How important is writing?

I read this interview with Matt Mullenweg , the creator of WordPess, where he says:

“Skill in writing is one of the things I look for the most in hiring, because I feel that clear writing represents clear thinking, regardless of someone’s background, or whether they’re a designer or coder or whatever.

The ability to communicate effectively and clearly in written form is not only super important in a distributed company, but I think reflects well on how they approach life in general.

Part of the reason I started blogging and started working on WordPress was because I love writing.

If I can become a better writer, perhaps I can become a better thinker.”

I feel that my writing reflects my thinking a lot. I’m a slow writer, an email takes me ages. I pick my words carefully, delete, rewrite and keep going until perfection or until I say to myself “come on, you’re just cancelling your subscription, this is probably good enough”.

I wonder if the process shows in the results. I also wonder how my favourite colleagues do in this regard. Would I have hired them based on their writing?

 

Lightning planning

Some teamwork is better done in silence.

My golden rules for planning:

  • I want to spend as little time as possible on the things which don’t matter.
  • the goal of planning is deciding what to do, not how to do it

While a planning session can be a drawn out and tough experience with lengthy discussions, I like to keep the planning quick and full of energy and here’s one way of getting there.

Silence

Start by bringing up your work items on a white board or a table. *

Use categories: “do now”, “do later”, “never”, “I have a question before I can decide”

(Regarding the category “never“: some things are not relevant anymore and some you know will never be a high enough prio to make the cut. Just get rid of them, you’ll feel better afterwards.)

Ask participants to move items to  in silence.planning

If some items move back and forth between the categories, put it in the question category.

After 2-3 minutes you will have a rough filtering of the items without much effort. In my experience, half of the items in our backlog are filtered away.

Put away the “do later” items. Read though the “never” to make sure nothing important gets lost.

Questions and Answers

Now you’re left with the questions and the “do now” items.

Go through the questions (here is where you need to bring your facilitator skills and keep it short. The purpose is to get the question “do now, later or never” answered. Be relentless!

What Now?

So, finally, you’re at “do now”. Figure out how many things you can handle in the time frame until your next planning by using your throughput or velocity.

Now you want to fill those slots. If you have many more possible items than slots, I would try to avoid going through each item on “do now” and discuss them since you want to only discuss the things which you’re actually going to do. We don’t really know for sure which ones those are yet, but we can try to narrow it down.

Here you could use silence again to prioritize from most important to least important by asking participants to move the items in silence. You could also dot vote.

Double check that none of the things which aren’t in your slots is crucial during the time until next planning.

Done!

Why it works

A common mistake is to go through items one by one. There is always something to say about an item even if we agree. Especially if there is a technical challenge in solving it.

By using physical items and silence we enable the team to quickly show consensus on the things which they are in agreement on. We visualize what we need to discuss and what we don’t.

As a former tester, I put a lot of value in discussions regarding work items, the sooner the better. But in this case, I want us to agree upon which need we need to solve first, before we have the discussions on how it’s going to be done. I would say that’s a design discuss, or something for a Three Amigos meeting.

 

 

*if you already have a physical boards, this easy. Otherwise print out your cards and use magnets or write post its for them.

3 ideas to energize your stand up

I already described how using Walk the Board made our stand ups more efficient, here a few more ideas to make them even better.

Have team members take turns to facilitate

To increase the team’s ownership of the stand up (you’re supposed to be doing them as a way to help the team), having team members take turn in facilitating the meeting is a great idea.

Your role when facilitating is to make sure that this meeting brings as much value to the team as possible. It’s good exercise for each team member to reflect upon what that means.

It also livens things up a bit because everyone has different tempo when facilitating.

Furthermore it minimizes the risk that team doesn’t do the stand up when the Scrum Master is away because .

Work with WIP limits

To promote collaboration further and put even more focus on finish things rather than starting new ones, Work In Progress limit (WIP limit) is a great tool.

When there is no more room on the board because we hit a limit, we need to start helping the others out to finish a task or story before starting something new.

Agree on a code word for interrupting discussions

A common problem during stand ups is when a couple of members get involved in a long discussion about for example, design.

One tip to solve this is to agree on a code word to use to cut that discussion short without anyone getting offended. They are welcome to resume the conversation when the stand up is over.

I’ve heard people use SUMO (Shut Up and Move On) and in my team we say “time is like a tree” since we have this motivational poster on our board.

timeislikeatree

And then…

There are plenty of more ideas to use to improve your stand ups. I’ve heard of drawing a circle on the floor to get team members to stand closer together and other interesting ideas. Dare to explore and don’t just stick with the same formula forever!

