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How to increase the velocity of your Agile Teams?

How to increase the velocity of your Agile Teams?

A year ago, I got an opportunity to lead an agile team for the Electronic Table Games vertical at IGT. This team was made up of very smart individuals, who put IGT’s name in the electronic table game’s market space within just couple of years. IGT was an underdog in this market, but this team’s hard work and dedication had allowed IGT to bring two successful titles to the market. Even though this team was successful in making this vertical profitable over time, their velocity was not sufficient to keep up with the already competitive market pressure. Thus, I was called to help the team.

Over the year, I have made many tweaks to this already successful team. And hence, I would like to share some of success stories from my experience that have worked for us. I am hoping that you could use these pointers to increase the velocity of your own agile team.

Co-locate your team: After joining the team, I quickly realize that the team could improve their face-to-face communication. Even though the engineering team talked to each other daily, the communication between the QA and Product Management team was infrequent and rare due to their physical proximity to the engineering team. Thus, we went ahead and relocated all of our QA and Product Management resources with the engineering team. This change promoted the face to face communication between the teams and improved our velocity by reducing communication time between the developers and the QA engineers. Obviously, this change was challenging, given my team was located all over the US. But we were lucky to have multiple clusters of the team where more than 4 people were together in the same building. Thus, co-location was practical and beneficial in our case.

Reuse common components: At IGT, we were creating different games, and hence, all the developers were making customized software for each game. Even though we were required to make customized interfaces for each game, given the vertical that we work in, I looked for some common components that we could reuse. To my surprise, I was able to find many communication APIs and other architectural components that were common between each game titles. By making some minor modifications to those components, we were able to reuse them for other games that we were making. Thus, I believe that you should invest some time during your Sprint to look for common software components, which you can reuse to significantly decrease effort spent on building the same functionality. Developing a strong process around this mentality will help you in decreasing product development time.

Increase test automation: You might argue that this is compulsory for increasing the velocity of any software product team, but you would be surprised to see how many agile teams follow this practice. Since the focus of any agile team is on delivering minimum viable products, they often underestimate the investment that they need to make in testing. Thus, most of their testers perform some basic manual tests before releasing the product. In our case, we were able to increase our automation test footprint by providing engineering tools to our testers and investing heavily in test automation as compared to the manual testing. As a result of this change, we were able to improve the quality of our games and expand our testing footprint, which in turn increased our velocity.

Do you agree with my recommendations? Do you have any other ideas through which we can improve the velocity of our Agile Teams?

Thanks – Bhavin Gandhi

 

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How to become better at listening?


Coaching your line managersI can’t help but think about one of the meetings that I had a month back. During this meeting, I had to work with my team to create a road map of all the projects that we were going to do after few structural changes that had happened in our organization. It should have been a simple meeting. I should have presented company’s objectives for the next fiscal year to my team and then I should have allowed them to provide their input to create a road map which works for the team to achieve our objectives. It was a very simple task.

 

Unfortunately, I was unable to get the right answers from my team during that meeting. I am not sure what I was doing wrong at the time, as that meeting was not that productive and I was unable to get anything done. That incident got me thinking about the bigger question. Do I always ask right questions? If I do, then why am I not getting right answers? What am I missing here? What can I do to improve that process? After some analysis and introspection, I have realized that I was not listening to my team while I presented them with our objectives. And hence, I have come up with few practical tips and tricks through which I had improved my listening skills that I would like to share it with you here.

 

Be patient: In the past, I often fell into the trap of asking bunch of questions, all at once, so I don’t miss anything. Or worst, when someone is speaking, I actively tried to ask them my question right there and then, when they are talking, so that I can clarify things in the heat of the moment. Though this kind of a one-sided question dump had worked for me in the past in some situations, it didn’t provide most of my peers enough time to think and respond. Even though I was getting answers to my questions through this approach, often times I was not getting the right answer or an informative one. And hence, I tried to be patient with my questions during this last month. I also did my research beforehand, and found out what kind of answers I was looking for before asking those questions. I invested some time in noting down my questions while someone is speaking, so that I don’t forget what I wanted to ask, and at the same time I don’t interrupt my peers in between where they lose their train of thoughts. I tried to keep a pen and paper handy or used my OneNote on my phone to jot down any questions that I had, while someone else was speaking. This was one of the most practical thing I could do while listening to others and at the same time making sure that I remember my pointers to discuss.

