Agile, a Gorilla four letter word

“No, no, no, no. You’re doing it all wrong. For the love of Peet, it’s an easy process to follow.”

Eric shrugged. “Yeah and we found that it wasn’t working with our schedule cycle so we tweaked it.”

I rolled my eyes, “Look, the system works, we just have to trust the system.” I glanced down at my watch. “Look, I have to prep for my next meeting. Can you close the door when you leave.”

Eric blinked, shrugged and walked out of my office. As the door shut I leaned back in my chair with a deep sigh.  It was taking so much work to make the team more efficient. If only they’d just see this was the way to an easier path. Well, at least I’d gotten management to cough up money for training. The entire project had nearly fell face first into the chasm because the CFO had heard productivity increase and rushed us straight towards agile, ignoring all my “people need training” reminders. Our first pilot was nearly our last when nobody had a clue what they were doing.

I rubbed my temples. I’d had to work fast on that one, pulling together a cost benefit analysis to prove that spending money on training would gain us more improvement than going back to the old development model. Leaning back in my chair I stared at the ceiling. Now if I could just get the teams to stop playing around and do things right.

“Why not left?”

I really need to change the lock on that door.

“You don’t have a lock on the door, how can you change it?”

I really need to put in a lock, and then change it. “What do you want, Hogarth?”

“Why does everyone want to do things ‘right’? Couldn’t we try doing it left for once.”

I was about to tell Hogarth that he was making no sense, but then I thought better. Whenever I did, he always made me look like an idiot by then making complete sense. Sigh… “I want to do it the right way, because that’s the way it’s supposed to be done.”

Hogarth sauntered across the room to where a large philodendron sat. Pulling a leaf from the plant, he took a large bite before turning back to me with a sour look on his face. “You know, I much prefer the fichus.” I just gave him a baleful stare. Tucking the half eaten leaf back into the pot he settled down against the wall. “The way it’s supposed to be done,” he repeated.

I just nodded.

“Question, isn’t this release going like gangbusters? Don’t you expect to ship in half the time and with a much higher quality?”

I nodded, a note of pride slipping into my voice. “Yes.”

“Then why are you worried about being right? It’s working, isn’t that the most important thing?”

“But they’re not following the process!” I snapped in frustration. “If they just followed the process, it would be so much better.”

Hogarth scratched the back of his thread as he asked, “Remind me again, the first principle of agile is what?”

I peered at Hogarth in confusion. “Really?” He just gave me a “humor me” shrug and stared at me. Sigh, “all right. The first principle of agile is ‘Individuals and interactions over process and tools.”

“Uh huh… And how are you doing with that?”

Blink, blink… Sigh. I really hate it when he’s does that.
Has Agile become a four letter word?

Worse than that, is it a three letter word? Is agile in danger of becoming the next Management Fad? Nothing is worse than being placed in a bucket with such Fads as “Business Process Reengineering.” You know, the Fad that said if we make the process better, even a bad team will improve?

Shudder…  We don’t want that, do we?

Well guess what? It’s happening. I think this tweet sums it up all to well:

Is it me or are there a lot of people drinking the #agile #scrum kool aid? How bout just focus on being effective? #agile #scrum #pmchat – @tonybruce77

This worry isn’t anything new. Nearly as long as the Agile Manifesto has been around there have been people calling it a Fad. On top of the typical Fad drivers, there are disturbing trends inside of the agile community that are just as harmful.

Here are a three viewpoints.

  1. Poor adoption of agile has driven us into the chasm: Back in Feb, 2011, Agile Focus posted a blog on agile falling in the second chasm. It argues that “there is a vast army of supposedly Agile teams and companies that have adopted the look and the lingo while totally missing the point.

I tackled this Gorilla back in “Indiana Gorilla and the lost artifacts of agile.” It is certainly an issue, and one that is not unique to agile. If you have $100,000 racecar, but the driver can’t drive a stick, then he might declare the car useless. This point argues that it might just be that you need to train the driver. The inverse also applies. Many companies have “tried” agile, only to mark it as useless because of poor implementation. If you don’t read the manual, you to can end up bumbling around like the Greatest American Hero.

My Soapbox: Agile isn’t a get rich, quick scheme. You can’t toss in a few standups and call it good. It’s a cultural shift. A set of beliefs and ethics that require a company to change more than just how it tests. You don’t do this overnight and you don’t do it without training. To get better, you have to invest in getting better.

