Blackbox thinking for the agilists

How to conduct better retrospective meetings?. What do scrum masters do after the daily stand up meetings?. The social media gets reverberated with these questions every now and then.

The Comet1 which was the world’s first commercially produced jetliner was involved in a number of accidents in which the machines broke up mid air. Eventually the flaw was identified as hairline cracks around the square windows of the plane, spreading across the fuselage and eventually causing the whole plane to breakup in mid air. Comet1 is the reason why air planes  these days have oval shaped windows. After the disaster David Warren, the investigator recommended the nearly indestructible flight data recorder (black box).

Steve Koppel, one of my favorite football coaches looks very aloof during the matches. He is quite different from many other coaches who throws tantrums standing close to the side lines. You can spot Steve very rarely there. Very often you see him partly hidden behind a window of the hideout, cool yet serious, noting down something in his small writing pad as and when something noteworthy happens. I am not sure about what he records there, and I speculate that they are all areas for improvement or triggers to that. This must be a great input when they retrospect in the dressing room after the match, and while developing strategies for the next match. He is always cool and composed. During the last season, he could take his team (not very strong, no big stars) till the final. Their performance was improving game after game. I love Steve Koppel for that.

Sprint retrospectives can become mere rituals if they are not conducted professionally backed by facts and data. A ‘sprint black box’ comprising of the recording of areas for improvements and areas of best results (to be institutionalized) is a great input for effective sprint retrospectives. The scrum master must own it. Apart from acting as a great input for sprint retrospectives, the sprint black box  will act as a great input for removing impediments as and when they happen.

The sprint burn down chart is a great input for effective sprint retrospectives. Conducting a sprint retrospective by analyzing all the crests, troughs and zero progress zones is another opportunity to run a structured retrospective.

After landing his plane safely in the Hudson river, captain Sullenberger wrote ” Everything we know in aviation, every rule in the rule book, every procedure we have, we know because someone somewhere died.” With each crash, future flights become safer.

The velocity of the current sprint is better only because of those failed sprints and the lessons we learned from them. So every data is important. Remember, in the agile world, success and failure does not matter, as long as failure does not become a pattern and we keep improving by doing everything possible to make the future sprints successful. Why sprints alone, even successful life itself revolves around this pattern.

 

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Lean and smart PMP preparation

pmpbooks

Look at those PMP preparatory books kept on top of PMBOK (PMBOK is at the bottom of the stack). Most of these PMP preparation books are heavier than the original PMBOK, and they are intended to make the PMP preparation easier!. I can only empathize with the PMP aspirants. The authors of these books have forgotten the fact that one is not eligible for applying for PMP exam without 4-5 years of hands on experience in live projects. For many PMP credential is more like a hygiene factor. Having a PMP credential may not make them better project managers because they already have the knowledge. Not having the PMP credential prevents them from getting better opportunities. They already know many things about project management. Most of them are going for PMP certification to get an endorsement for the project management knowledge they already possess and some additional knowledge they can gain during the study. At least that was the case with me. In fact, the professional ethics of the project managers was a revelation for me. I had around ten years of project experience when I started noticing this fancy three letters ‘PMP’ after the names of project managers. Further exploration kindled my interest because most of the topics were already known to be, hence the thought of getting an endorsement for the knowledge I already possessed. I do not regret it till date.

This being the case, most of these authors are unnecessarily making the PMP journey tougher and monotonous , than required. What is the point in rephrasing the knowledge available in the parent document as if it is their own wisdom and then burdening the PMP aspirant more. I have come across many who are referring to multiple PMP preparatory books. Look at the unnecessary preparation load. My humble suggestion is to;

  • Stick to PMBOK. It has a wealth of information.  It is easy to understand and remember, if read in a particular manner. An experienced mentor will be able to add lot of value to you by making it easy and interesting.
  • Do not go after multiple PMP preparatory books. It will make your life miserable. Having multiple copies / versions of bible have not helped anyone to go to heaven. It is about having that one authentic one and understanding it, studying it with complete focus, till you reach your goal.
  • These days there are no dearth for free advice and mentors. The trend is to publish ‘my pmp experience’ to the social media and become self proclaimed mentors immediately after the PMP examination. Hear everyone, listen to a few. Find a competent and experienced mentor who can make your life easier by guiding you through the good practices of PMBOK, than enrolling for a traditional classroom training.
  • PMBOK knowledge alone will not help you to pass the PMP credential exam. Exam practice is very important. Instead of doing thousands of questions and answers, stick to a good sample and ensure that you score above 85% consistently, before you go for the final exam.
  • Do not lock yourself in classrooms and waste your valuable time to understand things like;
    • What is a project?
    • What is an operation?
    • What is a PMO?
    • What are enterprise environmental factors?
    • What are organizational process assets…..etc…

Anyone with more than 5 years of project experience will be able to understand these by reading PMBOK. One must spend the classroom  time (onlne, classroom) wisely to understand the 20 percentage of concepts like project chartering, WBS, scheduling, critical path, earned value management, professional ethics, which will provide you with the knowledge and confidence to answer 80% of the questions correctly.

