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Agile Methods and the Art of Making Wedding Cakes – By: Linda Cureton

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Author: Linda Cureton, CEO of Muse Technology & Former CIO of NASA

Technology executives continue to struggle to deliver projects that are successful and achieve desired outcomes.  This is becoming harder to meet.  Team Gantt offers depressing statistics that quantify this sad state of affairs:

  • Only 2.5% of companies complete 100% of their projects.
  • The average cost overrun of all projects is 27%.
  • 57% of projects fail due to “breakdown in communications.”
  • 39% of projects fail due to lack of planning, resources, and activities.
  • 77% of high-performing companies understand the value of project management. 40% of low-performing companies know the value of project management.
  • 90% of global senior executives and project management experts say good project management is essential to delivering successful results and gaining a competitive edge.

As a former CIO, I lived these statistics and more.  Successful projects get things done on time, within budget, and of the desired quality or scope.  If these three things were the legs of a stool, what CIO’s have witnessed often is a “wobbly stool”.  In the “keeping it real” category consider:

  • Given enough time and money, you can accomplish almost anything. Corollary: There’s never enough time or money.
  • Deadlines are made to be missed. Parkinson’s Law: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
  • On time and within budget does not mean that you have the right quality. Quote: “Quality is never an accident.  It is always the result of intelligent effort.”  — John Ruskin

So, given our present situation, where can we find promise and hope?

In the mid 90’s, software companies sought to improve quality and performance by turning to a new more collaborative approach for providing a competitive edge.  Traditional processes were characterized by activities moving from predefined stages to the next stage just like cascading levels of a waterfall.  This required comprehensive upfront planning and the time-consuming development of requirements, which often changed over time.

This has prompted the move to Agile Project Management – an incremental approach that is flexible and iterative. This approach features early and continuous delivery, collaborative teams, and measuring progress. Adaptive planning and evolutionary development are also used in Agile Project Management.

So, what does this have to do with wedding cakes?

We traditionally think of Agile methods when it comes to software development projects.  However, Agile methods can be used in strategic planning or a variety of management tasks.  Outside of the software development or project management community, I find that the concepts are easier for “regular folks” to understand if demonstrated on a non-technical activity – for example, making a wedding cake.  Of course, systems engineering purists will gag, but if you are an executive, a manager, or a business leader, you’ll find this explanation delicious.  I will not attempt to explain the universe of Agile concepts, but a few will suffice.

Scrum. In rugby, a scrum is an ordered formation of players, used to restart play.  The forwards of a team form up with arms interlocked and heads down, and push forward against a similar group from the opposing side. The ball is thrown into the scrum and the players try to gain possession of it by kicking it backward toward their own side.  In Agile, it is an iterative and incremental methodology for producing a product.

Sprint. In racing, it is the act of running at full speed over a short distance.  In Agile, it is a time-boxed effort of some fixed definite duration.

I was asked to bake a wedding cake for a cousin.  As a family baker, my cakes are excellent if I do say so myself, but hardly the quality for a blushing bride.  However, I took the challenge and decided that I would develop a skill and provide a gift for a beloved relative.   I chose an Agile approach for creating this cake.  This is much better than waterfall method where I gather all the requirements and build the end product in November. This would most likely result in tears — from the bride and yours truly.

I did not know what the bride-to-be wanted, and she had no requirements other than “a simple cake”.  So, I started with some pictures to facilitate the development of a user story — a description consisting of one or more sentences in the everyday or business language that captures what a user needs.  Here’s the user story of my bride-to-be:

A simple wedding cake that matches the style of my vintage wedding dress and theme colors of chocolate, gold, and ivory.  We need to serve 200 guests that better go home if they think they are going to fill up on wedding cake.  Two side-cakes may be used to supplement the capacity requirement.  

I planned five sprints.  I got a general idea of what tools I needed and what skills would be required.  I built a team of two – to include my husband for construction, a third hand, clean-up, and design review.  Each sprint would be time-boxed for one month.  During each sprint, I would build a prototype.  At the end of each sprint, I would conduct a retrospective – writing down lessons learned and incorporating them into the next sprint activities.

Sprint 1: Develop Two-Tier Prototype and Correct Formulary for Icing

Lessons learned:

  • The cakes for both tiers fell using a 3-inch cake pan.
  • Don’t put dots on a cake unless you have a plan.
  • I could not translate directions to make roses for a left-handed person.
  • Buttercream icing was too soft, and the dots made the cake look like a porcupine.
  • The piping technique is adequate.
  • Cake and icing were delicious.
  • Boy, this is hard work!

Sprint 2: Develop Three-Tier Prototype with Notional Embellishments

New term: SIPOC – A SIPOC is a process improvement technique that examines suppliers, inputs, process, outputs, and customers.   I needed a SIPOC to improve my production of roses.  On a visit by a cake-making BFF, I happened to have all my ingredients and tools ready to practice.  She told me what I was doing wrong in my technique, helped me get my icing consistency right, and watched me make 72 roses while we talked about life.

Improvements incorporated in this sprint:

  • The cake fell in Sprint 1 because of uneven cooking. Use baking nail.
  • Lay out a measured pattern for design.
  • Use less milk for buttercream icing.
  • Do not split and fill layers to save time.
  • Use family pound cake recipe.

Lessons Learned:

  • Buttercream was too touchy for the desired design detail.
  • Tier 2 of cake got stuck to the pan because of poor quality cooking spray.
  • Relative dimensions of cake need to be reconsidered.

Well, I have a few more sprints to go and many lessons to learn, but I think it will all work out.  Using Agile methods for a high risk (safety, regulatory, legal) time constrained may not be a good idea.  However, for a project with a high-need for creativity and innovation like my cake-making project, it will prove well.  My technical design may have to yield to issues like the guest list, weather, or marital bliss.  I will have to be flexible and accommodate the needs of my customer.

To expand the use of these techniques, make intentional efforts to increase awareness of Agile Methods for executives, managers, and decision-makers.  Don’t manage Agile projects the same as traditional waterfall projects.  Develop soft skills in Agile teams to nurture effective working relationships and servant leadership.  Augment your teams with required expertise when needed.  Create a climate of open communication and continuous learning.

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  • Chad

    Very true – we always try to make agile into an elaborate process rather than the Keep It Simple Stupid rule – Great article