Lessons Learned from Agile Transformations: Part 14

Fourteenth in a Fifteen Part Series

By Chad Greenslade

I have often been asked about my lessons learned in delivering Agile transformations. Below is the fourteenth in a fifteen part series examining my lessons learned while instituting Agile concepts & practices. I hope that these lessons help you on your journey to Agile nirvana.

Lesson 14: Execute Sprint Zero (0)

As with any other project, you’ll want to ensure you have all materials procured, all contracts signed, environments built, tools selected, etc. While this is occurring, your Product Owner should continue writing and grooming User Stories.

Sprint Zero (0) is when all preparation work takes place to ensure your team can begin writing software free from obvious impediments such as environmental or procurement constraints. To ensure your team can begin work on schedule, ensure your Sprint Zero (0) accomplishes the following:

Architecture: Once you have the Product Roadmap defined, an Architect is then able to define major system components such as application, database, and web servers, environments, programming languages, software development kits to be used, etc.

Contracts: If the product’s architecture requires you to contract with new vendors, you’ll need to get any legal documents drafted and signed during Sprint Zero (0), if they have not been done already.

Materials Procurement: If the product’s architecture requires you to procure materials, procurement activities must be completed during Sprint Zero (0).

Determine the Sprint Duration: Most teams have two (2)-week Sprints. A Sprint should never be longer than four (4) weeks and no shorter than one (1) week. If a project has significant risk, it is best to have shorter sprints. The shorter the sprint, the less amount of time elapses between the sprint inspection activities, which allows management to course correct much faster. You always want to find out sooner rather than later if your project is going “off the rails.”

Release Plan: Once the Sprint duration is determined, the initial release plan can be developed. Using the Product Roadmap, lay out the Features, Themes, and Epics over a three-to-six month period. Your Release Plan will now be connecting the Product Roadmap and the Sprints themselves. A Release Plan can either be built from a feature or a schedule perspective. A feature-based roadmap determines those features that make the most sense to release together, whereas a schedule-based roadmap picks a date in the future and then determines which features can be delivered by that date. If you know that features contain specific risks, it is a good idea to attempt to release those first.

Determine the Team’s Beginning Velocity: Since this is a transformation initiative, your team will have no historical information from which to base its Velocity. The Normalized Estimation Technique provides a one-time method for getting a team’s Velocity defined such that it can informatively pull User Stories from the Product Backlog into the Sprint Backlog. For every full-time developer and tester on the team, give the team 8 points (adjust for part-timers). Subtract 1 point for every team member vacation day and holiday. Find a small User Story that would take about a half-day to develop and a half-day to test and validate, and call it a “1”. Estimate every other Story relative to that one using the Fibonacci sequence. Never look back and do not worry about recalibrating. Remember, a team’s velocity is inherent to the team, and is not transferable to another team.

I do not recommend agile training be undertaken during Sprint Zero (0), but if there are members or your team that are unfamiliar with Agile, the training must be completed during Sprint Zero (0).

Lessons Learned from Agile Transformations: Part 13

Thirteenth in a Fifteen Part Series

By Chad Greenslade

I have often been asked about my lessons learned in delivering Agile transformations. Below is the thirteenth in a fifteen part series examining my lessons learned while instituting Agile concepts & practices. I hope that these lessons help you on your journey to Agile nirvana.

Lesson 13: Build a Product Roadmap (containing Features, Themes, & Epics)

Immediately following the kick-off meeting, you’ll want to begin agile planning. Time spent on agile planning is intentionally limited because agilists know they will be expected to embrace change as the project unfolds. Change occurs when business priorities shift causing features (either in development or in the backlog) to have more or less value to the organization. The ability to realize value by capitalizing on expected change is one of the key benefits of agile, and the underlying reason that most organizations undertake an agile organizational transformation.

