One change to make your sprint retrospective highly efficient

Context: Agile Product Development.

(Thanks to Inkcinct)

Agile (and scrum) is all about adaptation, quick improvements. I have written a a bit on making 2 week sprints effective & conducting sprint demos. But Sprint Retros are at the heart of agile are an equally critical part of the scrum / agile process.

At times,the retrospective meeting can be very time consuming, sometimes goes on for more than an hour. Here is the one change that could make it highly efficient :

  • Have a standard list of fine grained questions about the sprint for everyone one to answer. And they can only choose to answer between – agree / neutral  / disagree. Later provide details about their opinion.  
  • Put this list on a shared space ( either a google spreadsheet or the wall where people can vote using markers/ stickies or any other tool) and request all the team members to fill it up in the first 5 minutes of the retro meeting.
  • Start with questions for which everyone has voted – ‘agree’. You can ask the participants to provide some quick explanation on what makes them agree and what is it that the team should continue to do. This should be about 5 minutes.
  •  Next go to those questions which have ‘neutral’ or ‘disagree’ votes and then do the same thing – ask participants to provide details on why they disagree.  This is the main thing. Create action items out of this discussion and assign owners. Spend the bulk of your time here.

Having that standard list to begin with will save you a ton of time. It had started saving around 40-50% time for my retrospect meetings.

In-case its helpful, here is the list of questions I had used for my meetings, you can make your own

  1. Did we meet our sprint goals ?
  2. Did we do well w.r.t work allocation ? Our goal is to ensure that the allocation is not too heavy for one individual or a few individuals but is mostly evenly spread.
  3. Did we execute well ?
  4. Did we avoid fire fighting /working late in the last 2 days of the sprint ? ( We want to make sure that we do not have too much to do on the last 2 days)
  5. Did we do well on estimation ?
  6. Were the stories clear ? Was there no confusion w.r.t what was expected or acceptance criteria ?
  7. Did we do well on collaboration w.r.t UX, Product and Engg ?
  8. Did we do well on quality ? Our goal is to ensure that we dont leave major bugs as spill overs
  9. Did we do well on automation/ code coverage ?
  10. Do we feel equiped to deliver with speed ? Do we feel we have all we need for being productive ?

And if you are looking for material on how to conduct retros – here is detailed article by Microsoft.

Do give this change a try & share your thoughts on the above.






Value of a good phone

Thinking whether you should go & buy that expensive ‘smart’ phone for yourself ?
Here is how I like to think about it ?
‘Smart’ phones are by nature devices that give you information and tools which you would not have had in your hands otherwise.
If you have a small and simple feature phone, you may still have been able to get the information if you have a computer at home/office/cyber-cafe.
if you do have the computer, then the phone is just making it more accessible. For me, thats a big deal, its saves me time. Allows me to give time to things which otherwise wouldn’t have been possible.  Or wrap up things faster.
Here is some quick math which can potentially quantify that:
  1. Suppose your income is 100 rupees a month.
  2. That means your each day is worth 3.3 rupees.
  3. Suppose your phone saves you 15 minutes each day. And lasts 2 years.
  4. Thats a total of  15 x 30 x 12 x 2  = 10800 minutes in 2 years. Which is roughly 18 days saved (assuming a 10 hour day.)
  5. The value of your phone is worth 18 days of saved time. Thats #2 x #4  => 3.3 x 18  = ~60 rupees.
 60% of your monthly take home. Ballpark, but you get the idea.
PLUS – if the phone allows you to do things which were otherwise not possible, then you should think how valuable these things are to you. That may bring some objectivity too.

Productivity Tip : Mac OS is much better than outlook (mac or windows)

I have been using Mac OS Mail app for a few days now.
Its light, simple and fast!
I followed this blog post to get going

Although, i would like to point out that smart mailboxes dont work / cant be accessed on iOS.
So i have used folders instead and have created custom keyboard shortcuts to move messages to folders from my inbox.

Have u tried Mail app over outlook ? How was your experience ?

