Tips for Facilitating Meetings Effectively

“Never Perfect. Always Genuine”. – Lalah Delia

Some people have an innate ability to just assume the helm and guide others within a meeting. They are born with it. They possess the skill, the wit, the charisma , etc naturally and help people get where they need to be. I, however, was likely not innately born with this gift but consciously have worked over the years to cultivate this craft.

If you find that your role necessitates this skill or you have just been the lucky one to do this (or were “volu-told” you were the facilitator as no one else would do it or seems to be able to do so), these are just a few quick steps to help you do the best job possible.

Step 1 – Be prepared to facilitate.

Being prepared means a lot of different things to people as their are “planners” and “wingman”. “Planners” tend to want to have a strong map of how the meeting will go, have the materials they need in place and know how the meeting will unfold. All good stuff right?

“Wingman” go in cold, have a general idea of what they need to do and because perhaps of their ability to speak and interact use this as the basis that will carry them through. They are more often interested in the conversation that occurs than the regimen of a plan.

Well, from my experience, it is always somewhere in-between. No plan comes off without a hitch and endless conversation with no guidance is not something that leads to a productive end. This is why I use the term “prepare”. You can prepare for what you want to accomplish but leave room for things to just happen. I look at this like having some basic car emergency supplies. I have the basic items I feel I might need, jumper cables,  road flare, small medical kit, however, I could need more. I personally would never say “I’m covered” and not take my phone to call a tow truck or say, “I am experienced in life and the experience of the open road” and just say, I don’t need anything as I can handle it as it comes. This provides me with options and a choice of how to proceed, or deviate, in the face of some emergency.

So what do I mean when I say “be prepared to facilitate”?

  • Do your best to know your audience. Do you understand their business or can you relate the goal of the meeting closer to them so everyone can share a vision. Do you have dominant talkers or people you have to draw things out from. You may not get this insight and have to read the room but understanding the players of the meeting can be helpful even if you do not know the entire room.
  • Prepare in a reasonable manner. – Are you going to lead the group? If so, know how this will unfold and be prepared to deviate as needed. Have post-its, whiteboards, markers, etc. Possibly even provide Kinesthetic items for people to occupy themselves as some people think while their physical is engaged differently without creating distraction. For some people this helps them focus and process information.
  • Establish some boundaries of the meeting up front. – Try and meet with the key sponsors of the meeting and negotiate with them boundaries for the meeting forr success. What I mean is establish general interaction policies such as “will you allow cell phones and laptops/tablets in the meeting” or will you provide as part of the agenda (based on the group) a recurring break to check these devices. Will you use the “you are an adult policy” and allow them to step out and take calls or leave to use the restroom at any time? Can you clearly state that the meeting will proceed and that if they not present, the work will move ahead with or without them? When is lunch (is it provided)? What are the schedules of the people can they commit to an all-day meeting or is it better to hold small targeted “mini summits”?
  • Do the pre-work for the meeting whenever possible. –  Establish an agenda and understand the goals and actionable items that the meeting is trying to reach. This will allow you to have a defined boundary to redirect conversation or to keep people moving towards an end goal. Make it visible at the start of the meeting and cover it upfront like making a contract with the meeting. Ensure that you clearly state the goals and actionable items that the meeting is seeking to achieve. Repeat deliverable expectations at least 3 times if necessary to solidify the importance of those needs if possible.
  • Use the concept of a parking lot to table off-course ideas. – Gino Wickman, author of the Enterprise Operating System (EOS) indicates that in a discussion that in his system, that a general rule is the “rule of 3 times”. If a person states a point, reiterates the point, once they state it again, they are merely politicking to sway others to their side of opinion. Be keenly aware of this. We have all been in a meeting where Bob states the same thing over and over and everyone silently thinks “here goes Bob again, blah, blah, blah, blah …”. Help keep the flow of the meeting going by acknowledging Bob’s point but suggest if off tract or bogging down the meeting that to ensure that the goals of the meeting are met that we note his valued point or concern but that to stay on track, we may need to move along and circle back around to it once we achieved our goals. This can be tricky, Bob needs to understand that you hear and value his comment but that for the good of the meeting, we have to keep moving forward. This can be especially tricky if Bob is a “C” level executive but in doing this you are courteously acknowledging his point, keeping it visible but steering the meeting to the end objective and demonstrating your commitment to the meeting satisfying its goals. Indicate items that may need their own potential meeting if the topic goes deeply enough.
  • Move big items out of the way in lieu of progress. – As you go through items, occasionally you will encounter an item that in the scale of “solve world peace” which someone thinks is  reasonable discussion topic. Whereas on face value the topic is truly valid (who wouldn’t want to solve world peace) the overall scope may be far too large to make any real tangible progress on the topic. Unless you are going to take this epic level idea and indicate small actionable steps to move in this direction, you will unlikely (even in an all day meeting) solve world peace. Accept this and move it to an area for later decomposition or create a breakout session to breakdown more tangible goals.
  • Let healthy debate happen –  One of the most difficult things to do (and I always have to be aware of myself in this behavior) is “being silent” and listening as debate happens so you can distill the end point. As human beings, we often very social in nature and interaction is something that is hard for us to suppress. It is often difficult (especially when trying to help people reach a goal) to remain silent and allow them to discuss their positions and even openly disagree. It’s hard not to “find the peace” when people are openly disagreeing. Listen to the flow of the disagreement and see where you may need to interject to parking lot the disagreement or possibly summarize the key point of disagreement, gain acknowledgement of the point, make it visible and move on. Read the room, what is everyone else doing during this? Have they disengaged. Actively work to not lose the momentum of the whole room because of this disagreement.
  • Be the introvert’s advocate! – If you observe dominant talkers in the room, try and find ways to engage others and for those that you may feel are providing little input, seek ways to get confirmation or dissent from them by asking “do you think might work” or “I would be interested to say what (person) has to say”. Work to create ways to give the entire room a voice. Explain to the group up front how you may redirect someone if you see that a person is being silenced or having their thoughts completed for them. Be courteous but be vigilant to get the right ideas to the table.
  • Respect the time box. – Start the meeting when it is slated to start (giving human error leeway), take breaks early or when scheduled and ensure you are consciously focused on getting actionable items identified wrapped up and recapped by the close of the meeting. Do not disrespect people’s time by keeping them longer nor allow others to disrespect time waiting for people to come straggling in. State your appreciation and contract to respect people’s time and honor that commitment.
  • Recap the event. – Ensure that you recap the accomplishments of the event by closing action items (or doing so recurring to show progress), state any action items and owners to shepherd the items outside of the meeting, state outstanding  items with a plan of intent to address them. Thank everyone for their time, attention and participation and wrap up the meeting.

These are just a few helpful tips to think about when placed in a situation of facilitating a meeting that can help you be more successful and work to achieve a stronger outcome.

