How using outcomes can drive your agile delivery of value


Is your organisation successful in delivering value through agile methods? If not you are not alone. A great many who are either new to agile or have been doing it for a while struggle to get value delivered. While there can be many reasons for this, one common reason is because there is a lack of focus on the outcomes being delivered.

I recently had the Nest Thermostat installed; a sexy piece of gadgetry that replaces both your home heating programmer and thermostat. It made me think about focusing on outcomes to deliver considerable customer benefit and make for a much better user experience.

The problem

At it’s basic level my problem definition was ‘I don’t want to be cold in the mornings’. Traditionally, an organisation would be heading off down the requirements route, trying to work out how to make this happen. In part this is human nature, our brains are wired (especially engineers) to find solutions to problems. Before you know it Systems Architects or Business Analysis type roles create lengthy requirements documents based on (if we are lucky) conversations with the customer.

It’s unlikely once these documents have been written, the contents would have been validated with the customer. Even if they did, the way the requirements were written it was hard for a customer to say if it was right or not. If I as a customer saw a requirement saying, ‘engage the water pump at 6am’, how would I know if this added value? Might I even understand it at all?

When I think back to my original heating controls, when I first set it up, I had little or no knowledge of how long the house would take to warm up. In absence of this, I used a simple, but likely to be flawed plan, of working backwards from when we normally woke up. So in our house, the heating used to kick in at 6am, in the hope that at 7am it would be warm enough.

With a focus on outcomes you turn this around and might ask the customer, what does ‘not being cold mean?’ and they respond, ‘well say 20deg Centigrade at 7am’. On the Nest Thermostat this is exactly what you do.  Set the schedule to the outcome you want and don’t worry about how long it takes to get there as the new ways of working sorts this for you.

When you create your product or service, this is just how a delivery team would work. The customer or in Scrum their representative, the Product Owner, owns the outcome, 20deg at 7am, and the delivery team would own the solution of making that happen. While the client might have a passing interest in how the solution looks (no lump wood fires in the middle of the kitchen floor), it’s important not to be prescriptive with the solution as this can hinder the creativity the delivery team need to find a great solution.

Help the customer find the outcome

So while I’ve said you need to focus on outcomes, not every customer is going to come along and articulate the outcome straight away. Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” It is your job to help them and you to get to the true outcome. Techniques like 5 Whys, or using the coaching approach of, ‘what does that get for you?’ repeatedly allows you to unpick the problem.

From doing this, you may find there are large assumptions in their thinking, so some of your next steps might be doing some validation of the most riskiest ones, even before you start putting hands to keyboards and starting to code. To help guide you through the process of experimenting, try using a tool like the Javelin Experiment Board.

Don’t assume technology is needed

Solutions end up being by their very nature similar to things you’ve done before and often are tied to technology. What if initially part of your solution was done using a concierge service, where you staff a service and run it by hand while you validate what is really needed and how it might work. You may discover part of the solution is actually cheaper run this way than investing in the technology to do the same thing. Or it allows you to focus on the highest value items first while giving coverage through the human touch.

Outcomes can lead to innovation

When you have not had an auto-suggested a solution given to you, your creativity skills can be used to the fullest. It’s these moments of creativity that true innovation can occur. Asking yourself questions that start with, ‘What if….?’, help to unlock the ideas.

Next steps

Starting today, make sure your organisation’s focus is on outcomes of the most valuable items. Not doing so will result in products and services that do not satisfy the customer and underperform.

Be prepared to help your customer get there. See this as not a means to an end, but a way how you can truly add value to your relationship. Be ready to explore solutions and create an environment where that allows innovation to flourish.

If that still seems unclear then Tootechnical Ltd can help in two ways:

  • Product Management Pathway, a 12 week education program for your Product Managers, Product Owners and client teams to learn how to create products that your customers truly want.
  • Coaching, working directly with your organisation developing the skills to do this.

If either seem of interest, get in touch for a free initial assessment.

How dot voting can reveal the unexpected

While facilitating a stakeholder workshop recently, I ran two rounds of grouping and ordering. One I used dot voting, one didn’t. On reflection I was surprised with the results.

The question asked during these processes following a pattern of, what are your top three things you do/don’t like about a tool.  The stakeholders wrote their three things on post-it notes, which where then collected and read out in random order, and the stakeholders agreed on their grouping.

