Category Archives: Management
This category is about managing people and creating processes that makes work flow. Lean, Kanban, adapting to the situation and person in front of you in a way that makes him see things your way, or trust you enough to tell you why your way is wrong. That’s what managing is all about.
Shoshin is a concept in Zen Buddhism meaning “beginner’s mind“. It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.
Most of us are quite good at what we do for a living, basically because we do it almost every day. This knowledge and expertise comes with several problems. As agile practitioners, we know that one of the big problems with big, up front planning of projects, is that we don’t know what we don’t know – so our plans for the future can never be perfect. One of the big problems with being an expert, is that we’re not actively aware of what we do know either.
Who would you rather hire to solve some complex business problem – an expert in the field, or a young, inexperienced person with no domain knowledge? The truth is, they can both provide valuable contributions. Without preconceived judgement, the beginner may ask strikingly efficient questions, turning the problem (and maybe the solution) upside down.
But here you are. Unfortunately you’ve become an expert in your field – jumping to conclusions and solving problems at an impressive pace. Now what?
You need to practice having a beginner’s mind. Believe it or not, it’s actually a lot more fun. It’s also a bit scary. You’re used to coming across as the person who has all the answers. Now you will have to behave and feel like you don’t really know much at all. The interesting thing about asking questions, is that you tend to get answers. Even when you think you know the answer already, it often turns out that you don’t.
The thing about beginners, is that they fail a lot. Even the very feeling of not knowing can feel like failure. You’re the expert, right? The cold stare of a boss or a customer when you ask a question you’re supposed to know the answer to. I should know this. I do know this! This beginner’s mind bullshit is going to cost me my job. Then they answer. Perhaps with a sarcastic tone.
And the answer isn’t what you expected.
You’re immediately kicked behind the knee by the feeling of surprise and (yet again) failure that you actually didn’t know. A second later, your feet barely touch the ground as the consequences of this new information floods your brain, mixed with the baffling realisation that the you of 1 minute ago, knew far less than you do right now.
Suddenly you remember what learning feels like.
I know you’re an expert, but why would you want to stop learning? My youngest son is 7 months. He fails a lot. He learns even more.
There are a lot of simple “life lessons” out there. When you hear one for the first time you may feel like you knew it already, you just never really thought about it.
I’ve decided to try to write short posts whenever I get some small revelation about something or other. Here is the first one.
I recently watched an interview with Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and something Larry said created one of those “Aha” moments. They were discussing wether he and Sergey had any fundamental disagreements during their time as founders of Google. Since they know each other well and have great respect for each other, Larry commented that
“(..)if we are disagreeing about something, it is probably because it isn’t obvious what to do”
When you think about it, that’s actually quite profound. During the heat of an argument, most people are quite convinced they are right. But if an argument is heated, someone else are equally convinced that you are wrong. So any time an argument escalates, it could be a useful red flag indicating that the answer probably isn’t that clear cut.
If someone you know and trust thinks you are wrong, chances are you’re at least not 100% right. So instead of butting heads (for too long), give them space to explain and elaborate their point of view. Acknowledge that whatever you’re discussing probably doesn’t have an obvious right or wrong answer, and you may need time and input from other people to come to a conclusion.
It’s time to let you in on The Secret. Don’t tell anyone, but “How long does it take” is the wrong question.
I planned for this post to be about statistics and how to calculate probabilites. Instead it turned into a rant, of sorts. You see, there’s another Secret buried here: If you really take the time to learn how to estimate risk correctly, this will help you learn the following fact about the outcome of your project: It is very uncertain. I guess that’s helpful. Sort of.
“That’s just baloney,” I can hear some of you say. “My projects are consistently on time and on budget,” you continue. Maybe so. Let’s examine the famous “project triangle” for a moment.
Ever wondered why it isn’t a square? Because quality is a result of the other three, some might say. “That’s just baloney,” you can hear me say. I think it’s because cost, scope and time is easy to measure and easy to adjust. Quality? We always deliver perfect quality! We are professionals! Let’s just put that in the middle, and hope no one pays too much attention.
You, the guy who screamed “We always deliver on time and on budget!” a moment ago. How about scope? “Hah! We delivered all the functionality as well! All the developers bitched about them having too much to do in too little time, but my project plan showed them wrong!”
That’s impressive. But even when we go to the painstaking length of figuring out the risk and uncertainty of a project PROPERLY – You know, with Statistics and stuff, not just, God forbid, guessing or anything – it still comes out as being very uncertain. So how come you can consistently deliver your projects on time, scope and budget? Your team don’t have much choice, do they? They have to reduce quality. Luckily for you, no one will notice until the project is over. And they couldn’t really measure it if they did. What IS quality anyway? Sounds like a made up word to me.
