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Saturday, December 21, 2013

Essential Leadership behaviors for Agile Transformation

In the recent Scrum Coaches Retreat that I attended, I saw a pattern where majority of the topics presented for discussion centered on organizational transformation and implementing agile correctly. The topics ranged from change management traits for individuals and organizations, executive leadership behaviors, coaching approaches for executive leadership, coaching for non-technology groups to implement agile, facilitation techniques for team trust, and scaling agile for coaching within an organization. Having established, led, and managed a program management office (PMO) in a healthcare IT and professional services industry and with a strong desire on leadership behaviors through project management and product development, I joined the team on this theme seeing an increasing focus around executive leadership behaviors for leading organizations to embrace agile successfully (“Build an Agile Organization Executive Coaching”, 2013).

Following the agile principles of user story development, our group with backgrounds from multiple industries began identifying the major categories of persona in today’s leadership that lacked understanding or came with a traditional mindset in transformation. These observations were later shared across the various participants from numerous countries during our daily retrospectives to further refine our persona categories. The major themes of persona classification of executives evolved are listed as follows that I have reordered in a continuous spectrum of the knowledge of agile in their implementation challenges.

Resistant: The executives that fall into this category are those that have a generational gap leading to a resistance in change. The relevance to current ways of managing projects or understanding product development is not in the radar screen for taking the organization to the next level. These leaders are more task oriented managers than leaders who feel challenged that agile may not add value. “It has been working for me and so I see no need for agile” is the theme behind such leadership.

Never heard of agile: The executives that fall into this category are open to ideas but are unfamiliar of the agile framework.  This group’s lack of understanding may arise due to many reasons such as their own personality towards new learning, lack of initiative, and firm’s industry representation to understand new trends. These members often rely on experience of others bringing in consultant experience or another senior member to implement the transformation. If the consultant or the senior members fail to apprise of the executives of the implementation challenges in product development, skills reorientation, and the structure required for agile development to thrive, then, these executives lose faith in Agile.
Big Vision: These groups of executives understand that their current structure is not in line with their big vision for growth. They recognize that they need to develop products differently for competitive position of themselves in the market place or excelling in doing things efficiently. They have heard of the agile framework through their own due diligence to implement their growth ideas and look forward to their delegates for support.

Misinformed: Similar to object oriented programming where the subclass inherit characteristics of super class,  this group of executives have had bad experience from the earlier bad implementation in their organization or in a different organization. Their “bad taste” of agile implementation shouldn’t be attributed to agile framework’s failure but the failure of those leaders or consultants that didn’t implement a stable and scalable solution.

Metric Oriented: Some executives have a natural instinct to not just focus on the profit motive but also establish key performance indicators. But lack of having correct types of metrics and threshold to begin with may impede successful implementation.

Insufficient Experience: This final group leans on those consultants or senior members that are brought into the organization just because they have implemented agile in their previous job. As Boyatzis and McKee (2005) noted, these high-profile members need to understand the emotional makeup of the new organization and not just their own personal success in their previous job. The reliance on a structure or set of tools that they had found useful previously but failure to understand the new organizational structure, impediments, and product makeup among others add up to the challenge of insufficient experience that these roles bring to implement agile transformation successfully.

In the end, the successful implementation relies on proper coaching of the organizational executive for leadership behaviors that they need to inculcate to succeed leading to forming a team that can coach and train the organization. If the leadership has not bought into the fundamental twelve agile principles for successful agile transformation and middle management members like functional team leads and project management not trained on product ownership, project team leadership, process governance, and client management, then, the fragile leadership should be held accountable for agile framework’s failure.

Do you think there may be other persona besides these persona classifications?

Build an Agile organization executive coaching (2013). Scrum Coaches Retreat. Retrieved December 17, 2013, from

Boyatzis, R.E. & McKee, A. (2005). Resonant leadership: Renewing yourself and Connecting with Others Through Mindfulness, Hope, and Compassion. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Execution as a Strategy in Acquisition – Relevance to Agile Transformation

In one of the networking events on effective agile transformation that I facilitated, one of the learners asked a question about how agile did not measure well in an organization that the learner’s organization acquired. The learner reasoned that the acquired company was a smaller organization that claimed financial profit in a niche market but has been bleeding after acquisition when adopting agile. While the specifics of the details has to be left out in this blog, the discussion made me realize some of the pitfalls in agile adoption in mergers & acquisition prior to shifting responsibility of failure on agile practices.

This quest for executing mergers & acquisitions (M&A) successfully led me pursuing several articles and books which made me feel that “Execution” itself should be “strategically” thought through by leaders within an organization and particularly with M&A.  Paul Burmeister, who has executed in the capacity of COO and CFO in many industries, quotes multiple ideas to ensure that the M&A activity becomes successful, emphasizing critical importance of the leaders’ synergy from both the organizations to establish success factors to measure the efficiency of integration.

Among these stand out an important point on whether the M&A focuses on products, processes, and intellectual capital (Dahl, 2012). While M&A accelerates the acquiring organization’s competitive advantage by leveraging the new product line or the intellectual capital that leads to quicker access to additional markets horizontally or vertically, the reference to processes differentiated how clash of various processes (waterfall versus agile) may have to carefully weighed.

