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.

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”.

 

Just one thing …

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is? [holds up one finger] This.

Mitch: Your finger? Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean s***.

Mitch: But, what is the “one thing?”

Curly: That’s what you have to find out.

Jack Palance and Billy Crystal  from the movie “City Slickers”

I always found this scene amusing when I was a kid. The old ranch hand trying to teach a city guy the value of focus for clarity. Of course at the time I just thought it was funny. After all these years, I realize that Curly was teaching a true agile value. Focus.

Focus is that thing that often gives us clarity. It gives us the ability to think deep thoughts and really unravel an idea. It allows us to extrapolate from a big thing into discrete pieces upon which we can undertake. It applies to things in life as much as it does in software development. I have started to really appreciate this as I prepare for an upcoming house declutter and move.

Do I allow myself to always embrace this seemingly simple approach. Nope. I, like others, allow myself to get too “focused” (and I use this term loosely here as it really not focused at all) on too many things. Like those performers that are spinning plates on a skinny stick, I find myself focusing on keeping them all spinning sometimes. But, as I am want to do, which often results in a blog post, I find myself stopping, breathing, thinking, assessing and questioning my current chartered course. So here we are.

Focus is a core value in agility as it allows us to actually be more productive by allowing ourselves to work to accomplish “that one thing” as Curly put it.

Under scrum, we demonstrate this through the user story, the task decomposition in terms of work effort. We use focus in terms of daily risk mitigation through a focus meeting called the  stand-up. We focus on the features committed within the review and the team within the retrospective. If you look closely, focus is woven throughout

Kanban has WIP and the innate concept of “pulled work” which itself a way to focus and measures this through the idea of how effective our focus on delivery is through things such as cycle time.

But there is one dimension in which I often see less focus. In the process of delivery. What I mean by this is often I see scrum development teams use a “divide and conquer” approach in which teams members use their specialized skills to scatter and seek to deliver. They are in no way being less agile in this approach but I have always wondered what would happen if they allowed themselves to focus and iterate just like the larger product. There are examples of this. Just take a look at Woody Zuill’s mob programming or pair programming as outlined in Exteme Programming by Kent Beck.

My latest read, “Joy, Inc” talks about the use of pair programming as the standard way of how they hire and how they work. They see it as not only a way to create shared knowledge by this but also to ultimately be more productive.

So, I have posed this question many times to developers and often get the same response “well, development doesn’t quite work that way” to which I often reply “are you willing to try an experiment and either fail or be wrong”? *smiles*

My logic has always been that if a sprint backlog is supposedly composed of a top to bottom prioritized list of the highest business value, wouldn’t we want to work through the items (given we identify any dependencies and work to minimize those with the product owner) and focus to deliver each story in that manner during a sprint? Or even look at the absolute most complex item and focus on completion of that story and then work on the lower hanging less dense fruit?

I see 4 potentially significant benefits that could result from this:

  1. We get items in front of our team members specialized in quality quickly so they can assess features for compliance to acceptance, note any software issues or quality enhancements and they can become productive more quickly. They are reviewing and testing completed features, even if there are mocks behind some dependent needs of other stories. They also are able to learn a portion of the system under construction and build automation against it for regression more quickly if needed.
  2. If we for some unforeseen reason we are impacted to effectively deliver on all stories for our commitment, we can at the first responsible moment, assess remaining team bandwidth, current deliverable dependencies and make decisions so that we can have that conversation immediately with our product owner so we can remain transparent on the impediment and impact but emphasize our focus on the highest priorities or largest complexity first.
  3. We reinforce iterative development at the lowest level of development (by using refactoring and integration as part of the way we work) and can focus on ensuring that we meet our agreed definitions of done at each story level.
  4. We “should” end up with a set of features tested early which should allow us to as a team to swarm baking in quality for our product and preparing for our review at sprint’s end (given we did not over commit …)

So in my view this approach makes sense to me and I have worked on teams that worked this way and we remained productive and felt like we were accomplishing more towards our product goals. We effectively delivered features regularly for review for the stakeholders.

A lot of folks may be reading this and joining the chorus of previous conversations saying “yeah, sounds good but you don’t really understand” …

So I reply to you all … “are you willing to try an experiment and either fail or be wrong”?

 

Recommended Read

“If you’re comfortable with the amount of freedom you have given your employees, you probably have not gone far enough”. – Lazlo Bock (Work Rules!)