 

Advertisements

My Ideas for Hiring and Onboarding – Part 1

“Mistakes are the best lessons while experience is the best teacher” – Anon

One key piece of agile leadership is the deeper understanding that the people that are doing the work are a core component to your success.

As a leader who personally cares about the organization that I work for (as I do with any employer that has a mission that is aligned to being a more progressive and agile group) I spend a lot of time thinking about people. Not only the people who are here today as staff members, but the people who will join us from the trails we set today.

I often ask myself a continual set of questions:

  1. Is our hiring process (as much as what is under our direct influence or control) optimized and are we keeping it fluid to change to the changing landscape of hiring and the changes in the market?
  2. Are we using hiring practices using a balance of demonstrated skills but remaining open to closely listening to how people think through problems to discover potential undiscovered gems of employees with lesser demonstrable skill?
  3. What is the end user experience of our employee on-boarding after the hire? Is it consistent, cumbersome or does it provide them with something that begins positive employee engagement? Are we gaining feedback?
  4. How do we setup our hires for success in terms of tooling preparation for their job, understanding our technical, diverse social, political and cultural environment and celebration of them joining us?
  5. Are we learning from our experience and examining the ways others perform this process on a routine basis?

I ask these questions and I will be open and admit, the answer is not always a resounding “YES” in my mind. And this … always troubles me. My desire is to create an experience of joining my teams that makes you excited that you are here and ignites that initial spark to not only do the job that you were hired to do but to find a way to be a part of improving the culture as we move forward.

I freely admit, that as a leader I often suffer from the inner struggle of having ideas bouncing around like bumble bees but not always having all of the support I need to align my vision to the end real outcome. I have learned to understand this about myself as it creates a constant inner tension of “there is more I can do” which is both a positive drive but can be draining (which means I have to allow myself to level set and recharge when I since this).

But I began to really think about what this overall process looks like to me and how I might advocate to try an implementation focused on:

  • Hiring the “right candidates” that provide value-add to the current culture in helping it grow.
  • Providing an onboarding experience that is timely, engaging at both the micro and macro levels of the organization and provides a positive experience that engages and supports them from day 1 and that learns from doing.
  • Create an opportunity to “prepare them for success” in their new role through proper tooling and focused education and direct experience before introducing them into their daily routine of their role.
  • Possibly hire them with other team members so that through the process an underlying sense of bonding can occur to create a secondary support system when they transition to their daily work.

Many of you are reading this right this moment and thinking, “big deal; my company does that” … But my company is part of the public sector serving citizens and concepts like this are not the mainstream of thought and definitely not the concepts of the people in leadership. But I have always been one who asked “but why couldn’t we be this”?

It may be often more easy as it may be when the company is owned by a group of share holders or private investors but just as they have concerns over profit margin, the public sector always has to consider the responsibility of fiscal trust granted through being financed by the public (even though some betray that trust I know).

How hiring often is done today in the public sector

When I started in my current role, hiring was very suspect to me in the sense that it did not typically contain any form of demonstration of possessed skill for securing the position for which a person was applying.

It was usually 100% conversationally based or had a minimal “test” for skill that was often used to determine “right or wrong” as the answer subjectively (which code implementation can often be) without any real understanding of the person doing the work. I have often said many public sectors went like:

Employer: “So I see on your resume that you have N years of experience in technology X”?

Me: “That is correct. My most recent experience being (blah blah blah)” – This is where I regurgitate my resume and add some detail.

Employer: “How would you rate your skill from 1-10 with technology Y”?

Me: “I would say I am a 9 as no one is perfect. Fill in details” – This rating means nothing as no one actually knows what the scale is for each increment. Years? Lines of Code?

The review of my resume and asking questions derived on the spot from it would continue …

The conversation continues (for at least one hour) and often if there is a click and the resume seems fine, the conversation degenerates into basic technical chit-chat. Boom. You are hired.

But what is the glaring issue here? You have absolutely no idea, except from my exceptional resume, if I know what I am actually talking about other than perception. We did not discuss anything tangible to the skills you needed for the position. It was primarily based on what I told you I had done and provided on my resume.

This is of course a very simple viewpoint and not taking into account many people who interview, like myself, that may have worked with solid team members who knew my caliber of work and could vouch for such effort and skill to the hiring manager.

And worse, many public sector hiring managers operate under the assumption that if you do not work out during a “probationary period” that you will be dismissed. This rarely happens as they do not have the uncomfortable conversations with the employee during this period informing them that they are not doing the job as to be able to justify that release (a requirement of public and many private HR policies).

How did we change our approach to hiring?

When I assumed my current role one of the first things I sought to do was 2 things in reference to the hiring process:

  1. I wanted it to be more in line with general private industry hiring practices that invested more deeply into hiring practices so that it required not only an employee to invest deeper into the process but also combine it with some base skill exercises guided with the hiring team to see skill level and how they thought through problems.
  2. If the right candidate did not show up for the interview (meaning that they were someone who “might fit” but we did not feel confident in them) that we would not hire out of desperation of losing the position, frustration of starting over or to fill a quota. I had experienced too many times that hiring managers would hire “the best person who showed up” and compromise the position as to not have to jump through bureaucratic hoops again.
  3. I wanted to utilize grass roots recruiting and look for ways to personally connect with potential candidates when possible to demonstrate to them that work in the public sector for a technical person can be fulfilling and have many opportunities for serving others as well as provide an opportunity for some benefits not seen when joining a startup or boutique development company.
  4. I wanted every single candidate that left our interviews to have felt challenged to earn the job and the experience we created through the process to make them want to join us, even if they were not our selected candidate.
  5. I wanted the hiring process to be focused on “what we needed” in a broad sense and just not distill to a checklist of technologies or experience.

The first thing I focused on was making the hiring process more meaningful to hire the right people through a deeper and richer hiring experience that focused on learning more about the candidate from a behavioral and technical viewpoint.

Together with my leadership team, we implemented a two fold approach in which a hiring panel would first have conversations around concepts of behavioral based questions (for about an hour) to begin to gauge their thinking process around typical issues or team situations common to the role followed by 2 hours of more in-depth technical exploration and hands on work ending with a pair programming exercise in which they were the driver in the scenario for developers and other scenarios based on the role. This worked out really well for a couple of reasons:

  1. It allowed us to give them the opportunity to relate previous experiences of situations and shape the questions around what they learned from the experience or why they took a specific course of action. This allowed us more insight into how they reasoned through a situation from the most routine to the most challenging within their role.
  2. It allowed us to examine the candidate from a technical point of view apart from trying to get to know them in terms of personality and really focus on what they already knew from a technical perspective but also how they reasoned through areas they did not know or how they approached something to which they had little or no familiarity. Did they try to BS their way through? Did they openly admit they did not know and not try or did they tell us about their lack of knowledge in the area and reason how one might approach something or use a certain technology even without that knowledge. The first 2 gave us insight into the ability to be humble in the face of the unknown and how they handled this but the latter opened us up to see the potential of a person’s growth with us and often led us to finding people who we could see wanted to know and had that drive to learn. Learning how people think through a situation can be as invaluable as just the right answer.

