Would You Rather Plan For Risk or React To Circumstance

I was asked recently by someone I greatly admire and respect, “Wouldn’t you rather plan for risk than react to the circumstances that befall your project?”

At the time I was stumped.  Yes I guess I would, but we can’t see everything can we?  At least I can’t.

In reflection my answer is: I would rather do both.  See and plan for those risks I know  and use a daily scrum-like meeting to capture what I cannot plan for.

What are your thoughts?

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Can NASA Solve the Debt Crisis?

We can build machines that cover 140 million miles (225 million km), put themselves into orbit around Mars, nearly pinpoint their intended landing site through a brutal and high risk atmospheric entry and landing, and then traverse a rocky, radioactive environment in search of life or evidence that life once existed while beaming back its findings and data to Earth.

The feat of engineering that NASA undertook with Curiosity and the other Mars rovers reminds me of how well we solve difficult problems.  The multitude of different issues that needed to be resolved and planned for to achieve the Mars Curiosity mission is a miniature summation of human progress and achievement.  Its an accomplishment that would leave Galileo and Newton with a tear in their eye.

But it isn’t just space that we’re conquering.  Our ability to solve the riddles of our own DNA and it’s affect on our health, lifespan, and evolution are unwinding.   We can see into the past and determine how we evolved.

Likewise, climate change, a haunting and scary problem, has precedence for resolution.  We’ve fixed our planet’s atmosphere before. Remember the ozone hole?

So with all this on our resume….why can’t we solve the problems ***we*** create?   We’re not good at this.  Our track here is shockingly bad.

  • Poverty
  • War
  • Economic Recessions, Depressions,
  • Bankruptcy ( a.k.a ….too much debt )
  • Crime

We created these problems.  We’ve put mechanisms in place to “manage” them.  But we really suck at trying to solve these.  Why?

A good mentor points out your faults.  He tells you, flat out, what your issue is and helps coach you to resolution.  A mentor can do this because he’s been there, made the mistake, and lived through its resolution.  The accumulated wisdom and experience make all the difference.  There are boundaries to intelligence and determination that only failure, recovery and reflection can overcome.

We need NASA.  We need them to find a mentor for the human race somewhere in that deep black void that can hold up the mirror and say “See what the problem is now? Now…let’s fix it.  Here’s how we tackled the debt crisis on planet Zenon.”

The Agile Management Fad

Is Agile a management fad?  Is its blistering adoption throughout the world rooted in a proven value driven approach or the hysteria of the masses clamoring for a new trend to profit from and identify with?

Fad – defined

According to Wikipedia a management fad has certain characteristics. Let’s look through these defining elements and see if Agile can fit this definition.

1. New Jargon for Existing Business Processes?  Seems that there are plenty of examples that fit this like:

Manifesto = Mission

User Story = Requirement

Planning Poker = Estimating

Daily Scrum = Daily 15 minute meeting

Scrum Master = Coordinator/Facilitator with no authority.

2. External Consultants Who Specialize In the Implementation of the FadWould anyone deny that agile has these in abundance?  Agile consultants are everywhere and firms specializing in agility are in no short supply.

3. A certification or appraisal process performed by an external agency for a fee.  Yep. Many of these exist. Although they don’t all agree with one another on the merits for earning that certification, CSM, CSP, PMI-ACP, and the icAgile body of certifications represent a diversity of vehicles for achieving formal certification.

4. Amending the job titles of existing employees to include references to the fad.  There could be room for debate on this one, but a short search on monster.com or dice.com show a plethora of ‘agile project manager’ versus ‘project manager’ positions.   Equally, we’ve seen software developers that specialize in agile practices now called “ninjas” and there is the  “agile scrum coach” that now replaces the old title “application development manager”.

5. Claims of a measurable business improvement via measurement of a metric that is defined by the fad itself.  Velocity is the most prominent measure that comes to mind.  Further velocity is defined in increments the fad defines: story points.

