Backs: 10. Fly half, 11 and 14. Wing, 12. First centre, 13. Second centre, 15. Fullback
WOW 13 different roles for 15 people in the same team, more than the usual PO/BA/DEV/TEST/UX etc. we find in modern agile teams. How come they are able to collaborate so effectively?
The difference is that nobody in a rugby team will ever use a sentence of this type:
“I am not doing X because my role is Y”
In fact the very best rugby players are not the super specialists but the ones that are good at every different skill and activity required to play rugby. (Research the case of Brian O’Driscoll to me the synthesis of excellence in collaboration skills)
When there is a ruck 2 meters from a goal line you will see the ten stone (63Kg) Scrum Half stick his head in and push the 15+ stone (95Kg+) players away from his goal line.
He won’t say, I’m a scrum half I don’t do rucks, I guarantee 100% he won’t, because if he does he will lose the respect of his teammates, his coach and his fans and never play the game again.
Why do rugby players collaborate so well even though they are such a specialistic group? Because they have one clear goal, the clear goal is to score more points than the opponents. They all get that and do their utmost to help their teammates achieve it.
Why are agile teams not collaborating like rugby players?
One of the reasons is that they don’t see a common goal in the customer value to be delivered but see the beauty of the “elegant code”, “smart test strategy”, “beautiful solution”, outstanding “user experience” and so on.
So if you want to get your team to collaborate better together you got to give them a common cause to fight for. And just to save you time, it is not lines of code, story points, tests passed, number of bugs or lack there of, it is something bigger and more important.
Systems are all around us, and inside us. Understanding the systems we live and work in is fundamental if we want to navigate the problems that they carry.
Let’s think about our body as a system. It is a pretty complex and advanced one as it went through millions of years of evolution to get to the current state. Its working is truly fascinating and even though we have been studying it for millennia, there are parts that we still don’t fully understand.
Our body, as all systems, contains feedback loops. One we are very familiar with, is our body temperature regulating system. In order for our body to work well, its temperature needs to be between 36.5 and 37.5 degrees Celsius. In extreme circumstances, if it goes under 25 degrees we can die and a rising body temperature can damage our organs very quickly.
How do we make sure that this doesn’t happen without a thermometer that measures our temperature constantly?
Our body has a very sophisticated yet simple feedback loop system that allows us to regulate the temperature to the optimal range. In fact if we go out naked in the snow, we immediately feel a cold sensation, decide to get back into the house to put on some heavy clothes and then go out again. If we are running or exercising for a prolonged period of time and our temperature raises, our system will automatically start sweating to reduce and regulate it to its optimal range.
What happens every day of our life is that our body temperature will oscillate within a range of acceptable temperatures because, through evolution, it has designed a defence system based on fast feedback loops. By continuously knowing when it’s too hot or too cold we are guaranteed we won’t die frozen or for too much heat. A slower feedback might have caused our body to freeze, imagine for example if we felt the cold only after 24 hours in the snow, but a feedback loop fast enough prevents all that.
What a great system our body is. But even such a wonderfully evolved system has its Achilles heel, in fact it can be damaged by slow feedback loops.
Let’s think for example about the effects of smoking tobacco on our body. How come we only recently found out that smoking is so dangerous for our body? Why did it take so long?
When we smoke our first cigarette, chemicals such as tar and formaldehyde penetrate the cells in the lung tissue and change them. At first our body may be able to repair the damage. With repeated exposure, normal cells that line our lungs are increasingly damaged. Over time, the damage causes cells to act abnormally and eventually cancer may develop.
The problem is in the fact that the time that will take for the cancer to develop is so long that only recently we could only start hypothesising tobacco smoke was a potential cause. You can easily imagine why. In ~30 years our body absorbs an incredible amount of chemicals coming from all sources, the food we eat, the air we breathe and the tobacco smoke we inhale. How could we have guessed? It was very difficult and only through data driven medical studies we managed to identify a clear link between tobacco smoke and cancer.
