Extending Agile Practices To Large Distributed Teams

“Extending Agile Practices To Large Distributed Teams” with Luke Hohmann, Founder and CEO, Conteneo

By Dan Galatin

June 2014 Event

Luke Hohmann, Founder and CEO of Conteneo, presented at the June 4th meeting of the SVPMA.  Mr. Hohmann discussed powerful techniques for using game-playing to collaborate among large numbers of distributed agile teams, especially for the purpose of prioritizing product features and other initiatives.

Mr. Hohmann began with a succinct definition of the product manager’s role.  He noted that agile processes such as Scrum and Kanban tend to involve lots of meetings, and participants often forget that these meetings are supposed to be collaborations.  True collaboration is challenging for large distributed teams, because we tend to confuse communication (e.g. web meeting platforms) with collaboration (shared interaction in order to reach decisions; for example, prioritizing a backlog with 100 customers).

It turns out that games are the ideal collaboration tool.  Games include many of the aspects of collaboration, such as goals, constraints, rules and voluntary participation.  Some game theorists argue that civilization was formed so that we could play with each other, because humans are social creatures.  If this is all true, Mr. Hohmann asks, why would we remove games from business?

The rest of the talk focused specifically on the problem of prioritization and using games to prioritize.  Mr. Hohmann argued that budget sizes and project costs are too large in big organizations to leave prioritization as an exercise for A/B testing or other field testing techniques; one must be more deliberate about prioritizing up front.  Furthermore, trusting prioritization decisions to a single “all-knowing” product owner, executive, or even a small team is ineffective and prone to bias.  Instead, Mr. Hohmann offered a solution: a scalable “buy-a-feature” game in which players collaborate to spend a given budget on a set of features.  Interestingly, the online version of the game provides provably better results than playing in person, because body language is eliminated as a persuasive factor.

Game-playing for prioritization help develops better alignment between leaders and their teams.  Mr. Hohmann demonstrated how the deep collaboration that develops between prioritization game “players” leads to consensus, even among individuals who don’t stand to gain personally from the agreed-upon priorities.  Another advantage of using games to prioritize is that they scale to large teams.  Over 1,000 individuals participated in games to prioritize projects for the San Jose, CA city budget.  Games such as these have high-impact, serious results, but the participants have “fun” as well and love to play.  This is because participants have a highly engaging, productive experience.

Games can also be used for large-scale distributed agile team retrospectives.  This is particularly helpful for surfacing enterprise-level organizational issues that prevent individual teams from becoming more effective. Mr. Hohmann also suggested using game-playing to help prioritize projects to reduce technical debt.  (Architects often have different priorities than individual developers, but this distinction isn’t always exposed.

Finally, in an entertaining conclusion to the June meeting, Mr. Hohmann led the audience in a hands-on exercise of using a buy-a-feature game to help set priorities for future SVPMA events.

Dan Galatin has over 20 years of combined experience in product management and software engineering.  He is currently a Senior Product Manager at Keynote Systems and Co-Director of Communications for the SVPMA and can be contacted at dgalatin@yahoo.com.

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