What is the one focal point that catches every team member’s attention at the same time every day? Of course it is their Scrum board. Some teams go through the motions and use their Scrum board because they are told to; for effective teams the board is a way to collaborate, manage work in process, keep track of impediments and know whether or not they are going to meet the sprint goal. Effective teams turn their board into a highly-visible collection of critical information about their effort. It becomes the heartbeat of the team and helps set the cadence for each sprint.
Their board might look something like this:
Sprint Dates and Goal – as a reminder of the goal and the timeline. Seeing the sprint dates can be helpful if users who will be testing attend the standups so that they understand the sprint timing.
Columns for each step in their development process – This can be as simple or as complex as the team wants – it usually evolves as the team learns and tweaks its process to ensure a smooth flow of stories. In the example above, the team experienced issues with too many stories waiting for user testing. They created a column to show which stories are ready for user testing to make it clear to users when something is ready for them to test. During standups, the Scrum Master points out any columns where an excessive number of stories are piling up. Even with Scrum, the team may set limits for how many stories may accumulate in each column before team members swarm to address a bottleneck.
Sprint Calendar – during sprint planning the team members estimate on which days of the sprint they think stories will be Done and also when they will likely reach any other significant milestones in the team’s process such as being ready for user testing. This is a way of performing a sanity check for the sprint plan. It is also a way for the team to gauge whether or not it is on track during the sprint. When user testing is part of the Definition of Done, it allows the users to plan when they will be performing this testing. Putting team members’ planned vacation days on this calendar avoids surprises in the middle of the sprint. It can also help to put key SME’s or users’ vacation days on the calendar if these could impact the sprint.
Impediments – unresolved impediments. Making these visible is a way to track them and may have the side benefit of prompting outside stakeholders who attend the standup or visit with the team to help the Scrum Master by finding other ways to resolve them.
Additional Stories – these are stories at the top of the Product Backlog that are ready to be brought into a sprint but that are not part of the current Sprint Backlog. These are posted on the board so that they are readily available in case the team reaches the sprint goal early and can complete some additional stories in this sprint. Note that these are not called “Stretch Goals”. That term can be perceived negatively by the team, almost as if they are not pushing hard enough in the first place to meet the sprint goal.
Release Burnup – the bigger picture of what the team is working towards. This help avoid the sense of being in an endless churn of sprints with no end in sight.
For teams using Kanban, many elements on this board still apply but may need slight modification. Note the use of colors throughout the board. It is amazing how teams will adopt color schemes or symbols that communicate the state of their work, highlight important events, serve as key reminders, etc. One type of information not included on the example above is an area for Technical Debt. Creating an open area on the board for this invites the team members to note it as soon as it becomes apparent to them. These notes can then be translated into backlog items during grooming. This encourages open discussion about technical debt and surfaces this information rather than just having it in the team members’ heads.
A note for teams that use online/electronic Scrum or Kanban boards: additional information such as the PTO calendar, Impediments and release burnup can be captured in story cards and placed in a column dedicated to that background information. The sprint calendar can be captured by putting Due Dates on each electronic story card. On a physical or electronic board, the story cards can contain as much information as the team finds helpful. Typically the story number, title, and number of story points are included.
- The Scrum or Kanban board can be used to communicate much more than just the status of the stories and tasks.
- The information on this board should reflect each team’s personality and process. It will evolve as the team learns.
- The Scrum Master can help the team during the standup by directing their attention to potential trouble spots on the board.
One of the most fascinating management challenges is determining the best structure for Scrum teams based on the stage of the project. This does not mean the major waterfall phases like Analysis, Design, Construction, etc. When developing software for use by customers (especially niche SAAS products) and there is some level of customization or specific features for each client, there are at least a couple of distinct stages in the project:
- Develop the base product
- Develop client-specific features and convert those clients onto the system as those features are completed
Many agile writings suggest that the way to approach system development is to develop some features and put them in production right away so that clients can start using them immediately. In reality, this does not always work. For example, when an existing system is being replaced, clients cannot be put onto a new system that only has 20% of the functionality of the one being replaced. Of course, this does not preclude some form of testing of that 20% by users within the development organization (e.g. by internal client service reps who are also part of the user base).
Organizing for Base Product Development
Typically the base product development effort focuses on developing the major feature areas. The development teams can be organized along the lines of the features areas as depicted below.
Organizing for Client Conversions and Onboarding
As the base product nears completion and the teams start to work on client-specific features, the portfolio or program manager may start noticing that the client code complete date for one of the feature teams above is much later than the other teams because the bulk of the customization for that client falls on that one team. The net result is client on-boarding dates are further out in the future that delay realization of new revenue from the product. This is a clear sign that the team structures need to change. At this stage, the focus shifts to optimizing staff utilization while retaining the benefits of teams building features or feature slices from top to bottom. This is called Focused Balance. Work is focused as much as possible on one or a few teams to gain the efficiencies that come with understanding and ownership of the epic , but when necessary client-specific epics are spread across the teams to deliver them as soon as possible.
Restructuring the teams
When scheduling and work allocation issues require that multiple teams work on the same epic, the following should be considered when deciding who should be on each team:
- Knowledge about specific feature areas of the system.
- Technical skillsets. Rebalancing may be necessary when certain feature areas from the base development phase emphasized a particular technical skillset.
- Technical leadership – most teams need a technical leader.
Cross-Training and Collaboration
Team members will need to step out of their comfort zones and learn other parts of the system. Product owners, who have become experts in the feature areas that their teams constructed in the initial stages of development, will be overseeing a backlog that contains features and stories that are outside of their current area of expertise. Recognizing and fostering the need for collaboration across the teams is critical to the success of this model. At this stage, the job of the product owner is to connect team members with subject matter experts rather than being the subject matter experts.