My online PMP mentoring program 

PMP and PMBOK are the registered trademarks of PMI, USA

Can we be truly agile?

Just completed a lecture on scrum to the final year MBA students. Everyone was in awe when I said ‘success and failure does not matter, and very often fast failure is success’. In a highly competitive society where every one has to compete with each other to secure that best education, job for that matter even a seat in the bus…forget about driving on the busy streets, it takes a while to drive that point. Agile is never going to solve all our problems in one go, and definitely it is going to highlight the issues very fast, and that will provide us with more time to recover. Over a period of time the issues will reduce, capabilities will improve, provided we are willing to make some investments. Then I rub salt into the wound by making another flurry controversial statements about estimates, to a society which always struggled for ‘very accurate single estimates’ for decades together for those fixed price, outsourced (in sourced) contracts. ‘All estimates are wrong, and we do not spend too much time arriving at a very accurate estimates, we operate based on abstract estimates, which gets revised and refined on an everyday basis based on the engineers judgement…these statements are not just rubbing salt to the wound, they are more like rubbing salt and pepper.

My parents never said things like ‘ do not do this, it is bad’, instead it was always ‘what will others think of you’. This has not changed much after two generations. I keep hearing this from the modern day parents as well. ‘Beta, eat this food, else the security guard will think that you are a bad boy’ is the norm, than ‘eat this food so that you will have more energy to play well’. ‘Do not litter, it is wrong’ has more credibility and appeal than ‘others will think that you are bad boy’. That child, as an adult, is going to behave differently when the boss is around, and in his absence, and can conveniently forget the fact that one can revise the estimate after working on it for eight hours with unwavering attention, irrespective of the boss is monitoring or not. The ethics part is easily forgotten. It is not even part of the curriculum. They say that a child’s character is formed before the age of five, and the rest are all adjustments. So, these values must be imparted before the age of five, not after one crosses the teenage. In a country where majority of the marriages are still arranged, driving the benefits of work volunteering of the self organized teams is another huge challenge. To my surprise, in my country the divorce rates are very low and the happiness index is also very low. Are we scared to make major decisions?. Are we even more scared about accepting and confronting failures with a cool head?. We are used to command and control due to olonialization and we are embodiments of matha, pitha, guru, manager daivam. We attribute excellence to experience.

All these breeds a kind of skepticism within me, and sometimes I think, our genes are better tuned to work allocation (command and control) than work volunteering. Very often this the tailoring of scrum thato happens in my country, and it is more like laying the ax on the foundations of scrum. In the book ‘Art of choosing’, the author explains about the diversity of behavior across nationalities. I think I will be more honest if I say ‘We are like this’ than trying to behave like some other nationality. Two hundred years of Are these just my views alone?. Do we just want to claim that we are also agile than harnessing the real power of agile?. Are we fearful about other’s perception about us, if we do not claim that our agile is pure agile?. Very often acceptance of reality increases credibility.

Unboxing PMBOK Version 6 #2

I hardly took half an hour to skim through the first seventy pages of PMBOK6, which constitutes the chapters 1,2,3. Like the older versions, the knowledge areas starts from chapter 4. Chapters 1,2,3 covers;

  • The purpose and basis of the PMBOK guide.
  • Characteristics of projects
  • Purpose of projects
  • Triggers leading to the creation of projects
  • Relationship between business strategy, project portfolio, programs, projects and operations management
  • Different components that constitute the PMBOK guide 6
  • Project development cycle and project phases
  • Phase gates / Stage gates
  • Importance of project management data and information
  • Tailoring guidelines
  • The key project management business documents
  • Understanding the contents and purpose of project business case
  • Purpose and contents of the project benefits plan
  • Enterprise environmental factors (EEF)
  • Organizational process assets (OPA)
  • Organizational systems
  • Different organizational structures and their impact on project management
  • Project management office
  • The roles, responsibilities and competencies of the project manager

This much constitute chapters 1,2,3. In fact PMBOK 6 is much easier to read and understand. I must really appreciate the team who worked at bringing in more clarity and readability. For a person who is familiar with PMBOK older versions ( 3,4,5), chapters 1,2,3 must be a cakewalk. Out of the 756 pages, we are already at Page No 70. Will update you with more information, as it unfolds to me.

