Archive for the ‘Scrum’ Category

We’ve all bbigcompanyeen there. Someone describes a problem that they want solved (and possibly suggests how they think you should solve it) and in the very next breath asks: “So, how long will it take?”.

Invariably, we get talked into providing some kind of gut feel indication (days/weeks/months/quarters) based on nothing much besides (perhaps) experience. But how often in software do you actually do a rinse-and-repeat of something you’ve done before? In my 10 plus years in IT, never. Never ever.

Unfortunately, we don’t yet work in a world where most people are happy with “we’ll be done when we’re done” so a vague timeline is always needed: if only for coordinating training or the launch email and party. So where does one start?

First, there are some principles/facts-of-life that are important to bear in mind:
1. The cone of uncertainty
2. Some practical examples of the developer cone of uncertainty
3. A good analogy of why our estimates always suck, no matter what data we’ve used

In the beginning….

For me, the first time you can possibly try get a feel for how long your horizon might be, is after you’ve shared the problem with the team and they have had a chance to bandy around some options for solutions. At this point, assuming your team has worked together before, you can try do some planning poker at an Epic level. Pick a “big thing” that the team recently worked on, allocate it a number (3 usually works) and then have the group size “this big thing” relative to the one they have previously completed. I prefer to use a completely random number (like 3) rather than the actual story points delivered for this exercise because otherwise the team might get tied up debating the actual points and not the gut feel relative size.

Now, if you have a known velocity and also know the points delivered for the big thing we already built, you should be able to calculate an approximate size for the new piece and use your velocity to find a date range with variance (don’t forget about that cone!). For example:
– If we agreed our “Bake a cake” epic was a 3
– And then sized the “Bake a wedding cake” epic as a 5
– And “Bake a cake” was about 150 points to deliver
– Then “Bake a wedding cake” is probably about 3/5*150 = 225 points to deliver
– Which means you’re probably in for 225/velocity sprints (with 50% variance)

At the very least, this should help you pin-point which year and perhaps even quarter this thing is likely to be delivered. (Don’t make any promises though – remember the cone!)

When we know more….

Now, if you’re doing things properly, your team will groom the big epic and slowly start agreeing on small to medium stories and perhaps even slices. Ideally you’ll have a story map. At some point, you should have a list of stories (or themes or whatever) that more-or-less cover the full solution that the team intends to build. At this point, it is possible to do some Affinity Estimation, which will give you another estimate of the total size (in points) relatively quickly that you can sanity check with the help of velocity against your previous guesstimate. If you’re working with a new team and haven’t got a velocity yet, this is also the time when you can try ‘guess’ your velocity by placing a couple of stories into two-week buckets based on whether the team feels that they can finish them or not. This article explains this process in a bit more detail.

Keep checking yourself…

You will probably find that when you do Affinity Estimation that you will still have some biggish stories in the list, which is OK. Over time as these break down, it’s probably a good idea to repeat the exercise (unless you’re so great at grooming that your entire backlog has already been sized using Planning Poker). Until you have sized everything in detail to ready stories, Affinity Estimation is the quickest way to determine a total remaining backlog size that is reasonably useful. Over time, if you maintain your burn-up, you’ll be able to track your progress and re-adjust plans as you go along.

Did you find this post useful? Have you used these techniques before? What other techniques have you used to try build a view of your release roadmap?

chasm1I’m currently a member of a coaching circle and our topic last week was “Non co-located or distributed teams”. Then this week someone from our marketing department approached me. We’ve decided to bring our public website in-house and they need a new team, but history has shown us that finding new developers of the calibre we want is no easy feat. One option we haven’t explored to date is developers who work remotely (which would mean we could look farther afield) and he wanted to know what my opinions were. I offered to compile some information for him, including some of the conclusions from my coaching circle discussion, and then figured it was worth adding it to my blog too.

I have worked in distributed teams before – from formal project teams with developers on-site in Cape Town working with off-site analysts, testers and project managers in London; to informal ‘leadership’ teams across offices over three locations and two countries; to performance managing direct reports working in an office 2000 km away. The common point of success or failure every time? The people on the team. The next biggest point of frustration every time? The type and quality of communication tools available.