The first and most important step to building a product roadmap is to clearly define the “product”. A product is something that has business value. It may generate revenue or support a business outcome. It could be one (1) traditional stand-alone application or it could be a suite of several applications, databases, or processes. My recommendation is to define software development “products” as individual applications. I have supported “products” consisting of more than one (1) application, but doing so becomes unnecessarily complex. If your product’s applications cannot be uncoupled, then it is very important that every team member be able to develop code on all of the applications within the “product”. For example, if your product consists of three (3) applications, but only two (2) out of five (5) team members are able to develop on one (1) of the applications, the output of your team cannot be realistically calculated or planned.

Agile planning follows a logical framework with consistent vernacular. To build a Product Roadmap, you’re only interested in the top three (3) levels of planning:

Features: A “Feature” is a broad-grouping of high level functionality. The “Feature” designation is intended to be the highest level strata for classifying a product’s functionality requirements. Feature examples for a technology product are “Payment” and “Login”. A user of the system will login and make payments for purchased goods. Features are too big for detailed planning, but they provide the structure and framework to gather additional requirements.

Themes: A “Theme” is a designation used to decompose Features. For example, for a “Payment” feature, the type (or form) of payment accepted could be considered a “Theme”. If a product accepts multiple forms of Payment, a theme could be “Credit Card”, “Paypal”, “ACH Debit”, etc. Likewise, if a product accepts multiple forms of login authentication, a theme could be “Login with Facebook”, “Login with Email”, etc. Like with Features, Themes are still used only as a planning framework are not detailed enough for actionable tasks.

Epics: An “Epic” is an even lower level designation intended to further decompose Themes. For example, an Epic associated with a “Credit Card” Theme could be “Visa”. Similarly, for a “Login with Email” theme, an Epic could be “Multi-Factor Authentication”. While these are lower level, further decomposed work items, they are still not detailed enough for actionable tasks.

The Product Roadmap is the pre-requisite for the Release Plan discussed in the following lesson. Once the Product Roadmap is defined, the Product Owner can begin writing User Stories and appending them to relevant Epics. Agilists understand that the development of User Stories will continue as the project unfolds, but the goal is to have the Product Owner begin drafting User Stories that he / she deems as having the most business value, immediately after the initial version of the Product Roadmap is released. These User Stories should naturally rise to the top of the discussion during backlog grooming and sprint planning sessions since they have the most business value and highest priority.

Lessons Learned from Agile Transformations: Part 12

Twelfth in a Fifteen Part Series

By Chad Greenslade

I have often been asked about my lessons learned in delivering Agile transformations. Below is the twelfth in a fifteen part series examining my lessons learned while instituting Agile concepts & practices. I hope that these lessons help you on your journey to Agile nirvana.

Lesson 12: Hold a Kick-Off Meeting

Every project begins with a kick-off meeting. Agile projects are no different. It is a chance to pull every team member into a meeting and outline the project’s execution parameters. Do not discount the importance of having everyone present. Find a time that works for everyone and schedule enough time for attendees to ask questions. You and your sponsor will be speaking a majority of the time, but your attendees will have questions that will invariably drive questions from other attendees. One hour is typically the maximum amount of time you’ll want to use for a kick-off meeting. Thirty minutes may not be long enough. Try to get everyone in the same room if possible, and allow enough time for attendees to process the information and learn from the experience. Be positive about the outcome. State your expectation of success.

At a minimum, the kick-off meeting must address who, what, when, where, and why. All attendees must leave the meeting with a firm understanding of this information. The delivery of this information will have the most impact if it is delivered by your sponsor. His or her clout in the organization will strengthen the message and demonstrate to participants that senior management is firmly behind their effort. Whether it is at the kick-off meeting or at some other point in the project, the sponsor must demonstrate his or her commitment to the initiative and its methods to mitigate potential team member subversion later in the project.

When drafting the agenda for your kick-off meeting, be sure to include the following:

Who: Often times you’ll see this information covered in the form of introductions. Allow each team member to introduce themselves, discuss their background, and explain why they were chosen for the project. These are the people that will make it happen, so don’t shortcut this part of the meeting. Allow everyone to learn from everyone.

