Say what you do. Do what you say.

I love the sound of waterfall in the morning

From time to time, I’m asked to review proposals for IT research projects. This morning I was part of a team reviewing two projects. Before the meeting with the companies behind the proposals, the review team discussed the proposals. We all agreed that the project plans, clearly waterfall, were unsuited for a research project, with its large amount of uncertainty.

I joked “The proposals I’ve seen always contain a waterfall project plan. When questioned about that, the companies always reply ‘Well, that’s not how we were planning to run the project‘.” Usually, they say they will use an iterative and incremental approach. This time was no exception: waterfall plan, iterative and incremental execution. Well, why don’t you say so in the the proposal?

Why do these companies write proposals with one type of project plan, when they have no intention of ever following that plan? Why do they think that a waterfall type plan is expected, when they know full well that this is not an appropriate approach for their research project? Last time I used Microsoft Project, I must have missed the “create waterfall” wizard…

The basis of any audit methodology (whatever you may think of them) is: Say what you do. Do what you say. It isn’t more complicated than that.

The one that got away

There’s always an exception to the rule. In 5 years, only one proposal had a decent project plan. A plan which took into account the risks. They had short iterations and scheduled plenty of evaluation and re-assessment points in their plan. They used SCRUM and some parts of XP.

When I asked them why they chose SCRUM, their CEO replied. At first, he sounded a bit apologetic and started to explain why they had made this “strange” and “unconventional” choice. But soon, he started to tell how SCRUM had changed the way their company worked. They had experimented with many methodologies. This was the first one that people actually used. This was the first time the CEO really felt he knew what was happening in IT and he could steer it. “Today we have our projects under control, instead of the other way round.” I don’t often hear a CEO talk so enthusiastically about a development methodology.

At the end, he said “Well, you may think it’s a weird way to work. But it works.”.

Something that works. How very weird…


XP Day London 2006. Day two

Tuesday keynote

Unfortunately, we arrived in time to attend the keynote. Before the keynote, some music boomed out of the loudspeakers. What with previous night’s drinks and the loud noise, most people quickly darted out of the hall. When the keynote started, the presenters started to rap, shout and generate feedback with their mikes, accompanied by more music and slides about modernists who thought they knew all the answers. We now know they didn’t and created some monstrosities (just check out some of the “machines for living” on the outskirts of French or Belgian towns). The presenters held forth about post-modernism. I must have missed the joke or the irony, but I found the presentation irritating and left. Nice try to be original. If there was a message there, it got drowned in the sound and fury of the presentation.

I had a chat with Gill, Mike and Sue about their case study of Lean Software Development. I was going to present the theory of Lean in my “Toyota Way” session, after which they could talk about applying these ideas in the real world. They seemed a bit nervous about doing their presentation and they thought I wasn’t nervous because I had done this presentation before. If only they knew. The only difference between an experienced presenter and a new presenter is that the experienced presenter doesn’t show his nervousness. An experienced presenter knows he’s not going to die on stage, but he still feels like he’s going to 🙂

Real options

The first session was led by Chris Matts. He introduced us to “Real Options” as a way to manage uncertainty and risk. We hate uncertainty, therefore we want to take decisions as quickly as possible. A bad decision is better than no decision. Real Options are all about taking decisions at the latest responsible moment, when we have the most information. Most of the time, we’ll have to pay something upfront to be able to postpone that decision, just like with stock options. Most importantly, we aren’t always able to decide as late as we’d like. It’s up to us to create the situation where we can decide later. The best example is Lean or the Toyota Way. By making changeovers (for example from one paint color to another) really fast, Toyota can delay the decision about which color to spray the car very late, when they have the order from a customer. Thus, they don’t have to speculate what color the customers will want and risk being left behind with a lot of unsold cars in a color few people want.


All this led nicely to my own session on the Toyota Way, where “deciding at the latest responsible moment” is just one of the myriad techniques. Like at XP Day Benelux, the audience seemed very interested but also a little stunned. There were only a few questions and a little discussion. This is in sharp contrast with the sessions I ran in Paris and Geneva. In those two cases it was hard to bring the discussion to a close after the session, because people kept on asking questions and discussing the Toyota Way.

