Thursday, January 17, 2008

Impact and Mitigation of Staff Turnover

In my last post I explored the reasons for staff turnover. Reasons can be monetary (e.g. salary) and non-monetary. In all cases the departure of a team member has consequences, some of which may become visible months later.

Example. For one release cycle a project team signed up for a backlog of 70 stories. Two weeks into the release cycle (12 weeks in total) the team got together and identified a few stories that were too large to fit into one iteration (1 week). As a consequence the backlog grew to 80 stories. The team asked the customer to re-prioritize the stories to identify the low priority stories that would have to be moved to a future release. Not surprisingly, the customer wasn't happy about this as it was perceived as "falling behind schedule". On closer investigation it turned out that the initial backlog contained stories that were too big for acceptance. These stories should have been split or re-scoped before the release cycle started. The person who would have spotted this had left the company just a few months ago. Other team members weren't sufficiently aware of the impact large stories could have. The team learned their lesson and it is unlikely that the same mistake will be repeated.
The important lesson to be learned is: The consequences of the departure of a staff member become apparent only as time passes, and sometimes this can be much, much later.

How could the mistake from the example be avoided? I think that it is important to re-emphasize the rules of the game as often as possible. You might sound like a "broken record". But consider the consequences if you don't repeat "the tune"...

The example also demonstrates that when a team member leaves, some knowledge and skills disappear as well. What are the options to mitigate the impact?

Agile methodologies provide quite a few techniques and tools that you can use. In particular all techniques and tools that foster communication, collaborations, and learning are suited to reduce or mitigate the impact to a large degree.

Release planning involving a good cross cut of different roles - developers, testers, customers, performance experts, technical writers, etc. - ensures that all relevant aspects are considered. Techniques like Agile Auction (aka Planning Poker (TM)) help to detect uncertainties or the need for further discussions.

Frequent reviews help to identify over- or under-engineering. Do you really need all these bells and whistles? Are the features implemented in a really compelling way?

Techniques and tools like Pair Programming, wikis and Show-and-Tells help fostering knowledge transfer and the acquisition of skills.

Keep it simple and try tons of different tools and techniques. Don't give up just because one tool or technique didn't work. If it didn't work, try something else. Learn from your observations. And always challenge your team for instance by asking questions like:
  • Given this unsatisfying result can you think of a way how we can prevent a similar situation in the future?
  • Given the suggested approach, can we think of an even better way of doing this?
Experiment and try new approaches. Doing that you'll have mitigate a large proportion of the possible impact of turnover.

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