Minimally Viable Team in a nutshell

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Last week I was in Holland helping a client with their agile adoption and digital transformation. When the subject of teams came up I started talking about Minimally Viable Teams. Yesterday I found myself writing an e-mail to the client expanding on the idea. And it seemed to me that the e-mail – or an edited version – was worth sharing here…

The idea of an Minimally Viable Team (MVT) is based on the observation that if a team is overstaffed then team members will find work for themselves – Parkinson’s Law.

Mix in Conway’s Law: the recognised phenomenon where team copy the organization structure they are in. So for example, if you have a database expert on the team the final design will use a database whether one is needed or not.

If one is aiming for a self-organizing, goal-directed, value-seeking team then making any decisions about the team, the software design, or even the problem before work begins is questionable. The more decisions that are made the more the team is constrained, the more the team is constrained the less it is master of its own destiny.

Further, those decisions made before work begins: one expects them to be rational, which means some pre-work is needed to understand what decisions are needed and make the decisions. That pre-work costs time and money. The more money that is committed then the more difficult (i.e. more career threatening) it becomes to reverse those decisions if things go wrong.

Some companies spend an awfully long time thinking and planning to do something: longer than it takes to actually do the thing. I once visited a company which had spent five years planning a particular project and not building anything.

Add two more things to this.

We know from experience that planning has rapidly diminishing returns. A little bit of planning creates great learning, but after a little while the rate of learning drops off. Very soon learning by doing becomes more effective, i.e. switch from thinking about what might be done to trying to do it.

This has never been truer than today – 2018: with the computing power and tools it is faster and cheaper than ever to build a prototype, a concept, an MVP, version 1, alpha version or whatever else you want to call it.

However, going to the other extreme and doing no pre-work doesn’t make a lot of sense either.

Enter the Minimally Viable Team: the team jumps to doing, all that pre-work is given to the team. They get to decide what is needed.

To traditionalists the team/project/product is launched prematurely but actually all we are doing is extending the start date backwards so that the pre-work is now part of the thing. By tasking the initial team with all the traditional pre-work the team becomes master of their own destiny again. And they can choose to approach the mission with a traditional approach (market research, architecture design, resource planning) or in an agile/digital fashion (build a small product and test it) – that is their choice.

The MVT idea is to “starve” the team and make them pull only the necessary resources as and when they need them. When organizations decide who (which roles) will be on the team in advance they are in effect designing the software.

And since agile approaches and modern tools allow us to make progress that much faster why not move more quickly to a working product? Minimise the design, postpone the architecture.

This approach also means the initial team can be kept small which means they are cheap. So if they conclude the project shouldn’t be done the organizational inertial is less and the project can be cancelled. Which hopefully means the organization will take more chances on more ideas.

Try this thought experiment.

On Day-Zero there is nothing.

Someone decided there should be Product X. How did this happen? They may have had the idea days ago and have spent the intervening time researching the market, the competition, the problem and so on. (During which time their normal job has been disrupted, the sooner they can dedicate themselves to the new idea the faster things will happen.)

On Day-Zero they talk to an architect who considers a design.

This takes a few days at the end of which there is an outline design and the architect suggests the team needs four programmers, two testers, a UXD and a DBA. Plus a project manager and product owner. 10 in all.

It now takes time to make the business case and gather those resources.

At that point work can officially begin, call that D-Day.

Then the team need to learn to work together, build something and launch it into a market.
They also need to understand what the architect had in mind.

Officially the project began on D-Day, or perhaps the day the business case was approved.

How much time has been spent so far? Without testing the market? Allowing competitors to do something? – all this time cost of delay has been at work changing the business case.

How has all that “getting ready” time been accounted for? How has this work been managed?

The MVT approach says: Time is of the essence the team should decide all these things.

So, as quickly as you can, spend a little venture money on an MVT.

That team has to investigate the market, competition, problem, etc. The team can think about architecture but their primary aim is to build something, and MVP, a prototype, a proof of concept, whatever – build it, show it to customers, launch it, put it in the market.

By keeping it small the team can quickly invalidate ideas which don’t work. Ideas that do work can be built on. They are free to learn.

The initial MVT will do all the same things that a “pre project” phase would do but in a much more agile/digital way. The MVT also allows for continuity, when the team find success the team that can be expanded and grown – applying Gall’s Law.

