Sunday, January 22, 2023

What is the Right Team Size?

Team in front of Computer Code, generated by DALL-E 2

 What is the right size for a team? Can it be too big or too small? I worked with a team once that had 3 developers. They spent most their time mob programming in front of a 42 inch monitor, taking turns at the keyboard. They didn't need to do traditional stand-ups because they were swarming around one thing at a time. The Scrum Master kept an eye open for impediments, but otherwise was focused on the next thing that would improve the team's productivity. 

I also worked with a team of 15. My first thought was that was too big, but as I watched the team work, I saw that wasn't the case. The team was doing data-science kind of work. They needed people who could write SQL to pull data from legacy systems and put it in data lakes and people who could take that data and package it in a report with Tableau. For this team, having all the skills on one team meant they didn't have dependencies with other teams. 

An often cited paper by George Miller states the magic number at 7 +/- 2 people (sometimes referred to as Miller's Law). The 2-pizza rule says a team should be small enough to feed with 2 pizzas. Robin Dunbar's research suggests 15 is the upper limit of the number of people we can deeply trust. 

There are other considerations beyond just the number of people. As I pointed out in my last post, dependencies slow teams down. My 15 person team was big, but still effective at delivering because they didn't have dependencies on other teams. 

This larger team also had true cross-functional skills. My smaller team was effective because they were developing in a narrow field and didn't need a broad range of skills. However, if they found they were having dependencies on another team because of a missing skill, enlarging the team to include this skill could be a smart move. 

In the book Team Topologies, Matthew Skelton and Manuel Pais talk about cognitive overload. Teams can only handle a limited number of different areas of focus. If the team is asked to do too many different types of work, the effectiveness of the team will suffer. Just like individuals can't multi-task effectively, neither can teams. So when deciding on the team composition, this should also be taken into account. My 15 person team was probably suffering from cognitive overload, but I wasn't looking for that at the time. 

Too often I see teams put together without much thought. Worse yet is when people are partially allocated to more than one team. I think regardless of what framework or methodology you are using, you need to start off with deliberate thought about how to set up teams. I would recommend the book Team Topologies for guidance on this topic. 

Wednesday, January 04, 2023

Even the Best Chefs can't make a bad recipe taste good; why someone else's Agile Transformation recipe may not work for you

 I've been reflecting on some of the agile transformations I've been involved in over the past few years. In some cases, I see some real progress made. Other times it seems like just re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. An organization follows some recipe, but they don't get the results. Why?

I was working with a large financial institution. They had adopted the "Spotify Model" (yes I know, it's not a real thing) and after that they adopted another scaling framework. I came in and started looking at what was going on and discovered they had a huge challenge with dependencies across teams and products. They failed to realize how much the dependencies on other teams was slowing any one team down.

I took some on-line training recently, a course called Agile Physics - the Math of Flow led by Troy Magennis. In it, he talks about Amdahl's law, which was developed in the late 60s to explain parallel processing. The bottom line is that there is always going to be a limit on how much additional output you can get by adding more processing power. Troy points out the law applies to people and teams as well as CPUs.

One source of the limit is how much can be done in parallel, or said another way, how much dependency there is between teams. So two processors (teams) in parallel with no dependencies can produce twice the output of one. However, as less of the work can be done in parallel (ie, dependencies), the output drops. Using the formula Amdahl developed, if you have 4 teams and 80% parallelization, your output is 2.5 (not 4). If you want to learn more, take the's free and some really interesting ideas.

Back to my client with all the dependencies. What could have helped them? Maybe if before they applied the recipe for scaling, they took some time to look at how their teams were set up and came up with a better approach there, that is, one that reduced/eliminated dependencies. More on this idea in a future blog post. 

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Is it Time for Holacracy?

Tile Circle

I was doing some research last weekend on Holacracy for a course I’m developing for University of California - Irvine Extension. I have been teaching for them for about 8 years now and I’m helping update their agile class offering.

Holacracy really turns the industrial revolution style of organization on its head. Rather than leadership making the decisions for the workers to execute, the decision making is really pushed down to the people doing the work. The traditional hierarchy is thrown out the window. No more managers reporting to department heads reporting to business unit managers reporting to Vice Presidents…you get the idea.

Instead we have circles. For example, IT may be a circle. In it, each role has a description that gives clear direction on the responsibilities for that roll. There are simple rules that guide people, what they can and can’t do. It is a form of a complex, adaptive system. Everyone focuses on the purpose of the organization, which goes beyond making money.

So what can Holacracy do for us now? With Covid-19 and work from home, the landscape of the work environment has changed. Will Covid-19 be the forcing function that changes the leadership model at companies? Does a remote workforce change how decision making occurs in an organization?

