How disruptive to an existing company culture is the Agile Framework?

I am asked this a lot, most often by Program & Project Managers who are wary of persuading Stakeholders to allow it’s adoption

The short answer is that company culture is mostly about what a company is doing and why (e.g. developing FinTech enabling better and faster portfolio rebalancing for clients worldwide), and the Agile Mind-set is mostly about how a company achieves this.

A company with vision and great teams can deliver anything anyhow. Even, dare I say, using a traditional Waterfall method.

If Agile delivers anything, it delivers a framework, top-to-bottom transparency and a cadence to the way Stakeholders prioritised outcomes are delivered.

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How Can the Agile Framework Help a Start-up?

There are three key ways adopting an Agile Framework can help a Start-up whether IT based or not

As we’ve mentioned in previous posts, Agile is not just for IT departments or IT-based start-ups. Adopting an Agile Framework from the get-go can significantly help a start-up in these three ways…

Agile delivers clarity top to bottom

An issue in any start-up is being able to track all the tasks, projects and must-do-now’s.

An Agile framework (and associated tools) will enable you to answer questions such as:

What are we working on right now?

What’s next?

How can we articulate progress to our Stakeholders?

Agile delivers transparency of what you’re doing and why

Agile Mind-Set aside (that’s a number of posts which we won’t go into here) adopting an Agile Framework will enable everyone in your start-up to see what the Management Teams vision is, how that breaks down into headline outcomes (Epics) which enables individual team members to be clear on what they should be doing THIS WEEK to move the start-up forward.

Agile makes it easier to track progress and make objective decisions about prioritisation

The Agile approach enables a start-up to clearly articulate what outcomes have been identified, how success has been defined, how those outcomes have been broken down into User Stories, what has been prioritised and when, and how fast the Agile team members have been tackling the work.

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Agile for Management Teams

What is an Agile iteration when it comes to Project and Program Management and how can it improve the quality and timeliness of delivery?

When IT teams use the Agile method to deliver software, the bi-weekly Sprint provides the cadence and framework required, along with the other usual processes and meetings such as the Scrum and Retrospective.

For Management teams it can be a little more difficult to see how an Agile framework can operate, but operate it can.

The main benefits delivered by an Agile framework for Management teams are transparency, prioritisation and robustness.

Transparency in Agile Management

Project plans existing in documents or in emails is of limited use even if one individual is responsible for the “golden copy”.

Using tools such as JIRA and Confluence, Management teams are able to contribute collectively to the definition and decomposition of high-level outcome definitions.

These “Epics” are available for Program and Project Managers to see and for Product Owners to review, seek elaboration and to decompose into User Stories.

Prioritisation in Agile Management

A key benefit of having Management Teams’ required outcomes in tools delivering transparency is the ability to make prioritisation an ongoing “delivery” of the Management team. Prioritisation’s never stay the same for long and it is fatal for any project to pretend they do.

Robustness in Agile Management

With transparency and the ability to deliver ongoing prioritisation’s, the Management Team can deliver robustness in direction which in turn drives resourcing. If you know what you’re doing, why and in what order, you can massively improve the robustness of your projects and so decrease risk.

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Agile Health Checks are not a Score out of Ten

An Agile Health Check is best delivered with an objective approach and an empathetic lens

An Agile Health Check is not as simple as scoring User Stories and Acceptance Criteria out of ten (although those materials are definitely a part of the health check analysis).

An objective approach is the driving force of the health check – for example attending Stakeholder meetings where Epics are created, sized, prioritised and elaborated. In addition, Agile Unpacked takes an empathetic view of how the daily Scrums are working, how the Product Owner works with the Agile Team members to decompose Epics, and how they interact and challenge Stakeholders.

The outcome of the health check lists the factors we believe are key to a highly performing Agile Environment, annotated with what’s great, what’s ok, and what needs improving.

In addition we highlight the key items which need addressing to deliver the most impact which can typically be things like communication between PO’s and Stakeholders, articulation of success, and effectiveness of the daily Scrum.

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The Agile Glossary

A new word is like a fresh seed sewn on the ground of the discussion – Ludwig Wittgenstein

Acceptance Criteria (Given, When, Then)

The format “Given, When, Then” is a way of writing Acceptance Criteria for a User Story.

It works like this: Given (context), When (an action), Then (an outcome).