Tobacco smoking is a very recent habit in human history if we consider humans evolution and our body has not yet developed a defence from it. What happens unfortunately is that our body will alert us of the cancer (feedback loop) only when it has damaged one of our organs. At that point, unfortunately, it is often too late to repair the damage.
A slow feedback loop can often look like the this picture. No impact for a long period of time, then a massive impact all of a sudden.
Slow feedback loops are everywhere around us, look at how some policies that seemed harmless at first sight, have caused migrations, desertification and destruction, years after, look at how the excess co2 in the atmosphere is damaging our planet slowly but nevertheless unequivocally.
Not being able to predict the effects of policies and changes to a system is troubling, but how does this fit with modern organisations and product development?
The link is in the feedback loops. We have seen earlier how the fast feedback built in our body temperature regulating system has helped our body defend itself from changes in temperature for millions of years, can we learn something from it?
A system that oscillates within a healthy range, like our body temperature, is a balanced and healthy system. What produces the healthy oscillation is the speed at which the feedback is delivered. Our body senses the changes in temperature very quickly and allows for regulating it in a way that appears to us to be continuous.
Now let’s think about organisations that rather than regulate their own temperature are trying to achieve an outcome.
Let’s look at product development for example.
Traditional organisations spend quite a lot of time studying the market to identify new solutions or products that can help them achieve an outcome. This work is often done by internal experts. Such experts have been involved in delivering previous products and are naively expected to have the wisdom that is required to design the product that will achieve the goal.
A lot of work happens inside the organisation and a lot of time passes before the new product is given to the customers. The more time the idea stays within the organisation the more we build assumptions upon assumptions instead of satisfying real customer needs. After one year or two we finally have a new product on the market, but very often we realise that the outcome we had originally thought we would get is not materialising. We often are very far from the expected outcome. We are objectively surprised, sometimes astonished at the results.
Our plan didn’t survive contact with reality.
Reality indeed, this is the first time we get feedback from our customers and it’s not what we thought it would be.
Organisations rarely understand the cause of the problem and often an unsuccessful product causes blame games. Everybody is to blame, excluding the people that designed the product. “The market has changed!”, “The latest regulatory policy makes it more difficult to use!”, “The downturn of the economy killed us!” Et cetera. I even heard leaders blame the customers, saying things like “they don’t understand!”
Slow feedback loops for product development cause something like this picture. The delta can be very big in the presence of slow feedback loops.
What can we do to avoid the truly sobering experience of showing our customers the fruit of years of our work and seeing it rejected? Well, we can’t avoid it completely but we can make it much less painful if we introduce a balancing feedback loop like the one
that regulates our body temperature.
The first thing to do is to identify an outcome we want to reach over time. This outcome is for us now the ideal body temperature we want to maintain.
The second thing we need to do is to plan regular and frequent feedback loops with our customer to verify directly in the real world how we are doing against the outcome.
The third thing is to measure how we are doing against the outcome and design the next bit of functionality taking in consideration the learning from the last feedback loop.
A fast feedback loop on product development causes a behaviour like the one in the picture.
By doing this we make sure not to diverge too much from our desired outcome. We know that we will make bad decisions that might move us further away from reaching it, but we also know that through frequent feedback loops we will be able to discover our mistakes early and take actions to repair them in a cost effective way.
It looks like we can learn a lot from our body temperature regulating system and treat our customers like our body regulates our temperature, with care and continuously.
Most of us involved in software development are familiar with the term “technical debt”.
As a quick reminder, it was introduced by Ward Cunningham to describe the phenomenon that occurs when we use code that is easy to implement in the short run instead of applying the best overall solution we have identified.
It is by definition a conscious decision to take a shortcut for short term gratification (like taking out a new credit card for a holiday) that in thew long term will cost us to spend extra time in development when improving the system (like paying interest on the credit card debt).
Until the capital is repaid in full we will always pay interest when adding features to the system as the debt creates obstacle to adding new code efficiently.
Ward suggests that when we are in a situation of rushing something out we need to be conscious that we will have to pay the capital in the future or the interests will cripple us.
Ward suggests refactoring as a solution to paying off technical debt.