So what did I mean by “how long does it take” being the wrong question?
There are a couple of problems. First of all, what is this “it” that we are doing? When you start the project, odds are neither you or the customer knows what the end result is supposed to look like. You may think that you do, but you don’t.
If it is a waterfall project, the customer will say “This is what I want” while dropping the dreaded Complete Requirement Specification on your desk. Then you go away for three months with a team of developers to create whatever is in the specification. “Here is your product!” you exclaim with great enthusiasm when you come back. After the customer has tested it, she goes “Nope, that’s not it.”
If it’s an agile project, your team of developers only go away for maybe a couple of weeks at the time. Each time you come back and show a little bit of the product, the customer tests it and goes “Nope, that’s not it either. And where’s the rest?”
However you go about it, both you and the customer learn a lot DURING the project. Mostly what they don’t want. Needless to say, this process takes quite a bit longer than just doing stuff once. No one knows what done looks like until, well, you’re done. And please remember, we’re not BUILDING a product, we’re CREATING it. The first of its kind. Your developers aren’t packing meat in boxes along a conveyer belt, they’re freaking SCIENTISTS! So stop pretending you are a production facility. The product you’re creating has never been built before. If it has, please go and buy that instead.
And that’s not even half of it. What did you say were doing again? A project, right? Well, most of the time we’re not really creating projects, we’re creating PRODUCTS. The funny thing about products is that they don’t end when the project ends. That’s kind of when they start. In terms of cost, that means roughly 90% of the total cost of a product comes AFTER the initial release. Maintenance, bug fixing, additional development, paying back technical debt, people spending most of their day swearing over how horrible it is, and so on.
Here’s the Third Secret: The less time you spend on quality during the “project” phase, the higher the total cost of the product.
So whenever you pat yourself on the back for delivering “on time” (usually a random point in time decided by anything except the actual amount of work that needs to be done before that date), that probably means you have reduced the overall quality of the project, and increased the total cost of the product you delivered. That doesn’t really sound like back patting performance, if you ask me.
Did you think this series of posts would culiminate in How To Estimate Accurately In 3 Easy Steps? Well, it sort of didn’t. If you’re still looking for that guide, you should probably read “The Flaw of Averages: Why We Underestimate in the Face of Uncertainty” by Sam L. Savage.
I’m not sure it will make your estimates more accurate, but at least you’ll understand why.
On an intellectual level, everyone understands that communication is important.
And everyone in a company is working together with someone else, unless it is a one man company. So without communication, nothing much would get done. Stating the obvious, right?
A recent NTNU (Norwegian University of Science and Technology) Master Thesis concluded that (paraphrased):
“Allthough all organizations think that good communication is vital in order to run projects in the direction of their organizational strategy, most do not have the desired communication systems, culture or skills(..)”
Surely that doesn’t apply to your company. You guys spend lots of time making sure everyone understands what to communicate when, and to who. You naturally share all relevant information to as many people as possible, in a way that makes sure the original message is preserved.
I’m sure that you always make sure that “what is relevant” isn’t defined to tightly, and terms as “on a need to know basis” are generally frowned upon. Informal communication is always encouraged in order to build an environment where anyone will continously voice their intent, their understanding, their worries and their questions without fear of repercussions. Right?
And your managers always make sure everyone involved knows where the team is going and why. When someone does something that is not aligned with the overall goal of the company, they do not blame the individual. They ask “What piece of information did this person not have, and why?” or “What has this person not understood, and how can we help this person understand it better in the future?”
Did I just describe how the concept of information flow works in your company?
I recently had a heated argument with a couple of our developers. They were creating a new module in one of our systems, and were building the UI based on a screenshot from a designer.
Developer: “Here is what was auto-deployed to the development server last night. As you can see it is a somewhat working prototype.”
Me (After picking on several aspects of the design): “..so I guess we’re pretty far away from anything I can show the customer.”
Developer (groans): “As you can see, it’s perfect and doesn’t need any tweaks..”
Me: “Well, were you looking for feedback, or did you just want me to compliment you on your CSS skills?”
Developer: “I was after feedback, but I am allowed to be grumpy when I get it. So, if we change the stuff you mentioned, can we move on to the admin part after that?”
Me: “If we present it like this, we’ll be thrown under the bus. I need it to be as close to the design screenshot as possible. Now that I’m looking at it again, I’m actually worried even that won’t be good enough.”
