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One more post about Agile 2013

This week I’m going to bring up a few things I got to see at Agile 2013 in Nashville last week that I should have written up while I was at the conference. These are the extra blog posts I planned last week but didn’t have time for, all rolled into one. I’ll write about Legos, asking questions, and bluegrass music. They all relate to Agile in one way or another.

First the Legos – I feel like no childhood was ever complete without this quintessential 3D modeling toy. As a kid, I spent I don’t know how many hours building model castles, forts, villages, pirate hideaways, and I can’t even remember what all. Now, full-grown adults are using Legos to model their development teams. I spoke with Raj Mudhar and his associate over a table full of Legos and they showed me how some Agile program managers are suing the 3D modeling toy to build very expressive models of their teams.

As Mudhar explained, the blocks work well because they’re versatile and easily reordered. Different colors can be used to represent different roles, skills or anything else you’d like to color code. Different sized blocks can represent team sizes, turnaround times, or anything else you’d like to graph. Plus, it’s easy to rearrange the blocks when the team changes or when the team is considering making changes. Mudhar suggested keeping the Lego team model in the regular meeting room for easy access and keeping snap shots or quick videos as a record of the team’s evolution.

Let’s move on to asking questions, which is arguably the best way to find any important information. I found out the easy way that in order to keep a continual backlog grooming practice in place, project managers really need to keep asking the same four questions. Agile 2013 presenters David Bulkin and Kevin Fisher said that’s the way to constantly improve the readiness of the stories your team works on.

The questions are pretty simple – What? Who? When? And How? What – are the deliverables we are going to need to fulfill this requirement? Who – is going to need those deliverables? When – will they need them? And How – is the team going to ensure they’re ready when they’re needed. With a single development team – as you’d find in a startup – the answers are pretty simple. As organizations increase in size, however, the answers quickly escalate in complexity.

For large organizations, these questions may need to be broken down and answered separately. Bulkin and Fisher suggested using a pre-backlog queue to manage the readiness of iterations. This can ensure the development team doesn’t have to throw as many iterations back up the chain for more details. Bulkin and Fisher separate their readiness queue into 4 classes – the new card nursery, elementary school, junior-high, and high school. Stay tuned for more in-depth tips about grooming the backlog.

Finally, I can finish up with bluegrass music. On Tuesday night, one of the major sponsors held a bluegrass concert with a local folk band. The music was enjoyable but the real draw was getting a chance to talk with other Agile folks. It was easy to talk about the joys and sorrows of project managers that our friends outside the industry just don’t understand.

Speaking with one PM in particular, I realized how much the soft skills are still the most important. She knew what changes her team needed to make, but was seeking advice in building the leadership skills to get the team to go along. It’s not always about getting the process details pegged down, or finding the best tools for the job. Sometimes it’s just listening and getting the team to listen. So until next time, remember that it takes more than a loud mouth to communicate.

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