The project management body of knowledge (PMBOK) is the registered trademark of PMI, USA. 

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Perils of getting eager at work

How many start ups?, How many products?. How many successful start up companies?. How many successful products?. We have been told or asked to be eager at work. I have second thoughts about it. Very often it blinds us to the harsh realities. The following quote from Francis De Sales is very appropriate in this context;

“Do not be eager at work because every kind of eagerness disturbs reason and judgement. It even prevents us from doing well the very things of which we are too eager”

When people share with me  their business / product idea with lot of passion and eagerness I ask for the cash flow analysis, benefit cost ratio, payback period. Very often I carry the guilt of disappointing them by putting off their initial enthusiasm and at the same time I feel good as a professional because I have prevented a disaster. The first phase gate is the payback period. For products this has to be very short. Those business ideas and product ideas that can sail through this check have the potential to be carried forward.

During one of my consulting assignments of transitioning a team of one hundred from waterfall to agile, I was eager to understand the business case for this transition. This hundred member team worked on a product for a couple of years and at the end they realized that no body wants it. When they started, it had a business case, which got eroded because of competition and new technologies before the first version hit the market. By going for agile, they wanted to acquire the ability to fail fast. If they had failed during the initial stages, they would have saved millions. That was the reason why they were transitioning from waterfall to agile, with the hope that agile will bring in better transparency and will provide them with the good and bad news very early. They were relying on the agile frameworks ability to make faster and frequent releases (going by the books).  Unfortunately, it has more to do with the organizational culture of openness, trust and mutual respect than any particular framework.

Some of the key questions in this context are;

  • Is excellence linked to experience?. Does the organization / industry considers a more experienced person as more capable than an inexperienced person?.
  • Does every idea, suggestion, view treated with the same seriousness, irrespective of the source of it.
  • Does the organization provide the real  ‘freedom of expression’ without any fear?

Till these are addressed, irrespective of the framework used the end results will be the same because the eagerness of the promoters / product owners will prevail over the collective wisdom of the stakeholders.

Unboxing PMBOK Version 6 #1

Improved clarity, that is the first impression. Then there are 49 processes grouped into 10 knowledge areas and the 5 process groups.

10 knowledge areas

  • Project integration management
  • Project scope management
  • Project schedule management
  • Project cost management
  • Project quality management
  • Project resource management (In the earlier version, this was human resource management. In the sixth edition, they have combined all resources (man, material)
  • Project communications management
  • Project risk management
  • Project procurement management
  • Project stakeholder management

5 process groups 

  • Initiating
  • Planning
  • Executing
  • Monitoring and controlling
  • Closing

I purchased it from Amazon.in , and they delivered it in 10 days time (hard copy). One can get the kindle version as well.

The strategic value of user stories

Who owns the product backlog?. As per scrum guide, the product owner owns the product backlog. At the same time, before scheduling the product backlog to production (sprint), a cost benefit analysis is performed by the management representative (finance) to see whether the feature is financially viable followed by a technical committee performing the feasibility study. The stakeholders around the product backlog are;

  • The product owner
  • Technical team
  • Finance team
  • Engineering team
  • Customers

The product owner is the owner and at the same time we have other ‘high interest’, high stakeholders associated with the product backlog. The ‘high interest’ of these stakeholders is directly associated with ‘how committed’ they are to the product.

What is the real purpose of the user story?

As per the original scrum guide, there is no mention about the ‘user story’, and at the same time without details (elaborated product backlog), many products fail. Proper grooming of the product backlog is the key differentiation between a successful product and a failed product, if not between successful business and failed business. It is a continuous collective team work of highly committed stakeholders,  throughout the lifespan of the product. Here is the great opportunity for all the ‘high interest’ stakeholders of the product to work together, than relying only on the product owner. Once we have the prioritized user stories which has passed all the difficult questions from all the relevant stakeholders, then the probability of success is very high. We must embrace fast failure of irrelevant, non-value adding, unfeasible as fast as possible before even writing the first line of code.

This blog entry about trello discusses about the missed opportunity while deciding on their product road map.

Here is a very interesting article about trello’s missed opportunity

Product backlogs, product road maps and user story grooming is too risky and critical to be left to the thought process of one product owner.  There lies the opportunity to collaborate / compete  with other ‘high interest’ stakeholders which include your competitors and followers. Proper attention to this will increase the probability of successful products and businesses.