Archives for the Month of August, 2009

Agile 2009: Day 1 – Planning

The conference looks set to get off to a great start with plenty of Real Options on Day 1! Here’s a shortlist of the sessions I’m most curious about. Emboldened session titles indicate my current first choice per timeslot. Putting The Law of Two Feet into practice is always a Real Option, too!

Monday – 24 August 2009



Real Options: A Strategy for Making the Most of Agile 2009

So much choice, so little time

Apprentice: The problem with Agile 2009 is that there’s too much choice!
Agile Coach: Is it possible to have too much choice?
Apprentice: Sure it is! I don’t have the time or the energy to read through all the session descriptions before the conference starts!
Agile Coach: It’s always better to have too many options than too few.

Can too much choice be a bad thing?

The wide choice of parallel sessions and topics can be a major headache for many attending Agile 2009 next week. When asked, ‘Can too much choice be a bad thing?’, I find myself instinctively thinking ‘Yes!’ at the sight of the hefty programme, yet I know there’s a better answer because of the numerous high value sessions in the programme.

The real problem is the amount of session information participants have to process in time to make choice after choice to make the most of their time at the conference. One approach is to use Real Options, an optimal decision process that lets us postpone important decisions until the last responsible moment so that we can gather more information before we need to decide. The result: the best possible decision based on all the information we have at the time.

What’s a Real Option?

A Real Option has:

  • A value – if not, why would we consider it?
  • An expiry condition – a deadline or condition by which we have to choose
  • A cost: Buying cost + Exercising cost – the Buying cost gives us the right (not the obligation to implement a decision in the future for a known cost); the Exercising cost is the agreed price to implement the decision.

Real Options: The Optimal Decision Process

The Optimal Decision Process helps us structure our thinking in 7 steps (especially when we’re under pressure):

Step 0: Identify your goal(s)
Step 1: Identify your options
Step 2: Calculate the first decision point: Decision Point = Deadline – Implementation Time
Step 3: Decide which option to take under which circumstances
Step 4: Seek out information and more Real Options
Step 5: Reduce Implementation Time to push back Decision Point
Step 6: Wait… wait… Until the first/next decision point
Step 7: Make the decision with confidence.

Real Options applied

Let’s see how Real Options works when it comes to planning your investment of time at Agile 2009.

Step 0: Identify your goal(s)
Let’s assume your goal is to learn as many useful things you can use at work as possible. Ideally you’ll have acceptance criteria so you know when you’ve reached your goal. Refer back to your goal often throughout the conference so that you can refine your strategy to get the most out of the conference to satisfy your acceptance criteria.

Step 1: Identify your options
Each timeslot (eg 14.00 – 15.30) contains a set of sessions you can attend. Each of those sessions is an option. Only those that you consider valuable are Real Options. Let’s assume you create a shortlist of sessions you think will be useful to attend per timeslot. These are your Real Options per timeslot. Other Real Options might include having meaningful discussions while chilling out at the bar instead of following the programme.

Step 2: Calculate the first decision point: Decision Point = Deadline – Implementation Time
Now let’s take a timeslot with the Real Options you’ve identified. You work out that it’ll take you 10 minutes to get to any session at the conference venue. This is the implementation time. Note that the implementation time for all the options are therefore the same: 10 minutes. Next, we calculate the deadline for the options. The deadline for each option is, in fact, when the session ends so if you want to get there for the summary in the last 10 minutes, for a session that ends at 15.30, then 15.20 – 00.10 = 15.10 (although it’s worth bearing mind the value of an option, in general, decreases the later it is that you join the session). For those of you who like to participate from start to finish, it may be more useful to consider the deadline as the time the session starts (ie 14.00), in which case the decision point is 14.00 – 00.10 = 13.50.

Step 3: Decide which option to take under which circumstances
You’ve come up with a shortlist of sessions you’re interested in for a particular timeslot, but you still haven’t decided which one to go to. As a preliminary step, I typically prioritise the sessions from most likely to be useful to least likely to be useful to me. My deciding circumstances might include: 1) If I discover evidence that a speaker is a good speaker/facilitator, then I’ll prioritise their session over the others; 2) Depending on my energy levels nearer the time of the timeslot (it’s important to maintain a sustainable pace at a 5 day conference!), I might prefer a presentation over an interactive workshop.

Step 4: Seek out information and more Real Options
A key activity of Real Option is information gathering. By gathering as much information as possible up to the decision point, you’ll be able to make better informed decisions. Find ways of hearing the presenter speak prior to their session so you can decide if their communication style suits your learning style. Speak to other conference guests and speakers to find out their views on your first and second choices. That way, you can validate your most valuable choices by leveraging the wisdom of crowds. You’d be amazed how far and wide the reputation of a good presenter and/or presentation travels even at a conference of more than a thousand people.

