Dec. 9, 2013

AgilePalooza Conference in Austin

Report from my participation at "The best day of Agile" focusing on building Agile Teams and Agile Portfolio Management

Last week saw me try out a short talk on the art of agile portfolio management for the first time. Sharing the stage with a very strong line up, including Mike McLaughlin (), Jan Thomas, @DavidHussman, Russ Fletcher (@davisbase) and @DamonPoole. With two tracks - a planning and a practicing track - the talks were entertaining and informative. It was a pleasure to sit in on a number of speakers and catch some interesting and thought-provoking talks.

We started with a warm-up at Dell, which to be fair was much more than a warm-up. Over 250 people on site, and a further 150+ people worldwide plugging in remotely, the day was busy with full rooms, plenty of insightful questions, and lots of feedback. 
Creating Powerful Teams
I started with my Building Powerful Teams talk ( which was followed by some great questions. The premise of the talk is really about revisiting the Scrum definition of the Development Team. We first considered three characteristics of great agile teams: cross-functionality, size and collocation. A brief overview of the difference between self-organization and cross-functionality; only great sports teams show self-organization, while every sports team has a cross-functional teams with loosely transferable skills. A more in-depth discussion on size - including sharing the Ringelmann Effect which maps the impact of coordination losses and, a significant concern many people are hesitant to draw attention to, the impact of social loafing. While I suggest in the talk that there is a perfect team-size (6), at least according to several studies, the critical piece is testing the impact of different team sizes on the outcomes the teams produce. 
Finally, I ended the talk with a review of the Harvard Business Review Six Common Misperceptions about Teamwork: article A favourite article with a number of very salient points.
In closing, there were some excellent questions around tools used for enabling better communication and collaboration between distributed teams. While anything but an exhaustive list, the following are a number of tools several clients we work with have found to be useful. Note they are generally free (at least to start with) with all that that implies for corporate usage. And I'm not talking about the agile project management tools, but rather tools that enable better collaboration and communication between team members
  • a great sticky note tool used very successfully for any sticky note exercise requiring input from a virtual team (e.g. Retrospectives)
  • great for story mapping or any sort of product visualization exercise. As the marketing says, if Google Docs and Post-it Notes had a kid, it would look like
  • the free tool for handling relative estimation using the classic Planning Poker approach across distributed teams
  • Skype, Google Hangouts - for keeping everyone in touch, having a permanent chat window open for the team, or even better, a permanent video call open, allows for much higher bandwidth communication
  • Yammer - a tool for those conversations that require a little more permanence than those conversations offered by Skype or other IM tools
Agile Portfolio Management
On to the main event - while there are plenty of conversations around building teams and standing up agile teams to solve immediate problems, the challenge of coordinating activities across multiple projects, products or programs is fraught with opinion, advice and 'best' practices. This is a difficult problem, and not one that can be simply addressed through the mindless application of someone else's successful practices. Like the American auto manufacturer executives trying to replicate the success seen at a Toyota manufacturing plant by copying process, agile at scale is a principle driven change, not a practice driven change. (For those who aren't aware, the American auto manufacturers were never successful in achieving the same productivity and quality gains Toyota was famous for by replicating practices alone. They had to dig in and understand the culture, which was a much tougher problem to solve.)
The challenges the scale of an enterprise inflict on an agile organization can be summarized as difficulties in creating transparency, maintaining focus, and increasing communication. All three are simple on a small scale, but quickly become difficult and are negatively reinforcing (getting harder and harder to address, the larger an organization gets) as we scale an organization.
I gave examples of three principles taken directly from the Lean and Agile principles underlying any Agile change. While they are not the only ones that have an influence, they certainly help address the three costs of scale, communication, focus and transparency.
#1: Focus On The Whole
#2: Deliver As Fast As Possible
#3: Make Progress Visible

Finally, in closing, I touched on the influence of the PMO. Although definitely passing remarks, an interesting metaphor I uncovered was that of a pilot. While we definitely want a pilot to get us out of trouble when things go wrong, our expectation is that the pilot will rely on the autopilot for most of the time, letting the plane literally fly itself. While doing so there is plenty to do: Watching that the plane is on course, acting within its design parameters, and heading in the right direction, at the right speed, while avoiding any turbulence on the journey. However, the pilot only takes the controls in extreme circumstances, leaving the autopilot to do its job most of the time. A great metaphor for the PMO - rather than a process policing or controlling function, the PMO is there to monitor progress and add their expertise in extreme circumstances.

For more thoughts, notes and commentary, check out my Storify report from the day.

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Dave Sharrock

Agile coach passionate about getting things done; helping teams exceed expectations, delivering organizational excellence, and all while having fun doing what they do.
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Dave Sharrock

Agile coach passionate about getting things done; helping teams exceed expectations, delivering organizational excellence, and all while having fun doing what they do.

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