We always de-briefed after a hiring process not only to decide on a potential hire but also to talk about how the process went overall. We used the concept of a retrospective within our hiring process so that we could seek improvement the next time or adjust things that were not working. This was tremendously helpful and a far cry from the ending of standard hiring cycles I had experienced before. It incorporated the potential of improvement through reflection.

It allowed us to not only to apply agility into our people operations through inspection of the process but to allow us to gain better insight into the candidates coming in a bi-modal manner within a more reasonable timeframe for a technical interview.

What were our initial constraints that we had to work around?

  1. Public sector hiring is a highly regulated, rules driven system that has fixed timeframes and candidate constraints and posting for positions is often outside the hands of the hiring organization but rather handled in a centralized manner using template position descriptions.
  2. There are minimum educational qualifications that preclude candidates without a formal college education (and matriculation) or significant enough experience within the given field from qualification that can exclude many candidates. This meant that often people without formal education or experience fell beyond our reach. We could not just hire a technical savant that had never done anything or had any IT degree based on the hiring system.
  3. Protected class groups are given some preference in consideration (not preference in hiring) and justification must be made when not hiring a candidate from a HR protected class. So we had to ensure that if we rejected a candidate it was for sound rationale, not a gut feeling.
  4. Large scale private sector hiring processes are not unlike large public sector hiring processes. They are often slow and there is delay from groups external to the hiring group to confirm the hire, mandatory processes for which the information must pass, established formats for hiring submission for consideration by hiring managers, etc.
  5. Salaries, especially public sector technical salaries, are often non-competitive with private sector positions and often specific job classes simply do not exist meaning you have to employ grass roots marketing to use a position in a different manner and have people apply through personal recruitment. We had to consider a “hire and grow” strategy to remain competitive with the market and for more seasoned people we needed to find those that wanted a better balance in terms of their career and life needs.

Some, or all of these challenges are not uncommon to any person who hires within the public sector. So how did we address them?

We actually were fortunate to have a local human resources leader and team that wanted to ensure that we understood the process but remained open to conversations about what these obstacles were and work to address them with the centralized hiring authority. Forming a relationship with the HR team and understanding their world and the constraints under which they are responsible helped us work together to find the best way to work. There were some things we could not eliminate but what was possible was examined. Creating and maintaining this partnership helped us understand and better traverse the system of hiring in the private sector.

In my opinion, these partnerships are critical. The overall process is fraught with its own rules, domain language and understanding. Having people that can assist and become a partner that understood this world better than I became tantamount to driving towards a new approach. I would highly recommend that people desiring change in this space of the process build these partnerships. Without them, you are trying to traverse a system for which you may be woefully unprepared to understand all the nuances and aspects to this approach. These partnerships have been invaluable to me in understanding the roles and responsibilities of the HR system in the public sector and the things that I do to assist them in helping me get things accomplished when it comes to hiring staff.

Grass Roots Marketing

One of the things that was very important to us, and still remains a primary focus, is to share the story of our environment and culture with others that may seek to join us. We have spent time connecting with the local community and seeding the work we do to others as well as creating a significant “word of mouth” through our past hires and ongoing meeting with local groups such as software schools and developer meetups.

Often times, many large scale private enterprises have much more capital that they can put behind their hiring and recruitment processes. So, as a public entity; you often must become creative and put forth more personal effort without that budget to assist you.

We are very fortunate that our HR team understand the benefit of recruitment and is very progressive in the way they think about attracting candidates often hiring domain specific staff to help them understand and connect to the areas in which they are recruiting. This deeper understanding of “why” people want to come to work somewhere and the personal investment in the candidate is in alignment with our thoughts as well.

Staying connected as often as possible to groups to share the view of your environment and culture helps potential candidates get a better idea of who you are and why they would want to be a part. We are always thinking about this message and how it can help us attract the right people into our culture that can continue to be a value add and help us grow today and shape what we become in the future.

The Follow-up

The public sector, hiring often fails as the transition to potential candidate to “new hire” breaks down in the lull of the process. This is not unlike larger scale private enterprises but what they seem to manage much better than public sector is the process of pre-onboarding engagement.

We found a lot of our potential hires did not have the understanding of the lumbering beast that can be large enterprise hiring processes. It often involves multiple groups, departments, sign-offs and approvals. In a larger environment, the processes are often streamlined more for oversight than for speed to on-board. So it becomes critical that you become good at retaining that engagement during this process. Most people, even though excited, have some nervousness about starting a new position. I think a great deal of that stems from the unknown of the new job and role as they only get a small glimpse into the organization during the hiring process. We made visits to local bootcamps to educate potential candidates about the difference that applying to a larger scale enterprise company can be in terms of times so they understood this better.

This is a great opportunity for you to use that tie to help them gain a better picture of what their first day, their first week, etc will be like when they join a company. I have seen many companies that are master at this seeding periodic information to a candidate during this process so that they feel a part of something larger. This is something, as a public sector organization, we can become better at and do effectively without a large scale investment. Here are some examples:

  1. When hiring someone in the public sector, know what the average process length might be and set the expectations up front when hiring someone. The worst thing you can do is have a candidate wait in a black hole and wonder if something is wrong. Connect with them regularly to let them know about stages in the process and pass along helpful information to allow them to prepare for their new job.
  2. Send a personal email welcoming them with information about benefits (or pointers to benefits) that lets them know more about their group. Consider creating a marketing document or website that lets them get to know people before they arrive in some manner and gives them a glimpse into reinforcing why they chose to come work for you. If you have materials that introduce your culture and how you work, get it to them during the interim.
  3. Encourage questions and connection. Be accessible to them if they think of a question, find the answer for them or connect them to the right people.
  4. Organize something after work so they can interact with their new coworkers. Invite them to connect over coffee or drinks so that they makes those pre-connections before they start.
  5. Send them a final confirmation of employment when all is approved restating the salary, start date and pointing to benefits. Send an employee handbook and other materials that might be useful as well as anything else they need to experience the least amount of friction on day 1.
  6. Prepare for their arrival and have a consistent on-boarding process to help them be setup for success. Confusion and red tape starting day one is a great way to leave a sour taste in someone’s mouth when starting with a company. Having there location, tools and access in place demonstrates that you were focused on their start, not that it was an afterthought.
  7. Give them a voice in providing you feedback about their experience. This not only demonstrates that they do have an active role in the organization and use their insights to critically evaluate what you do. Keep the process as lean as possible so that you can change as needed.
  8. Realize that starting a new position is change and with change is often fear of the unknown. Meet with the team that they will work with prior and express your expectations of growth so that neither the team nor the new team member are confused about the organization’s expectation of their progress.

