2 lessons Muhammad Ali taught me about Agility and Innovation

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Muhammad Ali has always been my personal hero and source of inspiration. I recently discovered that my affinity for him might also reside in his natural born “agility” and ability to innovate.

This is what Ali has thought me about agility and innovation

First lesson: Be ready to react quickly to changing conditions.

Kinshasa, Zaire, October 30, 1974, 4:00 am. The fight that will be remembered as the greatest of all time is about to start.

Ali wants his world champion’s title back. He tried to get it back from Joe Frazier three years earlier but didn’t succeed, he lost. Before he could have a rematch with Joe Frazier, a brand new guy stormed the scene and took the title, this guy is George Foreman, tonight’s opponent. George Foreman is a young giant, with incredibly powerful punches that managed to knock out Frazier 6 times during their title bout.

Nobody believes Ali can beat Foreman apart from Ali himself.

The fight starts. Ali and Foreman go at each other. Ali is being hit hard by Foreman. He is incapable of making his fast hands count against his opponent’s superior power. His dancing feet are not enough to keep Foreman away. This is a disaster. Ali’s best skills, punch speed, and fast dancing legs are not enough against this guy, Ali is going to lose.

But he is Ali, the King Of The World, the greatest of all time, it wasn’t going to be that easy.

It is at this point that Ali decides to change his tactics. This is something that boxers do all the time. They start with a plan; if it doesn’t work, they go to plan B, then plan C and so on until they either find an approach that is effective or they go down.

Ali is different, his plan B is something that nobody had done before and he devises it there and there while the fight is on, while he is being outpowered by his opponent.

The rope-a-dope is born.

Ali decides to let Foreman push him to the ropes of the boxing ring and to focus only on defending. He uses the loose ropes of the ring to go down on his back and duck his opponent blows. He decides that it’s a good choice as he can transfer some of the power of his opponent blows to the elasticity of the ropes and out of his body.

His guard is as high and tight as it had ever been in his career. He throws one or two punches only when he sees a clear opening. These punches are by design not powerful, no intent of knocking his opponent out, they are defensive punches, because “he won’t hit me while I hit him clean”.

For any of the millions of Ali’s fans, the first 7 rounds of the fight are heartbreaking. They can see their hero bullied against the ropes, unable to hurt his opponent. Everybody thinks it is only a matter of time before Foreman unleashes a clean blow and knocks Ali down. Not even his corner trainer, Angelo Dundee, can understand what Ali has in mind, and he keeps on shouting “Get away from the ropes! Ali, get away from the ropes”.

Then the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and the 7th round go by like this. But by throwing so many punches, George Foreman is starting to get tired. His punches are not effective against Ali. Ali uses the ropes to absorb the power and keeps his face out of reach through a tight defensive guard. George Foreman is punching himself out, Ali’s plan is working.

Then the 8th round. Foreman’s tiredness is showing clearly, even the commentators notice he is unsteady on his legs throwing ever slower and tired punches. Ali was waiting for it and sees it too. Foreman is tired, it’s time to strike.

Twenty seconds before the end of the 8th, Ali sees Foreman unsteady on his feet slightly lose his balance, he slips the ropes by turning to his right and hits Foreman with the most beautiful combination of 6 punches you will ever see.

Foreman goes down, he never gets up.

Ali is the King Of The World again.

Second Fundamental: Don’t be afraid to fail if you want to innovate

Ali had to try something new, if he didn’t he would have lost. He could have tried a less risky approach, less risky than one that nobody had ever tried before.

But he was Ali, he was brave, he went for the big bet, and choose the riskiest solution.

His experiment was successful,  he created the rope-a-dope, an innovation in the 100-year-old world of boxing.

From Ali, I learned that being able to react to changing conditions and having courage when experimenting can help us innovate.

Thank you, my hero!

That’s what creates innovation in this world. We’ve got to try!

Ultimate guide to use metrics to distract your teams and destroy your company

I have had a lot of conversations, with agile people and not, around the topic of measuring success of an agile team. I have heard all sorts of metrics thrown around, from velocity, throughput, number of bugs or lack thereof, and so on.

The fact is that those metrics are completely useless, let me tell you why.