I think here is where organizational leaders may be failing to adopt asking “what would have to be true for theexecution to continue to be a fantastic choice(Lafley & Martin, 2013, p. 204) If leaders failed to understand the twelve principles behind agile and scale them appropriately, then, they have created an organizational impediment for agile to fail their organizational success. Rationalizing on how the acquired company has always functioned differently and seeing no need to change fails to take advantage of the additional capabilities that come with the acquisition, reasons Jeff Sutherland, one of the contributors to the Agile Manifesto, who attributed the organization’s failure to remove impediments for Agile to fail (Larman & Vodde, 2011).

Once we come to terms that we have to review the processes in place, there are a couple of additional areas to look at for successful integration of agile in M&A. These include identification of proper product owners and tools for interaction. Unleashing properly spaced out adoption of skilled people to work as product owners that understand the agile principles of establishing a good risk adjusted product and sprint backlog, prioritizing the backlog to build trust and maintaining a cadence balancing team’s commitment in distributed and virtual teams that have to be embraced, and recalibrating on the tools of communication is vital. Charlie Rudd, CEO of SolutionsIQ, underscores how organizations fail to implement agile without building the product owner capability (2013, para 5). Firms should give importance to training in such a way that time is made for people to get trained, says Larman & Vodde (2011, para 4).            

Given these observations, what other execution specific strategies should one consider for agile to succeed with M&A activities? Should there be a standardized M&A integration checklist put together for agile success and if so what are some pointers to definitely consider? Please share your thoughts.


Dahl, D. (2012). 7 steps to a successful company merger or acquisition. Retrieved Oct 10, 2013, from,

Larman, C. & Vodde, B. (2011, February 9). Top ten organizational impediments. Retrieved Oct 11, 2013, from

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Value of Product Governance & Portfolio Management in Agile Product Development

In a networking event on effective agile transformation, a question came up from a few learners in terms of the practices of project governance in capital project selection was agile or traditional development practice. The same question manifested differently in a PMI-ACP class I was facilitating where a learner expressed the challenges with not doing some proactive requirements gathering exercise around the extent of data exchange methods from the application service provider as part of the Agile approach to favor customer collaboration over contract negotiation. The learner reasoned that the later negotiations to add these requirements only hurt the organization with increased costs, reduced speed to market, and decreased customer satisfaction and organizational profitability.

There seems to be a common pattern that I think is evolving where practitioners of agile are forgetting the importance of Agile Manifesto. While Agile Manifesto was prohibiting extensive upfront requirements gathering for software product development keeping working software as a measure of progress, the Agile manifesto never eliminated documentation requirements. In fact the stage-gate approaches promoted by Dr. Robert Cooper from the Product Development Institute (Cohn, 2010) takes product development from discover to post-launch review through the stage gates of idea development, business case development, development, testing, validation, and launch introduces multiple stage gates. Each stage gate becomes a major milestone serving as a go/no-go decision making point.

A formal product selection criteria, also advanced by Project Management Institute’s Program and Portfolio Management Processes, for the organization to evaluate the key performance indicators to measure the return on investment (ROI) and use financial measures likes Internal Rate of Return (IRR), Net Present Value (NPV), & payback period to evaluate the profit potential, operating expenses, resource requirements is not prohibited by Agile Manifesto. Some product development where specialized expertise is outsourced to be competitive in the market, dependencies on external vendors that handle testing or audit procedures, use of distributed agile teams, or adherence to high quality management practices like CMMI may mandate that the standard operating procedure (SOP) is clearly outlined so that the teams productively work towards product development and are not burning unnecessary cycle times with delays and external dependencies. Not considering these things in advance by using Agile’s Manifesto as the shield to avoid “Contract Negotiation” or “Comprehensive Documentation” is not Agile’s failure.

Mike Cohn (2010), a pioneering contributor to the Agile Manifesto, recommends that any document or artifact required to achieve compliance be part of the product backlog and use of agile project management tool and practices for products in the regulated industries demanding compliance requirements. In a white paper submitted by Primavera, Oracle (2011) recommends the combination of Agile and Enterprise Project Portfolio Management (PPM) systems mitigates the risk in pharmaceutical and financial services industry (p. 3) increasing visibility of projects, resources, schedules and business value for the entire organization (p. 6).

It is therefore evident that our own understanding of Agile’s core principles may have to evolve when we apply agile in different industries. But, putting down project governance, product selection, and product portfolio management techniques as ineffective practices promoted by Agile is choosing to ignore the best practices. It is no wonder that topics of scaling agile are evolving leading to the latest description of Scaled Agile Framework (2013) for implementing scaled lean and hybrid agile framework in enterprises.

Description of the Scaled Agile Framework (2013). Retrieved October 26, 2013, from

Oracle (2011). The Yin and Yang of Enterprise Project Portfolio Management and Agile Software Development: Combining Creativity and Governance. Retrieved October 27, 2013, from

Cohn, M. (2010). Succeeding with Agile: Software development with Scrum. Boston, MA: Addison Wesley

Monday, September 30, 2013

PMO Agility: Business case to operate as a Profit center

In a recent networking event that I hosted on Effective Agile Transformation, a question came up from interested attendees on whether a Project Management Office or Program Management Office (PMO) should have different metrics to measure projects. An example of a metric that was tossed around was that projects in a traditional waterfall approach may use schedule variance whereas agile projects may measure velocity.

