Tag Archive: productivity

US National Archives - Creative Commons image

Workers assembling radios. Photographer Lewis Hine. US National Archives – Creative Commons image

Typically in plan driven model, scope is fixed and the cost and schedule are variables.  Many large scale software projects were and continued to be implemented this way.  In many instances, when a particular scope is desired within a giving time-frame (fixing the schedule), plan driven projects add resources.  But as we know simply adding resources to a project doesn’t always bring about the desired goals.  As a matter of fact, if resources are added late on a software project, it actually has an adverse effect.  This was indeed observed by Fred Brooks in his book The Mythical Man Month, also known as Brooks’ Law: “adding manpower to a late software project makes it later”. 

With Agile software development, the triangle gets  inverted – where cost and schedules are fixed and the scope is variable.

Waterfall-Agile Triangle

Even for Agile projects, there could be instances when a fixed scope is desired within a given time period.  For example, when an external entity drives a compliance or mandated project.  In those instances, the only lever stakeholders may have is adding resources for a delivery with fix scope and schedule.  But, are there better ways to add resources or capacity to an Agile project without falling in the same traps of experienced with plan driven methods?

Before we answer that, lets briefly consider teams on Agile projects.  Agilists  have generally made 2 recommendations for effective teams:

  • Keep team intact or stable for a long periods of time
  • Keep team size between 5-9

A recent paper called The Impact of Agile Quantified seems to support these two recommendations out through empirical data.

Stable teams, defined as having less than 10% membership change in a 3 months period vs Unstable teams defined as 40% variance in their membership tend to:

  • Have more throughput (volume or work)
  • Have less variance in their  throughput (they are more predictable)
  • Have less defect density (higher quality)
  • Have less time in process (better time to market)

From the same research findings, teams of 5-9 team members have the most balanced performance when it comes to predictability, productivity, quality and responsiveness.   Generally, smaller teams (of 1-3 people) are 40% less predictable and have 17% lower quality; however, they do have 17% more productivity.

Instability in Agile teams can happen sometimes which may not be in direct control of the resource managers.  Like, for example, a team member gets promoted or changes positions or leaves the company altogether.  In some instances, a resource manager may also have to move team members due to skills match, team dynamics or performance considerations.

So given these findings, what would be the best options in adding resources to an Agile project or a release?  Creating a whole new cross-functional team of 5-9 team members during early to mid part of the project along with a Product Owner and a ScrumMaster (presuming you are following Scrum) would be the best option.  This will allow added capacity without running foul of the Brooks’ Law.

But if the budget add doesn’t allow addition of an entire new Agile team, then other viable options becomes little less ideal.  One option would be to add team members to an existing team to make them more cross-functional or remove a crucial skills constraint, so the team becomes more self-sufficient.  The other option is to shore up smaller teams that have less than 5 team members.

Alternatively, you can level-off a larger team and form 2 teams.  Take for example, there is additional funding for 4 team members and Original Team A makeup: 9 team members + PO + SM.  Form Team B: 5 team members – 3 new team members + 2 team members from Team A (presumably a team member can initially serve as SM initially) and  a PO.  Now New Team A would be: 7 team members + PO + SM.  Since, both teams would be within the ideal size range, and assuming you are able to maintain the cross-functional nature of both teams, you can still reap the benefits of higher throughput, better quality, more predictability and better time to market.  Again, these aren’t the best options because affecting existing well performing teams will inevitably create an initial setback as new teams re-form and then re-norm.

Ideally, if short term results are desired, say within a quarter, scope reduction is probably still the best option instead of disrupting Agile teams.

Corn Field, Sauvie Island, Oregon (© Aashish Vaidya)

Back in 1930s, the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl – the dual economic and environmental degradation – caught small family farms into its vicious grip.  To reverse this devastating effects on farmers, the federal government enacted farm subsidies “aimed at helping small family farms”.

Fast forward decades later, the well-meaning policy that sought to help small farms is now producing unintended consequences and counter-productive outcomes.  An USDA publication notes that over those last decades, the total number of the farms has declined from its peak of 6.8million to 2.1million by 2002.  Increasingly, large operations make up to 73% of the production value, even though; they constitute only about ten percent of 2.1million farm operations.  These small number of operators controlling a higher concentration of agriculture production value also produce political clout.

Mike Russo of U.S. PIRG Education Fund in his white paper Apples to Twinkies: Compare Federal Subsidies of Fresh Produce and Junk Food, notes:

Since 1995, taxpayers have spent over $260 billion on agricultural subsidies. Reflecting the political clout of the biggest producers, the lion’s share of the dollars go to a very small number of larger operations – roughly 74% of subsidies go to 4% of U.S. farmers. These large operators, who are recipients of federal subsidies may then turn around and use the money to buy out more small farms.

So, now you have a situation of the original intent of incentive completed subverted and turned upside down. Instead of helping smaller farms, it actually hurts them!

USDA is responsible administering subsidies and making nutritional recommendations for a healthy diet. USDA has replaced the food pyramid with a food plate, which now shows that a balanced diet should be equal parts fruits and vegetables and equal parts grains and proteins. However, USDA doesn’t quite distribute its aid in accordance with its own food plate recommendations. States Mike Russo, USDA “distributes considerable federal financial support for the [grains and proteins], and virtually none for the [fruits and vegetable].” Since 1995 to 2010, the US taxpayers have put up $260 billion in agriculture subsidies.  Notes Mike Russo:

…by far the lion’s share of taxpayer dollars go to subsidizing a few commodity crops. Of the $260 billion spent since 1995, a full $77 billion went to subsidize corn; wheat and cotton growers received just over $30 billion apiece; soybeans were subsidized to the tune of $24 billion. Commodity crops are not unhealthy (not counting tobacco or sorghum – which type of grass-fed to cattle). But, with large subsidies, the commodity crops find a different path to our tables: But most of the corn and soybeans we grow do not go to Americans’ plates as-is. For example, only about 1% of U.S. –produced corn is the sweet corn that is usually directly eaten by humans. Instead, most commodity crops are fed to livestock, turned into biofuels, or processed into additives like high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated vegetable oils.

