Thursday, February 08, 2018

Situational Awareness

I have been exploring techniques to help my Scrum teams become more effective and one of the techniques I've been looking at is Crew Resource Management (CRM).

CRM came about because of a number of airplane crashes in the 70s that were attributed to human error. More recently, it is cited as one of the reasons there were no causalities in the US Air flight 1549 (Miracle on the Hudson).

One component of Crew Resource Management is Situation Awareness. A simple definition of situation awareness is how well your perception matches reality. There are a number of factors that can impact situation awareness such as complacency (I've done this so many times…), task saturation (too much work in progress), channelized attention, or poor communications.

I had a situation recently where my scrum master lost situation awareness. We were at the end of the sprint and he told me the team had completed 45 story points, more than any previous sprint. However, a conversation with the product owner a short time later revealed that really wasn't the case. The product owner wasn't satisfied with how some of the work was done.

What happened? The scrum master was fixated (channelized attention) on what the developers were telling him because he wanted to be able to show all the stories done for the sprint. He lost site of the definition of done, which included a review with the product owner before a story was marked done. 

Our kaizen for the week was a review of our definition of done and re-commit that nothing would be marked done without a product owner review. We took this idea into planning and included tasks for product owner review in each story so we could track these tasks to completion on our board so that the scrum master had additional visual cues to help him with his situational awareness.

So how can the team keep better situational awareness? Having a good visual board helps. In addition to tracking work thru the To Do/Doing/Done path, the board also has a place for impediments, the definition of done, release plan, and a burndown. For this team, the board is also in the team room, and any time I walk in, I stand near the board when I'm talking to the team and encouraging them to look at the whole board, similar to how a pilot is constantly scanning all their gauges so they don't miss anything (as opposed to the crew of Flight 173, who fixated on a landing indicator light and forgot to keep check on their fuel).

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Psychological Safety

I had an interesting experience recently. I was working with a team as they went thru their sprint planning. They had figured out their capacity based on yesterday's weather and their average amount of interrupt. The product owner suggested the sprint goal and they started picking stories based on the goal. They reached the point where one more story met the sprint goal, but put them over their estimated capacity. The scrum master pulled it into the sprint and said he thought they could get the story done.

At this point I stepped in and commented that it was up to the developers to decide if they wanted to commit to the work. The developers remained silent. I made a comment about not over-committing and finally some comments were made by the team to keep the story out and pull it in if they get everything else done.
So what happened here? Why didn't any of the developers speak up when the extra story was first pushed on them? Based on this and other observations in the organization, I attribute it to a lack of psychological safety. The developers didn't feel safe to say "No, that's more than we can get done."

I wrote another article recently talked about group think. The two ideas are related. Group think exists in situations where people don't feel safe stating an opposing view. But psychological safety goes much further than that. A team without psychological safety will be reluctant to take chances, it impacts their ability to learn, they will be afraid to admit mistakes. In general, it keeps them from becoming a high-performing team.

So how does a team fix this? The reality is they can't. It's not the team but the organization around the team that will or won't create a space of psychological safety for the team to exist in.  Product owners and chief product owners need to be coached to understand how their actions impact the environment. It's starts with them showing they are vulnerable, by admitting their mistakes. They need to encourage teams to take risks and not punish failure but show how it can be used as a learning event. It's only when teams see these kinds of behaviors that they will start feeling safer, and next time a developer will speak up and say "No, that's more than we can get done."

Tuesday, December 05, 2017


I am speaking this week at the Projects to the Point (P2P) conference in Cairo, Egypt. The focus of the conference is the book "How Successful Organizations Implement Change" and the speakers (myself included) each wrote one of the chapters of the book by the same title.

We have an interesting approach for implementing change where I'm working, a technique call Nemawashi. It's a Japanese term that literally translates to "digging around the roots" but the meaning is much more than that. Nemawashi is laying the groundwork for a change. The work starts before any formal meeting is conducted. Ideally, the person proposing the change will have already worked on building the relationships with the people who's support is needed. They will know the formal and informal organizational structure so when it comes time to start informal discussions, they know who to speak to.

When it comes time for a change, the change agent determines who the key stakeholders are. The change agent has informal discussions about the proposed change. It may be a quick talk over coffee accompanied by a drawing on a napkin. The discussion may include a history of the proposed change, others that have been consulted, and options. The discussions are a way to solicit feedback and adjust the plan before moving forward. In some cases, they may need to move backwards, having follow-on discussions with stakeholders they've already talked to as the plan evolves.

When it does come time for a formal meeting, all the key stakeholders have already heard the idea and provided their input. The formal meeting should just be a formality. If someone hasn't been included in the nemawashi process, they may reject the proposal just because they feel they were ignored.

This form of consensus building may not be the fastest way to introduce a change but like the meaning of the word, it will ensure that a new change gets to the roots to improve the chance it will take hold.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

PMI Conference observations

The PMI Conference was held this past weekend in Chicago. They've changed the format a bit and even changed the name to reflect the changes. When I first started attending almost 20 years ago, it was the PMI Symposium, then Global Congress and now the PMI Conference.

They had 3 different keynote speakers (though I only saw 2 of them), one each day. On Saturday, the speaker was Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the person that developed the technology that made the world wide web possible, specifically hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP). He talked about how a goal was to make the web a "permission-less place" where anyone could put up a site.

The web developed first through creativity, then collaboration as the world wide web consortium evolved. He did highlight a point of complex systems, that the behavior at the macroscopic level is different than on the microscopic level. While I thought the talk was interesting, some of my non-IT colleagues had trouble following it.