I really like Ward’s vision and I want to expand the metaphor one level up.
Now if we change the word “software” in my description of technical debt above with “processe” we can define Process Debt.
Replacing we get:
Process Debt is the phenomenon that occurs when we use a processes that is easy to implement in the short run instead of applying the best overall solution we have identified.
Let’s look at one example
You notice that lately the system seems to be more unstable than usual. You know this because there are more calls from customer care and more defects get raised.
Option 1: You want to get to the bottom of the situation and believe that a root cause analysis with 5 whys could get you there. If you use this approach you will probably identify a change in your process to help you prevent some defects in the future.
Option 2: You implement a better policy for developers to select the defects to work on reducing the time the defects are in the unresolved queue while maintaining new features creation throughput relatively stable.
You know Option 1 is better in the long run because it will generate a change in the process to reduce the amount of rework. This will mean less time spent fixing and more time spent on new features that as a consequence means higher throughput and lower lead time for new features.
Option 1 requires some investment. You need to hold one or more root cause analysis sessions, identify the problem(s) experiment with solutions until you find a solution that mitigates your problem.
If you are under pressure, because the new product needs shipping and the old defects need fixing, you are likely to choose option 2.
By doing this you have introduced process debt
The capital of this debt is the lack of change in the process you could have identified if using Option 1.
Oh, yes, I forgot, change is difficult.
The worst part of it is the interest on the debt you will pay forever until you pay the capital. This interest will appear in the form of.
1. bugs keep on coming, we seem to be fixing bugs all the time
2. new features get delayed because now the queue is in the new features to be delivered
3. the lead time of any new feature is expanded by a factor X
4. the customers continue on complaining because of your defects in production
5. your product owner starts being annoyed at the amount of work spent by the development team on defects
6. developers are tired of always fixing defects
n. need I say more?
This interest will be paid for the rest of your life if you don’t fix the problem.
Months after you are covered in defects, are stressed by your customers and change job.
Is this healthy? Certainly not.
Is there a cure? Oh yes, indeed.
Continuous improvement has the same effect on process that refactoring has on software. It repays the capital of your process debt.
With small changes in the form of experiments you will be able to clearly discuss the problem that the team is having and make small tweaks continuously.
My esteemed colleague and fervid innovator Claudio Perrone presents his continuous improvement model called PopcornFlow saying
If change is hard, make it continuous
I could not agree more.
By making process change a continuous activity, we enable behaviours that will stay with teams forever and we unleash the power of people’s creativity in improving their own way of working.
Lats Sunday, after reading multiple “Agile is Dead” articles, I posted this short update on linkedIn
As you can see from the stats, in less than 7 days it has received a lot of attention (I am not an influencer and my updates generally do not receive such large feedback)
My contacts in linkedIn include a lot of Agile or Lean Coaches and as expected, initially the message got some positive comments. Soon after some agile detractors joined the conversation and made it much more interesting as generally feedback that comes from different perspectives enriches the conversation adding dimensions that sometimes cannot be expressed by a biased mind.
I noticed 3 interesting trends in the messages.
When agile is not driven by technology, agile fails
When agile is driven by technology and not the business stakeholders, agile fails
Agile is only useful to deliver something nobody wants quickly
The first 2 are extremely interesting, in fact they say exactly the opposite thing but they both come to the same conclusion “agile is dead”. I read and reread those messages and then I saw it
If agile is driven by one part of the organisation, whichever it is, and trust is not built within the whole organisation, it will fail. Do it like this and agile is dead before you even start.
If you try to own something that will change your organisation and run with it, you better make sure you share your vision, your responsibilities and your success with the rest of the organisation. How do you expect people outside your little world to want to follow you in this difficult change if they don’t know, understand, own and help you change. Agile/lean transformations are not driven by a department, they are driven by the whole.
And the result might be that you even stop talking about departments and only talk about the whole.
Now on objection #3.
Agile is only useful to deliver something nobody wants quickly
I have seen this very often and honestly makes me sad. A lot of scrum implementations have a Product Owner that is seen as the heart of the product, the person that understands the vision of the product and that takes the responsibility to take the important decisions for the future of the product in regards to strategy, prioritization and so on.
