The following is an Experience Report I presented at Agile 2009 in Chicago (Part 3 of 4)
As luck would have it, Scrum Gathering 2008 was in Chicago that year, and three of us were allowed to use our decompression time to attend the conference. Our goal was simple. Talk to people at the Gathering and find a way out of our predicament.
For three days we attended lectures and took part in discussions. We talked about our situation and were surprised at how many people could sympathize, yet how few could believe that management had elected mandatory overtime as the solution.
One of the highlights of the Scrum Gathering was the two days of OpenSpace discussions. It was really cool watching as spontaneous creativity erupted and blossomed. Problems were presented, solutions found.
On the train ride home on the third day, the three of us compared notes. We debated whether anything we’d learned could help the teams. We contemplated many things, but in the end we couldn’t shake the fact that we were so close to the ship date that anything we did might only upset the rhythm the teams were in – dysfunctional as it may be. They were back on the waterfall, and if nothing else, they understood it.
But spending three days among crowds of normal agilists gave us enough perspective to see just how far out of whack things were back home. It took about an hour the next morning to realize that things were on the verge of exploding. That was when we realized we had found an answer at the convention after all.
Disarming the Weapon
If you don’t know what OpenSpace Technology is, I encourage you to look into it. My favorite description of OpenSpace is this: “Open Space works best when the work to be done is complex, the people and ideas involved are diverse, the passion for resolution (and potential for conflict) are high, and the time to get it done was yesterday.” 2
This described our situation to a tee.
The three of us met with the line manager. We found a perfect offsite location and sent a meeting notice to every member of the team. This was a mandatory meeting. They were required to be there all day, both days. There would be no laptops, no phones and no exceptions.
Two days later, the team gathered in the unfamiliar room to find flip-charts, markers and chairs arranged in a circle. Some nervously joked that it looked like a prayer meeting. Others angrily observed that this was keeping them from getting their work done.
Our project manager opened the session with the following statement: “We have a problem. We have to find a way to ship this product, with the expected level of quality in a little over two months. We are here to find a way to achieve that. For the next two days, we’re going to brainstorm and investigate solutions. And I am so confident that you will find an answer that as of this moment, the mandatory overtime is ended.”
It was the last thing anyone expected to hear. The challenge was clear: stop complaining about the situation, and find a way to solve the problem.
For two days the teams met. They suggested solutions. They gathered in groups to discuss and revise them. In the end, over 100 suggestions came out of that meeting. They were classified by those that could be implemented immediately, those that could be instituted by the end of the project, and those that were good ideas but would not help us achieve our goal.
The next day, forty of the suggestion cards were posted on the wall of the scrum room for all to see. We replanned all sprints with an enhanced emphasis on teamwork and keeping commitments. Nobody was allowed to leave the sprint planning meeting until everyone agreed they could complete the sprint successfully.
The sprints began again. This time, utilizing two-week sprints instead of one-month. The suggestions on the wall were repeatedly referenced. Team members were asked to stop reporting how many hours they were spending, and to instead talk about how the features were progressing.
For the remainder of the week following the OpenSpace session, every team member chose to work a normal length day. This was a predictable reaction to the enforced overtime that had preceded it. However, on the following week, team members started staying longer. They were still working overtime, but now they would go home when they felt they had ceased being productive.
With the emphasis shifted to completing work, and the exhaustion factor reduced, the teams all had successful sprints. A pattern they repeated for the rest of the project.