Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Journeying Towards #NoEstimates

I’ll admit that until I discovered planning poker many years ago, estimating was not my favourite thing to do. Even though I had experienced some estimating success, there was an underlying realization that every time I estimated, I was rolling the dice. It is probably why #RelativeEstimating through planning poker was such a big relief to me. The game was still rigged, but treating estimates in a relative way allowed me to be wrong early and adjust so that my odds of winning at the end were improved. It was a useful paradigm shift.

The recent #NoEstimates movement has brought increased visibility to an issue that many find contentious. Some assert that estimates are required for any professional software project. Others declare that estimates are harmful enough that we must find a way to reduce or eliminate them altogether. Personally, I’ve found the discussions about #NoEstimates valuable enough that I decided to do some research and then run some experiments of my own in order to move in that direction. Here are the results of two of those experiments:

Experiment #1: Relative Points

For my first experiment, I decided to look at our data. We had already been using planning poker for some time, and we were working with a client who had requested that we track our actual hours per user story. (We don’t always do this for various reasons that are outside the scope of this article.) The question I was trying to answer when looking at the data was this:

Will our actuals hold true to the relative sizes we had assigned them?

That is – if a story worth 1 point has an actual average effort of 10 hours, will a story worth 2 points have an actual average effort of 20 hours, etc. For this project, we used points of 0.5, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, and 20. The “Actual” hours in the graph below are divided by a number so that the Y axis is similar. Here are the results:

Project 1

So, there it is – we were almost perfect at relative estimating for that project! That belief held firm right up until the next project:
Project 2

That’s right, in “project 2”, our 1 point stories took longer on average than our 8 point stories. Still, the relative actuals of stories with points 2 through 8 weren’t too far off and we held on to some belief that the 1 pointers may have been an aberration.

Enter “project 3”:
Project 3

“Project 3” took away any remaining belief about the accuracy of our points estimating by giving us what looked like completely random results. Roll the dice.

Experiment #2: Points to Count

However, this wasn’t enough to convince me to run away from the data. By this time, there were multiple reports of people comparing the sum of their iteration velocities to the count of stories that were being completed. That seemed like a reasonable experiment, so once again I turned to the data. This time, the question I was trying to answer when looking at the data was:

Is summing the number of points per period just as useful for planning 
as counting the number of completed stories per period?

At this point we already had data for 3 projects so we could start graphing right away. Since the initial results were favourable, the graph below shows data from 8 different projects over the course of more than a year:

This graph clearly illustrated to us that we could stop estimating in points and instead just count the number of ‘done’ user stories for planning and forecasting purposes. It has allowed us to move closer to #NoEstimates by removing one more estimating step. We no longer need to use planning poker to agree upon a number – instead we keep slicing stories until they are ‘small enough’.


In summary, these two experiments didn’t lead us to stop estimating altogether, but they have definitely moved us in that direction. We can still use data to help us forecast and plan, but we are less dependent on estimates to do so. This helps us reduce some of the dangerous effects of estimates, with the additional benefit of getting to spend more time delivering value.

As a bonus, these two experiments nudge us towards continued process experimentation - something I'm happy to endorse.

Subscribe to this blog by Email

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Commitment as a Facilitation Weapon?

I recently finished reading “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” by Cialdini. The six ‘weapons of influence’ that he describes in the book are fascinating and I found myself thinking about how any influence tool can be used for good or ill.

One of the principles that caught my attention with respect to the work that I do was the Commitment principle. Cialdini describes several ways that people can be influenced using this principle. For example, two groups of people participating in an experiment were asked to donate to a cancer charity. One of the groups donated more money than the other through a simple influence ‘trick’. A week before being asked to donate, that group was asked to wear a cancer awareness button - something simple that they could hardly say no to. However, the simple act of wearing the button for one week influenced their donation habits later on.

You may also recognize this principle in your own purchasing stories. For example, automotive dealerships will wait until you commit to purchasing your vehicle before talking about extended warranties, undercoating, or other extras. They know that asking for these extras after you commit to the larger purchase will increase the chance that you will spend a few more dollars.

