Whipped by WIP?

I bet if you asked any CIO if they would rather release 5 features into production or have 10 efforts in flight they would prefer the former.  Based on my observations, there are way too many decision makers out there who, based on what’s happening in their IT departments, seem to prefer the latter.  When I ask why that is, often, what I hear back is the roadmap was set, the business has their dates and, so, we need to get things started.  Remember, the business strategists are on the hook for ROI so, it would make some sense they would ALSO prefer to deliver 5 features instead of having 10 in flight.  Again, based on what I observe…not so much.  Shockingly, the end result is less delivery, lower quality and a really frustrated group of associates.  Executives are also frustrated by late delivery and lack of completion but, they are unwilling to pull back and limit the WIP.  Their ask?: Work Harder.  My ask?: Stop Starting and Start Finishing!!

To me, the most simple solution is to JUST SAY NO.  This approach doesn’t seem to be an option most places.  The business, the managers and the executives won’t take no for an answer.  Also, it’s not safe to say no.  I mean, really, you’re probably not going to be climbing the ladder if you say no even if it means doing so would yield a better return for all.  Saying no takes a great deal of courage and it’s not fair to put that burden on those who are lower on the totem pole trying to deliver on everything.

One could also PAINT THE PICTURE.  Make a square “plate” out of a piece of paper.  Write everything on a post-it (standard size please.  don’t cheat with the really little ones) you currently have in flight.  Go to your immediate supervisor and have her fill your plate.  Anything that doesn’t fit, doesn’t get worked on.  When something finishes, bring back the stack of post its and fill the space (or NOT!  *gasp*).  I recommend only having room for a maximum of 4 items (and, really, that’s pushing it).  If you’re a manager, ask those who report to you to go through this exercise.  I would bet you will receive their undying gratitude for even caring about it in the first place.

Another means to address it is ROLL UP YOUR SLEEVES.  This is for managers.  I am really suggesting you return to your roots for a bit and pitch in.  Either tackle some of the work yourself to help close things out or, at the very least, de-prioritize anything you have going on to focus instead on serving your team.  Find ways to, at a minimum, make their jobs easier and less frustrating to minimize the impact to morale.

Probably the most impactful would be QUANTIFY THE LOSS.  What would have happened had you closed 10%, 20%, 50% more?  Demonstrate the loss to the bottom line and get the attention of those decision makers!  Other sources of data to pull from may be associate surveys and attrition rates.

It pains me to see people in funks due to the sheer quantity of work in flight.  It’s not a good feeling for anyone to never complete anything.  If you get excited by the fact you were able to respond to 10 e-mails and set up 1 or 2 meetings, it’s a sign.  Take a look around wherever you are and if there’s any applicability to your situation and consider prioritizing how to reduce the frequency and duration of being whipped by WIP.


The Dormant Environment

Death Valley Spring 2005 Bob Canfield

I was listening to a TED talk and the speaker threw out the word “Dormant”.  He used it to describe Death Valley which is named Death Valley because, well, nothing grows there.  No rain=No growth.  However, something happened in 2004….it rained (7 inches in fact) and in the Spring of 2005 Death Valley was having quite a hard time living up to the name.  The floor of Death Valley was covered in flowers.  Turns out Death Valley isn’t dead.  It’s dormant.  Underneath the barren landscape was loads of potential just waiting for an inviting environment.

I’m a little obsessive about environments – specifically environments for teams to be successful.  Today, more than ever, there are companies, consultants and coaches out there trying to crack the Agile nut in order to deliver value more frequently, efficiently and of higher quality.  It’s a HARD nut to crack.  The frameworks, Scrum, Kanban, XP and the consolidation of them in SAFe provide the manual and direction for companies to take.  Yet….they’re [still] not seeing the expected and much-desired results and I believe, with every nook and cranny of my heart, the reason lies in the environment.

DORMANCY:  The state of quiet (but possibly temporary) inaction. – Definition from http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu

Underneath the surface of the frameworks we’re using or, if you prefer, the foundation, are the Agile and lean values and principles.  But, I don’t believe the appropriate amount of time and attention is spent on teaching these.  Certainly not to the point where they’re understood well enough to be put into practice.  What’s more, I don’t believe most environments are suitable for the demonstrative manifestation of these values and principles.  So then what you end up seeing are the process side of frameworks in action – not people.  The frameworks are designed to bring the values and principles to life.  Frameworks need people to bring THE FRAMEWORK to life.  So, really, you need people to bring the values and principles to life and the environment, generally, just isn’t conducive.

