Saturday, 13 September 2014

You're Agile ... really?!

One really easy way to determine if you are doing Agile or not is to ask if part way through the project, the company could release what you've done so far and start making money from it. Not whether the business will; whether it could.

And as those who know me personally have heard me say many times, ... There is a big difference between big-A Agile and little-a agile. You can be 'agile' without being Agile, but you can't be Agile without being agile.

That for me is what is at the heart of a lot overly complicated answers I see on the web. As apparently said by Albert Einstein, "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough." And based on what I've read about Al in the past, 'simple' refers to how complicated something is, not how complex it is, and being able to describe something so everyone can understand it at some depth.

If you want to be truly, over the top successful in business these days you need to understand and build towards the MVPs (minimally viable products) from your customers' perspectives; not yours. Customers' needs change over time so adaptability built into your development practices whether you're creating software or anything else. That said ... remembering all the while that your customers may not know what exactly it is that they want. That's why you're here. (see / Google Henry Ford and Steve Jobs quotes)

Want change because your company doesn't do that well? Adopt new habits and eliminate old routines. Meaning that if all you do is slap agile labels on the way you've always done things, or worse, apply the parts of Agile that align to how you currently think and ignore the rest you might as well be teaching a pig to sing. As the idiom goes "it's a waste of time and all it does is annoy the pig". 

That's my rant for today ... maybe I'll have the where-with-all to read some more 'Agile' (or is that 'agile') spam in my inbox after I take the dogs for a walk. :-) 

Friday, 18 July 2014

This post is is inspired by  and his LinkedIn discussion in the Program Management Academy group.

Some of the practices that have worked best for me are:

1)  Educate people early to appreciate (if not understand) that a big project and a program are two different things. There should be at least some delta in the benefits metrics you're measuring because of that. 

2)  Do it, whatever it is, only if the benefit can be described in tangible, non-political terms. If "because it sounds good (ego)" is the only reason to do it, it probably should not be done.

3)  Recognize the mole hills that will become mountains and deal with (perhaps even laud) them as successful learning opportunities.

4)  Appreciate the current speed at which you are traveling. There is an optimal point between managing to the "dumbest common denominator" and the soldier's creed of 'leave no man behind'. It's important to regularly assess whether it is still optimal.

These four things won't guarantee success but ignoring them will almost certainly refute the opportunity to achieve it. I (like many a reader here I'm sure) have seen way too many really good strategic initiatives become question-marks and dogs from stars and cash cows by sponsors and other clouted stakeholders who make it about personal egos rather than corporate benefits. 

Sunday, 6 July 2014

How safe really is SAFe?

I've been hearing a lot more about the SAFe framework these days. A lot it sounds like business people (excluding actual Agilists) who have yet to learn the lesson of the trojan horse -- the original one from that war a few millennia ago. Either that or at least believe that it applies to them.

SAFe can work but only if one remembers two things.
  1. what the Agile Manifesto says -- the first line in particular, and
  2. it's always about People --> Process --> Tech/Tools ... in that order.And as I spoke about at the Ignite Waterloo 14 event, people need to remember that to achieve successful results that order never changes.

Want further evidence to this? See . . . 

As KenSchwaber wrote on his blog "we cannot buy our way to a better future", it takes hard work. Sadly, as even I have seen all too often, there are way to many armchair quarterbacks out there who think reading a book, a few articles, and attending a 2 or 3 day course will make them experts. The rescue project management contracting I did for a few years about a decade ago proved that is not the case.

Another author posted "While SAFe is about alignment, transparency, program execution and (code) quality it’s about how YOU are going to implement the ideas, principles and practices in YOUR environment. In the end it’s the implementation that matters: It’s you, your colleagues, your shared goals/values and the business value you produce."

Ron Jefferies wrote "SAFe wraps those ideas in a package ... to appeal to today’s managers and executives who do not understand Agile, but who know they have a problem to which Agile may be the solution."

The short answer is that SAFe can be a safe and effective tool if the tool is used to supplement the concepts of an Agile approach and have them applied by true professionals who truly understand and appreciate the concepts behind being big-A "Agile". 

