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Archive for the ‘Organizational’ Category

Advantages of Part-time Coaching

Sunday, May 20th, 2012

Often companies undervalue the part-time coaching model.

What do I mean by part-time coaching model?
A coach is onsite, working hands-on with the team for a week and then offsite (accessible via email & phone, but off the project) for a week. Basically, the coach is available on-off either alternative weeks or a some other timeframe.

Personally I’ve experience the following advantages of a part-time coaching model:

From the company & its employees’ point of view:

  • When I’m not there full time, teams realize they cannot fully depend on me. I’m not the bottleneck for making decisions. The teams start to take ownership and make more decisions on their own (usually by consulting me, but not waiting on me.)
  • When I steps out for sometime and come back to the team, I bring a slightly fresh perspective and can pay attention to weak signals. Many times we get so engrossed in what we are doing, that we might miss out paying attention to something else.
  • Coaching can be intense. Having a little time off from coaching helps the teams get a breather. Which makes the overall coaching more sustainable.
  • As coaches we expect things to change much faster rate than usually they do. If we are there full-time, it might start to bother us. But with the on-off model, the slower rate of change seems more acceptable. Similarly the team does not feel pressurized to accept change at a rate that might not be sustainable or acceptable to them.
  • The management seems to get more confidence in the whole engagement, because they can see things are not blowing up when the coach is not around.
  • Last but not the least, it does have a good financial incentive for the company.

From the coach’s point of view:

  • Having some downtime is good for the coach to build/upgrade their skills.
  • Can help achieve a better work-life balance.
  • From a risk management point of view, it allows a coach to take on multiple part-time client.

Hopefully, all of this leads to a more effective coaching engagement.

Definition of Done: A Hang-over from the Waterfall Era

Friday, May 18th, 2012

You might think Definition of Done (DoD) is a brilliant idea from the Agile world…but the dirty little secret is… its just a hand-over from the waterfall era.

While the DoD thought-process is helpful, it can lead to certain unwanted behavior in your team. For example:

  • DoD usually ends up being a measure of output, but rarely it focuses on outcome.
  • In some teams, I’ve seen it disrupt true collaboration and instead encourage more of a contractual and “cover my @ss” mentality.
  • DoD creates a false-sense/illusion of doneness. Unless you have real data showing users actually benefiting and using the feature/story, how can we say its done?
  • I’ve also seen teams gold-plating stuff in the name of DoD. DoD encourages a all-or-nothing approach. Teams are forced to build fully sophisticated features/stories. We might not even be sure if those features/stories are really required or not.
  • It get harder to practice iterative & incremental approach to develop features. DoD does not encourage experimenting with different sophistication levels of a feature.

I would much rather prefer the team members to truly collaborate on an-ongoing basis. Build features in an iterative and incremental fashion. Strongly focus on Simplicity (maximizing the amount of work NOT done.) IME Continuous Deployment is a great practice to drive some of this behavior.

More recent blog on this: Done with Definition of Done or shoud I say Definition of Done Considered Harmful

Specialized Roles make you Dumb

Friday, May 4th, 2012

Specialized roles suck the distributed knowledge and skill from different practicing heads and tries to stuff it in one central place.

The people who are freed of the additional skill (burden), slowly reduce practicing the skill and day-by-day they become weaker at that skill. Gradually, they are completely out of touch and stop caring about the skill. Ultimately, they start feeling that they are not qualified enough and also someone else with the specialized role is now really responsible for that skill.

The person with the specialized role, is exposed to more situation & starts practicing the skill a lot more. With all that practice, they hopefully get stronger at that skill. But in the process, as they are completely focused on this specialized skill, they care a less about other things.

Over a period of time, creating skill silos, who barely understand or appreciate the other side.

Net-net, IMHO specialized skills leads to local optima and might be good to start with, but not good for global optima over a period of time. The hard part with specialized roles is that once you are down this slippery slope, its very hard to back out.

Dysfunctional organizations with product, design, architecture, development, testing, deployment and production support silos reinforce my believe.

A really strong collaborative culture with collective ownership and frequent role rotation between these silos seems like the only way to rescue organizations out of this specialized role mess.