What: You’ll definitely want your sponsor to cover this part of the kick-off meeting. Your sponsor should articulate exactly what the project is meant to accomplish, as well as any risks and / or issues they see the team encountering.

When: Communicate the estimated project timeline to the team. You’ll want to use the best possible projection for an end date. If there is a deadline to be met, that must be communicated as well.

How: Next, you’ll want to cover how the Agile framework will be used to deliver the project. Your team will have been trained in Agile concepts so nothing should be new to them. You’ll want to emphasize how this project will use a fairly “by-the-book” implementation of Agile and explain any deviations or tailoring expected. No one should leave concerned about the manner in which Agile will be used. If someone has a concern, be sure to let them voice it for the entire team to hear and discuss it as a group.

Where: An increasing amount of software development is being completed by remote resources, making it impossible for team members to be co-located. If co-location is possible, you’ll want to tell team members where they’ll be sitting on a day-to-day basis. You’ll want to cover where the Agile ceremonies will be held and any collaboration tools team members are expected to use for virtual presence.

Why: It’s a good idea to have your sponsor close the kick-off meeting with why company leadership has chosen to try agile and selected this project to pilot test. The sponsor must ask every team member for their support and make himself available for questions or concerns.

Completion of the kick-off meeting using the outline above will ensure you and your team are well positioned for success.

Lessons Learned from Agile Transformations: Part 11

Eleventh in a Fifteen Part Series

By Chad Greenslade

I have often been asked about my lessons learned in delivering Agile transformations.  Below is the eleventh in a fifteen part series examining my lessons learned while instituting Agile concepts & practices.  I hope that these lessons help you on your journey to Agile nirvana.

Lesson 11: Select a Pilot Project

Simply put, the pilot project must be a project that is representative of, and similar to, other projects executed at your office.  It cannot be a “one-off” or unique project.  For example, projects related to mergers and acquisitions are typically not good candidates, whereas projects related to ongoing enhancements of technology services are good candidates. 

Sponsor alignment during the selection process is required.  The sponsor must be aligned on the purpose of selecting the pilot project, which is to allow the team to test the execution of agile fundamentals from beginning to end, and gauge agile’s feasibility for your environment.  If the project is a success, it will give momentum to the transformation initiative.  If the project is a failure, it is not the end of the world.  Aspirations and expectations must be tempered while the team learns their new work patterns. 

To guide the pilot project selection process, you will want to evaluate projects against six (6) key criteria:

(1) Duration: Select a project with an expected duration between four (4) and twelve (12) weeks. Shorter projects do not allow the team adequate time to execute the repeatable agile processes. The team must have enough time to fumble through things and recover while they learn, and be able to deliver meaningful feedback on agile’s effectiveness. Longer projects have an ineffective feedback loop for those learning new work patterns. Additionally, longer projects slow down the organization’s ability to effectively integrate the new work patterns across many teams.

(2) Priority: The project must be at least moderately important with an adequate level of investment and expected return. The highest and lowest priority projects in the organization are not good candidates. Look for a project somewhere in the middle of the organization’s priorities.

(3) Risk: Similar to priority, you will want to find a project with some risk, but not so much that people working on the project feel pressured to revert to old work habits. Resources working on the project must be in a relatively low-stress setting when initially executing the newly learned agile processes. Similarly, never pick a project that if it fails to deliver, the company could go out of business.

(4) Human Resources Required: Look for a project that requires several cross-functional resources to deliver. An IT software development project will typically have a business analyst, architect, one or more software developers, testers, and a project manager. Feedback from each of these roles as they execute the new work practices is critical to the success of your agile transformation initiative.

