Lesson 3, Sprint 2: Asking Agile Questions

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As an Executive you must learn how to get status and updates from your team by asking Agile questions and support them by responding to challenges in an Agile way.

Estimated Time
75 minutes

Materials Needed:
Whiteboard, paper easel, markers, management team, devs


Preparation

You should have decided on Mission, Goals, and Roles (MGR) from the previous workshop. Now that we have a mission and some goals to work with, as an Executive you will want to check in on the team and get various indications of Status. This is accomplished by asking “Agile” questions. You may also be asked to respond to challenges the team might face and help solve problems that the team cannot solve on their own.

The questions you ask self-directed teams are different from the questions you would ask a waterfall team, and the way you respond to challenges is likewise not the same as it might be for a waterfall project.  The questions you ask and the positions you take should leave the team feeling empowered and trusted to get the job done. They should also sense that the right information is being used to make possibly difficult decisions which are meant to keep the project on track.

The basics of what you need to know as an Executive do not really change by using Agile, but the manner in which you glean this information must be adjusted if you want to achieve the highest levels of success and adoption.  In this workshop you will learn the best ways to get and respond to the essential units of information you need as an Agile Executive.

Essential Information

The essential measures for Agile projects you need to understand and respond to are:

  • Quality
  • Risk
  • Trust
  • Precision
  • Health of the team
  • Focus
  • Prioritization
  • Maturity
  • Team Improvement

This is different than the quite short list of the iron triangle of waterfall inquiry:

  • Cost
  • Scope
  • Time

Using the project selected in Sprint One, you and your team will draw from what you learned in the previous lessons to develop a list of questions and positions that align with the Agile approach to project inquiry.

Break the plenary into groups of 4-10.  The groups can (but don’t have to) be the same groups used in the MGR Sprint, but each group must select a mission (and its goals) developed in the first sprint.

One member of the group will play the role of a member of the executive team, who has a stake in the project.  The group will work together to make a list of 10 questions that will give them the best idea of the status of the project.

What you are looking for

These are “Agile” questions. These types of questions lead to actionable responses, which have an overall positive effect on project success. Agile questions can be about:

  1. Defect backlog (fixing defects in the system)
  2. Team failures (learning from recent failures)
  3. Collaborations (working together to be more effective)
  4. Customer interaction (listening and talking with customers)
  5. Points Velocity (observing the effort expended on user stories)
  6. Burndown (observing the total progress through a sprint)
  7. Scope adjustments (examining whether project specs need to change)
  8. Prioritization and trade-offs (discovering where the ultimate focus should be)
  9. Team balance and confidence (listening to your team to see if they need help)
  10. Retrospective-inspired improvements (discovering new directions based on feedback)

What You May Get

As your groups attempt to come up with questions that give insight into project status, you may hear “waterfall questions” which yield little or no actionable responses. This type of question leaves no room for the executive or team to make a direct change to improve the chance of success. For example:

  1. Are we done yet?
  2. Is everybody working hard enough?
  3. What can we do to make things go faster?
  4. Will we have to move the date?
  5. What is the percentage of completion thus far against estimates?
  6. Is there scope creep?
  7. How much money is left in the budget?

Once each team has a pretty good list, ask them to align each of their questions to one or more essential measures in the Agile list above.  It should be noted that “iron triangle” questions do not fit the Agile measures very well.  For instance, “Are we done yet?” does not yield an answer that provides an actionable response.

Positions: What are we going to do about it?

If everything is awesome and cooking really well, then the correct position is: “Carry on,” and “Thanks.”  However, problems and challenges are in the destiny of most projects. When something goes wrong, you as the Executive are expected to decide what should be done about it.  You will take a position — even if it is to do nothing — and your position will be felt and noted by the team.

We will now work on recognizing the difference between Agile and Non-Agile positions.  A position is the response from an Executive or manager after they have been given some information about the project.

For this segment the full group can assemble together, or small groups can stay in their work teams.  The facilitator will indicate to the group that there is a problem with the project, which must be solved with input from the executive team.  For example, the problem could be:

  • We are running out of time to achieve the scope
  • The scope has recently expanded
  • We lost a resource that was needed to complete the project

The facilitator should form two questions to ask the group about the difficulties with the project. One of the questions should be in the style of an Agile project, and one of the questions should be in the style of a waterfall project. For example:

  • Has the team has failed recently? (Agile)
  • What is the percentage of completion thus far against estimates? (Waterfall)

Instruct the group to pretend that they must report unfavorable circumstances in answering the questions. Then they must explain how they plan to remedy the issue.

On the whiteboard, the facilitator will write both questions side by side, with the unfavorable answers underneath. For example:

  • What is the percentage of completion thus far against estimates?
    • “Well, we are about two weeks behind schedule, but we think we can cut out some testing time at the end so we can utilize some of that for development.”
  • Has the team failed recently?
    • “Yes, our last two deployments took a long time and we found a number of bugs in production that we did not find in lower environments.  We plan to increase review unit testing scripts.”

The facilitator then initiates a conversation with the group about each question style,  asking the group which questions lead to actionable answers with supportive outcomes.

Participants are then asked to voice their conclusions based on the exercise, and the facilitator reinforces the idea that Agile questions lead to the support of a team in finding actionable answers that lead to visible improvements in the project status.

You’re ready to move on to the next sprint!

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