If you look at it this way, you might think that the PO is a single point of failure, in fact what if he is not able to make good decisions, how about his bias, is he a dictator?
As an agile coach I make sure that any product owner that works with me will have the tools for making good decisions. He in fact will know how to manage flow using WIP limits, he will be aware and become proficient in UX techniques, he will learn how to monitor, gather and use feedback from his customers, he will understand the importance of small experiments, he will be aware of cost of delay and when prioritising his features and user stories will have access to many advanced prioritization techniques.
Being agile does not mean automatically ignoring lean startup, lean UX, research. No that is not being agile, that is being a scrum master after 2 days training.
Previously on “A knowledge worker’s tale“: Team X discovered that lack of clarity on what to build, was creating a backlog in their exploratory testing work queue. They realised that adding new testers would have only fixed the symptom of the problem but not addressed its root cause.
Team X met to talk about a possible solution to the fact that too many misunderstandings in the user stories were slowing down the work dramatically and driving the testers crazy.
When Gus walked in, they were all there, nobody was late, the team really wanted to resolve this problem.
Mike took charge and said “We need to ensure that the user stories contain all the details, we can’t be blamed for problems in the requirements”. All the others nodded in unison, the bloody user stories were the problem…
Peter added “Absolutely Mike, we need Fritz to sign off the user stories so that when we start, if there is a problem, we know who’s fault it is and we don’t get the blame every time, I am tired of this!” he added “we need to make sure we know who’s fault it is”.
Before Fritz could answer, Gus interjected “OK, let’s see. Am I right in saying that our goal is to deliver value to our customers? Right. How is identifying who to blame going to help our customers? How is blaming somebody going to help our customers at all?”
He continued “Customers will still get the product late because of the misunderstandings, I bet if you asked them, they will tell you that they don’t give a rats arse who’s fault it is. What they care about is to get a solution to their problems, through our software”
Then he went “Once there was a little man in Japan, many years ago. He said that every activity that does not benefit the final customer is waste and needs to be removed from the process. He went to define 7 categories of waste that can be found in manufacturing. This guy’s name was Taiichi Ohno, he revolutionised the motor industry and his learnings have been used to improve manufacturing all over the world, he worked at Toyota. I strongly believe his lessons can be used very much in every context, including software development, let’s not introduce waste, let’s focus on value add activities”
“It seems reasonable” said Mike “but how do we make sure the defects in our stories don’t get caught only at exploratory testing, we have seen that when that happens our flow gets to a standstill, we can’t allow that”
“Taiichi would be proud of you Mike” said Gus. “One of his 7 categories of waste was exactly what you described, ‘defects’.” he continued “Quality was fundamental in the Toyota production line, one tenth of a millimetre difference in a bolt could bring the line to standstill, Taiichi knew it and made sure the workers knew it too so that they could find new ways of avoiding it”
Gus stood up and went to the whiteboard, he wrote “Prevention over Detection”. Then he drew a circle that had 3 stages “1. Write a failing test” – “2. Write enough code for the test to pass” – “3. Refactor”.
He went “Ladies and gentlemen, this is TDD, the one most effective ways of preventing defects in your code I have found in my 20 years as an engineer. In one of it’s more modern evolutions it is called BDD. Through high collaboration and conversations it allows teams to deliver code that has a fraction of the defects of code written without it. If you like to know more, I can organise a one day workshop to talk about BDD and how it can help us prevent defects”
Peter said “I am a bit confused about all this stuff, little Japanese people building cars and tests that are written before code, it doesn’t make sense. But in all fairness Gus has been right before with even more nonsensical stuff like ‘do less to do more’, I think we could take a leap of faith and trust something good will come out of this, what do you think guys?”
The team nodded in silence, they were puzzled. Accepting something brand new and counterintuitive can be scary, but true agile teams are courageous in their decisions.
Gus smiled and left the room so that the guys could make a decision freely.
Will Gus’s nonsense help team X? Stay tuned and discover what happens next
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!