In this blog post, I have discussed the prior hiring process, how we approached it in a different manner to hire today and why these things are important and how we can set them up for the best outcome in the public sector.

In part two, I plan to diverge more into how we might consider on-boarding new candidates and explore some of my personal thoughts on ways outside of what we do at my organization that might further enhance the approach or different ideas that someone might try.

I end this post with a quote that I think embodies the importance of this activity:

“The most important thing you do as a leader is to hire the right people” – David Cottrell

The Effects of Accepting Bad Work

“Leadership is not a title. It’s a behavior. Live it.” – Robin Sharma

As career people, we have all had a bad manager likely in our career. Those that utilized command and control, meddled in the lowest levels of work, micro-managed or did not really understand what the crux of leadership really should be doing.

I have a very general treatise when it comes to those that I lead and manage.

  1. My staff have the freedom to challenge anything I say. – I do this because there is no possible way I can know everything nor can always be right. I can determine a course of action and lead with conviction but without the ability to hear the potential problems I might not see, I could be “the blind leading the lost”.
  2. Don’t push people out the door but don’t stunt their growth to make them stay. – Keep people learning and growing and work to ensure that you are not setting yourself up for failure through starving the group while feeding one individual.
  3. The culture and environment should inspire people to want to come to work. We spend far too much of our lives doing work to be in an environment that does otherwise. I have worked in those cultures where it was a real battle everyday to come to an environment even if I still appreciated the work that I was doing as was paid well to do it.
  4. You should constantly look for “bright spots” in the people that are a part of the culture and cultivate them however possible.  I want to be aware of people who are growing and encourage that growth through stretch assignments and opportunity. I would rather have a great team member leave my organization and go on to greater things than to have a mediocre team member stay and hold back the overall growth. Give you team members the ability to regularly learn and grow!

One of the things that I see in some leaders, and I have been guilty of as a leader myself early in my career, is allowing myself to accept bad performance from someone far longer that possible and not guide the situation either upward or outward.

After reflection on this situation, I really got to thinking about what the ramifications of leading in this way really do. I began turning over the idea and looking at it from more aspects than just leader and team member.

The potential affect of accepting this bad work

What this communicates to the team member

When a leader recognizes poor performance or work product on the part of a team member and allows this to continue, they often set the stage for a couple of things:

  1. The outwardly communicates that this level of work is the accepted norm to the team member and as a result they may never stretch themselves to do more or make think this is all that is ever expected from their job. This could lead to complacency on their part of push them out the door as they are bored.
  2. Leaders often become frustrated over time (likely from the guilt of not addressing the issue itself ) and are often reactive to the situation in the future without giving the employee insight into actually doing something to improve their work. This can be coupled with a lot of emotions around having the conversation about the work, which have compounded if left unaddressed over time..

What this communicates to the teams

  1. This shows a lack of care towards the teams themselves. Most teams that are self-organized will adapt to ensure that they still hit the mark of delivery even if they have to compensate for a bad team member. But they will begin to resent a leader who places them in this situation long term.
  2. It communicates that leadership is not really connected to what the teams do (or perceived that way) and is not really supporting them. I am not talking about micro-management here, I am just talking about the team feeling that they are drowning and no one  cares.
  3. It begins to communicate an expectation that the quality of work doesn’t mean anything to the culture.
  4. This can again breed with it a strong amount of emotion that makes it personal towards the underachieving team member or towards the leader or the organization.

So what to do to address this issue?

  1. Have an open conversation. Not tomorrow, not later, not when it “might feel easier”. As Nike says, “just do it”. Having a conversation over bad work performance is terrible.. Accept this and move forward. No amount of time will make it “less worse”.
  2. Understand what the impact is to the work and the team and be able to clearly articulate why the work is a problem. Don’t fish for words or try and make it sound “not that bad”. Just be honest and indicate the problem. Maybe this person is unclear of expectations. Just be able to state what the problem is exactly. And if the person needs to vent or rant or defend, allow them some space but do not try and soften it by discussing it to death.
  3. Be able to clearly articulate what the expectation of work is for them. Don’t leave them guessing. Do not give them micro-management but give them clear end goals and restate the team impact when not meeting the goal. Help them understand what success looks like.
  4. Provide a follow-up plan with clear checkpoints. Ensure that they know whom they can speak with if they have problems and ensure them that these checkpoints will ensure if the situation is getting better or worse and allows them a definite point in time to “pivot or persevere” in how they are working.

Overall, just be aware that the acceptance of bad work has impacts far beyond the work just not getting done right. Accepting this can eventually erode foundations of a good culture and a good team.

Until next time live well, lead well and stay agile!

 

Don’t Undermine Agility

In the book, “Drive“, author Daniel Pink talk about the primary underlying motivators of people based on research. He indicates that these are:

  • Autonomy: The desire to direct our own lives
  • Mastery: The urge to get better and better
  • Purpose: The service of something larger than ourselves

 

Each one of these elements can then be decomposed even further such as:

  • Autonomy – Giving an individual more control over where or how they work
  • Mastery – Providing recurrent opportunities for investment into skill growth or activities that provide both stretch and deliver propositions for the individuals or teams.
  • Purpose – Making the “why” of what they do highly visible or helping them see how their work contributes to the business as a whole or what impacts that they make through the work they do.

In my experience, these core ideals have always resonated me and they have been used within the culture we’ve built in my organization(although it could be more widely accepted):

Autonomy – We work hard to nurture the separation of the “what” and “how” of the work to be completed focusing the teams to have the freedom to have deeper ownership of the latter. We have balanced this by helping the culture find the value of conversation to find the best solution to meet the highest value. The best idea comes from where it comes from but no one has “carte blanche” to beat anyone into submission to follow their idea.

We utilize a remote work policy that is centered around being a professional and taking the work commitments seriously. Our teams are professional enough to understand that they have the ability to police themselves and have support from scrum masters and leaders in they see that someone is not pulling their weight or may bring it up for open discussion in a retrospective without fear. We expect notification as leaders so we can be responsible for knowing where our people are as a professional courteosy, that they have discussed it with their team and scrum master if they know they need to be offsite. We feel like this is polite notification as opposed to restrictive and teams seem to agree.

We use the general philosophy that “life happens”. I recall personally working jobs in which the expectation was that I took a vacation day for having an appliance delivered or having to take a sick day when I might be too unwell to make an hour commute but could have continued to contribute. By using this underlying idea, we communicate that we understand that people have life obligations that happen and we accept this and are willing to accomodate flexibility in where and when people work as long as we are still getting the work done in the best possible way and not degenerating into remote silos.