Imagine that your team in a period of 3 months has increased its velocity from 24 to 48. What does that mean? Some people will tell you they are 100% better or even 100% more successful!

I say that they are 100% better at delivering stories (assuming they didn’t game the metrics)

More than likely they work in an organisation that measure success based on the old Budget-Time-Scope paradigm.

Unfortunately in your search for speed you are sub-optimising your system and not achieving the real goal of your company.

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A team that bases success on the Budget/Time/Scope triangle I call it BuildEverythingFastAndPray)

What is a successful team?

A team is successful if they help the organisation they serve be successful, regardless of how many story points they deliver.

Let me tell you what a successful team measures.

A successful team measures business outcomes. What are business outcomes? Let me give you some examples:

1) x% increase week to week on downloads of your mobile app
2) y% increase in signups month to month
3) z% reduction of customer support calls month to month

or any similar outcome depending on your context where x,y,z>0

Why?

Because an organisation that obtains those outcomes is normally successful.

Even more importantly, the team will continuously monitor how their actions affect the business outcome metrics they have set to achieve so that they might decide to:

  1. Stop writing that feature, we have obtained the result and any further bell and whistle wont give us ROI
  2. Do more of this, the metrics are going in the right direction but not as expected
  3. Stop doing this and do something else, this feature is not producing the results we were expecting
  4. Ah, look at what the customer is doing instead of doing what we thought he would do! Let’s help them do it in an easier way…

 

 

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Build Measure Learn

Now compare this to delivering all the 1 zillion stories in the fixed scope at the velocity of 48 per sprint.

What’s a successful team for you?

 

How about an agile talk instead of a talk about agile?

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Here’s the thing, next week I am going to speak at the Agile Tour Dublin . My talk topic is in the beginner track and it is a Quick Introduction to Agile.

How do I keep people awake and deliver something that will be valuable?

I could start with a timeline of the events that brought us to the manifesto and then continue towards the different frameworks, mention the important people, talk about the values etc.

Well, I could, but maybe nobody would care.

I could talk about how agile requires a fundamental change in the mindset and discuss potential problems people might find once they embark into a change journey.

Maybe slightly better

Or I could focus on the values and principles in the manifesto and explain how they apply to what people do within organisations

But people might go back asleep, etc.

Fundamentally I think that no matter which of the 3 approaches I take, it might be something that people could get from reading a wikipedia page, not good enough for my customers!

So I thought, how about I do an agile talk instead of doing a talk about agile.

How about before the start I ask my customers (the audience) to pick from a set of topics they want to hear about. And how about I get the audience to give me feedback while I deliver so that I can react quickly and change the subject when it is not giving value any longer?

This would embody the close customer collaboration, the fast feedback and the ability to react to changing conditions.

Also, how about I ask the audience if they want me to speak for exactly 30 minutes and go through all my slides or if they believe that they can collaborate and give me feedback so that I might be finished 10 minutes earlier if the topics are complete or maybe even 5 minutes later if they still need some answers.

This would reflect the customer collaboration over contract negotiation

How about if I told them that I am not going to send them the slides by mail but I am available all day long to talk to each and any of them discussing the content of the talk.

This would sound like face to face collaboration over processes and tools

Wouldn’t this format also embody Working software over comprehensive documentation?

Do you think a format like this would be valuable?

Do you have any other suggestions to do an agile talk instead of a talk about agile?

Please help me by using the comments or mail me at augeva@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

Testers: what’s your strategy in a continuous delivery context?

smallbatchIn my last stint as a tester from October 2012 to Jan 2014, I helped my organisation at that time moving from delivering once every month, to delivering multiple times a day.

Let me first clarify that we didn’t move to multiple deliveries per day just for the fun of it, but because we needed it.

 

Your organisation might not yet know it needs this level of agility but more than likely it will at some stage in the future.

How did this transform the role of the testers within the organisation?

Massively

The start

When I joined I found scrum teams that delivered either once a month or once every 2 months. The teams had 3 different defects management databases full with old and new defects. Testers were doing the following activities:

  1. automation (~30-50%)
  2. exploratory testing (~50-70&)

The batches were big, the exploratory sessions were long and found a lot of defects. The automation was not effective, as it was slow and unpredictable, its value was negative.