A little over a century ago practically anyone could call themselves an engineer. It took the failing of several bridges and one in particular that caused a huge loss of lives for business people, governments, and society at large to appreciate the gravity of the errors in that belief system. True professional engineers wear an iron ring to remind themselves of that. Hopefully one day in the not too distant future business people, governments, and society at large will stop wasting billions of dollars and tens of thousands of hours of people's lives on an annual basis, and they will also appreciate what true professionalism is as it applies to project, program, and portfolio management. 

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

The Agile Vacation

My 5 min talk on why Agile can be used for anything is now posted  -- not bad for first time in front of 300+ people if I do say so myself. :-) 

See all the slides on-line at 

Sunday, 25 May 2014

When you Hire Smarter do you Really?

An article -- -- I was reading on the 'Entrepreneur' web site read a great quote, "The best investment you can make is to hire people you can trust to take things off your plate." That is so true, and especially with experience as a people manger, it amazes me the attitude of some people.

The reason companies hire is because there is already have too much work for the person doing the hiring with existing resources. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone but surprisingly all too often it is. The following examples are some of the surprises I’ve heard or overheard in the last 30+ years. And yes, in the examples I overheard, I did appropriately challenge the speaker. I can’t guarantee that it helped; just that it happened.

Employees (prospective or otherwise):

“You're here to help me be successful.” No, it's actually the other way around. You’re here to help everyone be successful do doing to the best of your ability the role you were hired to perform. As a direct report to someone, your manager will in turn help you help them be successful by using the skills you espoused as within your possession during the interview process. You must sow before you can reap anything. BTW, everyone in a company of two or more people is a direct report to someone else; even if you’re the President and CEO.

“I lied to you because I didn't think I could trust you, and when I was fired that proved I was right.” No, you were fired because you lied to my face and proved I couldn't trust you.

“I'll work with you but I won't work for you.” No, if you're a new hire with relatively few years of post college work experience and someone is going to take a chance at giving you a job, damn right you're going to work for them. A smart business is not an autocracy but it ain't no f@#king democracy either.


“I gave you the job; now you're on your own.” No, if you're going to be a people manager, manage your people. You don't want to do that? Okay, maybe it's you that's in the wrong position.

“I was here first, I know better.” No, because if you're the smartest person in the room about everything that needs to be done then you're hiring idiots .... or maybe it's somebody else that's the idiot.

“I expect people to leave their outside lives at the door, and behave in a professional manner while in the office.” Professional (aka 'ethical')? Certainly. Leave their lives at the door?! Really?! You do know you're actually hiring people not robots; right? Sure, to the best of a person's ability they should manage their emotions rather than the other way around. Empathy is a critical factor in leading and managing ... bear with me here ... P E O P L E.

All these people and many others haven’t a clue when the term “servant leadership” is used. It does not mean the leader becomes the servant. It means the leader provides a service in their role as a leader to create something bigger than themselves. And from yet another article “Learning from and acknowledging mistakes requires the humility that Level 5 Leaders display. Level 5 Leadership, according to Jim Collins (no relation), is what separates exceptional leaders from all others.”

Knowing all of this perhaps I was then somewhat overly surprised when I read another article -- This article labels flexibility and drive as personality (78%), cultural alignment (53%), and then skills (39%) as the areas for job opportunities in the future. This actually scares, yes 'scares', me.

Yet from reading this article I further appreciate what I've been hearing some senior economists say over the last year - "there will never again be a company that lasts for over 100 years". I hope the article is a misinterpretation of the study. If charisma and group think are valued more that skill and respecting each others' individual differences then the probability is a whole lot smaller towards ever creating in the future innovations like the iPhone, object oriented programming, or a flexible process that will leave Agile in the dust the way Agile has waterfall.

I listened to a Sr. VP at Google tell a crowd of wannabe employees about a year ago that he didn't care if somebody was the best programmer in the world if they didn't have the skills to get along with those they needed to work with. There is a lot more damage that one developer can create that would more than offset them writing code day in and out. And everyone deserves to feel good about going into work every day they go.

Okay, not everyone, not those who have the perspective that it's all about them and anyone else left can have whatever scraps are left-over.