This also looks a lot more like a start-up than a normal corporate project.

If the idea of a Minimally Viable Team is new to you then check out the discussion in Continuous Digital or some of my earlier blog posts on MVTs.

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Nature abhors an information void

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No. 6: What do you want?
Voice: Information
No. 6:You won’t get it
Voice: By hook or by crook we will

Information… we all want information… Facebook updates, Tweets, 24-hour rolling news, the Donald Trump Big Brother House… the opening scenes and words of The Prisoner continue to echo, Patrick McGoohan and the other writers got it right, they were just 50 years early.

Human beings have insatiable thirst for information – even when we know rationally that information is useless is pointless we still want it. We persuade ourselves that something might be happening that we need to know about.

Just today I was driving when my mobile phone started to ring. It was highly unlikely to be anything but still my mind started to think of important things it could be. I had to stop the car and try to answer it. Of course, it was spam, a junk call, caller-ID told me that so I didn’t answer.

Every one of us has information weaknesses. In part it is dopamine addiction. We may look down on those who watch “vanity metrics” but we all information fetishes whether they be, metrics, scores, “facts” or celebrity gossip.

Whether e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, SMS, Slack, some other medium or social media we all need information and a dopamine fi. Has only replied to my tweet? Has anyone retweeted my last tweet? Has anyone followed me today?

Sometimes it is impossible to believe that nobody has retweeted my fantastic tweet, or that a potential client hasn’t immediately replied to an e-mail, or that… I’ve even on occasions found myself picking up my phone and going to the mail app when I’ve only just walked away from answering e-mail on my PC – as if the e-mail on my phone is better than the e-mail on my PC!

The only thing worse than having a mailbox full of unanswered e-mails is an empty mailbox – mailbox zero – which stays empty.

Sometimes one demands information when there just isn’t any. I think that is what number 6 really meant when number 2 repeatedly asked him for information: there wasn’t anything more than he had said. He had given his information, if others demanded more then it was simply because they couldn’t accept what they had been told.

I’m sure all parents have experienced children in the back of the car who ask: “Are we there yet?”. To which you reply “No – it will be at least an hour”. And then, five minutes later you hear “Are we there yet?”

And who hasn’t felt the same way about project managers? Or technical leads? Or product managers? product owners? business analysts?

Children don’t stop asking because… well, maybe because they don’t understand the answer, they have a poor concept of time. Or maybe because they really want the answer to be “Yes we are there.” As small people children also want information.

Isn’t that the same when other people ask you the “Have you finished foo yet?” and even “When will it be ready?” While one hopes they have a better concept of time they don’t necessarily take in the answer, and they hope and hope and hope that the answer will soon be the answer they want it to be. People are very bad at handling information voids.

Manager types might dress the question up in terms of “The business needs to know” how often does that disguises the real truth: somebody didn’t like the last answer and is hoping that if the question is posed again the answer might be the one they want.

The project manager who checks in every few hours is no different than the developer who leaves their e-mail open on a second screen, or the tester keeps Twitter in the background. Each of them wants to know information!

Our difficult in dealing with information voids means we constantly search for information. And if we can’t find it we create pseudo-information: time based project plans which purport to show when something will be done or system architecture documents which claim to show how everything will work. Are the project managers and architects who create these documents are just seeking information? Dopamine?

Long time readers may remember my review of time-estimation research. Some of the research I read showed that people in positions of authority, or who claimed expert knowledge, underestimates how long work will take more than the people who do the work. Researchers were not clear as to whether this effect was because those in authority and experts let their desire for the end state influence their time estimation or whether it was because these people lacked an understanding of the work in detail and so ignored complications.

And it is not just time based information. Requirements documents are often an attempt to discern how a system may be used in future. System architecture designs are an attempt to second guess how the future may unfold. Unfortunately, as Peter Drucker said “We have no facts about the future”.

Faced with an information void we fill it with conjecture.

Sadly I also see occasions where the search for answers disables people. Sometimes people search for information and answers which are within their own power to give. Consider the product owner inundated with work requests for their product. They search for someone to tell them what they should do and what they should not do. Faced with an information void they look for answer from others. But sometimes – often? always? – the answer is within: as product owner they have the authority to decide what comes first and what is left undone.

I have become convinced over the years that often people ask for information that simply doesn’t exist. When the information isn’t presented they fill in the blanks themselves, they assume the information does exist and isn’t being shared. In some cases they create conspiracy theories or they accuse others of being secretive. But because of doubt they they don’t act on the information.