Always remember that if the tools and processes you are using carry so much overhead to ask a question, find an answer or interact effectively, an individual is more likely to make a decision in a vaccuum than take on the burder of the overhead of communication.

Mastery – We have realized this in several ways:

  • We provide recurrent week long hackathons to allow teams to focus their creativity on thinking about interesting ways to solve a problem or extend a product. This is focused around exploration of an idea and focused skill work, not product deliverables.
  • We provide to each and every member of our group a pluralsight account so that they can take advantage of learning within their schedule anytime.
  • We have designed our 13 day sprint cycle with purpose to account for a single day each sprint dedicated towards self-learning, skill building and growth. This provides and opportunity of almost 3 weeks of self learning spread out through the year.

Purpose – This is one that I think we could work on more but we do try and nuture product owners to really explain the end value gain that the business receives from the work that the teams are doing. This has often been promoted by talking a field trip out to the field to meet the end recipients of the work and allow them to explain what they do, how they work today and where their pain points lie. This often creates a solid empathetic connection between the team and the stories that they meet. Sometimes just understanding the history of the work being done, why it is done and what it does for the end customers can help them find connections.

Finding opportunities to allow teams and team members to connect to the business as a whole to learn about what it does outside of the product work would be a solid long term goal and is being developed by our Human Resources team within a learning portal.

One of my goals this year is to determine how we can utilize some of Diana Larsen’s ideas suggested in “Liftoff” to connect teams as early as possible to create deeper understanding and allow them to be directly involved in shaping the work such as story maps and user story decomposition as well as using ideas to connect them better to how their work connects to the business.

How you can undermine your own agility

Often, I have observed that people will do wrong things for the right reasons and wonder what happened to the organization that they created. The group they once believed in starts becoming less agile over time. Please watch and mitigate these issues should you see them begin occurring.

Autonomy – You begin stifling ways of individual work. If you begin to lose focus of where people are, what they are doing (especially in being asked by executives) or “situational emergencies” are seen as only possible to be handled onsite. You begin to predict the schedule based on ideas of when and are not open to the conversation of what as part of that equation. Your actions start communicating that you have a level of distrust in the work of teams as expectations and delivery are misaligned. You develop a culture that wants to “see people” more than it values “the work that they accomplish”.

Focus on schedule begins to overshadow value. You set dates in the sand for features based on limited information and begin eroding the team’s ability to provide you input into complexity and delivery to make value based decisions.

Mastery – There is an old joke in which a CFO questions a CIO about the money being spent on training. The CFO states “what if we train them and they leave”. The CIO replies “what if we don’t and they stay”?

In a creative field, the ability to grow with the industry and get better at what you do is often a core part of your career. It helps you promote, it helps you move to know companies, it often refines or grows your ability to lead either technically or otherwise. Becoming better, is a core value to being a creative worker. Sure, you may eventually hit a pinnacle in which you either trade those technical skills for a new skills or you get to a point where the languages become secondary to the patterns upon which they are built. You see languages as tools and the patterns of how they work become more transitive. Basically a creative career without growth means at some point, you will get stuck. The industry will move away from you. It does not need to sleep or play with it’s kids or spend time with its family, people do. With this being said, I cannot see how any organization that seeks to achieve any longevity with employees would ever consider not investing into employees. It’s a fool’s bet if you do not.

But there is a significant cost to this investment if using conferences, learning sites, etc. Which in the grand scheme of budgets is far smaller than people think, in my opinion. But there is something you can use and that is opportunity. Sure, it has the cost of allowing someone the time and freedom to learn and grow. But the pay-off of staying relavent and having employees who are constantly honing their craft is a good thing. Often time, bottom lines of budget can drive these. Look for every opportunity to keep continual learning alive through peer to peer sharing, local developer talks at lunch and learns or even reducing a team member capacity during sprints to allow them to learn. Find opportunities to showcase what is learned to your group as well as the business.

Whatever you have to do, do not allow obstacles to cripple your team member’s approach to mastery.

Purpose – General George Patton was quoted to tell his troops “Better to fight for something than to die for nothing” in terms of his deep patriotism. Teams and team members want to know that they are doing things that are impacting someone.

I have often said that my affinity for public sector organizations has been because “I would rather create a product that helps a secretary do her job a little better than to make a 10% profitability increase for a board of shareholders I never see; even if they give me a bonus in the process”. Maybe it is because I started in the social work sector before I moved into IT in business or maybe it is because the work holds less meaning to me personally when the measureability is based on profit alone.

In general, people want to do good. I have never met an employee or a team member in my entire career that came to work and said “I am going to do the absolute worst job I can possibly do”. They may be incompetant, poorly trained, not a team player, above their head, etc. but they did not intend to do a bad job. I often remind teams that perform legacy work who complain about older code that many times the developers who wrote that code were doing the best that they could with the tools that they had and within the abilities they possessed. They were just trying to get a job done and help someone. They did not intend to write code that they expected anyone besides them would ever support, let alone, complain about.

I recall being part of a team building a system that at a certain point we began calling it the “Titanic” as we joked often heard the ribbets pop as we scraped along the iceberg. The project scope grew uncontrollably and it became death by committee with each person fighting for their individual wants and making it difficult to get any one thing of value completed. In the end it became a bloated system of 80% features.

The reason I mention this project is that it took the team a LONG time to become frustrated even after the chaos started because we believed in the underlying mission of what the system was going to do. It was targeted to help kids. And help those people helping kids. It was going to ensure that they had better care, they got connected more openly to services and community. The vision was amazing and each and every team member was on board. We watched videos showing vaporware and shed tears at the good we were setting out to accomplish. We were connected to something larger than what we did because we knew how it fit into the world that it would be released to. It inspired us, it elevated us, it pushed us, it connected us. That vision drove us even when we as technical professionals should have know that the end was near as we understood what the purpose of the work we were doing was.

Disconnecting your teams from that purpose is a mistake. Sure, we have systems that are like “hello, this is our accounting system. it handles our payroll and benefits”. But what is the purpose of that system. For a team, this is the system that ensures that people are paid in a timely manner, insurance benefits are kept up to date and vacation time is accurately stored. Without that system, we couldn’t pay people, people could not take vacation and if sick, people might not have insurance if inaccurate information is stored. It helps us apply raises and bonuses that pay for the needs of ourselves and our families. The people that use this system do not ever want to be the ones that have to email everyone to tell them they are not being paid and rent and mortgages are late, etc.

Sure, payroll is dull to me, but it has a purpose, a need, a vision and a connection to the business. If a team is being asked to do something on a payroll system, the “why” is important. Are we speeding up a process? Are we adding a new feature? Are we making a problem go away? Are we allowing people to do something easier or better? Understanding this, can create a better connection for the team to do the work. Reinforcing these things with personas, story maps, etc can even inspire them.

