Monday, February 23, 2009

real slack

Last week I learned something about slack... something I'd forgotten about in my over-scheduled high-performing team in Philly. I think at one point we had some slack in Philly, but it quickly got eaten up by our software-process-improvement tasks and next-iteration planning (we fit it all into Wednesday mornings, because the iteration ran from Wed noon to Tue when we left the office). For a couple of months I've been trying to get my team here in Besançon to buy into the idea of finishing the iteration cleanly before the end of the week, to ensure we have real slack. Well, last week we did it... in a way I hadn't anticipated. We had 8 story cards and 11 programmers; by the time we split into pairs, we got 5 teams working on cards. Here our iteration begins after a planning game Monday morning; everyone was hustling Monday afternoon, and 3 of the cards were done by late Tuesday morning. Those 3 teams reshuffled and we again had 5 pairs working Tuesday afternoon... and we were all out of story cards. Wednesday morning, there were pairs that had no new work to start, and it was difficult to find something productive they could do to assist with the already sliced story cards in progress. So starting Wednesday morning, a third of the team moved into slack time! I had imagined that when we got to slack time, it would be like it was in Philly--everyone finishes at basically the same time. But no, it was much more chaotic. Some people were still doing the disciplined energized-work hustle of their cards, and others were doing who-knows-what.

Then something magical happened. Thursday morning people started talking about their ideas, and their conquests, during slack time. Some people were working on clean-up, some were doing exploratory testing, and others were innovating the next great features for our product. I knew slack was important for maintaining quality and a sustainable pace, but I forgot about the innovation side. In Philly we started saying that innovation was still there--all you had to do was write up a card and get the customer to buy it. All we had to do was convince the customer? Well, that worked well enough for senior members of the team, but new members just didn't seem to have the sway to get their story cards picked. So they'd sneak off in the dark and do their prototypes or proof of concept, then show it to the customer. This got in the way of collective ownership and the spirit of a team of equals.

Last week, we had a new excitement brewing as the iteration was winding down. People were signing up to do interesting little projects, and getting excited about all the clean up they'll be able to do in slack. This will hopefully carry over to this new iteration and help people move the cards fast!

So anyway, having a significant buffer of slack (hey, why not 20-30%) is critical to the health, sustainability, and innovation in the team. Here's to finishing the iteration on Wednesday or Thursday!

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