Having a Ball

There is a simulation I like to build into my Agile training curriculum. It is based on a very old game that has been used for ages. I’m not the inventor of the game. But I am a very strong adapter of it.

The Ball Game

The game starts, as most do, with everyone in the room forming up into loose groups of teams to learn the rules:

The Rules:

  1. You are a Cross-Functional Team
  2. Each Ball Represents a Requirement
  3. All Requirements are put into play by the Product Owner.
  4. All Requirements are removed from play by the Product Owner.
  5. Each Requirement must be touched at least once by every member of the Team.
  6. When Passing a Requirement, it cannot be passed to the person to your Right or Left.
  7. When Passing a Requirement, it must have Air Time (no two people may touch the same ball at the same time)
  8. When Passing a Requirement, if it is Dropped, you cannot pick it up.


  • Planning – The Team estimates how many Requirements they can “deliver” in 1 minute, they record this value in the “Estimate” column.
  • Execution- The Team executes their plan for 1 minute
  • Review – The Team records the actual number of Requirements that satisfied the acceptance criteria. They also record how many ‘dropped balls’ (defects) there were during the round.
  • Retrospective – The Team takes a minute to discuss how to improve their process.

These rules are quite common, and there in really no difference here between what my teams start with, and what all the other ball gamers do. In fact, if you were to run the simulation for a couple of teams, for a couple of “sprints”, then within a half hour, they would have probably run four or five iterations and improved their process dramatically.

Lessons Learned:

Upon completion of the simulation, following only these rules, the teams would learn some valuable agile lessons like:

  • Planning is important
  • Time Boxes Cause Stress
  • Skill Plays a Part
  • Faster Isn’t Necessarily Better
  • The Importance of Communication
  • etc…

Core Lessons

Planning is Important

This is a core lesson of the Ball Game. Unless the team comes up with some agreed-upon way of passing requirements among themselves, things quickly devolve into chaos. Balls get dropped. Steps get skipped. The first iteration of the game is pretty chaotic.

Reality Check: Agile works better if you sit down and plan out how your team will interact. The need for a working agreement is intuitively obviousyou’ve never done this before, in this way, with these people. So why would you think everyone will just ‘know’ how to interact?

Time Boxes Cause Stress

A player in this simulation is usually in for a shock when the facilitator declares that ‘planning time’ is over, and it’s time to run the first simulation. I guarantee someone is going to complain or ask for more time. Don’t let them. Encourage everyone to do their best and assure them they will get a chance to improve in the next iteration.

Duration of Planning is a factor here. In the simulation we deliberately time-box planning to force the team to make a plan quickly. This is partially to simulate that you don’t have an infinite amount of time to derive the “best” solution all the time. Sometimes you only get enough time for one idea. More time does not necessarily equate to better solutions. Sometimes the best confirmation that your method is sound will be found when actually trying it out.

Reality Check: I know there are people in the group who would plan this thing to death, orchestrating each toss down to the microsecond. They would do so with the best of intentions. They would do so in the name of efficiency and throughput. But ultimately, they would waste everyone’s time. Because you can’t plan for every contingency. We put the team in the time box to force them to feel the stress of having to follow a schedule. We also do so to illustrate the point that even the most perfect plan won’t account for everything. Often in agile circles the team must take a leap of faith and begin moving without having all the facts. We want them to experience this. And finally, it starts to introduce the notion that we’ll learn more by trying, failing, and adjusting that we would by just planning alone.

Skill Plays a Part

Another core lesson of the Ball Game. Your plan may be perfect, but execution is still a factor. It doesn’t matter if you know you need to throw each ball to Joan, you also have to be able to get the ball to Joan. Some people just have terrible aim.

Reality Check: In the Real World, not everyone on your team is immediately skillful at collaboration. The act of tossing a ball from one person to another simulates this fact. When you first start doing agile, you’re not going to be perfect. Accept this. Practice to get better.

Faster is Not Necessarily Better

This Core Lesson usually sinks in around the second iteration. In order to improve, the team just tries to throw the balls faster. When they go faster, their aim gets worse, and people’s reaction times become a factor.

Reality Check: This simulates the fact that wishing to go faster doesn’t mean you will. The team can only go as fast as their skill allows. If they try to go faster, defects slip into the system and balls get dropped.

The Importance of Communication

You’ll see it right away. A ball will be thrown, the intended recipient will turn to face the thrower, and it bounces off their chest, head, outstretched hands…it doesn’t matter. It’s now a dead ball. A defect. Maybe it was the heat of the moment. Maybe it was that the team agreed that we could put more than one ball in the air at a time. Those are both great ideas. With great power comes great responsibility.

Reality Check: There are a lot of balls flying around. Don’t forget to let Joan know when there’s a ball flying at her face! Seriously! Throwing things over a wall and hoping the person at the other end is ready for it is just asking for trouble.

The Importance of Retrospectives

Perhaps the most important lesson to learn here, is that you can’t improve the system without talking about how to improve the system. Those retrospective sessions, brief as they are, provide a tremendous amount of value in improving team performance.

Reality Check: The Team needs to talk through the way they work and try out new ideas. Whether they revamp their entire strategy, or simply move a little closer together to shorten air time, these sessions are as vital to the simulation as Retrospectives will be to their Inspect & Adapt cycle in Agile.