How to make “Working Remotely” work ?

I have been working remotely with my office colleagues in the same timezone but 2,500kms away for about 2 years now. I work from Delhi and my office is in Bangalore. I have been visiting Bangalore no more frequently than once every 8 weeks for a week or two.

Its tough.

But there are quite a few things which can help you sail through:

  1. Build Trust  – this is the MOST IMPORTANT thing.
  2. Make yourself available as much as you can – over IM / email / Phone.  Let your colleagues know that they can call you anytime, so that they get a feeling that you are just a phone call / ping away.
  3. Visit frequently and utilize it in relationship building, making folks comfortable.  Go for coffees, lunches, dinners with key people  every single day when you are at the office site. 
  4. Manage your emotions – phone audio and emails do not convey the body language / tone of the conversation very well.  You can easily upset your counterparts and vice-versa. Learn to manage that – be extra cautious.
  5. Find a way to whiteboard remotely – 
    1. My method was to have lots of re-usable diagrams already prepared which I could use while talking to different people. This became easy with the help of google docs – drawings. All my drawings were on Google docs and I could just send across a link for the other person to open and see. AND you could actually edit the diagram  / highlight  / color it in real-time while explaining it over phone.
    2. A whiteboard type setup – Wacom tablet for drawing on Microsoft OneNote with a screen share. This is the one I have.  It worked wonders. I could always open up OneNote and start drawing what I am thinking in the middle of a discussion.
  6. Faster turnaround on emails  – make folks comfortable. Decide your own turnaround. Mine was max 1 day. In special cases – 2 days.

Would love to hear your thoughts too :), share them in the comments section below.

Turn off that fancy “Push” mail

With being “connected” becoming so easy we tend to get addicted to checking our emails on the phone as soon as a new mail arrives or every few mins to every hour (or in that order) even when we are not “at work”.

At a restaurant while having lunch with friends / family (or even alone), at dinner table at home, at the intermission of a movie, just before you go to sleep (and your wife trying to sleep by your side), just after you get up in the morning……

Keep work at office and not in your pocket or on your dinner table or worse….in your bedroom.
Do keep in mind that constant distractions like mails / calls / smses hamper your ability to concentrate, your peace of mind and drastically impact your productivity.
Turn that push mail / periodic fetch OFF.  Fetch mails manually only when you really need to.
Enjoy the warmth of your moments with family, friends, enjoy the morning sun and go  to bed with a satisfied smile for a day well spent.

Email Writing and Management Tips

Email Writing Tips

  1. Write your email in points so that the other person can respond to each one of them, this helps quick clarification and leaves no scope for the reader to miss out an important question / point.
  2. In-cases of timezone separated remote audiences,  make sure you send all questions at the end of the day in an email so that u get answers by next day morning.
  3. Make a habit to cc yourself in your own mails which you would like to follow-up on. This way your mail would appear in your inbox and you can apply the ‘follow up’ label on it.
  4. Word the subject aptly. For example, if you need someone to review your plan – you can prefix the subject with “Review Required”.  If you need someone to take an action urgently – you may prefix the subject with “Urgent Action Required” etc.
  5. Use simple & short sentences so that it can be read & understood quickly. I have seen a lot of long paragraph emails. You should assume that the person who is going to read your email is not going to spend more than 15 seconds skimming through it. Use those 15 seconds judiciously.
  6. If you depend on your readers to reply to your email for a review or an action, set an ETA and communicate that in the email.  Something as simple as “Your response is expected latest by 12th Jan(thursday)”  would do.
  7. Use HTML formatting. – Colors, bold, italics. Bottom line – make it readable. The important bits need to jump out.
Email Management Tips
  1. Tag mails based on priority and category.  I usually use 3 broad level tags – Urgent, ImportantButNotUrgent, FollowUp & Others (“Others” are more or less low priority action items; but I still tag them so that they are easy to find in-case I need to move them up priority later)
  2. Set an  Out of office responder even if you are out for a day so that people know you are out and understand that there may be delay in your response to their emails.
  3. For emails for which you need time to think and respond – do respond quickly with the fact that you need time and you would get back in detail by ‘x’ date. This way, your sender knows that the email has your attention and you would get to it soon.
  4. Use filters / rules. Let less important “mailing-list” conversations go into separate folders.  This way your inbox would carry the most important mails (addressed directly to you or cced to you)  . I know folks who have set up folders for cc as well.
  5. Use a solid search tool  for your emails. How much ever you organize your stuff, you still going to need a super fast search tool. You can use google desktop for outlook. or Xobni for outlook. I personally like using a web interface with a search built into UI itself.

