There’s a flurry of activity when projects kick off, resources have to be marshalled and often teams need to be informed of a good deal of information around the thinking behind the work at hand. As that ship leaves port upon its venture for treasure (aaargh!), point to point conversations are difficult to manage across a sizable group.
THE WORLD IS ALL THAT IS THE CASE
For companies on the move, it raises the ever present question of how to scale agile practices. For smaller teams in the same room or space, these conversations often go on in the open. But as you delegate tasks and a set of leads begins to occupy their own time managing tasks and activities others don’t have regular exposure to, you can start to run into problems.
The start of a project is significant. It’s where plans meet action, where the rubber meets the road. You may notice one symptom of project failure when problems arise, decisions are made and after a few cycles the original aims and expectations get modified or lost. Team members regardless of role are left wondering, “Why are we doing this?”
Fail to establish a clear set of facts about the state of affairs at the beginning of a project and you can kiss many things good bye.
Accountability, the ability to gauge plan vs reality, a distinction between assumptions and truth, feedback cycles that would support continual improvement across various roles and the ability for an organisation to improve its effectiveness in managing its own investments in a development effort.
As agile organizations scale, groups of people can often fall prey to the same pitfalls that the basic agile techniques work to avoid. Techniques that were effective in small groups lose their impact as people bring old but trusted behaviours to new situations. For example, I’ve not been a fan of scrum of scrums and have found them to be less effective as the mental maps—the views of the state of affairs—across participants are not aligned. I’ve witnessed numerous cases where a group of people can earnestly agree around a table and then go off to work independently at cross purposes.
What to do about it
Establish a core set of facts. Agree on the state of affairs at any one time. Start by asking the basic questions and make sure you can construct a view of the basic answers. For example, each PM has their own check list of essential questions they ask to gauge the viability of a project.
In the early phases of project conception, these might entail questions like:
- Do we know why we are doing something?
- Is there a singular aim or is our perceived benefit multi-faceted?
At the lead up to kickoff these might include:
- Are skills of the team matched to the task at hand?
- Have we been realistic about capacity (holidays, training, etc)?
- Are teams ready to sign up to and deliver upon commitments?
- What are the anticipated blockers?
And, regardless of role, there are questions common across stakeholders—for anyone who has an interest, stake or dependency on the outputs:
- How big is the pile of work? (the backlog)
- How fast can a team move through it? (velocity projections)
- What chunks will be addressed first? (milestones or release plan)
- When do we think it will deliver?
- When will the outputs be used and begin to prove value?
At Caplin, we leverage the concept of incremental planning. Our approach is adaptive and solves the issue at hand without a heavy amount of process. We’ve just gone through the kick-off of a large program composed of many different projects. To manage this, we’ve created a kickoff dashboard where an initial plan can be viewed against a revised plan as we learn and discover.
How did we build it? We started by asking the basic questions to check for ourselves whether we had the answers. It was an essential first step where, the more we gathered this basic info, the more productive our discussions as a group became.
After you have established this agreed upon set of facts, what do you do next? Argue!
Have a vibrant exchange of ideas that evaluates alternatives and works to select the best one. Remember to do this as a group and to speak to an agreed upon established set of facts. When these facts and agreements are not present often it can seem like conversations go one with no resolution and you feel like you are trapped within the eternal recurrence of the same. The next time you feel this happening sit back and take a moment to ask yourself how much of the discussion is conflict over the state of affairs and what portion is a discussion of what to do about it.
Many agile practices are about having the right conversation at the right time and at the appropriate level of detail. Many techniques are simple. When your organisation scales and people are relocated out of earshot to what used to be a group conversation, the next simple step you can take is to have that quick conversation to agree on the state of affairs. The key is to remember to ensure that there is this preliminary agreement across your group.