Monday, June 23, 2008

The Happiness Meter

As part of any iteration review / planning meeting there should be a section where everybody involved talks about how they felt the last iteration went, what they thought stood in the way, what they though went particularly well and suchlike.

We find that as the project goes on, and the team gets more and more used to each other, this tends to pretty much always dissolve into everyone going "alright I suppose", "yeah fine".

Obviously, this isn't ideal and will tend to mean that you only uncover problems in the project when they've got pretty serious and nerves are pretty frayed.

This is where "The Happiness Meter" comes in.

Instead of asking the team if they think things are going OK and having most people respond non-committally, ask people to put a value against how happy they are with the last iteration's progress. Any range of values is fine, just as long as it has enough levels in it to track subtle movements. I'd go with 1-10.

You don't need strict definitions for each level, it's enough to say '1 is completely unacceptable, 5 is kinda OK, 10 is absolute perfection'.

At some point in the meeting, everyone in the team declares their level of happiness. When I say everyone, I mean everyone: developers, customers, XP coaches, infrastructure guys, project managers, technical authors, absolutely everyone who is valuable enough to have at the iteration review meeting should get a say.

In order to ensure that everyone gets to provide their own thought, each person writes down their number and everyone presents it at the same time. The numbers are then taken recorded and a graph is drawn.

From the graph we should be able to see:
  1. The overall level of happiness at the progress of the project.

  2. If there is any splits / factions in the interpretation of the progress.




If the level of happiness is low, this should be investigated; if there are any splits, this should be investigated; and just as importantly - if there are any highs, this should be investigated. It's good to know why things go well so you can duplicate it over the next iteration.

Factions tend to indicate that one part of the team has more power than the rest and the project is skewed into their interests rather than those of the team as a whole.

You may want to split the graph into different teams (customer / developer) if you felt that was important, but I like to think of us all as one team on the same side...

All said and done, the graph isn't the important bit - the discussion that comes after the ballot is the crucial aspect. This should be a mechanism for getting people to talk openly about the progress of the project.

UPDATE: Someone at work suggested a new name that I thought I should share: The Happy-O-Meter.

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Saturday, June 21, 2008

Ideas for improving innovation and creativity in an IS department

At our work we've set up a few 'action teams' to try to improve particular aspects of our working environment.

The team that I'm a member of is responsible for 'Innovation and Creativity'.

We're tasked with answering the question "How do we improve innovation and creativity in IS?" - How we can foster an environment that encourages innovation rather than stifles it.

As a bit of a background, the company is a a medium sized (2,500 plus employees) based mainly in the UK, but recently spreading through the world, the vast majority of whom are not IS based. The IS department is about 100 strong and includes a development team of 25 people. It's an SME at the point where it's starting to break into the big-time and recognises that it needs to refine its working practices a little in order to keep up with the pace of expansion.

We met early last week and have put together a proposal to be taken to the senior management tier. I get a feeling it will be implemented since our team included the IS Director (you don't get any senior in our department), but you never know what'll happen.

I figured it might be interesting to record my understanding of the plan as it stands now, and then take another look in 6 months time to see what's happened to it...

We decided that in order to have an environment that fosters creativity and innovation you need:

Freedom:

Time for ideas for form, for you to explore them, and then to put them into practice.

Stimulus:

Outside influences that that can help to spark those ideas off - this may be from outside the organisation, or through cross-pollination within it.

Courage:

The conviction to try things, to allow them to fail or succeed on their own merit - both on the part of the individual and the organisation as a whole.

Natural Selection:

The need to recognise success when it happens, to take it into the normal operation of the business and make it work in practice. Also, the need to recognise failure when it happens, and stop that from going into (or continuing to exist within) the team.

Recognition:

When we have a good idea, the people involved need to be celebrated. When we have a bad idea, the people involved DO NOT need to be ridiculed.

Refinement:

The initial ideas aren't always the ones that are successful, it's the 4th, 5th or 125th refinement of that idea that forms the breakthrough. We need to understand what we've tried, and recognise how and why each idea has failed or succeeded so we can learn from that.




We put together some concrete ideas on how we're going to help put these in place - and bear in mind that this isn't just for the development team, this is for the whole of the IS department - development, project management, infrastructure, operations, service-desk, even the technology procurement...

Curriculum:

A position set up that will be responsible for defining / tracking a curriculum for each job role in the department.

Obviously this will be fed by those people that currently fulfil the roles, and will involve things ranging from ensuring the process documentation is up to scratch, through specifying reading lists (and organising the purchasing of the books for the staff) and suggesting / collecting / booking conferences, training courses and the like that might be of use.

This takes the burden of responsibility away from the staff and managers - all you need is the idea and someone else will organise it and ensure it's on the curriculum for everyone else to follow up.

IdeaSpace (TM ;-) ):

A forum for the discussion of ideas, and collection of any documentation produced on those ideas and their investigation. This will (hopefully) form a library of past investigations as well as a stimulus for future ones. Everyone in the department will be subscribed to it.

Lab days:

Every employee is entitled to 2 days a month outside of their normal job to explore some idea they might have. That time can be sandbagged to a point, although you can't take more than 4 days in one stint. Managers have to approve the time in the lab (so that it can be planned into existing projects) and can defer the time to some extent, but if requests are forthcoming they have to allow at least 5 days each rolling quarter so that the time can't be deferred indefinitely.

Whilst the exact format of the lab is yet to be decided, we're aiming to provide space away from the normal desks so that their is a clear separation from the day job and lab time. People will be encouraged to take time in the lab as a team as well as individually. Also, if we go into the lab for 3 days to find that an idea doesn't work, that idea should still be documented and the lab time regarded as a success (we learnt something)

Dragon's Den:

Gotta admit, I'm not sure about some of the connotations of this - but the basic idea is sound. Coming out of time in the Lab should be a discussion with peers about the conclusion of the investigation in a Dragon's Den format. This allows the wider community to discuss the suitability of the idea for future investigations, or even immediate applicability. One output of this meeting may be the formalisation of conclusions in the IdeaSpace.

Press Releases:

The company is already pretty good at this, but when something changes for the better we will ensure that we celebrate those changes and, even for a day, put some people up on pedestals.

None of the above should be seen as a replacement for just trying things in our day to day job - but the idea is that these things should help stress to the department that change and progress are important aspects of what we do, and that we value it enough to provide a structure in which big ideas can been allowed to gestate. Cross pollination and communication should just form part of our normal day job anyway, and we should ensure that our project teams are cohesive and communicate freely amongst and between themselves.

Also, an important factor in the success of the above has to be the format of the Dragon's Den - if it is in any way imposing or nerve-racking then the idea is doomed to failure. As soon as people feel under pressure to justify themselves then the freedom disappears.

I'm quite excited by the prospect of putting these ideas into practice, and I wonder exactly where we'll end up.

I'll keep you all posted.

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