I believe these questions are rooted in traditional thinking where people look up to Agile as a radical way of doing projects differently only to arrive at the same results. The Stacey’s diagram that Agile principles promote definitely call out that not all projects will benefit from applying agile principles of iterative and incremental delivery. So, all types of projects should be evaluated based on value generation. Any type of key performance indicator basically evaluates this value generation as evidenced by Michael Porter’s value chain theory where project management is an indispensable support management activity.

For instance, let us consider “Time to market.” This metric measures the elapsed time from the onset of the project to its delivery. Measured from the start date to the end date in the baseline may go for, say 8 weeks. Now, an experienced project manager may use the “80-hour” productivity rule to mark a milestone introducing checkpoints for incremental value delivery. This milestone may be a requirement freeze, delivery of a certain development, receipt of assets from a client, procurement of a vendor contract, etc.  This 80-hour commitment is already making a project manager think agile in a project that need not lend itself for agile implementation. Unlike an agile project, this 80-hour duration need not be equated to a certain number of story points to establish a team velocity.

Therefore, while every PMO needs to be formed based on business needs and not all metrics may be equally extended to all PMOs, I believe and challenge all business driven PMOs to think and act like Profit Centers instead of cost centers while measuring  value generation. This value generation underscores project managers to become skilled at proactively managing the projects by becoming subject matter experts in the domain skills relevant to the project, master organizational skills to mitigate risks, learn negotiation skills to control the project scope but allowing changes, and understand empowerment skills in energizing and motivating the team.

As an example, let us take the “Time to market.” Let us say, if two similar projects that focus on developing a website are developed by two different project managers. Now, if on a consistent basis one project manager can deliver projects of similar complexity in 6 weeks while the other project manger takes 8  weeks to deliver, then, the skilled project manager has shown the organization that the costs savings for 2 weeks on a consistent basis from the agreed project baseline duration of 8 weeks. If PMOs operate as profit centers, then, the PMO can look for increasing the skills of the PM in project management areas to think and be agile. 

Would you agree? 

Friday, August 30, 2013

Chaos Control: Agility in transforming communication - SIT principle

One of the main ingredients of a Project Manager’s success is taking charge of communication. If communication is half of the struggle, then, how you communicate is the remaining part of the trouble. Recently, I observed a series of emails from a number of remotely distributed team members. Within a few hours, there were close to 35 emails on the same topic with various members not always picking up the latest thread and using that prohibited button, “Reply to All”. Reminding me of a war room where all members were screaming at each other, this observation is an example of “Email Noise” that serves its very opposite purpose of “Clear Communication.” Proving that emails loses transparency to project team (let alone executives), fails to hold people accountable in a situation that calls for collaboration, and loses control in prioritizing the work queue unless the project manages “takes charge”.

Agile principles promote that teams should be collocated for this reason. Besides, communication is structured to ask what happened yesterday, what is going to happen today, and what are the obstacles to reach the goals? While change is constant and agile accommodates it, this does not mean that some basic principles of productivity management for systems development (Barry & Wyatt, 1996) should fly out the window. These principles include 1) defining the job in detail, 2) getting right people involved, 3) estimating time and costs, 4) breaking the job down, 5) establishing the change procedure, and 6) agreeing on the acceptance criteria.

Remote distributed virtual team structures are not disappearing. Project Managers and functional leaders should become attuned to this requirement and need to be “agile” in their thinking and communication so that these team structures can still benefit from unambiguous communication that I believe can be can be categorized into one of the three categories – Semantics, Influence, & Technology (SIT). 
  1. When the question is relatively easy (Boolean response of somewhat fuzzy but still not complex), it can be categorized as technical. For instance, checking on availability of an individual to cover for someone during a holiday period (Boolean) or requesting someone to check for review error logs to identify the cause or review a long document for clarity, resorting to email is definitely better.
  2. But, when the same requires deeper discussions requiring prioritization of tasks to meet client needs, and working on multiple projects that have resource constraints, then, communication is no longer simple requiring one to exhibit influence over what the project team may think.
  3. When the team structure is distributed across time zones or the environment requires navigating through multiple client priorities, personality profiles, escaped defects noted by the client in production aggravating users, the communication evolves to semantics where ambiguity reigns.

One may find that this resonates to the principle of information theory where the Channel Capacity (C) the strength of “signal” has to be increased within the allowable limits of the bandwidth in the channel (B) over the noise (N) introduced. Interested readers can review the Shannon-Hartley theorem (n.d.) for the details . The same is true even in Project Communication:

Clarity in communication is directly proportional to the versatility of the communication style of the originator and inversely proportional to the presence of verbal communication in the communication medium. 

I view this clarity in communication as the utility value of the agility in communication. An email going out asking a question or answering a question for which another question is asked in response means that communication is ambiguous. Such iterative sprints of email communication will not be interactive yielding results when influence and semantics mandate attention. Use of video podcasts, conference bridges, and plain collaborative conversations will transform the signal strength in communication. Using this SIT model determining the right vehicle to communicate is more important than the communication. In order to be successful in agile, one has to be agile and think agile. Results will then speak for themselves.

