The Team Physical Task Board

I was once introduced to a new team which was been practicing agile techniques for a while.  As I listened in on their planning, it seemed to blend with other meeting purposes and I came away with an overwhelming sense that everyone was busy.  Especially the louder voices – which would find something for a quieter voice to do here and there.  The team talked about hours.  There were some stories entered into the backlog, and the team talked about a few of them.  Then the team seemed to wind down and proceeded to get back to work.  This is the time for opportunity and to bring a few basics to bear.  To be clear – I get a chance to explain what I see, and what we can improve.

A vision for making a better team.

There is a coach, Bob Galen who talks in terms of pebbles, rocks and boulders…  relative sizing.  pebbles might be equated to tasks – rocks were something bigger such as stories and boulders might be epics.  The proverbial agile mountain would be layered with all three.  The scrum master has to know where their team is on that mountain.  They may even have to act as a Sherpa and lead the team to where they need to be at that moment.  Is this poker planning where we talk about stories, is this the next-sprint planning where we are listing tasks? The scrum master’s gold coin is the focus of the team.  Are we self-examining? resource-balancing? How does this fit into processes? Are we making our commitments?

No room at the inn?

The task board is representative of a teams’ sprint.  There are other information radiators which will scale larger for releases across several sprints – but I’m just focused on the teams’ sprint task board here.   Some teams do not get the opportunity to have a ‘room of their own’s as Virginia Woolf  would advocate.  Instead of complaining and letting it fall into the ether – use this an opportunity to get creative and feel a bit empowered at changing the physical environment.  A team that can walk into a room and move tables without asking permission is far more empowered.  The physical environment acting as a parallel to the thought universe.  There hasn’t been a place yet where we couldn’t make one.  The most creative by far was one that wrapped around two side of a gigantic square column that was ideally situated right in the middle of the team.  They just hadn’t thought of it as usable real estate and took a lemon (sour or negative circumstance) and started making it work for them.  Take painters’ tape and a portion of barren wall.  Use the hallway or corridor – this IS supposed to be about visibility after all.  Try a window, or a rolling board, but try something. Dont get stopped.  Some teams use idea paint, and turn a section of wall into something they can write on with dry erase markers.

3 vertical and one horizontal line.    Stories (Rocks) | To Do (pebbles) | Doing  | Done

The scrum master helps the team spend time together – working and non working. There is much about a board like this that the scrum master takes note of.  Capacity: What is the team’s average velocity at the story-level, and quite possibly how much is being done at one time (task level).  The manner in which it gets done is also telling.  Is the team working highest priority, and swarming as they need to?  Is the team likely to delaminate and each starts their own story?  When did risk surface from the team?  This should be early on and not the day before the end of the sprint. I have my task(s), is it the best thing to be doing right now? Does it contribute to the story?  Does it help the release?  Does someone need help? Large tasks that sit in ‘doing’ all sprint aren’t helpful.  It means we haven’t performed our agile duty and broken it down into something smaller and actionable.  Quick feedback loops.  Are we all on the same page with regards to the end deliverable fairly early into the sprint or are we still thrashing late in the game? Are we improving our interaction? Is the team getting better suggestions from each other and evolving processes and quality of work?

Visibly working and communicating the sprint plan every day in a light touch is important.  Also – Is the plan working? The sprint burn down is a side-effect.  We don’t complete tasks to make the burn down look better – we complete tasks to get the work to done.  The burn down is simply a reminder like a gas gauge – do we seem to have capacity as a team – if not then we need to adjust the plan.  As a scrum master knowing the records for most amount of tasks they’ve ever completed in a day is an achievement worth celebrating.  It gets the team to think as a cohesive group for what they are capable of.  I had an earlier post: Burning Down Not Out

Finding out the the team is experienced and knowledgeable enough to task and tear all the work apart.  Were there any skills or processes or artifacts that would have made the sprint easier?  The scrum master is out to enable the team and remove issues.  This may even take some time to do so.  With enough attention, perseverance and work oysters turn an irritant into a pearl.  The scrum master can even look back on the sprint task board and see how many new tasks were added.   – This is the team learning about what it takes to get everything through the organization and into the customer’s hands.   Always with an emphasis on making the customer delight and re-engage with the experience of how we collaborate and what we deliver.  Some teams may need to call out the preparation for the review as a task for completing a story.  We always want this to be light weight and not overly prepared – more go than show, but some conversation and preparation contribute to a successful review.

We have a plan, and the team has confidence enough that together we can adjust and deliver the work.  What is the team’s confidence in their own plan? Are they engaged and an active part of it or really just waiting around because they know it is doomed to fail.   At the end of the sprint, our plan is pretty much thrown away and the team is left with feedback for how well we problem solved, and worked together to accomplish all of this.  The teams are earning trust by working on high priorities for the business.

Color coding by stickers or by post it’s is often used to convey stage of tasks, if the tasks were added after planning, who might be responsible for a task, or even priorities.  Getting used to Capturing the conversations IN THE MOMENT is an art in and of itself.  It is the lightest weight meeting.  No one leaves with extra cleanup up to do.

Moving a story to Done.