Variations on the Theme

In all honesty, if you stopped reading right now, you’d be good. The lessons taught by the native form of the Ball Game are powerful, and quite robust.  There are certainly more things the team can learn, but the items enumerated in the previous section are the high points.

When running a simulation, it is incumbent on the facilitator to do whatever they can to ensure that the participants have a good time, and learn from the experience. I had the good fortune to be present while a mentor of mine sought to enhance the experience for the team running through the simulation. The first two variations below were initiated by a mentor of mine named Jack Walser, which managed to amp up the fun, and light a spark of possibility in my head.

Once that door was opened, I started seeing opportunities to further tweak the game and expand the lesson footprint. And that’s where this section will guide you.

There are a lot of variations that you can insert into this game. The rest of these came as direct or indirect inspirations from the context of the training session. I’ve tried to include that context that inspired each variation. The learning potential here is off the charts.

Outside Obstacles

Sometime after the start of the second or third iteration, spring this little trick on the team that is doing the best. While the balls are in motion, wander into the middle of their communication pathway and say something like, “Hey! Are you guys doing Scrum? I’ve heard about this! Is this one of those stand-up meetings?”

Origin: Just before calling for the iteration to begin, Jack arranged to have someone call his cell phone. The team was entirely focused on using their newest throwing pattern to improve their performance, when the phone started ringing, and Jack, phone pressed against his ear, absent-mindedly wandered right into the middle of the circle, having a ‘conversation’ about how wonderful the session was going. The members of the team were trying to figure out how to keep the balls in motion with this obvious obstacle standing in line of sight to their ball recipient. And to make matters worse, he was a moving target, turning, walking and talking in the middle of the circle while the team tried to do their work.  It was brilliant!

Reality Check: How many times has a well-wisher wandered into the middle of your Daily Scrum? Get used to it. If you are an early adopter of agile, as news of your experiment in agility spreads, so will the curiosity about how you are doing it. It could be as simple as that, or as complicated as someone breaching protocol and calling team members directly, breaking their flow. It’s an illustration of an all-too-real situation.  This gives you a chance to reinforce with the team that they should only accept work from the Product Owner

Management Interruptions

Sometime after the start of the second or third iteration, have someone walk up behind a member of the team with a visually distinctive Requirement, and ask them to “get this done too”. It helps if this person is in the middle of the workflow (not at the beginning). Some folks will grab the new ‘ball’ and just toss it to their normal partner. Some will recognize that this is unauthorized work and ignore your request.

Origin: This is Jack’s second variant. On that day, we used a crumpled-up piece of paper to represent the goldilocks task. With almost no drama, the team member snatched the crumpled paper, and tossed it to his partner, who in turn passed it on to their partner. The paper got to the product owner, who simply shrugged and set it in the ‘Done’ pile with the other requirements.  The genius of the ploy became apparent at the retrospective when the team tried to claim credit for the task. Jack asked them if every member of the team had touched the Requirement (remember, he gave it to someone in the middle of the pattern). When the team said that it had not, Jack declared the requirement ‘incomplete’, as it had failed to meet the definition of done.

Reality Check: At first the team might get angry about losing the credit for the requirement. But it really serves to illustrate two points. 1. Only your Product Owner should be giving work to the Team, 2. Incomplete work is incomplete work. It took time from the team’s capacity, impacting performance

The Importance of Training

I usually like starting the Ball Game exercise right after a break in the training class when I’ve declared that we’ll start again at a specific time. This almost always ensures that if I keep my word about start time, that somebody has failed to come back to the classroom on time. I deliberately don’t recap any of the rules that have been explained. These team members have essentially missed out on the training (rules). It works even better if the round has begun and you just assign them to join a ‘sprint’ already in progress. They generally fall prey to some of the esoteric rules of the game – usually the airtime, right-left, or the dropped-ball rule. Suddenly the team will start shouting orders at the new team member, trying to explain the rules while mid-volley. It’s wonderfully chaotic.

Origin: This is the first of my personal variants, and it happened organically. The team was already tossing balls around when two of their teammates wandered into the classroom. They tried to sit down, and I made a point of calling them up to participate with one of the teams, making sure they were right next to each other. One of them received a tossed ball, and naturally handed it to their partner in tardiness, breaking the right-left rule AND the airtime rule in one fell swoop. I swept in and plucked the ball out of their hands.  “Rules violation.  Dead ball”.  As they were processing that a tossed ball went wide.  “Rules violation. Dead ball.”

Reality Check: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen organizations make the commitment to training the first group of agile transformation teams, then decide this is unnecessary for subsequent team members. They toss relative newbies into a team and expect the rest of the team to educate them on the fly. The metaphor here is both obvious and effective. Note: if you think this is an important lesson for your group to learn, snatch a couple of volunteers to stand in the hallway until the exercise is in full swing. Sometimes we make our own luck.

Team Size is Important

There’s a reason why agile methods emphasize smaller teams: the overhead associated with many lines of communication is a drag on productivity. You want proof? Take a large team that has figured out how to deliver, and then split it into two teams, each with their own product owner. Within a very short period of time you’ll see the two teams are going to outperform the single large team.