Ways to Deal with Technical Debt

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

At the SDTConf, we had an interesting discussion on how to deal with technical debt. The group agreed on the following suggestions:

  • C3: Coverage, Complexity & Churn – Instead of looking at each of these parameters in isolation, we generate C3 graph using a TreeMap and use the cumulative graph to see red spots in the product. Esp. helpful to quickly raise awareness.
  • Slack: Every team members gets a 10-20% time every iteration to invest on things that hurt them.
  • Scratch your Personal Itch day: Every iteration each team members gets 1 day to fix unplanned issues on the project
  • Visitor from Hell: Every month have one person from other team visit you and give you feedback on various aspect of the team. Its up to the team to address these issues or not. But certainly can be used to pitch to the management for additional time to work on these issue.
  • Code Walk Throughs: Every time a team member (or pair) implements something important, they give a code walk through or a demo to the rest of the team. This usually ensures team members don’t have crappy things when they give a demo.

Check out the project rescue report, if you would like to see some examples of how we’ve used C3.

When the Future is Uncertain, How Important is A Long-Term Plan?

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

Many friends responded to my previous post on How Much Should You Think about the Long-Term? saying:

Even if the future is uncertain and we know it will change, we should always plan for the long-term. Without a plan, we cease to move forward.

I’m not necessarily in favor or against this philosophy. However I’m concerned about the following points:

  • Effort: The effort required to put together an initial direction is very different from the effort required to put a (proper) plan together. Is that extra effort really worth it esp. when we know things will change?
  • Attachment: Sometimes we get attached with our plans. Even when we see things are not quite inline with our plan, we think, its because we’ve not given enough time or we’ve not done justice to it.
  • Conditioned: Sometimes I notice that when we have a plan in place, knowingly or unknowingly we stop watching out for certain things. Mentally we are at ease and we build a shield around us. We get in the groove of our plan and miss some wonderful opportunities along the way.

The amount of planning required seems to be directly proportional to the size of your team.

If your team consists of a couple of people, you can go fairly lightweight. And that’s my long-term plan to deal with uncertainty.

How Much Should You Think about the Long-Term?

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

Often people tell you that “You should think about the long-term.”

Sometimes people tell you, “Forget long-term, its too vague, but you should at least think beyond the near-term.”


Unfortunately, part of my brain (prefrontal cortex), which can see and analyze the future, has failed to develop compared to the other smart beings.

At times, I try to fool myself saying I can anticipate the future, but usually when I get there (future) its quite different. I realize that the way I think about the future is fundamentally flawed. I take the present and fill it with random guesses about something that might happen. But I always miss things that I’m not aware of or not exposed to.

In today’s world, when there are a lot of new ideas/stuff going around us, I’m amazed how others can project themselves into the future and plan their long-terms?

Imagine a tech-company planning their long-term plan, 5-years ago, when there were no iPads/tablets. They all must have guessed a tablet revolution and accounted that in their long-term plans. Or even if they did not, it would have been easy for them to embrace it right?

You could argue that the tablet revolution is a one-off phenomenon or an outlier. Generally things around here are very predictable and we can plan our long-term without an issue. Global economics, stability of government, rules and regulations, emergence of new technologies, new markets, movement of people, changes in their aspirations, environmental issues, none of these impact us in any way.

Good for you! Unfortunately I don’t live in a world like that (or at least don’t fool myself thinking about the world that way.)

By now, you must be aware that we live in a complex adaptive world and we humans ourselves are complex adaptive system. In complex adaptive system, the causality is retrospectively coherent. .i.e. hindsight does not lead to foresight.

10 years ago, when I first read about YAGNI and DTSTTCPW, I thought that was profound. It was against the common wisdom of how people designed software. Software development has come a long way since then. But is XP the best way to build software? Don’t know. Question is, people who used these principles did they build great systems? Answer is: Yes, quite a few of them.

In essence, I think one should certainly think about the future, make reasonable (quick) guesses and move on. Key is to always keep an open mind and listen to subtle changes around us.

One cannot solely rely on their “intuition” about long term. Arguing on things you’ve all only guessed seems like a huge waste of time and effort. Remember there is a point of diminishing returns and more time you spend thinking long-term, less your chances are of getting it right.

I’m a strong believer of “Action Precedes Clarity!”

Update: In response to many comments: When the Future is Uncertain, How Important is A Long-Term Plan?

“Investing in Innovation” is Absolutely Overrated!

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

Invest today in Innovation to ensure you’ll thrive long-term. Else be prepared to get wiped out!

I’m sick and tired of hearing such lame advice from people.

I don’t know of any company where they were struggling. So they “invested” in “innovation” and suddenly started building great products.

It’s like saying:

30-mins of daily Meditation (alone) will make you more creative!

Sorry you need to practice your art to sharpen your creativity. Meditation can certainly help, but not the essential ingredient for creativity.

Important thing to note is, one cannot treat innovation as a separate thing in which they can “invest” to reap benefit downstream.

