Out of Mind, Out of Sight

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If your company doesn't perform process audits, you need another way to see the invisible doors: the places where you need to re-examine a choice that may not fit anymore. Project retrospectives, seeking newcomer perspectives, and documenting important decisions are good ways to help you look back and see whether your processes still fit.

Create a Picture of Changes in Your Team Over Time
A timeline lets you get out of the day-to-day and see with a fresh set of eyes. Cover a wall with butcher paper, and draw three horizontal sections. Make one timeline for your team, another for your company, and one for your product's market. For each context, put up cards that describe major events in each arena. Look for shifts, changes, and trends. Has the make-up of the team changed? Has management (or management's priorities) changed? Is your market the same as it was a year ago?

I worked with a development team that was constantly fighting with the people who created the builds and installed the software. Only after the team members put a picture up on the wall did they realize that, due to changes on the team and an increase in the number of releases required of them, they needed to communicate differently. The mechanism they were using had been fine when they were releasing twice a year, but with six releases yearly, communication had broken down. Both teams were so caught up in daily work they didn't realize that their process wasn't keeping up with the change.

Ask a Newcomer
Four-year-olds ask great questions, but we don't always have one at the office. The next best thing is to ask the newest person on the team what practices strike her as puzzling or unusual.

When my friend Michael started at his current company, he asked about the number of approvals required to make what seemed to him to be minor design adaptations. He learned that a decade earlier, the company's major product line was in a regulated industry. So, even though the company had abandoned that product and wasn't subject to regulation anymore, the legacy of regulation remained.

The newcomer's perspective can be a wake-up call. Choices that made sense at one time may have outlived their usefulness. Sometimes our explanations for why we do things the way we do can be a reminder that it doesn't have to be that way. Then we can choose again, if what we're doing no longer fits.

Keep a Decision Journal
Write down important decisions; include the alternatives considered and the rationale for making this decision. Make a note of what conditions would lead you to reconsider this choice.

Perhaps it made perfect sense to have the technical lead keep all the code on his machine when there were three people on the team and the company didn't have configuration management software. But now there are twenty people on the team, and they're tripping on each other's changes. A wise manager might have set a trigger to reconsider configuration management when the team size increased to five.

Most people make the best decisions and use the best practices they can at the time. We make decisions and then move on. The results of our decisions become part of our routine. But as the world changes around us, we need mechanisms to look at the shifts, examine our routines, and choose again.

I chose to put my shelf back in front of the door after the floors were finished. But thanks to Jack, it was a conscious choice, not a foregone conclusion!

About the author

Esther Derby's picture Esther Derby

A regular StickyMinds.com and Better Software magazine contributor, Esther Derby is one of the rare breed of consultants who blends the technical issues and managerial issues with the people-side issues. She is well known for helping teams grow to new levels of productivity. Project retrospectives and project assessments are two of Esther's key practices that serve as effective tools to start a team's transformation. Recognized as one of the world's leaders in retrospective facilitation, she often receives requests asking her to work with struggling teams. Esther is one of the founders of the AYE Conference. She co-author of Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great. She has presented at STAREAST, STARWEST and the Better Software Conference & EXPO. You can read more of Esther's musings on the wonderful world of software at www.estherderby.com and on her weblog at www.estherderby.com/weblog/blogger.html. Her email is derby@estherderby.com.

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