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.