Category Archives: Ask an Agile Coach

Ask an Agile Coach: What is an Agile Coach?

This installment of the Ask an Agile Coach series is a question normally asked by persons outside my field, but lately I have been asking it myself:

What is an Agile Coach?

Good question. I am not sure anymore.

The more I encounter others who call themselves Agile Coaches, the more I think I may not be up-to-date on what that is supposed to mean.

As I have historically interpreted it, an Agile Coach is someone who first actually established a proven track record of successfully leading a series of Agile adoptions as part of the actual teams. The insight, perspective, and expertise gained through that effort are what enable them to coach others. Multiple Agile teams in varied settings challenges what a person “knows to be true” and (hopefully) beats some humility into and the dogma out of them.

I have been under the impression that an Agile Coach also understands software development and the technical practices that support an Agile team. One must understand why testing, automation, code review, and pair programming exist. One must know what it feels like to work both with and without these things, know why professionals should adopt these practices, as well as when one or more of them are not a fit for the culture. It must be very strange to have management bring in a coach who tells you to do these things but cannot show you how.

I also thought that coaches should understand how to apply an Agile process in a way that stresses cross-functional participation. If what a coach is doing isn’t helping the company to function more effectively as a whole, I fail to see the point. Agile Software Development is neither a defense mechanism for engineers nor a tool for more effective exploitation by management.

It feels weird to have to point this out, but I believe a coach should understand Agile estimation and planning techniques, especially the ones laid out in Mike Cohn‘s books. Estimating and planning are among the most painful parts of software development, and one of the most fulfilling parts of coaching for me has been mentoring groups in Agile estimating and planning.

I also think an Agile Coach is someone who can say no. Agile Software Development is a challenge at best, and a cultural nuke at worst. There are places where the introduction of Agile process and practices would wreak havoc. I suppose the toughest part of this is that it requires a willingness to turn down paying work.

I am seeing things these days that make me think my idea of what an Agile Coach is might be incorrect. If it is, I might need to stop using that word. It doesn’t mean what I think it means.

Ask an Agile Coach: What Team Members can be shared across multiple Scrum teams?

Welcome to another installment of Ask an Agile Coach. Today’s question centers around how to structure teams in light of constrained skill sets in an organization:

What technical roles, other than QA, can be successfully shared across scrum teams? DBA, UX, etc.? – @jakejgordon

Strive to have people in dedicated teams; only share in order to get work from concept to customer.

Any software application of substance requires a collection of specialized skills. A healthy, cross-functional team will have a pool of diverse talent: programming (in at least one language, but often more), testing (QA), database administrators (DBA), business intelligence (BI), user experience (UX), operations/infrastructure (OPS/INFRA), and others. However, some of these skills are not used enough to occupy a single person’s work from week to week on a single team, so persons with those skills are allocated across multiple teams.

Recall that, with Scrum (and other Agile processes as well, though Scrum is most explicit about it), the process is designed to provide empirical process control in software development. The reliability of velocity as a measure of throughput depends upon the stability of the team. Therefore, an organization should try to structure its teams to consist of people dedicated to the workloads they serve. When team members are allocated across multiple teams, their available hours for each team can vary from sprint to sprint. Since these people are usually specialists like BI or UX, this variation is happening with the most constrained set of hours available for Sprint Planning. Any user story in a sprint that requires these hours is at risk of carryover if the team planned against hours that turned out to be unavailable.

The undesirable result of this variation is an unstable velocity and increased carryover of user stories in sprints. This in turn erodes the reliability of planning and estimation activities. The team shows itself to be unreliable and unable to deliver on commitments, eroding confidence and trust with stakeholders and management.

The primary risk with sharing team members is that Scrum Masters and management often do a poor job of accounting for how those peoples’ time is allocated and managed, which inflames the symptoms described above. Bear the following points in mind when sharing team members:

Include all your cross-functional team members in user story writing, estimation, and Sprint Planning sessions. User stories that account for all the effort needed to go from concept to customer are more reliable and not as prone to surprises during delivery in a sprint. Prefer the bad news of resource constraints over the surprise of planning against naive user stories.

Avoid sharing a team member across more than two teams. Once a person has to divide his or her effort across three or more teams, estimates and available hours become unreliable. Furthermore, the more teams a person has to participate in, the more their time is wasted in switching their mind between contexts. They also end up in recurring events like Sprint Planning, Sprint Reviews, Backlog Grooming, and Retrospectives for each team, leaving a meager number of hours to do actual work. If a person has to be shared across more than two teams, that is a sign that another person with those skills needs to be hired.

Use the valuable information from Sprint Planning and tracking to inform the budgeting and hiring process. Is QA/BI/UX constantly a shortage in Sprint Planning? That is the gentle, loving tap of the clue bat on the collective skull of management to stop hiring more software developers and allocate the salary budget in a manner more appropriate to the actual work being done by the group. Hidden costs of effort are being uncovered as a result of properly applying the transparent, reliable process that is Scrum, and that is a good thing.

Barry Hawkins of All Things Computed provides coaching and mentoring in how to successfully apply the process and technical disciplines of Agile Software Development.

Ask an Agile Coach: Should I count partially complete user stories in my velocity?

Hello readers, apologies for the lack of posts lately; lots of work at hand. Today’s Ask an Agile Coach question comes from a comment on the last installment, which is rephrased here. In one form or another, I have gotten this question for years now:

Should I count partially complete user stories in my velocity? For example, if I have a 100-point story that’s almost done, should I add 80 points to my delivered points total for this sprint?

