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Tips for Fast-Paced Agile Software Projects

Written by 
Usman Ahmad
,
Project Manager
Tips for Fast-Paced Agile Software Projects
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Table of contents

As project managers, we are always looking for ways to increase our Agile software team’s productivity and the quality of the work that they produce. In that pursuit, we need the right analysis and insights to plan our actions sprint over sprint and week over week. Communication with our team(s) on a regular and effective basis is critical to gaining the right insights. Why? Because the Sprint data may not always highlight the issue(s) for an underperforming (or overperforming) team or individual. In some cases, the available data points might not fully explain the underlying reasons for low productivity.

For example, is the team or individual contributor working on a difficult problem? Are some members being assigned easier or harder tasks? Are there any non-work-related issues? Are the inputs missing an element that should be added to the acceptance criteria? Does an individual have a better approach or tool to solve a particular problem that should be rolled out to the rest of the group? Effectively talking to the group will identify the issues much faster, help to find the root cause, and determine an action plan. Team and one-on-one meetings can be very effectively used to act on these (and other) issues.

Before getting into the details of executing effective team and one-on-one meetings, let’s get to know the key performance metrics based on Agile principles that can be used to assess the members' productivity. Some of the most critical ones are:

Planned to done ratio

The percentage of planned versus fully completed tasks (according to the specs). It can be measured for both an individual and a team. The higher the ratio, the better the productivity.

Team velocity

The amount of work (story points or hours) a team can tackle during a single Sprint. A steadily increasing velocity from Sprint to Sprint indicates higher productivity.

Escaped defects

This is the scenario in which some defects were not found by the Scrum team, but by the customer — customer-reported vs. Scrum team-reported issues. A higher number of escaped defects indicates quality issues.

Cycle Time

It consists of a control chart with the total time taken to get tasks from "In Progress" to "Done". Inconsistent and exceptionally high cycle times may indicate productivity issues.

What should you do to have effective team meetings?

Be prepared

Before meeting with the members, analyze data such as team and individual burndown/burnup/velocity/control charts, ticket closure rate, time spent in progress and in review. Create Jira dashboards to have an accurate view of your team and project, as well as analyze the team’s trends. Preparing reports to identify the number of defects logged post-deployment vs. pre-deployment is necessary too. Finally, jot down key points to discuss.

A stagnant or slowly moving burndown/burnup chart highlights delays in moving tasks to "Done", which can be a significant challenge in completing a Sprint with all of the original commitments and may eventually force some tasks to be moved to the next Sprint. Discuss with the team to identify the key challenges they are facing in moving their stories across the workflow to "Done". This enables the team to resolve the identified blockers.

Use the velocity chart to see how the team is progressing in terms of meeting the sprint scope and whether they are able to commit to bigger chunks of work. In the case of inconsistencies, discuss how planning and task breakdown can be improved for better forecasts.

Also, review control charts to identify potential bottlenecks in the workflow and brainstorm with the team on resolving them. These discussions may highlight issues such as lack of training or knowledge, delays in code review and approval, broken pipelines, buggy commits, etc. Use the insights to create action plans to solve these issues. If required, take them to one-on-one meetings and candidly discuss any individual productivity or quality issues. In general, emphasis should be on resolving blockers and brainstorming productivity and improvement ideas. 

Develop a culture of continuous improvement

During meetings, encourage the team to share their learning and knowledge or how they tackled a particularly challenging task. Whenever feasible, support members to further explore new ideas. Engaging them in continuous improvement and setting measurable goals ensures that the team actively participates in discussions and takes ownership. Also, encourage them to maintain Confluence pages to capture new learning and insights. Actively participate in reviewing the documentation and provide ongoing feedback. By keeping updated documentation on solving common issues, teams can increase their productivity. Use playbooks, categorize blockers, and track solutions to them in the playbook. This allows for standardization and prevents having to solve the same problem twice.

Encourage open communication

Your goal as project manager is to help nurture open communication within the team. Through these types of skills, such as leadership, discipline, and cultural awareness, you can promote effective dialogue and allow team members to gel together. This strengthens collaboration between members and creates tremendous opportunities for completing issues faster and solving the hardest problems as a group.

Reiterate the Sprint goal(s) and make sure the team is always on the same page with them

It is extremely important for your team to be fully on board with the Sprint goals. Use team meetings to reiterate them as well as upcoming short-and long-term ones. The more visibility the group has on the project, challenges, and future plans, the more they can individually prepare themselves and also help to highlight any potential concerns.

What should you do to have effective one-on-one meetings? 

One-on-one meetings present an even greater opportunity than team meetings to get to know the individuals, establish reports and promote open communication. With this strategy, you will better understand their strengths and weaknesses, as well as their motivation level and training needs. Also, it gives you opportunities to hear about productivity ideas and insights from members who might not speak up in the group. 

Be prepared again

Before meeting with one team member, you should analyze data such as his/her burndown/burnup/velocity/control charts, ticket closure rate, time spent in progress, time spent in review, etc., and arrive at an analysis or hypothesis. Create individual Jira boards in order to see the specific contributor’s reports and trends. Also, prepare reports to identify the number of defects logged post-deployment vs. pre-deployment. Jot down key points to discuss. Gather insights from both top and low performers to establish reference points. Use the velocity chart to see how the individual is progressing in terms of meeting the Sprint scope and whether he/she is able to commit to bigger chunks of work. In the case of inconsistencies, discuss how planning and task breakdown can be improved for better forecasts.

Be a proactive listener

With effective listening skills, you, as a project manager, can lead, motivate, get the best ideas from members, and also get insights on process improvement opportunities. Each individual will be motivated and more open with the feeling of being heard. Give and receive feedback. Avoid only negative feedback and instead focus on a constructive one backed up by data. Additionally, very useful tips are shared in the following article: How to Be a Great Listener in Remote Meetings. Use the one-on-one meeting opportunity to reinforce processes and team goals. Instead of focusing on general project status, take a deep dive into the real issues and blockers. Develop tailored plans and targets for each team member.

Encourage open communication individually

Thus, through communication and listening, as well as leadership, discipline, and empathy, you can promote open communication. Observe how each member interacts with the group, his/her communication skills (verbal and written), whether or not he/she is a team player, and how the overall work ethic is going. Use the information to identify opportunities for a coach's process.

Conclusion

Lastly, we can say that team and one-on-one meetings provide tremendous opportunities for improving productivity and quality in fast-paced Agile development. By using a data-driven and insight-driven approach, as well as observational, listening, and coaching skills, we can help members perform at their best.

Usman Ahmad
Written by
Usman Ahmad
Usman Ahmad

Usman is a Project Manager at FullStack Labs. With over 10 years of experience in the field, he has built an outstanding track record leading projects to consistently successful completion, increasing revenues, and improving client satisfaction. Usman's areas of expertise include Open source (ARM Linux), Embedded systems, Hardware Enablement, Cloud Computing (Salesforce), Web, Wireless, .NET, Windows, and several other technologies.

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