Origin: The first time I saw this, it happened organically. I had explained to the class that they needed to form into teams, and each team needed a product owner. That particular class only had one person who was designated to be a product owner, so she assumed that role, and the other twenty-five people just sort of gathered around her. As you can imagine, it took a very long time for a single ball to pass through all the various team members’ hands, so :

  1. Their velocity of completed stories was quite low
  2. There was always a ball in play (unfinished work) when the time expired
  3. There were statistically many more opportunities for the team to flub a toss (drop a line of communication)
  4. For the vast majority of the round, each individual team member was idle, waiting for the current ball to complete the pattern before the next ball started, and they finally got a chance to catch and toss the next requirement.

“You would think”, I commented wryly, “that with this much horsepower on your team, that you’d be able to get a lot more work done.”

“But you said we had to have a product owner on each team, and there’s only one product owner here.”

“I never said the roles in the simulation needed to mirror reality, so technically ANY of you could play the role of Product Owner.”

With that perceived restriction removed, they split into three groups, and almost quadrupled the overall number of balls they got through the system each round.

Reality Check: In this variation, there’s a very simple explanation for the increase in productivity, namely each ball needs to only be handled by half as many people, and thus will traverse a shorter distance. But don’t let that discourage you! In this simulation, the passing of the ball represents the maintaining of lines of communication. There was another way they could have handled it…


Sticking with the big team scenario above, what if instead of splitting the teams, they decided to toss two balls at a time (one in each hand)? I’ve seen it done. It’s a great way of simulating that doing more than one thing at a time leads to quality issues. The number of dropped balls tends to go up, and the number of balls through the system does not tend to double as each toss takes slightly more ‘care’. to execute.

Parallel Tasking

Coming soon…

The Importance of Durable Teams

Surprises on Scope

Paying Attention to Value

Shared Resources

Offshore Resources

Metric System

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  “How we deal with death, is at least as important as how we deal with life, wouldn’t you say?” – Admiral Kirk

Have you ever been faced with a concept or idea that just refused to go away?  I think my least favorite one is “Service Level Agreement (SLA)”.  But right after that one is “Metrics”.

As an Agile Coach, I often encounter requests from clients to provide a list of Metrics.  I can hear the collective groans from a lot of you.  The funny part is that some of you groaned because you take the position that Metrics mean you can be held accountable (judged), and some of you groaned because you think I’m about to tell you that Metrics are evil.

You’re both right.  Kind of.

Let’s come together and agree that Metrics are a necessary evil that can allow us to gauge performance of a system.

BTW, there was a third set of groans.  Those groans came from the agile coach in an agile center of excellence who were tasked with creating a list of Metrics for the organization to adhere to.  With trepidation in your heart, you presented a simple, standard response… and things went sideways.

Metrics is not an easy subject to discuss in the agile world — partly because Metrics are so prevalent in the non-agile world.  It was difficult for agile methods to be adopted in organizations that prided themselves on their ability to measure things.  Meaningfully.  They demanded the same of the agile insurgency.  More’s the pity, because agile cut its teeth by opposing the inappropriate application of those metrics.

Metrics are a tool.  I recall a manager at one of my clients adamantly insist that Metrics are just measurements, and measurements are not evil. They are just numbers.


Metrics are tools, and as such are capable of helping us achieve great things. Tools are also capable of causing a lot of damage when that tool is used in the wrong way.

At the Chicago Coaching Summit 2018, held in Chicago this past October, I led an Open Space discussion on Metrics.  It was widely attended, and actually extended into a second session.  We started our discussion with the premise that the call for metrics was not going to go away, so let’s talk about the metrics we’ve used successfully, and also the ones that we tried to use that led to unexpected outcomes.  We decided that Metrics had attributes that we would discuss.  We chose:

  1. Metric Name
  2. Intended Use
  3. Unintended Consequence
  4. Appropriate Level
  5. Good or Bad?

There was a side conversation that centered around a model of Metrics-building called GQM (Goal, Question, Metric) which centers on the concept that you start with what you want to achieve, what question could you ask to find out if you are achieving it, and measure something that gives you an answer to the question.

The Metrics are summarized in the following link: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1qmyjH3hn8N1Tf0Dn9aTySiqlNXQFuJbI/view?usp=sharing


If I had a tractor…

Agile Estimation and Planning


With the advent of agile methods and their affinity for rapid delivery cycles, traditional estimation models are coming up wanting.  Agile estimation, while undoubtedly faster is also difficult for some to grasp.  Expressing work in terms of time has been burned into the software community’s psyche.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  I coach agile teams in making the switch from traditional development models to agile.  In doing that, I help them learn new ways of estimating.  This series of articles will hopefully explain – through metaphor, why the old way of estimation was problematic, and how the new way addresses those shortcomings, is faster, is no less accurate, and can even be fun!

If I were to stand up in front of a room full of people, and select individuals at random to answer this question:  “How big is your lawn?”, I would get a variety of responses.  Many common answers are “1/4 acre, 1/2 acre, 10000 square feet, or maybe 900 square yards”.  The answer I would not expect to get is “45 minutes”.

Why is that?  For one thing, I asked for a size estimate, not a time estimate.  Yet, all over the globe, if I ask a software developer or project manager to estimate the size of a feature, they will generally answer in a number of hours, days, weeks, months, etc.

Time instead of Size.

