The Whole Team Approach in Practice

I’ve just been struggling with a title for this post. Some of my ideas were: “Visibility Taken to New Heights”, “Yes, There Are Teams Who Do This Just Like In the Books”, “A Real Commitment to Continual Improvement”, “Inspiration”, but none of them really capture my amazement at what I saw visiting the team at Energized Work in London. Finally it struck me that this team embodies the Whole Team approach to software development in a way that I’ve rarely seen.

I’ve just updated this post with links to photos of the Big Visible Charts in the Energized Work Lab, accompanied by explanations from Simon Baker. Check ’em out, they will give you ideas for your own team to use.

What a Team!

I’ve always maintained that I work for the coolest team on the planet, and most of what I try to help others learn are things I learned from and with my own awesome teammates. I don’t want to be disloyal, but the team at Energized Work raises the bar for cool. Simon Baker (@energizr on Twitter) invited me to visit while I was in London earlier this month (and he gave me permission to write this post about it). I love to visit development teams wherever I go, and learn what other practitioners do to improve software quality, so I was happy I could make the time. Mohinder Kohsla had breakfast with me that morning, and was kind enough to guide me to the Energized Work lab, as he already knew some of the folks there.

Big Visible Charts

What blew me away right off the bat at Energized Work was the creative ways they use whiteboards. One whiteboard had personas, complete with photos and bios, and assumptions. That’s not too unusual, but it’s still nice to see someone actively using personas in real life.

What intrigued me most was the way they represent their backlog for their current project as a site map on a big whiteboard. They start drawing site map for the web application they’re working on on a big whiteboard, with placeholders for each screen, and arrows showing how the navigation flows. Since this is on the whiteboard, it’s easy for them to evolve the map as the project proceeds. They overlay cards with user goals so they can identify which journeys deliver value. Screen prints of completed pages are stuck to the board over the original placeholder, along with the cost to develop it.

The team starts with minimum functionality delivered to achieve a goal, working in fast, tiny iterations. As Simon explained to me, the customer can decide based on that functionality and what it cost whether to invest more in that user goal, for example, to “enrich the feature with more functionality”. The site map / backlog is part of the team’s mechanism which allows the customer to decide “just in time” whether to “go deep or broad” every week in response to user testing.

The Energized Work team has experimented with different ways to do story/task boards as well. Instead of a traditional Scrum task board or Kanban board, they represent each story with a big square on the whiteboard. In the middle of the square is a story card has some high level acceptance tests written on the back. Surrounding it is plenty of space to draw mock-ups, prototypes, write questions, write down test cases, whatever they need to discuss or do. A team member only has to look at the board to see story requirements.

Instead of moving cards from column to column, eg. from “Work in Progress” to “Verify”, they represent the vertical slicing of the story with different colored dots, representing feedback from different activities including customer review, UX reviews, and manual exploratory testing. Some cards may cycle through coding, testing, reviews, and back to coding several times before they’re done. Gordon Conroy, the tester, keeps an eye on the “big picture” as new functionality is created slice by slice. He was so knowledgeable about all aspects of the project, it’s clear he works constantly together with the rest of the development team. If companies with separate test teams could see this in action, they’d get why testing can’t be a separate phase or done by a separate team!

My own team uses a fairly standard task board with rows for stories and columns for status, and we write high-level requirements and questions on a separate whiteboard. We also work in these fast, tiny iterations with multiple slices of each story, and I am wondering if we can borrow some of these ideas to better represent that visually. We put more details about slices, test cases and specifications on the team wiki, but developers don’t always look at the wiki. Of course we also do specification by example with executable tests, but whiteboard drawings and notes would make a good, quick-to-access supplement during development. I’ve told my team everything I’m writing here, and we’re ruminating on how we might experiment to improve visibility, while keeping our remote teammate involved.

Another Big Visible Chart in the Energized Work lab lists usability heuristics. Clearly, no aspect of software quality is neglected here, and there were so many visual reminders to keep the team on track. Just about every problem my team has experienced, we solved by making it more visible, and seeing how well another team accomplishes this is affirming.

Driving Development with Tests

The Energized Work team are clearly expert practitioners of TDD and specification by example. They showed me the continuous builds in Jenkins for a couple of different projects, it looked a lot like what my own team does. I’ve personally met few teams that have as sophisticated a build job set-up as ours. I found it interesting that they’ve used different test frameworks and tools on different projects, they are clearly committed to finding what works best for each situation, and experimenting with new approaches. Some of the tools they use are new to me, such as Spock for unit testing Groovy and Java, using a BDD-style syntax.

All database changes and data migrations are automated, kept under source code control and managed with Liquibase. This is one area where my own team could improve, so it was helpful to see this in action.

Gordon Conroy showed me some clever solutions they’ve come up with to test having many concurrent users testing realistic situations, and how they can monitor these scenarios as the automated tests run.

Customer Collaboration

They explained how they work with their current customer. He comes in several days a week to collaborate with all team members, including developers and testers, and answer questions. The customer’s goal is to have a website to show potential investors, so a lot of effort goes into the look and feel and showcasing the functionality. The customer gets continual feedback from tests and from the backlog site map, and in turn is able to review the work completed so far and give feedback to the development team on what changes are still needed. I wish I could have met the customer because I’m betting he is truly delighted (as we want all of our customers to be!)

Continual Improvement

Most of all, I admire the Energized Work team’s obvious commitment to always finding better ways to work, even though they are already functioning at such a high level. They had just experimented with using causal loop diagrams for their retrospectives, to help them identify behaviors and invisible work. They told me that they aren’t just trying to improve the process within the system, but better understand the system itself. As a result, they’re able to make real improvements in effectiveness, not only efficiency. Here’s another example of output from a retrospective.

It was exciting to meet a team of people who are passionate about software quality, love what they do, and clearly have a lot of fun. They obviously have time to learn, innovate and experiment, which is reflected in some incredibly creative solutions to some tricky testing problems.

I’ve been telling my own teammates the ideas I brought away from my visit, and we’ll see what experiments we can think of trying. Some of our best ideas were “stolen” from other teams, and I expect in another six months I’ll be able to tell you what has resulted from my inspiring visit to Energized Work.

Everyone Focused on Quality

Janet Gregory and I, and our teams, have been practicing the Whole Team approach to delivering high-quality software for years, and working hard to explain this concept to others. It was affirming to see a team commit to a high standard of quality and then work relentlessly to keep raising the bar.

I highly recommend that you and your team visit other teams, in your own area or when you are traveling. Every team can teach you something, even if it’s “what not to do”. Visiting a team who has found good ways to produce great software shows you what’s possible in real life, and leave you enthused about trying something new to do better work.

7 comments on “The Whole Team Approach in Practice

  1. Lisa, thanks for this wonderful report. How exciting to witness a team like Energized Work and find so many points of inspiration. I appreciate your open-eyed approach to life and work, and your willingness to synthesis and share what you see and learn.

  2. Thanks for your comment! If you find yourself in London, do go visit the Energized Work lab!

  3. Lisa, I have just returned from visiting Energized. What a fabulous place, great people and a fabulous new set of ideas to assimilate into Pinesoft. We have the benefit of being just down the road from Energised, and I really look forward to working with them and learning from them in the future. Thank you so much for the intriguing report that started it all off.

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