When companies first tried the work from home approach a number of years ago, there were often strings attached. Companies would use the instant messaging app to track when people were at their desks, showing a lack of trust in employees. Are companies ready to stop monitoring output (hours at a desk) and start looking at outcomes?

Holacracy isn’t for everyone. Medium moved away from it when they felt it didn’t scale like they needed. After Zappos moved to Holacracy, they offered employees a severance package. Some of those that took it cited holacracy as the reason they were leaving. Today, Zappos has moved away from a pure Holacracy (article). They are still self-organized, but in a slightly different way.

Amy Edmondson and Michael Lee wrote a paper on the topic of Self-Managing Organizations. One of the quotes from the paper was this: “Longstanding research tradition suggests that managerial hierarchy functions more effectively in stable conditions, but faces serious challenges in dynamic conditions.”

In the latest update to the Scrum Guide, Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber have moved from saying self-organizing teams to self-managing teams. In his book Reinventing Organizations, Fredrick Laloux provides several models of companies in some form of self-managing. So maybe Holacracy isn't for everyone, but it seems like organizations are moving to more self-managing models.

Monday, December 17, 2018

What the Military can teach us about Sprint Planning

As a coach, I've seen many Sprint Planning sessions. Some are more effective than others. When it comes to planning, the military has a long history and we can learn a few things from them.
Plans are worthless, but planning is everything
                                                                              - Dwight Eisenhower
I have always interpreted the meaning behind this quote by Eisenhower to mean that through the act of planning, we gain a shared understanding of what we are attempting to do; the plan itself may change, but the goal won't

The military talks about "Commander's Intent" which looks at the mission, the desired end state, and the purpose of an operation. While this seems to be bigger than a sprint goal, a good sprint goal will help the team understand the end-state of the sprint.

If the team has a good sprint goal, it will help them deliver on the intent but still give some flexibility on how they deliver. Without following any specific military planning technique, here are some other aspects of a military plan that we can borrow in our sprint planning:

  • Resources & People: Do we have all the equipment we need? Are test environments ready? Do we have test data? Do we know who is going to be available? Any planned vacations or holidays that impact the sprint? I encourage my scrum masters to keep a spreadsheet to keep track of the team so they can tailor their capacity to the available developers. 
  • Lessons Learned: Have we included kaizens from the last retrospective into our plan? Do we have them on the sprint backlog?
  • The Plan: The team should self-organize around the work that needs to be accomplished.
  • Contingencies: Once we have a plan, do we thing about what could go wrong, a technique the military calls Red Teaming. What do we do if the test environment goes down? What if that snow being predicted for the end of the week is worse than they predict?

Taking the extra time to discuss all these aspects to the plan will build a stronger understanding of the plan, which will help the team make better decisions when things don't go according to plan.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Getting Rusty

I was in the Moab, Utah area last weekend and got some mountain biking in. I haven't spent a lot of time mountain biking this year so I was a bit rusty. By the second day I was starting to get my rhythm but it took a little time.

Just like mountain biking, our agile skills can get rusty. I ran a Lean Coffee last week and before it I read a couple articles because I hadn't done a Lean Coffee in a while and wanted to make sure I didn't miss anything.

I've been working with some of my newer Scrum Masters on facilitation techniques, another skillset that can easily get rusty if you don't do enough of it.

One of my favorite facilitation tools is POWER;

Purpose - why are we having this meeting/workshop.

Outcomes - what do we expect to walk away with.

What's in in for me - Why will participants want to attend and what can they get out of it

Engage - how will you as the facilitator engage the participants. Think about activities, items on the tables to play with, or even snacks.

Roles & Responsibilities - What can the participants do.

I like using this as a way to prepare for workshops so that I can make sure the workshop provides value to the participants. Using this keeps me from getting Rusty on my facilitation techniques.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

If You're Going to Offshore, Get it Right

In general, I prefer having fully co-located teams but I've been working with a number of organizations that use off-shoring as part of their delivery model. Some have the right approach, others are missing the mark.

When one organization I worked with decided to move to a Scrum framework, they were also setting up an off-shore model with developers in India. In this case, they brought those developers to the U.S. to be part of the team formation process; learning the Scrum framework, setting up a team operating agreement etc.

When these individuals went back to India, they were set up with the right equipment; good audio and video capability that gave then a tele-presence ability. Each morning the US based part of the team would go to a video conference room and spend the first part of their day with the India part of the team. They could see/hear each other well, share documents, and even walk through code together. It was a pretty effective approach.

Counter this with another client of mine. They also have India-based developers, but they have not had the opportunity to travel to the US. They don't have any real tele-presence, just conference calls and screen sharing. They don't really participate, just listen in on discussions from a US based conference room. Self-organizing is also absent, they are assigned tasks by the lead developer, who is in the US. My observation is that they aren't getting much value out of this approach.