This behavior has been ingrained in the development community for decades.  Agile methods have attempted to break that habit by requesting effort estimates as a measurement of relative size (often story points).

Indeed, I have been coaching and guiding teams long enough to have seen a variety of attempts to shift teams to “how big?” rather than “how long?”. Admittedly, it’s a really tough transition to make. And a very common way of approaching that transition is to offer a crutch – usually a conversion factor … you know, so the team members can wrap their heads around the concept more easily.  A common one I’ve seen is 1 Story Point = 1 Ideal Day.  SAFe offers the crutch that 1 Story Point is about 8 hours.  I’ve seen someone recently amend that to a range from 1 to 10 hours.

I’ve adopted a lot of truisms in my years of observation and continuous improvement. One that has stuck with me consistently though my agile career, is simply this:  “There is no direct relationship between Story Points and Time.”  If I want to leave some wiggle room, I might say “no reliable relationship” or “no consistent link”.  Of course then I’ll toss in that story points and time is not constant from team to team.  Any attempt to build that bridge will be fraught with drama, and lead to disappointment.

But nobody believes that.

And so, again and again, those who won’t acknowledge the past, repeat it over and over.

I’m hoping this series of articles on Agile Estimation and Planning will serve to save even a handful of you from following so many others in walking off that cliff.  If nothing else, it’s a chance for me to hone my explanation.

Feedback is welcome, please weigh in.

Part 1 – Size

Let’s go back to the lawn example, and start with a simple explanation as to why time is a terrible way to measure size…

I asked you how big your lawn is. I want you to think of your lawn. Think of the dimensions, think of how much of it is actually available for mowing.  Yes, that’s right. The grass.  Not the driveway.  Not the garden, nor the planting beds.  Not the patio or the stoop.  Got it?  First of all, notice that the size of your lawn is not the size of your lot.  The lot represents the dimensions of your property.  But not all of that is lawn.

Are we good so far?  I don’t want to lose you.

Now.  Picturing your lawn, and only your lawn:  How big is it?  Odds are, unless you’ve played this game before, you can’t give me an exact answer. You probably could if I gave you enough time and a tape measure.  You could probably get me a pretty exact measurement of the lawn part of your property.  But I have two problems with that.  First, it would take too long, and second, that wouldn’t be an estimate anymore, would it?  It would be an actual.  Traditional estimation models excel at doing this (pun intended), by giving you a really long time to lull yourself into a false sense of security in your ability to predict the future.  You may have noticed this activity is often followed later by a check of how accurate your estimate was — or more to the point, how wrong you were.  “We gave you months to predict the future! Why were you unable to give us a better estimate?”  That’s a hell of a way to start a conversation, isn’t it.  Let’s try to accentuate the positive a little, shall we?

In a moment we’ll get back to talking about the size of your lawn…by comparing it to something else!  Studies have shown that while humans are pretty bad at exact estimates, they are very good at comparing things.  This is a survival skill you learned as a small child – especially if you had siblings.  Remember family deserts?  Remember when there was one piece of cake left and both you and your pesky brother (or sister) wanted it? Remember how your mother, with the wisdom of Solomon, suggested you split the piece? The rules were simple: One of you sliced.  The other one chose – which gave you all sorts of incentive to slice well.  But no matter how carefully the slicing was carried out, one piece wound up slightly bigger than the other one and I’ll wager my half of the cake that you could tell exactly which half was bigger (the one you wanted), just by looking at it.  Or perhaps, they were actually close enough that there was no real distinction between them, and you both got to eat a piece of cake with satisfaction of knowing nobody got cheated.  We are going to leverage this skill in Agile Estimation.  The ability to look at two things, and declare whether one is bigger or smaller will prove valuable here!

Ready?  Do you need some cake first?  We don’t have time for cake.  Cake is for closers.  Are you a closer?  Let’s see what you’ve got.

Think about your neighbor’s lawn.  Let’s see if you can answer a simple relative sizing question.  Is your neighbor’s lawn, bigger, smaller, or about the same size as yours?  If you live in the suburbs this part will be really easy. Odds are pretty good that your neighbor not only has the same size lot as you, they probably also have a similar amount of grass in their yard.

So, what’s your answer? Is one lawn bigger than the other? Or perhaps, they’re close enough that you’re willing to call them even.  We’re talking now about degree of precision. When we ask for estimates, we should not be asking for perfection.  We just want to know within a margin of error.

To make this next part easier, I’m going to switch to talking about myself for a sec, partly because I’m having trouble seeing your lawn, but also because my neighborhood provides a particularly compelling example.

I can say with a fairly good degree of certainty that not only do I and my two adjacent neighbors have similar-sized lots, but the amount of open grass is pretty similar between the two — close enough at any rate.  That means, in terms of relative sizing, our three lawns are the same size.  How big is that?  Not sure yet, let’s think a bit farther.

Now think about your neighborhood, and the finite universe of houses and lawns that surround you.  Can you think of any lawns smaller than yours?  Can you think of any that are bigger?  If you can answer ‘yes’ to either of those questions, then the next question will be “How Much Bigger, or How Much Smaller”, and because we haven’t established a unit of measurement yet, let’s just use relative sizes.

Returning to my yard, the houses in the middle of the block all have the same lot size.  I also can’t think of any houses in the area with a smaller yard; but I can think of a few yards on the corners that are bigger… almost twice as big!  And then if I think about all the houses on the block, there is one house that due to the curve of the road, I’m pretty sure his lawn is closer to triple the size of mine.

