Software Development Today

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

How to choose the right project? Decision making frameworks for software organizations


Frameworks to choose the best projects in organizations are a dime a dozen.

We have our NPV (net present value), we have our customized Criteria Matrix, we have Strategic alignment, we have Risk/Value scoring, and the list goes on and on.

In every organization there will a preference for one of these or similar methods to choose where to invest people’s precious time and money.

Are all these frameworks good? No, but they aren’t bad either. They all have some potential positive impact, at least when it comes to reflection. They help executive teams reflect on where they want to take their organizations, and how each potential project will help (or hinder) those objectives.

So far, so good.

“Everybody’s got a plan, until they get punched in the face” ~Tyson

Surviving wrong decisions made with perfect data

However, reality is seldom as structured and predictable as the plans make it out to be. Despite the obvious value that the frameworks above have for decision making, they can’t be perfect because they lack one crucial aspect of reality: feedback.

Models lack on critical property of reality: feedback.

As soon as we start executing a particular project, we have chosen a path and have made allocation of people’s time and money. That, in turn, sets in motion a series of other decisions: we may hire some people, we may subcontract part of the project, etc.

All of these subsequent decisions will have even further impacts as the projects go on, and they may lead to even more decisions being made. Each of these decisions will also have an impact on the outcome of the chosen projects, as well as on other sub-decisions for each project. Perhaps the simplest example being the conflicts that arise from certain tasks for different projects having to be executed by the same people (shared skills or knowledge).

And at this point we have to ask: even assuming that we had perfect data when we chose the project based on one of the frameworks above, how do we make sure that we are still working on the most important and valuable projects for our organization?

Independently from the decisions made in the past, how do we ensure we are working on the most important work today?

The feedback bytes back

This illustrates one of the most common problems with decision making frameworks: their static nature. They are about making decisions "now", not "continuously". Decision making frameworks are great at the time when you need to make a decision, but once the wheels are in motion, you will need to adapt. You will need to understand and harness the feedback of your decisions and change what is needed to make sure you are still focusing on the most valuable work for your organization.

All decision frameworks have one critical shortcoming: they are static by design.

How do we improve decision making after the fact?

First, we must understand that any work that is “in flight” (aka in progress) in IT projects has a value of zero, i.e., in IT projects no work has value until it is in use by someone, somewhere. And at that point it has both value (the benefit) and cost (how much we spend maintaining that functionality).

This dynamic means that even if you have chosen the right project to start with, you have to make sure that you can stop any project, at any time. Otherwise you will have committed to invest more time and more money (by making irreversible “big bang” decisions) into projects that may prove to be much less valuable than you expected when you started them. This phenomenon of continuing to invest beyond the project benefit/cost trade-off point is known as Sunk Cost Fallacy and is a very common problem in software organizations: because reversing a decision made using a trustworthy process is very difficult, both practically (stop project = loose all value) and due to bureaucracy (how do we prove that the decision to stop is better than the decision to start the project?)

Can we treat the Sunk Cost Fallacy syndrome?

While using the decision frameworks listed above (or others), don’t forget that the most important decision you can make is to keep your options open in a way that allows you to stop work on projects that prove less valuable than expected, and to invest more in projects that prove more valuable than expected.

In my own practice this is one of the reasons why I focus on one of the #NoEstimates rules: Always know what is the most valuable thing to work on, and work only on that.

So my suggestion is: even when you score projects and make decisions on those scores, always keep in mind that you may be wrong. So, invest in small increments into the projects you believe are valuable, but be ready to reassess and stop investing if those projects prove less valuable than other projects that will become relevant later on.

The #NoEstimates approach I use allows me to do this at three levels:

  • a) Portfolio level: by reviewing constant progress in each project and assess value delivered. As well as constantly preparing to stop each project by releasing regularly to a production-like environment. Portfolio flexibility.
  • b) Project level: by separating each piece of value (User Story or Feature) into an independent work package that can be delivered independently from all other project work. Scope flexibility.
  • c) User Story / Feature level: by keeping User Stories and Features as small as possible (1 day for User Stories, 1-2 weeks for Features), and releasing them independently at fixed time intervals. Work item flexibility

Do you want to know more about adaptive decision frameworks? Woody Zuill and myself will be hosting a workshop in Helsinki to present our #NoEstimates ideas and to discuss decision making frameworks for software projects that build on our #NoEstimates work.