Barry, T., & Wyatt, B. (1996). The six principles of productivity management - project management for systems development. 27th Annual Seminar/Symposium, Project Management Institute.

Shannon-Hartley theorem (n.d.). Retrieved Aug 27, 2013, from

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Agile Success Seed: Product Owner’s role to manage risk

One of the common themes that often percolate as organizations transition to agile approaches has been the identification of who owns the product vision. In a traditional project, often as recommended by Project Management Institute, effective project managers control the risk related processes as they own the project's scope. With agile thinking, this burden of responsibility shifts to the product owner because maintaining the product roadmap (starting with the vision) and grooming the product backlog is the product owner’s responsibility.

But, one of the common pitfalls that I believe is a root cause for agile’s implementation failure is the inadequate orientation of the product owner to be available to do this role. Product backlog grooming is no longer entry of information in a tool or grid but is a systematic approach to handling prioritization of events that could positively or negatively impact the features in a product backlog with an unforgiving focus on business value. When products are designed and developed in vacuum without thinking through how it will be rolled out, this intense focus on business value is no longer on the radar. Depending upon who plays the product owner role (Business Analyst, Project Manager, Project Manager, Functional Manager, etc.), the nature of identifying risks morphs so much that agile projects stumble during its build (any of the releases/sprint) or as they hit the road for clients to consume. So, what are the key steps for a product owner to monitor as they maintain/groom the product backlog?

The first step to monitor the horizon for events can derail the project. The team can give some input but the onus lies on product owner to do the SWOT analysis and assess if the risks impact any of the features. This assessment could actually reveal new features to the backlog even on completed features. Care must be taken not to become too granular in not getting carried away for risks that impact user stories or tasks to be completed. For instance, instead of focusing on resource availability in a shared environment that may impact sprint velocity, focus should be towards eliminating risks that address training for the team to embrace agile, tools and processes to streamline communication, etc. The hardening iteration (Iteration 0) is a good place to begin this risk assessment.

When avoidance, or withdrawing is not an option, the second step is, to mitigate the risk. This step involves enforcing best practice guidelines, using service level agreements, having standard operating procedures, or leveraging feedback loops to optimize the business processes. The sprint retrospectives are a good area for product owner that has assumed the role but not having formal product ideation training within the specific industry. This need necessitates that the product owner becomes available for the team to gather this information first-hand through osmotic communication. The more the product owner becomes unreachable, the more this risk assessment loses accountability leading to failure.

Sometimes, mitigation may not be the best strategy because of the detailed subject matter expertise involved, or the time commitments to deliver earlier. For example, consider the translation of voice and email notifications in foreign languages or consolidating data centers distributed globally that require specialized skills. In such cases, the third step is transferring the risk to another more informed party (e.g.: outsourcing, consultant, application service provider). Many best practices from the mitigation strategy will still apply here, but the focus shifts more on the other responsible party, similar to transferring risk to an insurance carrier. For a product owner to get familiar with these trends, a more conscientious awareness of domain knowledge skills and business knowledge skills become necessary so that the product owner is able to make a case for the return on investment of continuing to build the product.

When none of the strategies work, the final and fourth strategy is the acceptance strategy. It is in this stage, the team absorbs the risk. Yet, the product owner and the team negotiate on how much velocity can be consumed in that particular iteration if the probability of risk to materialize is higher. Perhaps that particular iteration should have more “Should do” and “Could do” features from product backlog and not do any “Must do” features. Similar to business continuity planning or disaster recovery planning, the product can proactively select the right mix of user stories for the team to implement to show progress but protect the team by managing risks.

In summary, the risk management principles are no longer just a project manager’s toolkit and are the seeds of success for successful agile implementation. They equally extend to a product owner because in an agile world, quality is non-negotiable as the product is operationalized and introduced to the customers. In order to embrace change, risk should also be equally invited and managed proactively. Having a product owner available to ramp up to speed with the domain knowledge of the operating business and understand the project risk management principles is inevitable for maintaining the product backlog, without which the product cannot be sustained. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Thinking Differently: Transformation from Individual to a Group and to a Team

In today’s project centric, globally diverse, distributed and virtual team environment, the ability of the members in a team to collaborate together is an integral part of individual’s and team’s success. Bruce Tuckerman outlined the four major stages of a team’s development as individuals become group and evolves to be a team. While agile methodology may promote the need for the self-organized team within an engineering context in a product development setting, every other type of business units such as the technical operations, infrastructure, business development, sales and marketing benefit from effective team habits.

But, little do many recognize that what differentiates a team from a group. A set of individuals with a like mindset may be assembled to a form a group but if each individual has an agenda that is larger than the common goal of the group, then, the team still not established.  The group may be best represented by the Forming and Storming stages as espoused by Tuckerman where the team is still dependent on the leader to make the decisions for the team. As the group member’s polarity on priorities is aligned towards the common business, they morph as teams entering into the later stages of Norming and Performing.

Stephen Kohn, the president of Work & People Solutions of a management and training firm, along with his senior partner Vincent O’Connell consolidated their management and training experience to identify six key traits of an effective team (Kohn and O’Connell, 2007). One of these six habits includes the lateral thinking promoting how teams can innovate and invigorate by working towards common goals avoiding ineffective arguments. Often, the thinking process is associated with the systematic way of logical breakdown of ideas.

