Agile in Government! Really?

Apparently so.  Who knew that that dear old Circumlocution Office had it in them.  Check this out. 

Shame it’s back in dear old Blighty, as I’ve a feeling that the Land of the Free could do with a healthy dose of agility at the top! 

Actually, no it’s not a shame, as I was told that something like half of all legislation written in the UK since the Magna Carta (written in 1215) has been written since 1997!  (Do not quote me, this is from fuzzy memory.)  Someone’s been trying to handle things with a command-and-control approach, not the way to adapt to a fast changing post-industrial society.

Why did you post about that?

I was asked the other day why I’d posted on this blog about the apparent war between science and religion.  What did that have to do with it all?

Well, I’m writing this blog to slowly but surely outline my view of the world.  I have no intention of separating my thoughts about business and work from my thoughts about culture and society.

Put simply, remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? The pile of stuff that’s important to humans?  Right.  Does it say anywhere “work”?  No.

We work, we do business, to achieve these things.  I recognized that some people achieve them with their work, but it is a convenient fiction to say that if you find a job you love you’ll never work a day in your life.  I call shenanigans! 

One of my business mentors once threw a bucket of cold water in my face “Those who are Successful are interested in the Result, and are not concerned with what the Method looks like.  Those who are Unsuccessful are interested in the Method, and then JUSTIFY the results.”  I can still hear the capital letters…

A light went on, and there was no hiding from it once it was on.  I knew some many people who were doing something that looked awesome to them, only to find that it’s still a job, still more about the business than the thing, and finding that the love had turned to poison.

But the happy ones, the ones climbing to Maslow’s Peak, didn’t give a tinkers about what they had to do, no matter how unappealing.  They did it to get what they wanted.  Oh, and the happiest ones did it by helping others and largely never disagreeing with anyone!

So, in my world, it’s as important to think about why things matter, why science, why religion, what good do they do, and to look for ways to reduce disagreement and self-righteousness, as it is to think about the things that we do to get there.

Oh, and by the way, I personally define “good” as “that which makes more possibility” and “bad” as “that which reduces possibility”.  Let’s keep it simple, eh?

Makes sense, doesn’t it?

More thoughts on Estimation

Poking around the interwebs asking “Do you speak Agile?” I found this remarkable post: Magic Estimation.

I thought Planning Poker was the most efficient way to have those doing the work also be those who estimate the work.  But to estimate a fair sized backlog of say a hundred stories has to take several hours.  Rattling through it, just taking two or three minutes per story, well, do the math.  It’s over half a day.  If you hit any that are essential, do-first, stories that actually require a bit of digging and to and fro, well, that could be a whole day.  Still good use of the team’s time, but even so, it’s a whole day.  If you have senior management, still hearing agile as “slacker”, growling for their beloved commitment, being able to get it to them more swiftly would be impressive.  If they are growlers, chance are they are fixed-mindsetters, and like impressive things.

Even though I’d suggest you follow the Magic Estimation link above, I’m going to copy the steps for Magic Estimation to make sure I’m clear about it.

  1. Start with the Product Backlog of user stories
  2. Team will play, product owner will watch (and learn)
  3. Lay the estimation estimation cards down on the floor, spaced out as per their values (as in the perspective picture above) e.g.

123 5 8 13 20 40

  1. Hand out user stories to team
  2. Explain rules: no talking, no non-verbal communication
  3. Each team member estimates, place stories at points
  4. Each team member checks estimates, re-estimate and move if desired (once all own cards are down)
  5. Product owner marks fall-outs (too large or keeps bouncing)
  6. Discuss fall-outs until reach agreement

According to the original post, this should take, for a hundred stories, about fifteen to twenty minutes.

I’ll say that again.  100 stories –> 15-20 minutes.  Oh my!

Planning Poker would be in the region of 300 minutes.

Back in the day, when I was trying to use spreadsheets to give me range estimates thinking this to be the smart thing to do, a hundred features (pre-agile, pre-stories) I would allow a good two or three days for that kind of effort.  Looking back, frankly, I felt that even though I had a sneaking suspicion that all the work I was doing was going to be proven to be simply wrong, nonetheless, I could display my professionalism be having put so much effort into it.  My vision of those days is of me wearing the cone of uncertainty on the top of my head!

Have a go, let me know if this works for you.

Science v Religion? Or or And? Either or both?

It saddens me to see so much argument, especially on the stream-of-consciousness world of Facebook, about Science being right.  Or Religion being RIGHT!  No!  YES! NO! You smell anyhow….!!!! Grrrr……

Those that know me know I’m a solid atheist.  Let me explain what that means to me.

I’ll start with a simple acknowledgement of the concept of This and That.  Something and nothing.  If that’s graspable, then it can be expressed as 1 and 0.  I’d say that it’s one of the few totally self-evident truths.

Got it?  Well, with 1 and 0 it’s not too tricky to extrapolate that into Number.  Binary can be used to count.  Well, once you’ve got number, you can have mathematics.  With mathematics you can provide physics with the tools required to explain the physical universe.  It explains chemistry, and in turn biology.  It explains astrophysics and quantum mechanics.  It explains migration and migraines.

