Friday, September 7, 2012

"Our team is too _____ to be Agile"

Team dynamics is a common challenge with teams new to Agile Development. This often presents itself in comments such as "Our team is too big/small/remote/unfocused/unavailable/divided to use Agile".  Teams which have not thrown in the towel and who are still earnestly struggling with this might ask questions such as:

"What is the 'right size' for an Agile team?"
"Can we use Agile Management with remote teams or remote members"
"Does an Agile team need to be co-located?"
"Do agile team members need to be 100% allocated?"
"How do you manage multiple Agile teams (with the same backlog)?"

With the exception of the last one, these are all assuming the definition of a team as being a group of people representing the various involved skills and interests necessary to produce a solution against a shared backlog.

In essence, these are really all the same problem: how to synchronize the team members effectively. Not surprisingly, the first pain point that often comes up is around the Agile ceremony focused on team synchronization: the daily Stand-up or Scrum.

How does this look in the previously mentioned scenarios:

Small team: "We (I mean 'I') know what we are (ahem... 'I am') working on, so having a stand-up feels like a waste of time."
Sometimes a team can be small enough that it really does keep itself in synch almost naturally. So maybe you don't need to have a formal daily synchronization. This is however where the other important output of a daily stand-up might need special attention: updating information radiators. Just because the core team are all in alignment, make sure that you keep any other stake holders in the loop so that they can help or give guidance/direction where needed. Some sort of regular check point is also good to make sure that you have everyone's attention in case an impediment comes up that needs to be dealt with higher up.
Advanced Tip: try synchronizing not just on tasks, but on your common goals. A short daily re-dedication to team goals or values (perhaps those noted in a retrospective) can be very powerful even for small teams which are otherwise synchronized on the work being done.

Big Team: "We have so many people involved that our stand-ups take an hour and we never really feel that we have a common direction on the work. Also, because the team is so big not everyone shows up all the time"
First, ask yourself whether all these people are really needed for the work being done in the given Sprint. If not, can their needs/interests be met by less frequent special meetings to synchronize around their particular interests? Some teams get bogged down with extra BA's, Testers and even Scrum Masters and Developers who are really there to collect information for a tangential team. While communication and integration across teams is important, they are really more like additional Customers to your team and as such, should not be involved directly with the core teams synchronization. Once synching is completed, information they need can be more appropriately communicated in a separate meeting.
If everyone at your Stand-up is really part of the Sprint work, can the project backlog be carved up and the group split into two teams? This may take a little planning and grooming as well as coordination against the program/product backlog or release plan.
Agile can be done with large numbers of people. Team size however often tends to become less efficient beyond 6-8 developers plus the rest of the team. Usually this means 1-2 of each of the following: BA, QA/Tester, Scrum Master/Team Lead. The trick is to carve up the work and coordinate the effort such that value is still being regularly delivered. This is often done around value 'themes'. If team size starts to interfere with delivery of your commitment every sprint, think about splitting up the team.
Advanced Tip: Splitting up the backlog and team is simply an organizational abstraction. Given you have decided to split the backlog into two teams for efficiency, if you hit a sprint where it makes more sense to work as one team to deliver value go ahead and recombine for that Sprint.

Team with remote/non-co-located members: "It is hard to find a time to meet. Communicating with remotes loses much of the context so stand-ups become more of a status report. Not everyone shows up regularly. Not really sure what team members are working on. We feel like we are constantly fighting for synchronization, not just at stand-up."
I include non-co-located members in this category because one can feel like a remote if one is across the building, the street, or the city. The problems can be the same. When people work in close proximity to each other, there is a lot of high-bandwidth communication which goes on around discussions about tasks being done. Much of this can be lost by team members who are too far away to hear these conversations. This dis-synchronization seems to dilate with the difference in time zones. A team with members in the same time-zone +/-1 hour may be able to make up via various communication tools such as IM, Skype, Google Hangouts, Google Docs, and remote pairing techniques. Beyond that, the difference in time zones begins to add overhead to delivery. The benefit of the remote members has to be weighed against the cost to productivity on the Project as whole. One way to counter this friction is to gather remotes into teams which are closer in time zone (ideally co-located) to each other than the main team and carve off some of the backlog just for them, similar to dealing with a too Big Team. Similar also to the Small Team, regular and frequent updating of information radiators and publishing them so that remote members can see them is crucial. If it can be partially automated (such as build status, or even Sprint burn downs/ups) all the better. This is the type of team where having a digital Story/task board or at least duplicating the Story/task board digitally may be highly beneficial. Advanced Tips:  1) If you can afford to bring the remotes "to the mothership" at least for a sprint or two in the beginning, that can help solidify the team. Some teams bring the remotes "home" at regular intervals. 2) Remote pairing is a viable technique. If you have high bandwidth internet, you can pair using tmux or google docs (depending on what you are working on) while speaking over skype or IM. Particularly for paired programming, however, you should make sure that the remotes are good at pairing in person, so they know what to adjust to when pairing remotely. An excellent presentation on pairing done right can be watched here. Joe Moore also has lots of good tips on his remote pairing blog.

