Team Icebreakers

I am a big fan of using small team exercises to just people out of their “head space” for a moment before refocusing back to the area of work. Sometimes it can be a physical (just stand and stretch, take a team stroll) or be just a small thing to let people begin talking about non work focus items to just relax for a moment. I also appreciate, as does my team culture, the value that humor affords in work.

A great way to start teams talking before a daily stand-up or retrospective is with an icebreaker. I have come across a few simple ones (some I have used in the past) that I think is a great way to just stimulate spontaneous response and to allow the teams to loosen up and get ready  to communicate.

One Second Trivia

Prep Time: 5 minutes or less dependent on how quickly a scrum master thinks on their feet. Questions can be prepared on index cards or scrum master can make them up on the spot.

Run Time: 1-2 turns per team member

Goal: To just relax people with potential humor and “prime the communication pipeline”.

Rules: Only 2.

  1. You must provide an answer within one second.
  2. There is no wrong answer in this game.

Play:

As each team member a question and allow them to give an immediate response (much harder within one second than you think),

Examples:

  • “What can you not grow in a garden”?
  • “Why did you borrow $20.00”?
  • (Fill in the blank) “You superpower is …”
  • “What is a vegetable that should not exist”?
  • “What is Beyonce’s middle name”?
  • (Fill in the blank) “The code word for this product is …”
  • “Where are you keeping that candy bar”?

The objective is just to get the team relaxed and ready to connect. Often time hilarity will ensue as coming up with answers for these in one second typically results in whatever pops into your mind.

You can change things up by allowing team members to run the game and prepare their own questions. It does not take very long and it engages them.

Yes. And …

Prep Time: No real prep time needed, just the ability to seed a conversation.

Run Time: 1-2 turns per team member

Goal: To help team members develop engagement and listening skills with one another as well as reinforce being value additive.

Rules: The objective is to listen to the statement made by the previous team member and continue the story by adding “Yes, and …”

Play:

Seed the conversation to start with a topic or lead-in. Examples:

  • “Yesterday, we went to the zoo …”
  • “When I was preparing for my career as an astronaut I went to Walmart”
  • “Today began as the worst day ever”
  • “I came home last night and decided to bake a cake”
  • “I met my evil twin yesterday in a coffee shop.”

Power Animals

Prep Time: 5 minutes or less. Requires either drawing animals on index cards or finding small pictures to tape on cards, etc so that they can be placed into something to draw from by each team member.

Run Time: 1 turn per team pic member

Goal: To just relax people with potential humor and “prime the communication pipeline”.

Rules:

  1. Respond as quickly as possible.
  2. There is no wrong answer in this game.

Play:

Set the stage – “This is the power animal game. In this (bowl/box/hat) are many types of exotic and amazing animals (make a lot of them really odd or very mundane animals). This animal has specifically selected you to be able to channel some of their special abilities in any time of need.

The goal of this game is for you to relay to the team why this animal picked you specifically to be your power animal and what power(s) did they grant you.

  • Have each team member reach into a shoebox or bowl and draw out a picture of an animal and respond. It’s often not only humorous but can often be insightful into gifts that a team member has or wishes they possessed. Good information for strengthening team member connections with one another and with the scrum master.
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Capacity and Performance

“Your capacity to say no determines your capacity to say yes to greater things”        – E. Stanley Jones

This is something in business we all struggle with in my assessment. How to sequence “just the right amount of work” to deliver value and still all the desired ability of an organization to remain responsive to shifting value needs. My organization has struggled with it as I feel confident many of you have as well.

There are a lot of techniques, both agile and not, to determine capacity and we’ll look at a few and I will express my own opinions here and what effects poor capacity planning can have on teams and organizations.

Somebody call 911!

A lot of us live in a world of “firefighting” as an organization. Not literally, but what I mean is that we become reactionary as an organization as opposed to responsive.  Organizations often confuse responsiveness as the ability to handle each fire as it occurs when it reality this is chaos at its core. Often, these organizations are so busy fighting the blaze that they never take the time once the situation has passed to ask why the fire actually started in the first place or they confuse every flare up on the same level as the entire city in flames. This is not responsive, it’s reactionary and although you may be defined as the “hero of the day” in the moment, it eventually raises much deeper problems that can become exposed and have to be addressed.

