Accelerated Velocity: Clarifying Processes and Key Roles

Note: this article is part 7 of a series called Accelerated Velocity.  This part can be read stand-alone, but I recommend that you read the earlier parts so as to have the overall context.

In a previous article I argued that great people are needed in order to get great results. To be clear, this theorem is asymmetric: great people don’t guarantee great results. Far from it – the history of sports, business and military is littered with the carcasses of “dream teams” that miserably underperformed.

No, there are several factors that need to be in place for teams to excel. The ability to take independent action, discussed in the previous article, is one of those factors. I’ll discuss others over the next few articles, starting here with clarity around processes and roles.

Even the best people have trouble reaching full potential if they don’t know what’s expected of them. True, some people are capable of jumping in and defining their own roles, but this is rare. Most will become increasingly frustrated, not knowing on any given day what’s expected of them and what they need to do to succeed.

People in teams also need to understand the conventions for how best to work with others. How they plan, collaborate, communicate status, and manage issues all play a part in defining how effective the team is. Too much, too little, or too wrong, and a high potential team will find itself hobbled.

The same applies to teams and teams-of-teams. Teams need clarity about their role within the larger organization. They also need common processes to facilitate working together in pursuit of common goals.

Popular software development methodologies provide the foundation for role and process clarity, with the “agile” family of methodologies being the de-facto norm. These frameworks typically come with default role definitions (e.g. scrum master, product owner) as well as best practices around processes and communications. When applied correctly they can be powerful force multipliers for teams, but adopting agile is not a trivial exercise.  In addition, these frameworks only cover a portion of the clarity that’s needed.

Bonial’s Evolution

Bonial in 2014 was maturing as an agile development shop, but there were gaps in role definitions, team processes, and inter-team collaboration that suppressed the team’s potential. Fortunately Bonial has always had an abundance of kaizen – restlessness and a desire to always improve – so people were hungry to change. No-one was particularly happy with the status quo and there was a high willingness to invest in making things better.

We rolled up our sleeves and got started…

We attacked this challenge along multiple vectors. First, we needed a process methodology that would not only guide teams but also provide tools for inter-team coordination and portfolio management. The product and engineering leadership teams chose the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) as as over-arching team, program and portfolio management methodology. It was not the perfect framework for Bonial but it was good enough to start with and addressed many of the most pressing challenges.

Second, we spent time more clearly defining the various agile roles and moving responsibilities to the right people. We started with the very basics as broken down in the following table:

Area of ResponsibilityRole Name (Stream / Team)Notes
What?Product Manager, Product Owner Ensures the the team is “Doing the right things”
Who and When?Engineering Manager, Team Lead Ensures that the team is healthy and “Doing things right” while minimizing time to market
How?Architect, Lead Developer Ensures that the team has architectural context and runway and is managing tech debt  

We created general role definitions for each position, purposely leaving space and flexibility for the people and teams to adapt as appropriate.  (I know many agile purists will feel their blood pressure going up after reading the table above, but I’m not a purist and this simplicity was effective in getting things started.) 

A quick side note here. One of the unintended consequences of any role definition is that they tend to create boxes around people. They become contracts where responsibilities not explicitly included are forbidden and the listed responsibilities become precious territory to guard and protect. I hate this, so I emphasized strongly that (a) role definitions are guidelines, not hard rules, and (b) the responsibility for mission success lies with the entire team, so it’s ok to be flexible so long as everything gets done.

Third, we augmented the team. We hired an experienced SAFe practitioner to lead our core value streams, organize and conduct training at all levels, and consult on best practices from team level scrum to enterprise level portfolio management. This was crucial; the classroom is a great place to get started, but it’s the day-to-day practice and reinforcement that makes you a pro.

Finally, we placed a lot of emphasis on retrospectives and flexibility. We learned and continually improved. We tried things, keeping those that succeeded and dropping those that failed. Over time, we evolved a methodology and framework that fit our size, culture and mission, eventually driving the massive increases in velocity and productivity that we see today.

Team Leads

There was one more big role definition gap that was causing a lot of confusion and that we needed to close: who takes care of the teams? While agile methodologies do a good job of defining the roles needed to get agile projects done, they don’t define roles needed to grow and run a healthy organization. For example, scrum has little to say regarding who hires, nurtures, mentors, and otherwise manages teams. Those functions are critical and need a clear home.