Step 5: Reduce Implementation Time to push back Decision Point
One way of reducing the time it takes you to come up with a shortlist is to divide and conquer the data processing effort. By this I mean, mingle with other conference guests as early and as often as possible (remembering sustainable pace of course!). Look around for folks in similar roles with similar interests to yourself and find out which sessions they think have the most potential. Ask 10 random people which session they plan to go to next and you’re bound to find some opinions that re-affirm or negate your choice or even ideas for more options. This approach means you also get to meet 10 new people out of whom at least one is likely to enrich your conference experience.

Step 6: Wait… wait… Until the first decision point
Remember, you only have to make your session choice 10 minutes before the session starts or 20 minutes before the session ends. With the bar-discussion option, you only have to decide before the bar closes.

Step 7: Make the decision with confidence
Imagine it’s now 08.50 on Monday morning and you’ve got as much information as you could gather in the time given with the effort you care to invest. You exercise your first choice option with confidence because you know it’s the best choice based on what you know and if it goes wrong, you’ve got other real options to exercise.

Read more about Real Options here. Remember ‘Sustainable Pace’ and have fun!

Games Galore at Agile 2009!

Well-known for our penchant for fun and games, Pascal and I will making an appearance at Agile 2009 to play two of the most popular games in our ensemble: ‘The Bottleneck Game’ and ‘The Business Value Game’.

Learning about the Theory of Constraints with The Bottleneck Game

Pascal and I kick off next Wednesday with The Bottleneck Game to demonstrate the five focusing steps from the Theory of Constraints and how it correlates with Agile, Lean and Real Options.

It’s a favourite among our set of learning games which demonstrates, time after time, the relevance of the Theory of Constraints not just to projects or our work, but the way we see the world around us. After playing the game with us, you’ll acquire the necessary techniques and hands-on application to share with colleagues and friends.

Join us to learn:

  • About Agile, Lean and Real Options techniques
  • How to understand processes, a crucial step in business analysis
  • How to use the Theory of Constraints, the Five Focusing Steps and Throughput Accounting to improve processes
  • How to explain all of the above to your teams and customers
  • How to create a shared “big picture” vision of a value stream for people and teams who work in functional silos
  • How to get teams to collaborate to reach a common goal.

Arrive early to the session because there’ll only be enough room for 60 game enthusiasts!

Surely it doesn’t get much more exciting than this… or does it?

‘Show me the money!’ with The Business Value Game

… Yes it does! Pascal and I trialled The Business Value Game for the first time in public at Agile 2008 in Toronto. We’re back this year and in Chicago with a bigger and better version based on the valuable feedback we’ve had from playing with our numerous client teams, conference goers and fellow Agilistas around the world.

Join us next Wednesday afternoon and:

  • Experience the issues facing the Customer/Product Owner
  • Experience the link between program, project and story prioritisation
  • Discover the right level at which to estimate Business Value
  • Learn “good enough” business value estimation techniques to start delivering higher value today.

We’ll be running a total of 6 parallel teams for 50 people. Come early to get a seat at the table!

Request for Help!

We’re looking for a helper to help co-facilitate The Business Value Game. The only pre-requisites are 1) You’ve played the game before and you understand how it works; 2) You want to play it again in the large with 60 people! Contact us if you’re available and interested to help out.

Learning about the Theory of Constraints with The Bottleneck Game

How to improve your software delivery process

When it comes to improving the way we deliver software projects, it’s rarely technology that’s the real problem. Nor is it inevitably a skills issue. Instead, the greatest challenge with building software is this: How do you spot the problem when you can’t see the process?

That’s where The Bottleneck Game comes in. The Bottleneck Game simulates a production line at the Hats and Boats Company where its workers are paid a fair wage (by chocolate of course!) to produce pairs of hats and boats. For each pair of hat and boat produced by the team, the team gets paid a bonus (in the form of chocolate of course!). You don’t get fairer than that as jobs go.

The game teaches us about the Theory of Constraints (TOC). According to the Theory of Constraints, every system has one key constraint which determines the throughput of value. This constraint is called the ‘bottleneck’. The theory states that we can improve a system’s throughput by applying the Five Focusing Steps on the bottleneck. Any effort spent on any constraint other than the bottleneck will have little impact or even have an adverse effect on the existing system.

The Five Focusing Steps

Step 0: Make the goal of the system explicit – Make clear the goal you want to achieve.

Step 1: Find the bottleneck – You can spot a bottleneck because it’s usually a stressed out resource, with work piling up upstream to it and resources sitting idle downstream from it. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Do something with the bottleneck to improve the system as a whole.