The answer is no, you should not.

Remember that Scrum was designed to enable empirical process control for software development. The team is committing to work in fixed intervals, with the intent being that a team becomes quite proficient at knowing how much work they can move from concept to customer within that fixed interval. To that end, the points that go into velocity are points delivered. Delivered points come from stories that are completed. When stories are incomplete, they are carried over, and velocity is lower than expected for the Sprint. Hopefully, these points plus the additional work pulled in will cause the next Sprint to have a higher number of delivered points and the two values will level one another out.

If a team or Scrum Master insists on counting part of a story’s points in velocity, they are masking a symptom and thus choosing to ignore the underlying causes. This short-circuits the process and the valuable feedback it provides.

If a team finds itself with carryover continually affecting velocity in a negative manner, it is usually an indication that the team needs to improve their ability to plan and commit to work within a Sprint.

One area to target is honing the ability to break work down into thinner vertical slices of user-oriented functionality. If stories are perpetually 50-80% done at the end of a Sprint, revisit the team’s approach to user story writing and trying to carve smaller functional slices (but not so small that you violate the INVEST heuristic from Bill Wake; an alarming number of practitioners have fallen into hyper-granularity in their stories).

Another area to address is the cross-functional team’s (and your Scrum team is cross-functional, right?) understanding of what it takes to go from concept to customer. If stories seem to invariably look smaller or the team seems to perpetually overcommit, it may be that some of the more vocal team members are expressing estimates that reflect a myopic focus on simply the writing of code instead of all the tasks involved in completing a given story. Encourage the other cross-functional members to speak up in User Story writing, Sprint Planning, and Backlog Grooming about what they need to do to complete the stories in question. This has always resulted in more accurate story sizes for me over the years.

Barry Hawkins of All Things Computed provides coaching and mentoring in how to successfully apply the process and technical disciplines of Agile Software Development.

Ask an Agile Coach: How do I handle the effect of carryover on velocity?

Our previous installment of Ask an Agile Coach had a new question in the comments:

As for the case when some of the user stories didn’t get completed, what happens to the user stories which were partially completed–say, 80% finished–but didn’t quite make it? How do you keep your velocity metric from getting hosed?

Practitioners have asked me variations of these questions many times over the years. I’ll paraphrase them into a single question:

How do I handle the effect of carryover on velocity?

When we gather data about something, there’s an innate temptation to filter the data to effect a desired outcome. It is often subtle; sometimes we don’t even realize we are doing it. This is a form of sampling bias, a term from the field of statistics. I love this sentence from the Wikipedia article on sampling bias:

A biased sample causes problems because any statistic computed from that sample has the potential to be consistently erroneous.

You handle carryover by letting it accurately affect velocity, whether that effect is positive or negative.

The purpose of tracking velocity is to provide feedback on how well a team can estimate, break down, and execute work within a fixed interval. Carryover implies a need to improve in one or more of these areas. When a team has a drop in velocity, be sure to talk about it in the retrospective. Are stories too big and bulky? Do tasks sit for days on the board waiting for the next handoff? It the team consistently over-committing during Sprint Planning, hoping for unrealistic throughput?

Allowing a skewed velocity sets a team up for disappointing its stakeholders. If velocity looks higher than reality (inflated velocity is far more common than deflated velocity), stakeholders are going to have expectations that cannot be met. Embrace the bad news, and use it to reinforce the message that our only hope is to get better at working together as people.

 

Barry Hawkins of All Things Computed provides coaching and mentoring in how to successfully apply the process and technical disciplines of Agile Software Development.

Ask an Agile Coach: What do I do with a sprint that ends with only incomplete stories?

Today’s Ask an Agile Coach submission comes from Jake Gordon via Twitter:

Anyone (@barryhawkins)  have any good articles on reaching the end of an iteration with only partially completed user stories? #agile

What do you do with a sprint that ends with only incomplete stories?

When a sprint ends and every story is incomplete, it is typically a symptom of one or more of the following underlying causes:

  • The stories were all larger than the team had estimated due to lack of cross-functional participation in the story writing and estimation process.
  • Team members kept switching between stories instead of focusing on single ones, completing them, then moving on to the next in priority. Minimize work in process (WIP).
  • Core parts of the process are being left out, such as a highly-visible task board, a burndown chart, effective daily stand-up meetings, etc.; as a result, feedback and handoffs are unnecessarily delayed.
  • The team is working on a platform or problem domain that is new, and its estimations are commensurately less accurate, leading to over-commitment.

When a sprint like this happens, effective retrospectives are essential. Ensure that all parts of the process have transparency. Visibility into how work flows from concept to customer is necessary for inspection. Use the insights gained from inspection to guide an incremental, sustainable rate of adaptation. Strive to eliminate waste and improve communication.

A single sprint where nothing gets completed is a warning sign that should not be ignored. Multiple sprints where nothing gets completed calls for a full-blown intervention. If you can’t get out of that rut on your own, seek external assistance.

 

Barry Hawkins of All Things Computed provides coaching and mentoring in how to successfully apply the process and technical disciplines of Agile Software Development.

Ask an Agile Coach

I never have a shortage of people with questions about applying Agile in the myriad possible scenarios of software development for business. This ongoing series focuses on answers to those questions.

If you would like your question to be anonymous, please let me know when submitting. I’d recommend email or a Twitter DM since you kind of let everyone know it’s your question if you use the other methods of contact. :-)

Have a question? Submit it via Twitter, LinkedInFacebook, or email to blog at barryhawkins dot com. I look forward to answering them here!