The Toyota’s 5-Why principle to get down the root problem is such an example of decision tree analysis. Perhaps emanating from the control systems theory of constraints model, this hierarchical analytical thinking approach is good but does it always generate creative ideas? For instance, how could the famous Schumpeter have predicted the “Creative Destruction” model that led to the demise of “brick-and-mortar” organizations opening up the new avenues of eCommerce and eBusiness during a period of industrial automation dominated by scientific management principles?

Lateral thinking is generative and involves asymmetric pattern processing which is not always done in sequential order, infers Edward de Bono who coined this approach in 1967 (“de Bono, n.d., de Bono, 1999). These principles are similar to how the Agile principles promote generative behaviors through the prescriptive processes. This lateral thinking paves its foundations through six “thought” domains, called six hats. In the first domain, the team is provided with all the information available for the team to on a “fact-finding” expedition, absorb, and brainstorm alternatives. This first domain is called the white hat thinking.

The next stage leads to eliciting the team’s emotional reaction to the alternatives and decisions. Focusing on immediate reactions without any bias, this second domain called the Red hat, attempts to unearth emotional relationships. In a balanced way, the two subsequent stages evaluate playing devil’s advocate looking at the downside to selecting a solution and looking at the optimistic side of benefits of choosing the solution. These domains are called Black hat and Yellow hat respectively.

The next stage explores invoking additional ideas that could offset the downside and enhance the benefits similar to an effective and proactive risk management approach. The techniques such as force field analysis are good tools to explore for teams besides brainstorming, Delphi and Wideband Delphi approaches as they evaluate the ideas for execution friendliness if bound by time constraints. This fifth domain of additional idea generation is the Green hat. The final hat, called Blue hat, puts on the tactical glasses to operationalize and institutionalize the idea by streamlining the processes necessary to execute.

Great, how does these relate in real life? Say, we are confronted with a scenario of quality defects in a production application come to us. Most of the “white hat” thinking would be to immediately soak ourselves in getting the details of what happened, when it occurred, how it was unearthed, etc. This would be the White Hat thinking. As the team gathers the information and evaluates the audit trail or transaction logs, the team may isolate the issue to a specific module or any systemic events. Instead of looking at the people side of the equation, effective team explores red-hat thinking evaluating alternatives and corrective action and seeks gut reactions. The focus is shifting from “What happened” to “Why it happened” and “How to prevent”. Effective teams would naturally morph into wearing the “Black hat” and “Yellow hat” in terms of the sense of urgency to fix to address customer concern, business impact, etc. While the symptom can be addressed this way, the team wears the “Green hat” to address the root cause of the problem with a better and permanent fix to avoid similar issues affecting other customers and finally take on the “Blue hat” to also streamline the processes by updating documents and manuals, communicating changes required, and providing training as necessary.

Isn’t it wonderful to realize the truth to the expression of “wearing multiple hats” to think differently? As you can see, the team’s ability to think laterally enhances the overall team’s ability gain trust as the organizations begin to see the team’s effectiveness in working towards the goal instead of pursuing individual agenda. As the team practices lateral thinking, the daily sprints become effective, additional meetings become redundant and unnecessary, and innovation is collaborative where together everyone achieves more (TEAM) (Temme, 1996). In these teams, the project manager becomes more of a mentor and coach keeping the team engaged to follow the processes towards desired results.

de Bono, E. (1999). Six Thinking Hats. New York: Little Brown
de Bono, E. (n.d.). Thinking Tools. Retrieved April 28, 2013, from
Kohn, S. & O’Connell, V.D. (2007). 6 habits of highly effective teams. Franklin Lakes, NJ: CareerPress
Temme, J. (1996). Team Power. Mission, KS: SkillPath Publications

Monday, May 27, 2013

Agility outside of Software Development: A case study from a Theatrical Play

In the ever growing need for agility in today’s business context, the principles espoused by agile Manifesto have emphasized enhanced productivity, increased customer satisfaction, and improved profitability. As noted in the previous blog entries, these principles are so entrenched from the software development practices that one of the foundational agile manifesto principles value working software over comprehensive documentation. Does this mean then that IT projects establish the glass ceiling for the agile principles?

As a member of the Chicago Tamil Sangam’s recent venture to stage a historical play, “Ponniyin Selvan” (n.d.) that was staged on May 4, 2013, we staged a historical play in the Tamil language. Centered on a course of events that took place several centuries earlier, the play presented several unique challenges that were overcome by applying some basic agile principles breaking the glass ceiling demystifying how these principles can extend outside of IT projects.  