When I left

When I left, we were using kanban, delivering multiple times a day, defects were more or less a myth of the past, no defect management tool existed. Testers were doing the following activities:

  1. Three amigos BDD sessions with customers and developers
  2. Exploratory testing (1~5%) – never longer than 10 minutes per card, more often than not reporting no defects
  3. Pairing with developers
  4. Coaching developers on testing
  5. Writing automation (0%)
  6. Talking to the customer and the team
  7. Improving the system
  8. Designing the product with the team and the customer
  9. Helping define what to monitor in production
  10. Any other valuable activity the team needed them to do

As you can see the activities that before occupied 100% of testers time, now occupy from 1 to 5% of testers time.

Were testers busy before? Yes, absolutely

Were testers busy after? Yes, absolutely

Were testers complaining because they weren’t doing automation or enough exploratory testing? No, believe me. Most testers I worked with saw the new activities in the role as a learning activity and an opportunity to broaden their skills and become more valuable to any company.

If a tester didn’t want to adapt to the new reality and embrace the change and new ways of doing things, he would have been busy for 10 minutes  a day (~2%) and he would have not been useful to the team.

Did we get there with the touch of a magic wand? No, the end stage was the result of many experiments. It was, back then, a good recipe for that context at that time (it is continuously changing)

So, tester, what’s your strategy for working in a company that releases multiple times a day?

 

What you are measuring is wrong, let me tell you why

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There is one measurement that is commonly accepted when examining the effectiveness of delivery teams. Lead Time.

This is a definition from Wikipiedia.

A lead time is the latency between the initiation and execution of a process. For example, the lead time between the placement of an order and delivery of a new car from a manufacturer may be anywhere from 2 weeks to 6 months.

If software delivery team “LightningFast” is able to give to its customers product X in 1 week while software delivery team “SlowAndSteady” requires 4 weeks to deliver the same product we can state without error that LightningFast is better at software delivery than SlowAndSteady. In fact it is 4x better.

(For the purpose of this article let’s consider the quality of the product delivered by the 2 teams to be equal)

At this point we are considering the starting time to be when a development team has some form of requirements to start working on and finishing time when the bits are deployed to a production environment.

As a business owner you would want to hire team LightningFast and try to avoid SlowAndSteady, I agree with you.

Let’s imagine that team “LightningFast” works for “BestProduct.com” and “SlowAndSteady” works for “WeAreTheBest.com”

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The CTO at WeAreTheBest.com would willingly spend a lot of money for either replacing SlowAndSteady with LightningFast or coaching SlowAndSteady to lower lead time and become more like LightningFast.

But the business world is not a software delivery speed contest, it is much bigger than that.

Follow me and you’ll discover that even if you have team LightningFast in your organisation you might have bigger problems to solve.

Let’s expand a little our concept and start looking upstream (left).

Team SlowAndSteady have a very effective way of transforming their roadmap into actionable requirements and are able to complete this specific task for product X in 2 days. Team LightningFast don’t have a lot of skills on this department and spend a lot of time upfront to create the requirements. In the specific, for product X it took them 4 weeks.

So let’s calculate lead time one more time.

LigntningFast => 1 week + 4 weeks = 5 weeks

SteadyAndSlow => 4 weeks + 2 days = 4.4 weeks

Okay, does this mean that SteadyAndSlow are more effective than LightningFast? It would seem so. The starting point for the calculation of the lead time changed completely the judgement we had built over the effectiveness of the delivery teams.

This seems interesting, what’s next?

Next is a different question. The question is what is the lead time that we should be measuring? What’s the lead time that is important to our business?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is the whole. From start to finish.

Now, let’s walk backwards to see where the start is.

Next bit I would add is the time that product X took before it got prioritised and given to the delivery team to work on. In many cases, companies have an Enterprise Portfolio from which the Products get selected from when prioritising.

WeAreTheBest.com (the home of SlowAndSteady) have mastered a very good prioritisation process and priorities are continuously assessed based on market conditions, customer feedback and active monitoring so when a product becomes the highest priority for the company the process signals it clearly and they can start creating a roadmap within 1 week.

BestProduct.com (the home of LightningFast)  are struggling with prioritisation, they are not aware of how their customers use their products and have no intention of using customer insights to make decisions on what to build. They rely on the CEO that is the smartest person in the company to decide what gets prioritised. The CEO got it wrong this time and should have started working on product X last year when  it was added to the enterprise portfolio. It took 1 year for the product to get picked up.