There is a lot of literature out there around the types of behaviours you want in agile team members and, obviously, each company also has its own set of values and culture it looks for in new hires. This list is a list of traits that stood out for me as things that made someone great to collaborate with when working in a distributed fashion. All too often, people without these traits made distributed collaboration quite difficult and sometimes impossible!

  • Emotional maturity – able to communicate without getting emotional about things; can handle openness.
  • Strong team norms – when the team agrees to try something or work in a particular way, this person will take accountability for whatever they have to do even if it wasn’t their preferred way of doing things
  • Effective communication – verbal and written. Can write and read well. Can get their point across and summarise well.
  • Takes responsibility for preparation – if things are distributed beforehand for people to read or prepare, then this work is done. Doesn’t walk into meetings “blind”.
  • Knows how to use tools and knows about conference call etiquette (this could be covered as training for the whole team).
  • Is proactive in staying ‘in the loop’ – will ask questions if they see something that they don’t know about (defaults to information gathering rather than assuming if it was important enough someone would let them know).
  • A T-shaped person – or at least someone who is prepared to do tasks that are not ‘part of their job description’


Other Success Factors

This list was compiled by my coaching circle:

  1. Face-to-face is necessary for initial trust building and to create coherence. Where possible, having everyone co-located for a period at the start of the project makes a huge difference. Also gets people used to the way others work without the ‘noise’ of not being co-located.
  2. Would be helpful to find ways to have online virtual interaction (outside of work) e.g. online games/ice breakers/other experiences.
  3. Face-to-face tools are a must.
  4. After an extended period, it helps to have team members ‘rotate’ as traveling ambassadors.
  5. Need to understand cultural differences. Probably worth having a facilitated session to highlight/understand these.
  6. If you have teams working in areas, then have an on-site SM/coach per team.
  7. Keep teams small.
  8. Try pair/collaborate with an offsite person as often as possible.
  9. If you have teams in different locations, have a dedicated facilitator in each location for meetings (like planning, review).



What has your experience been with working in or with distributed teams? What did and did not work for you?

These are some tweets I made while reading “User Story Mapping” by Jeff Patton.

It’s a great read that I highly recommend!


How inspirational!







I like this because it can be applied regardless of the type of product you’re delivering or product life-cycle stage you are in.




If you have the book, I’m referring to the picture on page 71





A.k.a. an organisational profile




Grooming ideas



Grooming to envision a product that is valuable, usable and possible to build.












Grooming to plan your development strategy. Intention is building what you need to learn the most, first.


Grooming to plan your next development cycle (sprint).


StoriesThis photo is the list of actions/changes/learnings one of my teams came up with in their most recent retrospective. This did not come from someone who went on training or read an article. It also didn’t come from a new Agile coach or Scrum Master. It came from them missing their sprint commitment and goal. This team only managed (on paper) to complete 8 out of 18 points; but they all knew they had delivered and learned a lot more than that measure reflected.  Here are some things that they decided to do going forward:

1. If the team cannot reach consensus about the size of a story, then split it into two stories and size the smaller stories

One of the main reasons the team had such a poor burn-down is that they took in one quite large story which did not quite meet the INVEST requirements. For one, it was a ‘common component’ that was to be used in most of the later stories (so not independent). It also was not small enough – and turned out to be even bigger than the team had thought. During sizing, there had been some debate about its size and eventually reluctant consensus was to make it the smaller size. Turns out the less optimistic team members were right. This was one of the stories that was not done at the end of the sprint.

2. Keep Planning II – and use it to verify the sprint commitment

This is a team that often decides to skip Planning II (I don’t like it, but ultimately it is the team’s decision and so far we’ve muddled along without it). For this sprint, they decided that they did need a session to unpack the stories and how they would be implemented. Everyone agreed that without Planning II we would have been even worse off. They also realised that at the end of Planning II, there were already some red flags that the big story was bigger than everyone had thought and they could have flagged,  at that point, that the commitment for the sprint was optimistic. The team agreed that, in future, if going into the detail during Planning II revealed some mistaken assumptions, then the team would review the sprint commitment with the Product Owner before kicking off the sprint.