  1. That’s not agile! You’re doing it wrong!: Mike, over at Leading   Answers, created the Periodic Table of Agile Adoption.  While Mike posits that, like the real elements, there is no good or bad Agile adoption I’d point out that you really don’t want to get Cesium anywhere near water. And like real elements, there are elements of the agile community that are a little explosive when they perceive you as “watering down” pure agile.  On the Agile Periodic Table, there are some fairly vocal and forceful Ze1s out there and enough Zealots and Fundamentalist pounding on the “That isn’t the way to do it” drum that we are seeing a growing backlash to agile. Not because agile has issues (it does, but that’s not for today), but because these passionate agilists are being perceived as shoving it down people’s throats. Like the fur protestors with their cans of red paint, they go to extremes to make their point. The extremist just might be driving people away.

My Soapbox: I personally come down somewhere in the Te6 or Re6 transformational/revolutionary blending area of the chart. Agile is one of many tools in my toolbelt and I’ll use what works best to help the team, company and myself be successful. Given that I tend to get really upset with those at the Ze1 end of the spectrum. Why? Because one of the first tenants of agile is…

“Inspect and Adapt”

If you don’t change and adjust as you go, then how can you call yourself agile?

  1. Agile isn’t New!: The Agile Manifesto was signed in 2001. In the last ten years, the term agile has exploded across the world and become one of the rising trends that every business is keeping an eye on. Only the concept of agile isn’t ten years old, only the word agile is ten years old. The concepts of agile are a lot older. The first Scrum team dates back to the early nineties. Customer focused development concepts were a major fad in the 1980’s. Lean (which some will fervently  argue isn’t agile, but we won’t go there today) goes all the way back to Toyota’s post WWII reconstruction. And some have given good arguments for the roots of “agile” being in the Hawthorne Study of the 1920’s.

My Soapbox: Agile is a buzz word. In many ways agile is the PMI of its day (Yes, I just went there). Formal Project Management dates back to the 1950’s, but it wasn’t until the late 1990’s that it really began to gain traction. Organizations like PMI (1984) and methodologies like Prince (1989) and Prince2 (1996) brought a measure of formality to a decades old profession.

But the biggest thing PMI (Prince2 in the UK/Europe) did was to give everyone a common language. It took what people had been doing for years, and gave everyone the same words to use for it. Earned Value means the same thing to me, as a project manager in Dubai. It does because of PMI, Prince2 and others who helped to create a language around project management.

The Agile Software Development Manifesto did the same thing for what most of us now think of as agile. Agile is the word we’ve all agreed on to use. Don’t let the word get in the way of long standing and good principles.

So is agile in danger of becoming a Fad?

Yes- And that’s a good thing:

The underlying principles of agile focus on the customer and the team. These are good foundations to have and the popularity of agile has given attention to these foundational principles.

Yes- And that’s a bad thing:

The near fanatical drive that some agilists have, combined with the “get rich, quick” attitude of many companies, who try and implement on the quick, are leading us down a road that could cause a perfectly good set of values to be cast onto the rocks of management faddom, to languish next to jazzercise, Tai bo and the grapefruit diet.

So what would you call it?:

Margaret Motamed, host of the BayScrum Meetuprecently described what she is doing as “Collaborative Management.” A lot of use would insist she’s agile and those Z1s would probably say she was just gaming the system. I think she might be on to something.

Right now I don’t know what I would call it. If I say “agile” you all know what I mean. If I call it “Flexible” then you’re not going to know exactly what I mean.

If I had to describe it in a single sentence:

“I believe in a customer focused, iterative process that is executed through a collaborative effort of the team and company.”

And I have one simple measurement to if I’m being successful.

“Are we doing better this week, than we were last week? If we are, then we win.”

Joel Bancroft-Connors
The Gorilla Talker
Want me to talk to your gorilla? Send me an email,
You can follow me on twitter, @JBC_PMP 

Don’t play Planning Poker with the Gorilla

“10 Days” Eric said.

I sighed. “Eric, you’re supposed to use the planning cards and put down a value.”

As he flipped through his stack of cards I could see him counting to himself. “Okay, fine. I think this is an 89 point task”

Sigh… “Eric, you just counted out ten cards and put that card down.”

“Yeah, so?”

I leaned forward and tried to use my calmest voice. “Eric, we’re not trying to figure out how many days right now, we’re trying to do an abstract estimate on the relative size of each story in the whole project. “

He waved his hand, “What’s the point? If we’re painting a house and you ask me to estimate how long it will take to paint the garage door I can put down a 2 or just tell you two hours. You’re asking me to use an abstract number when I already know how long it will take.”

I sat back in my chair perplexed. The problem was that I could see his point. We were tackling each task one at a time and no matter what I did, I couldn’t break the team out of thinking about how many days something would take. And I knew this was a slippery slope that led back to padding, swags and a whole slew of inefficient planning practices.  

