Concentration cone

In this blog post I will introduce you to the concentration cone. It’s something that I’ve had as a mental model during the most part of my career. The text uses a project, the project manager role and a team to explain the concentration cone, but this is applicable in many other contexts as well.

Introduction

If you are a project manager and responsible for a project, you need to handle many tasks in parallel. At the same time, you need to be able to juggle around more than one ball in the air if you like. Can’t you handle more than one task at the time? Well, there are other roles that may suit your personality better.

I like the juggling metaphor. At a company conference I attended, all employees got three juggling balls and an hour of practice. Most people were able to get all the balls in the air and catch (some) of them. With a little more practice anyone can learn to juggle three balls. To juggle for a while is also a good way to take a break, it requires total focus and ”clears your brain”.

In juggling, you can’t hold on to a single ball for too long, you need to toss it up in the air to be able to catch the ball that is falling down. There is a ”rhythm” or ”flow” you need to be able to master, the same thing you need to be a good project manager. I believe this to be very important! Below you see my mental model to explain it more deeply.

Concentration cone

”Concentration

At the top of the concentration cone you are handling many tasks at the same time (colourful circles in the picture above). You need to have a constant flow of things happening, you can’t spend too much time diving into details for each task. You need to have the correct amount of information about the task, so you can make a proper decision and act. Wether it be doing the task yourself or pass it along to another person. Picture yourself swimming at the top of the concentration cone, dip your head into the water for each task to find out what to do about them, but then get your head up above the water surface again to catch the newt task. As a project manager, its at the surface you need to be, and let others ”dive deep”.

On the bottom of the concentration cone, you are in deep concentration and are working focused on only one thing (black circle in the picture above). Here you need to be, to be able to solve complex problems and do deep thinking. When you are here you shouldn’t be disturbed, then you will be forced up to the surface. Maybe if possible, its best if you can focus totally. But since you need to be available to your team to be ”in control” you can’t be deep down in the concentration cone too long. Your team members needs to be deep down in the concentration cone a lot, if your project shall be successful!

It’s very hard to find balance if you are trying to go ”up and down” in the concentration cone. My recommendation is obvious, stay at the surface to be a good project manager. I once experienced a fellow project manager that struggled to get the grip of a project. To get things going, he dove down into the details of every single task trying to do them himself. By doing this, the overall ”helicopter view” of the project was lost, and the customer was deeply unhappy about ”nothing happening”. It can surely itch in your fingers to dig into the details yourself (for example being an old programmer like me, that wants to ”hack code” again), but don’t do it. When you are deep down in the concentration cone, you can get stuck, and it’s a long way back to the surface. Your project will not benefit from you losing the overall control.

Summary

Did you like the mental model of the concentration cone? If you are more into soccer, you can say that a project manager should be like a midfielder and not like a goal keeper. The midfielder has to be involved in the game all the time, whether it being offence or defence. The goal keeper on the other hand, just have to focus on one thing only, stop the opponents from making goals. Until next time, enjoy!

All the best,
Tomas from TheAgileist

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Tachometer to find perfect flow

How do you obtain a ”perfect flow” of work tasks passing through your software development team? That question have been in my head for quite some time. I can start by admitting that I don’t have a solid answer to that question (yet). However, I have instead thought of a way to visualise if you are having ”perfect flow” or not. How? I’m thinking of a tachometer!

”Tachometer”

Tachometer to find perfect flow

First of all, this is just an idea that popped into my head (this is actually the first encounter with the ”outside world”, so please bear with me). The idea is however to use a tachometer to indicate ”perfect flow” on a kanban board for a development team. Just like a tachometer is indicating if you are using the sweet-spot of your engine at any given moment.

My little example is a kanban board with three columns:

  • Design – Given the value 1
  • Development – Given the value 2
  • Test – Given the value 3

The values are used to calculate the position of the needle in the tachometer. I will now give you three examples that hopefully explains it all!

Example 1 – ”Too early”

”Tachometer

In this example three tasks are in the ”Design”-column, giving a ”tachometer value” of:

1 + 1 + 1 = 3

Thus indicating that we are ”too early”, and that the later steps in the flow (”Development” and ”Test”) are not utilised. The analogy with a car would be to ”gear up” meaning that the team needs to take the ongoing tasks to the later steps of the process.

Example 2 – ”Too late”

”Tachometer

In this example three tasks are in the ”Test”-column, giving a ”tachometer value” of:

3 + 3 + 3 = 9

Thus indicating that we are ”too late”, and that the team soon will run out of things to do. The similarities with a car would be to ”gear down” and for the team to put focus on feeding in new tasks to the kanban board.

Example 3 – ”Perfect flow”

”Tachometer

In this example the three tasks are evenly spread between the columns, giving a ”tachometer value” of:

1 + 2 + 3 = 6

Thus indicating that we have a ”perfect flow”, and that the steps in the process are utilised in the best possible way!