Occasionally, there will be a micro-climate where, somehow, a team is flourishing.  I’ve heard these teams referred to as “magic teams”.  The magic of them is they created their own environment or micro-climate and bucked the odds – kind of like the Spring of 2005 in death valley.  Which, goes to show you, it’s not actually magic…it’s the environment.  Creating the environment is the key to unlocking the potential of people to bring the framework and the values and principles to life which will then bring the amazing results we’re all searching and striving for.  Oddly enough, those micro-climates are noticed by others as well.  The magic team is sought after and asked about their secret and the magic team will gladly, willingly give it away and, then, those seekers will tell you all the reasons why replicating it just aren’t possible elsewhere.

Maybe we just take for granted the environment will be there or it will evolve to meet the changes in process and approach.  Or, perhaps we don’t even want to think about the environment because changing or creating environments is difficult, hard work.  Also, there’s nothing telling you that a framework NEEDS any certain type of environment.  All of that said, I can’t think of a single organization who isn’t fully capable  and up to the challenge of creating an environment to enable success.  Especially if, at the end of all that work, the results would be nothing short of spectacular.  I would go so far to argue that the environment of every organization is dormant….quietly inactive.  I may even take it a step further and say the “environmentalists”, or those with the ability to be, are complacent.  Meanwhile, there’s all this potential just there, waiting for the right environment or a very persuasive environmental activist to get the ball rolling.




The Fierce Urgency Of Now

This title is a quote from MLK.  It reminds me that time can burn and consume like a fire.  With the awareness that something needs to be done, we are challenged with taking action. It is the underlying motivation, logical reasoning, moral compass or character which will sustain that action should it meet opposition, resistance, impediment or chaos.  Anger can be a great short term motivator, but even Lincoln noticed that he destroyed an enemy every time he made them a friend instead.  How does an organization or an environment change?  The answer is usually one person at a time.  Having an optimism to be able to do that is what Powell called a force multiplier.  Going even further, in order to strengthen individuals we form into teams.  Larger or smaller – groups scale, coordinate, communicate, and converge on goals.

How is your organization organizing?

Valerie posted about having the right reasons to adopt scrum.  It makes worlds of difference since everyone’s active participation gets a team to the goal, the winning side of the struggle.

Just like a sustainable pace – Is our Vision sustainable?  This is the end goal, the proverbial chess endgame. What is our progress? Is this realistic? How quickly do we just give up or remain the armchair critic? Did we truly give it everything we had and then some? What did we try?

I once was with a team for a sprint planning session.  The scrum master led them through a visualization exercise for the sprint.  What would have to happen to get the work done.  Bit by bit with a few more questions, all the tasks, the order, the priority, and a plan emerged for the next two weeks.  The team was charged, energized and started the next day with diving right in.  On day two the plan fell apart with a problem the team didn’t expect.   Some people left with a memory that the plan failed.  Instead the plan was a start and the REAL wisdom was in a different spot.  Not the ability to follow a plan, but in the team’s ability to adapt, adjust and overcome.  With experience the team becomes better at critical thinking, and hence makes better plans.  What if this happens at the organizational level with leadership plans?  Does it all just fall apart or do we have a great team with the trusted ability to adjust and adapt?  We are out to improve not only the capacity but the capability of organizations.

How many times will we need to turn inwards and answer ourselves with a clear and immediate response that this effort is indeed worth it? If this is every day then it better be a VERY good answer.  An organizational ‘gut check’ for the proverbial fire that inspires us all to work towards that result.  Improving ourselves, our craft, our community.   A process shapes interaction.  Sometimes we grasp onto and leverage it just like another grip in scaling towards a mountain top.   Especially when we get scared, we can often cling and hold to it.  Moving nowhere until we are left so exhausted that we simply give up.  To change a process takes something else; a continuous desire to move towards something better. To improve upon our position we look for some purchase, or hold that affords us better (ad)vantage.  Teaching someone a best practice isn’t enough.  Without any investment, curiosity, willingness to participate and improve this is a check box action at its best and is still just a facade.  Even the Shu, Ha, Ri maturity model suggests something a bit better.  Emulate, Learn, Teach.