Ok. Now things are interesting.

BestProduct.com => 1 week + 4 weeks + 1 year = 1 year and 5 weeks

WeAreTheBest.com => 4 weeks + 2 days + 1 week = 5.4 weeks

Wow, more than a year difference between the 2 companies, this is incredible!

We could go on and on going back to the moment the idea appeared in that company for the first time and add the time lag between the idea appearing and the corresponding product materialising on the Enterprise Portfolio or even go back further and research when for the first time social conditions emerged a problem to be resolved for customers that will be eventually resolved by product X.

I have seen many enterprises and many delivery teams. Don’t take my word for it, look out there, delivery teams effectiveness is equated to how good they are at doing the Requirements to production transition.

This creates a need for improvement localised to that context. A lot of money is invested and spent to resolve the last bit of the ride, while monstrous inefficiencies slow down delivery in measures orders of magnitude bigger.

the narrow focus on a sub-system is called sub-optimisation and it is a very well known concept in systems thinking and lean but it seems to have flown over the heads of most of the agile community.

Still today, a lot of agile experts focus almost exclusively on technical aspects and are not concerned with resolving the real problems in the system.

Do you want to know more about this?

Do you want to know how to identify the real problems in your system?

Give me a shout and let’s have a chat!

 

3 Simple Steps to Help Overloaded Teams

dublin-rain-491-390x285It was a wet and dark morning in Dublin when I sat with team X for the first time.

I had been told: “Gus, these guys are struggling, they really need your help. They are always late, and everybody complains about the quality of their work, it’s bad, very bad”.

I expected a demotivated team of technically poor developers with its members playing video games or youtube videos instead of doing their job, but I was wrong.

No developer was slacking or pretending to work, on the other hand, I saw people with worried faces shuffling around, some listening to angry customers, some head down into code, some testing and quietly cursing.

To a newcomer, they looked super busy and doing their thing.

I perceived the first hint of trouble later in the day. I went to talk to some of them, just introducing myself and telling them that I was going to work with them to try to make their life easier. Each and every one of them was too busy to talk. All of them had something urgent, being a production issue, being a customer waiting behind their backs, or a release they had to finish by 5pm. Sorry, sorry Gus, I really can’t now, I have this blah blah…

I took it in and let them alone for the day. The day after, I kept on observing without saying a word. The amount of pressure that I saw applied on to these poor kids was frightening. In the same day I saw 8 different people go to the same developer and demand he finished something he was meant to have finished already. The requesters were different people and asked for 8 different things, all quite angrily.

The subsequent days, my observations stressed more and more this situation, the people were pushed over the limits and by trying to finish things quickly and relief some of the pressure were skipping steps and introducing new problems, new issues to work on, and so on.

I kept on observing and asking questions here and there, but the people saw me as somebody that couldn’t help them with the code, hence quite useless. I had to do something different.

On the 4th day, in the morning, after their standup, I told them to stop doing what they were doing and come and have a chat with me.

Believe it or not, It was almost impossible to get them off their seats.

no-thanks-were-too-busyThey felt they could not leave the sinking ship, they needed to continue trying to flush the water out with their hands. Did I have a powerful drain pump and could save the boat easily? They didn’t have time to learn how to use it, they needed to keep on shovelling with their bare hands.

I eventually got them into a room. We had a retrospective. I disguised the retro to be something else, because I had heard from one of the developers: “we don’t do retrospectives anymore, what’s the point if we don’t have the time to change anything?”

That’s a very valid question. Very.

The team was obviously overloaded and didn’t have the maturity and the necessary negotiation skills to express that to their customers and stakeholders. They had reacted to the overload with what I call the “headless chicken approach”. It works like this: “Just do all you can, forget about quality, process, product, customers, just run for your life and even if your work product is terrible, people won’t be able to blame you, as you work like a donkey every day.”

fuck-it-let-s-just-panic-and-run-around-like-headless-chickensDo you think this is uncommon? Well think again.

The first step we took was to visualise the work in progress. The guys were using Jira with no physical board and didn’t realise how much work they were really taking on. The board was scary, full scary I mean.