These are some of the things I do. Would love to get email mgmt tips / ideas from you. Please do share in the comments section.

10 More Productivity Booster Tips (For IT users)

This is in continuation to my last post on the productivity tips.

11. Quick Launch/ Single click application launch – (Not using Desktop at all). This is specific to windows users.  Right click on the taskbar and add a toolbar – “Quick Launch”- If you use windows XP  / “desktop” if you use windows 7.  This way you can access all the links on ur desktop through ur taskbar. For this to work, you may create a folder on ur desktop and call it “dump desktop” which can keep all your random downloads /folders there if you like.

12. Avoid mulitple browser windows, use tabs.  Simply because u can create(Ctrl +T) and destroy(Ctrl + W)  them much more easily.

13.  If you dont have network connectivity problem, keep all your docs online ( with google docs).  So that you can access them from  anywhere and you dont have to back them up on a timely basis. Also, google docs provides you a version history & collaboration benefits.  Another factor is that browser based google doc opens / renders much faster than a Microsoft word doc. To Top it all, google docs work really well on mobile!

14.  Use Keyboard shortcuts on your browser / email client / coding client.  It was almost un-believable to me how much I could do with eclipse keyboard shortcuts! Key board shortcuts can do wonders for you, find them and learn them.

15. Create filters / rules in your email client so that only the most important emails come into your inbox and they dont get missed because of other less important and almost spam like emails.

16. Use mulitple Browsers for different users log-in at the same time – typically when u want to test something ( or say you want to login to multiple gmail accounts at the same time ) . Or you could use the private browsing mode of the same browser as well!

17. Use hosted wikis,  documents  to share re-usable information instead of emails.  Even a simple thing like a newsletter can be put up on a wiki / blog apart from being in the email so that one can share / access it later through the blog. Emails are not designed to be knowledge bases but only to allow communication.  Even for use-cases like “the steps to do something-special” a wiki  / blog post works out best.

18. Block your calendar for your own tasks. This way you can get the time that you had planned for your own tasks, otherwise a free looking slot on your calendar may end up getting into a not-so-urgent-and-important meeting.

19. Hibernate your computer , don’t shutdown. This again is for windows users.  Shutdown and re-start takes a lot more time than hibernate.

20. Last but not the least –  Devote 30 mins every few weeks to think back in retrospect where were u too slow and how u could have changed a process / tool to save time.

10 Productivity Booster Tips (For IT Users)

1. Bookmark aggressive &  sync across devices, browsers.  I create bookmark folders on my bookmark bar(below the address bar) for the different roles I play + different use-cases within the same role.  Also, I use xmarks for the sync – its magical.

2. Direct Search from browser address bar.

This is true-ly magical. If you havent tried it yet – try this right now on Google Chrome. Step 1) Go to 2) right click on the search bar and click on the “add as a search engine” 3)  Use ‘u’ in the keyword field of the search engine.  4) open a new tab and type “u magic” in the address bar and hit enter to see that google Chrome searches for magic on directly.

3.  FAST and minimal feature email client (mail categorization/labelling + search).  If you are a heavy email user, then you better go for a real fast email client. ( I personally prefer the browser based interface)

4.  Email, calendar sync on phone. This one is a no-brainer, one can literally scan through & respond to a lot of emails via phone saving you precious minutes when you are on your PC. Also, the calendar sync helps keep track of the meetings and check your own availability when you are away from PC.

