Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Sichuan Restaurant

I am in Bangalore for an agile training for a client. I'm staying near our office in Koramangala so I went to this chinese restaurant called "Sichuan" near Raheja Residency for dinner. First of all let me say that its a really good restaurant. If I had to nitpick, it was a bit warm in there but that's about it. Food, ambience, service, rates, everything is very nice.

I had a soup and a main course that was delicious. Even the fresh lime soda was nice. So I am absolutely positive that they can serve excellent desserts as well.

But... there's a Natural's ice cream store just next door!! (Natural's is a very well established brand in India). I overheard the waiter ask at least 4 customers if they'd like to have dessert and they all very frankly told the waiter that they would have it next door. No offense meant and none taken either!

The Sichuan restaurant clearly has two choices.
  1. Make better dessert than the Naturals chain
  2. Strike a deal with naturals so that they either serve natural's ice cream at the restaurant / give some kind of discount on naturals ice cream if you've dined at Sichuan
What would you do as the owner of the Sichuan restaurant?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Project Owner

I recently paired on an Agile Fundamentals training for an organization. Its a two day course in agile philosophy, principles and basic practices offered by ThoughtWorks Studios. Its more of an awareness programme than training that you can put to use in your daily life. This makes sense as any two-day training that promises "take-away"s that can directly be applied to your situation is probably bogus.

Although the training itself is pretty much "canned" in terms of material, the discussions that happen over those two days are very important. In discussing various aspects with people from this organisation, I saw another instance of an engagement setup anti-pattern.

There were multiple stakeholders in the client organization (there always are) and the IT team was dealing with all of them. There were a lot of conflicting priorities, priorities changed while development was going on, people who made decisions went away and new people made opposite decisions due to lack of context, etc. Here's where I think the problems is but first lets talk about the product owner role for a bit and then we can discuss how this ought to work in a services context.

The Product Owner

In my view a product owner role is defined by two simple characteristics:

  1. She has absolute authority over what features go into the product.

  2. She is absolutely responsible if the product doesn't work.

To satisfy these conditions, the product owner will show several behaviors.

  • Has a clear vision of what the product should be

  • Knows exactly what the product is currently capable of doing

  • Knows the target market (user segment) and the trends in that market

  • Takes inputs from the organization, the development team, the marketing guys, the market itself and base

  • Based on such inputs, is able to prioritize between planned features, bugs and new ideas

For a product, this role is absolutely necessary. And companies usually don't go wrong there. But when companies set themselves up for running a project, they usually miss this role. It leads to a lot of heartache for everyone and needs to be taken seriously while setting up the project governance.

The "Project" Owner (for lack of a better name)

Let me try to explain what this role should do in a project context. I will also add some context around each point and why I think its important.

1) The Project Owner should ideally be from the client organization

  • Since the product owner is supposed to be the absolute authority on what features are developed, he should be part of the client organization.

  • If the product is not external facing, it is probably going to be used by employees of the organization. An internal person will be able to understand their needs better

2) The Project Owner should be fully involved in the development process

  • To understand the current capabilities and gaps in the product, the product owner should be fully involved in the development.

  • She should attend all the showcases, test the application and give feedback to the development team

  • She should be involved in story discussions so that she can give inputs about the best way to achieve a piece of functionality based on her knowledge of the user base

3) The Project Owner should have complete authority and responsibility

  • She should be the Business Sponsor herself (possible in small startup like companies) OR be someone who is completely trusted by the business sponsor.

  • She will take inputs from various parties but will decide what to do herself.

  • She will have to have a strong personality to negotiate within various stakeholders in the client organization to make sure the product stay true to its purpose and doesn't go off track because one of the stakeholders shouts louder.   

Common arguments and pitfalls

If I am an IT vendor and I ask my client to create this new (almost full time) role, why would they listen?Well, it can turn out to be a tough conversation with some clients. But the basic idea is the same. The way you ask for time commitment from the client, you should also ask for such a role. Its in everyone's best interest. For some clients, you might need to prove the requirement before you ask for someone to take on the role.