As the work came from many different products, another thing that we did was separating the products into different classes of service.

By doing this we immediately saw that one product had most of the tickets, why? We don’t know yet, but at least we are aware of it now.
After this very simple step  the team members started having conversations that were beyond the need to finish MyNewFeature, they started looking at current priorities and talking about the whys of the bad situation they where in.

Then they started talking about experiments to fix it.

They were improving the system.

I looked outside the window, the sun had come out.

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What were the 3 steps we made that enabled the behavioural change?

  1. Acknowledge we were in an unsustainable situation that needed changing
  2. Agree the team had the responsibility and the authority to improve it with my support and management agreement
  3. Visualise the work they were already doing

 

Just this small change had transformed a group of intelligent people acting like headless chickens into people that were trying to improve a complex system, not bad for a weeks work I’d say!

If you are curious stay tuned and I will tell you what happened next, no more chickens, I swear.

The new episode of the story of Team X is out

The art of doing 1/15th of the work and getting earlier business outcomes

imagesIf you are an agile practitioner you are likely to have read the book “Scrum – The art of doing Twice the Work in Half the Time” from Jeff Sutherland. I am a fan of Jeff and I believe that what he has done for software development in the last 20 years is great.

I do have issues with the book’s title though.

That title is what makes people think that being agile means being able to go fast and deliver more stuff.

Is this what real agility is?  Let me tell you a story.

At a client of mine a couple of years ago, I was asked to coach a product team and help them with a new product they were starting to work on. I was excited about it and asked the product owner to meet for a coffee and initial chat.

He kindly agreed and told me: “before we meet, have a look at our requirements document so you will know what the topic is”. He also told me that a high level estimation had been done and that the product would take from 6 to 8 months based on one agile team and that there would be licensing costs associated with an automated scanning system we had to acquire.

Attached to the mail there was a document of about 50 pages with detailed workflows, low fidelity prototypes of the screens and quite a lot of explaining text. I skimmed through it looking for a description of the problem that the product was meant to resolve, but couldn’t find it.

I read and reread the document and I couldn’t find the original problem that the product had to resolve, it was not there.

When I met the product owner, after agreeing the weather was miserable (that’s how we start any conversation in Dublin regardless of the season) he started describing his solution. I let him explain to me the beautiful features to build and the amazing technologies we were going to use.

When he was finished, I asked him: Why are we building this?

The initial reaction (completely normal) was a defensive stand for his solution. When I probed more, it was clear that after having worked for so long on the product on his own he had forgotten the nature of the initial problem that triggered the decision to build this product.

Using the 5 WHYs technique, in about 10 minutes, we eventually got to the initial problem that we needed to resolve.

At this point the conversation became different.

I asked what he thought were the features we should prioritise to resolve the problem so that the customer could have something earlier than in 6-8 months. That triggered the interest in the PO that identified 5 features (about 30% of the total described in the document).

I then took each feature and asked him if it was necessary to resolve the problem we just identified. After another 10 minutes we agreed that 1 single feature, that accounted for about 1/15th of the initial solution, would resolve the customers problem. To avoid making the PO feel bad about having done so much unnecessary work, I told him that we would build the other features incrementally, and that it was a great success that he had identified a single feature that would be useful for the customer almost immediately.

We then agreed to identify outcomes of success for the full product and start measuring immediately as soon as we released the first feature.

These read something like:

“We will know we have succeeded when 30% of customers do X instead of Y” or

“We will know we have succeeded when we will have 40% less support calls related to problem X”

et cetera. I made sure the business outcomes were related to the initial problem, not any product.

What ended up happening is that we built the first feature in 2 weeks (opposed to 6-8 months) and the measurements told us that we had reached what we wanted already.earlierbusinessoutcomes

We never built the other 14 features, we stopped because the business outcomes we had set were reached.

And yes, you guessed, we didn’t have to buy the licenses for the automatic scanning system either.

As a coach, my mission in organisations is to guide teams and navigate problems, maximising value with minimum work. This is always welcome when meeting CTOs or CIOs because – most of the time – less work means lower costs and earlier delivery.

We did 1/15th of the work and got business outcomes earlier, a big improvement IMHO from “doing Twice the Work in Half the Time”, what do you think?