Example:

Given my car has a full tank of petrol which should last 300 miles,

When I take a journey of 100 miles,

Then I will be able to drive without the need to refill

A User Story would typically have one Acceptance Criteria but may have more depending on the complexity of the User Story. If, when writing Acceptance Criteria, it turns out to be complex – you may want to consider breaking your User Story into smaller pieces.


Agile

A framework of people, processes, actions and materials which deliver the desired outcomes.


Anti-Pattern

An anti-pattern is in effect a solution to a problem, but where the solution (which may appear to be useful at the time) may actually not be very effective and worse still, cause further issues.


Backlog

The backlog is list Epics, User Stories or Features which have not been prioritised in the current / upcoming Sprint. The Epic backlog is maintained by the Stakeholders which defines which User Stories or Features the Project Team should prioritise in turn.

During a Sprint an emergency may cause a User Story from the Backlog to be promoted into the current or next Sprint. Similarly, a User Story which suddenly becomes unimportant, or has a dependency on a 3rd pty and cannot be completed in the current Sprint may be demoted to the Backlog.


Backlog Refinement

Typically in a bi-weekly meeting the Backlog is reviewed, prioritised and sized in readiness for the next Sprint. Once refinement has been completed and your team are clear on the contents of the next Sprint, it should ideally be replayed to the Stakeholder(s) for approval.


Behaviour Driven Development (BDD)

Behaviour Driven Development is the method which encourages Acceptance Criteria in using the “Given, When, Then” format.


Burn-Up Chart

The Burn Up Chart shows the number of User Stories which have been delivered vs the number of User Stories. It is normal for some User Stories to be added and some to be removed from a Sprint while it’s in-flight – see the example below:

Business Agility

Business Agility is the capability of an organisation (or sub-division) to adapt quickly to internal and external changes, to respond quickly in a productive manner and to focus on continuous competitive advantage.

Business Agility encourages skills such as creativity, adaptability and resilience – which in turn help deliver the Outcomes required to remain agile.


Continuous Delivery

Continuous Delivery is one of the aims of the Agile Framework. Each two-week Sprint should deliver tangible value in the form of a completed widget (product, software, process, material etc) or in the form of having progressed the development of a Product.


Daily Meeting (aka Scrum)

See “Scrum”.


Definition of “Done”

The Acceptance Criteria attached to a User Story define when the User Story has been completed – or is “Done”.


Epic

An Epic is a large piece of work typically defined by Stakeholders or a Program Manager. For example “As ABC Ltd we have on-boarded a 3rd pty provider to satisfy our Regulatory Reporting requirements”.

An Epic usually comes with a t-shirt size ranging from XS to XXL – using the same Fibonacci series as “sizes” but typically in weeks rather than days. For example an extra-small “XS” Epic may mean one Sprint, and a medium “M” Epic may mean 4 weeks.

An Epic usually also comes with Acceptance Criteria, when help Product Owners and Project / Program Managers to break down an Epic into User Stories.

It is important than once this break-down has completed, it should be replayed to the Stakeholders / Management Team to make sure they understand and are happy with the approach.


Facilitator

A facilitator is someone who conducts a meeting – their focus being to create the conditions and to pursue the objectives of the meeting.


Fibonacci Sizing

Agile attempts to define a better way of sizing Epics and User Stories by limiting the choice of estimation to the Fibonacci series.

In practice this means that you can estimate the number of days (aka Story Points) to be 0.5, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 or 13 days. Yes 0.5 is not really in the Fibonacci series but is necessary to size User Stories which will take less than a day.

If a User Story is sized at 5 or more Story Points you may want to consider breaking it into more than one story.


Incremental Delivery

Incremental Delivery means adding new functionality (e.g. in software) in as small chunks as possible – each defined by a User Story with Acceptance Criteria.


INVEST (Acronym)

INVEST in Agile is an acronym which refers to how a User Story should be written:

I = Independent of other User Stories

N = Negotiable – i.e. not a hard specification for features

V = Valuable – i.e. to the incremental development of a Product

E = Estimable – i.e. you can estimate how long it will take to complete vs. it’s Acceptance Criteria

S = Small – i.e. to ideally fit into a Sprint

T = Testable – i.e. the User Story comes with useful Acceptance Criteria


Iteration

An Agile Iteration is the length of the Sprint. For example if your Sprints are two weeks in length, you might say that a Medium Epic will take four iterations to complete.


