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30 October 2012

Crafting Strategy 25 years on

It’s 1987 and you are in a strategy meeting in a large corporation. Someone has faxed you a copy of an influential article by Canadian management academic Henry Mintzberg.

His article has challenged the idea of rational deep thinking, of McKinsey Models and Bain business plans. Craftmanship, he argues, is the right way to grow a business.

A strategy is a plan; a guide. It requires that you have a sense of where you want to go and where you are coming from. The analysts in your firm have been investigating the state of the market, your competition and even talking to suppliers about opportunities and ideas they have. Surely you can’t abandon this research, this analysis, the insights provided by the consultants and your executive team?

Look for the patterns! Look at what has gone before! Grow your business from the roots of your experience! The craftsman (or the gardener in a more modern interpretation, Appelo 2011) learn their trade both through observing others and through experience. Developing the organisation is rooted in a deep understanding of the rhythms and flows of the organisation, and of an intimate understanding of the customer.

Good decisions are made close to where the work happens; ideally by the frontline workforce.

Fast forward 25 years and things are pretty much the way you left them. U2 and the Beastie Boys have come and gone, but many organisations are still playing the Strategic Planning game ignoring the warnings that Henry shared decades before.

Top down Strategic planning doesn’t work and yet it persists. As a method, it does not sufficiently listen to the staff and incorporate their ideas of what needs to be done and so execution to the plan is lacklustre and distracted.

Additionally the lack of integration with frontline insights means that the special circumstances of your business are ignored. Instead a commoditized, off the shelf strategy is deployed. Your business joins the race to the bottom of the market in a series of cost saving, margin snatching plays. Of course the plan also fails to acknowledge, let alone keep up with the dynamism of the market.

But what about all those case studies of leaders declaring a bold plan and the company following through on it? Well, yes, it has happened. But more often companies make their way through life with poor strategies or even none beyond the signed off piece of paper in the board room.

By the way - just how does a strategy learn from the experience of even successful implementation? There we are again; Without feedback from the front line we are destined to repeat the strategies of the past.

In 1987 Henry might have had a hard time convincing people of these facts, but we live in the broadband age. We have no excuse not to know better when all that information is at our fingertips (albeit often pay-walled.) And of course the stellar successes called out in magazine articles and keynote speeches have mostly worked to a strategy that was created in retrospect.

Strategists cost a lot of money, but when their work is assessed based on facts they are found to be, for the most part, modern day charlatans selling snake-oil to the desperate and scared.

What might modern strategists look like?

A journalist springs to mind; someone who investigates and observes what the collective of the organisation is doing, and shares their observations by publishing to the community. Strategies are a plan, as executed by the collective workforce; analysts and operators alike. What people do is the strategy. It’s much like culture in that way; you don’t decree it, you can only hope to influence it with leadership.

Coaches are another metaphor; someone who stands beside the team and watches from off-field, offering feedback and advice. Coaches can watch the organisation in the context of the wider environment and share perspectives and insight from a different, higher plane.

What are you doing? How is your strategy being managed?

(thanks Pete for the pointer to the article)

26 October 2012

Sprint and Iteration Review tips & agenda

The Sprint or Iteration Review meeting is a chance to discuss progress and goals with the client. It can help you validate what you have done and assist in course correcting on your plan as the client learns and responds from the work you have completed.

It’s a review of what you have delivered 


  • Make review sessions as informal as possible
    • Sprint Reviews will be as informal as possible because you want a conversation rather than a presentation
    • Consider hosting them in the team workspace rather than in a meeting room 
  • Show the real product you have built 
    • Given you want to discuss the way forward with your client you want to give them the best possible information to help support their decision making. 
    • Your goal is to show real working outcomes rather than canned demos and PowerPoint presentations. 
    • If you can’t show the real working product it’s still worth showing an incomplete view as raw an approximation to the real product as you can manage. Lines of code in an MS Word doc still beat out a diagram of what you are planning to do. 
    • It is sometimes appropriate to present models and plans as part of the sprint review, if they are things that put value on the table and help your client plan for the future.
  • Ask for feedback on what you have done and where you are going 
    • Ask directly; “What do you think about this?” or “Are we on track?”
  • Bring your client inside and show how the team works and thinks 
    • Understanding brings trust, trust brings collaboration


  • Focus only on your successes 
    • The client needs the whole story so they can respond and plan for the best outcomes
  • Present a highly structured and formal meeting with lots of PowerPoint pages
  • Have a one way flow of information 
    • The main goal for the team is to calibrate their plans with the client

An example of a Sprint/Iteration Review agenda

  • Revisit the goal of the sprint/iteration you have just completed 
    • What was the big theme, and how did you go? 
    • What got in the way? 
    • What did you learn doing this work?
  • Review each of the product backlog items 
    • What was the goal? 
    • Demo what has been done 
    • Explain challenges and difficulties 
    • Highlight any breakthroughs or innovations 
    • Ask for feedback 
      • A nice technique is to bring your completed Story cards into the room and move them through a To-do, doing, done board
  • Talk about what wasn't done, and why 
    • What external blockers stopped the team? 
    • What changes did the team make themselves and why? 
    • Typically this shouldn’t be about surprising the client, but it can be an opportunity to talk and learn together
  • What are the goals for the next sprint/iteration 
    • What is the big picture 
    • How does the next iteration fit in with the context 
    • What are some of the details that might be risky or worth digging into?
  • Wrap up
    • Capture actions and changes to the plan

24 October 2012

The future of Open ALM; an interview with Stephan Dekker

Stephan runs an ALM community group in Melbourne. It’s charter is to advance the ALM community’s knowledge and value by encouraging cross-discipline collaboration.

A few months ago Stephan invited me along to one of the meet-up sessions where we discussed a range of topics including non-functional requirements, flow and quality. There were analysts, testers, developers, and ops management people in the room. It was a rich discussion where a bunch of people who were really experts in their fields shared their experiences and insight.

I think what Stephan is doing with the group is very interesting and worth sharing with this audience and invited him to this interview.

Stephan, what motivated you to start the group and what do you hope it will achieve?
Pure frustration to be honest! :-)

I have been working in process improvements for a long time and have either worked in a process improvement organisations or helped set up one. At National Australia Bank I had the opportunity to create one from scratch, which is very unique. I took on the challenge, but soon come to realise how little is actually out there.

As an industry, we really suck at Knowledge Management of IT Practices. Many very frequently used artefacts are not standardized, or there are 100 standards to pick from. For some reason there is no authoritative place to find those.

There are frameworks and BOKs available, that’s absolutely true. However, they are either outdated or you need to pay for them. No one should be forced to pay for basic standards! That’s not how the IT industry can get the confidence back from our Business Sponsors..

I embarked on an, what turned out to be a 12 month, academic brain experiment where I was trying to figure out how to overcome all the major collaboration and technical issues that would prevent me from creating “The one standards library that will rule them all” :-). I managed to find answers to pretty much all of them, so I set out to put the theory into practice. I am yet to find out whether or not I had a blind spot, but I seem to manage all the hurdles so far!

Who or what influenced your thinking around this?
There are many people that I owe so much for helping me. First and foremost the community members that are currently shaping the ALM Library.

Two people who deserve special attention are Leigh Fort and Brian Mills. We did a couple of brainstorm sessions whenever I found my thinking to go around in circles. Their in depth understanding of IT “stuff” was vital to the success of the design of the collaboration system.

The biggest source of information is academic papers and History. We have been doing this for the last 20 years.

What I’m doing is, in essence, not very new. The tools have evolved that allow me to do global collaboration easier (and overcome some other techie issues), but the ISO, CMMi and ITIL people have been doing this for years and as you might know, quite successful.

The other influence was a quote I picked up somewhere along the way: “Fools who think they can change the world are usually the ones that do”. Which if freely translated into: “Don’t give up, you might be one of those fools”. I’m confident my wife would agree about that last bit...

I have been reading articles about how Wikipedia started and how they managed to be so successful. That is really interesting as they went through a lot of uncertainty and managed to get out on top.

The last source of inspiration are all the conversations I have had since I have come up with the idea. It just makes soooo much sense!

What do you hope for from the ALM group 

I hope that the community will achieve become truly global, with local communities collaborating across competencies in their own city, cities collaborating across their country, countries collaborating in global forums.

I want it to create and maintain THE authoritative, current, standards library that contains most commonly used practices (80-20 rule) that are agreed by the communities.

We also want to stimulate a mindset where the communities will actively be looking to remove their own standards where possible, so that the library remains lean and very powerful.  Many, if not all, companies to have an on-premise instance of the ALM Library, receiving updates from the Global ALM Community as they are published and ready to be used internally.

And while we are at it, let's create academic curriculums for universities across the globe to teach proper Software Engineering practices.

I think the term “Standards Library” will one day become a phrase that will trigger happy feelings instead of the negative which it has at the moment. I want senior people to teach Juniors: “Why don’t you JUST use the standard?” (Where the Junior will rebel against, obviously, until he/she has become as experienced :-))

So, not very ambitious goals or anything...
Its funny how it puzzles my friends sometimes though... They usually looks very puzzled when they realise I’m not joking when I’m talking about World Domination! :-)

What ideas do you have for scaling this idea globally? How will you reach from Melbourne to say London or Shanghai?
The trick is to find people like myself who are interested in running a local ALM Community. Because it all comes down to face to face meetings and discussion these topics. ALM is a cross competency territory, and the only way to truly fix our ALM processes is to start talking cross competencies.

The first issue is to create ALM Communities in different cities. I have been deliberately talking to sponsors that are global, so arranging sponsoring for that particular city should be a breeze. If people want to setup their own local ALM Community, they get information on what works well for other ALM Communities, guidance for recording the meetings and the creation of the meeting transcripts are taken care of. So setting up and running your own ALM Community is too easy. And because all the recordings of previous meetings are all online, so that’s obviously also a source of examples.

The second issues, and I must admit that this area hasn’t been fully thought through, is the cross city communication. Most communication will be via the ALM-Community Blog which would work really well I think. For starters, Blogging is very simple and I like simple solutions.

By its very nature it supports keeping track of stuff that happened over time, which is a major requirement. It also allows people to tag content, making communication more streamlined.

If a person is only interested in stuff happening in Shanghai, he/she only has to subscribe to the Shanghai tag. Furthermore, everyone can leave comments, which means everyone has the opportunity to be heard. Having said that, there are still some unknowns, like how to prevent doubling up on conversations and things like that, but A) I will cross that bridge when we get there B) I’m not even sure we should prevent it to happen, because the same discussion should reach the same outcomes. Otherwise the two communities will have something to debate! C) Someone, far smarter than me, will give me a really simple solution at some stage.

And like I said: Simple = Good.

What have been the highlights for you so far?
The latest ALM Meeting, where we had Melbournes finest brain power in the room to start putting together the High Level ALM Process. That was the first meeting where we were truly producing content that has already made it into the ALM Library.

It’s hard to describe Highlights actually. I’ve been preparing these meetings for the last 9 months. Its a quite an innovative concept, so it took me some time to get the right people in the same room at the same time. So, the most recent meeting was really the kick-off meeting of what I wanted to get at and where all the prep work came together.

The meetings up until now, were mainly to fill the ALM Library so that I could demonstrate the vision and get people excited about it. I’m very glad I did as all the participants are now all on the same page, but it also means that I had a 9 month “delay”.

The other highlight is probably the meeting about the top 25 metrics. Even though we were with only a small group, the outcomes were amazing and I cannot wait to combine the results of that meeting with the process definitions that we are creating in the next couple of meetings. I reckon that alone will be invaluable already!

I read the transcript of that conversation and it sounded very interesting. How does your recording of events and discussions differ from other KM practices?
I record EVERYTHING and publish the full transcripts. The reason is that I want to go back and search for the reason behind a particular decision.

Many standards are not being followed because the users (Devs, Testers, BAs) don’t understand the reason for doing something. And who can blame them. No single person can be up to date with the latest versions of BABOK, PMBOK, Lean, SixSigma, Kaizen, ITIL, CMMi, Cobit, etc, etc. One would have a day job keeping up to date.

So I reckon it comes down to explaining why a particular standard is needed. And in order to do that, we need full history.

It also helps us when we start updating our standards, that we can look into history and find the meetings that a particular topic was discussed.

The knowledge Management around it is very different. What I thought of doing very recently, is that I can just say tags and the transcript will pick it up. So just as podcasters use “EditPoint” phrases that audio software can automatically find, so can I inject stuff into the conversation that I can later use to search for. For instance I should be able to say “Hashtag ALM001” and the transcriber then knows to insert #ALM001 when we are talking about standard 001.

It does touch on something vital to the progress of the conversations within the ALM Community meetings. We need to build on the success of previous discussions. So all knowledge is captured in a way that it will be reusable in future iterations of discussions.

Thanks Stephan.

If you lovely readers want to learn more - head along to a meetup soon. Or go read and watch some of the content published at the library. Perhaps even start your own group.

3 October 2012

Energy and focus

We focus and do what we talk about most, right. So typically our PM will direct US to control activities like plans, business cases, schedules and budgets.

What if we focused on outcomes; what are we going to deliver?
Or benefits; How is that value being exploited?
Or learning; Given the new state of affairs, what next?

Can we add something of this nature into the way we manage our portfolios? What would you do first?