On ending things well, iterating agile, grand plans and the killing of George Floyd.
The right time to finish
This week we closed down one of the teams that we had formed to help deal with our COVID-19 response. The team formed at the beginning of April to provide tactical tools for teams (known as Cells) leading different areas of the response. The Cells needed to make decisions and take action much more quickly than our usual controls and governance would allow. The tactical tools help the teams keep running in a controlled way without swamping people with manual administrative work.
It was great to see how quickly the team formed and got things delivered over the last couple of months but we have also been pragmatic in recognising that the team has done its job and can be closed down without too much fuss. At the start we created a large backlog of items. We’ve only delivered about 20% of them but it is the 20% that had the clearest value. Everyone involved has plenty of other important things to do. We didn’t think the remaining items were worth the implicit cost of keeping the team running. A few of the higher value items have been handed on to other teams or will be picked up as part of other work.
Iterating our agile approach
As part of our agile transformation I have been working with some of our infrastructure teams. Like most organisations we have used Scrum1 as a simple template to get started with agile ways of working but it isn’t the only approach and sometimes it isn’t the best fit. Scrum is a framework for product development and this is only a small part of the work for some of our teams. Recently I ran a retrospective2 with one of our infrastructure teams. We talked about what was and wasn’t working well and came up with some ideas to try out. One of the ideas was to change the daily stand ups. Starting this week we are holding short team sessions, every other day, with a new agenda:
- service level exceptions and threats
- requests for help
- questions about or changes to work priorities
- topics that need input from all or most of the team.
It seems to be working well so far but we will review it again soon and may make more changes to the timing and content of these sessions. I don’t think this means we are abandoning Scrum for good. The services that the team provides are still a product that needs to be developed. Our technology is going to be changing a lot and the needs of the Council are evolving quickly so our infrastructure services will need to move on too. Something like Scrum, adapted for the context of this team, may still be an important part of our agile toolkit.
Many in the digital and agile community frown upon making grand plans early in a project. We know that working without plans can lead to chaos but there are several dangers to address.
- Wasted effort: Early in an initiative we have very little reliable information and it can be exhausted in just a few hours of planning. Many teams continue to put in days of effort into planning which is probably just a waste.
- Hidden risk: Many stakeholders have unrealistic expectations about how well our work can be planned up front. To respond to rounds of challenge and review teams end up disguising risk and uncertainty with reasonable looking assumptions and then create more detailed plans based upon these. This can shift the attention onto challenging and reviewing these new details instead of starting to tackle the big risks. In many organisations the teams don’t even wait for the first round of challenge before they start adding in these layers and missing the opportunity to raise the biggest risks.
- Process over outcomes: Once you have invested so much energy on something it can be hard to let it go, even in the face of mounting evidence. The team can become focused on following the plan instead of accepting and responding to all the new things they are discovering as they work.
Although many aspects of our work are volatile that doesn’t mean everything is. At any point in time we have a couple of hundred things prioritised in our IS portfolio. Even without the COVID-19 crisis the details of list change quite quickly. It would be very hard to draw up what the portfolio will look like in a few weeks time. On the other hand, the factors which go in to deciding the relative prioritiy of one of the items doesn’t change very quickly, even in a crisis. It is reasonable to put some up front effort into these factors without falling into the grand plans trap.
A group of us have been looking at alternatives and this week we have updated some draft principles that try to capture how we prioritise work. We are going to use this so that our teams can make more of their own decisions about managing their work but we also want to involve other services so we can make sure we are aligned with the wider Council priorities and, ultimately, what the people of Cornwall think is most important.
A word about a good cause
Since the middle of last week my social media has been filled with the events in the USA following the killing of George Floyd and increasingly the reactions from around the world. As well as being truely awful for George’s friends and family, many others who have suffered racism and injustice have been, and are still being, affected by it. As a white male in a different country, I can’t begin to imagine what this feels like and would probably end up somewhere on the scale between foolish and down right insulting if I tried. One of the consistent bits of advice I have seen for white people in these situations is to make yourself better informed. There is lots to find and plenty is quite close to home such as:
- the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry and subsequent reviews
- reports on the causes of riots across England in 2011 and before
- the Lammy Review of the UK justice system.
I’ve also been revisiting:
- racial bias in my own profession
- the profile of my usual sources of news and information
- who is in my teams and how they are treated
- things I have said or done, or should have.
I’m no closer to being able to imagine what it is like to suffer racism but I don’t need to. There is lots of evidence and plenty of testimonials out there along with practical suggestions for actions allies can take3. Social media and news rooms will quickly move on to other topics but racism and systemic bias will still be there and so will the need to resist it. I’m a little ashamed that it has taken yet another killing to nudge me into to talking about race with friends, family and people at work but I’ve started and will try to do better in future.