5.  Mobile-PC Notes sync. Again, this one again is a life-saver. I make notes aggressively about almost everything. The ability to access them anywhere through your mobile can be a huge productivity booster.  ( I use evernote for this)

6.. A TODO management Tool (and not just a plan text file) with PC-Mobile Sync.  TODO mgmt can become really tough with multiple roles, multiple priorities. I have been using which was pretty good till recently when it started having  huge down times.  Looking for another more reliable tool now..

7. Use mouse with your laptop.  Not sure but why many people don’t realize how much they can benefit from that small little device.

8.  A FAST and STABLE  Browser (Google Chrome). No brainer again! Use Google Chrome and you would see the difference.

9.  Customize your computer for performance (so that it never hangs or responds slowly).  I use windows on my PC and there is a setting one can do on the control panel using “adjust the appearance & performance of Windows” – ” adjust for best performance”. Try this out! You can customize the appearance to pick and choose the high ROI options like “use visual styles for buttons and windows” and have everything else un-checked.

10. Maintain a scratch pad to save important commands, locations, ids, request dumps, credentials etc.  And not to mention, sync the scratch pad notes with your mobile.

Acheiving goals in a world of fools(including yourself)

I always keep talking about this with my friends.  About how I deal with the world and keep what assumptions in mind and how it has helped me avoid surprises.

(Thanks to for the pic.)

There are two ways to look at the world (2 extremes) :
1) Assume everyone is innately good, everyone will give you expected results / deliveries in time.
2) Assume everyone is an innately lazy, poor memory fool (including yourself).

Of course these 2 are extremes and none of them is work-able in a practical world. But you need to know which one are you more bent towards. This also depends on what you can handle and what you cant.

I am one of those who hate unpleasant surprises which are caused by people around you. Either because they were lazy or they missed out certain things or because they were not diligent enough. I can’t tell you how much I hate such surprises. I am sure many of you would share similar emotions.

But there is a twist in this story. Sometimes, I myself catch the disease of laziness, lack of diligence or by missing out certain things and end up creating an un-pleasant surprise for my peers and myself. And I hate this the most!  And I am sure many of you have a similar story.

Okay…? So you realize that all of us are innate lazy fools.

Ok understood; how do you get stuff done then ? How do you still acheive your goals ?

And I am here to talk about a working style that will get you the best results in most of the real world situations. There is only 1 mantra – When you get a failure / surprise, which you would really hate getting again, don’t think its the people who are at fault or somebody is memory is poor. You should think its the process which is at fault and not people. Something must have gone wrong in the process.

So how can I fix the process ? 