I’m going to establish an arbitrary starting point now.  Based on my understanding so far, my yard and my neighbors’ are all 1 point yards, the corner houses have 2-point yards, and the odd-shaped yard a 3-point yard.  The chief advantage at this point, is this measurement was FAST.  Not a lot of time spent agonizing over it.  It was a quick 1,2, 3 and we’re ready to move on.

Figure 1.1

I now have three data points we can use to compare other work to.  If someone asks me over to their house and say, “could you estimate my lawn?”, I need only look at it, and compare it against the three data points in my head.  Is the new lawn bigger, smaller or about the same as one of those other lawns.  And if it is bigger or smaller, how much so?

The other advantage is that this estimate is PORTABLE – meaning it can be applied to the work of more than one team.  We’ll start to see why that’s important in the next section.

Part 2 – Scope

At this moment, all I have is a cursory understanding of how a few pieces of work relate to one another.  There are a myriad of activities that one could perform in support of a lawn.  We’re going to focus initially on mowing.

One weekend not so long ago, I looked at a long list of activities I needed to work on, and was trying to figure out how much I could do with the time I had.  One of the things that I have a pretty good handle on is mowing my lawn.  My definition of “Done” was pretty basic: gas up the mower, make sure it was set to “mulch”, and wander the property until all the grass was a nice, mostly uniform height. On most weekends, using my self-propelled lawnmower, I have been able to complete that job in about 45 minutes.

“Ah HA!”, I hear you cry, “Time!  Your one point lawn takes 45 minutes.  I’ve cracked the code!”

Well.  That’s nice.  Good for you!  But before you pat yourself on the back and start dividing my backlog into 45-minute increments, I’m going to wrinkle this up for you a bit.

Last summer, I hired someone to mow my lawn for me.  Don’t judge.  Work was demanding, and it was hot, and once you hire one of those guys, they keep coming back.  So my point is this:  Ed didn’t have a measly self-propelled walk-behind mower.  No.  He had one of those zero-turn-radius, stand/ride-behind monster machines that goes zero to sixty in about 2 seconds.  He fired that bad boy up, and viola! My lawn was freshly shorn in 10 minutes!

So, let me ask you this: Did my lawn change size?  If there is a universal constant between time and size, then Ed’s performance had reduced my 1 point story to something under a quarter point.

I submit to you that my lawn is in fact, the exact same postage stamp it has always been.  If it was 1 point before, it is 1 point now.  But something is clearly different.  Even I have to admit that 45 minutes vs. 10 is pretty compelling (or at least disheartening).

The difference has very little to do with the lawn itself.  The difference is that Ed, with his superior machine is capable of delivering the same work in less time than me.  How can I use this?  Well, if you take my 1-point lawn, and assume that every approximately 1-point lawn will take the same approximate amount of time (for me) then I can use that understanding to suggest how many 1-point lawns I believe I could fit into a weekend.  Given what I know, I think I could complete approximately 16 points worth of lawn .  But my friend with the impressive hardware can do many more!  The math whizzes out there have probably already concluded that Ed can do six 1-point lawns in an hour.  So given an eight hour workday and two days in a weekend, he’s going to be pounding out 96 points worth of lawns every weekend.  Those same math whizzes will point out that my sixteen-lawn estimate for myself is obviously under-represented.  I should be able to do four lawns every 3 hours, so in an 8 hour day, I should be able to do 21 points worth of lawns in a weekend, and if I just did a little overtime, I could pull off 22!

Isn’t math awesome?

and Terrible?

Allow me to toss a little water on those flames of victory you’re dancing around.  Unless you are going to work things out so those 21 lawns are placed end-to-end next to each other and set up my mower to be perpetually full of gasoline, I can’t possibly attain the number you’ve so carefully assigned to me.  I have to move the mower from one location to another.  I have to refuel at every job.  I have to stop to take a drink of water, or eat lunch, or answer a call.  Your assumption of my velocity seems to be missing a few things.  Your assumption of Ed’s velocity is just as wrong, by the way.  In order to move that behemoth of his, he needs to drive it up onto a trailer in order to move it to the next job site.  Where would we account for loading and unloading time?  Where do we lump the travel time between locations?  What about bathroom breaks?

The capability of a team is made up of a lot more than just the sum of the hours of work they perform.

Part 3 – Definition of Done

Something else happened when I hired Ed to mow my lawn.  He brought friends.  Not only was Ed mowing my lawn, but he had another guy with a gas-powered trimmer and yet another guy with a leaf-blower helping him.   So when he was “Done” with my lawn, not only had he completed the mowing job in less time, but he had DONE MORE than I ever did in my 45 minutes.  Trimming!  Edging!  Cleanup!  And once my wife realized those were on the table, those all became desirable additions to my lawn mowing regimen as well!  It was no longer sufficient for me to just gas up my mulching mower and try to get as close as I could to the flower beds.  I needed to pull out my electric trimmer, and follow myself around the yard, then edge the sidewalk, and then make sure I swept the sidewalk and driveway.  Guess what!  My 45-minute job wasn’t 45 minutes anymore!  Ed has a team of three people.  My team still only has me on it.  All that additional work added another hour to the time it takes me to complete a typical 1-point lawn (thanks a lot, Ed).

