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Herding cats with customized work items

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Newbie Blogger
Hello community!  I’m excited to join the blogging world and share my experience and expertise as a project manager from within the depths of the Rational brand development organization.  I’ve been in Rational for quite a while now and the Lotus brand before that.  You may know me from when I was a beta program manager. Most recently I have been a Project Manager responsible for bringing our products to IBM’s Cloud platforms. Do we really “Drink our own Champagne?” or is it “Eat our own dog food?”  It depends on the day sometimes!  We put ourselves on the bleeding edge and try our best to discover (and fix) any bugs before they reach you!

Project Manager or Herder of Cats?
As a project manager my role often feels more like a “herder of cats” – continually attempting to direct a diverse and very independent group of personalities toward a set a common goals.  I try to keep the developers out of meetings where status is brought forward to a wide audience often for awareness rather than action.  In IBM,  these are called “MORs” or Monthly Operation Reviews.  I also have a very busy executive to report to who needs to be able to give status updates and know where we are in the project at anytime. Like most executives, he also does not like bad news surprises such as like a project going from green/on-track to red/missing delivery overnight.  Sound familiar?

I find this type of status reporting relatively easy when you are running a project with a set deliverable and committed dates.  You report about accomplishments such as beta completion, license and legal work done,  x features in the build,  SVT x% complete plus any risks.   Standard risks include…resource limitations, problem with x feature, platform support issues.

Differences with Internal Projects
Six months ago,  I began helping with the effort to move the Jazz team towards a continuous model of development and delivery. Our goal is to transform our delivery pipeline using the best practices of DevOps including implementing cloud platforms and products from newly acquired UrbanCode’s product line. We’re focused on build automation, test automation, and delivery pipeline to quickly get new code into the test platforms for automated test suites to run often.

Like many large, complex projects, this transformation turned out to be a slippery creature from a project managers point of view. While we adopted Milestones and Iterations, we found work items moving easily from one iteration to the next and it was difficult to tell if a work item was on track and when someone would free up to work on another task.  So at the beginning of the year, we implemented a more rigid planning approach with a few tangible actions.

1) Owner to Identify the success criteria for the Improvement Action work items that he/she is expected to deliver in that Iteration.  The owner must identify the deliverable, the internal customer and any internal or external communication, such as a demo, blog or wiki post, or support document, that will be delivered as a result of the improvement action. This step allows the owner to think through all the steps needed to complete the work item.

2) Solicit more input on the work planned for an individual so he/she can have input on if they can finish the assignments by the end of the iteration. Other activities such as conferences, training or vacation can be taken into account during this planning step.

3) Create more free time. We took a hard look at the value and purpose all the meetings on the calendar.  We had an “ah-ha” moment when we realized our scrums had turned into mini-status meetings that with a large team took 30 minutes per day.  Due to the cross functional nature of the team, some people had 3-4 scrums a day. What a time sink! We consolidated and re-purposed meetings. I highly recommend a “meeting evaluation” periodically for your extended projects.

4) Increase iteration length. We found with short (2 or 3 week) iterations, team members did not feel the necessity to stick with the target dates since a task often took longer than planned so we implemented quarterly milestones with monthly iterations.  These decent size chunks of time should allow an Improvement Action work item to be completed.

Using the Confidence Custom Field
As far as my product management status issue was concerned,  I still had trouble discerning if the plan was on track at any point in time.  At first, we asked the team members to estimate hours for each task and then report how many hours they worked on each one.   If we were a consulting shop, which bills per hour, we may have found this method effective.  In our case, I felt like I was creating work and asking for more detail than I really needed.  The developers felt like hourly workers instead of professionals.   All I wanted to know was  “do you think you will finish this work item within the planned iteration?”  The team did some brainstorming and chose a new approach.  We implemented a  “Confidence” custom field on the Improvement Action work item.

Confidence Custom Field

This field will be used to highlight work items that are behind schedule and at risk to continue into the next iteration.  Dashboard Queries with the Confidence field will allow the management team to gain visibility into the items at risk and reach agreement that it is acceptable (or not) for this to happen. Of course, improvement action owners need to feel comfortable flagging a work item’s Confidence as “at risk” and asking for help early will be seen a positive step and not a negative reflection of the developer.

Custom fields like Confidence can be very powerful additions to your project management toolbox.  I particularly like custom fields that have a visual icon status since they are very useful to visually identify status or issues on a dashboard.

We hope that with the new changes our culture will also adapt and team members will feel more ownership for their work and plan their time accordingly.  I’m looking forward to more visibility into our progress and less time “herding cats!”  I’ll let you know how it is going in future posts!

I hope you will comment on this post and tell me about your experience with custom fields or how you represent status in your organization.