Friday, April 22, 2011

Your team space should deliver a message

Recently I've been helping a new team setup their team space. Now, I'm a big fan of hanging stuff on walls. Big visible stuff. But there's more to it than that. When deciding what you should put where you are actually crafting a message to anyone that walks into the space.

My personal metric for knowing when you've done this effectively is to answer the following question: Does it change someone's mood?

In my opinion, when anyone walks into your team space, from the newest dev to the most senior executive, what's hanging on the walls should make them feel differently within a matter of minutes. If that doesn't happen, something's off.

Now I'm not advocating that teams throw a bunch of crap up to simply appease people, especially those not usually in the space. In fact, the big visible stuff should be minimalistic; the least amount of information required to paint a deep, rich picture of what is going on, what value is being added, when things are happening, and anything else that is useful.

I'm not going to go into what specifically any of the stuff should be. There is tons of information out there on that such as information radiators, styles of team boards, card maps and lots more. Instead, I encourage you to think about the message you want your space to convey.

Here are a few things to consider in addition to the actuall stuff you choose to hang up:

1) If it's hanging up, make sure it's actually big and visible -- Sometime I wish plotters were never invented. Release burn-down charts and code coverage trends are examples of useful things to hang up. Too often though, I see people (usually PMs with whiz-bang tools) print them out. I assume they do this because they think it's easier, but walk across to the opposite side of the team space and tell me if you can read it…all of it. It's not enough to see the trend lines if you don't know what the chart is trending or what the axes are. Instead, draw it out on some paper or a white board with a big fat marker. Now go walk across the room…yeah, betcha can read that!

2) If it's hanging up, make sure it's useful -- I like to think of this as pruning. Something that was once useful may have run its course. If so, tear it down. If you need it later, recreate it. However, before just tearing stuff down, make sure the whole team agrees that what ever it is is no longer useful. When in doubt leave it up, there are usually ways to make more room if you need it. It's also important for the team to consider organizational usefulness. Not everything will be the most useful to the team itself, but sometimes to managers or other stake holders. PMs like release burn downs and cost burn-ups, CFOs like value stories etc… These should not dominate the space, but they are still useful, and it's important for the team to understand their organizational usefulness as well :)

3) If you need something useful, make sure you hang it up -- The space is not a fixed thing. Obviously if we can tear stuff down we can put new stuff up. The process of software development is journey or learning and discovery. Visualizing different things along the way can help a team communicate, both with each other as well as those outside the team. If you think something might be useful, hang it up for a while, try it out. If it doesn't add the value you thought, ask how it can be improved. If after a while it is still not providing value, see #2.

4) If it's hanging up, make sure it's in a good position -- Not all wall space is created equal. This could be due to many things such as lighting, vantage point, furniture arrangement etc… The best thing to do is plan a little bit before you hang something up. How often will it be updated? Is it a conversation centerpiece? Should it be visible to a passer-by? Once decided, go hang it up. If things change and it needs moved, move it…it's only paper and tape right?

5) If it's hanging up, take pride in making it -- Remember, you are crafting a message. You want things to be visible, digestible and useful. Those traits can be hard to achieve if your big visible stuff looks messy, half-assed or cluttered. It doesn't take that long to use a straight edge instead of free-hand drawing. Create a color scheme of post-its or stickers. Use different size index cards to mean different things. Create a legend. It doesn't have to be a work of art, but it should be tidy (within reason) and professional looking to communicate your message effectively. If you think something has gotten too messy over time, clean it up or redo it…it usually doesn't take very long.

6) If it's hanging up, it's a living document -- Don't be afraid to enhance anything that's hanging up. Feel free to draw, stick stickers, add post-its or whatever else adds value. You can usually tell which documents (big visible charts) a team find the most useful by the amount of enhancements made to it!

Finally, don't forget to test this stuff out when you think you are done. Stand back from your space and look at it. What does it say to you? Stand in the doorway or hallway and look in. What does it look like from there? Have people from other teams walk through. Is there anything that is unclear to them? Ask a manager, director or executive to walk by. What were they able to tell by just looking? Maybe do a few of these every now and then as your space evolves with different stuff.

