Power Models and Method Affinity

a.k.a. why are some people SAFe oriented, others DAD biased, yet others LeSS enthusiasts, and not forgetting the DSDM gang, the Nexus collective…and I’m running out of terms.

I’m sure there are a whole host of reasons, but during my time observing people, and knowing a bit about their past and what they’re like, it has led me to form an interesting (to me anyway) hypothesis. It’s to do with power.

A Brief History of Power

Without digging too far too much into Taylorism or others, there are a handful of basic power models that can theoretically exist in an organisation (heavily simplified for illustrative purposes, as real life is never this “simple”).

  • Power in the hierarchy, the higher up you go, the more power you have
  • Power in the middle management – sometimes disparagingly called the permafrost
  • Power on the edges – people on the ground in front of customers

These can manifest themselves onto a project context in a few ways (note for want of better options, I’m labelling these categories with overloaded terms)

  • Power lies with the “planners” – e.g. project managers, PMO
  • Power lies with the “architects” – EAs, Solution Architects
  • Power lies with the “developers” – developers, testers, BAs

Human nature is such that we flock towards things that are like us. Planners are more likely to favour other planners, and work using systems where the balance of power is in their direction. The same sort of thing is true for the Architects and the Developers.

Methods

And now we get to the Methods part of this blog. I’m going to focus on agile methods, and agile scaling frameworks. And in particular, how these methods and frameworks are perceived, at least initially. That bit is key. Most of this “natural affinity” stuff is emotional in nature, and not fundamentally driven by rational thinking (hint: there’s a lot of religion in this area). As there are lots of them out there, I’ll just pick the three major ones (based entirely on how often clients talk to me about agile at scale, and nothing remotely scientific).

SAFe

The overall guidance is dominated by the navigable map. It has several terms that will be comforting and reassuring to hierarchical type organisations with traditional reporting lines and financial controls – Programme / Portfolio Management, Enterprise Architect, as well as some guidance on mixing waterfall and agile deliveries. This looks to be solidly planted in the middle of the “Planners” camp.

Based on the hypothesis, likely proponents and allies are to be found within PMO, Project Governance,Configuration Managers, hierarchical organisations with a centralised power model, and organisations that perceive themselves to be traditional with a rich history / heritage.

DAD

The first thing that strikes you when you first look at DAD is that it’s rammed to the rafters with choices. It has a risk-value lifecycle (but you can choose others), many options on how to achieve pretty much any delivery related goal that you may have – from big ticket items such as considering the future – how much architectural insight do you need, to very focussed options like the right level of modelling to use. And that’s just part of the “Identify Initial Technical Strategy” goal. This resonates well with those with an architectural bias – architecture is mostly about decision making and communication.

Likely proponents and allies are to be found in technical leadership – Architects, DBAs, and organisations with a strong technical bias.

LeSS

The navigation map for LeSS in contrast to the previous two, looks relatively uncluttered. There are large concepts identified (such as Systems Thinking, Adoption) but these are all located around the periphery of the diagram. Slap bang in the middle is the engine, and those are feature teams. This puts the Developer at the centre of the universe (as it were).

Likely proponents and allies are to be found within teams and individuals using Scrum and XP on a regular / daily basis, and organisations that “have a small company vibe”, which may be startups on a growth spurt, or organisations in a highly fluid environment with significant localised decision making.

The Goldilocks Solution

As the heading suggests, I think the right mix for any given organisation is somewhere in the middle. Power isn’t solely contained within a single area (though granted, in many cases, the vast majority of the power is indeed concentrated that way), and any scaled agile adoption strategy will need to understand and accommodate that to increase the chances of tangible benefits being felt by the organisation.

 

Feedback

As this is just a hypothesis I’ve got, I’d love to hear what you think, whether you’ve observed things that support this theory, disprove it entirely, or somewhere in between.

Learning about estimation when you don’t care about estimates

This post follows on from the previous one, linked here – Help! How do we start estimating?

The problem with running a training course on estimation, is that there’s a danger that poor assumptions are made about the things being estimated – i.e. you could end up “assuming the problem away”. If that happens, the exercise becomes too sanitised and relatively meaningless other than in a theoretical and abstract sense. And that’s often hard to relate to.

Using analogies – e.g. the “throwing the cat game” [http://tastycupcakes.org/2016/05/throw-the-cat-and-other-objects/] can help. They show you the dangers of assumptions etc., but in all the cases I’ve seen, the variability is low-ish. You’re doing the same thing to all items.

But what if you’re doing potentially fundamentally different things on different tickets? For example, if writing a validation method with some clever logic is a “5”, what is “patching a Docker template”? With the industry using the term “DevOps” like there’s no tomorrow, the variability of work a single team will perform will inevitably rise.

We, as humans, are generally far better at comparison based estimation than comparing to an absolute measure (especially an abstract one like distance or time). We’re also very good at spotting patterns. Of if real patterns don’t exist, then inventing them (one of the reasons why the saying “correlation does not imply causation” exists – we need to be reminded!)