Kanban

Kanban derives from a Japanese method where work and it’s breakdown and status are displayed visually on a Kanban Board.

In it’s simplest form it has three columns To Do, Doing and Done.

In practice Agile will use a few more columns – e.g. in JIRA to keep track of the status of each User Story in the daily Scrum.


Milestone Retrospective

Similar to a bi-weekly Retrospective at the end of each Sprint, a Milestone Retrospective looks back at the period since the last milestone to identify what went well and what could have gone better.

It is important that a Retrospective has specific Outcomes – for example a set of actions which are fed back into the Agile process to help make improvements or avoid making the same mistake again.


Minimum Viable Product (MVP)

An MVP derives from “Lean Startup” and means an initial version of a new product which “allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort” (Eric Ries, Author of “Lean Startup”).

In practice this means your MVP should be useful and deliver against a desired Outcome with the least effort. Typically this means building in assumptions, short-cuts and hard-coding (business or technical) into your MVP.


Planning Poker

Planning Poker is an informal way during the Backlog Refinement meeting to size User Stories.

Once a User Story has been described (ideally by the Product Owner (PO) or an SME) everyone is asked to hold up cards or fingers (careful now) indicating how many Story Points should be associated with the User Story.

The PO or SME will check the results and challenge any outliers. For example if most people hold up three fingers and one holds up one finger – that person should explain why they think this User Story is one Point.


Product Owner

A Product Owner is not a Project Manager. In Agile, each team should “self-organise” which may need assistance from the PO.

The PO should push back on any additional User Stories which Stakeholders / Management Team may want to add once a Sprint is in-flight. If an emergency occurs then of course some User Stories can roll into the next Sprint to free up resourcing for the emergency.

The PO has to balance the demands and timelines of multiple Stakeholders.

The PO is responsible for each Sprint, beginning with understanding an Epic, translating into User Stories and running meetings with the exception of the daily Scrum.


Proof of Concept (PoC)

Although not strictly part of the Agile Framework, setting aside one or more Sprints to deliver a PoC is a very powerful method especially for technical projects requiring software development. PoC’s typically require a number of assumptions and hard-coded data which in turn enable the testing of a concept such as “Can we join trade data from multiple systems into one database for portfolio analysis”. In this example you may have to “fake” unique trade id’s or skip what would normally be unified static data to see if, once assembled, the joined up data works.


Retrospective

A Retrospective is an essential part of the bi-weekly rhythm of the Agile process. It occurs at the end of a Sprint, when the Scrum Master hosts a meeting where team members say what worked well, what didn’t, and what actions may be useful to capture to help improve the Agile process.

Typically the Scrum Master would own this process of capturing, communicating and tracking actions.


Scrum

The Daily Scrum is the heartbeat of the Agile Framework. Each morning, the Agile team should assemble and each team member should review in just a few minutes where they are with each of their User Stories.

This session is also very useful for team members to highlight any problems they’re having – potentially to engage help from other team members, the PO and/or the Scrum Master.


Scrum Master

The Scrum Master acts as a facilitator for the Stakeholders, Product Owners and Agile team members.

Most importantly, they run the daily Scrums and although they might not get involved in team members issues, they will capture the issues and manage a log.

Scrum Masters assist PO’s and help to improve the overall efficiency of the team.

Scrum Masters should also help motivate and empower the PO and especially the team members.

For Stakeholders as well as the PO and team, Scrum Masters produce MI for everyone to help make the planning, backlogs and Sprint Burn-Up’s all transparent for all to see.

Scrum Masters should be able to answer enquiries from Stakeholders and Senior Execs etc regarding the state of Epics, each teams Velocity and the status of any individual Sprint.


SMART (Acronym)

SMART is an acronym used when setting goals or milestones:

S = Specific – i.e. when setting a goal you should be as specific as you can about what you want to achieve

M = Measurable – i.e. what metrics will you use to know whether or not you achieved your goal? Also known as Success Criteria. For long projects you may what to set intermediate goals which are measurable.

A = Achievable – i.e. to make sure your goal is achievable and at the same time motivating for your team. If the ultimate goal is outside of your teams skill set, an intermediate goal could be to complete some training.

R = Relevant – i.e. the goal you are setting is in context with a higher level goal or vision within your organisation.

T = Time-boxed – i.e. in addition to being relevant, your goal should be achievable in a reasonable time, which is also part of the success criteria.


Sprint

A Sprint is typically the two week period when a planned, refined and sized set of User Stories is to be worked on.


Sprint Backlog

The Sprint Backlog is the set of User Stories contained in this Sprint. It is not unusual for the scope of the Sprint to change along the way. That said, it is the Product Owners job to manage & push-back on the scope-creep and involve the Scrum Master and Stakeholders in deciding which User Stories should be pushed onto the main Backlog.


Sprint Planning (aka Refinement)

Sprint planning typically occurs a day or two before a new Sprint commences. The planning session is the final stage in defining the Sprint Backlog, making sure the User Stories are well defined, sized by the team and have good Acceptance Criteria to enable a team member to work on each User Story.


Story Points

Story Points are in effect the same as Sizing – i.e. if you size a User Story to be 3 days, you can say the it has three Story Points. Note – it is not necessary to equate one point to one day. An Agile implementation can define what it means by one Story Point – for example that could equal one hour.


User Story

A User Story is the smallest chunk of work in the Agile Framework. It has Acceptance Criteria so you know when it has been completed, and it will be sized by the Agile team so you know about how long it should take to complete.

An Epic comprises many User Stories.


Velocity

Velocity is the rate at which an Agile team completes it’s work (User Stories).

In effect it describes how many User Story points a team can handle in a Sprint.

This is very useful information for the Product Owner, Scrum Master and for Stakeholders as Velocity information helps to predict the work-rate of each Agile team.

In turn this makes it easier to forecast milestones and Epic completion dates.

It will typically take a number of completed Sprints before you have enough data to start articulating Velocity and using those numbers to predict work rates.


Vision Statement

Each Product should have a Vision Statement. It should be short, clear and ideally motivating for the team.

The Vision can change as Sprints develop (remember – stay flexible) – and it is important to share the Vision Statement with Stakeholders, the Scrum Master and the wider team.

If Stakeholders have defined Vision Statements at the Epic-level, it should be possible to dove-tail Product Vision Statements into those of the Epic.

A template to help drive Vision Statements is:

Target Group / Needs / Product / Value

or, if you’re developing a product to sell…

For (the target customer)

Who (statement of the need)

The (product)

Is a (type of product)

That (key benefit)

Unlike (competitor)

Our Product (further elaboration)

EXAMPLE

For people who want an easy way to rent cars, the vroomer is an app that lets users choose a car at the pick-up point and receive an electronic key. Unlike existing car rental companies our product is online, secure, flexible and FAST!

A Common Agile Failing, and How to Fix it

A common Agile failing is to continuously bump User Stories from one Sprint to the next because there was insufficient time to close them out.

This an unsatisfactory state for an Agile project and can lead Stakeholders to ask questions about why you’re implementing in Agile at all.

There are several ways to fix Agile Creep – here are a few suggestions:

Make sure User Stories are well written, clear, concise and have been elaborated with the help of Stakeholders if required BEFORE THE SPRINT STARTS.

Make sure User Stories have been sized correctly ideally using Fibonacci sizing numbers.

Make sure the Acceptance Criteria are well written, clear, concise have have been agreed with Stakeholders, as above, before the Sprint starts. You don’t want to get to the end of a Sprint and realise, “Oh, you didn’t want this, you wanted that!”. Then bump it to the next Sprint. This is a great way to help Stakeholders lose faith in what you’re doing.

Make sure the right person or people in the Agile Team get the right User Stories. It’s of limited use asking a developer to write a legal document for a 3rd party as is it to ask legal counsel to develop some code (unless your team consists entirely of super-heroes).

Make sure that User Stories which get stuck are discussed in the daily Scrums. This enables the Product Owner and Scrum Master to work out if a User Story is worth parking for now awaiting elaboration e.g. from a Stakeholder or 2rd pty, and if extra bandwidth becomes available in the team to take the next most highly prioritised User Story which makes sense to tackle.

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Agile Sprints aren’t only for Software

Most people associate the Sprint with software development. This is not the case as Sprints can and should be used for Business too.

Business outcomes are just as real as software outcomes.

In software development your outcome might be to source and stream data in a meaningful way online.

In business an analogous outcome could be to run an RFP with vendors which may result in a Proof of Concept delivery back to Stakeholders to make a decision on which vendor to onboard. The outcome will have clear Acceptance Criteria and will decompose into User Stories for delivery over a number of Sprints.

Sprints & 3rd Parties

However, User Stories which are dependent on a 3rd party should be at a low enough level with useful Acceptance Criteria to enable progress which can be parked if need be for a Sprint while awaiting elaboration from the 3rd party.

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Key Factors that help Foster the Agile Mind-Set

Three key factors in the Agile Mind-Set are emotional intelligence, collaboration and resilience.

Emotional Intelligence and the Agile Mind-Set

This includes such traits as written, verbal and non-verbal communication as well as responsibility, team membership and self-motivation. Without these skills it is difficult for an Agile Team Member to simultaneously be part of a team and self-motivated to complete their own work as well as helping to guide their team.

Collaboration and the Agile Mind-Set

Emotional Intelligence is the gateway trait into collaboration. For example knowing when to assist other team members with their work, contributing to the definition, planning and execution of Sprints as well as delivering work assigned. Collaboration with Stakeholders and a Management Team is also essential, including the ability to know when to escalate issues and step in as an SME.

Resilience and the Agile Mid-Set

Resilience is important because it means being flexible – e.g. if an in-flight project changes direction or if your role changes from being an SME in critical meetings with 3rd parties one week and then taking on User Stories the next week that may be more mundane in nature. This feeds into the notion of being “T”-shaped which is a trait which is useful but can cause issues if misunderstood or “forced” upon Agile Team Members.

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Why is a Daily Scrum so important?

The daily Scrum is an important part of the Agile Environment as it allows everyone in a team to understand very quickly what everyone else is doing and why.

A good example of a Scrum is where everyone gets together in person or on a call and there’s a quick round-robin where everyone gets to say what they’re working on and if they need any help. The process should be light touch. The Scrum Master should not overlay unnecessary layers of process, reporting, documentation or reporting on top of this (which is usually the case).

Remember that the Scrum Master is there to facilitate the daily process and to help escalate any issues especially to do with the Agile process itself to the Management Team.

If you think or feel that the daily Scrum is an unnecessary waste of your time each day then you’re Agile Environment is ready for a health check.

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The Elusive T-Shaped Team Member

A T-shaped Agile team member is someone who has broad experience (the horizontal bar of the “T”) who also possesses subject matter expertise in one area (the vertical bar of the “T”).

What is a T-shaped Team Member?

A T-shaped Agile team member is someone who has broad experience (the horizontal bar of the “T”) who also possesses subject matter expertise in one area (the vertical bar of the “T”).

An example might be a developer who has deep experience in coding and who also has broad experience in banking – e.g. knowledge of how equities and bonds are traded and has good knowledge about trading systems etc.

What are the benefits of T-shaped Agile team members?

The main benefit of a T-shaped person is they can not only deliver against User Stories in their domain, but can also contribute during Sprints to help others who may lack bandwidth or expertise in other areas. For example the developer could help a PM write an RFQ.

What are the drawbacks of Agile teams comprising T-shaped team members?

The main problem with building an Agile team comprising T-shaped people occurs when the majority of work in a Sprint or across a series of Sprints falls to one area of expertise.

Imagine a team of six where everyone is T-shaped and their subject matter expertise is;

Developer

Business Analyst

Lawyer

HR

Technical Author

Marketing

Imagine that the team has a huge amount of legal work where the lawyer has to read, evaluate and revert to external counsel in preparation to meet a regulatory body.

Now imagine that the Management Team has prioritised the legal work over everything else, so this Agile team gets 40 User Stories for the next Sprint, knowing that the team members are T-shaped.

The problem is, the team only has one lawyer. That person may be able to hand over proof-reading etc to other team members, but it would not generally be possible for the other team members to do the specific work of a lawyer to the standard required especially when sharing materials with 3rd parties.

This is were cracks can form in Agile teams.

When is it better to silo expertise into a single Agile team?

An organisation should build generalist Agile teams as well as building teams of excellence – e.g. in fields such as IT development, law and marketing.

The important thing to realise here is, that when work is transferred between Agile teams or even between T-shaped members in the same team, there is a cost associated with the handover – depending on the gap in skill-set between the team members.

Agile Team Health-Check

Please contact Agile Unpacked if you think you could benefit from an Agile health-check, whether it be in the Agile Framework as a whole or with your teams, processes or materials.

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