However, not all uses of this principle need to be used to gain more sales dollars. I first came upon this principle when I was watching Linda Rising facilitate a retrospective for the planning team of Much Ado About Agile in 2010. She started the retrospective by reciting North Kerth’s Prime Directive and then asked each team member one by one if they would verbally agree to uphold this statement during the meeting. Later, she told me that this simple verbal agreement is an influencing strategy that helps set the right tone for the retrospective. As Cialdini notes, if people commit to an idea verbally, they are more likely to follow through on that commitment.

So, whether you are trying to increase sales, or just set a positive tone for your next meeting, give the commitment principle a try.

Subscribe to Winnipeg Agilist by Email

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Acknowledgment as Motivation

Recently at Prairie Dev Con I gave a talk on #NoEstimates and part of the discussion centered on the practice of using estimates as motivation. Using estimates as motivation *may* be effective in the short term, but in the long term I believe it is dangerous and more likely to negatively affect motivation. As an alternative, in the talk I briefly reviewed Dan Pink's work on motivation that centers on Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. Have a quick look at that video if you haven’t already. Today I watched a Ted talk called 'What Makes Us Feel Good About Our Work?' by Dan Ariely that provides another angle on motivating through acknowledgment.

In the middle of the talk, he describes an experiment they ran to try and understand the role of acknowledgment in making us feel good about our work. The task in the experiment was fairly straightforward. Participants were given a piece of paper filled with random letters and were asked to find the pairs of letters on that page. For example, in "aswwhggjks", you would find the pairs "ww" and "gg". Participants were paid a certain amount to complete the first page, and then for every subsequent page they would complete, they were paid slightly less.

In the first version of the experiment, when participants handed in their work the experimenter reviewed it from top to bottom and acknowledged the effort with a simple "uh huh" before putting the paper on a pile. In the second version of the experiment, the experimenter did not review their work and simply put the paper on a pile. In the third version of the experiment, the completed work was put straight into a shredder without any acknowledgment at all.

The results of the experiment are displayed in the image - people were willing to work for much less in the first version of the experiment than in the second and third versions. In addition, people stopped working at about the same level if their work was being ignored or shredded. As Dan summarized, "ignoring their performance is almost as bad as shredding it." There is good news and bad news here. The bad news is that if you aren't acknowledging the efforts of your team or employees on a regular basis, it is likely having a negative effect on their motivation. The good news is that there are some simple experiments you can try:
  • Add regular checkpoints with your team members to thank them for some specific contribution.
  • In your regular team retrospectives, start by celebrating the great work you have done together.
  • Schedule time in your calendar to give positive feedback to your team on a regular basis.
  • Schedule in regular demos so that your team can show off how they are delivering value to actual customers
  • Pass on good feedback from your customers to the team.
  • Start using KUDO cards to acknowledge good work.
  • Buy a $2 box of brownie mix, add an egg, some vegetable oil, and bring some fresh brownies to your team as a thank you.

Thanks for reading - I appreciate it.

Subscribe to Winnipeg Agilist by Email

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Story Maps - A Testing Tool After All

The following was recently published as a sidebar in Lisa Crispin and Janet Gregory's new book More Agile Testing. The book is full of great advice from the authors as well as other contributors. I encourage you to take a look.

So you’re an agile tester and wonder why you should care about story maps. You may already be convinced that modelling your backlog in two dimensions is useful for helping the whole team visualize the big picture. However, story maps are also a valuable testing tool, providing two additional testing avenues. In the first case, the map itself offers the ability to test the validity of a solution. In the second, a story map improves a team’s ability to identify story slices and then test them.

Testing What to Build

User story maps are a representation: they provide a means to visualize a system that might be built and are useful for testing the validity of that system before investing significant time and money. A story shared at a recent Agile Winnipeg event demonstrated this principle well. The company involved used story mapping to test an idea before building any software. The team had a project idea that they thought would serve their client well. After quickly building a story map around that idea, they presented the map to their client at the next customer conference. Although it soon became clear that the idea missed the mark, the customer was able to collaborate with the team on the spot, to adjust the map until it represented what they actually wanted built. The map itself was the tool that allowed for the idea to be tested (and then adjusted) and moved the project forward.