Developer: “Seriously?! Well, God. I need a timeout. Give me two minutes to grab another coffee..”
After a lengthy discussion while looking at some state of the art, jaw dropping design templates online, we all realize that we haven’t been aiming high enough with the new design. I’ve been giving them a hard time for maybe thirty minutes, even though I know their job isn’t easy. We’re hard pressed for time, and I know I’ve said the functionality is more important. But I also know that the current design simply won’t cut it. I try to calm things down.
Me: “I know I’m being harsh here, but I needed to get the message across.”
Developer: “So, if we don’t even think the design from the designer is good enough, why do we spend time implementing it? I don’t even want to do it anymore after seeing how much better it can be done.”
Me (pointing at one of the crazy designs we checked out online): “I hear you, but can we even do anything remotely like that?”
Developer (looking straight at me): “We can do anything!”
“Most people fail in life not because they aim too high and miss,
but because they aim too low and hit.”
(This is part #2 in my mini series of blog posts about estimates. Part #1 can be found here)
With the help of detailed analysis, an experienced developer may figure out the most likely outcome of a project. But exactly HOW likely is the most likely outcome?
In the previous post we were forced to guess the duration of a project, and ended up guessing the project would take 300 hours. As a side note, the result after detailed analysis will probably be quite close to the same number. This is known as anchoring. In order to keep each post relatively short, we will save that for another post.
Let’s assume you’re given time to do a detailed analysis of the proposed project, consider the risk and are provided with a “complete specification”. You spend maybe half a day thinking about it, jot down some detailed estimates, and add them all together. The total sum is 290 hours, and you figure that to be the most likely outcome of the project. Your assumption may be exactly wrong for any number of reasons, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume you’re actually correct.
You have now figured out that the project will most likely take around 290 hours. But exactly HOW likely is it that the estimate matches the actual end result? 60%? 80%? You may be surprised to learn that the actual number is probably quite a bit lower than that.
Above illustration represents the actual outcome of 42 Norwegian projects from several different companies. (Magne Jørgensen / scienta.no)
Let’s say you have historical data from several past projects, telling you both your estimated, most likely outcome, as well as the actual outcome. If you put them in a graph with the x-axis representing the actual effort in percent of the estimated effort, and the y-axis representing the percentage of the total number of projects, it would probably look something like the graph above. Confused yet? Let me explain that again.
The highest bar in the above graph is the one marked “100” on the x-axis, and the value of that bar is around 33. That means that roughly 33% of the projects were completed on the estimated time. Since it’s the highest bar, being on time appears to be the most likely outcome. The next bar to the right, marked “125” on the x-axis, indicates that a little over 15% of the projects actually spent 125% of the estimated time, and so on.
So why do you care? Because it sheds light on what “most likely” really means. And it may not be what you think. Actually, our most likely outcome (hitting the estimate spot on) is NOT very likely to happen. Yes, it surely is more likely than any other individual result, but it is LESS likely to happen than all the other results combined. We actually have a whopping 67% likelyhood of NOT hitting our estimate, even though (due to some unknown miracle) our estimate is the most likely result of all possible results.
To make matters worse, the combined likelyhood of the bars to the LEFT of the 100% bar (representing actual outcomes that were lower than our estimate) is only about 7%. So we got 33% likelyhood of hitting our estimate, and 7% likelyhood of being below.
If you provide your boss with your “most likely” estimate, you will in this example leave him with a 60% chance of blowing the customers budget.
I’ll leave you with some time to think that through. Part #3 of this mini series can be found here.
I know a whole bunch of developers in different companies and different businesses. What they all love most about their jobs, is when they are asked to produce an estimate. It’s the highlight of their week!
You’ve had a creative discussion with your boss and perhaps a couple of representatives from the customer. It’s all fun and games, until your boss turns to you and asks The Question.
“So, how long does it take?”
Did he just do that? In front of the customer, no less? How on earth are you supposed to answer that reliably without any time to analyse the details? You venture a somewhat vague answer, even though you know it’s no use.
“Hm, perhaps somewhere between 200 and 400 hours?”
“What does that mean, between 200 and 400 hours? Just give me a number!”
“Oh, uhm, I guess around 300 then?” you reply desperately, automatically reaching for the average of the first two numbers you threw out there. Surely that can’t be too much off?
Any one number representing a possible future outcome of something, will never be anything except just that. One possible outcome. That means somewhere out there, you’ve got a whole bunch of other possible outcomes as well. So If you say it might take 200 hours, without the backing of additional data, the chance of it taking more or less is about 50% either way.
