Remote inception – An Experience Report on an inception over phone

9 12 2009

Before I start, I would like to state that this article does not advocate for or against running an agile inception over phone. It is more of an experience report. Please feel free to post your comments.

Introduction

Inception is at the heart of a successful agile engagement. In an agile project we work with the client and not just for the client. Inception starts the process where the team, client and consultants, start thinking alike and working together.
It is so much easier to work with a colleague once you have synchronized your frequencies/wavelengths. Okay, enough blabber about wave theory.

This article is about my experience, learning and rant about remote inceptions. I intend to keep it more like a free flowing conversation.

Inception

Projects are set fail if the initial understanding and the basis for further development is flawed. Some key questions that immediately come to our mind:

Does the client know what he wants?

Does he really need to build it, or can he buy something that already exist (COTS)?

The answers to these and many other questions would become apparent in an inception.

Ideally inception is where we start by setting a vision for the project, break it down into achievable milestones and further down into playable stories. But all this mandates that you have the client right in front of you.

Most inception exercises require face to face interaction to make communication as clear as possible. It is necessary to use tools (simple and sophisticated) to make mental model explicit, elicit the requirements and clear any doubts. Inception is a fun and effective way to interact with the client and bring every one on the team on board with the project’s goals.

Most inception should have the below activities in the agenda.

1. Team introductions – May seem simple. But simple activities like playing a small team game act as the all important ice breaker.

2. Collaborative Modeling sessions – As many or as little, as per requirement of the project. A good inception would have several of these sessions on project specific topics as well as general discussions on Non Functional Requirements.

3. Prioritization – Lay out the options in front of the client story cards. Let the client move the cards to prioritize them. In some cases this exercise leads to a rough release plan.

4. Inception showcase
The above activities are a small subset of an inception. But, these are the ones which bring out the most useful facts that are necessary for the project success. Also they are the ones which require as much face to face interactions and team efforts.

At the end of an inception the team must be able to decide if they should go ahead with the project.

Context

Let me now explain a little bit about the scenario we were faced with. Our clients had very limited budget and could not afford to include travel expenses for either them to travel to our location (India) or for us to travel to theirs (Chicago). It may seem very sensible to not start the project until sufficient budget is available. But the client could not get more budget unless something was built and built soon. So we had to do an inception with them over phone, with a 12 hour time difference (Sadly the video conference equipment on their side was broken).

All this got us be more resourceful and improvise with what we had. The only way ahead was to address all the risks as best as we could.

Managing risk

A remote inception is very risky business. The probability of success is quite small. Always communicate this to the customer and try and push for a face to face inception. Remember this is not for your benefit, but it is in the best interest of the customer. It is a good idea to maintain a shared risks log with the customer.

Below are some risks that we faced.

Risk: Understanding about some Features may not be completely correct

Mitigation:

  • Client was made aware that there may be minor misunderstanding despite best efforts.
  • In our case the application functionality was quite closely associated with the UI. So we came with early mockups that were as close as possible to what the client wanted. We let them edit the same and maintained them for future reference.
  • Rather than plainly documenting technical understanding, we built very crude prototypes. Most of the time, code is the best documentation and communication mechanism.
  • The client was made aware that our initial estimates would be bumped up by a certain risk factor to accommodate any issues with understanding. It is better to promise less and deliver more.

Risk: 12 hour time lag. It was imminent from the beginning that we had to spend time outside our usual working hours to spend enough time on the inception.

Mitigation:

We scheduled for calls which ranged between 3 to 4 hours everyday. A face to face inception can have day long agenda. But it is better to maintain lesser number of hours on remote inceptions. Small 15 minute breaks were counted in.

Inception Agenda

We made sure that all stake holders were in a position to dedicate time for inception. Instant messenger proved very useful. We also sent out links to tools like webex (Desktop sharing tool). Initially we were confident about our own superhuman capabilities to spend late hours at office to have longer conference calls. But a senior member in our team rightly pointed out the flaw and reduced it to an optimal 3 hour call. This suited us well. After three hours over the phone it is extremely tiring to do any other productive work.

We prepared the agenda to ensure that we had time to cover all topics that we considered necessary. But it was not something that was set in stone. Some sessions finish ahead of time while others may reveal unknown areas, which require fresh slots to be included. We revised the agenda from time to time.

A typical day would start with the recap of the previous days meeting notes. This would be quick 15 minute exercise which would warm up the team for the long call ahead. We also used this time to follow up on each other’s progress.

Communication and meeting notes

As in the case of any normal inception, never go without a good scribe. We took turns at this role and noted down all the key points. Though it may have sounded silly sometimes, we tried to paraphrase the client’s sentences and validated our understanding. The client was informed at the very beginning of the inception that we may have to repeat some lines to confirm our understanding. In our case one team member from our customer side volunteered to take notes as well. At the end of the day we would share notes and if there are any differences in understanding we would resolve it in the following day’s meeting. Once all differences are cleared, we would put it in a place where every one has access.

Try to learn how each person sounds, so that you can associate a voice and/or accent to a person. Also suggest your customer to do the same. This helps a lot in keeping the conversation easy.

Sometimes you will not know when the person on the other side of the phone has lost interest in what you are saying. It is better to speak slowly and clearly. While talking to a person face to face it is very easy to detect when he/she is loosing interest. On the phone the one possible way to do this is to include small questions while one speaks. This way you know the person on the other side is listening.

Tools

We used low tech tools to simulate a virtual card wall where clients to could move cards. You could use an online card wall for this. Screen sharing tools like webex are extremely important. There are quite a lot of free tools available.

Start using a project management tool early in the cycle. Start adding stories to the project management tool as early as possible. A spreadsheet may be easy to start with. We used mingle for project management.

In Retrospect

If I had to do this all over again, I will still consider it extremely risky business. Few things that I might do differently are listed below.

  1. Get the video conference equipment worked out early. In our case since the team size was small. So this did not become a great issue. I would strongly recommend having a video conference for bigger teams.
  2. If there is not enough budget for the entire team to travel, try to have at least one representative from your side at the customer’s location. He could facilitate the activities.
  3. Capture the clients mood over the period of inception using tools like Niko-niko Calendar

Summary

Remote inceptions are tough if not impossible. Try to avoid it as much as you can. But if have to do it, you know are not alone. In the end it is our goal to help the customer, no matter what the constraint. Fortunately, in our case the exercise was a success and the customer was happy.








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