Category Archives: Sure Ways to Fail

Sure ways to fail #2 – Not knowing what the goal is

“If you don’t know where you going, any road will take you there” – The Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland

The_Cheshire_Cat_by_JTwilight97This quote from Alice in Wonderland is very insightful and I have quoted it many times when talking about strategies and plans. In this case I want to use this as an illustration for a way an Agile project will surely fail. If you don’t know what the goal line is for a specific release or sprint, you have no means to understand how you are travelling and whether you are on the right track. I have seen many teams post great velocities in their first couple of sprints, but when asked whether they can achieve the release goal they have no idea. This is painful and leads to a lot of anxiety for the team and stakeholders.

How does this happen? I believe that this is due to the fact that in Agile we don’t want to spend too much time planning and estimating too much to the future and hence start kicking off projects really quickly. We do this with just the first one or two sprints worth of stories ready for implementation and then we keep grooming the backlog. This is great, but if you choose to do so, I think you need to spend a little bit of extra time to give the team a final goal. You don’t need to have all the stories for the release, after all we want to be flexible in Agile, but you should have some idea of the things you need to deliver. This can be stories, themes, epics, features or whatever you choose. At this stage you should do a quick estimation to provide the overall scope for the release and a goal line that the team can use in their burn-up graphs (read more on reporting here). You can then track changes to the goal line if epics require more stories than expected or if any new scope is introduced. This allows the team to have meaningful discussions with the product owner and the stakeholders about required changes to the release. If you don’t have such a goal line, you could get a shock surprise towards the end of your release and surprises are not something we want with Agile delivery.

The one caveat is if you work in a project that truly does not know what the scope is or the scope is undefined. What you can do in those cases is either work in a Kanban style or with an assumed target velocity. If you work in Kanban you only ever have to worry about the first few items in your backlog and set expectations with your stakeholders on how long they will take and then do the same for the next set of stories on a regular cadence. This requires a lot of trust between the team, product owner and stakeholders. Alternatively you can set yourself a certain target velocity and just work towards that and fill the velocity with stories that are getting groomed on an ongoing basis.

Sure Ways to Fail #1 – No Time for Retrospectives

8226451812_88007f08df_zThis is the first post in a series of posts about anti-patterns that I have seen in my travels. I thought it is helpful for people to understand what is common in projects that fail so that they can learn from others’ mistakes and failures. Over time I will post more and more patterns and I will also post signs of success in a parallel series of blog posts. While these posts are numbered, they will not strictly be in priority order and will rather follow the same pattern as my other posts, which are timely to discussions I have had close to the point of writing the post. Perhaps later I prioritise them, but for now let’s get them on paper.

The number 1 reason I see in teams that fail is that they don’t have effective retrospectives. This can have many reasons, but the most common one I see is that the team does not have time because delivery is taking all their time. They are already working overtime and now they are asked to spend an hour on a retrospective. Clearly that can wait until next iteration. You might ask: how the next iteration will get any better if there is no time to look at what went wrong this time and to improve it. And you are correct. It is likely that the next iteration will end up consuming all the time and there again wont be time for a retro. In my opinion it is not often the case that there is really no time, it’s just a lack of understanding of the importance of the retro and perhaps the experience that previous retro wasn’t effective. One sure way to get teams out of the habit of running retros is when there is no action out of the retro, the team is bringing up all kinds of challenges they had and everyone is happy to pitch in and perhaps actions are also discussed on how to improve things, but then nothing happens. Sometimes the iteration is already committed and there is no room to action anything above and beyond the committed scope. Sometimes the ScrumMaster is not willing to pursue organisational challenges that require escalation and rather waits it out. Sometimes it is simply that no owner was assigned. Whatever it is, if after a couple of retros the team is still highlighting the same challenges and nothing is being done about it, they will question the value and then find it harder and harder to find the time to even do a retro. So perhaps it is not a time problem after all.
I personally like this cartoon, which pretty much sums it all up:

So how do you avoid this sure way to fail:

8002453131_7fd9489dfd_zHold regular retrospective – The first remedy is to hold retrospectives regularly and to make sure the team participates. One thing I learned is that there is not one format that works for everyone. You will have to experiment with the team until you find the right duration and activity to get maximum participation. And over time you should mix it up. To put post-it notes under two columns for good and bad can get pretty boring and take away from the value that the retrospectives add to the team.

Follow-up with action – The best retrospective does not help if it is just a session for feedback and then people leave and the system cards and ideas remain in the room. You need to make sure that at least 1-2 actions are taken from each retrospective session and that these actions are visible to the team (ideally on their Kanban wall). If you are the Scrum Master and there have been actions for the organisation that have come up in the retrospective and that the team thinks are important, then you need to make sure that you are accountable for doing something with it. I have attended retrospectives with teams over time and the motivation of the team is proportional to the level of action that comes out of a retrospective.

Bubble up what needs to bubble up – While many actions from the retrospective are internal to the team, there are items that are of interest to the whole organisation and where teams can learn from each other. One risk of the very team focuses ceremonies of Agile is that teams learn but not the organisation. It is therefore that the team and the Scrum Master and any coaches involved make sure that insights from retrospectives are being bubbled up to the organisational level to allow for that exchange of lessons learned and that actions can be taken for things that impact many different teams.

Crossroads: Success or Failure by Chris Potter from
License: Creative Commons
Retro-spective is here .. by Paul Downey from
License: Creative Commons