The Agile Tribe

Retrospectives without action are like faulty vending machines – neither give you change!

Authors: The Agile Coaching Community

In this second part of their blog, the Agile coaching community continue to share their experiences of running successful retrospectives.

Teams should focus on the goal of the retrospective, the context of the team and use questions that will help the team to move forward and improve. Look for problems that are similar and identify the root cause. Many issues could be solved by this one simple action.

We also recommend shaking things up occasionally and trying something new to ensure the retrospectives don’t get stale.

There are many techniques and ways to run Agile retrospectives and any or all of them could be used depending on the situation and the context of the team. Some excellent resources on retrospectives include the book –Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen. There is also an Agile Retrospective Resource Wiki that contains plans, tips and tricks and other helpful hints (www.retrospectivewiki.org) and you can also find several one page Agile Practice Help sheets on a variety of Retrospectives from the Agile Academy’s website.

No matter what type of retrospective technique you use,make sure to set up a positive and appreciative environment that encourages generative thinking!

Research has shown, that more of the brain functions in the presence of positive focus and praise, than problems focus and criticism. Consider asking, “What can be done better?” rather than, “What didn’t go well?” Help the team capture and recognise their successes and achievements and reward the generation of new ideas.

“No action, no change. Limited action, limited change. Lots of action, Change occurs.” ~ Catherine Pulsifer

No matter what method you choose or questions you ask, the important thing is to come out up with concrete ideas, then put them into action so they lead to change. Remember, the focus is on continuously improving. Change can’t occur without an action and a catalyst.

Many of us find that there’s no time for actions, we spend too much time reading through the cards running out of time to plan our actions!

So here are some tips we feel that might help ensure you get the most value from your retrospective:

  1. Plan enough time to discuss actions and make sure they are assigned to someone
  2. At the beginning of the retro follow up on actions from the last one to ensure they have been done
  3. Consider capturing retro discussion points throughout the iteration on a Big Visible Chart (BVC) and use the retrospective to focus on actions
  4. Prioritise and focus on the things that have a high impact and high frequency
  5. Keep a positive focus
  6. Consider holding the retro offsite. Creating a relaxed and non-interruptive environment is very important
  7. Communicate the output and share the learning. Also publish on the wall to insure transparency and open communication
  8. Keep up the energy levels by holding retrospectives regularly and don’t be afraid to share it up by trying something new in your retro
  9. Remember that good is the enemy of great (from Jim Collins’s book on “Good to Great”)

    So what has been your experience with retrospectives? Are they working for your team? What have you found worked or didn’t work? Do you have any suggestions that others could benefit from?

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Has your duck lost its quack?

Author: Susan Akers

A recent blog post by Seth Godin called: Watcha gonna do with that duck? got me thinking.

Seth said that:

We’re surrounded by people who are busy getting their ducks in a row, waiting for just the right moment…
Getting your ducks in a row is a fine thing to do. But deciding what you are you going to do with that duck is a far more important issue.

It reminded me of working in an Agile environment, where you have to get your ducks in a row to a certain extent but it is just as important to let your duck have some freedom to explore other paths as long as they come back to the flock and reach their intended destination.

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Agile's Secret Sauce – Part 3

Authors: Tracey Kay and Julian Coldrey

As project leads, we bring a certain perspective to how we have achieved the team culture described in Part 2 of this series.

So here are some things we did as a project leadership team that seemed to get a good result:

  • We picked the right people. It’s not about assembling the best, most high achieving collection of people. It’s about team fit and picking a group of people who work well together and, as a team, EXCEL.
  • We let the team self-select almost everything. Nothing says empowerment like the ability to choose how you work, what you work on, and who you work with. By enabling our teams to self-select and organise around our goals, they took on the choices as their own and were much more inclined to make them work (or even better, change them when it was obvious they weren’t working!)
  • We eliminated Leads to create accountability. It may seem counterintuitive to drive accountability by eliminating leads in an Agile team, but past experience showed us time and time again that creating leads for each skill set (“Dev leads,” “Test leads,” “BA leads”) caused an immediate diminishing of accountability with the rest of the team. We felt that if someone was given the “lead” role that it flew in the face of the culture of shared accountability we wanted to generate, so no leads became the order of the day.
  • We chose a specific leadership style. Leadership is always important, but in an Agile environment where empowerment and self-direction are critical to success, choosing the right leadership style is paramount. We decided to provide leadership that focused on the vision and purpose of the team, but which was not directive in terms of how to achieve these goals. In other words, our mantra was always “this is what we need to do, now let’s figure out how to do it as a team.” This really empowered the team, got everyone thinking, and ultimately helped create the sort of culture we were looking for.