Thinking of innovation as an independent entity, separate from the work itself and the culture/context in which the work is done, is fundamentally wrong IMHO.

One has to experiment and try new approaches. You cannot do your work the same old way and set some time aside for innovation. I’ve not seen that work.

In my view of the world, innovation is part of how you think and operate. To some extent its the nature of people and organizations. Its part of your work and the culture of your organization. In fact, innovation is inherent aspect of many businesses. One cannot bring innovation from outside.  Hence one cannot invest in innovation.

“Invest in Innovation” is like saying “Invest in Learning.”

If you are not learning while doing your daily job and thinking of investing time outside your job to learn, then you are in trouble. Either develop the attitude to learn on the job or find a job where learning is inherent part of your job, not something you do in the side.

If you are learning on the job and want to invest additional time to pick up new skills that’s great. But learning on the job is a pre-requisite.

Innovative thinking should be an integral part of your job and your company’s culture, not something you invest after the fact.

Defining Process Success

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

Often companies ask me:

 “How do we know if this process is successful? How do we measure if this process is working for us?”

I don’t think any process by itself can make someone successful. A lot depends on the company, its values, principles, nature of business, its people and so on.

If I wanted to introduce a new process into my company, this is what I would measure or look for:

  • Is it helping my product/organization? Things like
    • time to market,
    • frequency of releases,
    • perceived quality/stability of the product and so on.
    • Basically aspects about my product delivery which were good (want to continue doing them) and aspects which needs improvement.
  • Is the team evolving the process? Are they internalizing the process and reducing the amount of ceremony?
    • While the process should encourage people to do reflective improvement, it should also encourage some amount of disruptive changes thinking into the teams/company.
  • Is the process creating growth opportunities for my people?
    • I would like the process to encourage growth in terms of them becoming Generalizing specialists and not being corned into silos.
    • I want my people to improve their overall understanding and involvement in the overall product development process rather than just knowing or caring about their little piece.

Also Jeff Patton has a wonderful article on Performing a simple process health checkup:

He suggests we look for the following “properties” to assess the process’ health:

  1. Frequent delivery
  2. Reflective improvement
  3. Close communication
  4. Focus
  5. Personal safety
  6. Easy access to experts
  7. Strong technical environment
  8. Sunny day visibility
  9. Regular cadence

I would like to add 3 more properties to this list:

  1. High energy
  2. Empowered teams
  3. Disruptive change or Safe-Fail Experimenting


The Energy Project: Getting More Out of People by Demanding Less

Monday, January 2nd, 2012

A company called The Energy Project, are experts in the field of work performance and the problem of employee disengagement. They believed that burnout is one of its leading causes, and focused almost exclusively on helping individuals avoid burnouts by managing their energy, as opposed to their time. Time, after all, is finite. By contrast, you can expand your personal energy and also regularly renew it.

They believe that enduring organizational change is possible only if individuals alter their attitudes and behaviors first. But they’ve come to understand that it’s not possible to generate lasting cultural change without deeply involving the whole organization and its senior leadership.

To achieve better Productivity, they encouraged organizations to make two fundamental shifts in the way it manages employees:

  1. Stop expecting people to operate like computers—at high speeds, continuously, running multiple programs at the same time—and to recognize that human beings perform best and are most productive when they alternate between periods of intense focus and intermittent renewal.
  2. Move from trying to get more out of employees and instead to invest in systematically meeting their four core needs, so they’re fueled and inspired to bring more of themselves to work every day.

Four core needs are:

  1. Physical health: achieved through nutrition, sleep, daytime renewal, and exercise
  2. Emotional well-being: which grows out of feeling appreciated and valued
  3. Mental clarity: the ability to focus intensely, prioritize, and think creatively and
  4. Spiritual significance : which comes from the feeling of serving a mission beyond generating a profit.

Several companywide initiatives can help employees boost their energy in the four core areas. For example companies can subsidize healthy meals and a salad bar at their on-site restaurant that’s open to all employees. Hire a dietician on staff and employees can get free consultations. Build new, fully equipped gym and created a large open, grassy commons area where people can hang out and relax. To help employees recharge themselves on a spiritual level, companies can offers its employees paid time off each month to volunteer their services to nonprofits and organizes specific volunteer opportunities for them.

Original Article: The Productivity Paradox: How Sony Pictures Gets More Out of People by Demanding Less

Deliberate Practice: The Expressway to becoming an Expert

Monday, January 2nd, 2012

“Its God’s gift” or “S/he was born talented” or “S/He just lucky” is a common myth that undermines the relentless hard-work experts put to attain mastery in their respect work.