 

Let silence speak: Other than being patient during meetings, I have also conducted various other experiments at my work within this past month. One of them being – using silence to speak for itself. When I was in a meeting, I often used silence as a tool to communicate when it was my time to ask questions. It was definitely a game changer for me. When I remained silent for few seconds before responding, everyone’s attention was at me before I even started speaking, and they were listening, yes, they were. I also used silence while asking questions to others. I would ask a question and then take a pause for a while. That approach did wonders for me, as it gave an opportunity to the responder to prepare their response before speaking. Obviously, it took a while before I got used to this practice, but this technique proved to be very helpful. If you want to try this technique then please make the pause long enough for the answerer to think but not too long so it becomes awkward. And while the answerer is preparing for his/her answers, try keeping eye contact, stand still, and try to feel comfortable while you wait. I am sure that you will get responses from people who hardly even spoke in the meeting. Just try it and let me know.

 

I am hoping that you all learn from my experiences and become better at listening. If you have any other ways through which we can be a good listener then please feel free to share it through your comments here. I would really appreciate your feedback.

Thanks – Bhavin Gandhi

 
 

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How to change your organization to innovate faster?


Picture of PhysicsFirst of all, I would like to thank you all for such an overwhelming response to my last blog. I haven’t yet responded to all of your emails and personal messages, but I will respond to them within next few days.

While going through your messages, I have also realized one thing, most of you are not happy with just innovating at a restricted budget, but you are looking to innovate at a faster pace than before. With the technology and the world moving faster each day, I can definitely understand your sentiment. Thus, in this blogpost, I will provide you with some strategies through which you can increase the speed of your innovation at your workplace.

Eliminate hierarchy: Large organizations often find it hard to respond to new market opportunities and change quickly due to the hierarchical burden that comes with these organizations. Thus, if it is possible, we should create smaller R&D teams in our organization which has its own budget and, who can work independently within this organization. If you don’t have that liberty to independently manage the R&D team, then you should at least keep it simple. Try to keep the product cycle small, and perform frequent inspection. Purpose of these inspections shouldn’t be profit based, just yet, but it should be a checking point to make sure that the research is headed in the right direction.

Change incentive system: From Microsoft to Google, we always hire R&D personnel from science-oriented background, and hence, their interests lie in technology, not in markets. These employees, being from technical background, are not trained to engage their customers in the decision making process. Thus, if we want to change this culture of “obsolete innovation”, then we have to start by changing the incentive system, itself. If we use stock options to align the work of our technical staff with the firm’s financial performance, then they will be able to understand the business environment in which your organization does business, and they are more likely to innovate things that help your business.

Create new roles: Changing the incentive system alone wouldn’t help you to change the culture of the entire organization. In order to kick start this organization-wide change, you need to create some new roles within the organization to focus explicitly on customer engagement. This can be done with either existing or new personnel who are placed in important positions within R&D where they can effect change. You can also build new, multi-skilled teams to help change existing practices within R&D. This might involve building teams with both marketing and technical skills to reduce traditional barriers between R&D, sales and customers. It may not even be necessary for all R&D personnel to change or take on a more customer-focused role. Just having one in five in an R&D team being more customer-focused might be enough.

I have seen this strategy work for many small businesses, and I am sure that it can work for you too, if implemented correctly. Please provide your feedback on this blogpost through your comments. Thanks – Bhavin Gandhi

 

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How to innovate with less resources?


Critical Thinking

Regardless of what kind of business you run, small or large, you always have to keep on innovating, otherwise your business will become irrelevant in no time. But when times are tough and when you don’t have much money to spend, how do you still keep your commitment to innovate more? Thus, through this blogpost, I am going to provide you with few suggestions using which you can innovate on a tight budget.

