Author Archives: Hillary Louise Johnson

Would ya take today off already? Yeesh…

“Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

From The ‘Busy’ Trap by Tim Kreider (New York Times), the best essay I’ve read in a long time about the value of slack, down-time, etc. (Our own Steve Bockman has designed exercises to teach software teams and software managers that utilization–ie, “busy-ness”–does not equal productivity).

Why, just yesterday Chris and I spent part of our 4th holiday on a fool’s errand, running to Daly City to look at an unlocked cell phone he found on Craigslist. It was a beautiful day, and we rode surface streets, with the top down on the convertible. Along the way we started looking at crazy stuff on Craigslist, and having silly conversations. We almost bought a private island, and a sailboat, but in the process we stumbled on office space that may just become the new Agile Learning Labs world headquarters. All because we took the time to run a fool’s errand, slowly, on a gorgeous day. Today is another gorgeous day… so try it!

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Hear Chris Sims on the Agile Weekly Podcast

In Integrum Chris talks to Roy van de Water and Drew LeSeur of Integrum about running Agile Learning Labs as a transparent company with a radical compensation plan, and about writing The Elements of Scrum using scrum, and how our new book, Scrum: A Breathtakingly Brief and Agile Introduction is an iteration of our first one.

Roy and Drew ask some excellent and hard questions, so tune in and give a listen!

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How to play the Team Estimation Game

The Team Estimation Game is the best technique we have found to get a scrum team up-and-running with useful estimates. It plays like a game, but it accomplishes valuable work: assigning story point estimates to user stories.

Teams using this technique are typically able to estimate 20 to 60 stories in an hour. The game was invented by our friend and colleague, Steve Bockman. Here is how one team plays the game:

Team Estimation Game Part I: The Big Line-up

Frank, the team’s scrum master, has cleared space on a long section of wall in the team room, and now the team assembles in front of it. Brad, the product owner, has brought a stack of 30 user stories from his product backlog, and the team is going to size them by playing the Team Estimation Game.

“Kira, why don’t you go first?” Brad says, passing her the stack of story cards. Frank, who is holding a roll of blue painter’s tape, peels off a small piece and hands it to her.

Kira starts the game by taking the top story from the deck, reading it aloud, and taping it to the middle of the wall. Then she hands the deck off to Kai, who goes next.

Kai picks the next story off the top of the deck and reads it to everyone. “I think this one is bigger than the one Kira just placed,” Kai says, affixing his story to the right of Kira’s story.

Mark goes next. The story he reads strikes him as a small one, so he places it just to the left of the others.

Now Jeff picks a story off the pile. “This one is pretty small, too.” He hesitates, then moves Mark’s small story further to the left to make room for his. “But not as small as the one Mark just placed.”

The team continues to take turns placing stories. On Kira’s third turn, she doesn’t take a new story off the pile. Instead, she repositions one that is already on the wall, moving it further to the right. “Trust, me,” she says, “the legacy code for this one is a mess, and we are going to have to make it all thread-safe for this story to work!”

Soon enough, all of the stories have been placed on the wall—but the team continues to take turns. Now, instead of placing new stories, they are fine-tuning the order by moving them one at a time, sometimes silently, sometimes with a few words of explanation.

“Pass,” Malay says when his next turn comes, indicating that he is satisfied with the order of the stories. Justus passes during this round as well. Kira and Mark each move one more story, but pass on the next round. Eventually there is a round where they all pass. Part one of the Team Estimation Game is over!

The team now has their stories ordered left to right, smallest to largest. The story they all agree will require the least amount of work is farthest to the left, and the one that they believe will require the most amount of work is farthest to the right. What is remarkable is that the whole team has now achieved consensus agreement on the correctness of this ordering!

For those who have been paying close attention, you may have noticed that this game has the potential for an infinite loop. Mark might place a story to right, but then Kira could move it back to the left. Mark, in his next turn could move it to the right again, and so on forever. While the infinite case is theoretically possible, we have never encountered it the hundreds of times we have played the game.

