Sensemaking and Complexity in Large-Scale Lean-Agile Transformation

This is the abstract from a paper I wrote about my experiences using sensemaking in large-scale transformation efforts. I presented this at the 49th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS 2016). The final paper is available as part of the HICSS proceedings. A pre-print is available here.

Abstract

For organizations undergoing agile and lean transformation, it can be difficult to get meaningful, actionable insights into progress and impediments. Teams and organizations are best understood as complex adaptive human systems. Understanding what is happening in such systems requires approaches grounded in the complexity sciences and social sciences. This paper describes an approach using complexity science and sensemaking that helps an organization understand its culture, how it is progressing with its strategic initiatives, and the types of impediments that are holding it back. It provides a means of qualitative and quantitative analysis that helps teams and organizations improve. This paper also correlates the experiences of the people in the organization to its goals of being a more agile organization.

Organization and Business Agility: Managing the Portfolio Backlog in Large Organizations

This is the abstract and summary of lessons learned from an experience report I wrote and presented at the Agile 2015 conference in Washington DC. The full paper is available here. Among other things, the paper talks about using A3 problem solving, Cynefin, and the Containers, Differences, Exchanges model from Human Systems Dynamics in the context of portfolio management in large organizations.

Abstract

Working in a multi-team, multi-program, multi-product environment brings several challenges. One of those is providing a smooth flow of work to teams, and incorporating their feedback, while staying responsive to the needs of the business in a changing environment. Managing the portfolio backlog is a critical piece of the solution. This Experience Report documents several years’ experience working in such environments. The focus of this Experience Report is specifically on managing the portfolio backlog, not the full scope of what could be considered under a portfolio management strategy and implementation. We have found that getting the portfolio backlog management strategy right is a key element in the success of the overall portfolio management approach.

Summary of Lessons Learned

This section summarizes some of the key lessons learned in managing portfolio backlogs. Some general lessons related to solving problems in organizations include:

  • Understanding the nature of the problem helps us to take appropriate action to solve the problem. The Cynefin framework helps with this.
  • Make sure you are solving actual problems and causes, not just symptoms. A3 problem solving helps with this.
  • Understand how to create a balance between agility, self-organization and coherence. HSD and the CDE model helps with this.
  • Focus on the end-to-end flow of value through your organization, and on actively removing anything that impedes the flow of work. Lean thinking helps with this.
  • Understand what success and failure could look like before running your experiments. This will help you pay beselective about the patterns you pay attention to.

Some specific lessons related to managing portfolio backlogs in large organizations include:

  • Define the focus of your portfolio. In general, it is good practice to base the portfolio structure on your product line rather than organization structure. The former is what your customers care about; the latter more temporal.
  • Understand what content goes on the portfolio backlog. Define different types of items, e.g., features, initiatives, architecture items, etc.
  • Focus on the flow of work from portfolio to teams. The portfolio backlog management approach is an enabler of flow. Define policies for centralized portfolio-level decisions and localized program- and team-level decisions.
  • Set up a portfolio backlog management meeting at a regular cadence with the right participants. Create a Definition of Ready for portfolio items. Focus the meeting on feedback from the development teams, and on moving portfolio backlog items to a ‘ready’ state. Do not let it become a status or strategy planning meeting.
  • Create conditions that encourage a strong relationship between product managers, engineering leaders and architects. Together they bring multiple important perspectives to creating the portfolio backlog items. Consider also adding user experience design leaders to this mix, depending on the nature of your products.

Finally, this is a process of continuous experimentation and improvement. While some things can ultimately be moved to the obvious domain of best practices, or the complicated domain of good practices, we still operate within an ever-changing and complex environment that requires continuous awareness, experimentation, learning and adaptation. We continue to experiment and make improvements.

A Metric-Based Approach to Managing Architecture-Related Impediments in Product Development Flow

This abstract is from a paper I co-wrote with Kieran Conboy for the 37th International Conference on Software Engineering (ICSE 2015) in Firenze, Italy. The final paper is available in the conference proceedings. A pre-print version is available here.