6. An internal sponsoring department or individual that gains influence due to the fad’s implementation.  Organizational Agile Coaches, or an Agile Center of Excellence are two examples that have become common.

7.  Big words and complex phrases.  This one is kind of subjective, but YAGNI might quality. SolutionsIQ even published an agile glossary so you can keep up with all the terms & definitions.

Fad? Yes.  Value?  Yes.

So by this definition agile is, well,…a fad.   But does that mean agile practices have no value?  Here’s some of the things we’ve learned ( or re-learned ) from agility:

1.  Daily communication among team members really matters when the work is complex.

2.  The people doing the work must be accountable for it.  Don’t let them hide behind a project manager.  Let them take pride in what they do.

3.  Requirements require constant communication, clarification and understanding.  It’s a continuous phase communication cycle, not a document.

4.  Regular, timely feedback on work improves quality and job satisfaction.

5.  Teams need help coordinating, facilitating and communicating between themselves and others.

Agile’s popularity is still growing.  Clearly some of us see benefit even as the marketing machine twists agility into something it never really was or will ever be.  Like management fads before it ( Six Sigma, TQM, and CMMI ) agile has made an impact on how we create value.

Is there a cult following?  Of course.  Everyone likes being popular and making money.  But the end state of the agile bubble will be a reconciliation back to reality.  There’s no silver bullet.  Problems still exist and we’re never fast or perfect enough for the shareholders or customers.  Room for improvement is omnipresent.

Summary

The fever pitch of the fad is a beacon.  Full value has been realized, copied, marketed and redistributed without concern for the result.  While time exists and there is still competitive advantage…the crowd still gathers.  But, the drivers of innovation have long moved off the curve of agility, hybridizing and envisioning new methods and tools for further improvement.  Another wave will again crest and break onto the shores of software management and leadership bringing the promise of ultimate productivity and quality, but delivering only incremental improvement.

The Real Project Management Triangle

As a project manager you’ve heard and seen this diagram too often in your career.  It’s often said that project managers are responsible for delivering on scope, budget and schedule.  In turn they are asked to ‘manage’ this.

But how does one do this?  Answer: you don’t.

Scope, schedule, and budget are not managed.  They are tracked to ascertain proximity to targeted objectives.  What’s managed are the things that affect scope, schedule and budget.  What are those?

1. Risks – Or the things that could go wrong or right.  Threats and opportunities.  A project manager that manages these well avoids trouble before it happens.

2. Issues – No one can see everything.  In time issues will come up, and part of how well a project is managed is how quickly and completely issues can be addressed.

3. Expectations – grounding stakeholders in reality and guiding them to a course that makes business sense rounds off the rough edges of a project.  It keeps everyone in alignment and makes issue resolution and risk mitigation easier.

So, while the PM is accountable for budget, scope and schedule; he/she makes a mistake by trying to ‘manage’ these.  Seeking out the  handles behind these indicators and using them to affect the outcome is what good project delivery is rooted upon.

Iterations Are to IT What Containers Were To Shipping

Introduction

Container shipping transformed the way goods were transported across geography and channel.   Instead of having many diverse payloads in differing container configurations for different modes of transport; a standard was defined for a rectangular container that could, through a set of standardized connection points,  be bolted to ship, train, or truck.   The result of simplifying the container configuration meant that transferring cargo between modes of transport became easier, shipping times were reduced from port, to rail, to truck.  Handling and management costs also went down because there was less variation in the cargo.

In the same way agile is standardizing the time-boxed delivery mechanism for software development.  Widely, today, the iteration is seen as that container.  In the majority of agile shops the 2 week iteration with a daily stand-up, front end planning session, and back-end review session; is the norm.  The channel of delivery might be scrum, xp, lean/kanban, or some hybrid of these.  The choice of which channel to use is deeply dependent on the business environment surrounding the software shop.   But regardless of the rails the iteration rolls over; it has become the choice for time-packaging completed requirements.

