Use Personal Mind Maps to Welcome New People on Board and Foster Emotional Connections in Your Team

When my big team of almost 20 people split into two, I got to manage one of the newly formed smaller teams. It was a truly mixed bag of people – some were seasoned senior employees and knew each other very well, and about half of them were newcomers we had on-boarded in the past couple of months. There was even a girl relocating from Malaysia to Bulgaria, bringing in a whole different culture and perspective on things. 

A creative take on mind maps.

I’ve always believed in cognitive diversity is a major factor for a team’s successful growth and its resilience during hardships. I was quite happy with how my new team turned out – lots of different mental models, and ways of approaching challenges. But to really “jell” and bond my team, I needed a way to get everyone to get to know each other better, as friends, as opposed to just colleagues. I needed ways to foster emotional relationships and connections. Moreover, this new girl had no relatives or friends locally, and it was quite important to greet her with the warmest welcome possible and give her an “emotional kickstart” within our small community.

The Idea

It was obvious that it’s the right moment to put Jurgen Appelo’s Personal Mind Maps practice to the test. So, I asked everyone to create a personal mind map that could be understood and presented by any other member of the team. I kept it lean and let everyone use their creativity – no hard rules on what exactly they should include. Everyone could create her or his mind map however they felt is most appropriate and most descriptive of their personalities. I sent some varied samples I had found online just to get everyone started. There was just a size limitation to fit within an A4 sheet of paper to keep things under control and not have someone eventually show up with a billboard. 

Then I just had to wait. And I got myself working on my mind map during a weekend when I felt like drawing.

Another nice one.

After a little while, I received all the maps. It took a few weeks but the waiting did pay off – each mind map was unique, funny, colorful, interesting, and carried a bit of the personality of its creator. Some didn’t even look like mind-maps – they were the works of truly creative artists. I couldn’t help but appreciate and marvel at how diverse and wonderful everyone is. I’m even smiling as I write this, so their maps were THAT cool.

The Event*

At the restaurant

*Keep in mind this happened way before Covid-19 was a thing. Still, I think it’s very doable in an online setting.

During our new girl’s first week we did a welcoming night out at a local restaurant. I decided to seize the opportunity because the setting would be as informal as possible. At a time when spirits were high, I took the maps out of my backpack. Then we went over them. Each was read by a different person from the team while others had to guess whose’s map was it. People marveled at others’ artistic talent, laughed at some funny bits, found coincidences, and asked additional questions.

What didn’t work that well was that the place was a bit noisy, so it was harder to hear from all ends of the table at times. Apart from that, the event went quite well and emotion and good feelings were in the air the entire time. So a more informal setting is worth it, just make sure it’s not too noisy.

Spreading the word 

In the office

On the next day, with permission from team members, I took a photo of each mind map and shared it with other teams. Then, we had all the original maps put on a column in the office. It turned into a place where everyone can stop and take a look at our creations.

Our new girl was flattered by this welcome. We got to know her better, we gave her some clues she could use right away to start building her relationships. Us – “old dogs” also had learned some new things about each other that we didn’t even suspect before that session. 

As of this moment, our newcomer integrated quite well and made valuable connections with everyone. But I’m sure that doing the personal mind-maps exercise had a positive impact on everyone involved.

I’ll be happy to learn about your experiments and experience with this and other Management 3.0 techniques. Please feel free to share!

Scaling Scrum with LeSS: Lessons Learned

If you are not familiar with LeSS, you may have hard time reading on. If that’s the case, I’d suggest checking out the website first or watching a couple of videos about how LeSS works.

More than couple of years ago, we had to split a big Scrum team of 18 people into two smaller teams. We had been growing rapidly and the team had become far too big to be effective by any Scrum standards. After all, Scrum recommends 5+/-2 people per team to keep things smooth and efficient.

We didn’t want to create some artificial division line between the newly formed teams, based on product specialization or function for a number of reasons – flexibility, knowledge retention and redundancy to name a few. Eventually, we set out to look for ways to scale our Scrum implementation in a way that was going to keep team competencies balanced. 

Why LeSS?

We did some research on the most popular frameworks – LeSS and SAFe. Based on it, we promptly decided to go for LeSS because it seemed like a very straightforward and minimalist framework. It fit our idea of splitting the team without forcing specialization, and it wasn’t going to change too much of what we were already doing at the time. After all, we did not want to introduce “more“ process, and we were looking for something leaner. 

Overview of LeSS

We’ve been using LeSS successfully for a couple of years now and in this post I’ll be sharing some lessons learned and some challenges we faced. As with any methodology or framework, complexity still hides in the need for coordination, communication and ownership. Here are some thoughts of what worked and what did not, based on my experience.