Ultimately, don't forget that original question from way up there: Does it change someone's mood? Folks should feel better about what the team is doing, where the project is headed, and what they are getting for all the team's effort. If this is the case, then you've successfully crafted both an effective team space as well as an effective message.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Professional development: Little time, Lotta value

I had a good chat today with someone about taking the time out of one's personal life to do personal/professional development. The outcome of our conversation was that it really doesn't take that much time to do a decent amount. In fact, I suggest it is often the feeling of being overwhelmed or not knowing where to begin coupled with generally poor time management that keep us from achieving this goal.

Now, this individual's life situation isn't that uncommon for those who feel strapped for time. He is married, and they are a younger couple with a small child. Family time is important as is quality grown-up alone time as well as some individual relaxation time for personal/individual hobbies or interests.

Here was my "challenge":
1) Read 4 books a year
2) Subscribe to a dozen blogs and keep up with them
3) Start writing a blog or keeping a professional journal

To some, this may not seem like a whole lot, to others it may seem like an insurmountable objective. In either case it's a whole lot more than I see most folks doing in most organizations. I equate the above activities to understanding theory, keeping up with current events, and critically thinking and applying what you've been learning. There are of course other things folks could do, and ways people can get more engaged with their careers or the community in general, but I set this rung as the minimum. Also, the above activities are all cheap or free, have low barriers to entry and are fully within the control of the individual.

Here is how the time involved broke down:
- One 300 page book: 10 hours; 100 minutes every other week
- Keep up with blogs: 1 hours a week; 10 minutes of skimming/grooming, 50 minutes reading
- One blog post/journal entry a month: 3 hours; brainstorming (30min), outlining (30min), writing (90min), reviewing (30min).

Now your times may vary if you are a slower/faster reader, writer, etc... and you may prefer to follow different formats or techniques when creating or consuming information. The details aren't really important, just more of a guide for anyone who wants it.

The totals from above are: 31 hours per quarter or approximately 2.6 hours per week.

I'm going to assume you get about 8 hours of sleep a day (which is a lot for me) and that your work week is about 40 hours. This should mean 5 (workdays) * 8 (hours of free time) = 40 hours + 2 (weekend days) * (16 hours of free time) = 72 free time hours per week!

For most people, the numbers should work out. Even for a young spouse with a few little ankle-biters running around, 2.5 hours out of 72 seems easily doable. I mean 2.5/72 is less than 3.5% of your free time. Even if you are only 25% efficient with your time usage (you waste 75% of your free time) it is only 14% of your total weekly free time!

So where does the time go?!

I'm not overly interested in writing an article on time management, but here are a few ideas:

- Lots of people I know seem to sink a wasteful amount of time into tv, video games, surfing the web, etc... A little is good for relaxing, a lot is wasteful.

- Plan a little bit. Set an appointment or reminder for yourself. Talk to your family about what you are wanting to do and get them to help you too.

- Set some small measurable goals. Track those goals if it helps. Set daily or weekly goals to achieve the desired outcomes.

- Make the first book you read a time management book ;)

Why should I do this on my own time?

I've had conversations, similar to the one above, with others in the past. Sometimes I got feedback along the lines of "I shouldn't have to do this in my free time". Well, maybe, maybe not. I do agree that more organizations should encourage learning and professional growth during work hours as part of the organizational culture. Unfortunately this is just not the case and you need to choose what to do. It's your career. What is working for you today may not work tomorrow, or worse in 10 years when your skill set has completely atrophied. My personal opinion is that continuous learning is just a good habit to form, and spending at least a little of your own time to develop yourself is not a waste. If you dislike your work so much, the thought of doing more or anything related to it in your free time disgusts you, perhaps it's time to find a new career or at least a new employer.


What if I need more/other development?

So, my conversation above was with a manager and the goals all boiled down to just reading or writing. Hopefully this new knowledge would eventually be applied and reflected on at work. It can be challenging to practice skills like these outside of work, but perhaps you belong to some social group or organization where you can try them.

Perhaps you are a programmer or a tester and you need to stay abreast of various technical practices, tools or techniques. I will admit that these things are more time intensive, but perhaps in this case some of the reading and the writing can be lessened or forgone in favor of technical learning and practice. Go more deep and less broad.

In any case, in most situations the time commitment involved above is fairly small. If you have chosen a career path that requires double or even triple the time investment, it still is fairly reasonable, and all the same concepts still apply.