Friday, March 20, 2015

Culture Change – An important ingredient for organizational Agility

To imbibe Agility in an organization which is a state of high responsiveness, speed, and adaptiveness organizations should promote a new organizational culture of openness, transparency, respect for people, constant learning, improving, and constant adaptation. Even with so much of awareness, cultural change seems to be one of the major hurdles impeding organization’s success.

Culture is more about “The ideas, customs, and social behavior of a particular people or society.” When an individual behaves in a particular way, we associate that to be his nature, but when a team or an organization responds, we relate to its culture. As this is associated with people and their entrenched culture it is very difficult to change!! While it is also a very common observation that the culture within the same organization varies across various geographies. It’s not uncommon to hear statements like that’s the UK Culture, or the US Culture, or the Indian Culture, etc.

When a team/group of cross-functional individuals work together (co-exist and collaborate) for a long period of time in the same organization by respecting and following certain organizational values; they display a unique identity of that group forming their culture. And when we address the culture exhibited by all the teams in an organization it is referred to as the organization culture. If you observe carefully, culture is not the characteristic of one individual but of the team/organization as a whole.

I recollect one of my consulting experiences where I was hired as a coach in one of the organizations that had been practicing Agile for a while, but their adoption was stalled. Although from the outset they seemed to follow all the Agile best practices, they were still struggling with the deliveries and their team motivation was at a all time low. One of the first things I did was to probe the teams by facilitating Anonymous Retrospectives to generate insights. It was quite revealing to find that the organization had a “Culture of Fear”; fear of getting penalized for a decision going wrong, fear of failure to meet the commitments, fear of poor quality deliverable, fear to be completely honest and transparent, fear to challenge the status-quo, fear of lack of trust and respect among people, etc. This culture of fear in the organization did not allow Agile to penetrate beyond the surface. Once these insights were shared with the organization, they embraced and acknowledged the shortcomings and worked towards corrective practices to remove the fear thereby imbibing the “Culture of Agility” in the organization.

Organization culture contributes significantly towards successful Agile adoption and therefore understanding it is the key. Management, executives, and team members should support and embrace this change. Invest in a few prominent agility attributes like the healthy team dynamics of self-organization teams, continuous improvement, frequent delivery, effective communication, adapting to the changing environment, etc. that benefits an organization and its customers. To bring culture shift, organizations must examine its existing practices with a critical eye, try new way of doing things, create new opportunities, coupled with commitment and nurturing at all levels within an organization.

Organizations which have traversed through the Agile adoption culture change journey exhibit some of these characters:
  • Team members demonstrate values like Trust, Respect, Courage, Openness, Confidence, Synergy, Unity, Affiliation, and Commitment.
  • Creativity, Collaboration, Emergence, Rhythm, Empiricism, and Discovery are encouraged organization-wide.
  • Embracing Transparency, Inspection, and Adaptation as part of everyday routine.

Embedding cultural shift involves a lot of patience, a full top-down support, constant learning, and a bottom-up intelligence. While an organization may follow all the bookish guidelines and yet fail in this journey if they cannot identify this subtle/invisible ingredient of “culture” which plays a substantial role. Focusing on the correct culture, eventually leads an organization towards success in this transformation path!! 

Monday, March 16, 2015

A scaled scrum tactic – Team of Teams, A real life example

A team of 40+ people program decided to move to Agile from their traditional development practices. The program was old and had been in existence for over 6 years. In these 6 years they had released multiple versions of their software product to their customers. In the rush to satisfy the customers they had ignored the basic hygiene of following the good engineering best practices. So along with their move to Agile they had also inherited a considerable legacy code that was poorly maintained. There was tight coupling between the various components in the entire system; the size of the code file had 10000+ lines of code with lot of duplication; there was poor technical documentation on how the system integrated; the entire test effort was manual as there was no automation. There were certain components which when modified, in most instances, introduced regressions in the existing system.  Even though the teams spend considerable time testing the entire system the overall confidence of the deliverable was considerably low.



