How to Rescue Distressed Projects and Teams

If you have worked in the software development world long enough, it has likely been your privilege (tongue firmly in cheek) to work on a project and with a team that has been taken to or even driven over the brink of failure. A project like this usually involves an unhappy client, a frustrated management and a very discouraged delivery team. It generally involves an “interrupt-driven” task and workflow prioritization process with a fixed delivery schedule, a once fixed but changing requirements set, and estimates and assumptions that failed to consider the full lifecycle of a feature, story, or task.

Often such projects are cancelled and teams dismantled. Sometimes they push through to a bitter end with something that works but everyone unhappy. It took too long. It cost too much. It works but not well. Clients are lost. Teams suffer from unnecessary attrition. Blame and resentment prevail. But there is a better way. Teams and projects can be rescued.

To rescue a distressed project and team is not as hard as one might think. Many have written about this. Some of us have even experienced it first hand. One excellent case study was published two years ago by Steve Andrews on InfoQ. There are many other stories like the one he shares and they all have several common aspects that can come to your rescue.

Analyze and Decide Using Facts
Working from facts and data, such as defect counts and other available metrics, can help to eliminate the emotional element and engage the team’s analytical talents.

Drive Quality with Acceptance Tests
Make quality and testing come first. Create acceptance tests for a given feature or story before you begin coding. Acceptance tests should clearly define “done” and support validation.

Eliminate Waste—Control Flow—Decrease Batch Size
Long established principles of quality manufacturing, these can be applied to software development. Creating very large and complex requirements documents that will be invalidated shortly after development begins is waste. Managers pushing large sets of tasks and assigning specific work items to specific team members creates waste. “Fix all the bugs” creates a batch that may overwhelm any team. But when team members pull work from a queue (aka backlog) and a team’s total work-in-progress (WIP) is limited, individual and team work flows efficiently.

Allow Teams to Self-Organize
Coach teams in Scrum and Kanban and let them choose which works best for them to control flow and achieve individual and team efficiency. Some teams may choose a combination. In any case, self-organized teams pull work and progress more efficiently than those who wait for management to assign out tasks. Management is then free to focus on grooming the backlog.

Manage the Backlog
Change control and therefore control of the backlog is critical to the success of a project. A manager with one of any number of titles controls what gets added to the backlog and when. The manager gathers details from stakeholders and delivery team members for each item on the backlog to provide sufficient detail for an estimate to be made. Based on input from stakeholders, the manager prioritizes items. Delivery team members add estimates before items can be taken off the backlog and put into a ready state or work-in-progress state. Estimates can be in abstract “points” or “ideal days” or some other common unit of measure to allow tracing metrics as work proceeds. Once estimates are provided, the manager works with stakeholders to finalize backlog priorities.

Work as a Team
Even if you are not using Kanban, you still need to eliminate bottlenecks and prevent individuals from working too far ahead of the team. If analysts are unable to keep up with writing acceptance tests, re-task other team members to avoid starving or bunching up of the team’s work-in-progress. If the delivery team lacks a well groomed and ready backlog, you should alter your planning cadence, decoupling it from your delivery cadence.

The primary factor in rescuing a distressed project and team is the motivation of management. If you believe in your people and give them the tools, processes and coaching they need to achieve great things, you can turn around a troubled project and team.

Situational Intelligence Leads to Certainty and Confidence

I like this quote from General Stanley McChrystal on crisis communication:

“I think when any leader faces crisis, this is true on the battlefield but I think it's also true in other areas as well, one of the things you fear most is not understanding the situation. And I think it's that uncertainty that actually is most unsettling to many leaders and causes them to be undermined in their confidence.”

Understanding the situation. If you lack context. If you lack critical knowledge. You cannot effectively lead. First, seek to understand. Listen and absorb. Contemplate. Then, and only then, act.

Attracting and Keeping Top Talent in Software Development Teams

A friend recently shared a Forbes article with me entitled Top Ten Reasons Why Large Companies Fail to Keep Their Best Talent which I found informative and useful in understanding my own recent thoughts on this topic. Rather than review each of those reasons here, I encourage you to read the original. Instead I would like to share with you the flip side of that coin based on my own recent experiences.

Attracting Top Talent
Before you can work on keeping your top talent, you have to find them and convince them to join your team. Here are five things you should be doing to attract top talent:

