team.

Note: the teams have to trust Sally, Joe, Henry and Tom to represent them to the software program team. If the teams do not, no one has confidence in any estimate at all. The estimate is a total SWAG.

The delegates to the program team know what their estimates mean individually. Now, they “add” them together, whatever that means. Do you realize why we will call this prediction? Do Sally, Joe, Henry, and Tom have feature teams, service teams, or component teams? Do they have to add time for the experiments as they transition to agile? Do they need to gain the trust of their management? Or, are they already experienced agile feature teams?

The more experienced the teams are at agile, the better the estimate is. The more the teams are feature teams, the better the estimate is. If you are new to agile, or have feature teams, or have a mixed program (agile and non-agile teams), you know that estimate is way off.

Is it time for the software program manager to say, “We have an initial order-of-magnitude prediction. But we haven’t tested this estimate with any work, so we don’t know how accurate our estimates are. Right now our confidence is about 5-10% (or whatever it is) in our estimate. We’ve spent a day or so estimating, because we can spend time delivering, rather than estimating. We need to do a week or two of work, deliver a working skeletong, and then we can tell you more about our prediction. We can better our prediction as we proceed. Remember, back in the waterfall days, we spent a month estimating and we were wrong. This way, you’ll get to see product as we work.”

You want to use the word “prediction” as much as possible, because people understand the word prediction. They hear weather predictions all the time. They know about weather predictions. But when they hear estimates of work, they think you are correct, even if you use confidence numbers, they think you are accurate. Use the word prediction.

Beware of These Program Estimation Traps

There are plenty of potential traps when you estimate programs. Here are some common problems:

  • The backlog is full of themes. You haven’t even gotten to epics, never mind stories. I don’t see how you can make a prediction. That’s like me saying, “I can go from Boston to China on an airplane. Yes, I can. It will take time.” I need more data: which time of year? Mid-week, weekend? Otherwise, I can only provide a ballpark, not a real estimate.
  • Worse, the backlog is full of tasks, so you don’t know the value of a story. “Fix the radio button” does not tell me the value of a story. Maybe we can eliminate the button instead of fix it.
  • The people estimating are not the ones who will do the work, so the estimate is full of estimation bias. Just because work looks easy or looks hard does not mean it is.
  • The estimate becomes a target. This never works, but managers do it all the time. “Sure, my team can do that work by the end of Q1.”
  • The people on your program multitask, so the estimate is wrong. Have you read the Cost of Delay due to Multitasking?
  • Managers think they can predict team size from the estimate. This is the problem of splitting work in the mistaken belief that more people make it easier to do more work. More people make the communications burden heavier.

Estimating a program is more difficult, because bigness makes everything harder. A better way to manage the issues of a program is to decide if it’s worth funding in the project portfolio. Then, work in an agile way. Be ready to change the order of work in the backlog, for teams and among teams.

As a program manager, you have two roles when people ask for estimates. You want to ask your sponsors these questions:

  • How much do you want to invest before we stop? Are you ready to watch the program grow as we build it?
  • What is the value of this project or program?

You want to ask the teams and product owners these questions:

  • Please produce walking skeletons (of features in the product) and build on it
  • Please produce small features, so we can see the product evolve every day

The more the sponsors see the product take shape, the less interested they will be in an overall estimate. They may ask for more specific estimates (when can you do this specific feature), which is much easier to answer.

Delivering working software builds trust. Trust obviates many needs for estimates. If your managers or customers have never had trust with a project or program team before, they will start asking for estimates. Your job is to deliver working software every day, so they stop asking.

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Cost, Value & Investment: How Much Will This Project Cost? Part 1

I’ve said before that you cannot use capacity planning for the project portfolio. I also said that managers often want to know how much the project will cost. Why? Because businesses have to manage costs. No one can have runaway projects. That is fair.

If you use an agile or incremental approach to your projects, you have options. You don’t have to have runaway projects. Here are two better questions:

  • How much do you want to invest before we stop?
  • How much value is this project or program worth to you?

You need to think about cost, value, and investment, not just cost when you think about about the project portfolio. If you think about cost, you miss the potentially great projects and features.

However, no business exists without managing costs. In fact, the cost question might be critical to your business. If you proceed without thinking about cost, you might doom your business.

Why do you want to know about cost? Do you have a contract? Does the customer need to know? A cost-bound contract is a good reason.  (If you have other reasons for needing to know cost, let me know. I am serious when I say you need to evaluate the project portfolio on value, not on cost.)

You Have a Cost-Bound Contract

I’ve talked before about providing date ranges or confidence ranges with estimates. It all depends on why you need to know. If you are trying to stay within your predicted cost-bound contract, you need a ranked backlog. If you are part of a program, everyone needs to see the roadmap. Everyone needs to see the product backlog burnup charts. You’d better have feature teams so you can create features. If you don’t, you’d better have small features.

Why? You can manage the interdependencies among and between teams more easily with small features and with a detailed roadmap. The larger the program, the smaller you want the batch size to be. Otherwise, you will waste a lot of money very fast. (The teams will create components and get caught in integration hell. That wastes money.)

Your Customer Wants to Know How Much the Project Will Cost

Why does your customer want to know? Do you have payments based on interim deliverables? If the customer needs to know, you want to build trust by delivering value, so the customer trusts you over time.

If the customer wants to contain his or her costs, you want to work by feature, delivering value. You want to share the roadmap, delivering value. You want to know what value the estimate has for your customer. You can provide an estimate for your customer, as long as you know why your customer needs it.

Some of you think I’m being perverse. I’m not being helpful by saying what you could do to provide an estimate. Okay, in Part 2, I will provide a suggestion of how you could do an order-of-magnitude approach for estimating a program.

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