Step 2: Exploit the bottleneck – Begin by ensuring the bottleneck resource is 100% utilised, focused on delivering value and working at a sustainable pace. Make sure there’s always work with high value available for the bottleneck to work on.  After all, Time is Money. As you’ve already paid for the bottleneck resource, this step requires no extra investment nor increases your operating expense.

Step 3: Subordinate everything to the bottleneck – This means the rest of the system must subordinate decisions to help out the bottleneck. Since the bottleneck is the most important part of the system, get the rest of the system to work at the pace of the bottleneck to help deliver the maximum value possible. Like the Exploit step, this step comes at little or no extra cost since you’ve already paid for the existing resources to deliver value. By definition, a non-bottleneck resource will always have slack, so you can also get the non-bottleneck resources to share some of the workload of the bottleneck.

Step 4: Elevate – You elevate by investing on training and tools for the bottleneck and other team members. You can also increase the number of the type of bottleneck resources. Since all these actions incur extra cost, you should apply Elevations only when you can’t find any more Exploits or Subordinations (which come at no extra cost in comparison). The Five Focusing Steps focuses on maximising the value of your existing investment before incurring further cost.

Step 5: Rinse and repeat – Once the bottleneck’s situation is improved and it’s no longer the primary constraint, the secondary contraint that determines the throughput of the system gets a promotion! It becomes the new bottleneck and you get the chance to apply the Five Focusing Steps all over again. Practice makes perfect!

It all sounds like hardwork and so much fun…

That’s because it is with The Bottleneck Game! Look at the intense expression on each player’s face. In spite of all the tricky origami involved, everyone who plays with us is always keen to stay after the game to talk some more about how to apply the Five Focusing Steps to their work.

Pascal and I will be running The Bottleneck Game at Agile 2009 in Chicago on 26 August. Restrictions* apply!

* There’s a maximum of 60 places in the session, so join us early to get a good seat!

Can You Bear to Care?

(In a team space near you)

Apprentice: My code is thoroughly tested.
Agile Coach: There are no unit tests.
Apprentice: I used my eyes.
Agile Coach: Always listen to your Agile Coach.
Apprentice: Yeah-But-No-But-Yeah-But.
Agile Coach: And always question your Agile Coach.

Do you care enough?

Agile is for people who care. People who care about what they do. People who care about quality. People who care about people. Agile makes me think. It forces me to listen without judgment. To really understand. After all, everyone adds value and we can only change ourselves.

‘Nothing is to be feared, it is only to be understood,’ said Marie Curie, ‘Now is the time to understand.’

A good coach lets you make mistakes. A good coach creates opportunities for you to learn. A good coach gives you room to grow.

Now is the time to understand.

The Power of Play

Let the fun begin!

Games make learning fun instead of only growing pain. As children, we learn through play. And because play is so much fun, we play some more until a virtuous circle is formed where we play and learn to play to learn. In my experience, adults learn most effectively in the same way.

By learning through play, we pack in the practice at doing the things we enjoy and so we begin to achieve, getting a little (or, in some cases, a lot) better at what we do every day. Think ‘baby steps’. Little and often.

And when practice brings results, it gives us a sense of achievement and so we practice some more until doing what we do becomes a habit, becomes part of who we are.

By making practice a habit, we’re able to discover what we’re really good at and eventually, all those hours add up to make us proficient at doing the thing we enjoy doing most.

Add in the necessary ingredients of support, guidance and courage, and the moment you attain proficiency should collide just-in-time with opportunity. That’s when you suddenly realise you’re doing what you love or at least loving what you do. And getting paid for it. There’s your TADA! moment. And it feels like magic.

And because your Fun Flywheel is already spinning, that breakthrough will fuel your courage and desire to achieve even more, so you’ll continue to practice and, because you know the secret to practice is through play, you’ll never tire of training to become better every day.

The Enduring Memory of Play

Why turn work into play?

  • Breaks down organisational boundaries – Such as when senior managers haggle with developers, as a team, over whether building a Mars station will bring in more business value than a Castle
  • Connects people – Creates a shared experience that lasts way beyond a 90-minute gaming session into daily work
  • Creates a sense of common purpose – Unites people from different teams and departments, sometimes for the first time, towards a common, tangible goal
  • Increases understanding between colleagues – Clearly demonstrates how everyone has strengths and can use the strengths of others to overcome their own weaknesses by working as a team
  • We can’t resist having fun – Opens our minds long enough to challenge what we think so we can grow

It is these kinds of mementoes that help form a team, so that when the going gets tough, we can help one another through the storms to become a high performance and happy team.