Announcing My New Book “Beyond Agile”


Beyond Agile Book pic 1I am excited to announce my new book “Beyond Agile: Achieving success with situational knowledge and skills“ is launching. It is available now from RMC in paperback or electronic form here. This post explains the name and motivation for the book. Future posts will profile the content.

 

BackgroundBackground

Since helping create DSDM in 1994, I have been working on agile projects for 27 years. In that time, I have personally been a member of around 30 teams, coached and consulted with about 400 organizations and taught agile to over 2,000 team leads and project managers worldwide. Statistically, most were around average, a few were really dysfunctional, and less than 10 were exceptionally productive.

 

ProblemProblems

Around 8 years ago, I noticed many capable teams were adopting agile but still not being very productive. They had embraced the mindset and were doing all the right things, but success still eluded them. As someone who had dedicated their career to spreading the word about agile and helping organizations adopt it, this was extremely concerning for me. What were they doing wrong? What was I doing wrong?

 

ResearchResearching Successful Teams

So I went back to study the small number of exceptionally productive teams to look at what they did differently. While they understood agile remarkably well, they did not emphasize its use. Instead, they used a clever mix of agile, leadership, emotional intelligence and industry-specific knowledge to get the work that needed doing today done.

 

PatternsPatterns and Results Emerge

Patterns emerged, and I explored further. Using these techniques, I was able to help organizations turn around struggling projects and programs. As a result, we outperformed expectations, delighted stakeholders and won a PMI Project of the Year award. One organization documented our approach and submitted it for tax credits in the Canadian research and development SR&D program. It was successful, and they received several millions of dollars in tax credits. The Beyond Agile Model was developed, and this book documents the components.

 

RemoveThe Obvious, Non-Obvious Need to Remove Process

The Beyond Agile Model has agile at its core; it also layers in additional ideas while encouraging teams to discontinue practices that no longer add sufficient value. Since there are only so many hours in the day, focussing more effort on delivery requires dropping other activities - even if they are agile. It was obvious once I saw it. The most productive teams I studied spent more time delivering and less time on agile ceremonies and other tasks. The non-obvious part was learning what to drop since it varies from team to team, and the book explains the process.

 

In future posts, I will explain some of the core ideas. Until then, I just wanted to let you know the book is finally done and available here.

Beyond Agile Book pic 4


Agile Adoption – Left to Right is the Way to Go

Agile approaches "Crossed the Chasm" a decade ago. The organizations we see adopting it today are in the "Late Majority" and "Laggard" categories of Geoffrey Moore's Technology Adoption Life Cycle.

Crossing the Chasm
As companies adopt agile because they have to / it's now expected / the industry norm / required to stay competitive / <insert your own reason>, we see more push-back and failures than ever.

Doing something because you have to, rather than because you want to, leads to shortcuts and the wrong mindset. The image below, from Ahmed Sidky, shows agile as a mindset.

Agile as a Mindset

In the image above, agile is a mindset described by four values, defined by twelve principles and manifested through an unlimited number of practices.

The correct way to learn agile is to start on the left of this image and learn about the four agile values in the mindset. Then learn about the twelve principles that define agile. Once you understand those, you will see all the agile practices are just implementing agile principles and values in various scenarios to solve different problems. This is the correct, Left-to-Right agile adoption.

How to Adopt Agile

Unfortunately, many organizations reluctantly adopting agile are impatient. Mindsets and values sound like unnecessary fluff. "We are serious engineers and don't have time for that kumbaya nonsense. Our people are smart, just show us the practices, and we will figure out the rest." So they start on the right-hand side, and adopt a set of agile practices, not appreciating the values and principles necessary for them to work.

Some practices work; others do not. They struggle to get whole-hearted buy-in and see only patchy pockets of success. Some teams continue trying agile; others revert back to how they were. They become an "Agile? Yeah, we tried that, but it did not work well here" shop. They experienced the right-to-left copying of practices without understanding the mindset, values or principles.

How Not to Adopt Agile

Incorrect Right-to-Left adoptions of agile (or anything) fail because they copy behavior without understanding the supporting structures. The practices we see agile teams undertake are just the visible components of a much larger ecosystem. This is known as the Agile Iceberg.

Agile Iceberg

 

Supporting the visible practices above the water line is a larger, more significant commitment to the mindset, values and principles below the water line. Without investment in the below-the-waterline components, any attempts to copy and duplicate agile practices will sink and be dropped from practice.

 

Cargo Cults

Cargo Cult

Another analogy used to depict right-to-left attempts to cut and paste agile is the Cargo-cult. "Cargo cults" is the term used to explain the phenomenon of blindly replicating outward behavior, hoping that it will yield positive results. It originates from a few scattered instances of Pacific Island tribes recreating replicas of the wartime aircraft runways, control towers, and radios out of wood on remote islands, believing that they would bring back the cargo planes that brought Western goods during the war.