You can sign up here. But before you do, email me and get a special discount code.

If you manage software organizations and projects, there will be other interesting workshops for you in the same days. For example, the #MobProgramming workshop where Woody Zuill shows you how he has been able to help his teams significantly improve their well-being and performance. #MobProgramming may well be a breakthrough in Agile management.

Picture credit: John Hammink, follow him on twitter

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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Hierarchies remove scaling properties in Agile Software projects


There is a lot of interest in scaling Agile Software Development. And that is a good thing. Software projects of all sizes benefit from what we have learned over the years about Agile Software Development.

Many frameworks have been developed to help us implement Agile at scale. We have: SAFe, DAD, Large-scale Scrum, etc. I am also aware of other models for scaled Agile development in specific industries, and those efforts go beyond what the frameworks above discuss or tackle.

However, scaling as a problem is neither a software nor an Agile topic. Humanity has been scaling its activities for millennia, and very successfully at that. The Pyramids in Egypt, the Panama Canal in central America, the immense railways all over the world, the Airbus A380, etc.

All of these scaling efforts share some commonalities with software and among each other, but they are also very different. I'd like to focus on one particular aspect of scaling that has a huge impact on software development: communication.

The key to scaling software development

We've all heard countless accounts of projects gone wrong because of lack (inadequate, or just plain bad) communication. And typically, these problems grow with the size of the team. Communication is a major challenge in scaling any human endeavor, and especially one - like software - that so heavily depends on successful communication patterns.

In my own work in scaling software development I've focused on communication networks. In fact, I believe that scaling software development is first an exercise in understanding communication networks. Without understanding the existing and necessary communication networks in large projects we will not be able to help those project adapt. In many projects, a different approach is used: hierarchical management with strict (and non-adaptable) communication paths. This approach effectively reduces the adaptability and resilience in software projects.

Scaling software development is first and foremost an exercise in understanding communication networks.

Even if hierarchies can successfully scale projects where communication needs are known in advance (like building a railway network for example), hierarchies are very ineffective at handling adaptive communication needs. Hierarchies slow communication down to a manageable speed (manageable for those at the top), and reduce the amount of information transferred upwards (managers filter what is important - according to their own view).

In a software project those properties of hierarchy-bound communication networks restrict valuable information from reaching stakeholders. As a consequence one can say that hierarchies remove scaling properties from software development. Hierarchical communication networks restrict information reach without concern for those who would benefit from that information because the goal is to "streamline" communication so that it adheres to the hierarchy.

In software development, one must constantly map, develop and re-invent the communication networks to allow for the right information to reach the relevant stakeholders at all times. Hence, the role of project management in scaled agile projects is to curate communication networks: map, intervene, document, and experiment with communication networks by involving the stakeholders.

Scaling agile software development is - in its essential form - a work of developing and evolving communication networks.

A special thank you note to Esko Kilpi and Clay Shirky for the inspiration for this post through their writings on organizational patterns and value networks in organizations.

Picture credit: John Hammink, follow him on twitter

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Tuesday, July 08, 2014

What is an Estimate?

If you don’t know what an estimate is, you can’t avoid using them. So here’s my attempt to define what is an estimate.
The "estimates" that I'm concerned about are those that can easily (by omission, incompetence or malice) be turned into commitments. I believe Software Development is better seen as a discovery process (even simple software projects). In this context, commitments remove options and force the teams/companies to follow a plan instead of responding to change.

Here's my definition: "Estimates, in the context of #NoEstimates, are all estimates that can be (on purpose, or by accident) turned into a commitment regarding project work that is not being worked on at the moment when the estimate is made."

The principles behind this definition of an estimate

In this definition I have the following principles in mind:
  • Delay commitment, create options: When we commit to a particular solution up front we forego possible other solutions and, as a consequence we will make the plan harder to change. Each solution comes with explicit and implicit assumptions about what we will tackle in the future, therefore I prefer to commit only to what is needed in order to validate or deliver value to the customer now. This way, I keep my options open regarding the future.
  • Responding to change over following a plan: Following a plan is easy and comforting, especially when plans are detailed and very clear: good plans. That’s why we create plans in the first place! But being easy does not make it right. Sooner or later we are surprised by events we could not predict and are no longer compatible with the plan we created upfront. Estimation up front makes it harder for us to change the plan because as we define the plan in detail, we commit ourselves to following it, mentally and emotionally.
  • Collaboration over contract negotiation: Perhaps one of the most important Agile principles. Even when you spend time and invest time in creating a “perfect” contract there will be situations you cannot foresee. What do you do then? Hopefully by then you’ve established a relationship of trust with the other party. In that case, a simple conversation to review options and chose the best path will be enough. Estimation locks us down and tends to put people on the defensive when things don’t happen as planned. Leaving the estimation open and relying on incremental development with constant focus on validating the value delivered will help both parties come to an agreement when things don’t go as planned. Thereby focusing on collaboration instead of justifying why an estimated release date was missed.
  Here are some examples that fit the definition of Estimates that I outlined above:
  • An estimate of time/duration for work that is several days, weeks or months in the future.
  • An estimate of value that is not part of an experiment (the longer the time-frame the more of a problem it is).
  • A long term estimate of time and/or value that we can only validate after that long term is over.

How do you define Estimates in your work? Are you still doing estimates that fit the definition above? What is making it hard to stop doing such estimates? Share below in the comments what you think of this definition and how you would improve it.

This definition of an estimate was sent to the #NoEstimates mailing list a few weeks ago. If you want to receive exclusive content about #NoEstimates just sign up below. You will receive a regular email on the topic of #NoEstimates as Agile Software Development.

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Tuesday, July 01, 2014

What is Capacity in software development? - The #NoEstimates journey


I hear this a lot in the #NoEstimates discussion: you must estimate to know what you can deliver for a certain price, time or effort.

Actually, you don’t. There’s a different way to look at your organization and your project. Organizations and projects have an inherent capacity, that capacity is a result of many different variables - not all can be predicted. Although you can add more people to a team, you don’t actually know what the impact of that addition will be until you have some data. Estimating the impact is not going to help you, if we are to believe the track record of the software industry.

So, for me the recipe to avoid estimates is very simple: Just do it, measure it and react. Inspect and adapt - not a very new idea, but still not applied enough.

Let’s make it practical. How many of these stories or features is my team or project going to deliver in the next month? Before you can answer that question, you must find out how many stories or features your team or project has delivered in the past.

Look at this example.

How many stories is this team going to deliver in the next 10 sprints? The answer to this question is the concept of capacity (aka Process Capability). Every team, project or organization has an inherent capacity. Your job is to learn what that capacity is and limit the work to capacity! (Credit to Mary Poppendieck (PDF, slide 15) for this quote).

Why is limiting work to capacity important? That’s a topic for another post, but suffice it to say that adding more work than the available capacity, causes many stressful moments and sleepless nights; while having less work than capacity might get you and a few more people fired.

My advice is this: learn what the capacity of your project or team is. Only then you will be able to deliver reliably, and with quality the software you are expected to deliver.

How to determine capacity?

Determining the capacity of capability of a team, organization or project is relatively simple. Here's how

  • 1- Collect the data you have already:
    • If using timeboxes, collect the stories or features delivered(*) in each timebox
    • If using Kanban/flow, collect the stories or features delivered(*) in each week or period of 2 weeks depending on the length of the release/project
  • 2- Plot a graph with the number of stories delivered for the past N iterations, to determine if your System of Development (slideshare) is stable
  • 3- Determine the process capability by calculating the upper (average + 1*sigma) and the lower limits(average - 1*sigma) of variability

At this point you know what your team, organization or process is likely to deliver in the future. However, the capacity can change over time. This means you should regularly review the data you have and determine (see slideshare above) if you should update the capacity limits as in step 3 above.

(*): by "delivered" I mean something similar to what Scrum calls "Done". Something that is ready to go into production, even if the actual production release is done later. In my language delivered means: it has been tested and accepted in a production-like environment.

Note for the statisticians in the audience: Yes, I know that I am assuming a normal distribution of delivered items per unit of time. And yes, I know that the Weibull distribution is a more likely candidate. That's ok, this is an approximation that has value, i.e. gives us enough information to make decisions.

