AoAD2 Part II: Focusing on Value (Introduction)

Book cover for “The Art of Agile Development, Second Edition.”

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This is a pre-release excerpt of The Art of Agile Development, Second Edition, to be published by O’Reilly in 2021. Visit the Second Edition home page for information about the open development process, additional excerpts, and more.

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This excerpt is copyright 2007, 2020, 2021 by James Shore and Shane Warden. Although you are welcome to share this link, do not distribute or republish the content without James Shore’s express written permission.

Revised: July 12, 2021

Focusing on Value

You walk into work on a crisp October morning. Your last team was fully remote, but your current team prefers in-person work. Communication styles are very different, you muse to yourself, but Agile is much the same.

Your team is a fluent Focusing team. As a team, you’re very good at understanding customer needs, coming up with good ideas, and focusing your work on the most valuable thing you can do. There’s room for improvement, particularly around defects and deployment, and people have been talking about investing in Delivering zone fluency to solve those problems, but management is very happy with your work.

Some people on the team are advocating for your team to take full ownership as an Optimizing team, but, for now, your team’s priorities are determined by Hanna, a product manager in the marketing department. She’s pretty busy and her boss isn’t willing to assign her to your team full-time.

Speaking of product direction, today is demo day. Every week, your team releases a new version of its software, then makes a plan for the next week of development. Once per month, you gather together your major stakeholders, show what you’ve done, and get their feedback. You used to do it more often, but stakeholders couldn’t be bothered to show up that frequently. So now you have less frequent, chunkier demos, and people are excited to see what’s new. When you want faster feedback, you give private demos to interested individuals.

Hanna leads the demo, as usual. She originally wanted team members to run the demo, but you found that having Hanna in charge of the demo meant she paid more attention to what you were building. It led to better feedback and better results. Plus, she’s much better at speaking stakeholders’ language.

Stakeholders seem happy with your progress this month. There’s a lot of interest in the whitelabel feature you’re working on, and the usual smattering of suggestions. Hanna makes note of them.

After the demo, it’s time for your weekly team retrospective. It’s an opportunity for your team to look at your practices, team dynamics, and organizational roadblocks to experiment with possible improvements. Your monthly demo cadence was the result of one of those experiments.

You rotate who facilitates the retrospective every week. This week, it’s Shayna’s turn. You’re looking forward to it. Shayna always comes up with creative exercises to liven up the retrospective, and she’s good about making sure that the team follows through with an experiment to try.

Your team takes a break after the retrospective, then Hanna begins your weekly planning session by pulling over your visual planning board. It’s a large whiteboard with a bunch of index cards stuck to it with magnets. The cards form clusters, and each cluster has a name like “resellers,” “actuaries,” or “accountants.” They represent your customer groups. There’s another large group of cards marked “whitelabel.”

“We had some good ideas in the demo,” Hanna says, “but I want to stay focused on the whitelabel feature for resellers.” Everybody nods. You’ve been working on this for a few weeks, so it’s no surprise. “We’re getting close to being done with the whitelabeling itself, so next up is the administrator screens. Before that, I’d like to set up a trial run with one of our major resellers. I’ll send an email with the details.”

Hanna nods to Colton, the team’s UX designer, and he speaks up. “Hanna and I are going to be going over the trial run and whitelabel administration later today. You’re welcome to join. Afterwards, I’d like to work up a story map and do a planning game to flesh out the stories. It shouldn’t be too complicated. I’ll let you know when I’m ready to schedule it.”

Hanna grabs a handful of blue story cards from the “whitelabel” section of the release board. “We still have enough stories to get us through this week. Our capacity is still 12 points, right?” Everyone nods. “Great. Here’s three... six... eight, 11, 12. These should get us pretty close to being able to trial with real customers.” She holds up the first card, which says “whitelabel color scheme.” “Okay, for this one, we need to be able to change the site color scheme to match each reseller’s colors.” She briefly explains the remaining cards. There are a few clarifying questions, but you’ve all seen these before, so it goes quickly.

“Okay, that’s the plan!” Hanna concludes. “Colton should be able to answer any questions about the details. I’ve got some emails to take care of, but I’ll be over here”—she points to a corner—“until you’re done with planning. Let me know if you need me to clarify anything.”