In the first round, we had three largely populated groups, and several smaller ones. Therefore we didn’t dot vote, as it was felt by the group, with me admittedly leading them, that these three groups represented the most important for the group overall.

Results without dot voting

Clearly three large groups were created.

On the second round, there were not any clear winners, by number of post-its, so we dot voted. The surprise came, that one of the top three items was a “group” of a single post it note. Everyone was happy with the outcome and we moved on. This single post-it note from a single person, turned out to be very important to people, but it didn’t come out when they were thinking up their three items.

How the top three were voted for which one was not from the largest post-it pile

Top three with dot voting with one from a single post-it

My insight here is that dot voting should always be used when running this and similar activities, as the top items might not necessarily be the item that came up the most.

Try it yourself and let me know if you also see smaller groups getting voted up.

Why failure isn’t bad, as long as you learn

Failure is sometimes seen as a bad word. When you discuss this with people, you discover it carries baggage, often from an identifiable incident where their failure was criticised by someone of influence. They are right in some ways though that failure can be bad, but only when you don’t learn from the failure.

A key facet of Agile principles is to continually improve, the inspect and adapt cycle. Scrum has a specific ceremony for it, the Sprint Retrospective. Scrum is an empirical process, meaning that it should be continually adapted and modified for your team and your project to improve the output of results being produced. While the retrospective is the headline act, improvements are not limited to here. Scrum teams benefit from improvements, often through feedback on either individual team members from other team members or the Scrum Master, the team or the product themselves from the Daily Standup through to the Sprint Review.

Titanic, we have been learning from failures for a long time.

The Titanic: We’ve learned from failures for a long time.

While as Scrum is taking the limelight in the IT world, Scrum didn’t create the concept of continuous improvement. If you’ve been around the block before, you’ll likely to have sat in either an After Action Review, Root Cause Analysis, Digital Six Sigma or a Lessons Learnt exercise. Where they often fell down, was how often they were done. Scrum does them every sprint, so typically twice or more a month, yet I can recall sitting in a meeting in a past life where we needed to remember what we could have improved at the beginning of a project that started 18 months before then; sometimes I struggle to remember what I did two weeks ago let alone 18 months ago!

Outside of the corporate world, learning from failure happens in many places. I coach my clients that, there is no failure only feedback. In sport, teams watch the tape of the match afterwards to learn and improve.

Embrace failure

The Psychologist Carol Dweck, who has focused on learning and education says, “You can still learn from your mistakes until you deny them.” and John Wooden the basketball coach says, “You aren’t a failure until you start to blame.”

So how do we learn without blame. In Scrum we often quote the Prime Directive at the beginning of a retrospective. In essence we should be looking to the future and not dwelling on the past, by focusing on the issues and learn what caused them so next time you don’t walk the same path.

I once worked with a client where a team thought they didn’t need do the retrospective as they would, ‘just get better on their own’ – clearly not the case as I’d been brought in to help their improvement activity! You do need to spend time taking a step back from the day-to-day work to reflect and learn, as there is no fairy dust you can sprinkle to make this happen.

Culture also comes in to play here. In the US, failure is seen less of an issue. In fact someone who wants to run their own business is given more credit for having tried before and failed and trying again – they are celebrated for the trying. In the UK, people commiserate you for the failure.

Failures make you stronger when you learn

Learn and adapt, become better, become the best. In the Lean Startup, Eric Ries says, “a setback, [is] an opportunity for learning how to get where they want to go”. As Albert Einstein says, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Learn from your failures, learn what to do differently, celebrate trying and celebrate the learning from trying.

Share your thoughts and tips on learning from your failures.

The Ups and Downs of Cultural Diversity to be run at the Scrum Gathering Paris

I am really pleased to announce that my proposal for a 90 minute workshop on Cultural Diversity has been selected for the Scrum Gathering in Paris. This is the European event run by the Scrum Alliance and runs 23-25th September.

Scrum Alliance Scrum Gathering Paris 2013 logo

Cultural Diversity can sometimes be seen as a negative, but it has the power to take teams and projects to places never thought possible.  This hands-on workshop will allow you to explore Culture Diversity, working through the benefits and hindrances it can bring to a project.  Cultural Diversity occurs in all teams, not just those spread across the world.  You will investigate how to unlock the diversity within your teams and leave with practical ideas to facilitate a similar session with your own teams after the conference.