Team with partially allocated members: Similar to the Team with remote members with the added "Partially allocated members are going to A LOT of daily meetings."
Sure, it is nicer to have 100% allocated teams, however, team members do not need to be 100% allocated to an Agile project for it to work. They do need to be 100% dedicated to working on the Agile project for the percent of time they are allocated. If a team has a member who is allocated 50% to a project, for 20 hours of their 40 hr week, they should be working solely on helping the team meet its Sprint commitment. This is one of the reasons I do not like assigning tasks during planning but rather prefer to just place the stories in priority order and allow the team members to pick up tasks as they finish other ones. In the partial allocation scenario this avoids someone who finishes their task early, realizing their other tasks are blocked, and then just spending their time trying to get ahead on their other project. What should happen is they should be empowered to pick up something else in the Sprint backlog to help the team deliver the value it has promised.
Another guideline I have found is that allocation beyond two projects usually lowers productivity. The scheduling of time to synchronize with the team can actually become harder with too many allocations than it is with remote members. If they are allocated across 3+ other Agile projects, think about how much time they are in meetings rather than working for any of the projects' deliverables. Furthermore, the context switching demanded on them is a huge drag on their ability to engage meaningfully.
Due to the caveats and the hidden losses of productivity, this is why many teams just decide to have 100% allocation and avoid the potentially costly headaches.
Advanced Tip: If you have a program with many projects who share many of the same resources, consider consolidating those shared resources and carving the backlog such that they are only spread across one or two projects. With two projects, someone can work in the morning on one project, go to lunch and finish the day on the other project. This is much more manageable for all involved.

Multiple teams (or remote teams) with the same backlog: Similar to the Big Team with the added "We often feel we are stepping on each others toes. We find it hard to break up/hand-off/work on stories and deliver meaningful value." Add the complexities of the Team with remote members if one or more of the teams is remote.
The difficulty here seems to come from the fact that being too closely joined around a backlog, the teams are not independent enough to self-organize and drive value. Try to carve up the backlog into functional chunks. This may be almost a sub-backlog. If the teams are working this way, then also ask whether synchronization with both teams fully present is of real value or whether each team should synchronize internally and simply report out at a separate meeting regarding integration points. This can keep the team focused on the work it has in front of it, instead of the work the other team is doing which it really cannot impact anyhow. Having good testing between these teams can provide an excellent interface or bridge.  This can allow teams to develop independent of the deliverable of the other team. When the other team completes its portion the testing framework is already there to verify the final integration. You may want to up your compliment of testers to at least one per team with possibly an additional one to facilitate cross team testing. Updated information radiators are also key to helping each team stay on top of what the other is doing without being over intrusive.
Advanced Tip: One of the dangers of carving up a backlog and using multiple teams is a siloing effect. To combat this rotation of team focus can be a powerful tool. If teams are all local, they can implement this via rotation of members. This provides a gradual change that has less impact on each teams velocity. If one or more teams are remote, this can also be done, but you will likely wish to switch the whole teams focus. In this case, you can mitigate the drag of context change by setting up a temporary exchange program. Let us say Team A is working on widgets and Team B is working on sprockets. When they switch a member of Team A continues to work as a remote pair for Team B for a Sprint or two. In this way Team B can get some of the expertise of Team A's prior work on widgets. Similarly someone from Team B would remote pair with Team A for a sprint or two sharing knowledge about sprockets. Again, well written tests also can greatly facilitate this transfer of knowledge and responsibility.