I ask again.  Think carefully.  Has the lawn change size, now?

No, the lawn is still the same lawn it always was.  But the definition of what constitutes a completed, quality job has certainly changed!  And because I now need to do more things to complete the same sized lawn, rate of delivery will suffer for it by decreasing.

Understanding this distinction is absolutely key!  The job didn’t change size, the level of expectation changed, and my team failed to adapt to that change.  The result was a measurable impact on my ability to deliver value (completed lawns).

Why would I insist on looking at it this way?  Consider this:  Recall, earlier I had estimated that I could deliver 16 points of lawns in a weekend — sixteen lawns just like mine.  In order to compete with Ed’s lawn service, I can no longer get away with a mow-only task list.  I need to perform the same quality tasks that Ed provides!  If I equated size to time, I would now have to re-estimate all of the lawns in my list!  Instead of 45 minutes, they’re taking 45+60=105 minutes.  By that magic conversion factor of 1 point = 45 minutes, those 1 point lawns in my neighborhood are now 2.33 points each (because math).  The corner lots are now 4.66 and the weird lot is a whopping 6.99.

Also, since you already had the calculator out, the project manager/mathematicians went even further: “By my calculations, in the same 16 hour work weekend, you can now to do (16 hours x 60 minutes per hour ) / 105 (minutes per lawn) = 9 lawns. 

See how easy this is?  You changed the scale and did math again, trying to get me to commit to something like (2.33 x 9 = 20.97 — aw heck, let’s say 21 points).  When a 1-point lawn was 45 minutes, you demanded 21 points.  Now that a 1-point lawn is 105 minutes, you still want 21 points.  Except that before, that 21 points would have delivered 21 pieces of customer value, and now that same 21 points is only delivering 9 pieces.  My team appears to have maintained velocity (that’s good, right?), but we’re not advancing anywhere near that rate!  Only 9 customers are satisfied by the same 21 points.

Also keep in mind, that I’m still not accepting your math.  I was only willing to commit to 16 points per weekend.  And I’m not going to re-estimate everything on my backlog, either.  THE LAWNS DIDN’T CHANGE SIZE!

With the impact the new Definition of Done is bringing to the table, unless I do something to correct my team makeup, you’re going to see my velocity drop like a stone to 7 points – seven lawns instead of sixteen.  And that very rightly should set off a red flag somewhere.

Part 4 – Velocity

When we talk of delivering value to our customers, we need to be very careful that we only count things that we’ve actually completed. The Definition of Done says I must mow, trim, edge and clean to meet my customer’s expectations. If I fail to deliver on any single aspect of that definition, the customer could reject my work, and refuse to pay me.

Think about that.  Even if I spent every minute of my weekend pushing the lawnmower around, and managed to cut the grass on twenty lawns — if I never touched the trimmer or broom, then despite the fact that I was BUSY the whole time, I didn’t actually COMPLETE any of the work.  What do I do now?  What do my customers do?  Do I just come back next weekend and do the trimming, edging and sweeping then?  Nice theory, but the grass will all have grown back by then, so now I’ll spend all weekend finishing he jobs from last weekend, but the customer will look out and still see incomplete work, and they’d be well within their rights to withhold payment again.

This is why the Agile world is OUTCOME-DRIVEN. It doesn’t matter that we are keeping our people active and working (busy) if they aren’t finishing everything in the Definition of Done.  When you get right down to it, time estimates are not helpful.  We don’t deliver time.  Our customers don’t consume hours.  They really don’t care how busy we were.  They care about results.  So we need a measurement of our ability to deliver VALUE.  In Agile, we call this Velocity.

Velocity is a measurement of the number of points of value that a team is able to complete in an iteration.  Only work that meets the Definition of Done is counted toward Velocity.  Partially completed work may as well not exist.

Velocity is a very useful metric, but it is not a universal constant.  It is a value that is unique to every team, based on their skills, tools, team structure, etc.

No matter what, Ed’s team is going to have a higher velocity than me.  First, their equipment is better -I can’t compete with that monster mower. And second, his cross-functional team can do tasks simultaneously.  In terms of clock time, from the moment they pull the equipment off the trailer until the time they roll it back up, something like 15 minutes goes by… (this includes Ed coming to the door for his payment).

Despite the fact that I’m telling you not to estimate in time, the concept of time keeps working its way into the conversation.  For instance, if I say Ed’s takes 15 minutes from wheels down, to wheels back up on the trailer.  That’s time, isn’t it?  You’re right, I did talk about duration of the job.  But I didn’t ESTIMATE in time.  Do you understand why?

The reason we want to stay away from time estimation is because time estimation is not portable!  It cannot translate from one team to another. When Ed takes 15 minutes, or I take 105 minutes, this causes a problem when it comes to translating our work.

My hours are not your hours.  The way I work, and the experiences I’ve had will ultimately affect the amount of time it takes for me to deliver.  What if Jeremy, the kid across the street grabs his dad’s lawn-mower and decides to get into this lawn-cutting game for some extra pocket money.   As it turns out, Jeremy’s mower is exactly the same as mine because his father and I both bought them when the local big-box store had a killer overstock sale.  Jeremy and I have the same equipment at our disposal.  Does that mean he is going to take the same amount of time that I will to mow my lawn?  I will bet you the answer is NO.  Whether Jeremy and I have different levels of strength, speed, attention span, or even experience, I can virtually guarantee that we will perform the same amount of work at different speeds.