To come along to this session and see many wonderful speakers from across the world, register now at the Scrum Gathering Paris website.

Why it is important to Experiment and not Gamble

For those familiar with Scrum, you will know that during Sprint Retrospectives as part of our Inspection and then Adapting, the team will often setup Experiments to try in the next sprint to help make their world a better place. They can vary greatly, examples could be, trying pair programming, or holding the sprint review in the common area for anyone to see.

So why is it important that we Experiment, not Gamble on trying something new? It comes down to linguistics. Experiment gives us the opinion that we are trying something, testing out a hypothesis. With an experiment, even if our hypothesis doesn’t prove to be true, we still learn something from having done it; this embodies a saying I often use with coaching clients, there is no failure only feedback.  I like to think of an experiment as a win-win situation.

Laboratory glassware

On the other hand, Gamble implies we are participating in a risky action, something where there is usually a good chance of loosing something, and in casino terms, more so than winning. This is a win-loose situation.

Does this matter? I believe it does. The words we use, either verbally or in our internal dialogue shapes our thoughts more than most of us appreciate. Framing a situation as win-win, gives us the mind-set from the beginning that what ever happens, the outcome will be positive.

A negative mind-set brought on by the potential loss from the gamble however, will lace the entire experience with negativity, such that when the desired outcome is not a positive, we grieve the loss. We risk beating ourselves up for failing, or others for not contributing effectively.

Keeping a positive frame of mind, one that is open to the choices available to us has many benefits to allowing us space to try new things and break out of the norms that can restrict us.

We should also be aware of the language we use, next time you ask someone how they are today and get the response, “Not bad”, ask yourself, are they in a positive mind-set or a negative mind-set.

If you have examples of how language has limited yourself or others, please share in the comments of this post.

How subconscious anchors impact your mood & actions

When I am coaching (not in an agile sense), it is sometimes useful to introduce Anchors with the client. An Anchor is a coaching term taken from Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) methods, which allows the client to trigger a desired state on demand. The textbook example is someone who wants to be more confident when presenting, and in a coaching session, you can give the client an anchor so that when they stand in front of a group they can trigger their anchor and assume the positive confident state they desire.

Anchor with chain

You like everyone else will have anchors already set that you don’t even realise. Whether it’s the smell of your grandparents house, the view from a holiday cottage, the touch of a loved one or a hearing a song you danced to at a school disco. What happens is these subconsciously set anchors, when seen, smelt, heard or felt instantly take you back, putting you in to the state you were at the time, be that positive or negative.

Today I noticed I have gained a new anchor, one I had not consciously looked to set. I have a new client who’s offices are in London and therefore I’ve been catching the train more than I have recently. Owing to an hour-long journey in each direction, I had told myself to use this as a gift to catch up with reading or work that never makes it to the top of the list. Sitting down today in my seat, within 30 seconds I felt invigorated and full of energy and got a book out to read, even though it was 6.30am! Yet if you compare me to 5 minutes before, yawning and wishing I was still in bed on the taxi to the train station, it would be hard to believe they two time periods where so closely linked.

Be aware that anchors exist, and that you have them yourself.  Think about people, places, sounds or smells that cause you to feel and act differently. Is the reaction you have positive or negative?

Being aware of your change in state when something happens is the first step of getting benefits from it. If it is positive then you might want to amplify it, or look to get that state in other situations. If it’s negative, and assuming you want to change it, start to think of positive states and their triggers to change the anchor to a positive or neutral state. With a little practise you can probably see some results yourself, however if you find you are in a stuck state every time the trigger happens, then you might find a coaching session helpful. Myself or any other coach will be able to help.

Let me know some of the anchors you find you have you didn’t realise in the comments below.

What would I do if I weren’t afraid?

I have just read the wonderful book, Who Moved My Cheese. It’s not a large book, in fact, it only took me a mere 50 minutes from cover to cover. I do feel however it’s power is greater than it’s size.The book takes the form largely of a story about two mice and two little people who are looking for cheese in a maze. The cheese being a metaphor for the reader’s own item of change.

