Sunday, March 7, 2010

Discover Your M&M Early Warning System

Dan and Chip Heath, the authors of the best selling "Made to Stick" and "Switch", wrote a clever article in this month's Fast Company titled: "Business Advice From Van Halen." The famous rock band developed their very own early warning system for detecting problems (especially big ones). As the article states it "was the canery in the coal mine." How did they did do it?... by requesting a "brownout" of M&Ms. The article is definitely worth the read. The ingenuinity of Van Halen, and the Heath brothers' point, was determining problems early on with your projects can be simple and effective.

In keeping with my theme of my last two posting regarding agile approaches to technology development, I have my own set of tools that detect early warning signs of tactical or strategic problems with the project(s) and/or the organization. Tactical warning signs detect a team's trouble with their immediate deliverables. Solutions for addressing these issues can usually be easily solved. Strategic warning signs reveal more serious organizational problems with either the team or the overall larger company and are more difficult to address. These issue can stem from cultural differences, management weakness, and lack of focus. Here are some examples of tactical and strategic warning signs:

Tactical Warning Signs for Projects:
  • Decreasing scope/committments during iterations, or worse under-delivering to your customers/sponsors.
  • Tasks that span longer than the planned effort, especially those that were estimated to be relatively simple.
  • Impediments to the iteration's committments revealed during daily stand-ups and retrospectives.
Strategic Warning Signs for Projects and the Organization:
  • Missing vision/goals for the project and it's iterations.
  • Velocity for the highly prioritized features of the project are considerably low (regardless of the overall velocity for all work completed by the team, which may include effort spent on items outside of the focus of the particiular iteration).
  • Large spikes of scope increases over the course of several iterations during the project.
  • Lack of consistency in following/practicing the agreed to agile practices.
  • Morale, team dynamics, organizational changes, and other soft management issues discovered during team retrospectives and/or one-on-ones with individual team members.
Tools such as leveraging velocity tracking, release goals, and prioritization are great ways to quickly assess the state of your projects. More importantly though is maintaining the pulse of your teams. At the end of the day, the two most effective ways to measure a team's strategic success is through your retrospectives and individual one-on-ones. Nothing replaces the human aspect of building rapport with your team members. I've personally witnessed managers lose entire teams through a domino-effective of voluntary attrition for lacking this crucial element to their management approach. All your hard reporting and tracking methods in the world will never provide you with the health status and morale of your teams without relationships built through conversations.

Israel Gat, The Agile Executive, shares his own thoughts on early warning signs for agile projects. Definitely a recommended read.