Task Order Manager
Marshall DeMeritt is an accomplished professional with substantial experience in spearheading high-performing projects, leading IT governance processes, and building relationships with stakeholders across industries. He currently serves as a Senior Project Manager at Synergy BIS, supporting the United States Coast Guard mission critical business systems enhancements and modernizations. Marshall is a graduate of Shepherd University (BS), West Virginia University (MS), and Villanova University (PM). He serves on multiple local community boards, acts of the EMS Chief of Shepherdstown Fire Department, and is a member of Covenant Church in Shepherdstown. He has a wife, Krystle, and two children.
Building a formidable team foundation is crucial for the success of any project. However, in the fast-paced world of sprint teams, it is common to see a group of individuals who have never worked together before being hastily assembled to tackle complex challenges. Time is of the essence, and there’s little room for a gradual team development process.
Synergy recently found themselves in a comparable situation when they embarked on a high-profile project for the United States Coast Guard. The pressure was on, with a team of 25 resources and a looming milestone deadline, including the ambitious goal of delivering a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) to the customer within a mere 100 days. In such circumstances, having a solid plan in place is vital to ensure effective collaboration and a successful outcome. Let us explore how mock planning played a pivotal role in laying the groundwork for their team-building journey.
Tuckman’s ladder, also referred to as Tuckman’s stages of group development, presents a comprehensive model that illustrates the various phases a group experiences during its evolution and growth. These stages include forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning. In the initial Forming stage, the group is at its first stages of coming together. Members are acquainting themselves, defining their roles, and understanding their responsibilities within the team.
Given the urgency of meeting project deadlines, the Forming stage needed a boost, and that is when the idea of using an Agile Sprint Planning session emerged. This session supplied an opportunity to accelerate the team development process, ensuring a smoother transition into the next stages and enabling the team to perform at its best to meet the challenges ahead.
With a project deadline looming, the forming stage had to be encouraged, and the opportunity to utilize an Agile Sprint Planning session to expedite such team development was realized.
At Synergy, sprint planning plays a crucial role in our Agile software development process. It marks the beginning of each sprint, where the development team collaborates with the product owner to plan and prioritize the work to be carried out during the iteration.
During the meeting, the team discusses the backlog of user stories, identifying those with the highest priority or that will contribute significantly to measurable progress. These user stories are then broken down into smaller, manageable tasks. The team estimates the time needed to complete each task, using a Fibonacci Series derived User Story Point (USP) value—a practice followed by our teams specializing in modernizing legacy software for the Coast Guard.
With a clear understanding of the tasks ahead, the team selects a subset of prioritized user stories and tasks, committing to completing them within the sprint’s duration, typically a 2- to 4-week iteration of development. Their decision is based on the team’s ability, considering their assumed or known velocity from earlier sprints.
The result of the sprint planning meeting is a sprint backlog—a comprehensive list of tasks that the team will work on during the sprint. This backlog serves as a guiding document, keeping the team focused and on track throughout the sprint, ensuring the successful delivery of each iteration’s goals.
Fostering effective collaboration and cohesion within the team was a top priority for Synergy. To accelerate the team’s progression from forming to storming stages, they adopted an innovative approach: a Mock Planning session. This session aimed to put into practice essential concepts, best practices, and collaboration techniques crucial for successful Sprint Planning.
As the team transitioned to Tuckman’s Storming stage, it was expected that conflicts and tensions might arise as members asserted themselves and confronted differing opinions. Establishing norms and finding a common direction could be challenging during this phase.
For this reason, in their mock planning session, the teams took it upon themselves to plan out the building of a tandem bike.
While building a bicycle might differ from creating software, the focus was on the practical application of the team-building process. In their project for the USCG, Synergy set up two parallel scrum teams working on business applications with similar functions, integrated processes, and distinct user groups. Maintaining a consistent look and feel across these interconnected applications was essential.
In the Mock Planning session, the teams took a creative approach and decided to plan the construction of a tandem bike. This exercise allowed them to collaborate, communicate effectively, and understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses. By working together on a tangible project, the teams strengthened their bonds, enabling a smoother journey through the storming phase and beyond, towards successful project delivery.
During the mock planning session, both teams faced the challenge of building the backlog, prioritizing tasks, and estimating their efforts, all the while maintaining awareness of the parallel team’s progress. As Agile sprint planning plays a crucial role in the software development process, this exercise served as a powerful kick-start for the team, propelling them through Tuckman’s Forming, Storming, and Norming stages.
The exercise not only fostered collaboration and unity within the teams but also emphasized the significance of focusing on the most important tasks first. It instilled in them the importance of devising a clear plan for future work in upcoming iterations. By going through this process together, the teams strengthened their understanding of each other’s capabilities and set the groundwork for effective communication and coordination moving forward.
The 2.5-hour mock planning session proved to be a rich source of valuable lessons and best practices that benefited our team’s implementation. As program leaders, we saw firsthand the many attributes that have since proven invaluable in our iterations. This team-building event, reinforced with Agile concepts, brought about remarkable improvements within the team, including:
Our mock planning session cultivated a more cohesive, productive, and positive work environment, leading to greater success for the organization. By reinforcing the importance of good sprint planning, prioritization, work organization, and estimation techniques, we allowed the team to develop harmoniously in a light-hearted, low-pressure scenario. While the process may have nudged the team’s development within Tuckman’s model, it proved to be a valuable opportunity to predict and overcome challenges as the team(s) progressed.
In the end, Synergy’s innovative approach to team building yielded a more effective and united team, delivering tangible results to our satisfied customers.