Sunday's keynote was very interesting. The speaker was Nicholas Epley, author of Mindwise and professor at University of Chicago. His presentation was on communications, along the lines of this article he wrote for Huffington Post. He ended with 4 take-away's:

1) Be wary of any gimmicks when it comes to trying to understand others. Always ask for evidence.
2) Cut down your confidence in how well you think you understand what someone else is thinking, you understand them less than you think.
3) Learn to ask questions well, it's the best way to gain an understanding of what someone else is thinking.
4) To communicate well, be painfully clear. Don't assume the other person will easily understand your message.

The best session I sat in on was delivered by Ahmed Sidky. He talked about how the leadership structure of agile teams evolved at Riot Games. Rather than assigning roles such as scrum master or product owner to individuals, they identified 4 key leadership roles;

Team Captain - responsible for overall delivery
Product Lead - responsible for the direction of the product
Delivery Lead - responsible for development
Craft Lead - responsible for the engineering

Each team would associate key responsibilities with the four "hats" as they call them. A team member can wear more than 1 hat but the team decides all of this.This approach takes self-organizing teams to a new level.

I also took part in an interactive session on the new Agile Practice guide that came out with the latest PMBoK. It was led by Jesse Fewell and Mike Griffiths, both long-time agile names in the PMI community.The session was a good way to start understanding what is in the guide.

PMI tried to improve he quality of the sessions. As a speaker, I had to go through a few additional hurdles including creating a story board that was reviewed by an SME and practicing my presentation on the phone with a experienced speaker. I don't know if PMI got the results they wanted. There were regular speakers that did not speak because they didn't want to go through the additional steps. At the same time, I still had 2 sessions I walked out on because they didn't meet my expectations.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Red Teaming

One of the things we talk about at work is eliminating group think and an approach to do this is using red teaming.

For those not familiar with the term, red team comes from the military and originally stood for a team that represented the opposition. It has since expanded to include any team that might challenge the status quo..aka, group think. 

So how does this apply to the agile world? Even agile teams can get stuck in group think. A great example is during story estimating. If you don’t use planning poker cards, the senior developer might say “oh, that’s a 5” and everyone else agrees, they become anchored to his estimate. Someone else might have had a different opinion (that’s going to be a 21 because we have to create a new database table) and they may be right, but they succumb to group think and let the 5 point estimate go. The obvious solution here is to use planning poker cards but sometimes as a coach I need to point this out to teams. 

Group think can happen during any agile activities. During retrospectives, I coach my teams on the approach of each person writing ideas on post-it notes in silence and then discussing them as a group. 

 Think, Write, Share

This way, ideas can surface before group think can crush them.

Red Teaming can be applied elsewhere as well. Another place I like to use it is at the end of a planning session. The team has finished selecting stories to work on for the iteration, they have set their sprint goal and they’re ready to start. At this point I stop them and ask “what could go wrong with this plan?”  This is another good place to inject “ think, write, share” and start a discuss about risks and responses to them.  So be on the lookout for group think and bring in a red team if you need to counter it. 

Tuesday, September 26, 2017


I’m working on a new assignment as part of an agile coaching team leading a transformation at a large organization. One of my fellow coaches is also a former Navy officer. We’ve had a number of conversations about how many of the techniques developed by the military can be applied to make any team a high-performing one.

One particular tool is debriefing. I’ll admit, I didn’t do a lot of this in my military career, but the idea is to take time after any activity to review how it went. Kind of sounds like a retrospective, doesn’t it?

As an agile coach, I find this is a great tool. Just the other day I observed one of my teams run a stand-up. As soon as they were done, I gave them a debrief. It only lasted a minute. I highlighted what they did well and where they could improve. I have used the same approach with other teams on everything from iteration planning to retrospectives...sounds kind of “meta” but why shouldn’t you evaluate how effective your retrospective was? This technique is based on the approach of learning a new idea, practicing it, and getting feedback to reinforce the idea.

Learn, Practice, Reinforce

One key to debriefs, and I think this is important for a good retrospective, is to start by stating the goal of the activity. At the end of the iteration, can your team members state what the iteration goal was? How else can you evaluate how you did without thinking about what you set out to do. 

Monday, May 22, 2017


I was flying home from a client visit last week at the airport getting ready to board the plane when the gate agent announced that the flight was gonna be delayed by ten minutes due to some unspecified mechanical issue. Ten minutes later they announcement another ten minute delay. They did this two more times.

So what was going on? Did the airlines not want to admit upfront that they had a 40 minute delay so they fed the delays to us ten minutes at a time? Or did the person who is doing the work really not understand how long it was going to take? I started thinking about how common it is for people to not be able to provide good estimates. Sometimes they underestimate the complexity, or maybe student syndrome sets in, or they're just overly optimistic.

It was ironic, but part of the work with my client that week was explaining the technique of relative estimates using t-shirt sizes and story points. The team I was working with was  new to agile and used to the old way of doing absolute estimates, which as we all know are not as accurate because of things like student syndrome or Parkinson's Law.

So how do we get better at estimating? I think the real question should be how we recognize estimates for what they are. An uncertain prediction of a future event. Even when we use story points, we won't know our true velocity until after a couple iterations when the team has time to come together. At the beginning of the project, we need to recognize how much uncertainty we have. So instead of saying "that will take about 2 months" we should say "that may take 2 months, but it could take as long as 3 months." So we provide not only the estimate but some measure of the uncertainty that goes with it. Similarly, if we think a story might be 13 points, but there's a lot of uncertainty, we should state that and make the story 20 points (or 21 if you're being strict with your Fibonacci sequence). Now if only I could get the airlines to provide a more accurate estimate the next time there's a delay...or at least how certain they are!