We hope some of musings in this three part series about what makes up Agile’s secret sauce has resonated with your experiences of building high performing Agile teams. If we could take one thing away from this project experience, it’s that we’ve never regretted any investment we made into building a healthy team culture, as it has consistently been repaid in the form of a fantastic, high performing team who have fun!

Feel free to send us your Agile recipes for success too or direct us to other good blogs/articles.

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The Agile Journey – a Testing Experience!

Author: Kate Ellery

It’s quite hard to believe that a couple of years ago we were thinking “what’s this new fandangle ‘Agile’ thing they’re trying to push on us?”!!! And how far we have come since. Ask anyone in the team now if they’d ever go back to traditional waterfall projects… boy, if looks could kill!

In testing, we have certainly had many challenges. And we’re still perfecting some of our processes and tools, but looking back, we have come a long way since Agile was an unknown phenomenon!

Areas of Vast Improvement

  • Testers are being involved at the start of projects, instead of coming in when the first iteration is starting;
  • Acceptance criteria is being written against user stories by the entire team (often this was written solely by our Business Analysts), ensuring a common (and accurate) understanding of each story;
  • Collaboration and communication with Business Analysts and Developers has greatly improved, with all team members taking accountability for project tasks;
  • New automated testing processes – what we are actually automating, where we are automating (UI, functional code, shared services), and the tools we use;
  • Co-location – project teams seated together to encourage active collaboration within teams, ensuring any issues or changes are communicated to all as they happen, rather than finding out about them too late down the track;
  • We find that fewer defects are logged, due to the acceptance criteria being used for unit testing – the story must pass this criteria before the card moving to ‘in testing’.

However, this does not mean that we are perfect (yet!). There are some areas where we still struggle. We find the monthly brown bag videoconference sessions with other testing teams around the company beneficial to discuss some of our issues, and learn from others’ experiences.

Areas where we still face Challenges (with a capital “C”)

  • Time – fitting all the testing tasks into each iteration; the main tasks being – test execution (system, functional, integration & regression testing across several environments), planning for the next sprint, automated testing;
  • Meetings meetings meetings!– daily stand-ups, showcases, retrospectives, planning sessions – all very important, but they all take up our “maker’s time”;
    and
  • Getting one project finished before the next starts – we have a 6 week warranty period where the project team supports any production issues, which can eat into the new project tasks.

On the whole though, we all enjoy Agile and our testing team has become a busier, but happier team who are more supportive to each other, as well as supporting other roles in and outsdie the core team. We also feel more appreciated by our team members, as there is a better understanding of what each role does within each project which has resulted in a greater respect for each other as well.

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“10 + 1 pointers to a more innovative Agile journey!”

Author: Chris Zaharia

Someone suggested that I write a blog on my top tips for using innovation with Agile to make great things happen.

From Flickr - Cayusa.

This got me thinking about Clayton Christensen’s “The Innovator’s Dilemma”. In it he explains how start-ups have taken over previous market leaders across many industries, time and time again because they chose to introduce “disruptive innovations”. What this means is that it may be better to release a product or service that would cannibalise or even replace your core business than to wait for a competitor to beat you to it! Sounds like Agile to me. You collaborate with and learn from your customers what they really want. Most people will accept the less than perfect if they can see that at each step it is fulfilling one of their needs.

A success story that reflects this is Atlassian, one of the most effective adapters of Agile in Australia. I was fortunate enough to meet Mike Cannon-Brookes, the co-founder, back in 2008 when he explained how they identified that their existing customers found enterprise software much too complex to use. So they listened, developed and delivered an innovative suite of products which gave customers a simple, easy to use group of solutions, resulting in taking market share from previous leaders who were ineffective at innovating and turning an initial investment of $10,000 into over $75million in revenue business. We now see some of these products (Jira, Confluence and GreenHopper) being used by the likes of companies such as Macquarie, BMW and Adobe.