Being a reactionary environment is inefficient. It means that there is a significant amount of waste happening waiting for the disastrous event or worse yet it is a sign that work is improperly sequenced to allow a balance of responsiveness and performance. Signs of this are often team member turnover, sick time increases, increased deep policy to attempt to be preventive (the “ban all matches” approach) or just a general negative outlook to solving a problem. Be vigilant in observation for these types of issues as one you define yourself as this type of an organization, it is often very painful to change.

Capacity, Performance and the myth of being busy

One of the things that I have always believed is “do less better”. Ensure that you are meeting the highest value items for an organization but in the face of emergent needs you have to deliberately create slack within your work capacity for numerous reasons. Things like actually being responsive to the emergent pet project that comes up, capacity to nurture your teams and team members to allow them to grow and give back to the organization in doing so and generally to improve performance throughput

Basically capacity boils down to “how much something will hold” from a true math reference bt in our terms it means how much time and work can we consider and remain effective in our performance. Finding area and volume of a given shape to determine capacity is a relatively simple formula but when it comes to people and time, it often gets tougher (although I know many PMP folks who would explain to me formulas of resource management, resource being a word I strongly detest when referring to “people”).

A general rule of thumb is that you will never receive the maximum capacity of a given person or team. Accept this. If a person works an 10 hour day, the best you can hope for us 70%-80% which is roughly 7-8 hours at the high ends. The reason for this is that people are social creatures and have needs like going to the restroom, checking emails, diverting their attention after prolonged focus, casual conversation, meetings, etc.

If there are CIOs/CFOs/COOs/CEOs reading this in awe and shock, welcome to the reality of people. And it is even possible that 10% of your overall workforce is performing suboptimal based on lack of skills, poor work ethic, sickness, burnout or whatever reason. So how do you handle this and still maintain a level of performance without remaining in a constant hiring frenzy of cycling burnout workers?

First, accept your reasonable capacity levels and plan strategically. If you do, you will find that you optimize the flow of delivery within that capacity and you often see higher percentages executed (which can be a different topic to watch for … “dark work” that has no visibility and creates strain but as things are delivered on time no one questions).

If you think more bodies are the answer. You’re wrong. Read the Mythical Man Month. As you increase complexity to any systems you fragment pathways making performance degrade. Think of a small intimate dinner gathering and how conversation can flow well between 2 couples (as they can keep up with topics or break into smaller sub groups and still reflect to the group). Now introduce 2 more, and 2 more, and 2 more. Make it a large dinner party and afterward come home to discuss the topics of conversation. The pathways are too complex. You cannot keep everyone in the loop on all of the conversation occurring.

The same thing occurs with software development. As you introduce more and more staff you increase the complexity in the forms or handoffs, communication pipelines, individual or small group decisions that get made, etc which make it slower as rediscussion, rework and deeper changes are often a result. This is often why I prefer product feature teams as opposed to component teams whenever possible.

Secondly, if you want to be responsive; be deliberate in building in slack to your approach. Let’s take 3 examples; road networks, servers and teams.

Road Networks:

You are driving to work. There are 30%-50% of other cars on the road. You make your commute in a reasonable amount of time. But we are not utilizing all of the capacity of the road! So let’s crank it up to 100% and make that same commute. What is the expected result? Traffic jams, delays due to accidents, road rage. We actually decreased our performance by trying to fill all of our capacity.

Servers:

This is a little tougher as in the day of invisible scalability of cloud networks it may seem a poor example, however, if a server capacity is maximized to 100%, performance degrades; it is a given. It results in unneeded swapping just to meet all requests. It may seem negligible but if you have ever been frustrated waiting for a web page to load, you may have been experiencing exceeded capacity.

Teams: 

Filling a team capacity to the brim can result in whiplash when trying to meet those emergent needs With that allowed focus, you have teams that maximum their throughput through selection, self-organization and a regular cadence. If they have other responsibilities (support, meetings, etc) not building in that capacity that is aware of these things will result in feelings of being high performing but in fact often degrade performance and hide a lot of work being done on an employee’s own time (which can result in a whole host of issues).

But we have to keep people busy

Do we? Did we hire the individual with a specialized set of skills to ensure they remained “busy” or did we hire them to ensure that we had the necessary skills to realize the end result of value?