Benjamin Bloom, a pioneer who broke this myth found out that:

“All the superb performers, he investigated, had practiced intensively, had studied with devoted teachers, and had been supported enthusiastically by their families throughout their developing years.”

Later research, building on Bloom’s study revealed that the amount and quality of practice were key factors in the level of expertise people achieved.

Consistently and overwhelmingly, the evidence showed that:

“Experts are always made, not born.”

The journey to truly superior performance is neither for the faint hearted nor for the impatient. The development of genuine expertise requires struggle, sacrifice, and honest, often painful self-assessment. There are no shortcuts. It will take many years if not decades to achieve expertise, and you will need to invest that time wisely, by engaging in “deliberate” practice; practice that focuses on tasks beyond your current level of competence and comfort. You will need a well-informed coach not only to guide you through deliberate practice but also to help you learn how to coach yourself.

One study showed that psychotherapists with advanced degrees and decades of experience aren’t reliably more successful in their treatment of randomly assigned patients than novice therapists with just three months of training are. There are even examples of expertise seeming to decline with experience. The longer physicians have been out of training, for example, the less able they are to identify unusual diseases of the lungs or heart. Because they encounter these illnesses so rarely, doctors quickly forget their characteristic features and have difficulty diagnosing them.

Practice Deliberately: Not all practice makes you perfect. You need a particular kind of practice – “deliberate practice” – to develop expertise. When most people practice, they focus on the things they already know how to do. Deliberate practice is different. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well – or even at all.

Let’s imagine you are learning to play golf for the first time. In the early phases, you try to understand the basic strokes and focus on avoiding gross mistakes (like driving the ball into another player). You practice on the putting green, hit balls at a driving range, and play rounds with others who are most likely novices like you. In a surprisingly short time (perhaps 50 hours), you will develop better control and your game will improve. From then on, you will work on your skills by driving and putting more balls and engaging in more games, until your strokes become automatic: You’ll think less about each shot and play more from intuition. Your golf game now is a social outing, in which you occasionally concentrate on your shot. From this point on, additional time on the course will not substantially improve your performance, which may remain at the same level for decades.

Why does this happen?

You don’t improve because when you are playing a game, you get only a single chance to make a shot from any given location. You don’t get to figure out how you can correct mistakes. If you were allowed to take five to ten shots from the exact same location on the course, you would get more feedback on your technique and start to adjust your playing style to improve your control. In fact, professionals often take multiple shots from the same location when they train and when they check out a course before a tournament.

Computer gaming is an excellent example where I’ve seen people practice deliberately to get better. They focus on what they can do well, but they also focus on what they can’t do well. Most importantly, when practicing, the gamer is not just mindlessly playing. It’s a very thoughtful, deep, dedicated practice session.

War games serve a similar training function at military academies. So do flight simulators for pilots. Unfortunately in software development, very few people practice deliberately.

Genuine experts not only practice deliberately but also think deliberately. The golfer Ben Hogan once explained, “While I am practicing I am also trying to develop my powers of concentration. I never just walk up and hit the ball.”

Deliberate practice involves two kinds of learning:

  1. Improving the skills you already have
  2. Extending the reach and range of your skills.

“Practice puts brains in your muscles” – Golf champion Sam Snead

The enormous concentration required undertaking these twin tasks limits the amount of time you can spend doing them.

How long should you do deliberate practice each day?

“It really doesn’t matter how long. If you practice with your fingers, no amount is enough. If you practice with your head, two hours is plenty.”

It’s very easy to neglect deliberate practice. Experts who reach a high level of performance often find themselves responding automatically to specific situations and may come to rely exclusively on their intuition. This leads to difficulties when they deal with atypical or rare cases, because they’ve lost the ability to analyze a situation and work through the right response. Experts may not recognize this creeping intuition bias, of course, because there is no penalty until they encounter a situation in which a habitual response fails and maybe even causes damage.

Many research show the importance of a coach/mentor in deliberate practice. Some strongly favor an apprenticeship model. However one needs to be aware of the limitation of just following a coach or working alongside an “expert.”

Statistics show that radiologists correctly diagnose breast cancer from X-rays about 70% of the time. Typically, young radiologists learn the skill of interpreting X-rays by working alongside an “expert.” So it’s hardly surprising that the success rate has stuck at 70% for a long time. Imagine how much better radiology might get if radiologists practiced instead by making diagnostic judgments using X-rays in a library of old verified cases, where they could immediately determine their accuracy.

All an all, “Living in a cave does not make you a geologist” .i.e. without deliberate practice you go no where.

Original Article: The Making of an Expert

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