Involve customers throughout: Your customers are your best critique. Thus, you should involve them throughout the product life cycle. Rather than wasting your money on getting the second-hand market data or hiring focus groups, you must engage directly with your customers in their natural settings. Involve your existing customers with your R&D teams to unearth new or unmet needs. Interact with users in new market segments by actively involving customers in new product design processes, as well as tracking customers’ use of the product after purchase. The focus on customer needs will enable R&D to replace its costly and scattershot approach to product development with more efficient, user-focused investment.

Seek cheaper solutions: Too often, we reinvent the wheel and end up with too complex of a product for our customers. Customers, however, are more likely to be impressed by products that solve their problems than by mere technological prowess. When you have unlimited resources at your disposal, it is easier to go overboard with your R&D efforts. But when you have very limited funds, you should be guided first and foremost by your customer insight, and produce easy-to-use offerings that may lack bells and whistles but are good enough, especially if they come at a lower price. This approach will not only help you to bring your products faster into your markets, but it will also help you in getting the faster feedback for your products in real time.

Use of crowdsourcing: If you are on a tighter budget, you should definitely look for crowdsourcing your R&D efforts. Obviously, you can’t crowd source everything due to your intellectual property rights and other concerns, but you can crowd source plausible product ideas and gauge their initial public reactions. Ideas that garner sufficient support can be then packaged with supporting data and sent to the relevant managers, who in turn signal their view of its potential to executives responsible for taking such ideas forward. You can also use social media networks, where customers reveal and share their preferences to yield a wealth of market insights at lower costs.

I hope, my blog can help you innovate new things for your business within a restricted budget. If you know any other ways through which we can innovate with less resources, then please feel free to share it here through your comments. Thanks – Bhavin Gandhi

 
 

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Schedule the best virtual meeting by following these rules


VideoConferenceIn my last blog, I have talked about some ways through which you can schedule a perfect virtual meeting. Thus, I will continue my discussion in this blog, and provide you with some more tips to make your next virtual meeting perfect.

Allow extra time: If you are scheduling a virtual meeting for the first time, then please schedule some extra time for dealing with the technical challenges that you might face during the meeting startup. Use this extra time to work out glitches that often occur with new technology. Over time, when your team members are familiar with login or startup procedures, you can then reduce the meeting duration by the amount of time that you might have otherwise spent on connection issues. If you have a new member joining your team, then you should arrange a trial meeting to check connections and ensure that the new member is up to speed before a larger group meeting.

Provide more lead time: The lead time required for virtual meetings might be longer than for in-person meetings, since in addition to the virtual space, you need to ensure that all participants have the necessary information about the meeting before they join in. It is your responsibility, as an organizer of the meeting, to ensure that every team member understands the goals of the meeting and has sufficient time in order to prepare for it. After all, if critical decision makers or technical experts are not prepared in the meeting due to short notice given to them, then you will end up scheduling a second meeting for the same agenda.

Provide detailed information: If you are going to organize a virtual meeting with multiple people joining in from multiple locations and through multiple means of communication (phone, video, etc.), then you need to be more detailed in your meeting requests. Meeting agenda should at least specify this information: name and contact information of the person calling the meeting, meeting purpose, meeting start time and expected duration, names of invited attendees, meeting location including connection information, phone numbers, URLs, connection passwords or login IDs, or any other information attendees need in order to participate, and list of the topics to be discussed and time limits for each topic. If you do your homework in creating your meeting agenda beforehand, then you won’t have many issues during the meeting itself.

Invite limited people: Virtual meetings are often encountered with various challenges from time differences to technology difficulties, and hence, you shouldn’t try to complicate things by inviting people who are not needed in the meeting. Make sure that you have everyone in the meeting who needs to be there, but don’t over crowd the meeting with the people who are not needed there. By inviting limited people in the meeting, you will be able to keep everyone focused on the task at hand, and there will be less of a chance for any confusion due to people talking over each other on the phone or video conference.

This is the end of my two part blog about scheduling a perfect virtual meeting. I hope, these advises can help you in scheduling your ideal meetings. If you have any recommendations from your side, then please feel free to share it here through your comments. Thanks – Bhavin Gandhi

 

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How to schedule a perfect virtual meeting?