The program formed 4 cross-functional Scrum Teams and started sprinting. The dysfunctions of poorly maintained code in the existing systems started surfacing and teams had real challenges meeting their forecast. The time spent in the test effort was exponentially higher than the features that were added. In addition, most of the times the Scrum teams kept busy fixing live defects identified in the production environment to maintain the business continuity. The deliveries of new business features were minimal which made the sponsors very anxious.

The product owner and the development team members collaborated, brainstormed and came to a common conclusion that to meet the timely needs of the customer the magnitude of manual test effort spent by the development team needs to be lowered drastically. The product owner agreed to invest in building end-to-end service level tests that would provide automated machine feedback to the developers to increase their confidence in making the necessary code changes. Ideally, one of the scrum teams could have be dedicated for this effort, but the skill-set needed was spread across multiple scrum teams.

Something out of the box had to be thought of soon to overcome the above dysfunction without impacting the business continuity.  A new scaled scrum tactic of “Team of Teams” was introduced:

“Team of Teams” is a concept where members with the right skill-set from the existing scrum teams participate to form a new Scrum team for a short duration of a sprint or 2 to solve a very focused problem.

The 4 Scrum Teams collaborated, self-organized and quickly identified 2 development engineers from each team with the correct skill-set to participate in the new “Team of Teams”. One of the Scrum Masters from the existing teams volunteered to help with Scrum Master duties for the newly formed Scrum team. The Product Owner provided the necessary guidance on which tests would add optimal value and ordered them in the product backlog. The new “Team of Teams” decided to operate in “Boot Camp” mode and they co-located themselves in a conference room to allow maximum collaboration and to keep the disruptions to the new team at a minimum and at the same time make optimal use of their time sprinting. In the first few days of the sprint, the team carved out a homegrown test framework and added couple of end-to-end tests to validate the framework. A quick demo to the original 4 scrum teams and the Product owner validated their experiment and thought process. The team continued to collaborate and by the end of the sprint the team carved out 17 end-to-end rich test scenarios. At the end of the sprint the “Team of Teams” had accomplished their mission and they returned back to their original team where they continued to impart the newly learned techniques and kept adding additional test scenarios.

The payback and the ROI of this focused exercise were huge. The newly added scenarios ran with every new deployment and provided the necessary feedback to the developers. The teams drastically reduced the effort spent in extended manual testing cycles.

The similar concept of “Team of Teams” was explored for strategizing the product vision, reducing the technical debt and the results were quite rewarding.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Is agility fueling organizations towards profitability?

Let me begin this blog by relating one of my travelogue experiences. A known taxi driver drives me in his car to the Mumbai airport every week from the last 4 years. The car is about 8 years old, poorly maintained, and has tugged a good more than 300000+ kilometers; has by all means attained end of life, good enough to be dumped, and reap benefits from its scrap. As an enduring passenger, I have been containing the noisy tractor-like ride in his car due to my acquaintance with him and also believing his long false promise of a new car on its way to replace this one!


Week-on-week he comes with the same car and asks me if I noticed any evident difference in terms of travel experience. He would spend good amount of money replacing the old parts (like the tires, cars’ engine, AC, etc.) with better ones, beautifying it by a coat of varnish, etc.; the expenditure now almost exceeding the price of purchasing a 3-year-old second hand car. I honestly said a big NO each time he asked me and also wondered why he was investing on this old car when a new car according to him was arriving in the next 3 months!! This fetish behavior of patching the old car in anticipation of some miracle resulted in the loss of many good loyal customers (as they were fed up of the continued bad bumpy ride with no respite in sight in the form of a new car).

During one of my recent rough ride in the taxi, I realized how well this experience was analogous to what many organizations undergo during their agile journey. They have every agile practice in place; right mindset, best practices, roles/ceremonies/artifacts well defined coupled with communication, motivation, and empowerment. Even with such a robust agile framework, the teams/organizations lack agility to adapt to the changing customer requirements and deliver in a fast paced manner. Although in reality, organizations want to go fast (like any new car) by adopting agile but unfortunately are stuck with poorly maintained legacy codebase (like the old taxi). Any amount of replacement, beautification, superficial modification, or adopting new methodology/technique without addressing the deep-rooted problems might temporarily mask the real problem thereby breaking ‘transparency’, one of the 3 legs of empiricism (for scrum to be effective, each of these 3 pillars – transparency, inspection, and adaptation must stand and be supported).