Don’t decouple the “why” from team work. Don’t reduce it to “cause Bob says they need this”. Understand the why. Help them understand it and form a connection with it. Taking the time to do this will allow you to continue to remain agile and continue to support a quest of purpose for teams and team members. It will allow they to understand the business terms, frame questions in business ideology and connect to d the end goal they are trying to achieve.

Final Thoughts

I decided to write this article as I reintroduced to the concepts of Drive in some reading I was doing lately and thought about how we apply or should apply these ideals in an organization. They are some good core concepts upon which to build an organization that resonates to the base needs for people (and remember those needs may be broadly unique as autonomy for one does not mean the same for others so think broadly about what avenues you support and what you reject.) and how these items can become corrupted as you introduce less agility or embraces practices that work against their nature. It’s not to say that experiement and reflection are not a great way to see the impact of things. Agile is all about, I am all about it. But be open to impacts of things in a organizational way and don;t be afraid to fail or be wrong. Be an organizational scrum master and protect the teams and team members by protecting those things that helps keep them focused and productive and meets the underlying needs. Remove impediments and reflect often. Be open but be vigilent…

Stay Agile!

 

Find the value in planning

I decided to post this today as I had a conversation with a colleague who was struggling with the concept of velocity what it means, how it is applied in terms of sprint planning. He was struggling with a product owner using velocity to predict what could fit into a sprint and the team using it as the definitive line of what they could work on. As surprised as they were, I said, this is how velocity can be used although it should be seen as a radiator of information, not a definitive prediction for future work.

He was also very surprised when I told him that using velocity was dependent on how planning was approached as it might not factor at all. (insert head scratching here)

I explained that based on things I had learned from a planning and estimation course (thank you Mike Cohn) that there were actually 2 potential approaches that I was aware of when taking on sprint planning by a team.

  1. Velocity Driven Planning
  2. Commitment Driven Planning

The former, as the name holds makes velocity a primary point of measurement for determining team capacity while the latter uses available team member capacity as the point of measurement.

Velocity Driven Planning

This is the type of planning that is most commonly used, from my experience, and most commonly taught in scrum classes that I have attended. This is the process by which a team will determine it’s maximum team velocity based on past delivery to determine the level of commitment that they feel they can make in the current sprint. This is a view typically based on a historical perspective. That being said, velocity is helpful over the longer term when consistency shows the actual velocity of a team as opposed to the sort-term. And any disruption to that team means a potential change in their velocity. It is a radiator of possibility, not an absolute.

 Yesterday’s Weather

This is the process where a team may look a sprint or two behind (successes and failures are fine) and together determine level of commitment in terms of points that it can make commitment to based on that ideal.

Average Velocity

A team may look across several sprints, add the sum of total points delivered and divide by the total number of sprints to arrive at an average maximum velocity for the team. This will be used to set a maximum velocity for commitment by the team.

Capacity Driven Planning

This approach is much more focused on the amount of available capacity to each team member to meet the task  obligations so that they can apply this capacity to the items when decomposed to determine when they feel “full” as a team in relation to the overall hours they can utilize.

This process uses the following process flow:

  1. The team members determine how much capacity is available to the for the sprint. This can be determined by factoring in capacity for organizational overhead (meetings, personal time off, etc.) plus a projected maximum timeframe for unplanned work (such as support responsibilities, emergent tasks not identified or other items that may come up; as we never want to plan for max capacity typically) subtracted from the available determined timeframe for the sprint.
  2. The team will select a story from the backlog with the highest priority and decompose the work into the basic tasks that need to be completed to deliver the story and attach an estimate of the amount of time projected to complete the work in hours.
  3. The team members will take the decomposed items and apply it against their projected capacity (if development work the developers may need to discuss how the time applies across multiple people with same domain specialty). Once deducted, they now have their remaining capacity and repeat steps 2-3 until they have filled that capacity close enough that the team members are as full as the team can carry for the sprint. This will not always be the case for every team member.

This approach is focused more on the short term as opposed to velocity as it uses a projection of time over the next sprint period and the capacity of the team for that sprint work. Using this as a baseline after the given sprint would not be a good idea as the first step should be that the team members calculate the available capacity before each commitment.

This approach can be much more time consuming as the team is decomposing the work as it goes along to measure each item against remaining capacity before it makes the commitment to the given story. You have to be vigilant that a team does not get caught up into so much perfection of task decomposition that they make this meeting long, painful and less productive.

Which Should you Use?

Get ready for the answer you will love to hate.  It depends.

If your organization has team members not really following a focus of scrum or they have them handling other responsibilities, then capacity planning can be really helpful (and a savor for those that think the developer who can focus 1 hour a day has 8 hours to work on a product).

If your team velocity is all over the place or you have a sense that the team has fallen into a comfortable groove and never pushing themselves because it’s “easier”, maybe capacity planning is something to try.

If you want to find that sustainable pace that allows your team to use past information to give them insight into a future prediction, velocity can certainly help you do this.

Do you have a product owner that thinks in terms of features and not in terms of sprints? Either of these methods can assist you to help them understand how to create that bridge of trust with the team to understand what goes into what they are asking to accomplish.

A general rule of thumb is that if you look at the velocity of a team you will see some variance over time (based on team member availability or unplanned work) so it is really just a guide. Using capacity, you are trying to apply a more concrete form of measurement to the work at hand (although there is room for error here as well as things take longer, unplanned work takes up more time, etc.) but it is based on what the person expects that they have available to commit in terms of the value they provide to the team.

What Have I Typically Used?

Most teams I have worked with have used velocity as it feels easier to them than to determine their capacity and fortunately I have been able to minimize the distractions they have from product focus. But, I would be open to change if needed or to experiment. We often determine capacity for team members (like leave, etc.) at my organization with them just so that we can make visible to the team the drop in team member involvement so they can consider how this impacts their commitment.

My Observations of Team Planning Meetings

What I will say is that often times, from what I see, teams do not utilize planning sessions to the utmost effectiveness. They tend to rush to commit, rush to decompose so that they can start working on building. It often feels as if they are just trying to put something down and move on. It is our responsibility to help them understand that this is a time to refine the understanding before the energy of work begins.

Some teams do not use the time of these meetings to discuss architecture and design much or talk about approaches. They merely try to identify the tasks, drop some numbers and move into the work. This is a failure on our part of servant leaders if they do not realize that this is a horizon for which they can better understand the work based on the known today. If using the general scrum rule of thumb for 1 hour planning and 1 hour tasking for every week of the sprint, these can be long meetings for some teams.

A 30 day sprint alone could be a full day meeting. Why not use it in the best way possible? I get it, I have been a technical team member and was ready to build but the greatest power I found from the team was that we saved time when we came together, discussed and white-boarded ideas BEFORE we ever leveraged code. We maximized the time to gain a shared understanding of work that we could reflect and adjust as well as understanding the items we would be building. Approaching our sprints in this manner allowed us to create a shared and unified approach even if the path to get there was evolving throughout the sprint.