(5) Project Lifecycle: Look for a project that traverses the typical phases of an IT project. You’ll want a project that goes through the normal initiation, planning, design, development, testing, implementation, and support phases. Having a project that only produces a design or delivers business requirements is not a good choice. Your team must be able to see their product perform in operation to gain insight of the effectiveness of the new work practice.

(6) Sponsor Engagement: Your Sponsor must play the role of Product Owner during the pilot project. Ideally, your pilot project will be selected from your Sponsor’s list of projects. If your Sponsor does not have a project that matches the pilot selection criteria, your Sponsor must partner with another executive to use one of their projects as the pilot. If this occurs, your Sponsor must still play the role of the Product Owner on behalf of the partnered executive. This requires a level of trust between your Sponsor and the executive that he / she chose to partner with. This arrangement is only appropriate for the pilot project and serves to shield the team from unnecessary outside criticism while they experience the agile learning curve.

Compare the organization’s list of pending projects against the selection criteria above to yield a list of potential pilot projects. Have your Sponsor select the pilot project armed with the information above. This is not a decision to be taken lightly. Success or failure will impede or accelerate your transformation initiative.

Lessons Learned from Agile Transformations: Part 10

Tenth in a Fifteen Part Series

By Chad Greenslade

I have often been asked about my lessons learned in delivering Agile transformations.  Below is the tenth in a fifteen part series examining my lessons learned while instituting Agile concepts & practices.  I hope that these lessons help you on your journey to Agile nirvana.

Lesson 10: Train the Team in Agile Concepts & Practices

While you may have some team members with prior agile experience, you must regard your pilot team as being unfamiliar with agile.  You must increase the team’s agile knowledge as quickly as possible.  There is only one (1) proven method to accomplish this; you must send the entire pilot team, along with the Sponsor, to an agile “101” class, or an agile boot camp.  An introductory agile class is typically three (3) days.  Five (5) day agile “boot-camps” are also available.  Certified agile trainers will facilitate the course. I believe the most common and effective course is one that certifies attendees as scrum masters.  The scrum master course typically provides the baseline foundational agile knowledge that your team will need to be successful.

The reason this training is so important is because attendees learn about and perform the agile processes and ceremonies during the class.  Attendees learn “by-the-book” agile concepts and tenets and perform the processes and ceremonies as they were intended, and not adapted to fit any specific organization.  Your pilot team should not be taught how to adapt agile to their organization at this time.  Adaptation will come later as the team masters the techniques and makes informed decisions about which adaptations truly make sense.  Adaptation too early typically results in a team falling back into old waterfall-style habits.

Agile training attendees will learn that they must deliver software frequently, at the end of each sprint, and the processes must be carried out to realize this objective.  When training is complete, the team must assess how existing enterprise tools and processes support and / or hinder their ability to deliver software frequently.  The team must understand how they will use existing tools and processes within the new agile context.  Most tools and processes can be adapted to agile.  You will need to engage the owners of these tools and processes to educate them on the support required for your agile project to be successful.  If changes to existing tools and processes are required, be prepared to have multiple conversations with tool and process owners to get them onboard with the support required of them.           

By the time your team has completed agile training and understood how existing tools and processes will support their agile project, they will need to know where they will physically sit each day.  Conventional agile wisdom dictates that teams sit co-located and in the same room whenever possible.  Given today’s remote work IT culture, rarely have I seen this play out exactly as specified.  The COVID-19 pandemic has exerted additional pressures on agile teams by restricting their abilities to sit in an office.  I have found that collaboration tools coupled with a structured and well controlled sprint execution framework can keep all team members adequately engaged, and negates the need for team members to sit next to one another.

Lessons Learned from Agile Transformations: Part 9

Ninth in a Fifteen Part Series

By Chad Greenslade

I have often been asked about my lessons learned in delivering Agile transformations.  Below is the ninth in a fifteen part series examining my lessons learned while instituting Agile concepts & practices.  I hope that these lessons help you on your journey to Agile nirvana.

