Better Burndown: Forecasts that reflect the Cone of Uncertainty

The humble burndown is very easy to create, interpret, use and abuse. 

They can be very simple, allowing for much discussion and interpretation (or just interpretation… tisk tisk):

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or they can provide a pretty direct message:

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Less is More…

During a course discussion with fellow PSD trainers a few years ago I made the statement that I don’t like trend lines.  They remove the discussion, the thought from this tool.  I preferred NOT to have any forecasts provided by a burndown, because even when aggregated from many teams I can easily make these judgments on my own.  In fact, I believe that, because the decision is not made fore me I actually come out understanding the nuances far better.

 

The Cut Line

I do think there is a compromise though and it provides a much better basis for the discussion we should be having: what are the possible scenarios ahead. 

Instead of a single trend line, provide at least 2, 3 if you must:

Pessimistic – What is may occur if things don’t continue to go our way.

Optimistic – What is may occur if luck is on our side.

Cutline – What we project might happen if things remain the same.  (What’s the saying?)

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Better Discussions

This allows us to have the pointed conversation with our marketing, sales and business teams that we should not be promising, planning or basing important decisions on features that are close to the cut line for a particular sprint or feature.  We probably can begin creating collateral and sales pitches for those features that are near the pessimistic line.  We may also move some of the features near the cutline up if they will win us a customer or two. 

The key is look at the range of scenarios possible and make informed decisions.

 

All in all, I still don’t think we need the cutline projected, but I do believe that the coloring choices are important.  Some may wish to color the cutline green.  This is dangerous.  It’s not your go line.  The pessimistic line is the most risk averse forecast seen here.

Time box: Get-Stuff-Done Tool for Risk Reduction, Focus, and Decision Making

This is part two of a three part series Time box: A Holistic View on Sprints and Iterations

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. ~ Parkinson’s Law, Cyril Northcote Parkinson

On Risk Reduction

imageTeams talk some good game when they sell Agile to their organizational leaders: real software in a few weeks, higher quality, and, if they’re really good, risk reduction.  “See, if we build these features early,” they say, “and people don’t like it, we’ve saved you 13 months of wasted effort and costs.  How can you not love this stuff?”  Sign me up Johnny!

It’s true, if you build done software in 30 days or less, you do get the opportunity to inspect the output determining whether to stay the course or correct.  You can even begin taking on more creative, innovative, industry shaking adventures knowing they are limited to a few weeks or months.

Looking to become strategic and not just tactical with technology… this is your ticket.

But it’s not all roses. You must expect that some adventures will not end with a pot of real gold. Instead, our gold is measured in learning; new information which can be taken back and used to concoct the next ground shaking advance.  If you allow the fear of failure to drive your decisions you will grind to a halt.  Instead, create a system based on learning and encourage the free communication of that information as a value neutral asset.

On Focus

Tell me you didn’t see this coming.

Every team feels the pressure of a time box.  It’s natural and it can be used wisely.  It can also be abused.  Terribly, terribly abused.  I have good news though!  Corporate evolution is on the side of the wise.

Those who follow the Pomodoro Technique create short, focused 30 minute durations to accomplish activities.  25 minutes exist for actually working the task at hand and 5 are meant to provide the necessary, human break needed to maintain focus over extended periods.

Our Sprints must consciously reflect this same human capacity for focus in a creative environment like software development.  As outlined in our previous part of this series we can easily turn a space for focus and creativity into a pressure box of panic, frustration, and corner cutting.

Sausage stuffing is the two steps back to your previous step forward.

On Decision Making

imageTo support a team in delivering functioning, ship-quality software in 30 days or less, organizations must provide them with timely, informed decisions to questions and alternatives.  Authoritative and informed decisions which take into account the political and user environment are necessary within minutes and hours, not days or weeks.

Would you ever consider the impact of removing 10% of an existing project’s schedule?  In delaying a decision for steering committee or general approval by 1 day, a two week iteration is similarly delayed.  In the absence of responsive decision making and an open social environment for voicing questions and concerns, teams will make decisions and assumptions on their own.

In many of these cases, we may have the best people on the team to make those decisions!  Time boxes demand that our teams be composed of or have direct access to those skills necessary to make decisions quickly.  This includes domain experts such as lawyers, accountants, marketing, design, etc.  With “done” software in 30 days we cannot hide the impact of delayed decisions.

Expand Your Normal

I went for beers with a couple of coworkers today and a question came up that I get a lot.  What’s the point of a kata?  That’s an answer for you to come up with for yourself, but I’ll let you in on my secret obsession: I want to expand my normal.

