How You Can Get Valuable Time Back: Part 2

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This is Part 2 in a series I’m writing about how you can get time back in your day, week, month, or project.   When a team reaches a natural velocity or throughput, how can you get more out of them? They physically can’t deliver any faster, given current conditions.  If we assume we have stable teams, let’s focus on governance and process.  Specifically, I’m going to talk about meetings again.  Why?  We all hate meetings but we all still have them.

In part 1, I wrote about a strategy to enable your email auto-responder to help manage the inbound meeting invites. In Part 2, I’m going to give you a simple strategy to start Spring Cleaning your calendar.

Spring Cleaning

If you’ve ever had a professional organizer come to your house for Spring cleaning, they may have employed a common strategy to weed through your crap.  It doesn’t matter if you are the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or some person appearing on an episode of A&E’s Hoarders. We all have too much stuff.  In this case, we’re not deciding if you should keep that mountain of National Geographic magazines sitting in the corner or all of those plastic shopping bags you’ve been keeping when you return from the grocery story. No, we’re going to inventory your meetings. Over time, we tend to accumulate meetings.  Time to take inventory and do some Spring Cleaning.

Inventory

As mentioned in the last post, some meetings have value than others. We’re going to need see which meeting we need to keep, which meetings we’re going to give away, and which we’re going to throw away.

Remember, meetings are supposed to be about the exchange of information.  Unfortunately, they are wildly inefficient and offer limited value.  For the most part, they are a waste of our time.  Nobody wants to listen to you go on and on about how many meetings you have, now that you’re becoming a bottleneck in getting things done.

To start, I’m going to review every existing and new meeting request and bucket those meetings into 3 categories.

  1. Non value added but it is necessary.
  2. Non value added but it is NOT necessary.
  3. Value added.

1. Non Value Added But Necessary

Instead of automatically accepting the next meeting request, pause and consider the meeting’s return on investment to you.

  • Does the purpose of the meeting align with the company’s strategic goals and priorities?
  • Are the objectives of the meeting clearly defined?
  • Can the organizer explain specifically why you were invited and the value you will provide?
  • Will this meeting assist you in achieving my objectives?

If the first four questions were all answered with a yes, you should still ask.

  • Will anyone notice if you didn’t show up?
  • Is attending this meeting the highest and best use of your time right now?

If any of the first four questions were answered with a no, you should seriously consider declining the invitation. If I was Spring cleaning, this pile would be earmarked to donate.  Because we can’t “donate” meetings, I would propose having someone else attend on your behalf or find some way of being informed of the meeting outcomes or action items.

2. Non Value Added But It Is NOT Necessary

Did you read that right?  This meeting not only does not provide strategic value but it’s also not necessary.

If I was Spring cleaning, this pile would be earmarked for the trash.  This is like a meeting to prepare for a meeting.  Before outright refusing, try to meet the organizer part way.  What problem are they trying to solve with the meeting?  Can it be solved some other way?

To ensure everyone has a shared understand of what meetings are not NOT acceptable, I would recommend making an actual list.

Thou shalt not have meetings about putting cover sheets on TFS reports

3. Value Added

If I was Spring cleaning, this pile would be a keeper.  This is something that you want or need, as part of business process.  Release Planning, Sprint Planning, Demos… I see these as all valuable meetings.  They all require decisions.

Conclusion

Remember, every time you say yes to a meeting, you are saying no to something else.

Check out some of these templates, including Meeting Agenda/Minutes template

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How You Can Get Valuable Time Back: Part 1

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Recently, I’ve been swamped with meetings.  I’m not talking Portfolio Planning, Release Planning, or even Sprint Planning meetings. I’m talking a lot of in-the-weeds type meetings.  After I walk out of some, I realize I could have been informed of the outcomes and action items and that would have been good enough. I didn’t need to sit through the whole damn thing.  There are times everyone walks out an hour later, are looking around, and are asking how to get that valuable time back.  It got me thinking, I need to write about this!  Then, as I started writing, I realized that this was either going to be a seriously long long-form blog post or I was going to have to write a few parts to it.  Being the bloggy-blog type, I vote for short form and write a series.

