Category Archives: best of

Lessons From My First Failed Meeting

A bad meetingIt was a bad day at Geekaplex. A star developer’s computer had crashed hard, taking a week’s worth of new source code with it. The big boss was furious! I spoke up, “We need source control and a backup system.” The big boss looked at me and said: “Get some people together and make it happen!” I called my first-ever meeting and invited all of engineering.

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Splitting User Stories with Acceptance Criteria

This is the fourth part of my series on splitting user stories. If you are just joining us, start with the first installment and work your way forward from there. Today’s technique is the third of four techniques to split user stories and it makes use of the user story’s acceptance criteria in order to split the story into smaller stories. What are acceptance criteria? Acceptance criteria are a list of pass/fail testable conditions that help us determine if the story is implemented as intended. Each user story should have between 4 and 12 acceptance criteria. The product owner works with the team to create, agree-upon, and record the acceptance criteria for each user story before the story enters a sprint.
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Splitting User Stories with Generic Words

This is the third in my series on splitting larger user stories into smaller user stories. If you are just joining us, go back and read part one and part two. Don’t worry, I’ll wait right here for you.

Like the first story splitting technique (Conjunctions and Connectors technique), the second technique (the Generic Words approach) works by parsing the text of the user story. This time, instead of looking for connector words, we are looking for generic words. “What’s a generic word?” you ask. Any noun that isn’t a proper noun is generic, as are many verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. What we are looking for is a generic or general term in the story which could be replaced by several more specific terms to create a number of smaller stories.
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Splitting User Stories with Conjunctions and Connectors

As I described last week, splitting large user stories into smaller user stories has many benefits for the scrum team and the business. We also agreed that before we try to split a user story, we want to write it in the traditional format:

As a <type of stakeholder>,
I want <the deliverable>,
so that, <some value is created>.

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Paper Prototyping

LinkedIn has a cool feature that let’s you ask a question of your whole network. This morning, someone in my network asked this question:

Tools for visualising interactive prototypes? What do you prefer?

Powerpoint, ConceptDraw, Omnigraffle, Flash, Ruby on Rails?

We are reviewing the tools we are using to help visualise interactive storyboards and concepts for our clients. What are other people using? How important is it that the tool supports experimenting with real data and conditional branching in order to explore with the development team the consequences of their design decisions?

My reply:

Consider Paper Prototyping.

It is low cost, easy to do, and will quickly teach you how a real user will react to the system. With a paper prototype, a human acts as the computer, so your prototype can support some very sophisticated logic without the need to create code. Modifications are trivial, encouraging experimentation, discovery and improvement. I was skeptical at first, but after using it a few times I have become impressed with the power of this tool.

Photo courtesy of
Nertzy

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Compliments – Positive Feedback

Compliments and criticism are the two edges of the feedback sword. Today, The Chief Happiness Officer’s Blog explains that to be effective, compliments must be specific. This generalizes well to ‘feedback must be specific’. In particular, you want to clearly describe the behavior that you observed. For instance: “Bob, I see that while you were fixing that bug you also added several new tests and refactored the module.” Now that Bob knows exactly what you are going to compliment him on, tell him about the impact this will have: “That will really make it easier for people to work in that module in the future, and probably prevent some bugs too!” At this point, if we were delivering criticism, we would request a change in behavior. Since we are giving a compliment, we can simply say thank you: “I really appreciate you doing that. Thanks.”

You can find more on feedback here.

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A Different Kind of Tolerance in the Workplace

Dannyman pointed out this quote from William L. McKnight, past Chairman of the Board at 3M.

As our business grows, it becomes increasingly necessary to delegate responsibility and to encourage men and women to exercise their initiative. This requires considerable tolerance. Those men and women, to whom we delegate authority and responsibility, if they are good people, are going to want to do their jobs in their own way. Mistakes will be made. But if a person is essentially right, the mistakes he or she makes are not as serious in the long run as the mistakes management will make if it undertakes to tell those in authority exactly how they must do their jobs. Management that is destructively critical when mistakes are made kills initiative. And it’s essential that we have many people with initiative if we are to continue to grow.

This idea applies to the manager leading a small team, not just to the CEO. While giving guidance is necessary, controlling all aspects of how your team members work is not. Nobody wants to be micro-managed.

The other bit in there is tolerating mistakes. There are two broad categories of ‘mistakes’ that your people will make. The first type isn’t really a mistake at all, though you will think it is. They will choose to do things differently than you would. Very often, our instinct is that different is wrong, or at the very least, not as good as the way we would do the thing. After all, you are the manager, the leader, and the expert. Right? Remember all the times your boss wanted you to do things some way that was clearly not as good as the way you wanted to? Now that you are a leader, work hard not to be that boss.

The second type of mistake that your people will make is a mistake. It can be hard to tell this type of mistake from the first kind until the results are in. When these mistakes happen, err on the side of tolerance. Help the person to examine the mistake and learn from it, in a way that is supportive. Good people don’t like to fail. The pain of the failure will be punishment enough for them.

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Complaints!

Heads up! The Chief Happiness Officer is urging people to complain at work. His point is that complaining in a constructive way can make the workplace better. Fair enough, but what if you are a new manager and you are the one listening to all of these complaints?

I once had a direct report that was constantly finding things to complain about. He was well-intentioned, smart, and one of the most productive engineers on the team. The things that he was complaining about were all things that could, in fact, stand some improvement. He thought that by pointing out everything that could use fixing, he was doing his part.

Next time he came to me with a complaint, I asked him what he thought could be done to improve the situation, and specifically what could he do to help implement a fix. He happily went into problem solving mode and generated several potential solutions. We then discussed the merits of each and compared the costs to the benefits. We chose a course of action and each of us committed to taking some specific actions to improve the situation. After that session, he almost always came armed with potential fixes to go along with his complaints.

It’s OK to complain. It is often much more useful to propose a solution, especially one that you are willing to implement.

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Feedback

I just read this article at cio.com. It had some excellent advice about how to give, and how not to give, feedback to others in the workplace. Feedback is one of the most powerful tools in a manager’s toolbox. Use it early; use it often. It is far better to give regular feedback than to save it up for performance review time.

The author, Esther Derby, recommends a multi-step approach to giving feedback that is similar to that recommended by the guys over at Manager Tools, though a bit more flexible.

The steps include:

The Opening – Basically letting the person know that you want to give them some feedback and finding out if this is a good time. Of course, you should pick a time that you think is good for them before making your approach; check their calendar!

Sharing What You Observed – This is all about reporting the facts of the behavior that you are giving feedback on. Doing this without coloring it with judgment can be tricky, but is very important. At this stage it is better to say “Tom, I noticed you surfing the web during Bob’s presentation today.” than something like “You were disrespectful toward Bob this morning.” It is much easier for Tom to dispute whether or not he was being respectful than his web surfing. You really want to get agreement that the behavior occurred.

Describing the Impact – Here you might describe how others where distracted by his surfing, and that it undermines Bob and the information that was being presented. This step may not even be needed, as many people will quickly grasp the problem with their behavior. Tom might say, “Gee, I didn’t realize that other people would notice. I guess I was a bit of a distraction.” This may be as far as you need to go.

Request a Change – Tom may volunteer to change his behavior, or at least acknowledge the problem in a way that implies he will change. If he does not, then request some specific change such as leaving the laptop behind at these types of meetings.

Finally, it is worth noting that feedback can be positive as well as negative. Human nature being what it is, people tend to be more receptive to positive feedback. Use it! Reinforcing the good behaviors is just as important as changing the bad.

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