If a manager pops into a team room and a team is relaxed, having a conversation about Dr. Who or some world event is that ok? Sure it is. If they are personally making their commitments and failing to deliver value, then you might sense a problem which could be everything from they are sandbagging to they are being disrupted externally for other work to the guidance they are receiving is creating deep and counter productive conversations at the time of delivery from a lack of understanding. It could be lots of things.

The point is not to keep people busy. In trying to do this based on observations of social interaction as a sign of low productivity, you toss the idea of capacity out the window. For me, I want a highly motivated team that wants to come to work and deliver because they know they have a direct voice in setting and communicating reasonable expectations for feature delivery. Does this not mean that occasionally the team may not be forced to ramp up commitments to meet a deadline? Absolutely not. But if you trust the people doing the work to be reasonable and responsible in communication, transparency and of the delivery of that work; often times I find teams will rally to address the hard need.

Otherwise they are back in firefighting mode.

Seeking to ensure teams and team members are “all busy” is a false goal. It equates people with server throughput. People should be cultivated and grown if you want to create longevity of any sort in your company with employees. They will become your greatest champions and advocates if you embrace this. They will tell others of the great company they work for and they will work hard to deliver of their commitments.

I write this post today not out of any personal or professional frustration but from an observation that many organizations focus on “busy” as opposed to intentionally creating space to be responsive to emergent needs. Just like a home’s unused space get filled, professional people fill the unused space (through skill acquisition, environment improvement, idea sharing, etc). But just like a home; should you inherit your grandmother’s giant steamer trunk if you have filled all of your capacity of space it gets placed in an odd location or you “make room in the attic”.

Be honest and kind to yourself as an organization, your people and reflect a true understanding of capacity by considering more than just “delivering more” or “being busy”. Understand what other impacts that people have that impinge on capacity and to become truly responsive, be intentional in creating slack within your overall capacity.

As I always say and I will say once again … “Do less better”.

 

The cobbler’s children have no shoes.

“If we desert the inner self to focus on the energy outside, it leaves a vacancy inside”              – Trudy Vesotsky

There is a dilemma that every software group I have worked with has faced and I have never seen anyone actually “solve it” in the grand sense although I have seen some really good ideas in action. It’s the idea of investing back into the work you do as a software group so that you can leverage this investment in the ability to continue to “do the work” for others.

Hence the reason for my blog title. The cobbler does amazing work for all of the paying customers wanting to buy shoes but never finds the time to put shoes on his own children’s feet or teach them to be a cobbler themselves.

Where does this often stem from?

In my experience, this perpetuates inside an organization in several different ways:

  • Fear to apply capacity by the leadership for something in which direct end profit is not seen or justification seems hard to communicate upward to these leaders without technobabble.
  • Guilt, on the side of the workers, who feel like they will never be granted the ability to do this so they either complain or burn the candle at both ends to make it happen in shadows.
  • Lack of focus or understanding of need. As Stephen Covey talks about in his works, sometimes we are “too busy picking up rocks to as what kind of rock we are looking for”.
  • Sometimes it is just culturally engrained (which is the toughest). It is just generally accepted (and often with great grumbling) that anything without direct tangible end stakeholder benefit is just less important.

I remember when I was a young IT professional and I was sitting with an assistant director of the company who had tasked me to thoroughly understand how their IT organization worked and look at improvement opportunities.

I posed the question “I have observed that any project that is related to the business receives a budget, people and focus but I cannot find where the same approach is made when approaching upgrades of tools, servers or your technology stack and training, why is that”? There reply was immediate without hesitation, “those things are the cost of doing business and therefore below the line and as they are internal in nature are more flexible than customer delivery”.

I paused for a moment. “So, if they are the ‘COST’ of doing business, why are we paying for them on a revolving payment plan? What I mean is if the core goal and mission is to deliver modern and innovative solutions to end stakeholders, how can the justification of making the things upon which support your competitive advantage in the market be something that is addressed in a “stop and start” manner to be superseded by other items without completion”?

And here it came … the death blow. “This is the way it’s always been. We cannot just take time to improve internally and not deliver things to the customer”. Discussion over.

I walked away from this discussion feeling really sad (and as a young professional, deflated and experiencing an early disillusionment) as this company had so many bright, excited people who were inspired to do the work they did. They wanted to do interesting things and support the business through bringing potentials of innovation. They were, instead, given the communication that we keep the factory running. We only think about making improvements when a production shutdown is going on. What this meant for them over time was they saw themselves get further and further behind and the climb to get current made the effort, the learning curve and possibly the investment so great that they would never receive the support they needed to make it happen. So, they grumbled, they left, or they resigned themselves to work with what they had to get the work done.