Hanna sits down and Shayna takes the lead. You decided a while ago—it was another retrospective experiment—that the person who led the retrospective would facilitate all team meetings for the week. You haven’t heard of any other teams working this way, but for your team, having a predefined facilitator helps you stay on track, especially now that your coach has moved to a different team.

Shayna spins the planning board around. On the back is your weekly plan. “Okay, you know the drill,” she says. She points at the five story cards Hanna chose. “Go ahead and spread those out and start brainstorming tasks onto yellow cards. I’ll prep the board.”

The team gathers around the table and starts writing tasks on yellow index cards. As they do, they call out their ideas, which in turn inspires more ideas. “Update the DB schema to include color scheme.” “Factor out CSS variables.” “Serve reseller-specific CSS file.” “Add reseller CSS file to top-level template.” Before long, there’s an orderly grid of cards showing everything that the team needs to do this week. Shayna helps transfer it to the whiteboard. You’ve heard that other teams visualize their plans differently, but your team likes this approach.

“Let’s do our stand-up,” Shayna says. You gather around the whiteboard and have a brief discussion about what to work on first, then everybody grabs a task card off the board. The tasks only take a few hours each, so as each one is finished, you'll mark it done and get a new card from the board. Every day, you’ll have another stand-up meeting around the board to review your progress and make sure the week is on track.

“I think that’s it,” says Shayna. The stand-up only took a few minutes, and the whole planning session has taken less than hour. With the retrospective and demo, it’s getting close to noon. “Who’s up for lunch?”

Welcome to the Focusing Zone

The Focusing zone is for teams who want to focus on what their company values most.

The Focusing fluency zone is for teams who want to focus on what their company values most. They work closely with their business partners to understand priorities, provide visibility, and act on feedback. Specifically, teams that are fluent at Focusing:1

1These lists are derived from [Shore and Larsen 2018].

  • Plan their work in terms of business value, not technical tasks, and align their work to their company’s business priorities.

  • Demonstrate progress at least once per month, and do so in terms of business value, not technical tasks.

  • Change direction to match changes in business priorities.

  • Provide visiblity into their progress, so management can intervene when the team is building the wrong thing or isn’t making progress.

  • Regularly improve their work habits, reducing costs and improving effectiveness.

  • Collaborate well within their team, reducing misunderstandings and hand-off delays within the team.

To achieve these benefits, teams need to develop the following skills. Doing so requires the investments described in chapter “Invest in Agility”.

The team responds to business needs:

  • The team works with a business representative who provides the team with organizational perspective and expectations.

  • Business stakeholders can rely on the team to work on whatever the team’s business representative says is their most valuable priority.

  • The team plans its work, and shows progress, in chunks that their business representative understands and values.

  • The team’s business representative sees, and can change, the team’s direction at least monthly.

  • Management enables the team to work at a pace that allows them to respond to business needs indefinitely.

The team works effectively as a team:

  • The team generates their own day-to-day tasks and plan, based on their business representative’s priorities.

  • Team members consider their plan to be the team’s work, not individuals’ work.

  • Team members share accountability for getting their plan done.

  • Management considers the plan to be the team’s work rather than assigning accountability to individuals.

The team pursues team greatness:

  • The team embraces, and continuously improves, a joint approach to their work.

  • The team is aware of how intra-team relationships affect their ability to succeed and proactively attempts to improve them.

  • The team is aware of how their work environment affects their ability to do work and proactively attempts to improve it.

Achieving Focusing Fluency

The chapters in this part will help your team achieve fluency in Focusing zone skills. They contain practices to help you work as a team, plan valuable releases, own and be accountable for your work, and steadily improve.

  • Chapter “Teamwork” describes how to work effectively as a team.

  • Chapter “Planning” describes how to plan and prioritize work according to business value.

  • Chapter “Ownership” describes how to take ownership of your day-to-day process and plans.

  • Chapter “Accountability” describes how to provide visibility into your work and gain stakeholders’ trust.

  • Chapter “Improvement” describes how to improve your team’s work habits, relationships, and environment.

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