Go For The Low Hanging Fruit!

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Summary:

As professionals, we are always looking for ways to improve the way we work. We encounter ideas and methods that we start to implement, but often we fail. Does this sound familiar to you? How should you avoid this? You should focus on implementing the changes that have the highest benefit versus effort ratio for you and your team, or as the title of this article puts it, the low hanging fruit. To facilitate this, we suggest the following steps: Make a change backlog, Find your low hanging fruit, Establish a raiding party, Establish a success story, Go to war, Celebrate! And Start over.

You are sitting in a large conference hall listening to Guru Gurusen. He's presenting the latest and coolest way to develop software: method Giggly. You are holding your cup of coffee tightly thinking: quot;If we could do it this way we could turn the Death March project around and deliver on time for once.quot; During the break, you talk to the other conference participants about Giggly; you all agree that this is IT. You talk to Guru and buy his book. On the plane home you flip through the book and make a mental promise to yourself that when you are back at work on Monday you will implement Giggly. You are caught in the excitement of the new method and the promises of a better workplace. Monday comes and you drive to work with your portable PC and the Giggly book. The book is placed on your desk and you start to arrange a meeting with your colleagues to get the Giggly ball rolling. Urug comes through the door and informs you that the pilot servers are down, and the customers are screaming murder. You and Urug head for the server room, only to be intercepted by Big Wig Numero Ono. He has had a brilliant idea during the week-end, and he needs you to start a project to implement the idea ASAP.

It's Friday. You are sitting in front of your desk shutting down your portable PC. You are going to be working this Sunday, too. On your way out, you pick up the papers you need to read from your desk and under the papers you see the Giggly book. Mentally you register another lost opportunity and another defeat.

Does this sound familiar to you? It does to me {sidebar id=1} and almost every professional I know. Pressed for time with everybody breathing down our backs, we tend to default back to the way we have always done things. We forget our good intentions to change and sacrifice long term improvement for perceived speed. Why? I guess there are a lot of reasons, but my prime suspects are:

  • It's comfortable and easy - no one will question you if you use the quot;oldquot; method.
  • You are stressed and tired - it takes effort and determination to change.
  • You try to eat the elephant in one piece by implementing an entire method at once - but organizations and people don't want to change, they have to be tricked.
  • You take on the organization as an individual - it takes quot;critical massquot; to change an organization.
  • You actually forget what you were supposed to do, it just kind of drowns in the daily tasks and deadlines. You need to constantly remind yourself.

How should you avoid these traps? You should focus on implementing the changes that have the highest benefit versus effort ratio for you and your team. We suggest the following steps:

  1. Make a Change Backlog
  2. Find the low hanging fruit
  3. Establish a raiding party
  4. Establish a success story
  5. Go to war
  6. Celebrate!
  7. Start over

 

1. Make a Change Backlog

As responsible professionals, we always try to structure and refine the way we work. This should also be true when we want to implement change in an organization or ourselves. We want to use a lightweight structure to make it very easy to work with.The first order of the day is to make a list (Change Backlog) with of activities, techniques, processes, etc. that each constitutes a change for your company and is something you want to do (see Table 1). It's important that the list contains items that you believe in - not just improvements that some guru has recommended. Table 1 gives anexample of such a list.
 

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Table 1: Sample Change Backlog

 


Remember that this is not another To Do-list that will bug you and make you feel guilty; it's a list of improvements that may be implemented by you and your raiding party.The backlog will grow when you discover new activities, techniques, processes, etc that you want to implement and shrink when you successfully implement activities, techniques, processes, etc.

2. Find The Low Hanging Fruit
So whatare the low hanging fruit? Well, they are the changes that have the lowest implementation cost and the highest benefit for the company. But that's not the whole truth. There is another factor that in our opinion is more important: the effort you put into it. The more effort you have to put into the implementation, the more likely it is that you will fail.

An easy way to find low hanging fruit is to expand the Backlog containing the techniques and methods with the associated benefits, cost and effort of introducing them to the organization. Table 2 gives an example of such a table.
 

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Table 2: Sample Costs, Benefits, and Effort of change backlog


For example, trying to implement a Scrum Master in a big organization that is used to project managers is like swimming the Thames upstream. However, introducing a prioritized Product Backlog that the projects are based on is more likely to be a bit more painless. In short - don't fight battles you can't win.

When you have graded the benefit, cost and effort on all the techniques, multiplybenefit, cost and effort and put the product in the quot;Scorequot; column. Sort the table by Score with the lowest Score at the top of the list. The top of the list shows your low hanging fruits. By the way, this is not an exact science. Feelings play a big part - and they should. But try to be objective, as this approach may reveal some surprises to you. The main point is finding techniques that are quot;easyquot; to implement and give the organization a boost on delivering successful system development projects.

Print the Backlog and place it above your computer in plain sight - this is your reminder! Every time you see this reminder, you should put in half an hour effort in implementing the change.