TL;DR

I have an insatiable thirst for new information.  It can be quite frustrating and, at times, debilitating.  The neat thing about new information, is it changes what you consider normal.  Common sense is a bunch of crap.  Using a fork is common sense… until you move to India.  We should all move to India (or vice versa) for a while.

Not to long ago someone described an art course in which many of the lessons included drawing 50 different types of circles or straight lines.  I imagine around 10 or 20 you start struggling a wee bit.  I was reminded of this while reading Zach Holman’s Slide Design for Developers.  He writes:

I took one design class in college. One of the most fascinating assignments they gave us was a study of shape: you get one letter, in one typeface… do something with it. The idea was that the severe limitation forced you to be creative with duplication, rotation, scale, alignment, and whitespace.

Katas give us a silly background story like Triangle Classification, Roman Numerals, or Harry Potter, but those aren’t the point.  The point is not making the next test pass.  In fact, don’t write any tests next time.  They’re getting in your way.  Pick some other area that you feel comfortable in and come up with a constraint outside your Normal so that when you’re done you’ve moved normal a little bit.

Time box: Safety zone for Creativity, Cleanliness, and Sausage Stuffing

Without freedom, one’s creativity cannot bloom. ~ Dalai Lama

On Creativity

In his 2005 A Survey of Organizational Creativity, Wayne Morris of New Zealand found that 2 of the top 3 Factors that facilitate or enhance organizational creativity are Time and Space/resources to pursue ideas.  imageGoogle stands as a preeminent topic brought up by software teams with it’s 20% time for engineers to follow passions.

Creativity, a necessary ingredient to innovation, demands space.  Space to experiment, learn, fail, and refine.  Space in time, environment, and pressure.

 

On Cleanliness

The mythic Rewrite.  It also comes in the form of a Refactoring Sprint.

Software Developers would hand over their first born in exchange for a Rewrite.  Customers hear: So we have to complete two more sprints before I can deliver new value that I can sell to pay these clowns’ salaries?

Keeping our code and our designs clean and in good state requires time and effort.  This isn’t in question.  Not even to your customers.  It most definitely needs to happen more often than once a year or however often it’s happening today.  Let’s face it, that big ball of mud didn’t happen last sprint.  It’s been simmering for some time now.

We must be delivering clean, refactored software in the midst of delivering new value.  We need to do this for many reasons, but here’s one you really need to accept or go learn the hard way: cash flow is a big deal.

 

On Sausage

I must credit Ken Schwaber for this analogy (and vision!).

There is a great unrest growing against the velocity metric.  In the minds and realities of many, velocity has been corrupt.  We are using this tool for calibration to fill a sprint to capacity and beyond.  To take a team to it’s limit.  To optimize!

We are stuffing the sausage.

I say ‘we’ and you’re reading ‘they’.  Admit it, I don’t blame you.  I do it to.  But we as team members are as much to blame.  When asked what we can accomplish we take that word ‘can’ to its limit in the hopes that we are pleasing others.  It’s pretty natural I’d say.

Unfortunately, in stuffing our sprints like sausages we squeeze (sorry) out the space for creativity and cleanliness that should otherwise be built into our ongoing process.  We must make space for the continuous improvement and balance our sense of urgency with our sense of exploration.

 

On Reality

Industries are not changed on Innovation Day or in Executive Offsite Meetings.  They are changed through discipline and a framework for learning applied to frequent delivery.

So choose a period of time which provides you an appropriate opportunity to inspect and react.  Build creative, clean, done features in that time.  Now use that experience to forecast which new parts of that product you can complete should you repeat that cycle in the future.

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Continue reading this Time box series here

Time box: A Holistic View on Sprints and Iterations

imageOver the last few years we’ve seen a growing discontent around the idea of Iterations or Sprints.  It excites me that the software community is actively engaged in questioning the long held canon of Agile practices.  Through these explorations we as an industry will find a greater depth of understanding.  Over time this can only have a positive impact on our community.

In reading many of the Iteration abandonment stories and views on why iterations are outdated I believe there is a rather one sided understanding of Iterations.  I believe this is a remnant of the software development industry’s state of being from which we came; the way referred to in the opening line of the Agile Manifesto.

We are uncovering better ways of developing
software…

            ~ opening line of the Agile Manifesto

I have a confession to make: I think iterations are really, really useful.  I also think they are often bastardized.  I’d like to help fix that problem and, in so doing, bring some of you back to the iteration so you can be more creative and strategic and less, well, cogs in a wheel.

In a three part series of posts I will redefine the meek, abused iteration for you as a:

If you really, really want to love going to work, experiment with cool new technologies and techniques even in the most conservative organization, and want the best argument for ‘going Agile’ then stick with me.  By the time we’re done you will have a better understand of what a time box really is, where the time box applies, where it corrupts and, how to make a balanced decision for the duration of your next time box.