In Bonial engineering, we put these responsibilities on the “team lead” role. This role remains one of the most challenging, important and rewarding roles in Bonial’s engineering organization and includes the following responsibilities:

  • People
    • Recruiting
    • Personal development
    • Compensation administration
    • Morale and welfare
    • General management (e.g. vacation approvals)
    • Mentoring, counseling and, if needed, firing
  • Process
    • Effective lean practices
    • Efficient horizontal and vertical communications
    • Close collaboration with product owner (PO)
  • Technology
    • Architectural fitness (with support from the architecture team)
    • Operational SLAs and support (e.g. “On call”)
    • “Leading by example” – rolling up sleeves and helping out when appropriate
  • Delivery
    • Accountable for meeting OKRs
    • Responsible for efficient spend and cost tracking

That’s an imposing list of responsibilities, especially for a first-time manager. We’d be fools to thrust someone into this role with no support, so we start with an apprenticeship program – where possible, first time leads shadow a more experienced lead for several months, only taking on individual responsibilities when they’re ready. We also train new leads in the fundamentals of leadership, management and agile, and each lead has active and engaged support from their manager and HR. Finally, we give them room to both succeed, fail and learn.

So far this model has worked well. People tend to be nervous when first stepping into the role, but over time become more comfortable and thrive in their new responsibilities. The teams also appreciate this model. In fact, one of the downsides has been that it’s difficult to recruit into this role since it contains elements of traditional scrum master, team manager and engineering expert – a combination that is rare in the market. As such, we almost always promote into the role.

Closing Thoughts

In the end we know that no one methodology (or even a mashup of methodologies) will satisfy every contingency. To that end there are two important principles underpinning how we operate: flexibility and ownership. If something needs to be done, do it. Its great if the person who is assigned a given role does a full and perfect job, but in the end success is everyone’s responsibility, so it’s not an excuse if they can’t or won’t do it.

Some closing thoughts:
• People need to understand their roles and the expectations put on them to be most effective.
• Teams need to have a unifying process to facilitate collaboration and avoid chaos and waste.
• The overarching goal is team success; all members of the team should have that as their core role description.
• Flexibility is key. Methodologies are a means to an end, not the ends themselves.

How we Plan at Bonial (part 2: clarity)

Clarity

How do you go about fixing something that requires you to change almost everything you do?  As described in part 1, this was the situation we faced at Bonial in late 2014 when it came to the governance and execution of our product development roadmap.  

Rather than re-inventing the wheel, we took advantage of proven play books – one for organization change and one for enterprise agile.  On the organizational side, we knew that the “top down, centralized control” model was already strained and would not scale.  So we leveraged elements from the (fantastic) book “Turn this Ship Around!” by Capt. David Marquett, which describes one organization’s journey from a top-down leadership structure to a “leader-leader” structure with distributed ownership and control.  Bonial would have to undergo a similar transformation – we needed everyone to be engaged and feeling ownership if we were to realize rapid transformation and scale. 

In the book, the author presents a couple dozen excellent leadership mechanisms and groups them under three high-level categories – Clarity, Control, and Competence.  In the interest of brevity, I’ll describe just a few of the things we did to improve in these categories.  (I’ll also break them up over several posts.)

Starting with clarity, we began with the simplest exercise possible: we documented all of the work-in-progress on one list.  Absurdly basic yet profound.  We created the first draft by literally going from team to team and asking them what projects were in progress and putting them in a Google Sheet.  (Why this format?  Because normalizing and adapting the existing tracking tools (Jira, Trello) would have taken far too long and wasted the team’s time and energy.  Also, Google Sheets allow for simultaneous editing which is critical for collaboration.)  To make this relevant for business stakeholders, we then dropped the small “story” and “task” level items and broke down the “saga” level items so that the resulting list was at a meaningful “epic” or “project” level.

Here’s a snap of an archived copy of the first version:

Screenshot of first Bonial Roadmap on Google Sheets

This exercise had several immediate impacts.  First, it showed our stakeholders that the engineering team was actually working on a quite a few projects and began to restore some confidence in the product development function.  Second, it shed light on all the projects and prompted a number of valid and constructive questions as to priorities and business justifications for the projects.  This in turn led directly to our decision to do more formal and intentional planning: we wanted to ensure that our engineering resources were “doing the right things,” not just “doing things right.”

Over time this simple Google Sheet has grown to be the primary tool for viewing and communicating the current quarter’s roadmap development.  We populate the sheet with the output of each quarter’s planning exercise (more on that to follow).  Twice a week we review the status of all items (red, yellow, green) and discuss as a team what we can do to adjust if needed.  The same spreadsheet is publicly available to all stakeholders for full transparency.  We’ve considered several times moving to more sophisticated (and expensive) tools but each time we decided that the Google Sheets does everything we need.

Key takeaway: it’s hard to plan if you don’t know what you’re already doing.  Take the time to get clarity on what’s happening, tune it to the right granularity, and ensure there’s full transparency.

In the next post I’ll talk about how we approach mechanisms for control.