So you’re giving your boss a definite number based on your guess on the outcome of something, without any information about other just as likely outcomes. Does that sound like a useful number to you? I didn’t think so.
Estimates are usually needed to figure out wether to invest in something, and to set a budget. If you give me a number where it’s a 50% chance of me blowing my budget, then I’d say you’re not really helping me over here. It’s heads or tails wether I’m in trouble with the customer for overspending. So when I ask for an estimate, it’s implied that I need a number that isn’t very likely to be too low.
So if your boss (or your customer) insists on getting that one number, what to do? First we need to understand more about the problem of “just give me a number”. More on that in part #2 on this mini-series about estimating!
The middle manager. The useless fat of any bloated organization. They delegate all their work to other people, and then they wander around aimlessy, doing nothing at all expect worry about what happens if the delegated work doesn’t get done in time.
Being useless fat can be both rewarding and fun, but most of the time it is a difficult job. Even so, it must be done. After all, stuff doesn’t get delegated by itself..
It’s an interesting and not entirely new question. What to do with middle management in a company that is agile, stuffed with self organizing teams that in turn are made up of super-cool and smart people that don’t really care very much for authority figures who try to tell them what to do. Do we really need them around?
In an “agile organization” (whatever that is), stuff still needs delegating. But perhaps you are delegating goals and projects, instead of tasks. Less time is spent reporting against imaginary project plans, more time is spent actually creating value for the customer. Sharing information, explaining goals. Discussing possible solutions. Developing said solutions, showing them to the customer early and often.
As an agile or lean manager, I’m not really the boss of someone else. I am simply responsible for other parts of the value delivering process. I am also responsible for optimizing the process itself. I also try to inspire everyone else to optimize their part of the process, whenever that is possible without hurting the process as a whole.
My job is to protect tech people from nosy sales people, help sales people understand difficult tech people, explain to owners how a little money now isn’t always better than a lot of money later, and that more quality actually equals less cost in the long run. If all of the above goes well, the result is surprisingly often that we deliver valuable and useful software to customers who don’t always know what they need, but always know where it hurts.
Basically it is understanding, sharing and aligning goals and mindsets. And that is a really fancy way of saying that you need to talk a lot. I don’t really like talking to people very much, so I guess that explains why I spend half the time worrying instead.
It may not be very effective, but at least worried people look busy. And looking busy is important when you are useless fat.
“In Scrum we <insert Scrum practice here>, would we still do that if we switched to Kanban?”
Occasionally I’m approached by people curious about Kanban, and more often than not they are already familiar with Scrum. They may have read some brief blog posts about Kanban, but are left wondering what it’s really about. What are the rules? What do we have to change? Can we still do Scrum? Help! So I decided to write a blog post looking into some of the stuff you would usually be doing in a Scrum team. Would you still be doing it if you were doing Kanban, or would there be an alternative approach to achieving the same goal?
“In Scrum we divide our project into sprints. I’ve heard that you don’t do that in Kanban?”
The answer to this is, it depends. Many teams find it useful to establish a regular delivery cadence to either test or production, while others deliver when it makes sense to do so. The general rule is, the more often you deliver value to the customer, the better. The biggest difference is that with Scrum, all the practices (planning, retrospectives, releases) are tightly coupled to the sprint. With Kanban it is 100% decoupled, and everything is optional.
“I heard that with Kanban, you don’t do estimates. How does that work?”
There are no rules in Kanban explicitly saying that you can’t do estimates. In many situations it will make sense to do some form of estimating up front, or during a project. If feasible in your setting, we would however prefer to focus on what is important, and the assumed cost of delay . What would it cost us either in direct cost or lost revenue to NOT do this task now? In 3 weeks? In 3 months?
“I attended a conference once, and some weirdo on stage claimed we shouldn’t prioritize items in our backlog?”
In a large project you may well have tens, or even hundreds of individual items in your backlog. For the sake of argument, let’s say you have 50 items. To follow Scrum, you need to order all 50 items according to priority. This is typically done several times during the project, maybe as often as once per sprint. Let’s say that you on average deliver 5 items per sprint. So in reality, for any given sprint it adds little (no) value to order anything below the top 5 items in the backlog. In Kanban we prefer to ask our product owner “What is the most important task(s) for you right now?”. Answering that question is usually easier (and faster) than ordering 50 items.
“In Scrum we have a Scrum Master. Is there such a thing as a Kanban Master?”
In Kanban we recognize the fact that change is hard. People naturally resist anything that threatens their identity. Asking people to change their professional roles would do just that. When implementing Kanban, everyone involved keeps their current roles and titles. There are no formal roles. A basic principle is “Start with what you do now”.