The Scenario

You arrive to the office at 8am on a Monday, only to realize you are late for a meeting someone on Friday after 5pm scheduled.  You’re not in the office 5 minutes and you’re already behind schedule.  What the hell!?  How does this happen?  You look at your calendar. You have back-to-back-to-back meetings all day Monday and Tuesday.  When are you supposed to actually do your work?  Given the current conditions, you’re going to need to catch up on things before or after work. This sucks!

The Problem

You have become a meeting hoarder.  That’s right.  At any moment, A&E is going to show up at the office and start filming an episode about you.  In this episode, they follow you around the office.  They confront you and the addiction of accepting too many meeting invites.  Of course this is ridiculous but you really do need some practical strategies to deal with this problem and get back on the track.

Meetings are supposed to be about the exchange of information.  Unfortunately, they are wildly inefficient and offer limited value.  For the most part, they are waste of our time.  Nobody wants to listen to you go on and on about how many meetings you have, now that you’re becoming a bottleneck in getting things done.

To start, I’m going to bucket meetings into 3 categories.

  1. Non value added but it is necessary.
  2. Non value added but it is NOT necessary.
  3. Value added.

I see very view meetings offer direct value to the customer.  Most meetings a non value added but we don’t have a sufficient method to exchange the information so we settle for the meeting.  It’s necessary.

Going forward, assume most meetings don’t add value and you should make them prove their worth to you.

The Solutions

In this post, I’m going to give you a strategy to begin controlling the volume of meeting invitations coming into your calendar. First, stop accepting meeting invites for meetings that are less than a full day away.  If someone invites you to a meeting at 5pm on Monday for a meeting at 9am Tuesday, they are being disrespectful of your time.

Set Limits

You may have a standard eight hour work day but the reality is that only half of that day is likely to be productive.  With that assumption, you should guarantee you have 4 hours of productivity. If you don’t, your day will be taken up with meetings, responding to email, browsing the Internet and related activities.  Block out 4 hours a day on your calendar for actual work. Make the events private.

Tip: Schedule your most important, high value tasks in the morning, before you get worn out from your current meetings

Turn On Your Email Auto-Responder

Until you can get your meeting addition under control, I recommend you begin using your email autoresponder.  I actually did this several years back, after reading The 4-Hour Work Week with very good results. When someone sends you an email or meeting invite, they automatically get an email from you (with the assumption that you have NOT read their invite).  This will buy you time to focus on real work and not just respond impulsively to the request.

Let’s look at a basic template

Greetings,

Due to high workload and too many meeting invites, I am currently checking and responding twice daily at 12:00 P.M. and 4:00 P.M.

If you require urgent assistance (please ensure it is urgent) that cannot wait until either 12:00 P.M. or 4:00 P.M., please contact me via phone at 555-876-5309. All meeting invites will require 24 hour notice. Though I appreciate the invitation, sending me a meeting invite does not mean I will be accepting your invitation.

Thank you for understanding this move to more efficiency and effectiveness. It helps me accomplish more to serve you better.

Sincerely, [Your name]

Conclusion

I can guarantee this is going to help, at least a little.  The more we can slow down the influx of meetings, the more we can assess the value of them and decide if we really need to accept them or not.  The autoresponder will put people on notice and inform them that your time is valuable but that you’re not being unreasonable.  If this gets you out of 1 meeting, won’t it be worth it?  I know it will do better than that.  Try it and let me know your results.


In my next post, I’ll write about how to triage your meeting requests, so you can begin spending more time doing real work and less going to meetings.