Furthermore, if Jeremy or I walk up to a house on the next block, intent on giving our estimate, and instead are informed that Ed was already there, and told them it’s a 15-minute job.  Does that mean I’m required to accept that estimate?  How many times in your professional career have you found yourself being held to an estimate made by someone else?  It happens all the time – even more disturbing when that estimate isn’t even made by someone who does that work.

Part 5 – Cross-Functional Teams

Let’s assume you’re someone who’s going to fund the mowing of lawns.  Maybe you’re the head of the homeowners association, and you’re in the process of subcontracting the upkeep of lawns in the subdivision.  My team originally pledged 16 points, and my competition pledged 6o points.  But after you saw the additional services they were providing, you requested that we have a uniform Definition of Done across both teams.  This threatens to tank my performance!

How could we reconcile this?  “What,” you may ask, “do I need to do, to maintain the higher committed velocity?”

I suppose I could throw caution to the wind, and try running behind the mower!  I might be able to bring the time it takes to mow down a bit, but I’m probably going to miss some spots.  I don’t think that will ultimately solve the problem.

I could work overtime, mowing long into the evening hours.  That has potential, but now I’m going to get way more tired, and likely make mistakes.  The quality of my work will certainly suffer, and I now incur the risk of the customer rejecting the work. What would you do?

How about adding people to my team to handle these other tasks in the Definition of Done.  Ed has a cross-functional team (mower, trimmer, sweeper), where I had only a single generalist on my team).  If I got someone to run the weed whacker while I mowed, and whichever one of us finished their job first, then swept the sidewalk, I might be able to bring my clock time down to under an hour.  The math would support us saying we could reach 8 points per day then, but I’d still feel a lot better calling it 6 or maybe 7.  Either way my Velocity for the weekend could increase from a around 7 if I go it alone, to a real possibility of 12-14.  Not quite 16, but let’s face it: when I was just mowing the lawn, there was still long grass growing against the fence and the planting beds that the mower just couldn’t reach.  There was still grass clippings on the sidewalk, and let’s not even talk about the edging! In short, my quality was low, and the other team revealed that fact to the stakeholder.  I had to adapt or risk losing the gig.  So I expanded my team.

This notion of a cross-functional team is very powerful.  It allows us to build teams with all the skills needed to achieve our Definition of Done in one iteration, without relying on outside help.

Part 6 – Multi-Tasking and Work in Process

How good are you at multi-tasking?

Part 7 – Stable Funding

…or more importantly, our value.  What if I want to find out when I can expect delivery on the 16 points of lawns Figure 1.1?  It’s a valid question.  It happens all the time in business.



Are We There Yet?

A friend of mine was once put in charge of the Innovation group at the company where we worked.  Whenever we would talk about the state of Innovation, he always seemed preoccupied with creating an “innovation organization”.  But the conversation never seemed to get far beyond that point.
Continue reading “Are We There Yet?”

When things get hard…

“We practice when things are easy so we can use it when they get hard.”

The phone in the dining room rang, the caller id showed my parent’s number.  My wife looked at the phone, then up at the clock, then at me.  Somehow, we instinctively knew what was coming.  I pushed the speakerphone button, and I heard my mother’s voice, quiet and wracked with grief. “I’m all alone.” Continue reading “When things get hard…”

Instilling a Sense of Urgency

The team just isn’t demonstrating a sense of urgency.

The manager looked earnestly at me across the table.

I took a deep breath.  “If I may clarify.  Is your wish that the team understands the urgency of the situation, or that they demonstrate a sense of … panic?” Continue reading “Instilling a Sense of Urgency”

Orchestrating Beautiful Music

Can you imagine if you invite the best musicians in the world to perform in an orchestra without having any coordination between them?

Although not the intention of the author, the quote above served as a bit of inspiration for me this afternoon.  Agility is often maligned by its detractors as being ultimately untenable because it relies on self-organized teams to build a successful, complex structure.  I often encounter individuals who attempt to disprove the viability of agile in their organization by stating how impossible it would be to create a large system without first engaging in a big up-front design.  As I said, it wasn’t the author’s intention, but he indirectly mimicked a conversation I had a week previous, where an architect waved off agile because it allowed development to begin before all the kinks were worked out of the system.

The architect had mentioned music as well.  So the premise we will work from, is that agile can be disproven because you cannot put a group of random musicians in a room together, and expect them to play music.

Since my daughter was present as I read the comment, I thought it was a great opportunity to see her thoughts on the topic.  My daughter has played viola since the fifth grade.  She has participated in several orchestras, both in and out of school.  She has been a soloist in a jazz ensemble, first chair among the other violas, as well as a member of a chamber orchestra.

“What would happen if you took a bunch of orchestra musicians, put them in a room together, and told them to play?”

She pondered for a moment, then asked, “Soloists or regular orchestra?”

I immediately saw her point.  “Describe both,” I said.

Team of Soloists

“Well, a bunch of soloists would probably fight until they figured out what they should do to make it work,” she began, “But they would figure it out because that would be the only way for the outcome not to suck — and more than anything they hate to suck.”