That innate ability to see patterns, regardless of whether or not they exist, can lead people to try and find a relationship or common attribute across entirely disparate work items. Some teams make a virtue of this, using terms like “complexity” or “relative effort”, which make reasonable sense – irrespective of work, it can be categorised as complex/simple or quick/time consuming. That allows a single team to use a single “scale” to estimate everything that they could do.

That single scale, is one of the reasons that things can get a bit confusing. With radically different types of work, one thing that can happen is that natural clusters may form. Infrastructure management tasks may hover around the 1-5 mark, development work might be 2-8, something architecturally significant might be 5-13 and spikes might be as high as a 20(*).

If that’s happening, one of a few things could be the cause

  • It could be true
  • There could be the hidden view that “development stuff” is harder than “infrastructure management” (or something along those lines) and that bias is gaming the numbers
  • Anything else I’ve not thought of right now – depends on the room, dynamics etc.

Relative estimation works well within a logical domain – there are sufficient overlaps and related attributes for a meaningful comparison. A comparison across fundamentally different domains makes far less sense. There’s even an old simile on the subject – “as different as chalk and cheese”.

To combat this, I usually recommend having a lot more than just a reference story. I suggest having a catalogue of items, from as many of the affected domains as possible, making sure we’ve got examples of a few of the magic numbers in each domain. When attempting to size an item, the first question to answer is which catalogue item is the closest match, and then go up or down however many sizes as is appropriate from there. It can take an awful lot of stress and confusion out of estimation as you’re no longer trying to shoehorn a square peg into a round hole.

There is a price to pay for this additional freedom – your velocity figures become less relevant, as you can’t really compare sprint against sprint as simply as before, in case the “mix of work” is changing. Your burnup charts may still look like they work, but scope changes are harder to visualise – some of your “scope changes” are likely to be technical debt that you’ve discovered as you could be making platform changes with no change in business vision or scope. It also takes a lot longer to create a useful catalogue, when compared to “just picking an average looking story and calling it a 5”

Teams that go through a learning process like this, usually end up realising that there isn’t a simple textbook answer, and their only viable option to cope is to be alert and have an open mind.

 

(*) All using the scale 0,0.5,1,2,3,5,8,13,20,40,100 for illustrative purposes only

Help! How do we start estimating?

…came the plea from the team.

Context: Here’s a team that’s primarily a support oriented team. As in, their stated purpose is “to keep the lights on while delivering improvements”. Recent history (as in several months) has had them in a firefighting mode where they just “did stuff”. Planning was iffy at best and they had lots of difficulty in gauging what was reasonable in a two-week sprint.

Hence the ask.

The first question to ask (like everywhere else IMHO) is “Why”. Why do you want to estimate?

Most of the answers I hear generally fall into a few areas:

  • We can use the points to work out our velocity
  • We can build information radiators with burndown charts etc.
  • We can tell if a story will fit into the sprint
  • We can have more credible estimates using relative sizing with points than if we had absolute estimates using hours or days
  • We can plan our releases – especially dates

Very occasionally, someone pipes up with something like:

  • We can work out if we’ve all understood the story well enough to deliver it in a sprint

 

For me, that last one’s easily the best reason. By coming up with a “magic number” estimate during the planning game, each person’s number represents all of the assumptions they’re making about the work. And during the process of playing the planning game, the most extreme sets of assumptions are surfaced and it gives the team as a whole the ability to learn more about the work from each other and gain some consensus. That shared understanding is the real prize. The number is just a side effect.

There’s a growing interest in “No Estimates” (#noestimates on Twitter). A highly simplified explanation is that estimation is a wasteful event, and you’re better off breaking your work down into small pieces and just work on them one at a time, while maintaining a smooth flow of work. For me the most interesting thing about this movement, is not the “inflammatory” stance on estimation, but about what a team gets by breaking down the work into small pieces and just working on them one at a time. They get work that naturally has very few assumptions inherent in it (smaller work = fewer places for assumptions to hide). And they also get very quick learning about the different assumptions that everyone in the team has about the work, because they’re working on one thing at a time. For me, that’s a similar sort of outcome to only using estimation as a means of flushing out the assumptions and gaining a shared understanding, and frankly, ignoring the magic number side effect. Breaking the work up into smaller pieces is just generally a good idea.

 

So, with all of that “intro stuff” out of the way, just how do we help a team learn how to get the benefits of estimation? Like most other attempts at teaching/learning, we need to find something that the team actually cares about, and help them learn how to solve the problem / make things better. In this case, we had to get to the root of what the team wanted to get out of an estimation-based process. That’s assuming that an estimation based process was in fact the right thing to adopt. We’d have to examine that too.

It looked like there were two main things that the team needed. The management elements of the team wanted to keep track of progress, detect when things were slowing down, and report upwards.

The rest of the team didn’t seem to care about that. They just wanted to make sure that they weren’t being overloaded with unmanageable levels of work. The reactive nature of a lot of their work was such that there was very little that could be predicted about a sizeable portion of their workload. They needed a mechanism that would let them work on enough planned work, while keeping sufficient capacity to cope with the unexpected.

 

I’ll write up how we ran the estimation training and practice/guided sessions later on.