  • KRAs (Incentives and Disincentives)
    • This one is the most powerful for long term fixes and more strategic tasks and deliverables.
    • Identify what exactly is critical for your business and create appropriate KRAs for different members of your organization.
    • Create incentives and disincentives both against the above defined KRAs.
    • Now be very careful with the incentives / disincentives. You might have to setup different ones for different roles or different individuals based on their needs, aspirations.
    • Example – lets say you want your team members to contribute towards hiring. Create a KRA in their appraisal process for contributions towards hiring and setup incentives for their contributions towards it.
  • Reviews
    • This is most effective in case of short term tasks / goals where high quality needs to be ensured.
    • I know it would take a lot of your cycles, but there is no other option. If high quality is critical for you and you don’t want to take a change, then you MUST NOT SKIP REVIEWS. Be very diligent about them.
    • Also, to save time for repetitive tasks – create best practice guidelines. So that people can go through the guidelines and fix things before they approach you for a review.
    • Example – a client sales pitch or a hiring pitch to your prospect employees. Setup a formal review everything thats critical to your business. Code reviews, design reviews are more formalized in today’s world but there are other subtle things which can make a big impact to your business but you have not reviewed or done quality control for it.
  • Reminders
    • This is very well understood and practiced as well. But whats not understood is that the reminders are not only for others.  You should setup reminders for yourself for anything thats critical.
    • You can setup calendar meetings for important items to remind you.
    • You can setup mobile alarms / email reminders.
    • You can ask your colleagues to remind you. Its not bad to ask your colleagues to remind you for things that are of utmost importance.
    • Setup reminders to remind other people.  This is extremely effective. Give it a shot.
  • Ownership with the right people
    • You might realize that many times that the people you are working with do not have the right expertise.  And your colleagues who does have that expertise is busy to take your task up.
    • In such a case – let the other not-so-expert guy take up the task but make the expert guy the “owner”. So that the expert can make sure that the right thing gets delivered through reviews, brainstorms and other quality control techniques.
    • This is extremely effective but needs the  expert’s band-width. You need to do your job to get him to “own” the task.  This would not be too hard in most of the scenarios.
  • Sharing success & failures in a public forum.
    • This is effective too. Most of us have a desire for fame and respect. This would utilize that part of psychology.
    • Sharing success in people motivates people like anything
    • Sharing a failure in public can be powerful but risky at the same time. You need to know how exactly this has to be done.  This can either motivate or demotivate people by a big degree. So be careful, share the failure but be positive in your tone. Your purpose to share the mistake is to share what you have learnt from it and not to defame your employee.  Again, very powerful but risky at the same time. Be careful with this atom bomb.
  • Tools
    • Last but not the least, tools can ease your problems to a great extent. Task management tools are already available in the market. So this one is very well identified. If you are not using one of these – I guess you need to adopt of lot of such productivity tools to make your operations, deliveries smoother.
    • Tools can be for anything – tracking anything (ideas,tasks, meetings etc), reviewing anything (docs, code, design etc), automating anything(like calculations, resume selections etc), sharing anything ( mind maps, docs etc)
    • But they have an overhead. You need to housekeep them.  So pick and choose the right ones which give you the convenience and the keep the overhead to the minimum.

While the above things are good. You should keep in mind that overdoing any of the above can affect your relationships with people, especially if they are not mature enough to keep business goals above their personal egos.   This is a big down-side of using this working style.   So you need to learn to present your ideas, your reminders in a positive way so that they express the positive intention behind it. The intention is NOT to call someone a fool. The intention is to understand that we are humans and not the best possible machines. Machines, tools, processes can help us deliver the best. 

The other down side of using this approach is that it would eat up a lot of your cycles.So be ready for it and try things out; see if they work for you.

All the best !

Effective brainstorming:Five tips to tune your thought process

Hello Again ! Like all other posts of mine, this is no step to step guide to do anything, but a few tips that might prove useful or might bring a new perspective to look at the same thing. Here I am going to write about how you should tune your thinking in a brainstorming session to make it most productive.  The purpose of your session  may be to review an idea or a design or may be come up with a new idea or a solution.

Here are a few tips that are to do with how an individual thinks. It might take you a month or two  to be able to follow these tips:

1.  Articulate agenda, concepts, entities in one line. This is hard and may not come naturally to most of us, but this is something that pays off big time. Try describing your ideas, concepts, entities within your brainstorming session in 1 single line. Try using it and you ll realize the power this practice in clarifying and simplifying things.

2. Try to solve your problem using few entities (less than 4)  and then expand on top of them. Lets say you have a solution and you want to express it on a white-board. I would say start with very few boxes or entities involved in your solution. Generally whenever an idea strikes one’s mind, it does not have too many boxes involved. If there are too many to start with, try to brainstorm further and put them into categories, essentially trying to box multiple into one.

3. Keep track of the starting point(the initial problem) in a long of chain of thoughts. This one needs no further explanation, but in one line – this would help you cover all you wanted to in your discussion without missing any important points.

4.Choose the timing of the devil’s advocate very carefully. This is a biggie. Most of the innovative ideas get shot down in the initial stages. Give your idea or chain of thought enough time before you bring the devil into the discussion.

5. Try thinking in terms of words rather than abstract concepts. This is kind of related to the first point. But thinking in terms of words is very powerful as it enables you to widen your thinking your horizons, get further clarity and understand what you are talking about.