Lesson 1: Backlog Refinement (Grooming) meetings will get messy

Grooming is by far the hardest ritual to pull off properly in any Scrum implementation because it requires good facilitation and an experienced team. But sometimes, when you have close to twenty people in a room trying to estimate a complex story, things are bound to become counterproductive. You need to establish a common understanding and let newer team members get used to estimation before introducing rotation, as LeSS suggests.  Unfortunately, there is no easy way around this – it just takes time and effort.

Here is what could be done:

  • By all means do not rush into introducing rotation – people need time to get used to grooming and you cannot do much to shorten it. It is the price you pay to grow.
  • When eventually you start rotation, make sure you have representatives from both teams, from all key functions and if possible- seniorities. Reducing the meeting to 7-8 people would make it work just fine.
  • Preparing in advance is key. Ask the Product Owner to share stories to groom a couple of days in advance, so everyone can spend some time to prepare and understand all the stories. This also prevents rejection of badly-written stories at the meeting, which you want to avoid anyway, because it’s often preceded by a lengthy and painful discussion. 
  • Introducing a separate regular pre-grooming session for collaboration between top seniors and PO gives venue for discussing strategic ideas and brainstorming. It also helps keep the grooming session focused mostly on stories and their scoring.
  • Strong facilitation is even more important with LeSS. Make sure you have someone experienced to keep the meeting on track, at least initially while you still have everybody-and-their-uncle in the room.

Lesson 2: Planning in two stages has some side-effects

Planning with LeSS is actually more complex as it’s carried out in two sequential sessions. One general, for both teams, and then separate ones for each team.

Every once in a while, an item that got optimistically picked in the first planning session, might not fit during the second (team-specific) planning session. This is mainly because in the second part of the planning team has more time to analyze in detail and decompose the story into tasks. When this happens, the item would pop-out of the sprint backlog of the team in question and this might become a bad surprise for the Product Owner unless communicated well.

Here is what can be done: 

  • Thoughtful preparation for planning always pays off and the team must make sure they know in advance their recent velocity, capacity, any leftovers and dependencies. Having some stories in your mind to pick prior to the planning session helps avoid the issue.
  • The Product Owner must be aware that stories might sometimes pop-out in the second planning when examined in detail and decomposed into tasks. Setting clear priorities for the team will make sure they will leave the right story out if this occurs. Final commitment for the sprint must be done after the team-specific planning sessions to make sure everything fits.

Lesson 3: You will still need some time and effort dedicated to synchronization and communication between teams

To compensate for lost communication bandwidth when you separate teams, you can introduce some additional meetings:

Communities of practice keep specialists from both teams on the same page. (Management 3.0)
  • Overall Retrospective – these are actually recommended in LeSS and you should make sure you don’t skip them after the Team Retrospective. They might feel redundant at first, but they make great venue for teams to address interesting accomplishments and common challenges, or just recap on how their common goals and roadmaps turn out.
  • Regular discussions between Scrum Masters, Team Managers, Product Owners. These short meetings help capture, discuss and handle issues on a higher level for both teams. Team retrospectives and the overall retrospective often generate some items for discussion on this level.
  • Form Communities of Practice (CoPs) – this is another Management 3.0 practice that I highly recommend implementing, especially when scaling Scrum. Communities of Practice cut across projects, teams and initiatives and give the opportunity for practitioners to synchronize, share their knowledge and challenges and develop their expertise further. In our case we’ve been doing regular QA and Dev syncs to keep the respective sub-communities in sync. This resulted in many complex challenges resolved within each domain and has been helping us immensely in reaching our team goals. People committees and social committees are also CoPs worth considering, especially if you want to emphasize on a culture of self-organization and freedom.

Lesson 4: Executing bigger initiatives that span both teams at the same time is still tricky 

LeSS does not recommend introducing coordinators for initiatives, but nevertheless in my experience this works when done in moderation. It helps with complex features and ongoing initiatives that span multiple sprints and even quarters.

Here is what can be done:

  • Assign a reporting person (owner) to emphasise on authority and responsibility to report, drive and deliver on a particular major initiative. This makes sure the initiative doesn’t die off and has someone pushing it forward.
  • Form “virtual” teams committed to specific initiatives. They have their own communication, pace and rhythm, which is separate from the ongoing LeSS cycle, but they still take part in all LeSS rituals.

I know that in a way all of the above might sound like imposing some Waterfall on top of Agile. Even so, you still need to find a way to ensure continuity between sprints and keep the big picture in mind for bigger initiatives. This, of course, could ideally be done by the Product Owner, but if you want to create autonomous teams (and who doesn’t?) it is alright to delegate some of it to team members. Apart from that, using some techniques from traditional project management might often prove beneficial.