The islanders did not know how control towers or radios worked; they just copied what they had seen, hoping it would bring the benefits they had also seen. Implementing sprints, demos, and daily stand-up meetings without valuing individuals and interactions over processes and tools is just as ineffective as an all-wood radio. All it achieves is to frustrate people and give agile a bad name.

 

The Solution

Like anything worth achieving, the solution requires some thought and hard work. We need to work one-on-one with people and provide maps, not pamphlets, of how agile works so people can make their own informed decisions at the junctions on the pathway to value delivery.

Maps

This may sound like a lot of work, but it saves time and reduces workload in the long run.

 

Making Sense of Agile

There are thousands of agile practices documented in books, blogs and presented at agile conferences every year and likely many times more that never get reported. We do not need to learn them all; because once we understand a core set, we will see the themes, grasp the goals, and help teams create their own tailored ways of working that support the agile mindset.

Let's review some popular techniques often seen on Scrum teams.

Daily Stand upDaily Stand-up meetings – These are the quick, inter-team coordination meets held daily where team members share with their colleagues:

  • What they have been working on (or completed),
  • What they plan to work on next,
  • If any issues or blockers are hampering their progress.

Agile Concepts:

  • The team owns the work – team members report to each other, not the Scrum Master or some project manager authority role
  • Transparency – openly share information, good and bad, so people stay informed and can make better decisions

 

Sprint DemoSprint Demo – At the end of every sprint (usually one or two weeks long), the team demonstrates what has been built to the business and confirms what to work on next.

Agile Concepts:

  • Frequent delivery – Deliver working software frequently. Working software is the primary indicator of progress.
  • The team owns the work – It is the team that demos the work, not the Scrum Master or Product Owner. This demonstrates and builds ownership of the evolving solution.
  • Focus on business value – Since the backlog is prioritized by business value, the team should be demonstrating the highest business value work items completed. Also, the discussions on what to work on next also focuses work by business value.
  • Transparency – Openly share information, good and bad, so people stay informed and can make better decisions.

 

Product BacklogProduct Backlog – The ordered list of work for the project/product. Prioritized by the Product Owner based on business value. Creates a single queue of work items to focus on.

Agile Concepts:

  • Focus on business value – The product backlog is prioritized by the product owner, usually a business representative, not the Scrum Master or other team member, to ensure the project focuses on business value.
  • Transparency – By putting all work items in a single, highly visible queue, everyone can see the full scope of work to be accomplished. This (hopefully) eliminates side-agreements or under-the-table agenda items being worked on. Also, since change requests are prioritized in the backlog, they bring visibility to these elements and likely completion dates.

 

Release PlanningRelease Planning – The process of the product owner and development team collectively meeting to discuss, prioritize and estimate features for the next release. By engaging the do-ers of the work in the planning process, we simultaneously: 1) get better insights into technical work involved, 2) generate better buy-in for the estimates created and a stronger commitment to meet them.

Agile Concepts:

  • Focus on business value – The business (through the product owner role) drives the planning process.
  • Transparency – Features and stories from the product backlog are refined and estimated to create a release roadmap that illustrates target dates for key components of the product or service being developed.

 

Sprint PlanningSprint Planning – This is the planning process one level below release planning. The product owner and development team collectively meet to discuss, prioritize, and estimate the next one or two weeks' worth of development.

Agile Concepts:

  • Focus on business value – Work is prioritized by the product owner.
  • Engage the team in decision making – The team makes local decisions about how best to undertake the work, how to self-organize, and in what order to undertake technical tasks.
  • Transparency – All estimates and progress are discussed openly within the project team. Details about progress, issues, or setbacks are discussed daily at the daily stand-up meeting.

 

RetrospectiveRetrospective – A workshop held at the end of each sprint/iteration to review progress, process and people aspects of the project. These regular inspect, review and adapt sessions typically result in suggestions of things to try differently in the next sprint/iteration. By conducting frequent, short-scale experiments, teams can inspect, adapt and improve rapidly throughout delivery.

Agile Concepts:

  • Inspect and adapt – At regular intervals, the team reflects on becoming more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.
  • Engage the team in decision making - The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.
  • Transparency – Be open to talking about issues and ways to improve. Acknowledge there are constantly ways to get better. Recognize and thank teams for looking to improve their delivery capabilities.

 

Kanban boardKanban/Task Boards – These are large publicly accessible displays of work done, in-process, and waiting to start. Kanban boards make the team's work visible.

Agile Concepts:

  • Transparency – It shows what is being worked on, what has been completed and what is coming next. This information is not the domain of just the project manager, everyone benefits from knowing about it.
  • Engage the team in decision making – By sharing the project plan visibly, team members can better alert us to potential problems and solutions.

 

Seeing the Agile Matrix

In the sci-fi movie "The Matrix", the hero, Neo, develops the ability to "see the code of the Matrix." This is the computer simulation he is living inside. Once he sees this, he understands how things work and can move faster and is more powerful than ever before. It is an "a-ha" moment; now things make sense, and he can see his world's structure and patterns and manipulate them.

Agile Matrix

It is the same with developing an agile mindset. Once you realize agile is based on a few core concepts, you see them repeated everywhere. These concepts include:

  • Focus on delivering value
  • Build incrementally
  • Gather early feedback
  • Inspect, adapt and learn as you go
  • Let the team decide as much as possible
  • Be transparent and show progress, good and bad

With these ideas in mind, practices such as estimating via planning poker make more sense. We are engaging the team in defining their estimates. We are using a visual, transparent process. It is iterative and incremental. There is inspection and the ability to adapt the estimates if outliers are found.

Everything agile teams do reflects these values. Information radiators are about being transparent and visual. Voting on decisions is about letting the team decide. We do not need to learn every agile practice because we will quickly be able to understand any of them once we recognize the agile mindset, values, and principles.

When making decisions, we can apply these agile concepts. Engage the team, be transparent, focus on value, get early feedback, etc. These are not complex concepts to grasp and are what many of us intuitively try to do anyway. That's why agile, for many people, feels like common sense.

However, it can be quite different from traditional project management's analytical world, which aims to specify everything up front before executing a detailed project plan. It is a mindset shift for some people, but one worth making if your work is complex, uncertain, and frequently changing. Here a Left to Right adoption of the agile mindset, values, and principles is the way to go.


Book 150<This article is an excerpt from PM Illustrated: A Visual Learners Guide to Project Management. If you are a visual learner who likes clear explanations, check out PM Illustrated here.>



Hybrid Agile Discussion

Hybrid Agile banner

Upcoming Presentation: “Hybrid Agile, Stepping Stone or Quicksand?”

How do you feel about hybrid agile – mixing agile approaches with non-agile approaches? Can it be useful sometimes, or is it the path to compromise and failure? (A great way to separate agile purists from pragmatists is to ask them what they think about hybrid agile.)

Please join me on April 26 to discuss hybrid agile with PMI San Diego Chapter. In this session, we will separate agile blends from non-agile hybrids. Then explore case studies of failures and success stories, examining patterns of problems and success factors. Topics include:

  • Left-to-right agile adoption vs right-to-left implementation
  • The Genius of the “And” vs. the Tyranny of the “Or”
  • Hybrid models (switchover, sandwich, encapsulation)
  • Case studies in success, failure and regression
  • Red flags, anti-patterns, and warning signs to stop
  • Further resources and case studies to learn from


To quote Ron Jefferies, “Agile isn’t any damn thing,” so come find out what breaks it and if we can preserve it with the combination of non-agile elements.

PMI San Diego Chapter

Registration Link


Beyond Agile Gratitude #1 – Weaving People and Process

Beyond Agile 150Now that my Beyond Agile book has been published, I would like to thank some people who helped shape its content and ideas. Alistair Cockburn and Joshua Kerievsky helped me appreciate the balance between people-focussed activities and effective processes.

“...Agile approaches combine a mixture and equal balance of people and process approaches to delivery. One way to picture these interwoven elements is like the twin strands of DNA. In figure 4.1, we see a blue thread of people elements such as empowerment, collaboration, and team decision-making, mixed with gold process elements such as backlogs, prioritization, and short iterations.

Fig 4.1

If you have not noticed it before, agile approaches weave people elements and process elements together through the agile mindset, values, and principles. For simplicity of understanding,  we pull these elements apart to talk about them individually, but in reality, they are inextricably linked and self-supporting, like the blue and gold elements shown in figure 4.2.

Fig 4.2

The people and process elements are present in all views of agile, no matter how you slice it. Also, they are in an equal balance. This is not a matter of coincidence or hidden code, but rather the sign of a balanced system. Let’s look further.

The Agile Manifesto has two values focused on people and two focused on process:

Fig 4.3

When we examine the 12 Agile Manifesto principles again we see six focused on people (shown in blue) and a counterbalancing six based on process (shown in gold).

  1. Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
  2. Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.
  3. Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.
  4. Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.
  5. Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
  6. The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
  7. Working software is the primary measure of progress.
  8. Agile processes promote sustainable Sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
  9. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.
  10. Simplicity — the art of maximizing the amount of work not done — is essential.
  11. The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams. 
  12. At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

Let’s examine the frameworks of Alistair Cockburn’s Heart of Agile and Joshua Kerievsky’s Modern Agile, first looking at the original models and then superimposing views of people and processes.

