If you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there
I was getting worried. The needle on the tank gauge was in the red zone and there was no gas station in sight.
It was 1976, and my college roommate and I were in his Chevette driving west from Illinois to Arizona, somewhere around the Iowa and Nebraska border. We had gotten up very early on Sunday morning and left Clear Lake, Iowa after a day and night of hanging out with my cousin and her friends. You probably know Clear Lake through Don McLean's "American Pie'' song. It was at Clear Lake, that Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. "The Big Bopper'' Richardson died when their plane crashed in 1959. For me, Clear Lake taught me that I really had no business water skiing, and I had absolutely no ability to disco line dance.
I had only a low resolution paper map of the United States with me to get me to Arizona. These were the days before the iPhone, the internet, cell phone, and GPS. I really did not have any idea where I was, other than I was going West on some nameless country road. In other words, I was lost.
Last week I ran into a Microsoft Dynamics NAV Implementation team that was in the same situation as I was in the Chevette. I asked the project manager “When is your go-live date?” His sheepish response was “We really do not have a go-live date at this time.” I reviewed the team’s burndown and burnup charts in Rally, along with the existing product backlog. Based upon the information in Rally, I determined the team would finish the project in about 4.3 years.
I confronted the project manager with the calculated project duration figure, and his response was “That number is not really right. We really have done much more work than what shows in Rally. We eventually get user stories done, but most of the time we do not record the story points as being accepted. Trust me; we are doing better than the chart shows.” I was blown away. The team was driving down a country road in a Chevette, lost somewhere in Western Iowa.
I think that George Harrison had it right with his song “Any Road” that includes the Lewis Carroll quote “If you don’t know where you're going, any road will take you there.” This team had taken any old road on their project planning journey and it was taking them to an unknown destination. I recognized that the team needed to make a few tweaks to their process to get them back on track. I had to help them out.
I sat down with the project manager and we looked over the previous 6 sprints and identified bright spots; sprints where the team had done well. I asked the project manager the question “why had the team done well in the successful sprints?” Digging deeper we found that in the successful sprints, the user stories had been smaller in size then the user stories in other unsuccessful sprints. We found out that when the team worked on smaller stories, they were better able to get a handle on the work, and ultimately produced a better product that was delivered on time.
The team went ahead and started crafting smaller user stories as they moved forward on the project. As a result of the change, the team completed and recorded more user stories during the sprints, to the point that they were able to significantly increase their team’s velocity and thereby their go-live date. The next time I looked at the team’s velocity, I could see they were now moving in a timely manner towards a destination that made sense.
I got lucky that Sunday morning in Iowa. I ran into a small town with an open gas station. While filling up the gas tank I noticed that the ropes we had used to tie down our things on the car roof had come loose at some point on the road. My sleeping bag had fallen off the car during our early morning drive. Camping out and sleeping in the Colorado Rockies was going to be very cold.