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How to Rescue Distressed Projects and Teams

If you have worked in the software development world long enough, it has likely been your privilege (tongue firmly in cheek) to work on a project and with a team that has been taken to or even driven over the brink of failure. A project like this usually involves an unhappy client, a frustrated management and a very discouraged delivery team. It generally involves an “interrupt-driven” task and workflow prioritization process with a fixed delivery schedule, a once fixed but changing requirements set, and estimates and assumptions that failed to consider the full lifecycle of a feature, story, or task.

Often such projects are cancelled and teams dismantled. Sometimes they push through to a bitter end with something that works but everyone unhappy. It took too long. It cost too much. It works but not well. Clients are lost. Teams suffer from unnecessary attrition. Blame and resentment prevail. But there is a better way. Teams and projects can be rescued.

To rescue a distressed project and team is not as hard as one might think. Many have written about this. Some of us have even experienced it first hand. One excellent case study was published two years ago by Steve Andrews on InfoQ. There are many other stories like the one he shares and they all have several common aspects that can come to your rescue.

Analyze and Decide Using Facts
Working from facts and data, such as defect counts and other available metrics, can help to eliminate the emotional element and engage the team’s analytical talents.

Drive Quality with Acceptance Tests
Make quality and testing come first. Create acceptance tests for a given feature or story before you begin coding. Acceptance tests should clearly define “done” and support validation.

Eliminate Waste—Control Flow—Decrease Batch Size
Long established principles of quality manufacturing, these can be applied to software development. Creating very large and complex requirements documents that will be invalidated shortly after development begins is waste. Managers pushing large sets of tasks and assigning specific work items to specific team members creates waste. “Fix all the bugs” creates a batch that may overwhelm any team. But when team members pull work from a queue (aka backlog) and a team’s total work-in-progress (WIP) is limited, individual and team work flows efficiently.

Allow Teams to Self-Organize
Coach teams in Scrum and Kanban and let them choose which works best for them to control flow and achieve individual and team efficiency. Some teams may choose a combination. In any case, self-organized teams pull work and progress more efficiently than those who wait for management to assign out tasks. Management is then free to focus on grooming the backlog.

Manage the Backlog
Change control and therefore control of the backlog is critical to the success of a project. A manager with one of any number of titles controls what gets added to the backlog and when. The manager gathers details from stakeholders and delivery team members for each item on the backlog to provide sufficient detail for an estimate to be made. Based on input from stakeholders, the manager prioritizes items. Delivery team members add estimates before items can be taken off the backlog and put into a ready state or work-in-progress state. Estimates can be in abstract “points” or “ideal days” or some other common unit of measure to allow tracing metrics as work proceeds. Once estimates are provided, the manager works with stakeholders to finalize backlog priorities.

Work as a Team
Even if you are not using Kanban, you still need to eliminate bottlenecks and prevent individuals from working too far ahead of the team. If analysts are unable to keep up with writing acceptance tests, re-task other team members to avoid starving or bunching up of the team’s work-in-progress. If the delivery team lacks a well groomed and ready backlog, you should alter your planning cadence, decoupling it from your delivery cadence.

The primary factor in rescuing a distressed project and team is the motivation of management. If you believe in your people and give them the tools, processes and coaching they need to achieve great things, you can turn around a troubled project and team.