Fig 4.4

In Alistair’s Heart of Agile model, the Deliver and Improve process concepts are complemented by the Collaborate and Reflect people-focused concepts. Likewise, Joshua’s people-focused Make people awesome and Make safety a prerequisite are balanced and complemented by the ideas of Deliver value continually and Experiment and learn rapidly.

Both models are evenly balanced between people and process advice; this fact, along with their clarity and simplicity, is what makes them both powerful and compelling.

We should always be aware of these two elements in the tools and approaches we use. Additionally, looking for a healthy balance of attention within teams is a useful diagnostic. People sometimes have a personal bias or natural aptitude for the people side of things, or for the process side of things. So why not ask the team if they think the system is in balance and, if not, what they suggest to restore to balance any imbalances?..."

Thank you, Alistair and Joshua. Your insights and skills in distilling ideas have helped many people increase their understanding of collaboration and teamwork.


PMI-ACP and My New Book “Beyond Agile: Achieving Success with Situational Knowledge and Skills”

10 YearsIt has been 10 years since the PMI-ACP exam was created, and I published my PMI-ACP Exam Prep book. I recall the Steering Committee meetings where we discussed what we believed was necessary for agile practitioners and team leaders to have experience in and an understanding of.

Since then, the exam has been updated a couple of times based on Role Delineation Studies (RDS) and Job Task Analysis (JTA), which is how PMI surveys practitioners and asks what techniques are commonly used. However, the core content has mainly endured unchanged, which is testimony to its usefulness.

CommitteeI remember discussing the scope and goals for the credential among the committee that comprised: Alistair Cockburn, Mike Cottmeyer, Jim Cundiff, Jesse Fewell, Mike Griffiths, Ahmed Sidkey, Michele Sliger, Dennis Stevens and PMI researchers.

In addition to an agnostic understanding of Lean, Kanban, Scrum and other agile approaches, we also agreed people should know about the basics of servant leadership, conflict management, team decision making, and coaching. So our scope included more than just Lean and agile; it had a little leadership and emotional intelligence.

Agile and Leadership 1

At the time, someone suggested a three-tier credential consisting of something like Agile Basics, Agile Journeyman (journeyperson), Agile Consultant that mirrored Shu-Ha-Ri. PMI leadership rightly reined this in, explaining it was a good idea, but how about we just focus on getting the basic level credential created for now.

PMI was correct to focus on the universal fundamentals. As we get into more advanced topics, there is no single correct answer. So, topics like agile scaling frameworks, strategies for motivating teams, the pros and cons of different leadership approaches that get deeper into agile, leadership and emotional intelligence were never tackled but are topics that my blog readers know I care deeply about.

Agile and Leadership 2
My new Beyond Agile book is my exploration of these topics (plus others.) I dig deeper into unlocking the power of individuals and teams. How can we encourage better engagement, focus on the project goals, and ditch non-value-add mindsets and processes? These are based on my experiences and research.

You likely won’t agree with everything I suggest, and that’s fine; not everything will work for your situation. However, I am confident you will find many valuable concepts and connections between ideas you thought about separately before.

As the book title suggests, it goes beyond agile. Sometimes the best way to tackle a problem might be with a plan-driven approach. Agile Myopia is the mistaken belief that every project situation has an agile solution.

Agile Leadership and Plan Driven

I am more of a pragmatist. Sometimes, the best way to assess and analyze risk is with the risk management process from plan-driven project management approaches. We may then choose to implement the risk responses in an iterative, incremental way via our backlog and spikes, but that again is being pragmatic.

My previous post mentioned a disconnect between teams being agile and the highest-performance teams I was able to work with. These high-performing teams hardly discussed agile concepts or paid much attention to the agile ceremonies, although they lived the mindset emphatically. Often what set them apart was the deep industry experience and knowledge they had gained, making them trusted partners within the business groups they served.


Beyond Agile Model
I set out to define what sets high-performing teams apart and outline the steps to replicating them. There may be no formula but I did uncover a set of knowledge, skills and thinking tools people can use to chart their own course. It represents the What’s Next beyond the ideas in my PMI-ACP books and provides a broader landscape to explore. I hope you enjoy it.

Beyond Agile Book Image


A New Litmus Test for Agile in 2020

Litmus TestWhen should we be using an agile approach for our project? The agile convert might claim “Always,” just as the predictive enthusiast could scream “Never!” For the rest of us, more objective tests and selection criteria are useful.

Agile suitability tools are nothing new. DSDM shipped with one in 1994, and the Agile Practice Guide published with A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)—Sixth Edition has one as an appendix. However, this article is about short cuts, a single question that can provide a good indicator for suitability—a litmus test for agile approach suitability.