Get more value out of your stand ups by throwing out the three standard questions

Are you tired of long stand ups where people merely report to the Scrum teamandboard_2Master? Do team members list all the ways in which they are busy rather than sharing information with each other?

 

One technique has helped my recent teams get more focused stand ups: Walk the Board. (Update: @KirstenMinshall pointed out on Twitter that Walk the Wall is catchier )

 

Instead of having each team member answer the three standard questions (what did I do yesterday? what will I do today? and what am I blocked by?), Walk the Board emphasises the stories which populate the board.

 

You move through the board story by story, but starting with the ones which are the closest to completion.

 

You start on the column to right which is usually “Done” or “Deployed” and then move left one step at the time. In each column, move in order of priority until you have talked about all stories.

board_numbers

For us it means that we start talking about the stories which were deployed since last stand up (see (1) in the picture). We then move over to the stories which are waiting to be deployed (where testing is done – (2) in the picture). We ask “what do we need to do to deploy this today?” and make sure that we’ll work towards removing obstacles or doing those tasks.

 

After that we have the stories which are in testing (3), and we ask “what do we need to do to get testing done today?”

And so on.

After having gone through all the stories, we ask if there is someone who hasn’t spoken in order to identify any work which isn’t on the board.

 

Benefits

 The story and not the individuals are the star of the stand up

Instead of focusing on the individuals and how much work they have achieved, Walk the Board emphasises the goal of the team: getting things done.

We don’t care how busy you were, what’s important to us is real progress.

The story needs to be finished, it doesn’t  matter who is working on it.

 

A team effort instead of individual performance

Again, the objective is to finish those stories and by not asking the individuals what they have done and instead ask the team we reinforce the feeling that we help each other towards our common goal.

 

Higher level of engagement

The stand up becomes more interesting and I’ve noticed that the level of engagement for everyone is higher. Maybe it’s the shared enthusiasm of collectively getting the stories closer to completion.

Of course, it doesn’t solve everything. If a few team members get caught up in a design discussion, it’s still possible to start dozing off.

 

Conclusion

Walk the Board is more true to the original purpose of the stand up.

The stand up is a meeting created to help the team. They are not for reporting to anyone but often we end up in stand ups where everyone reports to the Scrum Master.

A symptom of this is when the team doesn’t have stand ups when the Scrum Master is away.

When the team doesn’t use the stand up to report to the Scrum Master and instead finds a value in the meeting, they are less likely to ignore them.

Try out Walk the Board and see if it helps you reinforce team work and get more energy into your stand ups!

Your team and a dining table

menu-restaurant-vintage-tableI don’t believe the classic team sizes of 7 (+- 2) people. I feel that those teams are too large to have meaningful conversations.

My rule of thumb for a team which I’m comfortable in is the dinner table heuristic with an ideal size of 3-4 people.

The dinner table heuristic explained

Imagine you’re having dinner. If you are 2 people you can have a close conversation and both of you part take actively without problem. A two person conversation is more intense than others since you will have eye contact all the time.

At 3 or 4 people the conversation is still easy. Since you can slip in and out of taking an active part if you wish, the conversation is less intense than with just two people. At 4, you might split up into two pairs but it isn’t necessary to in order to feel that the conversation is even. It might even feel a bit strange to not have the conversation in the full group.

Larger than one dinner table

At 5, something happens. The awkwardness at dinner of being an odd number and having to occupy a four person table plus one is echoed in the conversation (no one wants to be that odd person out sitting with an empty chair in front!).

You will either try to keep everyone in the loop or you will start to split up into subgroups with 2 and 3 people. If you split up, instead of one conversation, the dinner party has several simultaneous. If you try to stay within the same conversation, your average speaking time is 12 minutes per hour.

At 6, frustration is starting to make itself known if you want everyone to take part. Otherwise, subgroups of 4+2, 2+2+2 or 3+3 will form.

At 7, you spend less than 9 minutes per person and hour speaking in average, which 15% of the time. Because it’s harder to try to participate, some people will disappear from the conversation by staying quiet. You are possibly interrupting each other since it is harder to find an appropriate time to speak. Not only that, but booking a restaurant table for your team activity is starting to get difficult.

Beyond this, it just gets harder and harder with less and less time per person to speak.

So what?

Let’s look at the quality of the conversation.
In a setting with for example 7 participants, some people lack the energy to participate and battle for their space and we loose their insight and opinions.

Instead we get only the opinions of the outspoken and extroverts who have the energy to make room for themselves.