The limelight of the play was its backdrop set in 11th century Chola Dynasty in ancient India that weaved several challenge threads, such as the following, that needed to be collaborated to allow the finished fabric shine.
  1. Preparing rich costumes, jewelry, and artifacts to differentiate the Emperor, the Kings, Queens, Ministers, and workers that required coordinated efforts to identify the needs among the actors, procure items necessary from India, and get them shipped from India.
  2. Identifying the needs of the auditorium based on the play requirements, distance, transportability and audience needs
  3. Designing several high-end artifacts that were transportable with easy assembly, such as preparing backdrops suitable for the play, two boats that moved, a ship with effects to display shipwreck, a palanquin as an entry point for the character, and pillars establishing the authenticity of the 11th century
  4. Rehearsing the play spread over five volumes perfecting dialogue delivery, enunciation of words, clarity of voice projection, light cues for various spots on the stage differentiating progress of characters and events through various backgrounds, preparation and coordination of musical clues, singing and dance choreograph appropriate to the characters, body language clues collaboration such as when to pass the message card or the crown, how various characters should see during critical scenes, 3 full length exams including a daylong marathon practice sessions.
  5. Advertisement and marketing efforts on social media, press, and soliciting appreciation from prominent external representatives, such as the President of India, increasing the reach
  6. Subsequent preparation for the main event date with food and supply for the crew, makeup needs, and transportation of goods, stage preparation, and coordination of light clues with the auditorium crew that didn’t speak the regional language, backstage line up of cast during the play informing what scene is in progress
  7. Addressing challenges for audience lineup, food distribution, parking lot and law & order challenges

Do any of these resonate with agile thinking that many reserve for software development projects? Let us revisit the Agile Manifesto (n.d.) and evaluate against this stage play.

Evaluation of the First Agile Manifesto Principle
The first Agile manifesto principle recommends “individuals and interactions over processes and tools.”  While following the audition, the characters were formed, several self-organized teams evolved that took on preparing specific artifacts. While marketing team operated separately from the teams that designed the costumes, prepared the ship, palanquin, backdrop, pillars, and boats, every team led communicated updates through the distribution group, on specific phone conferences, and provided incremental updates. So much was the focus on the individuals and interactions that when one member felt challenged by a work schedule, business trip, or a family emergency, there were so many willing and helpful members that came to assistance. Every team meeting ended up with a summary of the next action items following the same basic principles of what progress has happened, what progress is expected before the next meeting, and what the challenges were trying to create a win-win situation for all.

Evaluation of the Second Agile Manifesto Principle
“Working software over comprehensive documentation, “says the second Agile manifesto principle. While it is true that iterative delivery of working software makes the user experiment with the software mitigating the risk of failure, enhancing speed to market, and satisfying end user experience, can we rethink of what software is? 

How many of us will travel on a bridge that is functional for the first 200 yards but the remaining 100 yards is not yet constructed? How many of us are willing to buy a book that has the first three chapters written but the next 3 chapters are in script review? As you can see, in some cases, the end result has to be a fully functional system or product and not partially working product. This play required that all the 50 scenes are seamlessly orchestrated and not just partially done. However, the challenges of the working individuals that made up the cast or the stage preparation crew that had overlapping members with cast, required we divide and conquer using iterative releases.

Dividing scenes of the main events in the play, the cast was informed to memorize the lines, rehearse their dialogue, and practice their songs with every weekly iterations and monthly releases over approximately 6 months rehearsing specific scenes in the sequence, making progress in preparing artifacts, checking the costumes, perfecting dance, singing, and fighting sequences of the play. There were even members invited only to provide constructive criticism using index cards presenting the user stories. For instance, one of the index card read, “As a minister to the King, you should not use too many hand gestures to show your surprise so that the audience knows that you are always composed and thinking of the next scheme.”  Even the venue selection for the 40 individual practice days was so distributed to address geographical challenges to collocate the team to benefit from osmotic communication in that everyone could manage to attend understanding stage movement clues, voice projections under different audio systems, as well as including phone rehearsals to perfect dialogue delivery to combat.

Agile does not say “no documentation” but only “comprehensive documentation.” But, the extent of required documentation is left to the individuals in the team. While there was no specific documentation created on how to assemble the palanquin or the shipwreck scenario, there was a substantial documentation created with more than 150 light clues on what area of the stage had spot light, when there was colored light, when the light flashed to add special effects, etc.  Similarly, there was documentation on the backstage collaboration as stage, scene, and individual props moved seamlessly through worksheets identifying who moved and removed properties to the stage, where they moved, how they moved, and communication protocols to the custodian that gave the cues to the light crew sitting far from the stage.

Evaluation of the Third Agile Manifesto Principle
Agile manifesto values customer collaboration over contract negotiation. Again, real life scenarios such as these stage plays challenge the common thinking of who the customer is.  In business parlance, the customer is the one that pays for the product or service and is the reason why the company is in the business. Extending the same terminology would mean the audience that came to see the show or the sponsors that supported the show were the customer. But, this stage play extended the notion of customer far higher, such as the following instead of going back to “what you are supposed to have done” contracts based on the rehearsal.
  1. A character is a customer when talking/interfacing with another character. So, even when the lines and body language were rehearsed, the team didn’t wait for the cue words that went missing but filled and moved on.
  2. The light crew was a customer to the character on stage and when the character in the spur of the moment was on the right marked spot to deliver, the light crew attempted to refocus the light.
  3. The cast themselves were customers to the stage crew that required the individual properties to be returned to them for reuse in other scenes. However, when one member missed it on stage or left it on different section of the stage, the backstage crew or the experienced cast members accommodated to keep the show moving without backlog.
  4. The self organized team was so focused on the goals that lines of who was the director/facilitator (product owner) or who was the process checker (scrum master/coach) never needed to surface. So tightly integrated the team was that they even altered their international and other business trips to attend rehearsals, participated in phone rehearsals from taxis, cabs, and hotels during their business trips. The “How may I help?” message and motivation support was so evident among the cast, crew, organizers, and volunteers.