We’re getting to a point where – with acknowledged gaps – this progression is getting to grips with neuroscience, that’s filling in the foundations of the understanding of human nature otherwise expressed by psychology.

We’re not there yet, and probably will never be there entirely, but this looks to me like a framework at least for a Theory of Everything.

Now that’s a lot harder to say than “God”, isn’t it?  But I’d argue that the work religion has done to model the origins and operations of our world is simply another approach to exactly same the work that science does.

Most religion is based on texts that would doubtless have been the best working model available at the time of writing.  At. The. Time. Of. Writing.  Things, dear reader, have moved on.

I have two sticking points: one, personalizing the universe with the concept of God – I do not think that there’s a beardy old guy on the other end of the phone, nor does it seem to me to be an adequate explanation that an ineffable and eternal being made this whole shebang.  That’s a great metaphor, but metaphors are not truths.  Two, and we just touched on it, I see the value in the religious texts as allegories, as metaphors, as stories.  But to insist on their utter and unquestionable truth is daft, when there are much more complete metaphors in the world of science now.

However, I also have some compassion for those folks who reach for and cling to religious truth.  It’s very comforting, and that’s not me being dismissive.

Human history has been linear and local until very recently.  By linear I mean that it doesn’t change much.  Sure, there’s variation, but it’s more or less predictable.  Season come and go, rocks are hard, water is wet.  So, we evolved a mechanism to save us having to process all incoming information, all sights, sounds, smells, and experiences.  Much more efficient to simply process things that were different from the normal variations.  Unusual squiggle on the ground? SNAKE!  The amygdala – the bit of the brain that handles this stuff – hits the fire alarm!  It hits it hard, and it overrides everything.  So even if you then go “Oh wait, not snake, but squiggly stick.  Phew!” the alarm system is still in charge.  Just in case.  it is very rapid, and takes a while to subside.

The internal mechanisms for more reasoned thought, for planning, for analyzing and concluding, for creativity, are much slower processes, and take a bit of peace and quiet, as they are pretty absorbing.  They require an environment that’s known to be safe, with no disturbances.  This is why university libraries are quiet places.

However, out in the world, we have the media screaming at us the whole time.  Why?  Well, remember the amygdala?  If you give bad news it’s far more interesting and demanding of attention than good news!  Bad news sells!

Unfortunately it also keeps hitting the internal fire alarm.  Most Americans, most Westerners, are exposed to a continuous stream of “SNAKE!” from TV, from the Internet, from their boss, from everywhere!  Yikes!

So, can you blame anyone for reaching for the comforting certainty of religion?  Nope.  It takes something to be able to quietly and reasonably calm oneself in the face of the modern world.  We sure as heck aren’t taught the ‘soft skills’ this requires.  Churches provide it.

Personally, I’ve had the good fortune to acquire enough of those soft skills and a very good grounding in the sciences to be able to calm myself without resorting to religion or cynicism as my defaults.

So, my request to the religious is to grant the scientific their place, and to the scientific to grant the religious their place.  They are both ways of describing and handling the universe.  Neither are Right at the expense of the other being Wrong.  Both, in their respective contexts, can work.  Both can also do a dismal job of not working.

(For much more on this topic, see “Mindset” by Carol Dweck, and “Abundance” by Peter H Diamandis and Steven Kotler.)

In my estimation…

I’ve been asked to be a panel member on a discussion about estimation.  The other panel members are all business analysts.  The audience is going to consist of business analysts and project managers.

Following a planning call with the organizer and other panelists, I realize that I’m dealing with some folks who are used to estimation being a quest for certainty, regardless of the fact that it’s an uncertain world.

To prepare myself, I’ve been thinking of an analogy I can use to explain agile thinking about estimation.  Here’s what I’ve come up with:

Scenario The First

You’re going to play golf with some friends on a course with which you’re all familiar.  How long will it take to play each hole?  How long for the entire round?

Can you hear people answering already “It depends…”?

Scenario The Second

You’re going to play golf with some friend on a course with which none of you are at all familiar?  How long will it take to play each hole?  How long for the entire round?

Can’t you just hear people saying “Well, we could guess if we looked at a plan of the course” or “We wouldn’t really know until we’d played a few holes”.  Right.

Scenario The Third

You’re going to play gold with a group you’ve never met, at a course at which none of you have ever played.

… The Fourth

…this time not even on a course, but across country!  You have a map, but it’s not clear if the map is current.

…The Fifth

Now, back to the unfamiliar course with your buddies, but this time you have only four hours to play.  How many holes could you complete?  How about if you were only allowed a budget of seventy-five shots, how many holes then?

How about if I told you to play exactly eighteen holes, no more, no less, and they all had to holes in one, or you lose your bonus this year?  On three courses.  At the same time.  I’ve got a buddy who’s no longer a project manager as a result of roughly that scenario.  Which is one of the reasons I’m serious about agility.

Anyhow, that’s an analogy I’m thinking of using.