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Enforcing Governance

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Rules of the Road

I was on my way into the office the other day at 5am.  Being it takes about two hours, a lot can happen.  For about 15 minutes, I noticed a driver tailgating me on a winding country road.  When they had an opportunity to pass, they took it, though we were in a no passing zone.  It was a reckless act.  I then watched the driver tailgate the car in front of me.  Within five minutes, they passed that car though we were still in a no passing zone.  Off they drove, into the dark.  I thought there were three very clear possibilities that would happen.  First, this person was going to skid off the road or hit a deer. Second, a Police officer would pull them over and cite them for reckless driving. Three, nothing would happen and they would continue to drive recklessly.

Governance in our Organizations

Now, let’s consider a similar situation in an organization.  You have clearly defined rules of the road, known as your organizational governance or framework.  You use this governance to ensure the different types of teams deliver on the organizational goals and that there is a shared understanding of what not to do.  The bigger and complex the organization, the greater need for the governance.

You have a team who is not following the organizational governance.  Though they are able to reach their goals, they put everyone else at risk.  What do you think would be the best course of action?

  1. Should we monitor them and see if they negatively impact other teams and the organization?
  2. Should we enforce the governance?
  3. Should we do nothing?

 

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How Not to Choose an Agile Framework

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It doesn’t matter if you’re choosing an Agile development framework like SAFe or an Agile Transformation Framework like the LeadingAgile Basecamp model, the models and frameworks are incomplete, by design.  They need to be adapted to meet your organizational goals.  Do you think the Agile Manifesto would have lasted as long as it has, if it answered all of your questions in two pages?  To that, if you think all of your questions are completely answered by a single “big picture” poster, you’re being naive. But, that’s exactly what I see happening. Realize that you have permission to mix and mash whatever you need, to make your organization operate better. The Agile police are not going to break down your door because you’re not following a framework as it was originally written. If that is what you think, what happens if the author or creator of the framework or model you’re following changes it? Does that mean your business is now broken?

Don’t just follow the horde of people that are choosing frameworks because they look pretty on a poster.  It’s not a car!  Look for a framework that looks like a potential organizational end-state.  Evaluate what your company values from a planning perspective. Next, evaluate what your customers value from a planning perspective.  Pick a framework and then refine it (through structure, governance, and metrics/tools) to align with an ideal end-state.

Want to read more?  See more at:  agile frameworks and template zombies

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Are You For or Against Estimates

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Today, I spent the day at the AgileDialogs Unconference.  The goal was dialog over debate. The theme?  “Agile Predictions: Exploring the tools for making sound business decisions with & without estimates”

The question is, are you for or against estimates?

Given the clients I work with, I find value in estimates.   Given the clients and organizations other attendees represent, some of them were against estimates.  I believe if you’re going to debate a point of view or hold a strong opinion about something, you need to listen and understand someone who feels as adamant about the opposite view.  With that, the day was filled with many passionate discussions.

I’m not going to go into great details about the event in this post. I’m going to save that for LeadingAgile.

If you want to see more, check out my YouTube channel and Instagram.

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How to Use an A3 Report

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What is an A3

An A3 is more than an 11 x 17 inch piece of paper that is structured into several sections and not all A3’s are created equal. An A3 is a structured problem solving and continuous improvement approach, first employed at Toyota and typically used by Lean manufacturing practitioners. What your A3 looks like depends upon the situation. The example below consists of the following pattern, as part of an Agile Transformation:

  1. Current Situation & Problem
  2. Root Cause Analysis / Conclusion
  3. Goal
  4. Corrective Action

After we agree on the four steps, we’re going to implement the correction action and then verify the results. The content of an A3 follows the logic of the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle.  What I want you to take away from this blog post is not so much TQM, PDSA, and A3’s, as much as how you could benefit from them when doing an Agile transformation or any kind of process improvement.

A3 Report Example

When doing an Agile Transformation, I’m going to always cycle back to 3 core goals.