One of the best comments I ever heard about sprint planning is that it is far less important to be precise in identifying each and every individual task for a sprint than it is ensuring that you understand the stories to be delivered that make up the commitment as a team.

Stay Agile!

The Code you Love to Hate

“No matter how hard the past, you can always begin again” – Buddha

In my work environment, we have a portfolio which consists of a large amount of older code bases for which the team members are responsible to support for the business. I have personally experienced in the past the difficulties of supporting a legacy (I’ll use that term here but actually believe any product that starts it’s lifecycle from stabilization becomes legacy) applications and see how it can be a struggle for team members that I lead today.

Older technologies, poor implementations, no real guidance or design patterns, etc. Sometimes it is a real mess. I recall one of my mentors in development relaying to me when I was learning early in my career that fixing a problem in legacy code is often like donning a pith helmet and traipsing through a dense jungle. At the time, some of things I encountered used to make me so angry at why a developer might do some of the things he did in the implementation and it often caused massive refactoring (with care) to make it more maintainable. But as I matured as a technical worker, I began to realize a few base things:

  1. The developer may have been unequal to the task put before him. He may have been asked to do something for which his skill level made him unequipped to actually do and he created this in the best and most logical way he saw fit to accomplish his job. Maybe that popular “off the shelf” program did not exist when it was built.
  2. I believe that no developer sets out with the approach “I am going to write the sible code I can create”.
  3. The tools and technologies (or the depth of knowledge of them) at his disposal may have not allowed him to understand some of the side effects of things done.
  4. Maybe they did not have any real code standards or design patterns under which they were expected to write code.
  5. Refactoring of code is a given. Any code that exists and extended is likely to need refactoring when changed. Nothing is perfect.
  6. Bugs exist in the world. There are no perfect systems and any complex system will likely have issues that are unaccounted.
  7. If deep dependencies are used (3rd party or other systems) it is likely the developer though in terms of the environment of the day, not that the code might outlive those dependencies or they might change before this code base did so.
  8. Even if it is “legacy code”, as the current developer or team doing that job today, you assume ownership.  You may not like the way it is written or find it difficult but the base fact is that you have taken on this code base as a part of your job.
  9. You are in control of refactoring and can, whenever possible, make things better for those who come after you.
  10. Instead of focusing on the negative aspects of the code base, why not (as a developer reminded me recently) utilize the boy scout motto and “leave it better than you found it”.

Actual Problems with older code bases

I know as a technical professional we all hate inheriting a messy or poorly designed code base. It really sucks to have to work on it, fix it and sometimes just keep it running as the technical world changes around it. I often describe some as neighborhoods in which I try and perform the least amount of interaction and then get out.

I also know that many organizations do not fully grasp the need of the “care and feeding” of code bases or the deeper understanding that software should have a lifecycle and die and be reborn or transformed. Many organizations I have been a part of would rather hear the “thump, thump, thump” of the old reliable software and not think about what happens if it becomes in a critical state.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a very common idea. I actually knew a major software company that ran it’s accounting and payroll from a mainframe Cobol code base long past it’s prime and even hired high dollar consultants long term to ensure it kept running each time it sputtered and dropped a dump in hexadecimal code.

But the cost of continuing to gamble on these large complex systems is risk and if understood by the organization, they would see the importance to mitigate that risk as they would any other risk to the business.

It’s like driving a 1965 Chevy Bel-Air car. As time goes by, maintenance becomes more pervasive, parts become more difficult to find and eventually you may not even be able to get them or need to have them custom machined to keep your car running. This car may be something you keep covered in the garage and drive only on Sundays when the weather is nice. But if like a core business system, you used this classic car for your daily commute, the expense of upkeep and the risk of failure become greater and greater as time wears on.

So what do I do? I am a little scared now …

You basically have 2 core options:

  1. Bite the bullet and replace the system in total or find a way to “cage and lifecycle”
  2. Use a legacy transition pattern to migrate the system to a more maintainable code base in the future.
  3. Cross your fingers and hope for the best.

Option #1

Replacing a large complex core organizational code base is expensive. It is a large scale investment by a company and may require a significant technical  and personnel investment to replace. This is a fact.

But, just like buying a home, it is also an investment that hopefully returns greater end results through actually taking time to ensure that the system still actually supports the business and does not have “dead zones” of features that people cared about or wanted 20 years ago but no longer need. It gives you an opportunity to think about how a system models to the current business. And even while recreating the system, you still must maintain the current system and managing the changes to that system can be a challenge.

You also could encounter the dreaded problem of “thinking in the old system” as opposed to thinking in terms of how the business works. This can be especially true when a system has been a core system. People stop thinking about what the business needs and relate it to more of what they currently have to maintain in the system . This can be especially risky in disaster recovery scenarios in which the business must know how to function without a system being in place. For many businesses, they never consider this issue (given the world of distributed servers and cold site switchover).

In short, if you take this route, the organization has to be focused and it may be painful but the goal is to create something (hopefully in a better designed way) that can be cared for over time and change over time. If you take this route, placing a lifecycle for the system is probably important as well.

Option #2

One pattern I have become very interested in comes from Martin Fowler. It is called the “Strangler Pattern“. I find this approach very interesting as it balances the replacement of the former system with the new system but utilizes a common set of services to supply both until the legacy system is “strangled out”. The idea coming from vine growth in Fig trees that Fowler and his wife learned about on vacation. The vines sprout in the top portions of the tree and grow and eventually take over and replace the host.

I am not deeply versed on replacement patterns but my assumption is that this is only one of many. If you are fortunate enough to have an application that did use an MVC pattern, you might be able to begin to replace pieces in place and minimize disruption.

Another approach might be to leave the data structure as is (although legacy systems are often rife with business logic in the data tier), build the new system on an MVC or MVVM pattern with a services layer and later refactor the data tier over time and adjust the models to utilize the new data source while moving the business logic in a more desirable tier of the pattern.

Option #3

As surprising as it sounds, this is actually a path that some folks take. Please don’t find yourself in this situation as all of the hope and good karma in the world is not going to pull your backside out of the fire when (and I say this as opposed to “if”) things go South.

Final Thoughts

I started this post as I think it is important as team members that have legacy application to understand just as we collective own the new code we create, we own the code that came before us as part of what we do. I think that it is important for organizations to understand that these code bases can equate to risk and should be mitigated as any other potential impact to the business and that there are many ways that we as technical and creative people can help move the needle forward.

And most of all, the statement given to me by that developer on a team that said “leave it better than you found it“(the Boy Scout motto).