Cheese

“It is not necessary to change; survival is not mandatory” Deming

Deming says this slightly tongue in cheeky, as the reality is change is all around us; standing still isn’t really an option. In the UK in the last two weeks alone, several large high-street brands have gone in to administration because they have not changed and not adapted to the changing world around us. These businesses (HMV, Blockbusters and Jessops) all reacted too slowly and by not enough to technology; believing that being a high street brand of many years would save them.

For me reading the book, the quote that stuck was, “What would I do if I weren’t afraid?“. I am sure I am not alone in able to think of times when being afraid held me back from a goal I wanted to achieve. Through seeing the characters in the story, you can identify parts of yourself in all of them and through doing so see how this helps or hinder you. Being afraid isn’t bad, we should learn to harness the energy and turn it to our advantage.

While this was my immediate take away from the book, I’m sure that if I read this book again in a couple of months, the meaning will be different as I will have moved on.

I would recommend this book as if you are working with agile teams, or coaching individuals or facilitating groups, as these activities are all working around the idea of change in some shape or form. Understanding people’s different perspectives will help you in this role, from the way you work with them to hearing their opinions. It will help those who are going through the change to read the book also to go through this change; you might want to get it for the entire team.

As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus(c.535 BC – 475 BC) said, the only constant in life in change“. As true today as it was 2500 years ago.

If you are wondering about change I highly recommend you, Buy Who Moved My Cheese

If you have read the book, please share your take-away from it.

Fix causes, not the symptoms of problems

While spending some down time recently watching some TED talks I stumbled across one about how to dry your hands in toilets such that you only need one paper towel. What jumped out at me about this amazingly simple technique, of flicking your hands and the water off 12 times before drying, was how an entire industry had been created to help the green agenda, but that it was actually solving a symptom not the cause.

Being Green
In the UK and I’m sure in many parts of the world, office, shop and restaurant toilets are installing high powered air blowers to dry your hands.The idea behind these devices is that they use less electricity than the traditional hot air blowers and less than paper towels.

Fixing the symptom
By fixing the symptom of too much energy being used to dry people’s hands, you are overlooking the cause that the hands are wet in the first place. This may sound odd, as clearly the hands are wet as you’ve just washed them, but as the TED talk discusses, there is a simple way that with zero technology people can improve the root cause of the problem.

What is the harm then? Certainly not the profit margins of the hand dryer manufacturers I’m sure. Let’s consider the bigger picture though. These new devices had to be designed and manufactured, to be often replacing working old style hot air blowers because the owners wanted to save on running costs or be seen to do the right green thing. While they use less energy, if you take in the total environmental cost of ownership, was it better to make these, or would a simple education campaign of posters and stickers in toilets suggesting people flick their hands 12 times?

Fixing the cause
We should always remember that it can be the symptoms that seem the most obvious and that you need to dig deeper to understand the cause. Once you find the cause, you then might need a creative solution to fix it, like making your hands dryer before you try to dry them properly.

In the past, while working in an organisation that had a high quality culture, we would analyse all software defects that reached system test (pre-agile) or the customer. To dig in to the issue and why it escaped, we used the simple Five Whys questioning technique. We found this invaluable to get past the symptoms of the issue and find the cause. Sometimes this highlighted plain old human error, other times we discovered real insights in to problems.

Think 12 flicks!
Since watching the talk, whenever I use two paper hand towels in the bathroom, I think to myself, “why was this?” and every time it’s because I didn’t flick 12 times. In the same way now when you see a defect or issue that needs to be addresses, think of flicking 12 times, and think beyond the obvious that is staring you in the face. What is the underlying cause; fixing the symptom might be a quick fix but all you are doing is storing up issues for the future.

What are your experiences of symptoms being fixes not the cause? Please post a comment and share.

Self coach to success using your computer password

One of the most important techniques for coaching and self coaching is to get an achievable goal, sometimes referred to as a well formed outcome. Once you have this goal and an action plan in place, you need to remind yourself of it regularly as this helps you focus on why you are doing the things you are doing.

Some like to stick post-it notes to the bathroom mirror, some like to chant it on the way to work; in reality there isn’t a text book right or wrong way of doing it, it really depends on the individual and how they will find it beneficial. Then the other day while changing my password on a system for one of my corporate clients, I realised that for many years without really thinking about it, my passwords were reminders for goals.

Use your password
For anyone in a corporate world, or where you’ve been on a website that indicated the strength of your password, you’ll know that to make a strong password it needs to be pretty cryptic. My simple approach which seems to span most system’s requirements is to use the first letter of the words from a short goal sentence as your password.