Summary

I understand that the mathematical formula behind this idea must be improved if this should become a reality. There are also cases where a tachometer like this will not be useful, for example if the team has just started. Maybe this can act as a challenge to manufacturers out there of digital kanban tools to add a tachometer in their product!

All the best,
Tomas from TheAgileist

Planning with multiple timelines

You should all know by now that I’m very fond of visualisations, to say the least. 🙂 Recently I’ve told you about how we did a ”retrospective with timeline”. That thought stayed in my mind when we needed to do some more detailed planning for multiple projects spanning multiple products. This blog post describes what we came up with. Here we go!

”Planning

The idea is simple, the timelines highest up on the whiteboard are projects (or larger initiatives, whatever you like to call them). The other bottom half (or whatever suits your needs) are products or components within a product (depending on the level of details you want to plan for). Usage:

  1. The project timelines shows major activities and milestones. I.e. ”hard facts” that we need to consider. For example a promised customer delivery.
  2. The product (or component) timelines shall show activities (work that needs to be done) and is used to find, and sort out, dependencies (”To deliver project X on time, we need to do activity 1 in product A, before we can do activity 2 in product B” and so on).
  3. Color coding. The activities needed in products (components) have the same color as the project that need them to create traceability.

Preparations

Before the actual planning meeting, you need to find a suitable whiteboard. The larger, the better. Preferably the largest one in the office! But think carefully, you may want to spend some time doing your plan, and therefore keep it up on the whiteboard for some time after the meeting to be able to make adjustments. At least I did, so I found one in a meeting room that is seldom used and started drawing.

Planning with multiple timelines

This is how the “planning with multiple timelines”-meeting was performed.

  1. Some 15-30 minutes before the meeting started, I went to the meeting room and draw the timelines for the projects that we needed to plan (with major activities and milestones). In our case two projects (larger initiatives) and two other activities that were more like dependent on the outcome of the planning. This acts as the starting point for the planning, i.e. things that we intend to deliver.
  2. The meeting started with me explaining the procedure (described above). Then the actual planning started. An example: ”We have promised to do this in that project, for that to work we need to add this in product A and that in B. Wait isn’t this needed in product C as well? Hmm, it is, maybe we should do that first then.” and so on. In this step you can spend as much time as you like, depending on the level of details you want to discuss, and the complexity in what needs to be done. The more dependencies you have the longer time to solve them out. Actually we had one first meeting to get an overview of everything, saving the details for later sessions.
  3. After the planning meeting I always take a picture of the whiteboard using my mobile phone for documentation and the possibility to communicate the plan outside of the room.
  4. As mentioned in a previous point you may want to revise your plan. Preferably you may want do it regularly as long as the projects are running, or you do it in the beginning in a couple of sessions to ”set out the course”.

Example

This is an example of a whiteboard with multiple timelines for planning.

”Planning

Summary

Ok, that was some thoughts and examples on how you can use multiple timelines for planning. If you don’t have several projects (or initiatives) running simultaneously, or you don’t have a complex flora of products you don’t need this. One possible enhancement I can think of is to use a digital whiteboard tool, to be able to keep the plan stored and also to distribute it easier. But for our needs a good old whiteboard suited us just fine. Don’t make things more complex than what they have to be, remember that!

If you don’t like this at all, it feels to much like “MS Project all over again” (however I don’t agree, the key is in the interaction between people to find out dependencies in front of the whiteboard) you can use my other idea for ”visual planning”.

All the best,
Tomas from TheAgileist

Switch

In an old episode of Seinfeld it’s discussed and concluded that ”the switch” can’t be made (in this case meaning to switch a girlfriend for her roommate). The book ”Switch” tells another story, about making changes that last. This book is written by two brothers named Chip and Dan Heath. The subtitle is ”How to Change Things When Change Is Hard” and was released 2010.

”Switch

”What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem” – Chip Heath & Dan Heath

Content

The book consists of 11 chapters, divided into three sections, and they are:

1. The Surprises About Change

DIRECT THE RIDER
2. Find the Bright Spots
3. Script the Critical Moves
4. Point to the Destination

MOTIVATE THE ELEPHANT
5. Find the Feeling
6. Shrink the Change
7. Grow Your People

SHAPE THE PATH
8. Tweak the Environment
9. Build Habits
10. Rally the Herd

11. Keep the Switch Going

The first chapter is describing change, and mentions that to change someone’s behaviour, you’ve got to change that person’s situation. Wisdom from psychology says that the brain has two independent systems at work all the time. First, it’s the emotional side (instinctive, makes you feel pain or pleasure). Second, it’s the rational side, also known as the reflective or conscious system. If you want to change things you have to appeal to both sides! To use the vocabulary of this book: You have to speak both to the Rider and the Elephant. One other advice about change is that you have to provide crystal-clear direction.