In conclusion 

I’d say that LeSS proved to be a success for us as we got a bare-essentials process that allows us to deliver at twice the capacity. We did manage to scale up, and we are still Agile. Our teams can swarm up on a bigger story or even a feature if needed, which provides a great deal of flexibility.

LeSS also helped us maintain proper knowledge distribution between team members. Developer and QA sub-communities exchange knowledge and good ideas naturally flow between teams. Last, but not least, LeSS enabled us to have a common idea about what a Story Point is, which in turn makes our Product Owner’s life much easier, because he can work with a common measure of scope, size and complexity. 

I hope you found this useful and I’ll be happy to know about your experiences when scaling Scrum with LeSS and other frameworks.

Transferring an Existing Software Product to a New Team – a Checklist

Sometimes, in the lifecycle of a software product, comes a time when it needs to be transferred to a new team within the company. Reasons vary. Most often they have some financial nuance on the surface, but their nature is always strategic. No matter the reason, these transfers often mean moving the product through whole continents, time zones, offices, cultures and processes.

Being a hands-on participant in multiple software product transfers to date, I’ve seen approaches and ideas that worked great and of course, some that failed. I had the chance to learn by observing the art of pulling off successful product transfers in completely different settings – of legacy products, of newer products, of products we got from teams that ceased to exist, and also from teams that continued within the company long after the product transfer had ended. 

Working at a dynamically growing business in Bulgaria, I have mostly seen how this works from the position of the receiving entity. That being said, a transfer is always a joint venture and I believe sharing my thoughts could help you, even if you’re on the other side of the project.

Now, as a last quick disclaimer before I start… Managing a software product transfer is classic change management project, so all change and project management techniques still apply, but there are some specifics and tips that you’ll be better-off considering in advance, than learning about them the hard way (as I did on numerous occasions in the past). So, things like having a plan, tracking and reporting on it, managing risks, stakeholders and commitments, etc. go without saying and intentionally won’t be a part of this checklist. Keep in mind, that it still does not cover all the peculiarities you will need consider at 100%, so please, use it just as an additional sanity check of your existing plan so you can improve your chances of success. 

So, let’s get down to business! What worked for me so far? This is my product transfer checklist:

Understand the product state and its future vision

Product maturity and its current state in the product lifecycle are important things to note in the very beginning. Is this a product that is developing rapidly or is it in maintenance mode? Does it have room to grow or is it the current Cash-cow of the company? Is innovation and growth expected, or the goal is to transfer and just  reach business-as-usual state? The answers to all these questions will affect your hiring decisions, who you decide to put on the team and the project, and how you package and sell the idea to the team – the people who will ultimately be responsible to care for it and develop it. 

Every product goes more or less through the same lifecycle. Which state is your product in?

Do not forget to also discuss the product with the current product owner or manager. See what their vision for the future is and act accordingly.

Do some due diligence

Assessing the current state of the product is crucial for the success of the initiative, so if possible, be sure to settle at least one, (preferably) very senior person in the existing team for a while, so they can see things first-hand and give you a good view of what you’re all getting into.

Ask your “spies” to focus on understanding the business domain pain points, the state of the code base and coverage of testing, the automation and the toolset that are currently in use. Transferring a product is a serious endeavor, so it is not a good idea to only rely on rumors and papers. If sending over a person is not viable, try gaining access to current documentation and code in advance and start exploring locally.

Dramatic reenactment of classic due diligence

Secure crucial resources and clarify constraints advance

After an assessment is done, it’s important that you make sure you have all resources you’ll need are available. See what the structure and headcount of the former team were, see what their budgets amounted to. Compare these to the budget you have and your projected labor (this one is probably going to be about 80%-90% of the overall cost), IT, office, training and travel costs. See if it all looks realistic. Make sure you go over all other constraints and expectations in the very beginning – what is the deadline of the project, what are the main goals and milestones? Put all these into your plan.

Another point that’s important is that you must find the available office space to accommodate the new team and you need to order the hardware and software they will use early enough.

To be on the safe side, it is a good idea to develop a contingency plan and try to secure additional budget to cater for risks that are very hard to control. For example, you might need to get expensive contractors on board for a while, due to stagnation on the market and inability to recruit just the right talent soon enough. This plan will give you options in case something goes really wrong.

See what functions you get to own

Owning all of the supporting functions in addition to development – like administration, delivery or customer support, brings benefits in terms of simplified communication and better synchronization between functions.