Let me demonstrate using a goal from someone I have recently coached.

“I am going to be better at public speaking” to, “Iagtbbaps”.

To help the complexity requirements I would recommend things like always making the first letter a capital and you might want to throw in a single digit number and non alpha-numeric (!,”‘; etc) on the end also. If you therefore add “9:” making it “Iagtbbaps9:” we get a score of 77% from passwordmeter.com

The power of this approach is that you will use this password many times per day and to remember the letters you will be reciting your goal in your head every time you enter your password. It also makes it easy to remember a password that meets the criteria set by the system you are using.

Be careful
One word of warning, I can remember some years ago now when I had a password that was quiet negative, I must have been in a off-mood when I set it, and I found it got me down and I had to change it within a few days.

I hope you find this little tip useful. I would love to know the ways you’ve used to remind yourself of your goals, please post a comment and share.

Three reasons why you should play at work

The agile community has readily adopted the idea of using games to help teach and develop teams almost since agile was conceived. While attending an induction evening for parents at my Son’s first school this week, the teachers discussed how learning was mainly through play, and that reminded me of the power that games can have, and the reasons why they work and should be supported in the workplace.

Mini figures with jigsaw for a game with the globe

Trying new things
Like young children, teams often need to be encouraged to try new things. This could be because they’ve worked the same way for 15 years, because a new way of working is being adopted in the organisation, or just trying to improve existing methods of working. Trying new things is hard, as most people have a mental block about wanting to do things right; let’s be honest when you are new to something, and I know from personal experience, being perfect at it initially rarely happens. It is important therefore, to make sure there is a safe environment to try and fail without the risk of, “being told off”, as the teacher said.

In Agile we actively encourage teams to try new things, normally things they have thought would make an improvement. We try to build an organisation around them that won’t come down on them hard if after trying something for an iteration they have to throw some of it away because the idea wasn’t the best.

Don’t consider it a failure, consider it a new piece of feedback to allow you to improve next time. Open your mind to new possibilities.

Working as a team
While school children need to learn to share and cooperate together, for work teams to truly flourish, they need to be taken on a journey from a corporate “team”, i.e. ten people sat in a room working on the same project, to a team in the true sense of the word.

Part of this, is being relaxed about, “not always getting their own way”, and not having a tantrum when they don’t. Often people have been conditioned to not collaborate and put barriers between them and other siloed parts of the business through process documentation.

Games allow the team to work out ways for letting ideas build in a collaborative way. The detachment from reality allows better ways of interacting with each other when there isn’t so much to lose.

Using creative thinking and intuition
Like a lot of industries, software is no exception of building an army of workers who use reasoned thinking for pretty much all of their work. However, current research shows that reasoned thinking can be far from the best Return On Investment, compared to making quick decisions using intuition or creative thinking.

That aside, being able to train ourselves to firstly exercise and then use creative thinking and intuition, your reasoned work can be better. This could be using the Lateral Thinking method during brainstorming, or coming up with ideas on apparent random things to valid or identify risks.

These different ways of thinking are promoted by not being told what to do, by being given an open brief and then working out ways to achieve the goal. Games can provide this safe, simplified version of the world with scope for people to really explore something.

I struggle somewhat with calling the work agile teams do as Software Engineering. Engineering to me gives images of stayed, controlled, predictable work. I personally believe that while there are clearly elements that are true, and in the sense of designing and building something it is. I believe though there is a great deal of creativity needed to make it really special and produce truly excellent work.

Doing exercises and games to push your levels of creative thinking and use of intuition allow you to take this back to your desk and apply it to the day-to-day work.

In summary
At what stage did we stop learning from playing? What is it that makes us believe that only children can learn from play? When you have seen first hand, as I have, how simple games, like the Ball Point Challenge, used during Scrum introduction training allow sceptics see the benefits so quickly and form ideas that last, you are strongly motivated to get more use of games.

I agree it can be hard when people think it’s only for kids or you’re being all a bit “East Coast American”, or “fluffy stuff” doesn’t make any difference. Like my Son’s new school teacher, coaches need to encourage the team to play, to learn, and release their potential.

It’s not who you are that holds you back, it’s who you think you’re not”.

What benefits have you seen by playing at work? Post a comment and let me know.