The ”magic formula for change” boils down to the following:

  • Direct the Rider – What can look like resistance is often lack of clarity (give crystal-clear direction).
  • Motivate the Elephant – What looks like laziness is often exhaustion. You have to engage the emotional side.
  • Shape the path – The situation (including the surrounding environment) is called ”the path”.

How to find the bright-spots? Use the following question: ”What’s working and how can we do more of it”. One other tip is to use destination postcards, they do double duty: The show the Rider where you are heading, and they show the Elephant why the journey is worthwhile. They can be incredibly inspiring!

When it comes to shaping the path two strategies are described:

  1. Tweaking the environment
  2. Building habits.

Recommendation

I can recommend this book, it presents a simple formula for making change. The challenge is of course to tailor and implement it for your specific needs. I have not tried out this yet.

All the best,
 Tomas from TheAgileist

Famban

What is Famban? That is my own abbreviation of Family + Kanban! In other words, our attempt to visualise and keep track of all activities within our family. Can’t an ordinary kanban board solve that need? Of course, but we have made some additions that we find useful. It’s also quite fun to come up with a new name for something, I admit  🙂 .

”Famban

Famban in Favro

Setup

We use a collection in Favro with three boards:

  • Ongoing week (with one column for each day in the week – Monday to Sunday)
  • Next week (same setup as above)
  • Further ahead (with two columns; Coming – To keep track of things that are 2-4 weeks ahead & Later – to store stuff even further away).

Why have a bi-weekly schedule? It seems to fit our needs best. You could have a one week rolling schedule or four weeks instead, depending on your needs.  

We use color coding (called Tags in Favro) to visualise different types:

  • Recurring activities (Green) – Used for all recurring family activities, for example ice hockey school on Sundays for my son.
  • Activities (Blue) – To cover all “one off”-activities.
  • Travel (Red, not shown in picture above) – To keep track of an “activity” that spans more than one day.
  • Food (Purple, not shown in picture above) – We had an idea to keep recipes in here to also plan our dinners. To have 10-15 of our favourites to be able to spread them out during the two weeks and have some variation. We had not really succeeded in this though.

Operations

The operations of Famban is easy! Since Favro has a very good web interface for computers, together with apps for iOS and Android we can reach it everywhere all the time. This is the number one benefit of having a digital board like this!

It’s mainly me that maintains the Famban board. Every time an activity comes up, it’s added to one of the boards (ongoing week, next or further ahead).

Once a week, usually on Sunday, the next week is discussed and planned in more detail. Basically I then make “next week” the “current week” by switching places on the two boards (a simple drag and drop operation in Favro). I also change the week numbering (week 47, week 48 etc.). A trick here is to have double of all recurring activities, so you don’t need to copy them between the weeks.

Famban on fridge

”Famban

Our first attempt of Famban, was to put it up on the fridge. That is the most “central spot” in our home, here it’s seen multiple times per day by all family members. I made a physical version of the Famban board using several papers that I taped together. One problem was that it couldn’t be wider than the door of the fridge, and at the same time have the needed seven columns (one for each day in the week) and to be able to fit standard size stickies.  Therefore the “To-do” and “Done” sections were placed “below” the board.

This incarnation of Famban worked well at home, and we had daily morning meetings in front of it. The problem came when not at home, not being able to see it. Often the question came up during the day while at work, my wife called me and asked “Do we have something on Tuesday evening, or can I make arrangements with my friend X?”. That question was not possible to answer, it had to be handled later when at home again, that was inflexible so after a while this Famban board was not used.

Improvements

Here are some improvements that I have thought of, but not yet implemented:

  • When the kids get older and probably get even more recurring activities an improvement would be to add swim-lanes, one for each family member. That is supported in Favro.
  • To get the food planning up and running, adding nice pictures to the recipes would probably help!
  • We have lost the visibility by having the Famban put up on the fridge. That could be fixed by mounting a tablet device on the fridge, showing the Famban board 🙂

Summary

Famban is visualisation and family planning combined! I hope you liked this blog post, and that it inspires you to try something similar! As always, reach out to me if you have something to share!

All the best,
 Tomas from TheAgileist

Retrospective with timeline

I hope you do your retrospectives regularly? That is a good way to learn about what you do, and to keep your continuous improvements (kaizen) going. In this blog post I will describe a variant of a retrospective we performed, with a timeline to visualize what have happened during the time period we discussed. We used stickies in different colors for Good (Green), Bad (Red) and Improvements (Yellow) that we put up on the timeline. Why did we use it? The timeline helped us remember better.

”Whiteboard”

Preparations

Before the actual retrospective meeting, you need to prepare the timeline. Basically remember on a high level what was done during the time period. I sat down and did this on a piece of paper.