So where do Twinkies come into all of this? Mike Russo writes:

Take the Twinkie: of its 37 ingredients, at least 14 of them are made with federal subsidies, including corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, and vegetable shortening. Twinkies are sweet, fatty, and calorie-rich but utterly lacking in nutritional value. And they’re cheap, too, in part because consumers have already made a down payment on many of the ingredients with their tax dollars.

And what about those apples?  Well it turns out that “only one of the top twenty federal subsidy programs directly supports a fresh fruit or vegetable: apples.” Since even that subsidy is very tiny. In fact so tiny that Mike Russo says, it is as if “each of the America’s 144 million taxpayers would be given $7.36 to spend on junk food and 11 cents with which to buy apples each year.”

Though, there are many complex reasons for the obesity epidemic, “one of the simplest is also among the most significant: junk food.  Between 1977 and 1994, Americans increased their daily caloric intake by 206 calories.” That is equivalent to 1.25 Oreo cookies (my own calculations using information from Nabisco website). It is expected that health expenses related to obesity and related co-morbidities will increase from $150 billion a year to $216 billion by 2030, and with projected half of the Americans meeting the definition of obese.

Junk food brand display at grocery store (photo credit: aashish vaidya)

What we can surmised is that a well-meaning incentive is put in place (US farm subsidies to affected small family farmer) which then over time is subverted and actually hurts the very people it was supposed to incentivize (large farm operators get the giant share of the subsidies, which they in turn use it to buy out more small farmers).  Then, the institutionalized incentive gets misdirected  and produces unintended consequence (USDA directs vast majority of the subsidies to few commodity corp and those cash crops make junk food cheaper and ends up directly or indirectly contributing to obesity and vastly increases, amongst other things, health related expenses).

Is this is a pattern unique to government entities only, or do we see an equivalent in the corporate world as well?  I will  pick up this line of inquiry in a future post.

In an ironic twist, Hostess Brands Inc., the makers of Twinkies and Wonder bread, amongst other products, filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, citing pensions and a soft economy.  The reasons conspicuously don’t include that perhaps the American consumer may already be turning away from unhealthy products to healthier ones.


Recently, I was in a leadership training program – Northwest Regional Leadership Forum.  One of my assignments for the class was to facilitate the book Brain Rules by John Medina.  To illustrate one of the concept in the book, I designed a simple exercise:

  1. Team-up 2 people
  2. Have each person connect the dot  on a picture containing 100 or more dots.  Record their activity time.
  3. Have each person do simple addition and subtraction sums (I used a handful of sums using a worksheet generated from a site like this one – Math Worksheets).  Record their activity time.  Add time from step 2.
  4. Second part of exercise, I had one person start another connect the dot worksheet, while simultaneously his partner ask him to do simple math sums.  Record the time.
  5. Compare the combined time (from step 2 and step 3) to the time from step 4.

What do you think the results were? What took longer – the time spent connecting the dots and the math sums, when done serially; or, the time it took  to do them simultaneously?  Before starting the exercise, I asked this question, and almost all my classmates thought, it would be when we multi-task.  After all, we were all managers and we were masters at multi-tasking, right?  Well, it didn’t quite work out that way.  Everyone took more time to complete the exercise when trying to multi-task compared to when they focused on doing each activity serially.  (I should add there was one person, who was an exception – so either he is a freak or he cheated!).

So what’s going on?  John Medina says research show that, we humans cannot multi-task.  What we do instead is task-switch.  So for my classmates, the sequence went something like this: start connecting the dots; got an interruption in asking him to do a math sum; stop connecting the dots; do the sum and then go back to connecting the dots.  What was more interesting is that some people got so distracted that at the end of the exercise, they didn’t have the dots connected properly or made mistakes on their math sums.  And this is precisely what Medina says to expect: “a person who is interrupted takes 50 percent longer to accomplish a task.  Not only that, he or she makes up to 50 percent more errors.”

Similar studies of multi-tasking while driving (especially talking on the cell phone) shows that it impairs a driver to such a degree, that it is almost like driving under the influence.

Mary and Tom Poppendieck in their book Lean Software Development: An Agile Toolkit, list task-switching as one of the sources of waste.  And a very common way, we ask our team members to engage in task-switch by design, is by putting them on more than one agile teams.

What’s more, we also have to battle with constant interruption from phones, emails, IMs, streams of social media, and walk-ins.  How do we manage to get any work done?

So how can we support our teams to minimize distractions?   Well, we can transition them to work on a single agile team.

We can create common space for co-located teams.  So that it allows team members to be available to answer questions, collaborate, to problem solve, or be around to soak in information from the ambient conversations.  And we can create  hotel cubes, which allows people to get away for a while and attend to private matters, and this way, they don’t clutter the team space with unwanted noise.

We can shutoff our collection of communication tools even if it for few hours, when we really have to focus on tasks.  I have seen some team members do this very effectively by putting specific messages on their emails or IMs that they are unavailable during certain time period.

We can cull the lists of in-flight projects and try a no standing meeting day.  Both of these last items are getting tried at my work.  And it will be interesting to see what improvements we will see.

We humans still haven’t evolved to effectively multi-task, unlike hindu goddesses, who have multiple limbs and heads and can slay multiple demons at the same time!

So it is best to heed the advise of a zen master: “When washing dishes, wash dishes!”


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