What are the implications of this to business and development groups?  What changes does this standard for team delivery impose/challenge the modern organization with?

Finance and Accounting

How capital projects are financed for internally used software has not followed the train of direction the iteration has brought forth.  Traditionally, project estimation is bottom up and we derive funding by establishing a level of effort ( LOE ) across the project, with some breakdown into work packages.    Iterations have the capacity to be the bricks of capital financing upon which projects are funded.

The challenge to IT finance groups is to derive the cost accounting for an iteration ( essentially a two week productive work team ) and then establish capital planning policies and procedures that estimate, plan, track and account by those iterations.

At first blush this sounds simple.  Why not just figure out the appropriate team composition: say 3 developers, 2 qa folks, 1 product owner and 1 team leader.   7 people X 50 hours a week = 350 hours X $70.00 per hour = $24,500.00 per iteration.  So now we just need to figure out how many iterations we need.  Right?

But wait….

What if I need a DBA, Infrastructure Person, or support analyst engaged?  How about software licensing, pc costs,  PTO ( paid time off ), employee rates vs consulting rates,  and other indirect costs?   What about the funding mix for any iteration?  Surely not all of it is CAPEX.  Some of it may be OPEX.  But what mix of a typical iteration should be OPEX vs CAPEX?   Should certain iteration models exist depending on what the team is doing?

These questions begin to explode the subtlety.  By standardizing delivery on iterations, the finance group and IT leadership can standardize the IT shop and its costs.  Should success be achieved, CAPEX and OPEX planning should become less complex and more routine; fundamentally reducing the infrastructure, roles, and process associated with this annual event while simultaneously establishing a standardized point of accountability and process planning.

This also changes the very nature of estimation from detailed to relative.  We’re now looking at value creation, rather than cost control.  The challenge back to the business will be how much value is derived at various cost points and at what point cost becomes too much.   Project costing becomes a negotiation toward shared value based on relative targets achieving a defined set of NPVs.

Management and Leadership

In an iterative organization the control, power, and operation are at the iteration team level.  Influencing those groups will require a leadership and management structure that is comfortable with fluid and mobile adaptation of resources to project needs.  Leadership truly begins to shine in this type of paradigm.  No longer dependent on a static formal organizational structure to derive power, the real leaders will begin to exert influence over these mobile iterative pods.

Those succeeding in such an organization will be gifted in the art of servant leadership, coaching, influence, and mentorship.  Command and control will be reserved for extreme HR issues alone.

Innovation

Iterations also change the shape of R&D and new innovative initiatives.  Iterations demand transparency, accountability, and risk reconciliation.  The iteration opens things up and standardizes the cycle of delivery.  To many this may stifle the idea of invention and creation by putting it on a disciplined cycle, but does it?   In plain english: business demands a return on its investment.  Research for research sake is a university concept.

Org Charts & Structure

How is organizational structure affected by the expansion of iterations?  While most IT shops today are familiar with the matrixed organizational structure, the iterative organizational structure groups teams into standardized pods for delivery.

The pods would favor generalists who are good at a multitude of IT functions but perhaps are not perfect at all aspects.  This structure would be fluid and adapt to organizational need.  An example iterative structure is below.  In this way the iterative POD is responsible to the director as a team.  All individuals in those pods report to him/her.

Personal Career Growth and Development

Iterations have already had an enormous influence on personal career development at software shops.  It’s not enough to be just a code whiz. Iterations place emphasis on teamwork, personal accountability, and decent communication skills.  Flexibility is also a key aptitude sought in the iterative individual.

Good delivery PODs are ready made hired guns.  Teams of professionals that could potentially write their own engagement.  In this way staffing by placement firms and consulting groups changes from individual placement to team sourcing.

Summary

The transformation of the shipping and distribution industries to containers wasn’t a simple overnight change.  Standardization requires upheaval and new ways of thinking, approaching old problems.  Organizations that adapt to the standard IT container and see it as more than just a ‘development thing’ are best positioned to yield the benefits that this change could bring.