I recently completed the audiobook of “Work Rules!” by Laszlo Bock (I went back a read passages I really wanted to dig into in the paperback as well). For those of you who are unfamiliar, Laszlo Bock is the Senior Vice President of People Operations for Google. He shares a very interesting insight into how they apply programs, policy and practices that impact employees and surprisingly how much data they collect to understand if they are actually making any real impact to the employees or the culture at large.

Some of the mystery about what/how and why Google does some of the things they do were outlined in the book. A few of them were:

  • Many of the services (like the haircut bus) provided to Googlers are at no cost to the company. It is often a brokerage between people operations and businesses for them to generate business buzz and customers. Many of things are often out of pocket for employees but adds a convenience factor for them to not have to schedule time to go and do these things.
  • The “micro kitchens” famously known at Google that allow googlers to grab a snack, a coffee, water, etc are actually spaced throughout the campus with intention to stimulate “unplanned interactions” where people from groups that might not directly work together might interact or spark and idea in one another.
  • Google has a performance management process and it gets scrutinized for effectiveness and adapted to bring the most value.

There are some really interesting ideas in this book. Not all of them are applicable to every organization but the underlying message is. If we have people focused on the operations of people and people are our greatest company investment, where is the downside?

The spirit of this book will hopefully inspire you to just think differently about how you can impact your culture in small ways and use data to determine if the “perks” you are providing are doing what you intended. I was so inspired by this book that I bought an extra copy so I could share some of this with our human resources, who are progressive thinkers as well.

I would highly recommend this book if you are leading a team, transforming an organization or maybe are part of people operations in your own company.  It will definitely inspire you to think about what things that you might be able to do to enhance the work environment and how you determine if it is working.

Stay Agile! 😀

 

 

 

 

 

 

Draw How to make Toast

Just a quick redirect to something I have stumbled across and found fascinating and wanted to share. This approach is an introduction to systems thinking and what they call “Wicked Problem Solving”. This is another approach from Tom Wujec who outlined another team approach to iterative innovation in the Marshmallow Challenge Website.

I just found this a very interesting way to get to core problems to solve for a group. Check it out:  Draw How to Make Toast Website .

Hope this gives you another tool in your agile toolbox to do great things!

Scrum Alliance Webinar

“One of the most sincere forms of respect is listening to what people have to say”

– Bryant McGill

I was very honored to be asked to conduct a webinar for the Scrum Alliance with my colleague and friend, Mr. Joe Kirk, about our agile transformation work with a state transportation department this week.

I really enjoyed discussing our journey and addressing questions for attendees.  The scrum alliance should be posting a follow-up to the talk soon in which we addressed questions for which we did not have time to do so during our talk.

Agile Transformation at Tennessee Department of Transportation

 

Using Agile Outside of Software

“There is a better way to do it. Find it.” – Thomas Edison

One of the core principles of the agile manifesto is the response to change in opposition to following a plan. That is not to say that development and following a plan is not valuable but there is a heightened value in remaining responsive to change.

I was approached this week by a colleague and friend who asked my opinion on a very structured change management framework for organizational initiatives. They have personally really grown to appreciate the idea of approaching things in an agile manner and the use of collaborative teams to find innovative solutions so the idea of this highly structured process framework seemed to raise some concern them. I thought about this a great deal and speculated that “change” could be managed just like a sprint or use of a kanban pull system just as easily.

I think that at its core, the agile manifesto (if taken out of the context of software) guides us to:

  • Value collaboration with people to solve a problem over rigid processes or elaborate tooling.
  • Produce a working value item as opposed to documentation defining what the items is to be produced so we can inspect and adapt a tangible item.
  • Remain close and communication often with customers to again help us reflect and review on progress to date and gauge possible improvement.
  • Embrace change and be open to adaptation when change occurs.

I postulated the following approach to them based on the scrum framework (these are not really new ideas, just a rehash of those before me but I find the idea of applying agile frameworks outside of software fascinating):

The Artifacts

  • A change initiative backlog consisting of specific items of change sought by the organization. This should be prioritized with highest value change initiatives first and lesser valued items much lower in the backlog. I might create these very similar to user stories with a persona who will gain value, a business value need and an expected benefit. In place of the typical acceptance criteria of a story, I might use something like expected result from change (maybe a benchmark) or maybe even some other type of indicator. Unsure there but think the key takeaway would be to split the concepts so that they could be delivered in one to two weeks but no more than a month to keep the inspect and adaptation horizon low enough to “pivot or persevere”.
  • Tasks could be decomposed by the team to address the change initiatives, again like you would with a typical backlog item and provide them an insight into progress during the change sprint.
  • In development of the initiative, I might even develop personas reflecting the target impact audience and their perceived benefits and perhaps even develop an initiative roadmap that reflected where logical “releases” of the initiative made sense.