Testing Application Slices

As Crispin and Gregory demonstrated in their first book Agile Testing, identifying thin slices and small chunks is important for testing agile projects. Story maps help identify those slices but, perhaps more importantly, they help us understand how those thinly sliced stories might fit together to form a thin slice of the whole application. When undertaking an agile project, testers are required to make a vital shift in thinking; only test small pieces at a time. Despite this fundamental change, it is also important to ensure that the first few pieces fit together, enabling end to end testing as early as possible. The story map helps to identify and prioritize that first application slice. It may be based on a user scenario or just a string of stories that represent the smallest stories that allow left to right movement on the map.

Visualizing testing slices in your map

As that the team identifies that first slice, utilizing excellent testing skills is crucial. By looking at the map, you can identify areas that will be difficult to test, areas where the test variations are still relatively unknown, or areas that represent higher risk. This activity can help identify stories that should be included in the first application slice.

When coding and testing begins, personas and user scenarios that were created can be revisited, helping to flesh out the map and application slices. Testing with a persona in mind helps ensure that the targeted customer will be satisfied with the solution. It may not be possible or wise to test if the application works well for everyone but testing should evaluate whether the targeted personas can use the application easily, and that the new functionality fits into, or adds to their current processes without getting in the way.

Story Maps—A Testing Tool After All

At first glance, the story map doesn’t appear to be an obvious asset for testing, but upon closer inspection, it proves its value in any testing toolbox. The map itself is a reliable way to test that the right system is being built before any code is written. The map also provides a visual aid for testing in horizontal application slices, allowing for early confirmation that a project is on the right track.

Subscribe to Winnipeg Agilist by Email

Saturday, September 20, 2014

User Story Mapping Tool Review – SmartViewApp

I’ve tried to give consistent advice when people ask me what tools I would recommend for agile teams. In my opinion, the best tools to start with are sharpies, post-its, and retrospectives. With these basic tools, you can create story maps, track your improvements and progress with a kanban board, and build just about any report you need in Excel. For beginner teams and co-located teams, this is often more than enough. However, as you grow, start working with remote team members, or just want more advanced and automated reporting, you might start exploring the tool market.

As a big fan of user story maps, I’ve been on the lookout for ALM tools that include them and occasionally talk to tool vendors to see what their long term plans are regarding story maps. As you can read in the comments in the link above, the options are slowly increasing. In this post I’d like to highlight a new entry into the ALM market that combines both story mapping and kanban in a simple yet effective package.

In order to give this application a good test of its capabilities, I decided to try and create a story map that mimicked the example I created here.  I was able to easily create the map, prioritize the features into releases, set the status of the features using the kanban board, and generate a few metrics. Here are a few screenshots: 

This is a picture of the user story map. At the top of the page you can see the four user activities displayed as envelopes. In this view, the Manage Calendar activity is open. Similar to my original story map that I created in PowerPoint (yes, really…), the map allows you to display the releases (I’ve used colour coding), and the status of each feature (green check mark = done, etc.). Dragging features up or down or between user tasks is simple.

The kanban board mimics functionality you can find in most tools. It allows you to set your own columns, set wip limits, etc, and it gives you some metrics and reports like Cumulative Flow Diagrams. One nice bonus of this tool is that it is already available as an iPad app so that you can carry your kanban board and map with you anywhere.
IPad Version
Web Version
I was able to set this project up as a public project, so if you want to take a look for yourself, click here.  Note – this application is currently only available in ‘modern’ browsers, so you may need to download Chrome or FireFox.

Not only does this tool support two of my favourite agile practices, it is also simple and easy to use. That means you can continue to focus on the important things - “individuals and interactions over processes and tools”. Since the tool is currently in Beta, it also means that it is ready for your input. In fact, some of the changes I’ve suggested have already made it into the product. So, if you think your team is ready to add an ALM tool, check it out here.

P.S. Need another reason to try this out? It calls us “people”, not “resources”. Thanks SmartView!