”Drawing”

In our case the time period spent over 6 months and I draw boxes for the main activities that happen. I also added numbers to each activity that was used as reference (see more information about that below). That was all the preparations I did before the meeting.

Retrospective with timeline

This is how the “retrospective with timeline”-meeting was performed.

  1. Some 5-10 minutes before the meeting started, I went to the meeting room and draw on the whiteboard the timeplan that I’d prepared. I also brought my stickies in different colors.
  2. The meeting started with me explaining the procedure. That each participant should think for 10-15 minutes and write stickies categorized as: Good (Green), Improvement (Yellow) or Bad (Red) and also add the number to reference the activity. A certain number (in our case 7 – Common) was used to specify common things that couldn’t sort under a activity, or covered the whole time period. The numbering made it easy to put up the stickies on the whiteboard.
  3. After all the stickies from the meeting participants were added to the whiteboard, they were discussed individually. We used the numbering to do all “Good, Improvement and Bad”-stickies for the activity in question. It becomes very visible if an activity was successful or not (a lot of Green stickies, versus a lot of Yellow/Red ones).
  4. After the meeting I always take a picture of the whiteboard using my mobile phone. The numbering on the stickies makes it easy to take them down and move them to your desk, where you preferably produce some sort of documentation of the meeting.

Summary

This retrospective is the one we used back in the days we had Scrum as our agile framework, but now with the timeline as a twist. The timeline adds value if the time period discussed is long (in our case 6 months, but can be both shorter or longer depending on the context), or if persons have been “in an out” for the activities (not participating for the whole time period).

All the best,
 Tomas from TheAgileist

I got ninety nine problems but the blog ain’t one

I’ve made it! This is blog post number 100! I could never imagined that this would happen when I started this blog two years ago. My first blog post was published on the 11th of October 2014, and was called ”Welcome”. In that post, I claim myself to be an agileist, with the following definition:

To fully define an agileist – he or she helps and coaches other people, thinks a step further, and is also realistic and know that there is a long way to go to ”reach for the stars”.

I have tried to think a step further and to share this with you. Hopefully I’ve made some valuable contributions during these two years, but you are really the one to tell me if I have fulfilled my promise or not.

Most popular blog posts

Here is the top ten list:

  1. The Arrow – Advanced kanban board
  2. Priority pyramid
  3. Trello as ”whiteboard simulator”
  4. Scrum and XP from the trenches, 2nd edition
  5. The Volcano – Enterprise kanban board
  6. The Nature of Software Development
  7. Soft Skills
  8. Applied Capacity Planning
  9. Personal Kanban in Favro
  10. Lean and Agile in three pictures

I’m very honored that two of my visualizations are in the top! Visualizations have been the topic where I’ve done most work, and hopefully contributed the most. Are there any blog posts that I think deserves a bigger audience? Yes, here is that list:

  1. Google Docs, Sheets & Slides in remote meetings
  2. Bug Triage
  3. Agile captains
  4. Feedback Loops 2.0
  5. The Circles – Products´ lifecycle visualization

Monthly statistics

After a slow start, the blog has pretty solidly reached over 1000 page views per month, for which I am super happy! The best month (February 2016) reached 2276 page views, thanks to the post about using Trello as a ”whiteboard simulator”.

”Monthly

Visitors from all over the world

The picture below shows that this blog have had visitors from an amazing 128 countries! This is totally mind blowing! It is difficult to grasp that people from as remote places (from me) like Lesotho, Mongolia, French Polynesia and Nepal have visited my blog.

”Visitors

When it comes to countries with most visitors the top 20 looks like this:

  1. Unites States
  2. United Kingdom
  3. Sweden
  4. Germany
  5. Brazil
  6. France
  7. Canada
  8. Russia
  9. Australia
  10. India
  11. Spain
  12. Poland
  13. Netherlands
  14. Italy
  15. Belgium
  16. Ukraine
  17. Denmark
  18. Ireland
  19. Finland
  20. Norway

In the future to come

What will happen now? To be honest I don’t really now. I’ve kept track on how much time I have spent on blogging during these two years and the total is 400 hours. Given that I’ve written 100 blog posts, that gives 4 hours per blog post in average. In the beginning they took a bit longer to write, nowadays that time is shorter (hopefully it’s because my writing has improved, not me being lazy). I have not earned anything on blogging, apart from the experience and fruitful feedback from you (that makes it worthwhile). So in one form or another I will hopefully continue, despite that I have 99 (literately) other things going on. I have a full time work, a wife and two kids that have their activities that I support, and I also have my own other interests. The time for blogging is limited to say the least.

Summary

What do you think of this blog? Does it bring value to you as a reader? I would really like if you could take some time to give me feedback. Maybe you have some ideas on topics that you want me to cover?Thank you very much for reading! Arrivederci!

All the best,
 Tomas from TheAgileist