3. Feel free to review story-splits in-sprint

Early in the sprint, the team were already aware that the big story was very big and probably could be split into smaller components. Their assumption was that this wasn’t possible once the sprint had started. For me, re-visiting a story split mid-sprint or once you start the work is not a bad thing: sometimes you don’t know everything up-front. It also, in the case where a story is bigger than expected, gives the Product Owner some more wiggle room (negotiation part of INVEST) to drop/keep parts of the story to successfully meet the sprint goal. Of course, where we have got things really wrong, then sometimes the sprint goal cannot be rescued and the sprint would be cancelled.

4. Raise issues as they happen

Pretty much summarises most of the above points. One of the agile principles is responding to change over following a plan, so when change happens make it visible and decide how to adjust the plan at that point. There’s no point in battling on as planned when you know that the planned path is doomed to fail.

Some references:

Focus On / Focus OffRecently another team, that had recently read an article around team dysfunctions and appreciation exercises and wanted to explore the health of their team, particularly their trust levels, more closely, asked me to facilitate a retrospective for them. Facilitating a team you don’t know or regularly observe is usually a challenge, but it was one that I was up for, and thankfully the team member who arranged the session had a good idea of the feel/discussions he was hoping for as an outcome.

I started the session with the Focus On / Focus Off exercise. As English was not everyone’s first language, I prepared cards with synonyms for each of the word pairs. I had the team discuss each word pair and what they understood the differences to be together, and then gave them the synonyms to arrange under the correct ‘word’ in the pair. After we had been through the exercise for each word pair, I asked the team whether they were willing to commit to continuing the session with the correct focus (and, thankfully, they said yes!).

From there we moved to a simple Sad/Mad/Glad exercise with a strong focus on the team and its interactions. I’d found out before that the team members were more introverted, so I opted for silent brainstorming separately before each team member shared their feedback. The first two parts of the session actually went by more quickly than I’d planned, so I took the opportunity to then allow the group to move their Sads and Mads into physical circles of control, influence and soup. While they were doing this at the whiteboard, they automatically moved into a space of discussing what actions they wanted to take for the issues within their control. It was nice to see them being so pro-active about taking control.

We finished the one-hour session with a Temperature Reading. As this session was more about sharing and uncovering information rather than actions, I wanted to leave the team with some items for them to possibly work on or think about more deeply in their next sprints. The temperature reading also includes an appreciations section, which I have found really energises teams and helps end the session on a positive and optimistic note.

Feedback is that the guys really enjoyed the session and would be keen to have me back to facilitate another. Hopefully this one wasn’t a fluke! 🙂 Have you ever had to do a once-off session with a team you don’t work with? What tools or activities did you find generated the most valuable outcomes for the session?


Story Oscars

Posted: September 30, 2014 in Scrum
Tags: , , ,

We recently used the Story Oscars game from Retr-O-Mat in a retrospective to gather data. It’s a fairly simple tool but the team seemed to really enjoy it! We even applauded the eventual winners. The third category (selected by my team) was “Best Horror”. We also discussed the stories as they were nominated, rather than waiting until the end and only discussing the winners.



Scrum happens in a Retrospective

Posted: September 18, 2014 in Scrum
Tags: ,

agile-manifestI recently did a De Bono exercise on retrospectives. First, because I needed to practice; second, because Retrospectives and keeping teams engaged is currently an ongoing challenge for me. I won’t bore you with the detail, but one of the ideas that popped up was “Scrum happens in the Retrospective”. At face value, that may seem a silly statement or idea. But the more I mulled it over, the more I could see how that idea was more true than false.

First, let’s consider the Scrum process/ceremonies. You have planning (decide on the what and the how), a review (to evaluate what has happened, progress, and the future of the product/project), and a retrospective (how can we do it better). This ties in pretty neatly with a retrospective: set the stage (review), gather data (review), generate insights (planning), decide what to do (planning), close (retrospective).

Second, the team. Scrum requires a cross-functional team. A good retrospective needs a cross-functional team too. You need thinkers. You need do-ers. You need facilitators. You need scribes. You need those more comfortable with facts and stats. You need those more comfortable with people and relationships.

Finally, the values. Retrospectives value:
– Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
– Working teams over comprehensive documentation
– Collaboration over job descriptions
– Responding to change (learning) over following a plan

What other parallels can you draw?