How to Be Agile NOW! – With Tomatoes

[Guest Post: Paul Boos serves as the software maintenance lead for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Pesticide Programs (OPP).  His team currently uses Kanban and Scrum to maintain the OPP legacy code base.  Prior to that he implemented Scrum as the Branch Chief for the National Development Branch within USDA/Rural Development. Follow him on twitter: @paul_boos]

How to be Agile NOW! No Matter what… or rather… how a tomato learns to be effective in Japanese

As someone who has been basically thrust err… given a chance to coach Government teams trying to adopt Agile, I have frequently pondered what it would take to get an entire organization to ready itself for the change.  I think I have determined a possible cultural change approach as it anchors it in the smallest possible, but still relevant scale for anyone from the executive manager down to the developer.  That is the individual.

In the Government environment, there are a myriad of excuses why Agile can’t be adopted.  From the specified Waterfall SDLC controlled by another group, to Independent Verification and Validation shops, to managers that love detailed Gantt charts, to contractors that want to remain opaque; all of these supposed collusions can’t stop you individually from being Agile.  You, on your own, can become more responsive and effective.

I’m also here to tell you that this is something that with some work, you could get ‘management’ to adopt; which will in turn help them understand the concepts behind Agile.  What’s the secret sauce?

Tomato sauce.  Huh?

Personal Kanban + the Pomodoro technique

Personal Kanban provides visibility into your work in progress and in particular by setting your work in progress limits, types of items to be worked, and classes of service you can manager your work along your value ‘stream.’  Starting with items that either you know you need to do, ones yourbrainstorm (I like to on occasion mindmap things I believe need to be done), or ones others request/direct you to do, each of these can go into your backlog.  They then can be constantly (usually daily) examined for their priority.

I won’t go into a ton of detail here, but the visibility that you and that you can allow others to have into your work can be immensely valuable as well as gaining an understanding of the limits you have on being able to work  only a few items, perhaps even one item, at a time.

So how does the Pomodoro technique fit into this? Well as you examine, prioritize, and select items to be “in-work,” you can perform some just-in-time chunking larger items into smaller prioritized tasks that you feel you can accomplish in a few Pomodorii; it’s rolling wave planning at the smallest possible scale.  You also don’t have to be precise on your estimation on how much you can accomplish.  As you get these accomplished, you can measure how much you can get done in a day and how many interruptions re-prioritizations occur within your day.  This allows you to improve your future estimations, but also (and this is important for the managers out there), you can realize how much everyone’s ideal schedule, planned effectiveness, and *gasp* utilization is far from the mark.  When added back to the lead time indicators from your Personal Kanban, you can get an idea of how to these occur over time.  If you find yourself with large prioritization disruptions from external folks, then examine ways to include them in how you prioritize your to-do queue.

If you are a ‘manager’, I encourage you to take these two techniques up for a month, if for nothing else to understand how you effect your underlings, regardless of whether they are using the technique or not, they are going through the same disruptions and/or prioritization issues.  Using the techniques though, will allow you as an individual to accommodate change better and see that you can make steady progress.  Over time, you will be able to make and keep commitments better.

If you aren’t a manager, take this up! As your effectiveness goes up, share the techniques with your friends.  Eventually, the boss will wonder why the team’s effectiveness has risen and you can then introduce the concepts and then talk about scaling them up to teams.  Get the boss to give them a go and when you talk Sprints, you can say similar to a Pomodoro cycle.  Velocity based on evidence and focused on helping the team and not for a management report won’t be foreign.

Regardless if you are stuck in Waterfall world or not, you can use these simple techniques and become more Agile on a personal level.  As your effectiveness goes up and people ask you how, be sure to tell them about the tomato sauce you used!

4 Replies to “How to Be Agile NOW! – With Tomatoes”

  1. Nice post, Paul. I picked up David Anderson’s book at AgileDC and read it cover to cover. I haven’t bought Personal Kanban yet; I probably will, but either way, I did start using the technique you mention at work, because it was the best I could do in a ‘group’ vs. ‘team’ setting (where others were not sharing their work-in-progress). I thought perhaps, they might ask or do the same. Because of the cube set up, other people that I wanted to notice, didn’t really notice. I felt it was effective for me while it lasted, but only as an individual. Unfortunately, leaving current gig imminently, so no chance to really take it further.

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