Though tasks are moved by the team – the person doing the work, Teams often like stories moved to done as a ceremony by the product owner.  It conveys they have reviewed and accepted the work.  The product owner should not be surprised by what they see in a review.  The scrum master often acts as a conscious for the team and may probe for definition of done compliance. Especially if this sprint was a new level-up in terms of delivering to the expectations of the organization, role, or the team itself.  “Did we have unit tests completed?”   The team will thoughtfully answer, and we trust them.  Questions should never provoke a team into a defensive posture.  If they do – this is a signal that something else usually requires a bit more investigation and fixing.  Physically touching the work isn’t just an arts an crafts thing – it hits us visually, we feel it, tactile.  This is representing our work that we move with progress from left to right.  It is a visual indicator which radiates information about where the team is at and heading towards.  Within the context of the group – we accept we will make our work visible.  The team talks during the stand-up around the physical board.  Others from outside the team are even invited – but usually don’t speak until after the team is done. You might even judge a successful stand up by the number of break outs that happen AFTERWARDS.   As a team we are also endorsing accountability.  There are some strong proponents for ‘HOLD ACCOUNTABLE’ but I will often say “HELP ACCOUNTABLE”.  Not everyone is good at asking for help, or seeing a possible solution because we are heads down in activity.  Together we rely on each other as a team, and strive to balance in doing the right thing the right way.  No one is perfect every day.  The group together helps, picks up members who might be down, and gets motivated about completing the team goals.  Ever continuously improving to work better and together.

The More Mature Teams

I am looking for everyone in the team to participate.  Problem solving what is needed to get the work done.  This critical thinking is an opportunity to teach and visibly vet what is needed.  It also ends up being a plan for the team.  The team will adjust the plan as it needs to.  This is about driving out risk and unknown.  Teaching the team to be better and better with reliably representing their capability to the organization. Making commitments to the business and customers.    Load balancing the team resources, thinking ahead and envisioning the end game at a couple different levels.  Does this align with our goals for the sprint?> How about our larger goals for the release?  Are there any dependencies we need to address early? Is everyone stepping forward appropriately? Is there some swarming behavior?  Are we focused on the tasks that get the stories to done or are we instead focused on hours which really obscure whether something is simply done.  If you have all that and are a great team, and want to move to electronic forms of tasking, then do so with blessing.  Go faster, improve processes.  Just bring with you the practiced behaviors that you developed together as a team.  Distributed teams rely heavily on this to keep connected. I look for a team to pop – their communication includes each other, their plans for the day are intertwined.  There is a great side effect of having teams like this in every organization.  It is force enough to move mountains.

A State of Mind or a Place: The Environment

When we were little my parents took us tent camping. We left our home to go live in the ‘wild’. We changed our environment and when we got back home, we appreciated a standard of living we had grown accustomed to and now saw it as luxurious.  Upon one particular occasion, we had forgotten to pack the tent stakes… to a child it seemed bad enough to warrant packing up and going back home.  How would we keep it standing? Wouldn’t the wind merely blow away our tent?   My dad laughed, got out the hatchet and had us gather some sticks, which he used to make into tent stakes.  It’s a big lesson to a little camper.  Almost magic.  Fast forward a few years to a literature teacher in high school.  I read Camus, Sartre, Dante, and a poem by Shelly called Ozymandius which is one of many that still echo with me today.  Our teacher had us write an essay to answer: – Is hell a place or a state of mind?   I know which side I choose – Though I don’t remember my soulful response, the question still haunts about me.  Fast forward a few more years, and television shows about simply surviving in the wilderness are quite popular.  The less the people start with… even more so.

I have worked with software and technical professionals in some big companies and some large programs, and with many teams.  The word ‘environment‘ usually conjures a place where I can put the software, work with it, test it out.  Yet more often when we talk about environment we usually mean the room, the building, the organization, the management, the culture, the project climate, the attitude of the teams.  It becomes important to frame the context at times.  It is also important to frame one’s experience and mental resilience. In this landscape I always find individuals that thrive as well as those that languish. In fact closure is a big deal to me when anyone has the chance to move on.  There are good reasons why we do.  Sometimes the environment is changing too much for someone to handle, but even more often it is not changing quickly enough.  Many have tapped out their ability to affect it.  Sometimes we simply need a pause in order to learn and grow within a new context.  We’ve outgrown the old terrarium.  What ever the reason, we all have witnessed individuals, and even teams that affect their environment.  No environment is ideal, and it is usually the hero or heroine we remember.  Examples like Nelson Mandela who spent 27 years in a prison and became the leader of a nation.

Terra Formers – These are people who lead and change the environment by being a part of it.  Their example can be sheer brilliance or even mortifying (Terror Formers).

Survivalists –They will thrive, grow, hunt, and make their way around.  There are those who use some amount of Camouflage, hide and bide their time, or contribute at a deeply interwoven level.  The opposite – those that stand brightly out or in contrast to the environment.   Usually the environment isn’t changed much. There are also Pioneers  who will knowingly and slowly enact change.  The environment will be moved bit by bit (1’s and 0’s ?) and slowly the work they do will contribute.  These are the inventors and innovators that think it not just possible but necessary to do so.

I worked in one culture where teasing was the norm.  It was the first thing I picked up on and started to change.  No bullies, no victims.  My intuition was this – similar to how we learned in kindergarten.  People don’t learn, don’t ask questions, and don’t want to feel vulnerable if they think others will pick, pinch, poke and make fun of them.  It is Definitely not an environment to grow in.  Also how do we reward our key contributors and those with great soft skills such as team building and communicators?  Cultivating the right behavior in your environment is important.  We should be learning, growing, and changing the processes, tools and environment about us.  Improvement demands something change.

Not every one thrives in a prison of perception.   Hamlet – though he were ‘bounded within a nutshell, might count himself the king of infinite space’.  Part of being resilient is having a chance to walk away from an experience with wisdom.  Sometimes we need to be removed from the environment to be able to look back and do so.  It also gives us a chance to build up our supports outside of that particular environment. Learning new technologies, new techniques, meeting new people with different perspective, and more.  Things that may not have seemed possible in the old environment.  Good luck to everyone to be agile enough to grow, be resilient, and change the environment about them for the better.