I think that is sound advice, no matter what you do in your organization and should drive us all …

 

Scrum master tips – The burndown

I have been working with several entry level scrum masters over the past few years and have discovered that although they may fully understand the general ideas of rituals and artifacts of the scrum framework, understanding the underlying agile value proposition these things support. Gaining insight into how they can utilize them with continued effectiveness with their teams seems to not be something that many do not often explore initially.

So I thought it might be helpful to convey how I view these items and how they can actually create impact for you as a scrum master to up your effectiveness with the teams.

My personal philosophy when I became a scrum master was that my role was a lynchpin in the process overall and that by increasing my understanding and effectiveness of the roles, rituals and artifacts, I could become a better servant-leader to a team overall.

This is merely how I view and utilize these things and hope that they help you as well.

What is the burndown chart?

The burndown chart falls into a category for me to be viewed as an “information radiator. It provides information in a static way that can allow the scrum master and the team to view the current state of product work within the sprint. It radiates information that can then be consumed and acted upon. It is a great artifact for assessment and course correction as well as allows scrum masters to begin to see items occurring within a team that may not be readily apparent, even to the team itself.

It is a chart that is measured by taking the amount of overall effort to be performed (hours of work) and plotting it across an axis of the total working calendar days of the sprint. Often it is coupled with an “ideal line” that reflects the optimum burn of effort equally distributed among days. As the “task hours” are burnt down, it reflects where the team is in terms of hours remaining to complete within remaining time of the sprint.

A typical burndown might look something like this:

burndown chart

In this scenario, the team has 400 hours of delivery tasks over an iteration of 10 days. This reflects work that may be done by the entire team (coding, testing, design, etc) for the 2 week iteration. So, the ideal line is reflecting to the team that at an average burn rate of 40 combined hours of effort by the team that is projected to complete the committed work within the 10 day sprint period.

Typically  the burndown charts I have used reflect the days of dedicated effort and do not reflect periods of planning, review, etc as these are bookend ceremonies to provide sprint lift-off and sprint landing. The burndown is focused on the time where team effort is directed towards end commitment.

The basic idea behind this chart is that from an agile perspective the highest value is to be aware of the work remaining undone and not to remain focused on the work already completed. So the responsibility of the product team is to reflect the remaining hours daily to represent the actual burn of working on a given story.

This is a very brief and straightforward explanation of what a burndown chart is so let’s delve into the next level of how it is helpful, how we might utilize the information and look at some ways to interpret patterns we may see inside a burndown to better frame questions or make inquiries to the team to help them.

What does a burndown chart do for a team?

As I mentioned before, it is an information radiator to a team. It gives them a snapshot of the past brief period of work and tasks completed and a reflection point for the work remaining to be done within the sprint. This information allows them to reflect a current team state both internally and externally to convey where they are without a “direct status report” to others outside the team as well. Anyone looking at the chart can get a general idea of where the team might be even if they do not fully understand the chart itself. This, however, can also lead to bad perceptions as opposed to informational learning as we will discuss later.

It is incumbent that a scrum master fully understand the purpose of this artifact, the reasons behind how it actually works and to begin to see patterns of work or potential team dysfunction within a burndown chart.

This allows them to not only accurately convey how to use this information and its purpose but frame questions aimed at potentially keeping the team productive or assist the team to be actively  aware of the “first responsible moment” of when a product commitment might become in jeopardy.

Patterns of burndown charts

Visual representation of work often allows an excellent opportunity to the scrum master and the team to reflect on familiar patterns that can be a visual queue to certain information or team dysfunction.

The Ideal Line is merely a Projection

As a scrum master, if you have the belief that below the ideal represents the idea of “being on track” and above the ideal is “being off track” you are taking a far too simple view of the  information that the team provides.

The burndown should be seen as a reflection for consideration of current state of a product development print to make inquiry, not predictive like a project schedule. The ideal is merely a projection of all things working with no issues impacting the team. It is a projection used for comparison. Establishing the thought as a scrum master of anything other than this or reinforcing to the team that it means ahead or behind the curve is a bad precedence to set and can lead to future problems.

Effort Swelling

For instance, in the image above, the team starts on day one burning down tasks and within the next 24 hours begins drifting above the ideal. A simple view might create panic and say “HEY EVERYONE! WE’RE BEHIND ON DAY TWO. WE GOTTA DO SOMETHING!!!!” when the circumstances that cause this picture could result from many potential reasons and should be information we can use as a scrum master to reflect on and potentially frame questions such as:

  • Did the committed work had greater unknowns than the team imagined and tasks are emerging? Normal and very possible. Probably just something to be aware of and see how the trend moves within 24 hours or so. But a basis to have the team reflect on this data maybe as a visual cue to them in your next stand-up.
  • Is the team struggling? Is there a causation? Has the team experienced a drop in overall capacity from the commitment due to sickness, not accounting for a team member vacation, etc? Many modern electronic tools, such as Microsoft Team Foundation Services,  will allow you to adjust the loss of capacity by each team member and the chart will update to reflect this effort recalculated across the iteration.
  • Are they just stuck? Are they mentioning impediments in their daily stand-up? Is there something you can do to assist or coach them to self-organize around solving the problem through inquiry?
  • A common symptom of a potential team dysfunction is that the members are not actually “burning down” their hours. They are pulling a task into a working state and working on it until done, therefore reflecting the total hours when there is actually less to be completed and then moving it to done all at once. This can show work not moving and so the work remaining can begin to begin a swelling pattern. One way of getting some insight into the pattern is if you see large drops of work following a swell.

Effort Drops (“work falling off the cliff”)

This pattern may look something like this:

Burndown Chart 2

Some questions that might happen when seeing such a drastic drop quickly:

  • Was the work committed less complex than the team thought initially and they just hit a “rapid burn” (Go Team!)
  • If following a swell, is the team actually burning down the hours regularly?  Are they perhaps holding on to tasks and not updating remaining hours but just pushing it to done when completed? This might prompt a scrum master to look into this information that the burndown provides in combination with the sprint task board and use it during a retrospective for exploration of “what does this mean to the team”?

Again, the key takeaway here is that these types of patterns provide an opportunity to learn, observe and inquire to assist you as the scrum master to help the team remain productive towards meeting their commitment. This information can help you teach the team to use this information to get some insight as to what is going on either during the sprint or used for exploration with the team within the retrospective.

These are merely some simple examples of how this artifact of the scrum framework can be used. It is best to keep in mind the concept of how it reflects back information to the team. Many scrum pioneers have discussed “BVC’s” (big visible charts) of which this can be one to help teams reflect on their current state of work and make adaptations based on insight. I hope this blog post allows new scrum masters a new way to use this artifact and can help them assist their teams with better insight …

I often consider this quote when thinking of a burndown chart in relation to teams …

“Information is only useful when it can be understood” – Muriel Cooper