It is easy to think of examples in the public eye but I think it also happens inside organizations. Often times managers really don’t know what the future will hold but if they don’t tell people then they are seen as hiding something. If they deny information exists they may be seen as stupid or misleading.

The same happens the other way around, the self same managers – who really don’t know as much as people think they do – ask programmers, testers, analysts, etc. for information which doesn’t exist and which maybe unknowable. Telling your manager “you don’t know” might not be something you feel safe doing, and if you do then they may go and ask someone else.

In almost every organization I visit people tell me “We are not very good at communicating around here.” Again and again people tell me they are not told information they “should” be told. I’ve never visited an organization where people tell me “Communication is great around here” and while I’ve visited places where people say “We have lots of pointless meetings” nobody tells me “We are told too much.”

My working assumption in these cases is simply: The information doesn’t exist.

This is Occam’s razor logic, it is conspiracy free, it doesn’t assume the worst of people. I don’t assume people are keeping information secret – either deliberately or through naive understandings of what other people want.

So, the real answer for No. 6 should be “I’ve told you the truth, maybe you can’t accept it.”

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Books update: User Stories, Continuous Digital and Project Myopia

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Someone told me the other day “I can’t keep up with your books” – and you know what? I’m not surprised, it has been a busy couple of months for me on the books front but actually, there has been very little new writing – except with this blog.

First off, “Little Book of Requirements and User Stories” is now available in print.

This is a collection of pieces I wrote for Agile Connection a couple of years back which I compiled into an e-book. Sales of the e-book have been good, especially since I put it on Amazon and so, after a couple of request I’ve created a print version.

Right at the moment I’m amazed that Little Book is ranking as the 46th best seller in systems analysis and design which I think makes it a best seller!

The cheapest way to get the book is to buy thee-book on LeanPub. Amazon (all sites) have both print and ebook versions but they are more expensive. If you would like a copy for free please write me a review on Amazon UK and I’ll post you a copy – first six reviews only!

Next… Continuous Digital and Project Myopia….

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Continuous Digital began life as #NoProjects, then Project Myopia, then became Continuous Digital. The name changes reflected the way my own thinking grew and changed. What began as a critique of the project model grew into an alternative model in its own right. In doing so it became something different, hence Continuous Digital.

But the more Continuous Digital stood alone the more the original chapters looked out of place. So I decided a few weeks ago to bundle them into their own book: Project Myopia.

I hope readers will find them complementary although I think they both stand alone. Both are only available as e-books on LeanPub, indeed there is an LeanPub bundle “Rethinking Projects” containing both. That said, right now Continuous Digital contains a coupon which allows readers to download Project Myopia for free. (It won’t be there for much longer.)

Splitting Continuous Digital in two has allowed me to race through my editing. There is still some work to do but content wise the book is pretty much done. It will remain a LeanPub only e-book for a little while longer and then…

Project Myopia would benefit from some more editing but I have no great plans to change it much. The changes I would make are all covered in Continuous Digital anyway.

Please, if you have any comments on any of these books, or suggestions to make them better let me know.

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Books update: User Stories, Continuous Digital and Project Myopia

UserStoriesPrint-2017-10-27-17-34.jpg

Someone told me the other day “I can’t keep up with your books” – and you know what? I’m not surprised, it has been a busy couple of months for me on the books front but actually, there has been very little new writing – except with this blog.

First off, “Little Book of Requirements and User Stories” is now available in print.

This is a collection of pieces I wrote for Agile Connection a couple of years back which I compiled into an e-book. Sales of the e-book have been good, especially since I put it on Amazon and so, after a couple of request I’ve created a print version.

Right at the moment I’m amazed that Little Book is ranking as the 46th best seller in systems analysis and design which I think makes it a best seller!

The cheapest way to get the book is to buy thee-book on LeanPub. Amazon (all sites) have both print and ebook versions but they are more expensive. If you would like a copy for free please write me a review on Amazon UK and I’ll post you a copy – first six reviews only!

Next… Continuous Digital and Project Myopia….

ContDigital-2017-10-27-17-34.jpg ProjectMyopia-2017-10-27-17-34.jpg

Continuous Digital began life as #NoProjects, then Project Myopia, then became Continuous Digital. The name changes reflected the way my own thinking grew and changed. What began as a critique of the project model grew into an alternative model in its own right. In doing so it became something different, hence Continuous Digital.