Common Destination, Different Directions
The whole “agile versus traditional” debate is mostly unnecessary when we step back and take a broader perspective. Everybody is trying to get to the same destination of successful outcomes and happy stakeholders. However, it is when we start discussing the “how-to” path for achieving these goals that passionate debate occurs. This is because “the path” does not exist. There is no single right approach; instead, it depends on the environment and project at hand.

We can learn techniques for running traditional, predictive projects and adaptive, agile ones. Then, based on the situation, use the appropriate approach. Sometimes a single process is sufficient; sometimes, a hybrid might be necessary. So, the next logical question that pops up is, “What are the project environmental factors we should be evaluating, and which point to predictive or adaptive approaches?”

Continue reading "A New Litmus Test for Agile in 2020" »


Can We Still be Agile?

Can we still be agileHow does work from home impact our use of agile approaches? If co-location is no longer possible, can we still be agile?

Yes, of course we can, and in many ways, now we need to be more agile than ever as we try new approaches, learn and adapt how we work. However, let's address the co-location question and look at agile practices in remote work situations.

Continue reading "Can We Still be Agile?" »


Returning to the (Electronic) Cottage

Electronic CottageThis is not a post about rich people now able to visit their second homes after the lockdown, instead, a revisit of the concepts of decentralized work being the new way of undertaking projects.

In 1980, Alvin Toffler’s book The Third Wave introduced the idea of “The Electronic Cottage” as the modern workplace where information technology allows more people to work from home or wherever they want. Toffler was a futurist and businessman who did not get the attention he deserved. Even though Accenture identified him as one of the most influential voices in business leaders (along with Bill Gates and Peter Drucker), we do not hear much about him.

Continue reading "Returning to the (Electronic) Cottage" »


Regaining Trust: The Winners and Losers of a More Cautious Tomorrow

Future ProjectsPeople are smart, resourceful and inventive. We are also dumb and irrational. This combination makes forecasting nearly impossible.

People build cities, express themselves through art, and push forward our understanding of the world through science and logic. At the same time, they exhibit cognitive bias and often behave in ways that defy this same science and reasoning.

The simultaneous application of logic and defiance of logic is part of what makes humanity rich and complex. It is also why predicting how the world will change after the COVID-19 pandemic contains much uncertainty. Some effects will be the sensible results of events and reactions. Others will be nonsensical reactions (like hoarding toilet paper) due to cognitive bias. These factors will intermingle and interact with new yet unknown events to create a tomorrow that is impossible to calculate.

So, while nobody knows how our future will be different, we do have some ideas to help make an educated guess.

Continue reading "Regaining Trust: The Winners and Losers of a More Cautious Tomorrow" »


Playing in the Gray of Hybrid

Playing in the Gray of HybridGray areas occupy the transition from one world to the next. Neither black nor white, predictive nor agile, project managers are increasingly finding themselves in the gray area of hybrid project management. This can make us feel uncomfortable since we are neither faithfully following either approach—instead living a compromise between seemingly different value systems.

We could get uncomfortable, guarded and hesitant to embrace the reality we face. Or, we could welcome it, use it to our advantage and share the benefits/trade-offs with anyone willing to listen. This second option of embracing, using and sharing is “playing in the gray area,” a term I learned at a recent workshop I was giving. It nicely summarizes the idea of accepting and making the most of our reality rather than uncomfortably accommodating it and mainly keeping it to ourselves.

Continue reading "Playing in the Gray of Hybrid" »


Innovation: Running Experiments and Learning

Experiment DesignIn my last article on Incubating Innovation, we explored the culture and mindset of accountable experimentation. This article focuses on actionable tools and approaches.

Within agile frameworks, the team retrospective is the primary workshop for planning and evaluating experiments. Yet most team retrospectives I see are broken.

Teams spend too much time recording viewpoints and information—but not enough time reviewing or planning experiments. It is common to see the majority of the time spent gathering what went well, what did not go well, and appreciations. Yet where’s the focus on experiments, the learning process and trials for the next iteration?

Continue reading "Innovation: Running Experiments and Learning" »


Let’s Rewrite the PMBOK

Future PMBOK
Phew, the wait is over! I have been wanting to talk about this for what seems like ages and now the official announcement is out! If you have ever been frustrated by the PMBOK Guide now here’s your chance to fix it.

We are looking for volunteers to write and review the next edition of the PMBOK Guide. However, this will not be just an update, instead a radical departure from all previous editions aligned with PMI’s new digital transformation strategy. That’s all I can explain for now, but more details will be announced when I can say more.

Meanwhile, we would like people with knowledge of the full value delivery spectrum (waterfall, hybrid, agile, lean, etc.) to participate.