VideoConferenceOther day, I was attending this virtual meeting, and within 5 minutes in the meeting, I realized that some of the key stakeholders wouldn’t be able to make this meeting due to their time zone difference. Within 10 minutes into the meeting, I also realized that other participants were not well prepared, and we might have to convene some other day to discuss these same action items.

Obviously, scheduling a perfect in-person meeting also requires some level of preparation, but to schedule a perfect virtual meeting is a challenge in itself. You don’t just need to make sure that the meeting agenda is well defined and thought out, but you also need to handle logistics challenges imposed by difference in time zones and technology limitations. Thus, in this blog, I will provide you with few tips through which you can schedule your perfect virtual meeting.

Be agenda ready: Whether your meeting is virtual or in person, you should always have a well-defined agenda for your meeting, which should be clearly stated in the meeting request itself. If, for whatever reason, you can’t explicitly mention your agenda in the meeting request, you should send out an email to all the participants with this information beforehand. This approach will not only help your participants to set some basic expectations about the output of this meeting, but it will also help you to make sure that your participants are prepared beforehand with the desired information, so that they can respond to your questions and come up to some kind of an agreement.

Keep time in mind: Whenever you are scheduling a virtual meeting, you need to always be aware of different time zones from which your attendees will attend this meeting. After all, you won’t be attending a meeting at 3am in the morning, unless it is very important, right? Same goes for your meeting attendees. They are not going to put an extra effort to attend your meeting at 3am in the morning, just because it is convenient for you. Thus, before scheduling the meeting search for your attendee’s time zones and schedule the meeting at appropriate time.

Share the pain: Sometimes, due to the vast time difference between two virtual teams, it is impossible to schedule these meetings within the regular working hours (8am to 5pm) of both the teams. And hence, it is very important to share the inconvenience across your team rather than always have the same person/team meeting before breakfast or late in the evening. If you have to schedule regular meetings across multiple time zones, then you should rotate the pain across the board by changing the team each week that has to stay late to attend the meeting.

I hope, this blog can help you in scheduling a perfect virtual meeting for your team. In my next blog, I will provide you with some more insight into how to schedule your virtual meetings better, but in the meanwhile if you have any recommendations from your side, then please feel free to share it here through your comments. Thanks – Bhavin Gandhi

 

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What should you look for when hiring someone in your virtual team?


Virtual InterviewVirtual Teams are slightly different from your normal teams, and hence, they require slightly different skill-sets from your team members. Working in a virtual team is not for everyone, only certain types of individual can perform well in a totally remote team. They should be highly motivated, enthusiastic, and flexible. Thus, it becomes very important to hire someone who can work effectively with minimal supervision than hiring someone who is familiar with a particular toolset. And hence, I would like to provide you with some tips through which you can assess the personal qualities and the tools experience of a candidate during his/her interview.

Technology competence: If you are hiring someone who can work remotely, then you need to make sure that she is comfortable with technology. You can perform a simple test during the interview itself to gauge the competence of the candidate with technology. Just set up the interview using the technologies that you would use when working with the team, such as VoIP, web cams, email, instant messaging, and so on. It will quickly become apparent how comfortable the candidates are with working with the technology and how they handle it when things go wrong.

Self-accountability: Here is where the behavioral and scenario-based questions come into play. You should ask very specific questions which can help you understand how the candidate reacts to a big problem and how she holds herself accountable for the work that she does. You can ask questions such as… How do you organize your workspace? How do you plan your day? How do you keep up with the office when you are traveling for work? How do you manage distractions when working from home/office? What types of distractions are the most difficult for you to overcome? Etc. With these questions, you are trying to find out if the candidate can work on their own, or will they require hand holding to perform their basic tasks. After all, working in remote team is no joke.

Ability to work remotely: Once the candidate answers your questions, ask more detailed questions that examine the candidate’s motivations and behaviors. It is very important to find out how comfortable is the candidate with working remotely. Ask specific examples about the time when the candidate has worked remotely. Tell them to elaborate on their experience. For example: How was your experience working remotely? Was it positive or negative? What did you not like about that experience? What organization techniques have you implemented to identify your priorities? When working virtually, how do you establish a rapport with teammates you have never met? By asking these questions, you are trying to figure out if the candidate is comfortable working remotely, and how she will fit in your remote work culture.