When such projects are assessed, in all probability the hidden truth is that the organizations carry a herculean technical debt in terms of complicated and poorly maintained legacy codebase (just like the old car) with little or no attention to the engineering best practices, poor feedback cycles, no automation of unit./integration/regression, poor re-factoring and code reviews, etc. Based on the assessment findings, organizations need to perform a cost-benefit analysis and decide whether it makes sense to fuel such projects and take appropriate corrective actions immediately rather than wait for some magic to happen overnight in an organization/product by just adopting agile. If not, (like the taxi driver) organizations will fail to deliver/meet customer expectations, not be profitable, and loose out longstanding clients.


Therefore, for organizations in their attempt to keep pace with the competitive world it is not just enough to adopt agile methodology but should imbibe agility in their DNA. Varnishing an old car may give it a new look but the driving experience will remain the same; the same applies to organizations as well. In most cases, change/expected results may not be visible by just refactoring in bits and pieces (replacing the defective parts) but it may call for a complete eradication of the existing system (significant remarkable/dramatic one which would be a winning selling pitch for the organization; in the car analogy it is like buying a new car) and re-designing/re-writing the software to bring in a new vibrant spectrum.


Upon this cleanup and novel thought it is now time to think how to drive this concept (new car) effectively and efficiently! Adopting the rich agile methodology along with adhering to solid engineering practices at this juncture would act as a fuel to propel the team/project/product/organization, accelerate, and drive towards success!


With the legacy issues addressed and best engineering techniques embraced, agile adoption certainly triggers agility and benefits the organization by delivering fast-paced, feature-rich, competitive, and user-beneficial products of significant business value! 




Monday, October 27, 2014

Evidence-based Estimation

An analogy I can think of is... I want my dart to hit the dart board, and not necessarily the bull's eye.... as it calls for a lot of details which apparently is missing during estimation. However, if my dart doesn’t hit anywhere on the dart board... it's almost like shooting in the dark; a very disappointing estimation scenario.

A vast chunk of new teams struggle in arriving at a correct project estimate; with most them failing due to a huge variation (with estimated Vs actual)! Very few succeed in this journey by coming closer to the actual in the initial cycles itself.


Project managers in traditional development focus on detailed scope, so that the cost, estimate, and time are accurate and frozen before kick starting a project. How far this is successful and precise is debatable! In agile projects, during release planning the development team arrives at a high-level estimate for each story in the product backlog normally in story point which aids in finer estimation during sprint planning. This helps the team to get started, rather than wait for all the project details to get finalized.

Story point is an arbitrary measurement of a feature’s size relative to other features and not the time needed to complete a feature. For example, by looking at the picture of the whales you cannot determine the exact age or weight of each whale but can compare the size of each with respect to each other. This is a very handy approach as detailed information to estimate the effort may not be available so early. Story points are used to calculate how many user stories a team can complete in a sprint which is termed velocity.

The story point size assumptions are interpreted using an estimation scale, the most common ones include numeric sizing (1 through 10), t-shirt sizes (XS, S, M, L, XL, XXL, XXXL), Fibonacci sequence (1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, etc.), etc.  

A team to get started with story point estimating must be clear, synchronous, and agree upon the below aspects (I call it the ‘Five subtle rules’ as they are hidden and work at the back of our mind.).

Common reference – Each team member estimating should have a same reference. For example, the size L to measure a story point size should be the same criterion for everyone in the team. Any conflict with respect to the reference index results in huge variation and wrong estimation. Agreeing upon a common reference is very critical. 

Collective wisdom – Estimation is a team activity and hence all should participate in this. Having one person do this will be a huge risk as the margin of error will be high! However, a collective decision helps in arriving at a common estimate which in all probability will be accurate.

In addition, during relative estimation the team should also take into account the effort, complexity, and uncertainty for every story before arriving at a number.

Effort - How much effort a story would take to complete, relative to the reference story.

Complexity - How complex is the story with respect to the reference story.