Continue reading "Let’s Rewrite the PMBOK" »


New PM, New Choices

Choices(Over at ProjectManagement.com January’s theme was “New PMs”. I wrote this article about the choices of approach we have and ways for new PMs to navigate them.)

These days, new project managers are exposed to conflicting guidance. On the one hand, there is a plethora of traditional “Plan the work, work the plan” literature. On the other, media is full of light-touch, self-organizing team advice. These sets of recommendations often appear to be at odds, so what is the new PM to do? Consultants will say, “Oh, it depends…” and start a lengthy (aka expensive) conversation. I say let’s examine the basics so we can make an informed decision ourselves.

Continue reading "New PM, New Choices" »


What’s in your Backlog?

Let’s explore what you do and do not put in a backlog. How do these sound?

  • Features and non-functional requirements – Absolutely
  • Bug fixes and change requests – Yes, probably
  • Risk avoidance and risk reduction activities – Sure, maybe
  • Opportunity exploitation activities and marketing ideas – Now you’re just getting weird!
  • Team building and social events – Erm, no!

Yet, if it’s all just stuff for the team to do, then why not put it in the backlog? Maybe because the customer has not asked for it and the product owner has to own and order it, but let’s look further.

If we used a backlog metaphor for prioritizing backlog work items. It may look like this.

Backlog of Backlog Items

I am not suggesting these are the correct elements for including in a backlog, I am just showing the common ones. However, I am probably getting too abstract too quickly. Let’s start at the beginning.

Continue reading "What’s in your Backlog?" »


AI Assistants for Project Managers

Robot hand
Predictions like “AI will take our jobs” sound scary. However, long before our jobs as project managers are taken, AI will help us. In fact, it already is, and we don’t think about it much. While writing this article, AI in Microsoft Word and the add-in Grammarly helped protect you from the bulk of my spelling and grammar mistakes. This is how AI will help us first, by doing small things we are error-prone with, before tackling larger tasks.

Like me, do you spend time booking meetings, finding rooms, and distributing information? Do you analyze backlogs and scope outlines for potential risks, or review estimates for commonly missed activities? Artificial Intelligence (AI) can help with these tasks and many more.

Imagine having a non-judgemental expert monitoring everything you do (and do not do) at work and making helpful suggestions to you in private. This expert is constantly learning, is plugged into all the latest research and works for free. This is the not too distant future of AI assisted project management.

June was Technology month at Project Management.com, and there have been a few articles about AI taking away project management jobs. This article focusses on ways AI can help project managers which will happen as AI develops and before it can replace jobs. It deals with automating the process and science parts of project management, leaving people more time to focus on the relationships, leadership, storytelling, empathy and emotional intelligence side of projects that are harder to tackle and are (currently) best done by people.

AI has come a long way since Microsoft rolled out the annoying and not so helpful “Clippy” Office Assistant tool in 2003. It was never tuned for project managers, but it if were it might have looked something like this:

ClippyInstead, AI is becoming more sophisticated and useful. Gmail will remind you to attach a file if you mention “attach” in the text of an email that has no attachment. Most people use personal assistants like Siri and Cortana on their phones, or Alexa in their homes. Voice recognition and comprehension are steadily increasing. Google recently demonstrated their new Google Assistant calling and interacting with a hair salon to book a haircut. Clearly, these tools will soon be ready for prime time and their use will be widespread.

Kevin Kelly, futurist and founding executive editor of Wired magazine, says in his TED talk: “Everything that we have electrified, we are now going to cognify”. In other words, we will add intelligence to devices and products. Kelly went on to say, “I would suggest that the formula for the next 10,000 start-ups be very, very simple: take X - and add AI.

To understand how AI can help project managers, let's examine its basic capabilities.

  • Knowledge Based Expert System (KBES) – these work from decision trees of IF - THEN statements to provide expertise. Gmail’s attachment reminder works with similar IF body_text includes “attach” AND Attachment = False THEN issue a warning.
  • Artificial Neural Network (ANN) – these systems model our real brains and consist of networks of weighted connections. They can be programmed to learn, recall, generalize and apply fuzzy logic. So, if we teach it someone 4ft high is Short and someone 6ft high is Tall it can generalize that someone 4ft 6 is “Not very tall”. Being able to make these types of generalizations are important for realistic interactions with people, such as Google Assistant making a hair appointment.
  • Machine Learning – this builds on Knowledge Based Expert Systems and Artificial Neural Networks to create predictive analytics that can provide validation and advice. In the project management space, this is the technology that can help with checking for missed risks, rebaselining plans, recalculating the Cost of Delay for waiting initiatives, etc.
  • Chatbots - AI powered programs designed to simulate a conversation with humans. Chatbots use artificial neural networks and machine learning to combine domain intelligence with natural language processing. This gives the impression of interacting with a (currently somewhat) knowledgeable person.