You can also spot some people who aren’t actively listening. They are just waiting for their turn to speak because finding that gap is crucial to be able to say your piece.

When individuals don’t have a natural space to talk to each other, risks and concerns might not be voiced. Engagement goes down as well as the feeling of having fun or being appreciated.

Conclusion

There is something which happens when your team reaches 5 people. It’s the first time subgroups naturally start to form because it’s easier that way. If you want your team to have have the possibility to easily have meaningful and rewarding conversations, it might be an idea to limit the size of your team.

Use Brain Writing to make your retrospectives more equal

If you are struggling with quiet team members who never say a word during retrospectives, or on the contrary, loud team members who don’t understand to let the others speak once in a while, then brain writing could be brilliant for you!

Brain writing is a technique for brainstorming in a group. It can be used during the “generate insight” phase of the retrospective.

Everyone starts with a stack of blank papers and a pen. They get 3 minutes to write down ideas, one per paper. When the timer rings everyone passes their papers to the right and receive papers from the person to the left.

Now you have a new ideas which you can use for inspiration. You can either add things on the paper if the idea sparks new ones related to the one on the paper or start a new paper if you come up with something entirely different.

The exercise is over when the first papers come back to the original author. Now put the papers up on a wall or lay them out on the table and have everyone read through them and be awed by the amount of generated ideas!

We used this template for writing down ideas:
“To be better at __________
We need to ________________
Every _____________________”

For example we had:
“To be better at knowledge sharing
we need to do more mob programming
every now and then”

I love brain writing because:

  •  it is a silent activity, everyone is on equal terms. The loud person doesn’t get too much space and the quiet person gets hir ideas heard as well
  •  building upon other people’s ideas is inspiring and creates a lot of “yes, and …!” moments
  • the template made us focus on purpose of suggested actions.

Finish with a round of silent prioritization for “Decide what to do”, pick your top 1-3 and you’re ready to start working on some inspiring improvements!

I want to be selected for my gender

There is a lot of discussion regarding picking keynote speakers, speakers in general or even recruiting. Some say we need more women speaking but many women say that they don't want any special treatment, they want to be selected based on merit.

Like many, I dream of a world where this isn't an issue. In my dream world, there is a natural mix of people from different origins, ages, sexes, etc in our industry. In my dream world, I even leave room for people who prefer Star Trek over Star Wars (I'm generous that way).

Until that it is a reality, I'm not scared of being selected based on my gender. I used to feel sad about it, getting job offers and invitations to speak just because I'm a woman (you can often tell. Sometimes because they say "we need a woman".). I questioned if it really was my competence that was attractive or just my gender.

But I have come to realize that the truth is that because I'm a woman I bring more to table than my male equivalent.

You know what, I even bring more to the table than then my male superiors!

What we are lacking in our industry isn't talent. There is plenty of talent to go around. What we lack is diversity and all of the benefits diversity brings with it.

So I'm not only bringing the audience competent ideas, I'm showing that it's as normal for a woman to have competent ideas and to present them on stage. I'm bringing in my perspective on things and unfortunately, because we raise our boys and girls differently, my perspective will differ in a general sense from men's. By bringing all of this, the audience's world is growing.

Until we have a more equal proportion of women and men as speakers, I'll always wonder if I was picked based on gender or merit. But I have decided that this will be the price I have to pay in order to give more women the ability to speak at conferences. I'm willing to pay that price because I believe in the end result.

I have come to realize that my ideas + my gender is more valuable than just great ideas and one particular piece of information made me change my mind.

I listened to Sharon Vosmek presenting at Stanford Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders Series and she talked about some interesting research.

Researchers at MIT discovered that three factors have an impact on the collective intelligence of a team:

  • the ability of the team members to interpret other's feelings (can I tell that you are sad?)
  • the equality in the conversation (is everyone given enough room to speak?)
  • the number of women in the team.

The natural question is of course, up to what proportion do women increase the collective intelligence of a team? Up to a 100% according to the researchers. The theory is that women are in general better at the two first factors than men (probably from how boys and girls are raised).

The implications are huge. It means that we should acknowledge that the interpersonal skills are very important for software development. It means that you can favor picking a women over a man without feeling bad about it. It might even mean that you are making a bad decision if you don't.

My wish is that more women would accept that the world right now is unequal and that they, like me, start to pay this uncomfortable price to pave the way for more equality.
My wish is also that more men would make the equally uncomfortable choice of picking women over men sometimes to pave the way for more equality.

Until we are in an equal world, I want you to pick me for my gender.