I’m not in the same league as those innovators at Atlassian but I am an innovator and offer a few words of advice from my own experience.

  1. Don’t let others knock your ideas down even if they think it could never work. Gather Energisers around you. They will provide support for your ideas and constructive criticism when appropriate as opposed to Energy Sappers who will say NO to all your ideas until you are discouraged to bring any more up.
  2. Go to GenY employees for ideas, and graduates who have recently finished University, as they usually have the latest perspectives on the most current trends and technologies and are more than happy to share their ideas. Consider giving them the time to develop their own side-projects too, possibly even create a graduate innovation initiative for them to conceptualise and deliver projects with formal teams and budgets. Similar initiatives have been a great success at companies such as Suncorp and Deloittes.
  3. Even go as far as to approach the younger iGeneration and children for ideas. Their perspective can bring surprisingly blunt and down-to-earth approaches that might jumpstart innovations. Don’t dismiss the GenXs and Baby Boomers either, as they can give a more realistic perspective which can enhance ideas to become feasible products. In fact, Deloittes has an effective method of hatching more realistic innovative solutions by pairing up a junior and senior employee to come up with ideas.
  4. Don’t leave innovative features that come up in a forgotten backlog due to the difficulty in estimating them. One way to address this is to perform a spike. Another method is to develop a throw-away prototype and demonstrate it.
  5. Allow customers or work colleagues from other parts of the business to take a look at the product. You can gain a variety of ideas which can introduce new approaches you may have forgotten or not even thought of by giving access to the product’s current iteration or via an communications channel like Yammer to get feedback from a much larger internal audience.
  6. Implementing an idea management system where anyone within your department or organisation can share ideas or challenges and vote on the best solutions.
  7. Bringing people in from outside your core team to take part or at least observe parts of your project. This may result in more efficient methods/processes being identified and taken up by the team.
  8. Have team members participate in industry workshops and events and then present what they have learnt to the rest of the team.
  9. Don’t limit yourself to only looking at competitors. Look at industries which are at the forefront of the technologies you are adapting. For example, in the insurance industry, a market leader in online retailing may have features that no other insurance website has and adapting it would bring in efficiencies in navigation that translate to increased business value.
  10. Actively follow the latest trends and technologies in as many industries as you can, and consider using a checklist of these when brainstorming at the concept phase of your Agile project.
  11. Finally, you can look at brainstorming sessions or even creative-thinking techniques for individuals such as SCAMPER. I found “Thinkertoys” by Michael Michalko to be a great book with lots of techniques to help you come up with ideas in the first place.

My final word of advice is this:
I see many people come up with great ideas and say they will do something but never drive themselves enough to act on it. You have to do something about it to really make it happen. Don’t just keep your ideas to yourself, otherwise you may be living with regrets about what might have been. Apple’s Steve Jobs once said “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower” so be a leader and make those ideas come true.

You CAN change the world!

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Is Brainstorming the be all and end of all New Ideas?

Author: Robert McDonald

In my experience, there are times when powerful members of a group can lead the discussion and it can promote conformist thinking amongst the rest. The mindset changes from, “what can I bring in the way of ideas” to “how can I best influence or work with what has been proposed”. Don’t get me wrong, I think that brainstorming is very valuable and is here to stay, but there seems to be two important steps which will help it achieve its results.

Brainstorming is not in itself the answer to everything, and taking the top 5 ideas which people vote on can mean less well communicated ideas with merit may be sidelined or ignored. Also if the brainstorming group can be made aware of this issue and work away from conformity and dominating themes to encompass as many ideas as they can.

Recent research seems to indicate this:
http://behavioralhealthcentral.com/index.php/20100330218207/Clinical-News/brainstorming-and-creativity-do-not-go-hand-in-hand.html

They also indicate that if the group feels they have fixated on a certain solution or idea then taking a break can improve the results from the session. This is an excellent idea which I think has real value.

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