Case studies and courage

In the afternoon, I went to the case studies track. The Lean Software Development case study went over well. The other case studies were interesting too. We like to hear how real people have overcome real problems on real projects and see that the theory works in practice. Most of the presenters were first-time presenters in front of a large audience and they did very well. I’d like to invite them to a “Presentation Zen” session for a few tricks and pointers. Especially Jamie Dobson. Jamie, stop putting bullets three levels deep, in unreadable 12 point font on your slides! Just tell us your story! That’s what Dave Nicolette did: no slides, no music, just him telling us a story about two different ways to adopt agile methods in two different organisations.
The last session was another goldfish bowl, this time about courage. Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is what you do, despite being afraid.

And then, back to Belgium. Alas, no time to spend an “Extreme Tuesday” at the pub.


XP Day London 2006. Day one

Monday keynote

Unfortunately we arrived too late to attend the keynote. The train was delayed. The tube on the Northern line was full. The tube on the Central was halted because someone was ill. When we arrived in the Ironmonger’s Hall, the keynote was already in full swing and the hall was packed. Instead of Joshua Kerievsky’s keynote, some coffee to wake up and time to meet the “conference-acquaintances” and hear what they’ve been up to since we last met.

Cooking with conflict

I went to the “Turning up the heat without getting burnt” session by Joseph Pelrine and Ben Fuchs. I couldn’t attend this session at XP Days Benelux because my session was scheduled at the same time. In the first half of the session, Joseph and Ben talked about conflicts, explored our attitude towards conflict with a small excercise and offered us a cooking metaphor for team pressure. Too little heat and the team stagnates; too much heat and they burn. As a cook/coach/leader you need to keep the team at the right “cooking” temperature. Some conflict is good for you.

In the second half, I was asked to take part in a “Scrum from hell” game. In this excercise, a Scrum Master is faced at the daily standup with a team whose members may or may not have a secret goal (like talking as much as possible, helping the Scrum master, not doing anything and hiding this fact…).

I’ve played this game before. I was a bit nervous when Joseph asked me to participate. I thought this was because I had to act in front of an audience and not use my native language, so I overcame my hesitation. It was only after the session, after I had some time to think about it, that I understood why I was hesitant: the excercise throws the scrum master into an impossible situation. They have to suffer the diabolical antics of the hidden agenda players. And then the exercise is over. We don’t get any advice on how to handle such a situation. We are not shown any techniques we could use. We don’t re-run the simulation to see if the techniques work. In the end, what do we have? We’ve had a jolly good laugh at the expense of the sweating scrum master. And then we move on. It wasn’t clear to me how this excercise related to the rest of the session.

What would I have done as a scrum master in this situation? I would stop the standup. The only way to win this game is not to participate in it. I would repeat the rules of the standup and ask for a “check in” (one of the protocols of “Software for your Head“). I would check in first: “I’m willing to work with this team, following these rules. I’m mad. I’m in.”. Those who are willing to work in the team, follow the rules and be held accountable for the results, can check in too. Those who don’t, can leave now. That would create a conflict, but one which would clarify what everyone stood for. Hey, a conflict! Wasn’t this what this session was about?

Lessons learned:

  • Some conflict is good
  • Listen to my body. It’s a lot smarter and faster than my brain. It took my brain half a day to understand what my body had understood immediately after Joseph asked me to participate: I find the Scrum from Hell a useless and hurtful game.

Are we nearly there yet?

I had been asking myself the very same question as we traveled from Belgium to the Ironmongers Hall. Clearly, we had not planned our journey well enough to arrive in time. I went to the session because of the promise of interaction and discussion and because tracking is useless unless we can tell when something is done. Ivan Moore was a bit flustered because of the large turnout. Because of the large group, there wasn’t a lot of interactivity, but there were many questions and remarks. The session confirmed me in my preference to estimate using “story points”, not “ideal days” or real time.

The day ended with a goldfish bowl discussion on simplicity. As a severe treppenwitz sufferer, such a fast-moving discussion is not the ideal format for me 🙂

It was enjoyable to watch the dicussion go in several directions, but there wasn’t anything memorable that I remembered from the session. Maybe that has to do with the last activity of the evening: trying to make a dent in Google’s finances at their sponsored drink in a pub in “Little Britain”: free drink, food, t-shirts and gadgets. We had a long discussion with Joseph Pelrine and Ben Fuchs. Robert Chatley and Giovanni Asproni (XP Day organizers) looked more relaxed than this morning.

I didn’t stay too long. Next day was another full conference day and I had a session to present.