No matter what Agile framework or method a team is applying, it should be applied in service of getting things done and not just getting things started. In fact, if getting things done is not your team’s guiding star, you might not be living into what Agile is really about.
So what can you do if you’re on a team that is struggling with getting things to done? I’d encourage the team to look at adopting a flow mindset. A flow mindset helps teams step back and look at what’s going on with all the work in a Sprint. While there are a lot of reasons why teams may struggle with not being able to get things to done, not paying attention to the flow of work is a common bad habit. The good news, however, is that ignoring the flow of work is a relatively easy habit to correct. It starts with three steps:
- Getting aligned on flow
- Visualizing what’s not flowing
- Discussing what you see
By taking these steps, a team will begin to own and benefit from a flow mindset.
Getting Aligned on Flow
First, let’s get aligned on what I mean by flow. Flow is what work does when it moves from a state of not started toward done. That’s true whether it’s a simple process like:
To Do | Doing | Done
a Scrum centric process like:
Sprint Backlog | Tasks | In Progress | Done
or a multi-stage process like:
Backlog | Queue | Stage 1 | Stage 2 | Stage 3 | … | Stage n | Done
Backlog items moving from the left to the right through a process is what I mean by flow.
The interesting thing about flow, however, is that it’s easier to see if things are flowing by looking for things that are not flowing. When a team spots things not flowing, they can solve the challenge and get things flowing again. Here’s a list of typical flow challenges that teams should be aligned on.
Block: Something that prevents and individual product backlog items or task from being able to move to the next step in a process. When identifying blocks, it’s key to help the team understand that we are talking about the “work being blocked” and not about “a person being blocked”. I hear plenty of team members say they are not blocked because they have plenty of other things to work on. That perspective allows blocks to be missed.
Bottleneck: A characteristic of a stage in a process where the rate of items coming into it exceeds the rate of completing items. When identifying bottlenecks, it’s important to note that people are not bottlenecks. Stages get bottlenecked. When we refer to someone as a bottleneck or as bottlenecked we often also assume that it’s that person’s fault or their problem to fix. It’s not. It’s a team problem and the whole team needs to work together to figure out how to solve it.
Impediment: Something that’s negatively impacting multiple product backlog items or the entire team across the board. When identifying impediments, it’s important to determine if it is something that the team can solve on its own or if they need help. If they need help, the Scrum Master should lead the charge and keep the team focused on the Sprint. If the same impediment is impacting multiple teams, the ask for help may go higher up the chain.
Visualizing What’s Not Flowing
Team members being aligned on flow challenges is a good start, but alignment on definitions alone won’t help. We need to see when those challenges are happening. This means getting flow challenges visible. How? It’s up to each team to find a way that works best for them, but there are a lot of options in tools and on physical boards for making these patterns visible. I won’t go into the specifics on the options in this post, but it can be as simple as using things like flags and labels in your tool, turning a stickie at an angle if you’re using a physical board, or drawing a box around an item with a dry erase marker if you’re on a whiteboard. No matter which approach you use, the goal is to create an indicator that can be added when a flow challenge exists and removed when the challenge is solved. If it doesn’t get solved, you will quickly start to see a lot of flow challenges on your board. Those challenges are the clues to what’s preventing your team from getting items to done.
Discussing What You See
Ok, so we have a team aligned on flow challenge definitions and we have them visualizing flow challenges on their board. The next step is to get the team discussing these challenges. A good way to start a discussion is to add a of couple stock questions to you daily. For example:
- Do we have any items blocked?
- Do we have any stages bottlenecked?
- Do we have anything impeding our plan?
- What do we want to do about them?
How each team solves a situation will be unique, but I often recommend using a stock questions approach to help teams adopt a flow mindset. Some teams will even put their questions near where they hold their daily so they remember to work on their new habit.
Adopting a flow mindset takes practice by everyone on the team. There may even be some current behaviors that need to be unlearned in order for the team to truly own a flow mindset. For example, a Scrum Master pointing to a blocked item and telling the team what they think should be done to remove the block is a misfire. A better ownership-based approach would be for the Scrum Master to ask the team if they see any blocks and what they want to do about them. When the team starts identifying and discussing blocks, bottlenecks, and impediments without prompting, you can smile knowing that you helped them own the flow mindset.
Let me know if you have any comments or questions. You can reach out to me via email at FrankS@FreeStandingAgility.com
Thank you for reading.