I smiled as she related the tale.  Images of highly experienced, lone-wolf programmers thrust into a team situation, and asked to work together.  First a battle of egos, as each tried to proclaim themselves leader, and ultimately an attempt to carve out their own special expert silo so they wouldn’t have to work with anyone else.  It reminded me of the experienced developer who declared in a recent retrospective how happy he was to be able to work at his desk away from everyone else, so he could be more efficient, while everyone else complained that they had no idea where he was in the development of the features he had signed up for.  How they could help.  If he even needed help.  Whether he was on track to finish.  It usually takes a few sprints before the team forms around the concept of cooperation — almost always as a result of a lone wolf failing to deliver.

Orchestral Regulars

She then continued: “Regular orchestra players would form into groups by instrument. Orchestras already have an organization structure built in. Each section follows the lead of their first chair. All the first chairs confer together. Then they would play.”

Again, I imagined a cross-functional development team, each member holding a vital piece of the puzzle to create the end product.  Sometimes we allow teams to form organically.  Often someone tries to construct a magical combination of personalities and skills.  Even more often we throw whoever we have into the mix and hope for the best.  In agile methods such as scrum, we don’t provide a leader.  We provide to guide, and we provide an enabler.  The guide sets the limits of the performance – declaring the desired outcome.  The enabler looks for ways to help the team perform more efficiently.  One possible way to look at the conference of first-chairs is to think of it as a scrum of scrums.  A collection of independent teams of instruments, agreeing to where they would meet in the performance, then going back to their individual groups and explaining the pace and tempo.  Have you ever noticed how all of the bows in an orchestra move in unison?  That isn’t a requirement.  The instrument will produce music whether the bow is being drawn upwards or downwards across the strings.  It is something the musicians do by choice, because it looks better.  This struck me as being particularly interesting, because it speaks to development standards that most teams employ.

The Chamber

I then asked about chamber orchestra players.  She brightened up immediately.  “Oh, chamber musicians would have no problem at all.  They already know how to self organize and direct themselves.”

A chamber orchestra is probably the best analogy for a high-performing agile team.  If you’ve never seen one play, the chamber has no director.  They choose a leader among themselves, who begins the performance – almost always by raising their bow, and making eye-contact with the other members around them.  They begin the movement, and the rest of the chamber falls into step, each performing their unique role in the performance.

Who is in charge?

I deliberately left the conductor/director out of most of the discussion.  Some would say that the director is the scrum master.  I think they are probably more of a product owner.  They select the music.  They set a cadence, and they point at specific performers at key moments to make sure they maintain alignment.  But they don’t make the performance happen.

So where would a scrum master fit into this orchestral analogy?  They are probably walking around backstage keeping other people from trying to influence what the individual performers are doing on stage.

When I coach an agile team, I do so with the intention of teaching them to be able to function without me watching over them.  The scrum master finds themselves in a similar situation.  We often say that the role of the scrum master is to put themselves out of a job.  Ironically, unless your organization has embraced agility at all levels and actually respects the necessity of self-organization, you will need to have that protector role present — even though they are not directly involved in the creation of the deliverable.

What is the Deliverable?

Where the orchestral metaphor first appears to fall flat may be in the music sheets themselves.  One might think that the music sheets are the deliverable … that our mythical orchestra is just reproducing something that has already been clearly defined.  I disagree.  The music sheets are not the deliverable.  The PERFORMANCE is the deliverable.

The performance is the thing that is created though the unique application of the musician’s craft.  Each performance is unique.  So if not the deliverable, what then does the sheet music represent?  Is it the method that is being followed?  Is it the requirements list?  Perhaps it is the definition of done that the orchestra is trying to achieve.  There are certainly plenty of music ensembles that manage to play together just fine without sheet music.  Anyone who has ever witnessed a jam session in progress–with only a few words of collaboration, almost any group of experienced musicians can find a way to play together.

But it always takes collaboration.  A few words.  A nod.  A steady tap of a foot.

Then as they work together, they learn each others strengths.  They learn how their various parts combine and the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts.



Best Laid Plans…

I am one of the co-organizers of a local Agile Meetup group (APLN-Chicago).  Our monthly meetings are generally attended by folks in one of two camps:  The first, I’ll call the Agile Seekers — people who would not consider themselves experts, but are there to learn the what/why/how of Agile.  The second group I’ll call the Agile Explorers — people with practical experience in Agile, who are looking to test the edges of Agile and finding/sharing new ways of plying their craft.  On most nights, we manage to strike a pretty good balance between the different camps, finding ways to leverage the experience to feed the learning, and everyone walks away with something positive.  I wish I could say it always works that way, but last night it kind of got away from me. Continue reading “Best Laid Plans…”

Accentuate the Negative?

The instant message app chimed on my desktop. “How confident are you that we won’t find any more defects in testing?”, the department head asked. I glanced over at the task board, at the lone sticky note sitting in the “In Progress” section: “Architecture Review”, it read. I popped open the chat window, and responded, “100% sure. We are done with testing.” I watched the window for a moment as the message app informed me they were typing their reply. “Okay. Because I’m about to go report that to the senior managers.” “No problem,” I typed back. “See you at the demo, tomorrow.” Continue reading “Accentuate the Negative?”