  1. Choose a competent and effective recruiter. This can make all the difference. Don’t just hire an agency and let them blast a job description to every Tom, Dick and Mary of the tech world. Know specifically who is representing your company. Make sure that she knows how to find and filter top talent for you. Ensure that she has the communication and people skills required to manage the phone and in-person interviews and coordinate with the hiring manager to make his job even easier rather than just dumping a pile of resumes on a desk and waiting to get paid.
  2. Do more than one phone screen. Give at least two top team members the chance to phone screen the candidate. Make sure they are prepared and understand what they should ask. Then have one or two managers or potential peers conduct a phone screen as well. Never rely on the resume alone to decide whether you will do a face to face interview.
  3. Have the candidate interview with more than just the hiring manager. Have potential peers and even potential subordinates interview the candidate as well. And when possible, have a peer or supervisor of the hiring manager conduct an interview. Meet with and collect the thoughts and opinions of every interviewer and carefully consider their input.
  4. Assure that every interviewer is positive and upbeat about your company but equally honest and transparent about the challenges and opportunities within the company which the candidate may be able to help resolve or improve. Don’t paint a dismal picture but don’t put a shine on a dull spot. Any intelligent candidate who gets different stories from interviewers will think twice before accepting an offer. Transparency and honesty from the bottom to the top of the company will be a refreshing and attractive quality. And don’t worry about scaring off a candidate who is afraid of a blemish. You don’t want to hire someone who wants to work for a perfect company with no opportunities to contribute to the solutions of the real problems that every company has.
  5. Follow up and answer a candidates questions after the interview process is complete and make a decision as quickly as possible. If you will have some delays before you can make a decision, keep the lines of communication open and keep the candidate up to date. This kind of follow through is often overlooked and companies often take for granted that the candidate will sit still and wait. They won’t. To keep a fish on a hook, as they say, you have to work the line. Let it go slack, and you’ll lose.

Keeping Top Talent
Once you have hired a key employee, make an opposites list from the Forbes article and work toward eliminating the reasons that top talent walks out the door. Of the ten, here are my top picks recast as things you should do to keep top talent on your team:

  1. Give your employees an opportunity to have a voice in key policy and process decisions. Listen to your people with an open mind, prepared to change your mind if you have overlooked something. Your top talent will often have better ideas than you may think.
  2. Take the time to provide regular feedback to your employees. Annual reviews are great, but follow up with periodic reviews of goals, professional development, projects and opportunities for improvement. And always find a way to share positive feedback. When you acknowledge achievements and performance, publicly and privately, you’ll get even more of the same.
  3. Make sure that your team members know that you care about their professional career development. The small amount of time you invest in helping your team map their future success will yield returns in happy, dedicated employees much greater even than the recent gains in the gold market.
  4. Steer a steady ship that can make tactical adjustments in course but is on a solid strategic heading. If you run into stormy waters, keep faith with your employees and stay on course. If you need to make strategic course changes, involve your top talent in that decision making. Getting on a boat headed for Hawaii and finding out that the captain has decided to go to Alaska instead without even talking to you can be more than demoralizing.
  5. Build teams of people who can work well together, who are talented and skilled and willing to pull their own weight and then some. Passionate people will help to bring out the best in team members who are having a bad day, but it is impossible to fix a team member who fundamentally lacks the requisite skills and desire to acquire them.
  6. Be open minded and tolerant of opposing points of view. If you do not invite honest discussion with your team at appropriate times, you will lose your top talent and end up with a team that affirms any decision you make, even those that will send you off a cliff that you did not have the foresight to recognize.
  7. You can teach management skills to a leader. But teaching leadership skills to a manager is not so easy. Look for leaders who can motivate and rally teams. You can hire a clerk or accountant to take care of the bean counting. But you may not recover from having a leaderless team and the resultant chaos and confusion and serial loss of top talent that will result. Do not be afraid to amputate and stop the bleeding. Keeping a failed manager long beyond the point of recognizing the problem to avoid the pain of change is an ominous sign to your top talent that you lack the leadership required to steer the ship successfully to port and they will abandon ship at the first reasonable moment.

If you’re making New Year’s resolutions with respect to your company, I urge you to review these lists, and the plethora of others available on the web from sources far more authoritative than me. Take positive action to attract and keep your top talent. And if you find yourself looking for a company that exhibits these desirable qualities, keep up your search. They are out there. And while no company is perfect, there are certainly some that far and away exceed others. So whatever you do, don’t give up hope of a better day.

Why The Software (or Any) Team Fails

I’ve been giving the question of why software teams fail some considerable thought in the past few days. Reading Brad Abrams’ post Don’t Waste Keystrokes and his statement that “By far the biggest problem I see on teams of > 1 is communication” led me to compile the following list. Here are some of the reasons, in addition to the most important one that Brad pointed out already, that a software team, or any team really, fails:

  1. The team does not practice regularly, no coordinated learning.
  2. The coach does not know the strengths and weaknesses of the players.
  3. The players do not know their role, their zone or the plays.
  4. The players do not get along, they are not one in purpose.
  5. The players do not trust or respect the coaching staff.
  6. The coaching staff puts players with no skill on the starting lineup for unknown reasons causing resentment amongst the other players and guaranteeing a loss at game time.
  7. The players do not believe the coaching staff understand the game.
  8. The players are more focused on individual agendas, they do not work together to win.
  9. The rules of the game are not well understood and change during the game.
  10. The coaching staff and team captains disagree on how the game should be played.
  11. The coaching staff recruits new players looking for players who will agree with their ideas rather than seeking out players who can actually play.
  12. The players fail to improve their skills on their own time.
  13. The players lack motivation and fail to come to practice and give only a half-hearted effort in the game.
  14. The team captain spends more time arguing with the coaching staff than he does leading and motivating the players.
  15. Winning becomes secondary to just finishing the season.

If you can think of any others, please let me know. And if you have ideas for how to fix these situations, I would love to hear from you as well.