You can receive exclusive content (not available on the blog) on the topic of #NoEstimates, just subscribe to the #NoEstimates mailing list below. As a bonus you will get my #NoEstimates whitepaper, where I review the background and reasons for using #NoEstimates

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Friday, June 27, 2014

Coming out of the closet - the life and adventure of a traditional project manager turned Agilist


I’m coming out of the closet today. No, not that closet. Another closet, the tabu closet in the Agile community. Yes, I was (and to a point still am) a control freak, traditional, command and control project manager. Yes, that’s right you read it correctly. Here’s why this is important: in 2003 when I first started to consider Agile in any shape or form I was a strong believer of the Church of Order. I did all the rites of passage, I did my Gantt charts, my PERT charts, my EVM-charts and, of course, my certification.

I was certified Project Manager by IPMA, the European cousin of PMI.

I too was a control freak, order junkie, command and control project manager. And I've been clean for 9 years and 154 days.

Why did I turn to Agile? No, it wasn’t because I was a failed project manager, just ask anyone who worked with me then. It was the opposite reason. I was a very successful project manager, and that success made me believe I was right. That I had the recipe. After all, I had been successful for many years already at that point.

I was so convinced I was right, that I decided to run our first Agile project. A pilot project that was designed to test Agile - to show how Agile fails miserably (I thought, at that time). So I decided to do the project by the book. I read the book and went to work.

I was so convinced I was right that I wanted to prove Agile was wrong. Turned out, I was wrong.

The project was a success... I swear, I did not see that coming! After that project I could never look back. I found - NO! - I experienced a better way to develop software that spoiled me forever. I could no longer look back to my past as a traditional project manager and continue to believe the things I believed then. I saw a new land, and I knew I was meant to continue my journey in that land. Agile was my new land.

Many of you have probably experienced a similar journey. Maybe it was with Test-Driven Development, or maybe it was with Acceptance Testing, or even Lean Startup. All these methods have one thing in common: they represent a change in context for software development. This means: they fundamentally change the assumptions on which the previous methods were based. They were, in our little software development world a paradigm shift.

Test-driven development, acceptance testing, lean startup are methods that fundamentally change the assumptions on which the previous software development methods were based.

NoEstimates is just another approach that challenges basic assumptions of how we work in software development. It wasn’t the first, it will not be the last, but it is a paradigm shift. I know this because I’ve used traditional, Agile with estimation, and Agile with #NoEstimates approaches to project management and software delivery.

A world premier?

That’s why me and Woody Zuill will be hosting the first ever (unless someone jumps the gun ;) #NoEstimates public workshop in the world. It will happen in Finland, of course, because that’s the country most likely to change the world of software development. A country of only five million people yet with a huge track record of innovation: The first ever mobile phone throwing world championship was created in Finland. The first ever wife-carrying world championship was created in Finland. The first ever swamp football championship was created in Finland. And my favourite: the Air Guitar World Championship is hosted in Finland.

#NoEstimates being such an exotic approach to software development it must, of course, have its first world-premier workshop in Finland as well! Me and Woody Zuill (his blog) will host a workshop on #NoEstimates on the week of October 20th in Helsinki. So whether you love it, or hate it you can meet us both in Helsinki!

In this workshop will cover topics such as:

  • Decision making frameworks for projects that do not require estimates.
  • Investment models for software projects that do not require estimates.
  • Project management (risk management, scope management, progress reporting, etc.) approaches that do not require estimates.
  • We will give you the tools and arguments you need to prove the value of #NoEstimates to your boss, and how to get started applying it right away.
  • We will discuss where we see #NoEstimates going and what are the likely changes to software development that will come next. This is the future delivered to you!

Which of these topics interest you the most? What topics would you like us to cover in the workshop. Tell us now and you have a chance to affect the topics we will cover.

Contact us at vasco.duarte@oikosofy.com and tell us. We will reply to all emails, even flame bombs! :)

You can receive exclusive content (not available on the blog) on the topic of #NoEstimates, just subscribe to the #NoEstimates mailing list below. As a bonus you will get my #NoEstimates whitepaper, where I review the background and reasons for using #NoEstimates

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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Humans suck at statistics - how agile velocity leads managers astray

Humans are highly optimized for quick decision making. The so-called System 1 that Kahneman refers to in his book "Thinking fast, thinking slow". One specific area of weakness for the average human is understanding statistics. A very simple exercise to review this is the coin-toss simulation.

Humans are highly optimized for quick decision making.

Get two people to run this experiment (or one computer and one person if you are low on humans :). One person throws a coin in the air and notes down the results. For each "heads" the person adds one to the total; for each "tails" the person subtracts one from the total. Then she graphs the total as it evolves with each throw.