That being said, it also comes with a much greater deal of responsibility and might put you in a position to own something you do not have the expertise to deal with. So, stop and consider carefully what exactly you’re going to own.

See if key roles are local and/or available

See if roles are well positioned and thought-out and would not put you in a position of difficult and cumbersome communication across timezones. Understand if the Product Owner, the Scrum Master and Line Manager are going to be local and try to secure this as it is going to make life so much easier for everyone.

If any of this is not viable, at least make sure all key people are easy enough to reach and are reasonably available when the team needs their help or input.

Partner with HR 

If you’re going to be transferring a product, it’s highly likely that you’ll need to recruit a bunch of new people. This cannot happen overnight and Talent Acquisition is your most important partner in creating a market forecast and supporting your efforts for recruitment. You must discuss your plan with them and also consider alternatives like getting some contractors on board for a while if things are not looking pretty. 

Remember that labor market is cyclical, and there are many socio-economic events that affect it. You cannot hope to know what’s around the corner at all times. No one understands market conditions better than TA specialists, so go and leverage their precious knowledge.

Rely on existing talent

Letting everyone from the former team leave, often proves to be an overlooked ticking bomb. See if you can arrange key people from the former team to stay with the company. It will be best, if you can engage them with your new team, but if this is not possible, hopefully there will be an alternative position that can still keep them around. It could be a new product, a more interesting role or something else, but it is crucial that you have someone to rely on, while the new team is picking up speed but is not yet fully productive and aware of all the details. Such key people can prove invaluable when new members of the team need some advice and, even more so, in the event a critical system failure happens. Make sure you have at least a part of their time officially dedicated to the team until they are ready to own the product by themselves.

Another thing that worked for me has been bringing trusted people I’ve already worked with on the team. It is often better to move someone from your existing seniors to help building the new team. This provides an opportunity for the seniors to build new knowledge and leadership skills and is often appreciated on their end. On the other hand, it will enable cross-pollination. Processes and culture will grow from within the team, because you already have someone who knows how it all works and can be on the lookout for any deviations.

Simplify the transfer by ensuring the product is in a fit state and is well-documented

Ask the former team to not leave anything hanging out the trunk at the last minute. Make sure there is enough and well-updated documentation. See if enough tests are in place for the team to use as a safety net – these are going to keep your back time and time again. See if any simplifications of environment and deployment processes can be done and also see if all environments are well-documented.

Help your team know their progress and give them a sense of accomplishment

It is a good idea to have a tailored schedule available for all knowledge transfer events and milestones. Thus, your team will know what’s next and they may ask for more things to be added to the plan, some topics to be extended or removed. 

Knowledge transfer sessions are best to be recorded on video as most people won’t pick all the details on the spot. I’ve seen team members resort to available recordings from time to time. Remember that you cannot hire all members of the team at once, so these recordings also make for great entry-level trainings when you onboard new people.

You can help the team immensely if you do a stakeholder identification exercise together. This will help them understand their role and they will be much better prepared to work with all the stakeholders involved and manage their expectations.

Last, but not least – create a Team Competency Matrix that lists all key knowledge areas to be covered (might be product components, technologies or software tools). This has proven to be an invaluable tool and it is also a variation of the Management 3.0 practice.

Here’s how it works: first, ask the former team to assess their level of knowledge on a scale together. For example, 0 being novice, 5 being subject matter expert, or use the scale that Management 3.0 proposes. Thus you will know what is possible to achieve and you can establish a sane goal to aim for and compare to.

Then, regularly update the matrix for the members of the new team and ask them to set competency goals for the next period each time. In our case, we’ve been doing this monthly, and we often continued well after the end of the knowledge transfer because we’ve been finding it so useful.

How a Team Competency Matrix might look

The Team Competency Matrix will:

  • Keep people on track to understand and learn about all aspects of the product in a methodical manner ;
  • Demonstrate individual knowledge gaps, so the every team member can address them to balance their competencies;
  • Show the team their overall knowledge distribution, so they know where major risks lie and what to put more focus on next;
  • Create an environment of constructive competition that pushes everyone forward;
  • Give the team sense of accomplishment and progress, which will help keep their spirit high. This is especially important at the beginning, when there are often no other significant and tangible results.

In Conclusion

This turned out lengthier than I anticipated and I’m still sure that I haven’t covered everything.

A software product transfer is a wild journey and you’ll probably stumble upon different challenges each time.

You’ll need to walk the walk yourselves, but I’ll be very happy to know I’ve helped at least some of you by sharing these practices and ideas.

Feel free to leave a comment and share your experiences in the field which shows up when you view a single article!

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