Lesson 9: Socialize Generic Agile Concepts & Practices Prior to Full Rollout

The term “socialization” refers to the process of internalizing the norms and ideologies of a social group.  This internalization, or learning process, is done by every member of the group, typically over a short period of time.  Socializing a concept requires memorization, practice, and discussion of the required actions that must be taken.  In a business setting, it is not uncommon for a team to require two (2) or more weeks to adequately socialize and accept a new work practice.  Every group and team situation will be slightly different.  Therefore, the time period required for a team to socialize concepts will differ.  As team size and process complexity grows, so does the time required to socialize the concepts.

There are two (2) practices that you must introduce and socialize amongst personnel involved in the organization’s agile transformation.  These are daily planning and retrospectives.  These practices are widely regarded to be low impact, highly effective, and the starting point of a company’s iterative transformation.  At this point, you will have identified the agile sponsor or champion, executives, stakeholders, supporters, and the agile team.   All of these personnel must socialize the practices.  The agile team will carry out the practices, but everyone must be on-board with the concepts.  After the agile team is identified but before the agile pilot project is underway, agile team members should attempt to implement these practices in their day-to-day activities.  These practices immediately illustrate agile’s core tenets of transparency of work, open and honest communication, and a willingness to improve over time.  By embracing these practices, the organization can gently adapt to the organizational change required.    The successes and efficiencies gained by implementing these practices will build the momentum you will need for organizational commitment.

Agile’s daily planning practice is known as the “standup meeting”.  The standup meeting gets its name because no one should be sitting during the meeting.  A standup meeting is no longer than fifteen (15) minutes.  The standup meeting should be held at the beginning of the work day, and the team should decide on the date, time, and location.  Every team member must attend and every team member must speak.  In a roundtable format, each team member must answer three questions: (1) what did they do yesterday, (2) what do they plan to do today, and (3) what is preventing them from making progress.  The Scrum Master must ensure that everyone gets to speak and answer the three questions without interruption. If there is time left over after everyone speaks, the team is free to openly discuss any topic.  The Scrum Master must schedule the meeting and publish minutes afterwards.  A common anti-pattern of a standup meeting is not everyone getting to speak.  If you find that this is occurring, topics raised by speakers running over their allotted time must schedule separate meetings to further discuss the topics raised.  The Scrum Master can act as a facilitator to schedule meetings or activities to impediments to progress.

Agile’s retrospective practice is a thirty-to sixty minute meeting held at the end of every development cycle.  A typical agile development cycle is between two (2) and four (4) weeks.  The purpose of the retrospective is for the team to review the work they just completed and identify opportunities for improvement in processes, designs, or any other work practice deemed by the team to be inefficient.  The meeting agenda for the retrospective is as follows:

(1) What did the team do well?  It is critical to recognize and celebrate successes.  It builds the team’s confidence and validates the team’s value contribution to the organization.  It is important to spend an adequate amount of time celebrating successes.  Sometimes the team must look hard to find them, but going through the exercise validates the team’s learning and informs their improvement decisions.

(2) What did the team do not so well?  Before team members will share failures, they must be assured that they are in a safe environment.  It is imperative that every team member believes that they are all in it together.  Over time, the team will get better at identifying opportunities for improvement.  Don’t expect miracles overnight.  Iterative evolution is the goal.  Any team, especially at the beginning, will go through stages of development, and it is important to consider the developmental stage when asking team members to admit possible mistakes.

(3) What does the team want to improve?  The team makes a commitment to improve items in the next development cycle.  The chosen improvement items must be realistically achievable.  This is not the time for lofty or overly ambitious goals.  Incremental improvement over time is the goal.  Have the team brainstorm and create a list of potential improvements, and then have them select an item, or items, from the list that they can realistically accomplish within the time constraint of the next development cycle.  Open communication and team commitment is the goal.  The Scrum Master should maintain the master list and track progress made on the improvement opportunities.  The list should be revisited at each retrospective meeting.