A Scrum is not always a pretty thing.  Prepare for it.

Watch one sometime.  Learn the Rugby analogy we use for software development team.  This is huge effort to move past a mark against an obstacle, a direct resistance.  The effort allows the team to take the ball and run with it. We train for it, participate in them, and improve upon our ability to perform them.  Be prepared to deal with problems and conflict and enable the team and organization to move towards resolution, mitigation, acceptance, or displacing the burden, even taking some iteration at a combination of any of these.  Melville said that if continual success is proof that one may wisely know their powers,–it is only to be added, that, in that case, they know them to be small.  There was never any risk to grow beyond where we were comfortable with control if we didn’t fail somewhere. Minimal frameworks tend towards maximum exposure.   Also, without the right supports things crumble away.  Care and maintenance are aimed at supporting an existing level.   What supports are a team, a program, or the entire organization willing to put in place to make this not only sustainable but incrementally better? Are we out to change the reputation of the company – or perhaps this is simply a side effect.  What can we let go of? Was it control, discomfort, or visibility into our vulnerabilities or insecurities?  Did we just move around the problem spots or did we instead reward and emphasize and grow our strengths?  Did we settle when it became someone else’s problem or did we make it better for everyone?

The wisdom at WHY we do all these things is found in the ability to answer ‘why’.  It is at the very heart of everything that gives us the willingness and drive to get close to the problem, be able to engage and grapple with it.  Where does your answer to ‘why’ lead you to share in a dream?

Agile Adoption is Not an Easy Road – Make it easier

An Agile adoption has the potential to super-charge results.  The methodology is simple, rational and makes complete sense.  This  is probably the reason why so many companies give it a go.  Something that is often overlooked when considering Agile adoption is the fact that moving to Agile will, in addition to improving your ability to deliver value faster, expose the things in your organization that aren’t working.  And, it won’t be subtle.  As soon as you start moving, you will start hearing about the problems.

Organizations need to be prepared to hear these things.  They cannot be defensive or try to hide or ignore them.  They need to  fix them….FAST.  It’s a good idea for organizations to acknowledge they probably have opportunities and be open to hearing the reality from the team members who are feeling the pain.  If you’re not willing to listen and act what will happen is apathy, disengagement and Agile Adoption failure.  All the energy you had going into the adoption from the teams will fade.  Team members will likely go back to the old way of doing business and feel resentful about having to fake Agile.  They will stop telling you what is wrong because they know you either won’t act or they will actually get in trouble for raising the problem.

The organization may feel frustrated because they have all these Agile teams working on delivery.  They have spent gobs on training and coaches.  They have re-engineered their metrics.  But, they are not seeing massive improvement.  They will look at velocity.  They will assess the teams.  They will conduct focus groups.  They may hire outside help.  They will spend serious time and money to figure out what the heck the problems are and they will likely find the problems are the same as those they heard about in the first month of adoption.

There’s loads of information out there about the typical problems organizations face when moving to Agile.  It’s not a big secret but, an organization has to go looking for it.  There’s an opportunity to talk about this openly and candidly before pulling the trigger to set the expectations for leadership and define the behaviors leaders need to exhibit and demand from their management in order to create an environment for success.  Delivery teams will appreciate it as will leaders who truly want to improve and be successful.  It establishes openness from the very start as well as initiates the shift to servant leadership.  Finally, it gets people thinking in terms of trying, failing, learning and trying again.  Continuous improvement…

I hadn’t thought about it in this way before.  Honestly, I figured it might be best to just get an organization started.  Jump on in!  But, I believe it’s a disservice to the people in the delivery teams who will be trying their best to make this work.  Giving leaders visibility into the lessons learned by others and encouraging new behaviors and approaches is a good thing.  Imagine how cool it would be for team members to hear leaders from the very top all the way down saying “I want to know what’s wrong so I can fix it for you.  I don’t want you to have to focus on the problems or be held up by them.  I want to know so that it’s easier for you to be as awesome as you can be.”