A Question for Value-based Priorities

I often bump into a trouble in prioritisation, when people are combining the value of a story and the size of a story into the same discussion. The discussion become hard and decisions become muddled. The other problem is that people find it hard to get started with comparing the value of two stories.

I’ve recently taken into use a simple question that most of the time does the trick. The question is

Let’s suppose a good fairy-mother comes and says: I’ll give you a wish. I’ll give you one of these two absolutely free. Which one will you choose?

This takes the whole cost/complexity/time out of the discussion. It somehow (magically) makes the choice intuitively simple for most.

So, just give it a go. It only takes 10 seconds to try out ūüôā


WIP and Parkinson’s Law

work expands to fill the time available for its completion

A¬†proverb coined¬†by¬†the¬†twentieth-century¬†Britishscholar¬†C.¬†Northcote¬†Parkinson,¬†known¬†as Parkinson’s Law.¬†It¬†points¬†out¬†that¬†people¬†usually¬†take¬†all¬†the¬†time allotted¬†(and¬†frequently¬†more)¬†to¬†accomplish¬†any¬†task.

I’ve met passionate argumentation both for and against the validity of this “law”. Odd isn’t it? That’s because people interpret the world based on what they see.

Those who believe in the law actually experience this phenomenon all the time. Tasks don’t get done if there’s no deadline.

Those who believe the law is just wrong usually prioritise and strive for getting the most important bits done as early as possible. They view deadlines as counter-productive.

The most common underlying difference in the worlds these people live in is the amount of work-in-progress and open tasks. The people in the organisations that are overburdened with too much work are always in a situation that they need to trade off which tasks get done and which ones get sacrificed. A natural way to select what to do is to look at the upcoming deadlines. One tries to optimise to finish as many things as possible before the deadline arrives.

Therefore finding belief in the Parkinson’s law has now become an indicator for me that the organisation is overburdened.

A related “law” is what I’d call the “responsibility law”. It pretty much goes that: If there’s nobody responsible for an action, then the action will not get done. The mechanics is very similar. People choose tasks based on personal view – often according to deadlines. They try to make the best in a losing situation of having to be late with some (personal) tasks. This leads to starvation of effort on the tasks which are “not in personal possession”.

A colleague of mine added the following insight

The idea that there needs to exist a continuous pressure and that there needs to be more to do, so that we can ensure that peoples’ time is used efficiently.

This to me is very much related to the idea that we want to control the time usage of people.

My Company – Nitor – Empowered the Nerds

Nitor has a great culture where all employees take initiative way beyond normal expectation. Some volunteer to plan new wonderful office space. One is a superb party planner. People take initiative, and they swarm around ideas and needs. It just happens without poking or forcing.

We’re now 10 years old and we total more than 100 people. We’ve only a few designated roles. There’s two companies in the group and two CEOs, who are the bosses of everyone. The people ops keep the office and money running. We’ve two guys focusing on hiring. And we have two part time senior party architects.

The company was founded by 6 founders who are still around – doing stuff. You probably might not notice who they are before you are told or you get curious. And that’s all there is.

There are DevDays, clubs, and all kinds of stuff happening all the time. So where does all stem from? I’ve come to conclude there’s two factors.

Firstly: there’s no management to give orders to people. The only direct order I’ve heard is to “clean up” the office a bit better. Beyond that, there’s just no orders. Zero.

Secondly: We make things visible, available, and simple. We give thanks to those who contribute on the company level. Sometimes it feels weird how much kudos there’s flying around. Even things that might feel ever so small get noticed. But the thank-you is what is keeping the people moving.

100+ people, no orders, and thanks. That’s one way to empower the smartest people you can hire. We have proven that.

Weighted Shortest Job First (WSJF) with Jira

WSJF? Read this short intro. How to do this with Jira, read on.

It took me 1.5 hours to get this working on a fresh Jira Cloud evaluation version. On-premise Jira has a different set of plugins, so a slightly different path is needed. It however is quite simple to get this running – provided you can bribe your Jira admin to install a new plugin ūüôā

This is how it works

Screen Shot 2017-06-20 at 11.58.45

In the listing

Screen Shot 2017-06-20 at 12.03.33

This all was done with the¬†Abacus plugin that allows you to do math based on values “fields”. All of the above is automatically calculated by the Abacus plugin. Any time you change any of the WSJF components, then the calculation is redone automatically.

The summing of Business Value, Risk Reduction/Opportunity Enablement and Time Criticality was the first calculated as the “Calculated total value” column. The WSJF result had also division by job size/duration included.

Pricing of the plugin was IMO bearable. If you need similar with on-premise Jira, then look at JIRA Misc Custom Fields.

So that’s short and sweet, hope this gets you started.

Then I spent a bit more time to visualise this. As usual, to get something you need in Jira, a plugin was again needed. This time it was the easyBI plugin, and that gave me a nice bubble chart of how the items relate to value vs size.

Screen Shot 2017-06-20 at 15.37.29


Goal-setting fallacy: more gets more done

Goal-setting is a two-edged sword. If you don’t say where you want to go, you’ll never get the troops moving¬†that way. The other way to say this¬†is that: if you don’t ask, you don’t get. This leads¬†leaders thinking¬†to set goals is a very suitable way “to get there”.

Any large organisation has multiple goals. Maybe that’s just how life is, but I’ve never seen a bigger organisation that has a single, only goal. At least in the development sense, and not the mission/vision sense.

Suppose you are a leader, and you add a new goal. The chances are that you have some weight and something starts happening toward attaining that goal. Some people work on it and there’s progress.