Evaluation of the Fourth Agile Manifesto Principle
Finally, Agile recommends responding to change over following a plan. Although Agile may promote this value statement, this value proposition is emanating from common misconception of traditional project managers that think, “Plan the work and work the plan.” Fundamentally, such purist project managers are those that came to the profession accidentally thinking that working the Microsoft Project plan and being a task master is all that this Project Management means. Contrary to this belief, experienced project mangers whether they follow Agile or Waterfall, know that no project goes by the tasks laid out in the work breakdown structure (WBS) of the project plan exactly. If they do, why is fast tracking and crashing approaches exist? 
  1. In the stage play, several “gotcha” moments existed. A few examples include the following that emphasize how the stage and crew adopted to change instead of reacting to we should stick to the plan. People that failed to project their voice or speak closer to the microphone got directions from the crew or other supporting cast on stage using body language to direct them to speak louder.
  2. Microphones that did not pick the voice adequately from where the throne was located requiring the cast to adjust their movements requiring them to “be in the act” walking closer to the microphones.
  3. Using incorrect clues from the stage coordinator to the light crew that started the scene prior to the backdrop swap was completed requiring to readjust the plan as the volunteers got stuck behind and could not be readily available for the next stage transition.
  4. Realigning the position of the location of the palanquin and using different spotlight from the originally approved light sequence when the microphone needs challenged the available moving space for the cast.
  5. Altering the movement of the boat movement sequence requiring using the entire stage area differently.

In a nutshell, this stage play is one of the several testimonials that Agility should be in one’s mind first. The Agile Manifesto might have started as guiding principles of software development but its prescription is definitely not limited to the software development projects.  It is important to understand that everything Agile is subjective and not definitive. This is sine qua non of Agile Project Management. The goal of the iterations or releases are incrementally building progress towards the end goal and the role of the product owner or scrum master is to be authentic in their leadership so that the group buys into the goal becoming a self-organized team. Then, the teams don’t just break a leg! They make history.

Manifesto for Agile software development (n.d.). Retrieved May 11, 2013, from
Ponniyin Selvan (n.d.) Retrieved May 13, 2013, from Wikipedia

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Agile's Amigo: Process

Stuck in flight delays at the Airport in the last few days, I was sitting at the Gate near the corner of a terminal where I could see through the glass windows the crew that was using the back doors along with the customer service representatives answering the stranded passengers and interacting with the flight crew for boarding preparation. Simultaneously, maintenance crew was inspecting the plane, another group loading the baggage, and yet another group fueling the plane. None of these various groups were visibly communicating among each other at the same time but the whole flow seems so orchestrated. If getting the plane to fly were to be considered as an agile project, then, the tasks associated with checks and balances is so much grounded in process which made me reflect on some comments by a few agile practitioners that there is no value in process documentation.

It is true that Agile Manifesto associates a higher value to “Individuals and interaction” over “processes and tools” and “Working software” over “comprehensive documentation.”  But, does Agile truly suggest not having any process to follow or ignore writing any documentation? Let us challenge the agile purists then why is Agile so process heavy requiring a process to capture user stories to have some minimum qualifications emphasizing the INVEST principle and backlog entries to follow a DEEP property? Why the developer can’t be left to interpret what should be developed instead of requiring to also understanding how it should be tested?  One may then associate that such silo-ed thinking may lead to failures from waterfall to repeat requiring collaborating using the daily sprint and using the agile dashboards for communication.  In that case, let us reflect further.
  1. If projects are successful because of people, then, let us also accept that not all people absorb and consume information at the same pace even in a self-organized team – requiring at least some level of process enforcement such as the same repeated questions used to uproot challenges in a daily sprint. Isn’t this some level of process?
  2. Even from a pure engineering and development standpoint, then, why is Agile putting such an emphasis on Refactoring going down to the level of documenting specific smells (Agile terminology indicating a symptom of a problem) collapsing classes to simplify object inheritance design, long parameter list, and even recommendations of how much should be in a specific try/catch block? Isn’t this substantial documentation of processes to be used in agile projects?

Most of the contributors to the agile manifesto came from a strong technical background with a focus on developing IT projects. The logical breakdown of thought process is inherent in the IT discipline. Yet, these practitioners carefully drafted the four manifesto statements where processes, tools, comprehensive documentation, contract negotiation, and following a plan were not considered effective or essential. To those agile practitioners avoiding creating documentation or valuing following a process, let us emphasize that Process is the Agile’s Amigos! 

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Project Quality: Whose job is it to guarantee it?

In a series of training that I was recently providing to project managers, software testers, and business analysts, I found discussions that focused on who were responsible for software quality in projects. The project managers thought it was QA department role.  QA passed it back to requirements form business analysts who then delegated to directions from the project managers.  With so much literature on total quality management, Six Sigma, capability maturity model, and organizational project management maturity model, it dawned on me that it is this inherent lack of ownership for quality is the reason why quality is suffering in many projects.

Basic requirements of quality is often described that quality is the adherence to requirements and fitness for use.  When you look at the key deliverable of this statement, “requirements” stem from the project requirements. In traditional projects, this requirement may come from the client, business analyst, project manager, or the product owner at a minimum. In agile projects, this could be coming from the product owner or client, scrum master or coach, and the team at a minimum. The “fitness for use” stem from timely release of the futures to ensure that the client can benefit from the release.