Can it be someone from the IT organization?Well... its better than having no one I guess. But its not ideal because there's a lot of client context required for the role. Maybe a smart BA/PM who is permanently stationed at the client site can do it but its not where you want to go.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Iterations, Batches and Flow

I've recently had a lot of conversations with people who are thinking of iterations as batches. By definition that's what they are. You sign up for a "batch" of stories, at the beginning of the iteration, and you deliver them by the end of that iteration. However, it is useful to think of requirements (stories) as units of work that flow through the value stream. Here is why I think so.

What is a batch?

"A batch is a group of items that will be processed at once as a single unit"

Items are usually batched to achieve "economies of scale". This usually means that there are some overhead activities associated with the items in question and it is better to distribute the cost of such activities over a batch of items than to perform such activities for each individual item. A good example is transportation. It is always more economical to transport a whole container full of items than to transport individual items.

You can batch items up at various levels. Coming back to the software world, you could batch requirements (stories) at an iteration level, at a release level or even at a project level if you must. That's what classic waterfall does, it batches requirements at the project level. But the point is, you need to work on the whole batch at once at each step of the process. Which means you'd prioritize the whole batch, analyse the whole batch, develop the whole batch, test the whole batch and then deploy the whole batch.

So what's the big problem?

Well, by batching items, you are limiting what you can do with each of them individually because as we discussed you have to process a whole batch at once. So where you could have prioritized, analysed, developed, tested and deployed individual requirements (stories), you can now prioritize, analyze, develop, test and deploy only iterations, releases or entire projects.


Instead, think about requirements (stories) continuously flowing through the value stream. This way you can assess individual requirements and make sure that only the most valuable make it into the value stream. Then you can analyze, develop, test and deploy these faster because they are small. Now all you need to do is take stock of how your team is doing at regular intervals. This is the time when you would showcase to your client stakeholders, check your throughput for the given time (velocity OR number of stories), have a retrospective, brainstorm technical approach, assess technical debt, etc.

And what about those "economies of scale"?

You do lose out on them to some extent. But here are two points to make you feel better because economies of scale are overrated anyways (at least in context of software development).

Firstly, remember that the more you do of something, the better you get at it. So by doing small parts of the overhead activities, you get better and faster at those activities and they don't remain such a big cost anymore. For example, take deployment as an overhead activity. The whole process of deploying to production is usually so tedious and time-consuming that you prefer to do it only when you have a sizable "batch" of features to be deployed. But if you start deploying each story to production, you will have to better that tedious process. You will have to automate most of the deployment. You will have to automate most of the testing. After 10-15 stories are deployed this way, the process will not remain tedious anymore.

Secondly, stop thinking of it as extra cost and start thinking about is as the price the business pays for being able to delay decisions and for getting the opportunity to course-correct.


Let's say you were developing a feature which was split in 10 stories. After deploying the first 3, which formed the minimum marketable feature (MMF), you saw that your users are not using the feature as expected. You either need to change the approach for the remaining 7 stories OR you need to stop working on that feature altogether because, given the users' response, other features have become more valuable.

As business, you would have saved some time & money if you had waited for all the 10 stories to be finished and then deployed. But those savings are insignificant compared to first hand user feedback about the feature and the chance to act based on that information.

As the development team, don't feel bad because your efforts on the first 3 stories were wasted. They weren't. You invested that time and effort to find out whether that feature works for your business. You already got more than what you bargained for.

So what about iterations?

Have them by all means. But don't worry about hangover*. Don't try to sign up and finish a particular set of stories in the same iteration. If you can well and good. But what you are really aiming for is to perform consistent amount of work every iteration.

*So as long as your hangover remains constant you are good. If its increasing, you need to change your approach. For example by signing up for lesser stories.