If these technologies sound far-fetched in the project management field, consider the quote “The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed”. Agile tool vendor Atlassian, already provide project assistants that help with budgets, estimates, and sprint management. They also have chatbots to share project information and remind team members for estimates and status updates.

Moving forward, these tools will be expanded to help check our work for common mistakes, just as Word checks for common spelling errors. Every industry has catalogs of defect origins and removal methods (here is one for software projects) AI assistants can apply this knowledge and suggest steps to help avoid or reduce these risks. It is not an exact science and as a project manager, I may choose to dismiss potential risks flagged. However, having assistants available to highlight these risks or list the top 10 estimation omissions in my field is probably better than not having them.

AI assistants can also alert project managers to slowly developing trends that might otherwise go unnoticed. The old saying that projects become late one day at a time is very true. Optimistic project managers with “Can-do” attitudes often underestimate the impact of small setbacks and or hope that teams will “catch-up” later.  This hardly ever happens, and AI assistants can be programmed to alert early and avoid hope-based-planning.

Over-Reliance?

There is a risk that with expert knowledge systems, organizations may be tempted to use inexperienced project managers. Or project managers become reliant upon these tools and not think as deeply as they may otherwise. Like any technology, a fool with a tool is still a fool. However, tapping into standard risk lists from your industry, that gets augmented with those from previous projects in your organization is a smart move.

Having calculators has likely reduced our ability to perform long division calculations manually. However, I don’t want to go back to self-calculation just because I fear an over-reliance on technology. Instead, I want to use technology where I can and free up my time and mental capacity for other work.

Higher Value Work

The PMI Talent Triangle is a good model for thinking about all the work a project manager does. It includes: 1) Technical Project Management – the project mechanics described in the PMBOK Guide and Agile frameworks, 2) Strategic and Business Management – your industry-specific work, and 3) Leadership – the people dynamics of projects.

If we squash the triangle out and lay the pieces in order of how much impact the project manager’s contribution has towards project success we get: Technical, then Strategic, and then Leadership. By this sequence, I mean that if the basics of Technical Management are met then Strategic and Business Management work is more significant. Furthermore, good Leadership has an even greater impact on overall project performance than Strategic and Business Management Work, and Technical Project Management.

This sequence is shown below:

AI Focus

The good news for us as project managers is that (currently) AI is best suited for the lower value end of this work spectrum. It is already capable of assisting and saving us time with Technical Project Management work. Next, it should soon be commonplace to get AI assistance with Strategic and Business Management tasks. This will involve accessing machine learning focussed on our industry domains, like ROI models, common risks, and estimation omissions.

The last area AI will move into is the Leadership domain. Machine learning requires deep data sets in a consistent form to draw reliable conclusions. The people dynamics of motivation, conflict management, and negotiation are harder to classify and rank.  Currently, most people would rather work with a real person to solve issues or discover their calling. Who knows, maybe in future people will prefer to interact with chatbots who’s decision parameters can be shown to be neutral and fair. This might be preferable to dealing with people with all their inherent bias and gaps in knowledge.

All I know for now is that I currently welcome any AI assistance I can use. It is likely to safeguard me from making basic technical project management errors or omissions. It should also be helpful soon in providing industry knowledge and best practice – like having a seasoned professional in the industry available to look over your work. However, AI tools will check in real-time before you commit that decision or share a plan.

This leaves me more time to focus on the people. The people sponsoring the project, those working on it, and those who will be impacted by it. They will have their own AI assistants too. Booking meetings, getting rooms, and sharing ideas should become frictionless leaving us to work on the more significant issues.

My recommendation is to stay abreast of AI developments and remain open to trying the tools as they emerge. Standing still in an environment that is moving forward has the effect of moving backwards -which is not good. Where I should probably be more worried is in writing articles like this. It seems like a blend of domain-specific Strategic work with some Leadership based storytelling. Likely a candidate for an AI takeover long before the project manager. (My plan is to get in on the research and get a Chatbot writing this stuff for as long as I can get away with it!)

References:

  1. How AI could Revolutionize Project Management, CIO Magazine, Mary Branscome, January 12 2018
  2. 3 ways AI will change project management for the better, Atlassian Blog, April 7, 2017
  3. Artificial Intelligence in Project Management - Is Your Company Ready for it?, Teodesk Blog, Minja Belic, January 22 2018
  4. AI will Transform Project Management. Are You Ready?, PWC White paper, Marc Lahmann, et Al, 2018
  5. Artificial Intelligence in Project Management, Khaled Hamdy, March 2017

[Note: I wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com, it first appeared here – free membership required.]