But the more Continuous Digital stood alone the more the original chapters looked out of place. So I decided a few weeks ago to bundle them into their own book: Project Myopia.

I hope readers will find them complementary although I think they both stand alone. Both are only available as e-books on LeanPub, indeed there is an LeanPub bundle “Rethinking Projects” containing both. That said, right now Continuous Digital contains a coupon which allows readers to download Project Myopia for free. (It won’t be there for much longer.)

Splitting Continuous Digital in two has allowed me to race through my editing. There is still some work to do but content wise the book is pretty much done. It will remain a LeanPub only e-book for a little while longer and then…

Project Myopia would benefit from some more editing but I have no great plans to change it much. The changes I would make are all covered in Continuous Digital anyway.

Please, if you have any comments on any of these books, or suggestions to make them better let me know.

Read more? Subscribe to my newsletter – free updates on blog post, insights, events and offers.

Friday throughts on the Agile Manifesto and Agile outside of software

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While I agree with the Agile Manifesto I’ve never been a great on for defining “Agile” in terms of it.

As time goes by I find the manifesto increasingly looks like a historic document. It was written in response to the problems in the software industry at the turn of the millennium – problems I recognise because I was there. I worked on the Railtrack privatisation, ISO 9000 certified and so much paper you needed a train to move it. I worked at Reuters as they destroyed their own software capability with a CMM stream roller.

The manifesto is a little like Magna Carta or the US Constitution, you sometimes have to read into it what would fit your circumstances. It was written about software and as we apply agile outside of software you have to think “what would it say?” the same way the US Supreme Court looks at the Constitutions interprets what it would say about the Internet

Perhaps a more interesting question than “What is Agile?” is “Where does Agile apply?” or, even more interesting, “Where does Agile not apply?”

One can argue that since Agile includes a self-adaptation mechanism (inspect and adapt) – or as I have argued, Agile is the embodiment of the Learning Organization – it can apply to anything, anywhere. Similarly it has universal applicability and can fix any flaws it has.

Of cause its rather bombastic to make such an argument and quite possibly anyone making that argument hasn’t thought it through.

So the definition of “Agile” becomes important – and since we don’t have one, and can’t agree on one we’re in a rather tricky position.

Increasingly I see “Agile” (and so some degree Lean too) as a response to new technologies and increasing CPU power. Software people – who had a particular problem themselves – had first access to new technologies (programmable assistants, email, instant messenger, wikis, fast tests and more) and used them to address their own issues.

The problems are important. Although people have been talking about “agile outside of software development” for almost as long as agile software development it has never really taken off in the same way. To my mind thats because most other industries don’t have problems which are pushing them to find a better way.

As technologies advance, and as more and more industries become “Digital” and utilise the same tools software engineers have had for longer then those industries increasingly resembled software development. That means two things: other industries start to encounter the same problems as software development but they also start to apply the same solutions.

Software engineers are the prototype of future knowledge workers.

Which implies, the thing we call Agile is the prototype process for many other industries

“Agile outside of software” becomes a meaningless concept when all industries increasingly resemble software delivery.

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Tax the data

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If data is the new oil then why don’t we tax it?

My data is worth something to Google, and Facebook, and Twitter, and Amazon… and just about every other Internet behemoth. But alone my data is worth a really tiny tiny amount.

I’d like to charge Google and co. for having my data. The amount they currently pay me – free search, free email, cheap telephone… – doesn’t really add up. In fact, what Google pays me doesn’t pay my mortgage but somehow Larry Page and Sergey Brin are very very rich. Even if I did invoice Google, and even if Google paid we are talking pennies, at most.

But Google don’t just have my data, they have yours, your Mums, our friends, neighbours and just about everyone else. Put it all together and it is worth more than the sum of the parts.

Value of my data to Google < 1p
Value of your data to Google < 1p
Value our combined data to Google > 2p

The whole is worth more than the sum of the parts.

At the same time Google – and Facebook, Amazon, Apple, etc. – don’t like paying taxes. They like the things those taxes pay for (educated employees, law and order, transport networks, legal systems – particularly the bit of the legal system that deals with patents and intellectual property) but they don’t want to pay.

And when they do pay they find ways of minimising the payment and moving money around so it gets taxed as little as possible.

So why don’t we tax the data?

Governments, acting on behalf of their citizens should tax companies on the data they harvest from their users.

All those cookies that DoubleClick put on your machine.

All those profile likes that Facebook has.

Sure there is an issue of disentangling what is “my data” from what is “Google’s data” but I’m sure we could come up with a quota system, or Google could be allowed a tax deduction. Or they could simply delete the data when it gets old.

I’d be more than happy if Amazon deleted every piece of data they have about me. Apple seem to make even more money that Google and make me pay. While I might miss G-Drive I’d live (I pay DropBox anyway).

Or maybe we tax data-usage.

Maybe its the data users, the Cambridge Analyticas, of this world who should be paying the data tax. Pay for access, the ultimate firewall.

The tax would be levied for user within a geographic boundary. So these companies couldn’t claim the data was in low tax Ireland because the data generators (you and me) reside within state boundaries. If Facebook wants to have users in England then they would need to pay the British Government’s data-tax. If data that originates with English users is used by a company, no matter where they are, then Facebook needs to give the Government a cut.

This isn’t as radical as it sounds.

Governments have a long history of taxing resources – consider property taxed. Good taxes encourage consumers to limit their consumption – think cigarette taxes – and it may well be a good thing to limit some data usage. Anyway, thats not a hard and fast rule – the Government taxes my income and they don’t want to limit that.

And consider oil, after all, how often are we told that data is the new black gold?
– Countries with oil impose a tax (or charge) on oil companies which extract the oil.

Oil taxes demonstrate another thing about tax: Governments act on behalf of their citizens, like a class-action.

Consider Norway, every citizen of Norway could lay claim to part of the Norwegian oil reserves, they could individually invoice the oil companies for their share. But that wouldn’t work very well, too many people and again, the whole is worth more than the sum of the parts. So the Norwegian Government steps in, taxes the oil and then uses the revenue for the good of the citizens.

In a few places – like Alaska and the Shetlands – do see oil companies distributing money more directly.

After all, Governments could do with a bit more money and if they don’t tax data then the money is simply going to go to Zuckerberg, Page, Bezos and co. They wouldn’t miss a little bit.

And if this brings down other taxes, or helps fund a universal income, then people will have more time to spend online using these companies and buying things through them.

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Continuous Digital & Project Myopia

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This seems a little back to the future… those of you who have been following the evolution of Continuous Digital will know the book grew out of the #NoProjects meme and my extended essay.

I think originally the book title was #NoProjects then was Correcting Project Myopia, then perhaps something else and finally settled down to Continuous Digital. The changing title reflected my own thinking, thinking that continued to evolve.

As that thinking has evolved the original #NoProjects material has felt more and more out of place in Continuous Digital. So I’ve split it out – Project Myopia is back as a stand alone eBook and you can buy it today.

More revisions of Continuous Digital will appear as I refactor the book. Once this settles down I’ll edit through Project Myopia. A little material may move between the two books but hopefully not much.

Now the critics of #NoProjects will love this because they complain that #NoProjects tells you what not to do, not what to do. In a way I agree with them but at the same time the first step to solving a problem is often to admit you have a problem. Project Myopia is a discussion of the problem, it is a critique. Continuous Digital is the solution and more than that.

Splitting the book in two actually helps demonstrate my whole thesis.

For a start it is difficult to know when a work in progress, iterating, self-published, early release book is done. My first books – Business Patterns and Changing Software Development – were with a traditional publisher. They were projects with a start and a finish. Continuous Digital isn’t like that, it grows, it evolves. That is possible because Continuous Digital is itself digital, Business Patterns and Changing Software Development had to stop because they were printed.

Second Continuous Digital is already a big book – much bigger than most LeanPub books – and since I advocate “lots of small” over “few big” it makes sense to have two smaller books rather than one large.

Third, and most significantly, this evolution is a perfect example of one of my key arguments: some types of “problem” are only understood in terms of the solution. Defining the solution is necessary to define the problem.

The solution and problem co-evolve.

In the beginning the thesis was very much based around the problems of the project model, and I still believe the project model has serious problems. In describing a solution – Continuous Digital – a different problem became clear: in a digital age businesses need to evolve with the technology.

Projects have end dates, hopefully your business, your job, doesn’t.

If you like you can buy both books together at a reduced price right now.

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