Adding Depth to Agile: How Choreography and Behavior Complete the Picture

Make Some Noise
Make Some Noise

While countless books have been written on teamwork, there is something unique and special about building and leading a team that delivers complex technical services in a client-facing environment.

While there are many sides to this topic, I thought I’d share a few things I’ve learned, observed, and implemented over the last two decades of building Inertia.

THE CHOREOGRAPHY MINDSET​

While project management is key, it’s not enough to get the job done on its own. Even the most well-crafted project plan can fall through if the teams and individuals involved aren’t committed to its execution. If the team isn’t engaged or able to carry out the work efficiently or effectively, the project will likely fail to take off.

I often use the word choreography when talking about how our team approaches both the management of themselves and the project. While you’re probably not used to seeing choreography discussed in project management, you might be surprised to find it’s more relevant than you initially thought.

Choreography is defined as the sequence of steps and movements in dance or figure skating, especially in a ballet or other staged dance. While we’re not designing dances, we approach the planning of our work with the same element of artistry.

At Inertia, we don’t have traditional “project managers” whose sole purpose is to plan and manage the project. Instead, we have Project Team Leads who act as the “business owners” of the project. Project Team Leads have the challenging but rewarding responsibility of managing not only the project, team, and technical development but the client as well.

While this role can be quite demanding, we find this to be the most effective way to choreograph complex projects at high speed, with outstanding customer experience and high team satisfaction.

Bottom-Up & Top-Down Team & Project Management

In project management circles, there can often be a debate between using waterfall (top-down) or agile (bottom-up) project management methods. Like most public discourse (especially of late), it can be easy to get sucked into the “which is better” argument. However, as is often the case, the answer is much more nuanced. As such, Inertia uses a bit of both, as each method has its merits and uses.

When developing projects internally within a company, managing projects with a “full agile” approach becomes more feasible, frequently initiating without a predefined completion date. However, that doesn’t work in a professional services environment, where clients want (and deserve) to know when the project can be completed.

Telling a client, “Let’s start now and reassess in a few months to estimate the completion timeline,” is not an effective strategy in professional services. This approach is not conducive to selling such services. Therefore, we employ a combination of agile (bottom-up) and traditional waterfall (top-down) methodologies, creating a balanced approach we call “Hybrid Project Management.”

Because Inertia is a B2B company delivering both products and services to our clients, we need to be able to confidently communicate how the project and work will be structured.

To start, we typically plan out the entire project (at a very high level) through waterfall methods using Gantt charts. This way, major milestones can be set, interdependencies can be understood, and long-scale durations can be created based on our client’s needs and the associated development strategy.

When creating Gantt charts, we’re typically working with a timeline of months to years, depending on the industry and sector. For example, developing medical and diagnostic devices from concept to production and regulatory approval can take several years. And yes, plans can (and almost always do) change after you get started on a project—as reminded by the Dwight D. Eisenhower quote, “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.”

Once the “big chunks” of work have been established, and we move into execution mode, we then turn to agile project management methods to further plan and manage the detailed work to be carried out immediately. Here, the timeline is typically weeks to months.

When developing net new innovations, it is often not possible to fully predict the exact path and task definition more than a few weeks out. We typically know what needs to happen in the first and the last few weeks of a project phase.

The end of a project is typically standardized as we are compiling deliverables and design assets, carrying out design reviews, and data release packages. It’s the messy middle that is often most ambiguous, making it a challenge to plan out tasks in detail.

But most importantly, we’ve found that agile project management practices have produced a very powerful but unexpected by-product. Through this style of project management, the team engages more, collaborates more, collectively takes on more responsibility, is more self-managing, and gains more fulfillment.

The “Behavior Stack”

In his famed leadership book “The Score Takes Care of Itself,” legendary football coach Bill Walsh tells stories about mastering the details—things as innocuous as how office staff answered the phones to re-teaching players how to properly put on their socks. He also teaches us to concentrate on what will produce results rather than on the results, the process rather than the prize. As the title of the book implies, if you carry out all the basic behaviors consistently, then the rest takes care of itself. After over two decades of closely collaborating with numerous companies, I’ve noticed a significant trend: leaders leaning towards a “hands-off” management style, primarily to dodge the “micromanager” label. However, in the process of doing so, it seems many have inadvertently slipped from “hands-off” to “lights-out,” lacking intentional leadership and failing to establish a robust system of daily behaviors and expectations necessary for driving team success. Many leaders often tend to lean too much on new software tools, relying on them to be their next savior of productivity (present company included). And while software can certainly play a big part in improving productivity, as leaders, it’s more important that we intentionally set and support a consistent set of behaviors over relying too heavily on a specific software tool. At Inertia, we’re always working on multiple new products for our clients, and it’s crucial that we deliver great value and customer experience every single time. This means our business relies on our ability to set up effective systems and habits to guarantee consistency. Here is a summary of the “Behavior Stack” we use at Inertia by time scale and task scale.

Months to years: Gantt charts

Weeks to months: Sprint Planning Calendar – updated every sprint

Days to weeks

  • 2-week sprints with tangible, measurable goals
  • 1 sprint planning event per sprint
  • 1 sprint review event per sprint
  • 1 sprint retrospective event per sprint
  • 1 project update report every week
  • 1 client/stakeholder alignment meeting every week

Hours to days:

  • Daily task alignment, load-leveling, and choreography through 15-minute scrum huddles
  • Task planning & management through a Kanban board – as tasks started/completed
  • Daily written update reports on teams or slack channel
  • Daily design output reports – visual report of work completed – in Miro or .pptx
  • Real-time design collaboration through face to face/slack/teams, etc. – as needed
Want to learn more about how to create high performance hardware development teams? Drop me a note at rminato@inertiapd.com

You May Also Be Interested In…

  • Steering through complexity: Lessons in calm confidence from a racetrack engineer turned founder – Ray Minato

    5 min read

    Steering Through Complexity: Lessons in Calm Confidence From a Racetrack Engineer Turned Founder – Ray Minato

    One of the most challenging yet fulfilling parts of our job is helping our...

    Read More
  • The innovation equation: Balancing creativity and productivity

    5 min read

    The Innovation Equation: Balancing Creativity and Productivity

    Imagine if we had a way to measure the fuel efficiency of our innovation...

    Read More
  • 5 min read

    5 Reasons Your Physical Product Development Is Stuck And How To Get It Unstuck

    Over the past 18 years since the founding of Inertia, we’ve had a lot of...

    Read More
×