- Team structure may need to change to optimize the schedule for client-specific feature development.
- Restructuring and rebalancing evenly distributes system knowledge and technical skills across the teams.
- The Product Owner’s role changes to be less of a subject matter expert for their team and more of a facilitator.
Experienced agile practitioners take for granted that detailed requirements are captured as user test cases. For organizations transitioning to agile, this is one of the more challenging practices for them to adopt. Some product owners or business analysts still view the traditional “requirements document” as the way to capture detailed requirements. Because of their attachment to this traditional form of documentation, many resist replacing them entirely with User Acceptance Test Cases (UATCs). They view UATCs as additional work on top of writing their traditional requirements.
UATCs better convey a sense of how the system is supposed to work by using examples rather than abstract, ambiguous business rules. In a mature agile organization, the end users are best qualified to write the UATCs. This underscores the product owner’s role: they do not need to gather every detailed requirement – their job is to connect the development team with subject matter experts rather than being a conduit between the two.
Working Software over Comprehensive Documentation
Taken to the extreme, only the highest-level details are written down. This can work for small, simple applications. For large, complex applications, this is insufficient and quickly leads to chaos, disappointment, and frustration. The key is not avoiding writing down requirements, it is capturing them ONCE so that they can be used by product owners, developers, users, and testers and be the one living artifact besides the software.
What options do teams have for adopting the practice of capturing requirements as test cases?
1) Developers write UATCs – while some might consider this sacrilege, in reality this is a great way to get started with UATCs and establish collaborative bonds between the development team and the end users. Of course the developers’ initial version of these will usually only reflect what is in the acceptance criteria and what was discussed during grooming, but it provides structure for gathering more details from the users. Users quickly see the value in this approach because the requirements are written in terms that they can understand – system behaviors. They also see the value in working directly with the developers. Product owners like this because it does not add to their workload and they quickly realize the benefits of the enhanced collaboration. One caveat: developers may need coaching about expressing things as tests and expected results since they may also be accustomed to thinking in terms of catch-all business rules rather than tests.
2) Developers and users write UATCs together – given some starting point such as a sketch of a web page, the developers and users talk through the expected behaviors for a user story. This feels time-consuming but it directly involves the users in the process of devising the test cases.
3) Users write UATCs – while this is UATC nirvana, it is important to remember that the developers and users still need to review the UATCs together and in detail. The test cases and end product always benefit from each group’s experience and perspective.
4) Users and testers write automated UATCs – for applications that are able to leverage automated end user testing tools like Fitnesse, users will likely need assistance with the testing toolset, format, etc.
Be pragmatic about who writes the UATCs. Remember the goal: collaboration that leads to deep understanding of expected system behavior.
As organizations adopt agile practices, there are several key skills that differentiate high-performing teams from mediocre teams:
1) Working in short timeboxes
For a team that is accustomed to delivering working code every six or eight months, two or four week long iterations can be unfathomable. But doing this is essential to the success of the project in order to get the benefits of continuous code integration into a testing environment and frequent user feedback. The sprint’s timebox forces the business stakeholders to constantly question the scope of each feature at a micro level and decide when to carve out functionality.
2) Splitting work into small pieces
The most common excuse for teams wanting to plan sprints using large user stories is that it is “more efficient” to do all of the coding work together and test it at the very end or in the next sprint. This perceived efficiency is self-deception. Successful agile teams know that they must put working code in front of their users early and often. Remember the old saying that “users often don’t know their requirements until the software fails to meet them?”
3) Communication and transparency
Old-school silos between IT, Product/Marketing, and business operations groups are an agile anti-pattern. Political games, finger pointing, and one-upmanship are a huge waste of an organization’s resources and energy. A grown-up culture of transparency allows all of these players to collaborate and solve difficult challenges. For the Scrum Master, this means posting project information in high-traffic areas of the office. More importantly, it means being open with stakeholders about the challenges that the team or project is encountering. Team members can feel secure speaking freely about impediments and project risks in a public forum without fear of reprisal. The essential skill here is knowing how to voice issues in a way that does not sugar-coat them but does set the stage for a constructive discussion.
4) Swarming, collaboration, team first
“Your side of the boat might be leaking but my side is fine” attitude just doesn’t cut it anymore. Lone gunmen need not apply. The most effective agile team members will gladly work outside of their skill sets and comfort zones if it helps the team succeed. Agile developers welcome and seek opportunities to discuss functionality with end users to understand their goals and needs. They leverage techniques such as User Acceptance Test Cases to capture and understand detailed requirements.
5) Focus and finish mindset
This is another one of those things that is counter-intuitive at first for people new to agile. Coders are used to getting all the coding tasks done so that they can get all of the stuff to the testers. Understanding that high work in process = low throughput is key. Developers working in lockstep with testers results in higher throughput, even if that means that the developers have to swarm on non-development tasks every now and then.
6) Scope negotiation
Scope negotiation means being relentless both when talking about items in the current sprint or when doing release planning. Sometimes it takes two, three, or four conversations about an item to admit that it is not really needed.
7) Talking about requirements at the right level of detail at the right point in time
Skilled agilists recognize that the conversation that happens in a user story writing workshop is at a much higher level than the conversation about a story right before that story is pulled into a sprint. They also shun detailed requirements until the sprint starts, knowing that a large collection of detailed requirements is inventory that is subject to decay.
8) Automated testing
Refactoring is a fact of life as requirements are progressively elaborated. Effective implementation of test-driven development and automated testing blunts the effort for regression testing as the application evolves.