Doing little things makes big things happen

I love the game of basketball. I had the opportunity to play it for a long time and competitively. It taught me a lot about practice amongst other things, some of which I use today as an agile coach.

What are little things? It starts with paying attention to details at practice. Its about what you do each day and how you do it, to prepare yourself to play a match. Little things at practice include what you wear on court, how you stretch, run, exercise, play as a team and shoot baskets consistently. My coach would say, each day make your 50 shots before you go home. He never said how and we would shoot until we each converted 50 shots and then went home. Some days it would take me 1 hour, other days 2 hours. I would often be ready to give up but there came a time when I knew if I would make the shot or not as soon as the ball left my hands.

Consistent practice and paying attention to little details helped me tune myself to the match as it played out, in the best possible way.

What’s the point here? While working at product company several years later, one leader constantly said, “Don’t miss the forest for the trees”. What he meant and several of us know, was to always watch for the big picture or overall business goal. Many of us love to directly jump to “doing” stuff as soon as we can. I guess it’s a typical engineering mindset. We quickly get so busy with what we are doing, that we forget to frequently take small pauses and ask ourselves

  • Are we doing the right thing? Where are we with respect to our larger business goal?
  • Are we doing it right? Are we paying attention to how we do the little things?

My colleague and I have been working with an organization, to help them shift their way of addressing business needs by adopting and developing agile practices. They are in the business of providing marketing and branding insights to customers via a platform.  The team is enthusiastic and energetic about possibilities of doing things differently. They want to move towards becoming a product driven organization from the current mode of customized and specialized delivery of services. Their platform adoption has plateaued for reasons of predictability, availability and quality of solutions.

Other factors hampering platform adoption include –

  • Conflicts between product roadmap and customer commits via high priority interrupts & customization requests leading to context switching and productivity impact.
  • Lack of cadence on portfolio and product level planning leading to lack of big picture understanding.
  • Lack of structured teams and roles, leading to delivery times stretching and same people working across several projects in different roles and limited sprint planning.
  • Inadequate engineering infrastructure that enables continuous integration and delivery of quality code.

We identified a few approaches and practices to help them get started such as

  • Creating a common platform vision so the whole team could see and understand it correctly.
  • Shortlisting key customers and understanding their needs to shift platform development based on customer needs.
  • Assemble the right people with distinct roles for developers product owners, scrum masters and managers, integrating with UI and support teams to have complete teams
  • Building release plans and sprint plans aligned with release and overall platform goals.

The team responded enthusiastically at first and after a few sessions on planning and team structuring was happy to see better clarity, increased collaboration across various functions and improved confidence in their ability to plan and deliver. Release planning helped them constantly see the big picture as they continuously refined and prioritized stories, all the while sizing and understanding what could be delivered in a cadence. They also saw how engineering requirements could be built into sprints.

Towards the build up to sprint planning, their old ways of working kicked back and suddenly they were pushing back saying “instead of doing work, we are focusing on creating new processes”, “ at this rate, we’ll never get work done”, “lets set aside all of this and simply finish what we had to do in the first place” and so on. Suddenly, things seem to be taking longer to do and doubts on the “new approaches” came up. All they wanted to do was get down to simply developing and getting something done.

Just then, a request came from a key customer for a set of solutions to be delivered in 6 weeks. As coaches we took a step back and watched to see what the team would do. A day later, the team came up and asked, “Can we do this the right way please?” We asked why, and they said, “It looks like we are running around in circles and not making progress and we see that the new approach gives us a framework to ask questions, seek clarity and prioritize stories “.

We quickly facilitated short sessions to help identify highest priority jobs and workflows that were needed by their customer and map stories to that workflow. Immediately, they saw clarity around story priority and what they could commit in 6 weeks. That changed conversations with client facing teams and enabled this team to negotiate on stories confidently. It also brought cross functional teams like UI/UX, PO’s and client teams together to quickly create and agree to a workable plan with shared understanding on commitments.

Is all well now? Not just yet. Doubts remain with the team and the urge to simply get started is there.  They are aware of the need for practice towards making the shift towards doing things differently. What we have begun to see, as coaches, is the understanding of the need to  periodically step back and examine the purpose of a deliverable and seek clarity through the practices of release planning, backlog refinement and sprint planning to do the right thing, an understanding that these practices enable the team to set themselves on a path of doing it right and seeking means of quick feedback and early course correction.  They have also understood that a change in the process need not be an all or nothing approach and what matters is consistent practice to realize desired outcomes of predictability and quality and calibrating practices to suit the needs of their organization. They have also understood that while working on the details of delivering, they need to step back to see the big picture, so they know they are heading in the right direction.

My takeaways as a coach are –

  • Watch the process and help the team stay with the practice of applying new approaches and adapting as needed to enable the shift towards an agile mindset.
  • Taking baby steps to help the team adopt new practices and patience to enable discipline of practice.

I am sure there is more learning that I can share as this engagement continues. I hope you enjoyed reading this article. I would love to hear your feedback and if you wish to share your experiences, please do write in the comments section below.


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