I'm a fan of the Media Richness Theory and have used it with my clients. I have also taken a page from Crew Resource Management (CRM) and their communications practices. One of my favorite assertive communications tools is SBAR (situation, background, assessment, recommendation). I have taught this technique to a number of teams as part of a focus on building up their teaming capability.

Given the choice, I would have all my teams co-located. When that isn't possible, I try to bring them together as often as possible and use good tele-presence tools when they are not together. Regardless of your model, you still have to teach them good communications and teaming techniques so they can be as effective as possible in any configuration.

Monday, September 24, 2018

How to Budget For Your Company’s Technical Debt

Guest post by Dr. Mik Kersten

While “technical debt” is a term that’s frequently used by technologists, the implication and understanding of it tends to be opaque to the business until it’s too late - just look at how Nokia lost the mobile market that it helped create.

The business and finance side of Nokia had the usual tools for assessing financial risks - but why do we not have an equivalent tool for the operational or existential risks when the debts come from the more intangible investment in technology?

What’s technical debt?
Technical debt refers to the refactoring "shortcuts" taken in IT to meet requirements like time to value (TtV) and speed-to-market. Technical debt is like cholesterol; the more it accumulates, the more it impedes the flow of value.
Legacy systems are a perfect example of technical debt. We are all too familiar with that system that everyone dreads to touch and hopes that it doesn’t malfunction because any modifications to improve its business value will cost time and money. Yet the longer you wait, the costlier it will get due to lack of knowledge and support.

Speed-to-market pressures also increase the debt – such as first-to-market, responding to time-critical customer needs, and faster customer feedback to improve performance and value. Compromises are made with the notion of dealing with the consequences later.

Sometimes it’s as simple as realizing the technology or architecture chosen for a particular product is no longer scaling and needs refactoring. All of these technical decisions impact delivery speed and must be managed to ensure any future changes or products are not delayed. Taking on technical debt is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as it is understood by the business decision makers who put in place a plan for that debt to be paid down.

Why should the business care – isn’t this a cost that IT manages?
Technical debt additionally impacts delivery teams by bloating their work-in-progress (WIP) with neglected work. Neglected work can impact a team’s ability to focus and complete value-adding work. Less completed work leads to longer time to delivery, lower product quality, and less value, impacting customer satisfaction and business performance.

How can IT make technical debt visible to the business?
In a project-oriented view, where changes to IT systems are just another initiative, it’s difficult to prioritize and fund critical changes that will improve the speed of future changes. Yet software needs to go through a period of refactoring to maintain performance.

A product-oriented view enables the business to understand how all work interlinks, providing the ability to predict and fix for the impact of technical debt. However, you can’t measure what you can’t see, so it’s crucial to make technical debt visible. The Flow Framework – a new way of seeing, measuring, and managing product delivery – introduces two metrics that help increase visibility of technical debt:

Flow Distribution
This metric shows the distribution of the different types of work that the IT team has delivered, such as value-adding work like features and functionality, and revenue-protecting work like defects, security related work. Yet the more new functionality they deliver, the less time they have to do the other types of work like defect resolution, working on security features etc. It’s important to keep an eye on what the levels are for technical debt in this equation. Has the level of completed tech debt work fallen in the last few releases? If so, it is leading indicator of more defects/delays in the future releases. In addition, the Flow Framework expands on the notion of technical debt to include infrastructure debt (e.g., data centers and servers), and debt in the value streams themselves (e.g., lack of automation).

Flow Load
Flow Load is a Flow Framework metric that shows the amount of work that a team or seat of teams have taken on. How much work do they have and what proportion of it is technical debt? Is there a lot of technical debt left in the backlog accepted but unfinished because new work is taking precedence? Accumulating technical debt on the backlog can have an increasingly negative impact a company and its products.

Budgeting for technical debt
There are two parts to budgeting for technical debt.

1)   Correlating the impact of tech debt with value-adding work can help business understand its danger on the bottom line. Time and resources must be set aside every financial year to tackle technical debt as debt often accumulates due to a lack of funding and sponsorship.

2)   IT and business should look at trends that determine an appropriate level for when appropriate action must be taken to “pay back". It’s similar to the error budget in Systems Reliability Engineering that helps product development and system reliability teams work together on a level of unreliability that can be tolerated.

If technical debt is not actively monitored, it will gradually impact the flow of value to customer-facing products. Neglect the build-up and a cardiac arrest is inevitable. Make sure technical debt is visible and measured so that the business and IT can team up to proactively tackle and reduce technical debt to ensure a healthy product portfolio that can sustain the business.
Dr. Mik Kersten is the CEO of Tasktop and author of Project to Product: How to Survive and Thrive in the Age of Digital Disruption with the Flow Framework. For more information, please visit,