But, does this definition unambiguously tell whose responsibility is quality? The Chartered Quality Institute comes to rescue as it defines quality management as an company’s approach to “…understanding precisely what customers need and consistently delivering accurate solutions within budget, on time, and with minimum loss to society.” (“What is Quality”, n.d., para 1)  This definition emphasizes quality within the project constraints budget and time limiting the focus to the scope of the project’s requirements but also to the needs of the society relating to the fitness for use. A project manager is not developing the code or involving in the execution of tests. But, quality is the fourth constraint that is compromised as the other project constraints are modified. Therefore, project manager is accountable for the quality.  

It reminds me of the famous parable on the virtue of citizenship from the “Adventures from the Book of Virtues.” Many subjects in the kingdom complained about many things in the kingdom and not taking true ownership for improvement. The king hid a pot of gold beneath a big boulder and waited to see who took leadership for removing the rock enhancing safety and quality experience for the others that passed by.  Quality is the same thing as the citizenship requirement. It is everyone’s job. The more structured approaches the organization uses in testing accuracy through automation, test case development, and test execution, the more the project manager becomes attuned to following through on quality, the more the team members will become focused on providing quality by design rather than expecting it to be accidentally evolving.


What is Quality? (n.d.) The Chartered Quality Institute.  Retrieved March 28, 2013, from

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Agile – Is it a Panacea or a Placebo?

It is true that the fundamental twelve agile principles ( have helped many projects succeed in organizations. These results are evident in the increasing 61% of agile practitioners promoting the adoption in Agile in organizations, as noted by the 7th annual state of agile development survey conducted by Version One. But, several agile purists focus on some of the buzzwords, such as the Test Automation, making as though Agile is the cure-all for all business problems.

Those in the technical world may understand the famous statement, “Not all business problems are nails to use the same hammer as the tool,” when common object request broker architecture (CORBA) was initiated to introduce by Object Management Group (OMG) the communication between software components regardless of the underlying language used to develop them. However, it is interesting that some agile practitioners are inclining towards test automation as a cure-all (panacea) treating all test cases alike.

Testing requires two basic requirements namely verification and validation. Verification is the process of evaluating test cases, test scripts, requirements or user stories to ensure that the process of testing is going to ensure that the required functionality is present to meet the user requirements. The focus of verification is on the process and is therefore an improvement process oriented towards assuring quality (QA). But, validating is the ongoing approach to test the software with the goal to identify defects. These defects could be traced to the faulty code, inaccurate design, incomplete or ambiguous requirements, misinterpretation of the requirements, or a combination of these factors. Validating therefore aims at controlling quality (QC).

So, test automation can definitely help in the validation to ensure that every incremental build is tested for the new features but also for the previous features. It is therefore not a placebo but is not a panacea for all business problems. Depending upon the unique business requirements, some requiring can’t be easily automated even if technology can allow it. For instance, testing the human interfacing with the interactive voice response (IVR) at various points in the call flow to check for the disposition code, checking for the line breaks in the email, or the accidental mix up of Far Eastern Asian Language characters because languages such as the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean share a common base do benefit from manual testing.

It is therefore important to evaluate what is the business need in test automation and identify areas that can lead to efficiency gain. Redman and Nielsen (2013) very nicely paraphrased Deming in the Harvard Business Review article suggesting to carefully select the right process to automate explaining “… automating a process that produces junk just allows you to produce more junk faster". Deming might have inferred this long before the agile was conceived but some golden principles do stand the test of time.

Redman, T.C., & Nielsen, D. (2013). Computerization in Health Care Demands High Data Standards. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved February 28, 2013, from

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Project Managers as Change Agents

Recently, when I was training on the agile project management framework with Scrum, one of the learners questioned why retrospectives are necessary after every sprint. In another isolated meeting, an underlying process challenge was identified by the Project Manager but a lessons-learned session never conducted. The project manager reasoned that the project is not completed to do a post-mortem. These observations underpin an important role of the project manager in waterfall or agile driven project to be a change agent.

Organizing the project is not just about conducting meeting, maintaining a project plan, or communicating status updates. A Project Manager has to under the larger holistic need of the purpose of the project – a vehicle for the organization to deliver a unique product or service. Whether such initiatives or research oriented, internal, or client facing, the project manager’s role is a supporting activity as Porter’s value chain approaches indicate. If there is a process change identified from one implementation of the project, then, such issues need to be escalated to address the gap so that another project benefits. The Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK) captures this essence while saying, “Project management activities should be aligned with top-level business direction, and if there is a change, then project objectives need to be realigned. “ (2013, p. 40)

To accomplish this need to maintain the alignment, the lessons learned must be as frequently conducted and reported. For instance, think of a module in a program that is having an issue. If the issue is in the core library and is identified, fixing the issue helps all the modules that will leverage this common module. Similarly, if one project identifies a process gap, then, conducting lessons learned to communicate the need and identify an action plan to address the issue will help the other projects. In this process, each project adds incremental value beyond the benefit of one project alone.  A project manager is not just a ring master routing tasks but is more like the performers on the swinging trapeze constantly and gracefully extending arms to support the other performers.