“In Kanban you apparently have a board to visualize tasks, like we usually have in scrum?”
Yes, but with one crucial difference. Scrum has a lot more formal “rules” than Kanban, but they’re missing one – and it’s an important one. Limit Work In Progress. In Kanban we define a workflow, and we limit the work allowed in each state. As a result, we implement a pull process. Whenever there is room for more work in a board column, more work can be pulled from an upstream state (typically to the left on the board). Limiting WIP and pulling work prevents overburdening, reduces multitasking, decreases lead time (the time it takeS from we start something until it is finished) and increases flow through the system. It will also quickly uncover flow problems. If an item is impedimented for some reason, it will quickly stop or limit the flow of the entire system.
(illustration below stolen from Henrik Knibergs excellent post One day In Kanban land)
“That answered some of my questions, but I’m still a bit confused. What are the RULES of Kanban?”
I’m not sure there is an answer to that. Kanban is a management and change management technique that require some time to fully understand. There are few explicit rules as to exactly what to do, but Kanban will help you figure out what works for you. There’s no one right way, the context of your situation is always unique. Does it make sense to always have sprints with a committed list of deliverables? Probably not. Does it make sense to have stand up meetings? Probably, but maybe not every day in any context. Does it make sense to have a retrospective after each delivery? Who knows what’s right for you? Only you.
“So are there any rules at all?”
We have what we call principles:
- Start with what you do now (No set rules or processes. Start from where you are, and improve from there)
- Agree to pursue incremental, evolutionary change (Make a small change, see if it is an improvement, then try another)
- Respect the current process, roles, responsibilities and titles (Don’t manage by fear and force, build trust and understanding. Respect persons and identities)
- Leadership at all levels (Delegate, build trust, encourage acts of leadership at all levels of your organization)
And six core practices:
- Vizualise the workflow (Without understanding what happens, it is hard to implement change)
- Limit work in progress (Implement a pull system, typically a kanban system)
- Manage flow (monitor and measure how work flows through the system, in order to detect problems and opportunities for improvement)
- Make policies explicit (Document how the system works, thereby creating a common basis for understanding and improvement)
- Implement feedback loops (Regular collaboration and review at both team and company level is important to facilitate continous improvement)
- Improve collaboratively, evolve experimentally (Involve and inspire everyone to suggest improvements, and experiment to validate theories)
If you are ready to dig deeper into how Kanban may help you and your organization, I suggest you start by reading: “Kanban” by David J. Anderson
Now you may proceed with your day, I wouldn’t want you to miss your daily Scrum!
I’ve been around my fair share of useless people, I’m sure you have as well.
I don’t know about you, but I hate it.
I can handle people who are genuinely useless, but useless people who are actually intelligent and could have been competent, those guys I really hate. I hate it when people do a crap job even though I know they could do so much better. It’s amazing how much you can’t get done when you’re armed with a lack of motivation combined with a healthy dose of ignorance.
I hate leaders and managers who think they are doing a great job, but actually suck at it, and blame their employees for their own shortcomings.
When I started out as a manager (and to a certain extent even today), I always took the blame for anything my employees did wrong. When you made an error, so did I. Why is that? Because I hate it when we suck. I try to do my very best, every day, all day. I seldom succeed, but at least I try. I want you to try too. Hard.
So when I take the blame for your mistake, that isn’t right, is it? I don’t want to take responsibility for your mistakes, I want you to take responsibility. Own up, move on, do better next time.
You’re at the office doing whatever it is you do most of your waking hours anyway, so you might as well be passionate about it, right? It wouldn’t kill you, would it? If it did, at least you’d die doing something you were passionate about. It sure beats being bored to death.
The next time someone gives you feedback (that’s a nice word for someone shouting at you and telling you that you suck), hold back on that excuse for just a minute. Because they already know the specification wasn’t perfect. They know the customer is a jerk. They know you have a cold. And deep down you both know that you are capable of doing a better job. That’s probably why the guy is shouting at you in the first place. It’s no use shouting at an idiot, but he knows you can do better. So why the hell didn’t you?
I’d love for us to just get rid of all the terrible excuses and blame games (even though I still catch myself participating in them from time to time). And just. Get. Better.
So whenever you get yelled at, tell them that yes sir, you are exactly right. It was my responsibility to identify that the specification was incomplete. It was my responsiblity to figure out what the customer really wanted. It was my responsibility to make sure this new feature didn’t break anything else. I will go out of my way to do better.
I for one, will love you for it. And I will do my best to follow your lead.