You know how it is when you don’t know how to do something…
But if you’re anything like me, more often than not
you’re left non-the-wiser.
What’s good information and what isn’t?
And how long are you willing to spend trying to work that out?
It’s happened to me with Agile.
Don’t know about you, but I’ve been bothered by
this Agile business for some time.
I never know what it means.
But I do know that I’d really like to be more agile.
I thought you might too.
So I did the smarter thing.
I found someone who can help.
Today I am delighted to again bring you Tales of the Leadership Field…it’s where I feature brilliant leaders out there in the field.
I don’t mean the ones we all know about from mainstream media.
I mean us more ordinary folk.
The hidden leaders, quietly doing their excellent work.
Today’s tale is:
Suzanne Nottage and Agile in Action.
Suzanne Nottage is an IT Consultant by day (and sometimes night) and usually attached to goggles, a bike or running shoes in the great outdoors at the weekends.
She provides Lean/Agile consultancy to large organisations, basically acting as a personal trainer (at scale) to make them more effective and their people happier.
Suzanne just happens to be the fittest person I know. She’s into extreme sports although she’s a little shy about that – you wouldn’t know from reading her bio. She’s physically lean and agile too!
To capture her tale, I asked Suzanne to help us understand what Agile is and how we can apply it in our daily lives. Here are her answers.
What Agile Is
In short, it’s nothing new. It’s ring-fencing a collection of principles and practices that allow people and organisations to perform better.
Principles like doing the simplest thing that works, checking that work is valuable to the customer, stopping stuff that’s not valuable, working in short cycles, getting frequent feedback, working in cross-functional and self-organising teams, prioritising work so the highest value stuff is delivered earliest, and collaborating face-to-face and in real time, where practical.
Lean is about delivering what’s valuable to the customer effectively and efficiently; in particular, minimising nonvalue-adding “waste.” I describe these as a mindset, rather than a methodology.
My parents say it’s just plain old common sense.
Agile in Action
“I’m so busy at the moment; it’s manic” is probably one of the most common themes I hear from people. And one of our flaws as humans is we’re better at starting stuff (new, fun!) than finishing things (bo-ring!). Which gives us a potent combination of ingredients for high stress and feeling overwhelmed.
So, is there a magic pill to fix all this in the blink of an eye? Nope, but there’s a few quick and easy things you can start doing now to help. And, they don’t rely on anything more complicated than paper and pencil.
Let’s start with a simple metaphor.
When you hear that the roads are busy just before your morning commute, what are your thoughts? Probably that sinking feeling that your trip may take longer, your arrival time is less predictable and it may have a knock-on effect to the rest of your day.
So, there are two choices: plow ahead and accept the above, or decide to put off your trip and avoid the mayhem until it’s calmed down (or cancel the journey altogether).
What do jammed roads have in common with the busyness in our work or personal lives?
Well, it’s the same, except often the latter is invisible, and that’s a key difference.
When I asked a friend recently how much “stuff” she was working on she paused and replied frankly: “I don’t know. I have no idea. I just know it’s too much.”
What she did know was that she and her team were demoralized because it felt like the harder they worked, the less they got finished, despite best intentions.
So, I gave her a pack of Post-It notes and over the next week, every time she picked up some in-flight work, she scribbled what it was on the sticky note and stuck it on a wall (the rest of her team started doing this as well).
How many things did the team have in-flight? 20? 30? 40? Keep going…53. Six people (including part-timers) keeping 53 moving parts on the go.
That’s a lot of plates to spin at once.
Just visualizing it all was a relief for Hannah and her team (see picture). Now they had proof in front of their very eyes and could quantify the size of their “problem.”
I then asked her to take one more step and relatively estimate the size of each sticky note (work item), i.e. how “big” is it in terms of getting it finished.
Find the smallest (quickest / easiest) thing to do and give that a “t-shirt size” of “XS.” Identify any other similarly-sized sticky notes and write XS on those, too.
Then go through the remaining sticky notes and assign them one of the following t-shirt sizes: S, M, L, XL. Being “roughly right” is fine; you can always re-estimate later*.
Now the team could see which “XS” work they could initially focus on finishing (and have a rough idea of how much work in total was on the go). And, they agreed to try to “finish two things before starting one new thing” until their work-in-progress reduced from 53 to a more manageable number**.
So, did it work?
Hannah messaged me about a month later. “My team is happier,” she wrote. And, they were breaking down the “XLs” into smaller, more manageable “chunks”, which were easier to finish – bite-sized pieces, if you like.
Taking this back to our traffic metaphor: they have visibility of how many “vehicles” are on the road, they’re trying to control how much “traffic” is moving at once, and that the “cars” are roughly the same size (give or take).
Was it a magic pill? Nope, but it was a positive step in the right direction for the whole team. And it tasted better than the previous bitter pills of stress and anxiety.
*Geek alert: We actually used numbers (called story points) and in Agile/Lean this approach to estimating is often called planning poker or affinity estimating, but for simplicity I’ve changed this to t-shirt sizing, which is a commonly used and similar approach, and simpler to explain. (T-shirt sizes are just harder to add up!)
**Ideally, I encourage people to have fewer than 3 things on the go at once. However, the actual number is less important than the principle of trying to reduce work-in-progress (WIP) to the smallest do-able number (because having high WIP slows stuff down, like really slows it down), so your mileage may vary, and that’s fine.
Thank you, Suzanne for helping us all understand how to be more agile at work.
Not too geeky! As your parents say, it’s plain old common sense…with some Post-It notes thrown in, so we can “see” the problem too.
On behalf of all the readers and myself, I’d like to thank you for your generous contribution!