A long meeting later I dragged myself into my office. Only to find both my chair and the guest chair occupied. One of the occupants I expected to be there, a post meeting debrief on this last meeting was much to much for my personal gorilla to miss. Seeing the black swan flipping playing cards onto my desk was quite another thing.

Flip, flip, flip “144!” Hogarth said, triumphantly.  Looking at the black feathered swan he grinned. “Hah, that beats your 21.”

“Hogarth!?” You’d think I would get tired of yelling his name. Or maybe I would just get used to his ever present level of restrained chaos. You’d think… “What are you doing with my Planning Poker decks?”

“Oh, hey there,” Hogarth turned his cheerful smile my way. “Wanda and I were just playing war.”

Tossing her last card, a 2, down Wanda slid off the chair. “I have to get back to the server room anyway, one of the HVAC’s is about to short out because a gopher climbed on the roof and ate through the power cable.”

Trying not to think of electrocuted gophers and overheating servers, I ignored the departing black swan and turned my attention back on Hogarth. “Why are you playing war with my Fibonacci cards?”

“Oh, that. Well I figured you might want them and then we just kind of got bored waiting for you to be done not estimating the release.”

I blinked at him. “Hogarth, I know you were eavesdropping on the meeting. You know perfectly well the team thinks planning poker is useless.” I tossed myself into the vacated guest chair with a sigh. “And I’m not sure I don’t disagree with them.”

“Since when have you believed there’s only been one way to use a tool?”

Blink, blink… Why did he always have to be right?


Story Point Estimating

This is one ofthe foundational principles of Scrum software development (and Agile  in general). Done well, story estimating can create an incredible level of predictability and transparency. A high performing team can look at a set of requirements and provide a high confidence assessment of when they will done.

But this isn’t about the value or use of estimating. There is plenty written on this and I’m not here to rehash it. I believe in estimating, just as I believe in the principles of agile and good management.

What I’m here to say is I think Planning Poker is the wrong way….

What? Come on, I’d be a lousy gorilla talker if I wasn’t willing to tackle tough subjects head on. I do absolutely think story point estimating is the right thing. I just think planning poker is not the best way to do it.

Naturally this begs the question of “why?” I have two reason for my concerns on the use of planning  poker:

  1. Each user story (feature, tasks, item) is evaluated on its own. When you do planning poker you are just looking at how long it will take to paint the garage door. You are hard pressed to look at it in relation to putting a new latch on the back gate. I think the mind is hard pressed not to assign a physical value to the estimate. “I think this will take two hours, that’s about a 3.”
  2. At the end of the day, the planning poker process occurs in an individuals head.  Yes, there is a discussion among the team, but only after each person has drawn a line in the sand. Once the human mind draws a line, it finds it hard to move that line. We’ve invested ourselves in that line.

So what the heck do you do?

Well if you’ve been following my recent agile related blogs, you’ll know I’m a very big fan of something called the “Team Estimation Game” developed by Steve Bockman. I personally like to call it “Team Planning Solitaire.” The style of the game reminds me of classic Klondike solitaire and the interaction of the team makes it anything but a solo activity (what can I say, I like irony). I will also note that while I learned this from Steve Bockman and Agile Learning Labs , I have seen some similar exercises in the last few months. Whether they are parallel development or evolutions of Bockman’s game, I don’t know.

I detailed how this game worked in “How much is that Gorilla in the window.”

At the highest level, the process starts with the story cards in a pile. Each person takes a turn laying out a new card or moving an existing card on the table. At the end, you have a line of cards in rank order. Only then do you break out the planning poker cards. Your estimates end up being based on the relation to the other stories, not to how long one story will take.

Why is the Team Estimating Game so good?

  1. Stories are estimated in relation to one another and not in a vacuum. “Is painting the garage door more or less effort than replacing the latch on the back gate? All right, is painting more or less effort than rehanging the front door.”
  2. It’s a team activity. Nothing happens in anyone’s head. It is all out on the table and very straight forward. You aren’t sitting there arguing that the Database re-architecture will take a week or two weeks. You are just trying to decide if it is more or less effort that localizing the user interface to Japanese.

At the end of the day I think Team Estimating is much more effective than planning poker. Leave the poker cards for a nice game of Klondike or Texas Hold ‘Em.

Who’s ante is it?



Gorilla Ethics: Is that your banana or mine?