Synergy with your team: As with any hiring decision, skills alone are not enough to ensure that a candidate will be successful on your team. The candidates must also possess personality and character traits that fit with the other team members. If you have a choice between someone who is knowledgeable but obviously difficult and someone who is less experienced but enthusiastic, consider choosing the less-experienced-but-enthusiastic person. You will likely have far fewer personnel issues, and may get someone who will build team synergy.

I hope, my blog can help you find the right candidate for your virtual team. If you know any other ways through which we can improve the hiring process for a virtual team member, then please feel free to share it here. Thanks – Bhavin Gandhi

 

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Motivation techniques that don’t cost you a fortune


LoyalEmployeesI have seen and managed many employees over the years. And through my experience, I have realized one thing; money is not even the primary factor of motivation for the people who work for you. For some employees, the new healthcare plan might be the perfect motivation boost, while for others the same exact plan might prove to be depressing. No one can find out the perfect formula for motivating everyone, but you can try to implement some practical solutions through which you can motivate majority of your team. Thus, in this blog I will talk about some practical ways to motivate your employees without breaking your bank.

Be positive: No one can make you motivated or demotivated about something. Only your own thoughts can make you happy or sad. In the same manner, no one can make your employees sad or demotivated; their own thoughts make them demotivated. So, when your employees come to you for finding the meaning of the new directive or the new process change, then it’s your duty to give a positive meaning to that new initiative. If you keep positive attitude towards your work, and if you keep yourself motivated at work, then you can create a butterfly effect of positive attitude around you. After all, people feel motivated only when they think motivated thoughts. Thoughts rule, circumstances do not. The closer your relationship to that truth, the better.

Tell the truth: Great leaders are always transparent with their team. They share a common habit of telling the truth to their team, faster than their other counterparts. Though, as managers, we won’t be able to tell every confidential matter to our team, we should at least try to be as transparent as we can. There are some managers who tell their team – “There’s nothing I can do” or “I am helpless and powerless”. It might be partially true in some situations, but you can always do something better. Even if you don’t have answers to your employee’s question, you can always ask someone and get the answer for them, and communicate those to your employees. If you remain transparent to your people and try to involve them in decision making, then you will never have to worry about motivating your team.

Care about the individual: Some managers are more of a project managers than a people manager. They think that there is nothing more important than meeting our team’s objectives. And when we meet our team’s goals, motivation comes inherently since the team recognizes that they have contributed towards this goal. Even though I agree that meeting team’s objectives are very critical for the business, making sure that your team recognizes their contribution in this big picture, is even more important. As a manager, you shouldn’t just concentrate on your business priorities, but you should also try to understand the mindset of each individual in your team. Try to stop by their desk everyday, and if that is not physically possible, then try to IM or Mail them every single day to find out if they need any help. After all, we are all humans, and no matter how far we have come, we still value personal interactions more than anything else.

I hope, my blog can help you motivate your employees. If you know any other ways through which we can motivate our employees without money, then please feel free to share it here. Thanks – Bhavin Gandhi

 
 

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How to clear your mind and think?


HumanPsychologyIn today’s day and age, when we are surrounded by so many things from mission critical problems to materialistic things, it is difficult to clear your mind. When your job is to put out fires everyday, it is very challenging to clear your mind. After all, how do you find time to think, when you are so occupied already? But at the same time, ignoring the need for thinking allows seemingly healthy, active businesses to fail because of the change they never saw coming, until it was too late. Thus, as a leader, we need to develop a habit of stepping away from our day-to-day activities, and clear our mind. Hence, I am writing this blog to provide you with some pointers through which you can manage to clear your mind, while managing your busy schedule at the same time.

Block your calendars: As a leader/manager, we are used to organize our day through Outlook or Gmail calendar. Then why don’t we use the same mechanism to remind ourselves about clearing our mind for a while? This is the least we can do for ourselves, right? So before another week goes by, clean your schedule for hour or so, and make sure that you keep this meeting with yourself. During these thirty minutes, think. Don’t write, read magazines, or clean your desk. Just think. It would be great if you could do it with your office door close and your computer shut down. Avoid normal distractions, which would otherwise lead you to a different path.