Team Estimation Game Part II: What’s Your Number?

In preparation for round two of the Team Estimation Game, Frank produces a deck of Fibonacci cards. Each card in this deck has one of the Fibonacci numbers on it, from one to 144.

Mick starts off. He goes up to the wall and points to the leftmost story, vamping a bit like Vanna White on Wheel of Fortune. “This, ladies and gentlemen, is about the smallest story we are likely to see.” He tapes the Fibonacci card labeled “1” above the story.

Justus goes next. He holds up the card labeled “2” and considers the wall of stories, searching for the point where the stories on the wall start to be about twice as much work as the story with the “1” over it. He chooses his spot, and places the “2” card above a story that lies four cards in from the left.

Play continues for several rounds, with each team member placing a Fibonacci card above the row of stories where they believe a size break occurs.

When her next turn comes, Kira hesitates, then points to two stories. “You know,” she says. “I think we may want to reverse the order of these two. I think this one is an eight, and the other one is a 13.” She uses her turn to switch the order of the two story cards and hands the deck to Mark.

Mark places the “21” card above a story. Malay is next. He shakes his head, then removes the “21” card Mark just placed. “I think this is actually a 34,” he says, naming the next-highest number in the Fibonacci sequence. He replaces the “21” card with the “34” card.

“He’s right,” says Jeff.

Jeff helps Malay move the story cards just enough to create a blank space between the last size 13 story and the first size 34 story—when the team placed the story cards in round one; they left ample space between them to allow for this, knowing that things can shift during part two.

Malay tapes the “21” card above the blank space in the row of stories, to indicate that there are no stories of that size.

When everyone has reached the point where they feel confident enough in the sizes to pass on their turn, the game is over.

Now the team tidies up, moving the story cards to form columns under the Fibonacci cards. All the stories between the “1” and the “2” are collected in a single column under the “1” card; these are the one-point stories. The next column consists of all the two-point stories, and so on. The team never did put any stories under the “21, ” so that column remains empty.

What we’ve described is the simplest form of the game. When you play it on your team, note that you don’t have to start with a “1” as your smallest story size. If a player thinks there may be future stories that will be significantly smaller than the smallest story that is currently on the wall, they may opt to start with the “2” or “3” above the first story instead of the one. This leaves room for future stories to be sized smaller than the smallest story in the current set. For example, by placing a “2” over the leftmost, smallest story card, a player signals their belief that the team may encounter future stories that are half as much work to implement.

We teach this game to the teams we work with, and many of them tell us that they have never before started a project with the whole team believing that the estimates were correct. This is the way to build a plan that everyone actually believes in!

Excerpted from The Elements of Scrum, by Chris Sims & Hillary Louise Johnson.
©2011 Chris Sims, Hillary Louise Johnson and Agile Learning Labs. All rights reserved.

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Chris Sims is signing copies of The Elements of Scrum at the Atlanta Scrum Gathering on Tuesday

If you are at the 2012 Atlanta Scrum Gathering, you got a copy of The Elements of Scrum by Chris Sims and yours truly in your conference goody bag, as we are proud sponsors of this year’s event. If you’d like Chris to sign your copy, he’ll be doing so at 12:30 pm on Tuesday in the Heritage Room. And I promise: if you bring along three rubber chickens, he will juggle them!

What, you say you don’t yet have a copy of The Elements of Scrum and are consumed with envy? Easily solved! Take one of our CSM or CSPO classes and you’ll get one, or if you just can’t wait, buy yourself a copy here on Amazon. Makes a great Mother’s Day gift! Just kidding. That would be, like, the worst Mother’s Day gift of all time. If you need a Mother’s Day gift, buy her a copy of my mom Ricki Grady’s book, BeBop Garden instead.