I tell this cautionary story as in reading it you may see similarities in the company you are in now. If you are and you are a leader in this organization. Affect change. Even the smallest changes you can do as seamlessly as possible to keep some cadence of improvement going. Don’t let the hill you pile up for yourself make it impossible to climb.

So what can we do about this?

Again, I do not have “the answer” as my organization struggles with this like others do. We have at least made a commitment to our culture and ourselves to keep visibility on this and push for these things without fear. Sometimes we win and sometimes we don’t.

Please do not misunderstand me in discussing this. I am not talking about the “junior level developer fascinated by every technology under the sun” sort of change. Not that you are in a constant pivot. But that if you are going to be in the business of software, you have to ensure that your tools and approach allows you to grow at a reasonable pace with the industry”.

You do not want to find yourself in a situation where the iPhone has been out for a decade telling your team, “we need to learn how to develop for mobile”. You might get there but it’s not likely that you are going to be competitive here. You probably missed your window. The same comes from jumping on tech early just to “get there” with no plan on  cultivating the approach or refining the skills. I cannot tell you how many government agencies (and companies that contracted to them) I saw build a native iOS mobile or Android app just to see it wither on the vine, never get updated or enhanced and die on the vine. Mobile App storefronts are littered with these types of applications. They wanted to be “first” so they could take advantage early for the trend but in hiring out the work, they created a dependency on a end vendor to update this platform and typically at a premium, which often meant that unless the app was getting mass attention, slowly stopped being paid to update and support.

Those cautions aside, have some seasoned technology professionals (CTO, architects, senior developers) in your organization that watch technology trends and “sticking patterns” of languages. Understand your regional technology market so that you can hire for technology you can support more readily or develop a good “gig based economy” model for models that work in conjunction with teams you are training on a new technology. Don’t think you can ever stop learning and growing. And as a result of that, keep your toolsets as current as reasonably possible so that you are riding closer with software trends and not trying to just race to catch up.

If you are in the business of software, and this applies even if you are a software group within a non software company, cultivate and advocate to the business leaders as a whole being reasonable about the investment they make in technology as a core support of the business. Don’t be silent while budgets are drawn and plans are made and let the needs of the very thing you do not be heard. Be certain, the “cost” of doing business in building software is in fact a cost. Do not let it become something to do when there is time.

Get creative.

One thing we can try (and that we do here) is to adjust capacity of people to try and free up time for focus on doing these types of things. This can often be more palatable for a business. The idea of losing 2-3 people for 1-2 weeks to focus on this thing is something that “feels” reasonable on face value. It’s about the impact of a vacation by an employee. You will be amazed at what people who are motivated to leap, with some small pre familiarization, can get done when freed up to focus on a task. Just try and keep things small, targeted and end goal based. Even if the goal is research of a technology, have an end goal in mind like a “go/no go” and recommendations for investment.

Outline the tangible benefit for the effort. Think about what the investment will ultimately do for the business. And it does not have to be only about technology. Maybe it will allow you to recruit better in the market space, maybe it will allow you to retain staff as they continue to grow, maybe it is an early investment in the direction a given technology is headed. And sometimes, just sometimes; it’s to ensure the business does not make a large scale investment technically that it will be dependent on a recurring vendor cost to support, maintain and update or the marketspace indicates that leveraging of this technology is actually less effective than the vendor indicates. But stay focused to work on it. Don’t shelf work each time more work comes in. If you continue to do this two potential situations can result a) the ramp up time to get back to where you left off multiplies each time you walk away or b) the direction you were headed becomes obsolete and therefore require starting over or abandoning the effort (which may not be costly but it does have a negative impact on those who have done the work).

Don’t let yourself keep building shoes for others and never attending to your own family.

Take a moment and pick one of these kids and build them some shoes!

Being Genuine

“You need to believe in yourself and what you do. Be tenacious and genuine.”

– Christian Louboutin

Genuine. Authentic. Real.

I think about these words a lot. I continuously question myself if I believe what I believe or do I just do what I do. Sounds like a lack of faith and maybe it is. I can exude real confidence in ideas I believe in as ideas are often very meaningful to me and my life.