Abstract

Contemporary lean thinking, especially in knowledge work areas like software engineering, begins with understanding flow. Architecture plays a vital role in enabling the flow of value in software engineering teams and organizations. To date there has been little research in understanding impediments to flow in software engineering organizations. A focus on enabling flow through removing impediments is a useful perspective in creating a more agile, lean thinking software engineering organization. Particularly so when supported by appropriate metrics. This paper presents a case study of how architecture-related impediments impact the flow of work in software engineering teams and organizations. The key contributions of this paper are centered on the concept of flow and impediments in modern software engineering, and its relationship with architecture. We develop an understanding of how a focus on flow and removing impediments, supported by appropriate metrics, is helpful in identifying architecture-related challenges . Drawing on research of one company’s practices the paper presents an example of a scenario where flow analysis using specific metrics reveals architecture-related impediments and shows how addressing these impediments improves effectiveness and productivity in ways that would not otherwise have been revealed.

Metrics for Understanding Flow

This is the abstract and conclusions from a paper I presented at Agile 2014. The full text is here.

Abstract

When adopting agile and lean approaches in our company, one goal for teams and organizations is to achieve a smooth end-to-end flow of work through the system. This paper presents a useful set of metrics that reveal how work is flowing. It describes four metrics we find useful: Cumulative Flow, Throughput Analysis combined with Demand Analysis, Cycle Time and Lead Time.

Conclusions

These metrics help you understand Flow in your teams and organizations. In particular:

  • CFDs give deeper insight into what’s happening in queues or workflow states, and help diagnose problems.
  • Throughput Analysis shows how work is flowing through our system over time. It is even more useful when combined with a Demand Analysis that shows the proportion of work flowing through the systemthat is Value Demand versus Failure Demand.
  • Cycle Time analysis shows how long it takes for work items to pass through one or a subset of workflowstates. This enables teams to make predictions about how long it takes to process planned work items.
  • Lead Time analysis shows how long it takes for work items to pass through the entire organization. This enables the organization to make predictions about how long it will take to process requests. We generally use Lead Time to understand the time it takes work to pass through all states, from the moment there is arequest or idea, to the moment the work is complete and in the hands of customers.
  • All these metrics can be used to indicate the presence of impediments to Flow in your system. The combination of these metrics offers good insight into what’s happening in an organization. They provide insight and visibility on status, and inform forecasting around when specific content might be delivered.

Software Engineering Research in Product Development Flow

Research

Good research is critical to building the body of knowledge of software engineering, and understanding the principles on which our industry is built. Even more, without the solid foundation of theory that comes from research, it is difficult to scale the practices we use in industry beyond a limited context. Lero, the Irish Software Engineering Research Centre, hosted an Industry Research Day today, to highlight and share some of the great software engineering research work that goes on at the Centre.

There are some great talks from partner companies including IBM, Intel, and St. James’s Hospital, Dublin. There are keynotes by Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the current European European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, and Seán Sherlock, the current Minister of State for Research and Innovation. It is great to see the richness and variety of software engineering research going on in Ireland, and the support available at both an EU and national government level.

My talk is a short summary of my ongoing PhD research work. I talk about learning and feedback cycles, learning to see impediments to flow, and some examples of how to see impediments in your team and organisation. I also talked about some preliminary research results, including how to tell who is really influencing flow and impediments in your organisation, what reaction time can tell us about threats and opportunities, and how to empower teams and engage management through an impediment removal process.

Slides from my talk are available here:

Portfolio Management and Organization Flow

I’ll be speaking at RallyON Europe this September on the topic of Portfolio Management and Organization Flow.

Complexity of product development increases as we move from a single team or product focus to a cross-organisation portfolio focus. Organisation Flow is about achieving the Lean concept of flow at an organisation level, not just at the level of a single product or product line.

This session will look at an approach to portfolio backlog management, and describe how to manage the flow of work through a portfolio of multiple products delivered by 50 teams in 6 locations across the US, Europe, India and China.

We will include examples of some core metrics that help understand throughput and flow in the organisation. These metrics tell a story about what is happening in the organisation. Lessons from these stories include understanding impediments to flow, and understanding who and what in the organisation is influencing flow.

I did an interview last week with Hannah Shain from Rally. The recording from the interview is here:

There’s a great lineup of content for the conference. If you’re in London I hope to see you there!

Update: Here is the slide deck I used at the conference:

Lean Startup in Large Organizations

I gave a talk today at a Lean Startup event organized by Enterprise Ireland and ITAG.

The topic of my talk was Lean Startup in large organizations, and specifically talking about lessons learned from applying Lean Product Development and Lean Startup principles at Cisco.

The three specific lessons I talked about are:

  1. Learning to manage batch sizes and limit Work in Process (WIP)
  2. Customer Development
  3. Learning to see and manage waste

The slide deck is available via Slideshare: