See what you’re doing

My “day job” as a tech consultant brings me into contact with a lot of software companies, but occasionally I encounter an enterprise that is in the process of becoming a software company. This happens when the company determines that their traditional line of business not only needs to incorporate a software/online strategy, but actually needs to make this the new focus. Motivations range from survival in the face of tech-savvy competitors to expansion into a previously untapped market.

While I enjoy helping these companies explore technology options, it is equally rewarding to help them establish a development process, being a formal approach to the creation of their new products or services. The processes that we in the software world take for granted are often alien to these companies. To drop them into the middle of a full-blown Agile framework, for example, would have them run for the hills! Systems engineers will recognise this as the homeostatic nature of established processes, and it can be challenging to overcome. My preferred strategy is to ease slowly into a process that they can all adopt, gradually introducing select pieces of contemporary methodologies that have immediate and obvious benefits.

Documentation is key. See what you need to do, are doing and have done so that you can compare against your goals. Every member of the team should see what the other members are doing. Awareness of one’s role in meeting team objectives is important. Precision and measurement are highly valued. Effort and complexity often have greater significance than time spent. So what tools do I introduce to encourage all this?

Primarily I look to Agile principles and tools, and propose brief daily meetings (stand-ups) with their quick summaries and plans for the day ahead, the notion of the task backlog, the idea that the team should be allowed to get on with their work, while taking regular cues from customer/management feedback regarding the prioritisation of activity. I borrow from the Kanban approach because of the immediacy of the board and the way it communicates to the team and company at large. I focus on short iterations to refine the development, allowing the team to learn along the way. Tasks in the backlog are kept simple, with a title, one sentence description, completion criteria, an expression of complexity and an owner (or list of candidate owners if not yet active). I espouse the reduction of waste, team empowerment and willingness to drop an unproductive line of action, as promoted by the Lean approach. Scrum’s use of retrospectives allows the team to learn from recent work and use that to directly affect what happens next, so I hold a look-back session every two weeks. And there’s more where that came from.

This is rather piecemeal, certainly, but for companies that have no prior exposure to any of these approaches, this small handful of somewhat radical ideas can be inspiring. Each approach or tool that I select has immediate benefits that the entire team appreciates. Resistance is reduced when the value is easily understood. Typically we move through the company mission, to capturing the company goals that support that mission, then identifying the features of each goal and finally breaking down each feature into a set of ordered tasks for the backlog. Sometimes the goal has only one feature, achievable in just a few tasks in a certain order, but that’s often enough to establish a template for a development process. Sometimes there are multiple goals, and many features leading to hundreds of tasks (and many more being created as the team learns more about what needs to be done).

After a few iterations, the company has a process, and the team members have a taste for what the tools and techniques can do for them. They can either continue with their own process or, as they gain appreciation for the established processes from which theirs is derived, they could choose to adopt the whole of a particular process along with all its bells and whistles. They’ll probably need specialist input from that point, which gives me a chance to refocus on their tech.

Few companies that I encounter actually follow a development process 100%. Most have selected various bits that they believe are a good fit for their company and their people. By and large that appears to work. Regardless of which process (derivative) they use, one thing they all agree on is that it helps them see what they are doing. So when I’m tasked with helping a company become a software company, the first thing I try to do is help them see what they are doing, and then the journey begins.

Categorised as: Business, Technology

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