I love to think, discuss, brainstorm, pontificate, learn, grow, teach, coach and collaborate. So ideas hold a real tangible value for me. But often times, as I awake in the morning or make my drive home in the evening, I stop to question myself as to what my true beliefs might be and if the allure of the idea has me thinking I “think” that way.

You may wonder why so I’ll tell you.

One thing, if I had to identify that thing, that makes my blood boil or loses my respect is people who talk about doing something a certain way or following a certain path and then abandon all those things central to that in reality of what they do.

They “talk the talk” but are unwilling to “walk the walk”. The reason I question myself is that I believe in agility, the power of teams and the ideal that amazing things can happen through motivated, collaborative teams in which the economy of scale is end value and not time. This means something very special to me as I not only believe it, I have seen the power in it actually working.

However, being human, I am inherently fallible. My biases, my environment, my mood, history in general can all push me away from making decisions in alignment with these beliefs I hold. I realize that and always question what I know and what I am doing to ensure I am truly being genuine in my thoughts and my actions. And guess what, it’s a struggle. It’s a battle. You stay on the defense for this creepy crawly to come along and get you.

Just like the dieter who struggles to avoid Krispy Kreme donuts brought to the office, sometimes it takes will-power and the admittance of failure. But my realization of my ability to be wrong and my willingness to admit and learn when at fault keeps me going where I want to go at this point.

I am very fortunate presently to have one particular person that keep me honest that works in my group. They challenge me regularly about my thoughts and often make me examine things that might be uncomfortable to think about from a perspective of an observed flaw. They basically exercise the carte blanche that I extend to the people I work with to call me on my B.S.

But I truly respect and appreciate it, even if sometimes at the onset I may not be too  as often happy, feel annoyed at the challenge or just clouded from the value I am receiving from those conversations. What they do for me though, more than anything, is they force me to evaluate the perception of another about me and probe more deeply into myself to see if my actions are genuine and in alignment to my beliefs and values. This often helps me examine why I might be out of sync to my beliefs or presenting a poor perception of my intentions or actions.

In the grand scheme, I am respect and appreciate this relationship that I have with this colleague. One thing it does is allow me to gauge myself on my skills to actually listen to this feedback without feeling the need to respond. I know that this is a skill that I need to continuously work on. If you have never done a “seatbelt meeting” (where you strap yourself in and just listen to the good, the bad or the ugly feedback without response or defense but simply allow you to hear someone else’s perception) with someone, give it a shot. Not as easy as it sounds to do.

So take a moment and think about yourself and your actions. Are you being genuine?

 

 

 

Driving your Outcomes

If you accept the expectations of others, especially negative ones, then you never will change the outcome. – Michael Jordan

This won’t be a long post but I have been reading Jon Gordon’s “The Energy Bus” lately (he has a lot of good short lesson driven books) and came across a passage that really made me think.

In the book, the “teacher” (in this case a bus driver named Joy) postulates the following formula:

E + P + R = O

This formula is “Events plus our perception coupled with our reaction creates the outcome”. Let that sink in for a moment.

Events happen and we often cannot control that they occur. Cars break down, people get sick, the Sith make a comeback (sorry for the  Star Wars reference). But most times, an event is outside the scope of our direct control. But what we do actually control are our perceptions of the event (why it happened, the severity of the impact) and how we react accordingly (negatively or positively). These variables lead to what outcome gets produced.

I really thought about this a lot and applied it to situations in which past negative events became negative outcomes through my perception and reaction and the inverse in which taking a bad situation and making it into an opportunity through my perception and reaction to it. Or how even in the face of a difficult event, my reaction can actually impact the reaction of those around me.

Does this mean, I can logically pull this formula out every time I am presented with an event? Probably not. However, it gives me one more tool in my toolbox to stop and use when I encounter a situation. I realized that if I approach an event with a negative perception and therefore react negatively, I am probably going to get back the same kind of energy I put out as a result.

So, base logic seems to be that if I manage my perception and find the most positive reaction to the challenge, that I may just radiate positive energy behind the event or at least moderate my response, especially in the face of negative reactions around me.

So, the next time we find ourselves in a situational event, maybe we can take a moment, a breath, a second to internally reflect and then allow a controlled reaction (the thing we can control) to take shape and be expressed. It may result in an amazing outcome! 😀