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Friday, June 19, 2015

Getting a software team to figure out their own problems - Part 1

This is  my experience from a few months back. I was called to help a team that was handling a rough situation. They were part of a growing organization, and the amount of pressure on them was very high. The development team, the project manager and their product manager would get requests on an urgent basis, and their entire job over the next few days was about how to handle the project within the defined timeline, and the entire energy spent over the course of the project timeline (defined in terms of weeks) was about how to complete the project, run through issues and resolve them, and so on. And they were very confident of their abilities since they were completing projects on time, but their work time was highly stressed and they were starting to lose key people.
I was invited to help them in this, and one of my first interactions was with a junior team member. He was very confident of the team, its ability to complete projects on time, and since this had happened a number of times, he was not very confident of what some outside help would achieve ? And there was a mix of people within the project, some who shared his thinking, and some who wondered whether the team was indeed in the right in terms of processes. Wading into this project, it was clear that trying to tell the team that they were not doing things right would not work; trying to get them to make incremental improvements based on self-realization was the way to go, till they reached a point where they were ready for more serious changes. How would one go about this ?
Well, it was time to get started. A discussion started with the leads and managers within the team. Focus of discussion, trying to get them to open up. First item on the agenda, What did they think they did well on the projects ? A lot of comments about being on time, about ensuring that they did not cross the budgeted amount or the allocated resources. Good stuff, but not complete in terms of processes which they could replicate in other teams.
Next, what are the areas of improvements that they could identify. Things got more silent - nobody in their right mind would ever say that they could not make improvements. So, some steps, encourage them in this process, and so on; and then ask about review sessions with the team to figure out what things went wrong, what should they learn as improvements for next projects and so on. And now finally getting through with the team - this process happens in a very haphazard way, and there are no real such discussions which the leads / managers could emphatically quote.
Moving ahead with this approach, get them to start thinking about how do they really know that they are doing well. Just meeting the deadlines is not enough. Do they know that they could do the project with less people if they started following more processes (but not theoretical processes, more like improvements suggested through reviews or from other teams and which made sense to them) ? More benefits in terms of less tension to the team ?

This is proving to be a long post. Read the next section (Working with a software team to improve processes - Part 2). If you have been in such a situation, please provide your comments. 

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