Therefore the act of adding the goal makes total sense. It truly does. Yesterday there was no progress, now there is.

Add one more goal. And the next.

And BAM: the WIP goes up and productivity goes down.

Only solution therefore is: finish, finish, finish. Bite the lip: don’t add goals.


Post-scriptum: I came to realise why “focus” works in large companies. I also now better understand why ruthless project managers are golden in high-WIP environments. They will mercilessly remove other non-relevant goals on people – for productivity.

A simple #noestimates priority board

Last year I¬†was managing a small team that was managing software delivery. We were doing small-scale software development. It was nothing fancy but coding, stories, and priorities were needed anyhow. I had decided that we’d do it in the spirit of #noestimates. I needed a way to structure the stories.

I ended up with a board like this. Let me explain how it works. noestimates

First of all, it is based on the notion that cheap and valuable is great. That’s of course a no-brainer.¬†You’ll have to figure out yourself what is valuable, but I’m sure you can hack it.

Second, the cheapness is the inverse of how much time you guess you’ll spend there. However, here’s the #noestimates twist to avoid excessive estimation.

All stories¬†on the board are forced-ranked on the two axis: value and cost. You’ll all the time rank the stories¬†against each other. That is: story¬†A is more valuable than story¬†B. And the same on the cost side. That’s how you end up with a two-axis forced rank. The green dots would be your stories.

Once you start doing that, you’ll quickly realize that it is quite doable. For instance a simple bubble sort will put the stories¬†where they “belong”.

The top right corner is “magic” (the green area).noestimates2 That’s what you want to do next. It is sorted¬†to be your best options. You can quickly trash anything on the bottom-left (the red area), and anybody can see why you did that.

Then we have two quadrants which are not as obvious. The left-top (cheap, not that valuable; yellow area) gets also rather quickly trashed as you see that there’s so much better stuff on the right side. Again, people are quick to agree on that. If there’s no agreement, maybe you missed some point in the value-sorting. Revisit the forced rank on value of that story.

The right-bottom (again green) is the “very valuable, very hard” corner. You’ll want to achieve them, but you either don’t know how to do it yet or you know it is going to be costly. For the latter category, try splitting the prime value out with different cost. These stories¬†should bubble upwards. For the dilemmas, spike them. Maybe the cost isn’t as bad as you thought. For those stories¬†that don’t seem to yield any options with less cost, you’ll end up keeping there as reminders of the great ideas.

The #noestimates development engine is all the time fed with the smallest possible stories. I personally noticed also that the selection becomes biased towards making the small stories¬†with demonstrable benefit. Maybe it is my personal preference on that, but I think it could be even universal. It is easier to bet on a item that has low cost and some benefit, rather than a larger more undefined item with possibly more benefit. Those you want done for sure, but you’ll split them first so well that also the cost side is in control.

So, you’ll end up:

  1. Throwing out all fluffy and non-valuable stories from your board quickly
  2. See visually where to focus on the splitting work (likely the right hand side, just below the magic corner)
  3. Making the most value out of your efforts
  4. Doing it without the need of formal estimation as all you need to know is the rough relative size of the effort

Okay, one will argue that there is estimation going on here. Yes there is. However, that’s going on pretty much only in the top-right corner. And there as well to the extent that which of these stories¬†is smaller. It doesn’t really matter if the rank on cost (or even value) is precisely right outside of the magic corner. Those items are not getting to development without splitting and re-evaluation. The ranking (i.e. cost estimation)¬†rather simple for stories¬†that take a few days to complete. And it doesn’t really need to be accurate again as you’ll end up doing all the stories¬†on top-right corner sooner or later.

Scaling and Tyranny

I’ve lately wondered plenty on the essence of scale in companies and agile development. I can’t escape that most of our current approaches are about tyranny of the few. The tyrannies of the ones in “charge”.

The tyranny comes forth firstly that¬†you’ll have to solve problems that other people defined as “priority items”. The product owner or the customer proxy decided that it should be done. All in all, all that is “given” is a sign of a tyranny of sorts. The larger the environment, the more there are things given.

Consider the following by Drucker. I think it holds the answer.

Management as the Alternative to Tyranny

The alternative to autonomous institutions that function and perform is not freedom.  It is totalitarian tyranny.
If the institutions of our pluralist society of institutions do not perform in responsible autonomy, we will not have individualism and a society in which there is a chance for people to fulfill themselves.  We will, instead, impose on ourselves complete regimentation in which no one will be allowed autonomy.  We will have Stalinism rather than participatory democracy, let alone the joyful spontaneity of doing one’s own thing.  Tyranny is the only alternative to strong, performing autonomous institutions.
Tyranny substitutes one absolute boss for the pluralism of competing institutions.  It substitutes terror for responsibility.  It does indeed do away with the institutions, but only by submerging all of them in the one all embracing bureaucracy of the apparat.  It does produce goods and services, though only fitfully, wastefully, at a low level, and at an enormous cost in suffering, humiliation, and frustration.  To make our institutions perform responsibly, autonomously, and on a high level of achievement is thus the only safeguard of freedom and dignity in the pluralist society of institutions.  Performing responsible management is the alternative to tyranny and our only protection against it.

The institutions are the communities, not line management or product management. They are the places where the individual can affect the future – communities like the “UX community in your company” or the “test automation community in our department”.

I can’t formalize to a full thought yet, but it must be that we must strive for pluralism at work. It is the management’s responsibility to enable the pluralism, and to support it. It means relinquishing a part of one’s control at the same time.

I’ve seen it work. I’ve never seen the full of it. The more I look at it, it is the better alternative to the scaling.