3. Establish a Raiding Party
You should identify named individuals that you enlist to help you implement the change, a raiding party of five to seven should do. The key elements here are:

  • They should have the same core values as you.
  • They must be placed in key positions in important projects in your organization.
  • They should be recognized as quot;natural leadersquot; in your organization - they command the respect of their fellow workers and managers.

Approach them one by one and tell them about the change and what you hope to achieve. Ask their advice and get them to buy into the idea. When you have gathered enough people in your raiding party assemble them and work out a plan (together) for how you are going to implement the change in all or some of the projects that the raiding party is working in (see Table 3).
 

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Table 3: Sample Raiding Party

 

Key parts of your plan should be:

  • How you are going to support each other in implementing the change; should you meet weekly to tell each other what has happened and ask for help if necessary? This is like exercise - if you are two or more it's harder to skip a work-out because of peer pressure.
  • How are you going to make this fun?
  • What are the daily routines that implement the change in the organization?
  • How will you know that the change is implemented? Define your end-state, so you know.

 

4. Establish A Success Story

Implementing small changes in the process, methods, or techniques used in a project is not very difficult. People working on the project usually recognize the positive aspects of the change and happily accommodate it. The people around the project that usually scream foul when theydiscover what you are doing. Examples include the QA department forcing you to do a document review of a design that you know will change and evolve and the test department demanding that you should give them specifications of requirements that nobody knows. So your main goal is to shield the project from these people, let's call them the quot;enemy,quot; so that they can't hinder the implementation of the changes. This shielding activity may include writing documentation that the project doesn't need and/or running interference in meetings with management/QA.

During these activities you need to remember the following:

  • Conserve your energy and pick your battles; if necessary retreat and regroup.
  • Everything you implement must become an integral part of your reporting and daily activities.
  • Implement the change in the project where the majority of the raiding party work, or in a part of that project.

When the change is running smoothly, declare it a success. We all know that it could have been implemented better and may still be improved, but when you and your raiding party agree that it's working and that it has improved the project, you are home free. When this is done it time to spread the good news - go to war.

5. Go to War!
This war is going to be fought by the water coolers, in the elevator, by the lunch tables, and at the office parties. You and your raiding party are going to write and practice quot;elevator speechesquot; until you become blue. You are going to spread the word to everyone who wants to hear - and everyone else. You will give your quot;elevator speechesquot; to the CEO and the CTO when you meet them by the coffee machine and the message is that you will make them look good by improving the bottom line for the company. They are to remember three things: improved bottom line, the name of the technique, and your name.

One important thing to remember is that you don't have to win every battle to win the war. Sometimes the best strategy is to retreat and fight another day.If the effort to implement the change is much higher than your estimate, the best course of action may be to abandon the attempt and pick something else from the backlog. You should use it as a learning experience and re-estimate the effort column in the Change Backlog based on this experience.

When is the war over? The answer to this question depends on your organization; we can't help you. We can only caution you not to stop too early - the quot;enemyquot; may use the same tactics as you and retreat to fight another day.

6. Celebrate!
When you have reached your predefined end-state you should gather your raiding party and everyone else and celebrate your achievement. There are a couple of things you should use this opportunity to do:

  • Make heroes of your raiding party. This will make it easier to recruit another raiding party - everybody likes praise for a job well done.
  • Publish the success in the organization. This helps build an environment of change. More people will start to think that the organization actually is changing. It's not just upper management moving boxes around on an organizational chart.
  • Congratulate yourself. This is the most important reason to celebrate - we should celebrate all the small (and large) achievements in our lives. There are not that many of them, and we need to get better at spending time being happy with what we do.

7. Start Over

If yousucceed in implementing a low hanging fruit in your organization, it's easy to get caught up in the moment and start to implement another. This is good, but you should set a target for how much change your organization can handle. Remember that change has a cost, andyou will not reap the benefits of a change if you don't allow it to become standard practice- and that takes time.

Reflections
By now some of you might be thinking that this could be organized as a project. You are of course right, but don't do it. Projects tend to imply bureaucratic rules and involvement from management - it hampers the change process. The change process should be steered by you and the people around you who feel the pain in your organization. And always remember that rubber stamping a process as THE PROCESS that everyone should follow leads to stagnation.

If you think the process described in this article seems a bit ambitious for your environment, at least try to do one thing different in every project. It will make your life more fun and rewarding - you can change your own situation, it's your responsibility. Start by picking one of your low hanging fruit.
 


About the Authors
Hans Christian Alnaelig;s is Chief of Development in the department Syncronos at WM-data, where he leads the development of the market leading Time amp; Attended System WinTid in Norway. He has eight years of experience as a developer and project manager and shares his experience through courses and speaking at universities and seminars. He believes in a structured and analytic approach to his use of methods, uses the best from the best, and based on his experience makes them fit in regards to the people available and tasks to complete.

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