Change your environment: I am sometimes tired of sitting in my office, and I often look for a change to clear my mind. There is no easier way to do that than just taking a walk. A short walk of half an hour provides a great thinking environment for me, and I encourage you guys to try it as well. And yes, during your thinking time, try not to question your mind with a day-to-day problem, although this works well for that, too, but try to think about general stuff or changing environment. For example: What’s changing in my environment that I haven’t thought about? What new skills will my team need in the next year? What barriers exist to my team’s success this quarter? Etc.

Try new things: As a leader, we are often occupied with a routine, where all of our activities are predefined and we follow a same schedule. From playing golf to hanging out with our friends, we become used to a same routine. As a leader, we shouldn’t just challenge our work, but we should also challenge ourselves to get out of our comfort zone. Thus, we should try to go to a museum, an art gallery, or a library. Or just visit a mall without any intension of shopping or fly a kite. At the end of your excursion ask yourself, What did I see or experience today that taught me something about my work or my life? Don’t push for the answer, but don’t give up too quickly. There’s always something there; you just need to think till you find it.

I hope, my blog can help you not only clear your mind but develop a practice in your life to think outside the box. If you have any other recommendations, then please feel free to share it here. Thanks – Bhavin Gandhi

 
 

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Software or Tool selection strategy that you should be using in your organization


Software

Recently I was called upon to help one of our local business to fix their existing ERP System, which they had outsourced couple of years ago. After some initial investigation, I quickly realized that this was not the right tool for their business. They were using an all purpose ERP system, which was made for bigger organizations, and they were trying to use it for a very specific purpose. Due to the complexity of the entire software suite, no one really knew how to use this tool completely, and they always ended up hiring some help to fix even a minor issue. Thus, through this blog, I am trying to provide you with some pointers that can help you select the right tool/software for your organization.

Finalize your requirements: Let’s assume that you own a Gas Station and a Convenience Store, and now you are thinking about streamlining your inventory through an automated system. Since you are a small and locally owned business, and you don’t have much knowledge of IT, you decide to hire a third party to help you with your IT needs. Stop right there. Before you even hire someone for helping you with your software needs, you need to have some rough idea of your technical and non-technical requirements. Maybe it is difficult for you to come up with your technical requirements, like – How many servers will we need? What kind of back-up system will we need? etc.; but you should at least jot down your functional requirements, like – What are we trying to achieve? How this new system will help you with your day-to-day business? Etc. Once you have the list of these requirements handy, you can then use this list as your checklist while selecting any software/tool for your needs.

Don’t go overboard: Even though there are many latest and greatest tools available out there, you shouldn’t be choosing your ‘tool of need’ just on the basis of how new and powerful it is. Sometimes most powerful tools might not suffice your actual needs, while some not-so-latest tool will do. Obviously, this is a very difficult decision to make, and hence, you should be evaluating your options based on selected attributes along with their respective weightage. This approach will take out all the human emotions from the tool selection process, and it will help you get the right tool for your specific needs. You should use license cost, training cost, user friendliness, and tool’s features as your attributes; while giving the higher weightage (a high number) to the most relevant attributes during tool selection process. Once that is done, you can then make your final selection based on the final score calculated for the tool(s).

Start small: Most of the executives and small business owners that I have met, try to implement everything at once. After all, they are buying a software/tool to help them out in making their current process efficient. Unfortunately, not everything works right out of the box. Thus, as a business owner, you need to go back to your requirements and identify your top 20% of requirements that you absolutely want to have, and then start it from there. Make sure that the consultant or the company that you have hired shows you incremental deliverables of the product that you are buying. With a pilot run, you will have the opportunity to provide your feedback in real time, and you won’t waste lot of your money before you realize that this software doesn’t meet your requirements. If the pilot run is successful, you can purchase the license or acquire the tool.

I hope, my blog can help you select the right tool/software for your business. If you have any other recommendations, then please feel free to share it here. Thanks – Bhavin Gandhi

 

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