Have I ever mentioned how much I loathe team building exercises? Not the real one, no.  The ones that take cut-throat competition and slap a happy veneer over it to call it team building?
I squinted through the sunlight, trying to see where Sue was in the obstacle course. It was one of those big inflatable things that look like some swim float on steroids. She was struggling through inflatable tire rings about halfway through the maze. Meanwhile our opponents, from accounting, were just clearing the exit with their second to last man. And I was standing helplessly at the starting line, waiting for Sue to reach me so I could take my turn in the inflatable torture chamber.
The referee (okay the high school kid overseeing our event) came up to us and asked Monica how many were left to go on our team. She turned to look at Mr. Huggle . He looked over at me and then back at the ref, “Just him.” I looked at Mr. Huggle in confusion. He was the anchor, he’d called it at the start of the event and as the boss, he got it. He looked at me and gave a short shake of his head, the meaning unmistakable.
And then I didn’t have anymore time to react. Sue was running towards me. No matter what, I needed to do my personal best…
I walked into the  air conditioning of the sports center’s cafeteria. I made a beeline for the coolers full of beverages and yanked a bright blue sports drink from the ice. Putting the bottle to my neck I let its cold wash through me as I closed my eyes and tried to let go. Mr. Huggle had never run the obstacle course and because I’d run my heart out, we’d “beaten” accounting and “won” the obstacle course.
Yet, in the end it hadn’t mattered. They had already trounced us in the soccer shoot-out and then went on to annihilate us in ultimate Frisbee. So in the end, accounting won the overall competition and all I had for my experience was a lingering unease and a sweaty t-shirt.
Finally I gave a shrug and took a long pull from the sports drink. I had to let it go. It’s not like it was a big deal and we didn’t win anyway. So what if Huggle cheated?
<Clunk… Slide…. Clunk… Slide…>
Fearful of what the sound could be, but knowing full well what it was, I turned towards the door. He was silhouetted in the sunlight, his black form even more indistinguishable than normal. He was moving strangely, a waddling shuffle, almost like he was wearing…
“Hogarth! Why are wearing skis?”
Hogarth shuffled across the room his skis knocking over a couple of chairs the process. Plucking a banana from a fruit bowl and taking a bite from the unpeeled banana he chewed on it thoughtfully for several seconds. Finally, just as my patience was about to boil over, he turned to me and said. “To go down the slippery slope of course.”
“What slippery slope? It hasn’t rained in weeks!”
My gorilla gave a shrug. “The slippery slope that starts with fudging a team building game and ends with a Bernie Madoff sized Ponzie scheme.”
I threw my hands in the air in disgust. Stomping to a chair, I flung myself down and took a long pull on my sports drink. “Hogarth, it’s not the same. It’s light years difference between the two.”
Hogarth nodded, “You’re right, the difference is vast. And you’re wrong, it is the same. That’s your problem.”
My gorilla looked me right in the eyes and spoke. “There is no such thing as black and white only shades of grey. The secret is knowing that and always questioning what you do. If you’re always checking to see if you’re off course, you’ll get back on course a lot faster.”
Ethics- In this post Lehmans, Enron, Madoff era you can’t go a week without some kind of news article about ethics. Whether it is decrying a lack of it, tips for being better, passionate arguments for the use of it or even unethical advice on how to fake it, ethics has become a major component of our professional lives. This isn’t the three martini Mad Men era of business (if that ever really existed) where anything goes to close a deal. This is the era of the always online internet where what you said ten years ago is still floating around on some Alexa server. PMI has made ethics an integral part of its certification process, as had many professional organizations.
We all know it is right to be ethical, we all know what it means. Google summed it up in their corporate motto “Don’t be evil.”
Hey, Google! How’s that working out for you?
The world has become a lot murkier in the 21st century. The clean and crisp lines that had Superman as good and Lex Luthor as evil have given way to hero’s like the Dark Knight and villains  the Libyans throwing off their “legal” government.
Where is the line now? If there is not black and white, then how do we know if we’re on ethical ground or a quicksand pit of corporate malfeasance?
Unfortunately, I don’t think there are any magic bullet on this. In the example above, you risk the wrath of your employer if you point out he’s cheating in a simple game. Is it unethical to stay quiet? At the other end of the spectrum, if your boss is embezzling seven figure amounts from the company, it’s pretty clear cut that you should do something.
But those examples are like night and day!
Yes they are. The question is, what’s the difference between night and day? The answer is about one minute.
There isn’t a magic formula to tell you when you’ve gone from skating the edge to full on breach of ethics.
The secret is to always be asking yourself if you’ve crossed that line. Just as the courageous man is a man that knows fear but does it anyway, an ethical person is one who is constantly examining their own actions.
At the end of the day, there is only one person who can tell you if you’re being ethical or not.
Look in the mirror.
Joel Bancroft-Connors
The Gorilla Talker
Want me to talk to your gorilla?
You can follow me on twitter, @JBC_PMP