 


Agile 2018 Conference – Unraveling Team Dependencies

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I am excited to be presenting on the Enterprise Agile track at the Agile 2018 conference in San Diego, August 7. I have worked with several organizations this year that had issues with work dependencies between teams. My session called “Two-Pizza Team Heartburn Relief: Solutions to Team Dependencies” highlights the shift to global rather than local optimization.

We will investigate dependency problems through animations and simulations and then explore some candidate solutions. Each brings their own issues – if these problems were solvable they would have been already, but the suggestions do help considerably. Here is the description from the conference program:

Small teams are great - until they cause bigger problems than they solve. Small teams can communicate more effectively than large teams. They can leverage face-to-face communications more readily and share tacit knowledge without the need for so much written communication. However, for large endeavours, using many small teams present their own problems. Work dependencies between teams can cause major delays through costly hand-offs, mismatched priorities, and blocked tasks.

This workshop introduces strategies for structuring teams to reduce hand-offs and dependencies that create blocked work and delays. By investigating the (lack of) flow through multiple teams we can diagnose the cost of hand-offs and culprits of delays. We examine tools for making hand-offs and dependencies visible to highlight and bring collective attention to the problems. We then explore resolution patterns and work structures that maximize small team communications but limit negative aspects of managing multiple, inter-dependent project teams.

Learning Objectives

  • Understand the time and cost penalties of team dependencies and hand-offs
  • Gain tools for making dependencies, queues, and blocked work visible
  • Learn how and when to balance small team benefits with more dependency issues
  • Share implementation patterns and strategies to maximize team throughput
  • Examine the pros and cons of larger teams, feature teams, and product vs. project development.

That probably sounds more technical than it really is. It is a workshop to show people how teams often get stuck with work items when they rely on work from other groups. It combines anecdotes and experiences from 20+ years of agile consulting along with some insights from Troy Magennis on dependency delays, and Dominica DeGrandis, author of Making Work Visible.

Through case studies and exercises, we explore the hidden impacts of well-intentioned small teams. First, we’ll explore the “mostly harmless” two and three team dependencies, and then see the impacts when five or six dependant teams try to get work done. Please come along if you are attending the conference and have issues with dependencies between teams.


Mining Bitcoins with Your InstantPot: Has Agile Popularity Gone Too Far?

InstantPot_Bitcoin_MachineI am excited to be presenting at next week’s PMI-SAC Professional Development Conference on May 2 in Calgary. I am looking forward to seeing old friends and meeting new people at this new format conference.

My session “Mining Bitcoins with Your InstantPot: Has Agile Popularity Gone Too Far?” examines the hype, realities and use of agile approaches.  Here is the presentation summary from the conference site:

“The project world seems to have gone agile mad. The PMI has stuffed agile into everything in an attempt to stay current, but is it right or even helpful? Fear of missing out has vendors claiming to be agile and executives asking managers to be more agile. However, like InstantPots and cryptocurrencies, does the reality live up to the hype?  This session investigates the agile trend and looks at a new breed of agile suitability filters that help organizations apply agile approaches only when and where they make sense.

The presentation profiles organizations that effectively use agile approaches and how to build PMOs that support agile, hybrid, and traditional project teams. We look at the limitations and applicability concerns of using agile approaches. It would be naïve and arrogant to believe that agile (or any other approach) is universally the best way to execute projects. So, what types of projects do suit the approach (spoiler alert: novel, knowledge-worker projects) and what types of projects should best avoid it?

We will explore hybrid approaches where certain portions or periods of the project can exploit agile approaches. In these hybrid scenarios, we examine how to coordinate and integrate the agile work with the more traditional, plan-driven work. Also, we will examine the cultural fit of agile approaches and investigate how corporate mindsets and values effect structures and decision making. Trying to force fit a new mindset that is at odds with the corporate culture will inevitably be met with resistance. So, we need to be smart about what we try to introduce and how we plan to do it.

Our end goal should be successful projects and happy stakeholders. The approach we take should be appropriate for the tasks at hand, there are no points for style or conformance, since every project is different. So, learn how to analyze the project variables that include organizational, standards, technical and team components then act intelligently within that framework also guided by the inputs of the contributors.”

That description was for a 2-hour slot proposal and I was assigned a 1-hour slot so I will have to cut some material, but I will cover the highlights. The presentation title and outline are deliberately a little controversial to hopefully spur some reaction and interest in the session.

Having been involved in the development of the recent PMI standards, I personally do not believe “PMI has stuffed agile into everything in an attempt to stay current”, however, I can see how this may appear so to external parties.

As agile rides the hype cycle it is important to retain a grasp on where it can add value and where it’s use should be limited. This session aims to strip away some of the hyperbole and ground people with some practical application tools. Please come say hello if you see me at the conference!

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