Not those to manage to what I call the "dumbest common denominator". The perversion of the 'no kid left behind' strategy in the 70s and 80s created class agendas where mediocrity flourished. This was 'easier' than empowering the best and the brightest to go as far as they could, to leverage their own innate talents to go beyond on their own, and use that extra bandwidth available to the teacher to help the stragglers get over the hump. This is the premise of apprenticeships that have worked the world over for hundreds of years. This also opposes the short-sighted mediocrity of unpaid internships. Now of course anyone who can afford to do this may actually be the most qualified for the role, however, those who cannot are never even given the opportunity for those people or companies to ever find out. And as my statistics professor said, “you can’t prove a negative.”

I still have some hope that some of today’s leaders and those into the future are seeking principles over popularity (personality) but if this second article is correct that is not the case. And if that is truly indeed the case, all I have to say is "may god help us all". History has given us examples with companies like Nortel, Enron, MCI Worldcom, NCR, and many too numerous to mention that when popularity and charisma become paramount the company doesn’t last long. Certainly each of those companies thought they were making the best decisions when they started hiring charismatic individuals over those with more valuable ‘skills’. No one intentionally makes business decisions to proverbially slit their own economic throats, but when they do make decisions that do just that then everyone suffers from stockholders to the least skilled laborer to some degree.

So this is where we come back full circle to where I started this post. Hopefully you are hiring smart rather than mediocrity. Hopefully they can do things you can’t or better than you. And if not that, hopefully you are hiring apprentices who are willing and able to learn.

What does this all have to do with project and program management? Well, the same as any other management role; to get things done through other people. Hopefully, most of those people are smarter than you in what they were hired to do. And hopefully they equally recognize that you are smarter than them in what you do as well.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Status reports versus Progress updates

The difference between a status report and a progress update.

As much as the uninformed would have some people believe, no it's not semantics.

For example, a team member has a series of tasks to complete a user story; a requirement. Let's say those tasks are to load and stage the latest development build, and then execute a series of tests to determine if what is new in that build 1) does the functionality that was added, 2) has not broken anything that used to work, and 3) does all of that with the same or better system throughput performance. Let's also say that the original estimate for that work is three-and-a-half days. Further, let's say that equates to 7 story points.

A status report is "I've got the build and I'm continuing to stage the software." A status report or update is focused on the past up to that point in time. And until somebody invents a time machine where people can go back in time to to change things, this is a waste of people's time; including the person giving the update.

A progress update is "I've got the build, I started to stage the build this morning, and I ran into one small problem, so I spoke with Julio and he was able to help me out right away. He discovered there was an error in a default setting for our test environment. So all things considered, I believe the work will still be finished as planned on Friday." A progress update or report is future focused. It focuses on where things are headed and gives people a proactive opportunity to avoid risks while that work is ongoing or for the next time such a set of similar tasks is being performed.

In the status report, there is no way to know whether the work is on, ahead, or behind schedule, or worse, completely roadblocked. It does not support clear visibility into the progress of the work being done. No one knows to offer help if the tester is roadblocked, and for all anyone knows what is occuring with these series of tasks could be the first indication that the project could be completely riding off the rails.

I've heard some people say "well, that's the project manager's job to ask questions to clarify that." And for me, that is completely and utterly obtuse for two reasons.

One, if the project manager has enough time to remember to stay that on top of every task then either the project isn't very complex or the project manager is being under-utilized. Either way the company is wasting money.

The second reason is that I suspect in a lot of situations those same team members would probably next be screaming about being micromanaged if that was happening. And if they aren't, hopefully the project manager is thinking something like "my god, what am I doing here?! Isn't there something better I could be doing with my life?!" In short, the project and the organization in actuality are circling the drain.

In summary, a progress update creates value-added visibility with opportunities to create even more value beyond that specific point in time. A status update takes people away from the value-add they are doing in their individual jobs so they can hear each other ramble on for probably longer than necessary, add just another layer of distraction that further reduces their value and productivity in each of their roles, and creates unnecessary overhead.

Think I'm wrong? Listen to the updates from yourself and other team members in your next scrum session, stand-up meeting, or whatever you want to call it.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Paying back ... or at least forward

"Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I may remember. Involve me and I learn (or I will understand)." 

For me, this is a great quote, that I believe has been around in various forms since the days of ancient China.

The challenge though is how rarely it seems to be applied. Perhaps being the least in the last decade compared to ever in history.

What I mean is ...

To 'tell' someone something they must be listening closely enough to ask questions if you are being vague; or at least for you to clarify for them so they understand you.

To 'teach', one must be willing to be taught. This applies to the student and the teacher, and I remain astounded by the number of people who consider themselves no longer a student as soon as they graduated out of school. As stated by an old proverb, "Only a fool knows all."

To 'involve' is no more of an isolated category than the previous two. And like the other two categories it is a relationship of sorts between the provider and the receiver. It is also a more involved or deeper relationship because it requires more effort to complete. It also creates more value for the short and the long term. As in the movie "Mr Holland's Opus" this teacher learned at the end of his career when he was feeling at his lowest the true impact of his efforts. Most teachers have their students for a few months and then are never seen again. The truly great teachers have students who stay in touch, make the effort to say hello on the street, or attend show their appreciation in other ways with a positive impact that lasts a very long time. 

The question that remains is whether you want to be average or mediocre in the things that only the unique you can do. I'm also neither saying do this for free. Part of the value measurement of any effort is based on what people are willing to pay for it. 

That said, over the last couple of years especially it seems there are more and more greedy and unethical businesses who have been discreetly re-implementing indentured servitude or slavery, and some I'm sure believing themselves wonderful human beings for doing so. They tell themselves they are offering an education that those students would otherwise be excluded from. Their slaves are given labels like intern or football scholarship recipient and that's supposed to make it okay. Back when I was young and for hundreds of years before that when people did a job where they were also learning something it was called being an apprentice or in a co-op program through the institute of higher learning; and we all got paid.

Friday, 4 April 2014

So you think you're a leader . . .

I get a lot of my inspirations from others' articles and blogs. Bruce Kasanoff and his article 'How Do YOU Bring Out Talent in Others' on LinkedIn is no exception. After all, one of the greatest pieces of advice I ever received is 'to read'. So when I read this article and Bruce asked his readers how we lead I had to contribute.

For me, leadership is about establishing clear accountabilities, boundaries, and letting them know I am there to care about (protect) them. And doing that as concisely as possible. For me, these are the ABC's of leadership.

The accountability part; I think that's the obvious part - I hope so anyway. Just in case I need to clarify; my expectation is always for people to make commitments and then adhere to them. Yes, this must be done in a way that is commensurate to the level of maturity and skills of each individual. And yes, people either know or learn that if they don't hold themselves accountable, I will. To clarify perhaps a bit further, two of the US Marines mottos are also two of my favorites. 'Semper fi', short for semper fidelis, latin for 'always faithful. And 'Adapt - Improvise - Overcome'. Life whether in business or elsewhere will introduce hurdles we'd rather not have to deal with. Omission to make a decision (or commitment) is still a decision.

Boundaries - for me it's never ever okay for anyone to deflect responsibility for their own decisions onto others people, or hold onto critical information that impacts other people and their commitments. You know something is up and coming that other people will care about? Figure out who those people are and get that information to them ASAP in a clear and concise way. Part two of that, only make decisions within your realm of authority and responsibility. An in-the-weeds individual contributor should never presume to know more about the business than a Director or VP on the leadership team.

Protection - I expect everyone to 'man/woman up' when they screw up; admit you messed up, honestly apologize to those you impacted, make a commitment to not repeat the behavior, and then move on. If someone wants to lord over you that error; that's when the very pointed, gorilla-in-the-closet, in-your-face me comes out towards that person. In short, don't mess with my team; period. I will eat you alive. 

That's the launch pad. 

The execution is for me to be consistent with myself and everyone else in applying that. 

Accountability -- something I've noticed a lot of over the years is that a lot of very smart people are very dumb when it comes to the cost of doing certain things. I'll offer a couple of examples because this is so important. 

1)     Everyone at the company where you work is there because someone higher up in the chain of command (relative to you) believes the role is needed and that person has the skills needed for that role. I've witnessed people who regularly step on the proverbial toes of others and then loudly complain (sometimes back stab) when others do the same to them. I always set expectations right out of the Ontario Labour Code and a lot of very good books to minimize the occurrences of this happening -- i.e.:
a.     speak to the other person(s) about the concern; and do it respectfully because sometimes some people just didn't realize what they were doing,
b.     if you are not comfortable doing that on your own for some reason; come see me and I will assist you, and finally 
c.      if you've already tried a) and b) more than once and it is still happening, we will all sit down together -- NOTE: this does not mean I will carry your burden (see more below).

2)     I've seen groups of 8 people spend 2 weeks developing huge, detailed, documented plans that other than them, no one will ever look at. And think themselves oh so wonderful for doing it. The cost: $40,000. Now, if you were writing the cheque for that document, would you think it's worth $40k? We all need to be good stewards of not only our own wallets but of our company's wallets too. That is, If we really want the company to be successful.

Boundaries -- in the high tech realms, thinking outside the box in a lot of cases is a really good idea. There is rarely if ever the case when only one right way exists to do a task. That said, if it's not part of your role, collaborate with someone you trust whose responsibility it is to do that. If there is no one who does that (and you've actually checked to confirm) and you're not putting your own job on the proverbial back burner to do that task it may just be a good idea to proceed.

Protection -- I will protect you in public but I will also punish you in private. Sadly in my travels I have encountered some people who define integrity as "it's okay if we can get away with it" and "lying is a valid negotiation tactic". To me, outright lying is just plain disrespectful, and will hasten the severity of that punishment. If Harry or Sally keeps repeating the behavior they've been told to stop, it'll become public when they are no longer present. NOTE: we will go straight to DEFCON 1 in instances where the law has been broken -- e.g.: workplace harassment or bullying.

The results: the teams I mange are filled with a lot of highly motivated people that do a lot of very good and productive work. And yes, over the years, I've also had to fire some people and ignore others. I've also had many different people I haven't worked with in years stop me in the street and in stores to say hello.

Everything else is filling in the cracks; the details that pop up here and there that are just parts of reality because you're dealing with people - not machines. Remember two things -- 1) "because I said so" is always the weakest form of leadership (even if it is sometimes necessary -- usually only in a crisis), and 2) you can't be a leader if no one is willing to follow you. They may follow you because they have to, but that's a boss; a manager, and always temporary.  

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Perspective is everything

The other day I was speaking with a group of people who thought it was so horrible that their executives look at the contents of the project tracking system. And worse, that they challenge the project managers when their status updates and the contents of the tracking system don't appear to match.

My first response to them was to ask "How so?"

They elaborated about their belief that they should just be trusted to deliver to what is described in the project plan at the start of the project.

I countered saying my perspective is actually the complete opposite of that. A couple of people just walked away. The smarter people looked at me like I was nuts, and the even smarter people ask "How so?".  I elaborated with the following justifications.

1) Want to know whether or your project is really important to the bottom line? Listen to see whether or not they are talking and asking about it. Seriously, if they're not, it's not.

2) Executives have people they have to report to too. Executives seriously do not have time to ask about the minutea of your project. However, if they can't get the information they need AND the project is important don't expect them not to. And if they don't, it doesn't really matter -- re: see point 1 above. That's one of the great things about burndown charts that are embedded apps within the tracking system being used. It gives a snapshot view of what the status is at any point in time, if it's embedded well, the extra effort to create those charts is somewhere between negligable and nil.

3) It's NOT micromanaging if all they're asking for is progress updates and quantifiable information to substantiate what you are saying. It's called 'trust but verify' and any manager that doesn't do that is either incompetent, a fool, or both. From a financial perspective it's also a SOX compliance issue. To you, it's an 'oops'. To them, it's a potential legal matter and in the most serious cases possible jail time. Blind trust is a fool's overture.

4) EVERYONE wants to go home at night and into the office in the morning with the warm and fuzzies. Executives are no different. 
So reminder to smile, say thank you, and offer a concise and direct answer the next time you get asked what is going on.

Oh, BTW, those people that stayed engaged in the conversation? We all learned something those who left figuring they already knew everything that mattered. We're all further ahead in the game than them. Now also recognize that these are all start people; some of them wise. Yes, there is a difference, but that's for another post.

And when it comes to career management it tends to be those who know the most and work the best with others who tend to start in the game the longest. ... of course there are exceptions. And the companies where those expectations tend to apply also tend to be the companies on the way out.