Uncertainty – How much risk/unknowns a story holds relative to the reference story

Even with this common agreement, it may still take a few iterations for the team before arriving at a common estimation value. With estimation being definitely hard, how do we get the best estimates of story size?

Why not take a closer look at “Evidence-based estimation”, learn from experience, become proficient with every calibration, and adopt during the initial project estimation phase to understand its true benefits!

Here is the approach a team should take to proceed with "Evidence-based Estimation":

Let’s consider a scrum team of 7 members commence a 2-week sprint of 10 working days. With 6 hours as the effort per day, the capacity would approximately be 7 * 10 * 6 = 420 hours.

  1. During the 1st sprint planning meeting, the team begins story estimation from scratch with no story points assigned to stories in the product backlog.
  2. A story is picked from the product backlog followed by task and time breakdown for each. This step continues till the estimated capacity adds to about 400 hours/5 stories (considering the average team capacity is 420 hours).
  3. Through the sprint, the team works towards completing all the planned stories.
  4. Just before the retrospective meeting, the team assembles to story point the completed stories (definitely now with some experience/evidence).
  5. Among the 5 stories, the team picks the one with medium effort, complexity, and uncertainty and assigns a story point (keeping the 5 subtle rules in mind). For example, when we take an estimation scale of 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13; this story is assigned a story point of 3 and it becomes the common reference story. A closer look at this exercise clearly indicates that the story point number is emerging out of working experience/evidence and not by mere guess work!
  6. The team continues story point estimation for all the stories in Sprint 1 (per Step 5) and assigns a value lower, higher, or the same when compared to the reference story point.
  7. As the team proceeds from one story to another, the comparative reference points become varied apart from being evident which helps them with better estimation. At this point if the team feels a need to refine the previous estimates, they can. The idea is to get better estimates with experience that are realistic.   


The teams may decide to use this estimation during the initial few sprints till they are confident of the process. With experience, the team becomes an expert and are equipped at deriving an almost accurate story point during the release planning (rather than after the completion of a sprint), thereby aiding in better agility and transparency. 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

A Collaboration Lesson from the Redwood Trees

The Redwood trees in Muir woods, San Francisco, are some of the tallest and widest trees on planet earth. Some trees are so wide, that it takes 40 grown up adults to make one circle around it! These trees are known to live for thousands of years and each year they grow bigger and bigger.  Most tall trees

have roots that go deep down to keep them stable. For example, the roots of the palm tree are as deep as the height of the tree. However, research tells us that though the Redwood trees are the tallest trees on earth, their roots are not deep at all. California has gone through a tremendous number of hurricanes, cyclones, windstorms, tornadoes and earthquakes in the past 2000 years. Any normal tree would have been crushed instantly, but not the Redwood trees. They’ve been standing tall and strong ever since. So, what is the secret behind these trees?

It seems the Redwood trees have some special mystical power. The roots grow outwards instead of deep under the ground. And when these roots come in contact with roots of the another Redwood tree, they wrap around each other multiple times and form a strong bond. Each tree shares a bond with another tree through its roots, and eventually, every single Redwood tree is connected to each other. The roots hold on to one another through the harshest of weather, and keep the family of trees standing tall and strong, together.

The roots of older and wiser trees hold on to the roots of trees just beginning to grow. They’re basically telling them —“You'll grow big and strong. Reach for the sky and we’ll help you get there. You have the strength of hundreds of trees in the forest because we’re all connected. Our strength is shared together, and it grows together."
That is the power of co-operation and collaboration.

If we dig deeper and try to understand self-organization, a principle very much needed for being Agile, we will realize that collaboration and co-operation are the basic attributes needed to self-organize. Similar to the Redwood trees, Agile team members need to collaborate so that the entire team rises higher and higher. This interconnection helps each individual to grow, inspire and motivate each other. It builds trust and transparency, and at the same time a feeling of safety to explore new hypothesis, innovate and produce a quality deliverable to the customer, with a feeling of satisfaction. 


The Redwood tree example was shared in one of the spiritual  discourses and I found this example so very relevant to some of the Agile values and principles.