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The best example of teamwork ever recorded?

Seriously, this video (via David Chilcott, via Mitchell Levy) makes me think: I want to do this with people some day. It may be in software, or it may be in publishing, it may be in basket weaving (it certainly won’t be in guitar playing or singing), but I want to be one of these guys!

The most common thread in the video’s comments on YouTube seems to be about the bearded guy on the left. He seems to answer the question of whatever-happened-to-The-Captain, which still leaves unanswered the question of whatever-happened-to-and-Tennille.

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Want a smart team? Make sure it gets the recommended daily allowance of estrogen

A team without a woman is like a bicycle with… some fish? So it would seem, according to Grace Nasri, who writes in the HuffPo about the gender gap in tech from an interesting perspective. She got my attention with a 2011 HBR story profiling research by Anita Wooley and Thomas Malone showing that the one significant factor that demonstrably upped the measurable collective intelligence of a team was the presence of females on it.

The HBR research shows that the intelligence of individual contributors is not a predictor of a group’s intelligence. And that in fact a team dominated by a bossy, know-it-all individual contributor (yes, even one who actually does know it all), will be outperformed by a team consisting of lesser lights. But the most statistically significant predictor of higher team performance wasn’t the intelligence of the members of the team at all, but the presence of at least one woman on the team. Read the HBR interview with the study’s authors to learn how they designed the study, including how they measured individual and team “intelligence.”

Nasri goes on to talk about the tech industry’s gender gap, writing that “The latest Midas List, Forbes’ annual list of the 100 top venture capitalists, for example, includes just two women,” and that “only 8 percent of new startups backed by venture capital included at least one female founder.” It’s not clear what is cause and what is correlation in these numbers–I don’t believe male VCs are overtly biased against women founders, and I think that cultural factors other than bias can account for some of the disparity. For example, I am pretty sure there are more extroverts than introverts on those lists, too, which can also be explained by our unconscious preferences for certain presentation styles–“male” styles and “extrovert” styles of communication tend to be received more favorably on first impression.

As a person who is very concerned with language, I also wonder if our use of “team” terminology, deriving as it does from competitive sports, leads us to unconsciously favor masculine, extroverted team members and the funding of teams that resemble the 49ers more than those that resemble sewing bees. Gender manifests itself in subtle ways that go far beyond sex, into culture, communication style and unconscious preferences. Our collective favoring of masculine styles of team participation is something that is more about norms than it is about biases, for example.

In 2004, when I was editor of a newspaper, I wrote an article for Inc. Magazine describing how I used Home Comforts: The Art & Science of Keeping House by Cheryl Mendelson, rather than the ever-popular The Art of War as my management bible. Funnily enough, on re-reading the story, I find my “feminine” approach to management sounds pretty agile. I think the advice I gave then of looking to the laundry room as often as you look to the war room for management models holds very true today, and supports the HBR study authors’ conclusion that what made a difference in team success was including a diversity of thinking styles. What do you think?

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Hello Chase, Goodbye David: A change at Agile Learning Labs

Our friend and colleague David Parker is leaving Agile Learning Labs’ staff. He has received a much better offer–and one we can’t possibly counter–that of stay at home dad to Chase Kamran Parker-Katiraee, who assumed his post of infant-in-chief earlier this week.

We predict a fair bit of wrangling over just who is the customer and who the product owner on this particular project, but anticipate that development will flourish nonetheless. If we’re lucky, David and his wife Layla will supply us with lots and lots of adorable sprint demos along the way. Our compliments to the team!

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Scrum Master in a Box! innovation fun and games…

Who knew Innovation Games could be a competitive sport? Our own Director of Biz Dev, Laura Powers, is in a class with Deb Colden called “Innovation Games for Customer Understanding” today, and sent us this pic of her winning entry for “best design and product pitch.” She calls it Scrum Master in a Box:

We never thought of ourselves as a product company before, but that may have to change!

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