The Rituals

  • You might perform some base forecasting to get a shared sizing indicator but I would probably forgo fibonacci and opt for t-shirt sizes, animals, etc. I would let the team determine the appropriate sizing rubric. I am really not sure that this would be necessary as you might better employ a pull system to visualize work process for something like this.
  • I would only consider keep sprint planning so that the team could make the commitment to the change owner if I were to use more of a scrum process than kanban. I think either could work effectively here although I do personally appreciate creating a sense of urgency and team buy-in with a stated commitment.
  • I would definitely keep a timebox  of 1-4 weeks to allow the team to remain focused and keep the end goals in mind. I think that this review horizon for progress with the team is essential so that they are invested and reflect the realistic amount of work that can be accomplished.
  • I would keep the concept of a stand-up and work to set the timeframe in relation to the need for risk mitigation of not meeting the commitment. I would probably stick with daily as it tends to level set people for things they have accomplished and remaining tasks to be performed. I also think that this helps reinforce the ideas of self-organization and self-management by allowing the team to reflect together on items done and undone and organize themselves accordingly. Even if using a “pull system”, I would use this opportunity to have a guided “walk of the board” so that the team could reflect on bottleneck areas, self-organize to impact them and visualize the overall flow. I would start simply with a “To Do, In Progress, Done” approach and tailor as the team learned more about its general workflow states possibly.
  • As I stated earlier, I would define a timebox for progress demonstration of the initiative items and team reflection like the scrum framework review and retrospective.

The Roles

  • A “change owner” (just like a product owner) represents a group of stakeholders for the organization and is the single voice to the team when it becomes stuck, needs clarification or needs an immediate decision. This person would need to be empowered by the business to own this change effort as they will have the ability to provide iterative feedback to adjust course accordingly at the review.
  • A cross-functional team. One of my favorite design firms is known for this idea. In applying this to the concept of of an organizational change initiative, I believe that you would need to ask yourself some clarifying questions:
    • Is it more important that I have all the skills necessary for the delivery of a change item?
    • Is it more important that I get a good cross section of my organization of all types of roles that are critical thinkers and “doers”so that I can get a better reflection of the organization as a whole and to provide broader context?
  • I would also use the concept of a scrum master type role to help keep the team focused and productive. I might tag them more as a team coach focused on helping them through the process, teach them heightened skills to work as a team, assisting with impediment removal and assisting them to reflect on the process for continual improvement of the team.

I think the key components to making this work in a non-software situation is to still be value and customer focused and treat the initiative like a product so that it could be developed.

Folks who typically read my blog may be saying to themselves “yeah, this just makes sense” but for people outside the world of software, sometimes the concepts of iterative building seem foreign and they see things in “final state”. This is just an idea for them to see how they might apply this to their domains of business. I do think that providing the team the concept of focused effort would make this more productive but in the context of business domains this might be difficult. Capacity management strategies, micro teams or just allowing them to suspend their daily effort and focus for a timebox (by having others manage the daily activities) could be an option. I do think using a pull system might allow for an interrupt driven process but I also would be concerned that most might have difficulty determining true criticality of work they typically are expected to perform today. Being an agile leader and allowing this focus may draw some criticism but you might treat it like an experiment, run a few sprints with focused effort, reflect on the work accomplished and adjust as needed.

One thing that I told my bosses when I pitched my first scrum pilot to help secure buy-in was “you will review progress every 2 weeks. At this time, you can choose to continue, adjust or stop funding the project altogether and abandon the effort. Failure should be an option but the goal should be to fail as fast as possible if we do so.”

We are already seeing this done a great deal in many industries, automotive, design, marketing, education and even in areas such as program development at NPR. So this is definitely not a new phenomena but it is interesting to take a step back away from the world of software and ask ourselves how might we harness what we know already about agile principles and processes and apply them in a unique way to build something other than software. It fascinates me. So take a moment, is there somewhere that you see complexity in an effort that would benefit from an empirical approach. Maybe you should be a catalyst to help someone try something new.

I leave you with this quote that I have always appreciated …

“Success isn’t about what you accomplish in your life. It’s about what you inspire others to do” – Unknown