  1. Form complete cross functional teams
  2. Build backlogs
  3. Deliver working tested software

Anything that gets in the way of doing these is an impediment that has to be removed.  The example I have above describes how a team is under-committing each sprint.  We’re using a story point completion ratio to know if the team is delivering working tested software. We’re going to use this single page to have a shared understanding with our client and agree on a course of action.  Now, I’m not saying you have to use this template. If you can remove an impediment informally, by all means, do it!  But, to make sure my client agrees there is a problem that needs to be prioritized and addressed, this is an effective tool and it’s pretty lightweight.  You may also notice I don’t call this an A3 on the actual example.  I’m going to call it an Action Report so my client feels comfortable with common language and I don’t need to distract them by introducing Lean terminology.  When I say “A3”, there are certain expectations.  Let’s not get hung up on that and just call it an Action Report going forward.

Flow of the Action Report

You’ll notice that I structured my Action Report so that your eyes will be drawn to sections. I want to compare 1 and 3 (Current Conditions and Goals) and 2 and 4 (Root Cause Analysis/Conclusion and Corrective Action).  This allows a transformation consultant to note impediments and identify root causes independently but then be prepared to collaborate with the client on goals and corrective actions.  I’m going to stress this again.  We’re only going to go through this process if the consultant can’t resolve the issue informally.  If not, he or she will need to collaborate with the client to confirm the goal and agree on an appropriate action. The consultant doesn’t do all of this in a vacuum.  When looking at action (or A3) reports used by others, I’ve seen them identify the goal prior to looking for root cause. From my experience, if I’m required to identify the goal before moving forward, this may create an unnecessary delay.  If I don’t think something is right, I’m going to start investigating right away and then circle back with the client to validate their goal. But, I’m not going to stop and wait to be told what their goal is before beginning to look for root cause. I don’t want to stop until my personal curiosity is satisfied. Also, I’m not saying to not collaborate with the customer. I’m saying keep moving forward on multiple fronts and to circle back at the first logical opportunity.

Current Conditions

We have several opportunities during the transformation to get this information.  It could be, we just completed a formal assessment of the team or organization.  Maybe we just reviewed metrics of the team or organization.  Maybe I just walked out of a really long and unproductive meeting. Whatever we did, I’m looking for some kind of objective criteria or indicator to describe the condition.

Root Cause Analysis / Conclusion

In order to propose appropriate corrective actions, we need to identify the root cause of the condition. Avoid using logical fallacies like anecdotal, appeal to emotion, or false cause. I like to use Socratic method or ask the 5 whys to help reach the root cause.

Goals

The goal listed above in the illustration focuses on getting a team’s story point completion ratio to 100% +/- 10%. This goal is pointing back to building backlogs and delivering working tested software.  By getting the teams to keep their commitments of delivering working tested software regularly, we allow the business to make better commitments to their customers. If we can build that trust and safety within our organizations, we’ll start to build balanced systems.

Corrective Actions

Identify corrective actions that is both short term and easy to implement. If the actions are neither, I keep a higher level corrective action around and then break it down so I can incrementally work toward the goal.  Personally, I keep my daily activities on a Kanban board. For an overall transformation, I keep the actions and activities in a rolling 90-day plan.  This keeps the client informed on what value I’ve delivered and what value I plan to deliver in the coming weeks/months.

Plan Do Study Act in an Agile Transformation

When doing an Agile Transformation, PDSA is just one pattern to map the approach.  Not mentioned in this blog post are the original inputs into the initial coaching plan and 90-day plan. (both of which are collaboratively defined and continuously evolved with the client). But, how do I fit it all together in a high level “plan do study act” process, more emblematic of the original A3 process? I use the following:

  1. Coaching Plan (Plan)
  2. Rolling 90-Day Plan (Do)
  3. Adoption Assessment (Study)
  4. Metrics (Study)
  5. Action Report (Act)

Inputs and Outputs of an A3 Report

Summary

I hope this provides some insights into how you can take some of the hand waving out of your next (or current) Agile transformation.  There are a lot of moving parts and you need the process and tools to keep an eye on your goals and manage progress, without adding so much overhead that you stifle the forward momentum.  Let me know if you have questions!

Download a free copy of the A3 Report Template

 

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