The second person simulates the coin-toss by writing down "heads" or "tails" and adding/subtracting to the totals. Leave the room while the two players run their exercise and then come back after they have completed 100 throws.

Look at the graph that each person produced, can you detect which one was created by the real coin, which was "imagined"? Test your knowledge by looking at the graph below (don't peak at the solution at the end of the post). Which of these lines was generated by a human, and which by a pseudo-random process (computer simulation)?

One common characteristic in this exercise is that the real random walk, which was produced by actually throwing a coin in the air, is often more repetitive than the one simulated by the player. For example, the coin may generate a sequence of several consecutive heads or tails throws. No human (except you, after reading this) would do that because it would not "feel" random. We, humans, are bad at creating randomness and understanding the consequences of randomness. This is because we are trained to see meaning and a theory behind everything.

Take the velocity of the team. Did it go up in the latest sprint? Surely they are getting better! Or, it's the new person that joined the team, they are already having an effect! In the worst case, if the velocity goes down in one sprint, we are running around like crazy trying to solve a "problem" that prevented the team from delivering more.

The fact is that a team's velocity is affected by many variables, and its variation is not predictable. However, and this is the most important, velocity will reliably vary over time. Or, in other words, it is predictable that the velocity will vary up and down with time.

The velocity of a team will vary over time, but around a set of values that are the actual "throughput capability" of that team or project. For us as managers it is more important to understand what that throughput capability is, rather than to guess frantically at what might have caused a "dip" or a "peak" in the project's delivery rate.

The velocity of a team will vary over time, but around a set of values that are the actual "throughput capability" of that team or project.

When you look at a graph of a team's velocity don't ask "what made the velocity dip/peak?", ask rather: "based on this data, what is the capability of the team?". This second question will help you understand what your team is capable of delivering over a long period of time and will help you manage the scope and release date for your project.

The important question for your project is not, "how can we improve velocity?" The important question is: "is the velocity of the team reliable?"

Picture credit: John Hammink, follow him on twitter

Solution to the question above: The black line is the one generated by a pseudo-random simulation in a computer. The human generated line is more "regular", because humans expect that random processes "average out". Indeed that's the theory. But not the the reality. Humans are notoriously bad at distinguishing real randomness from what we believe is random, but isn't.

As you know I've been writing about #NoEstimates regularly on this blog. But I also send more information about #NoEstimates and how I use it in practice to my list. If you want to know more about how I use #NoEstimates, sign up to my #NoEstimates list. As a bonus you will get my #NoEstimates whitepaper, where I review the background and reasons for using #NoEstimates

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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Creating options by slicing features - #NoEstimates technique


Each feature (or story) in a product backlog contains many undiscovered options. By taking features as they are without slicing them into thin slices of functionality we implicitly commit to an implementation strategy. However, when we slice features we create options that allow us to pro-actively manage the scope of a project.

Let’s return to the IT Support Ticketing System project we discussed in a previous post. A feature like the one below will not allow us to manage the scope actively.

  • As an employee I want to be able to submit issues to IT so that I can fix a particular problem that prevents me from working.

The feature above is what I would call a “binary” feature. Either the employee is able to submit an issue to IT or not. This simple feature can have large implications in terms of the amount of work required to implement it. Taking the feature above and breaking it down into several smaller features or stories will allow us to make decisions regarding the implementation order, or delaying certain parts of the implementation. Let’s look at an example:

  • As an employee I want to be able to email an IT issue to the IT department so that I can have a fix for a problem that prevents me from working As an IT helpdesk employee I want to have a queue of issues to handle so that I know what items I should be working on at any given time.

By slicing the original feature in this particular way we unpacked the functionality under the term “submit issues” in the original feature into two different features: Email (replaces submit) and Queue of issues (replaces the receiving end of the submission process). We’ve potentially reduced the scope of the initial feature (no need to have a system to enter IT tickets, just send an email), and we’ve given ourselves the option to implement a solution based on standard tools. The two features we created allow for a solution based on email and a spreadsheet program with shared editing, like Google Docs.

These two stories could still be implemented with a full-fledged IT issue tracking system, but that is an option. Not a mandatory outcome of the initial feature. Slicing features into separate functional parts helps us actively manage the scope by creating different implementation options that are often implicit and non-negotiable when we have larger features in the backlog.

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