Humanizing Work: Conference Review

About 1/20 of the giant post-its capturing learning at the Humanizing Work Conference.

A number of the readers of GeoVoices are other companies using Agile methods, or considering it, because Geonetric is particularly aggressive in using Agile methods. If you’re interested in Agile, this post is for you. If not, feel free to skip this one!

Our Agile coach, Richard Lawrence, and his company Agile For All, put on a conference called Humanizing Work this week for advanced practitioners of Agile. Everyone had at the minimum been through a full Agile training program already; most had been involved with Agile for quite some time, some for many years. Attendees ranged from very large, well known corporations to small businesses and everything in between. Continue reading

Scrum, Minimum Viable Product and Operation Overnight

Image of Geonetric's Operation Overnight logo

Last week Geonetric held its second annual Operation Overnight, a 24-hour volunteer event that brings teams from across Geonetric together with local area nonprofits in need of website makeovers (or even first websites). Despite it being a 24-hour event with the feel of a hackathon, many of the basic tenets and concepts from Scrum are applicable. In fact, I posit that a Scrum approach is more important, not less important, for an event like this.

Breaking the day’s work into manageable sprints, having a sprint board, hourly standups, retros, and a clear investment in backlog grooming — all help. In fact, this year I introduced a new concept to our Operation Overnight team: the Minimum Viable Product (MVP). What’s an MVP? Kenneth S. Rubin, noted Scrum theorist and author, introduces it this way:
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Pit Stops and Continuous Improvement

At our last company meeting, we watched a video about pit stops. Why? Because it was freaking awesome to watch! The Red Bull team set the record for the fastest pit stop in April of this year. The video shows it in slow motion for a minute and a half, and then the entire process in real time.

So, before you watch it, predict right now how long you think it takes to do a pit stop for a Formula One racecar. Remember it, we’ll come back after you check it out (you will want to put in on HD, and turn up your speakers):

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Building 365ride.org for Operation Overnight

Operation Overnight 2012 came and went quickly. It was a huge success! We had 24 hours to build four websites. A daunting task, surely, but not one that we wanted to shy away from. That wouldn’t have been the Geonetric way! 50+ volunteers, lots of coffee, soda and food, and an all-nighter full of fun and we produced some great results!

My team was assigned to build http://www.365ride.org from the ground up. Unlike the other three teams, 365ride came into Operation Overnight without an existing Web presence and very little source material (brochures, etc.). In the end, both our team and our client were very happy with the finished product.

The site’s purpose is to be a place for people seeking information. Before the site, information was scattered across many places on and off the Web. The Frequently Asked Questions section was a high priority and the team did some really cool things to keep information flowing through the site, only duplicating it where necessary. The end result is a destination that the community can use to get information about public transportation options throughout Cedar Rapids and the surrounding area.

There were some advantages going in with no source material. We didn’t have any “standard” to live up to but our own – which might be the toughest one to achieve. We had a lot of freedom to be creative. There were no expectations of how visitors used the site.

My team rocked it out and had a lot of fun working together! I didn’t have relationships with some of my team members going into the event. And although you know someone’s job title, seeing them really put their skills to works makes you truly understand what they do for our company. I know something about all of them as a person. We had music playing, we had food, and it was really a fun atmosphere.  And while we “partied,” we worked really hard to produce a great website in 24 hours. It didn’t feel like work… that was the best part. Work should always be like this! Guess what? It can be!

I was very excited when Geonetric announced we would do this again next year. It was a great experience! Above all else, we as a company got to give back to our community. I’m so proud to be a part of an effort like this!

I’m also looking forward to seeing our company grow from the experience. The only realistic way to achieve our goals of launching four new websites was to be Agile. I think that we all saw some powerful benefits from this process that we can take back to our daily work.

Here’s looking forward to Operation Overnight 2013!

Celebrate: Geonetric’s 5th Scrumiversary!

Photo of a cupcake with a candle in the shape of a 5It certainly feels like I wrote about our 3rd Scrumiversary just a few months ago, not two years ago. Time flies when you are having fun!

Scrum has been the backbone of our engineering team for five years now and we’ve gone above and beyond with our process. Our team has successfully adopted behavior driven development, which is something that would be unfathomable without Scrum. And our team has been able to use Scrum to build awesome software when teams in many other organizations are limited by their own processes. 100+ sprints in, we are still rolling forward!

How much do we believe in Scrum? We believe in it so strongly that we began rolling it out to other teams at Geonetric. We are now using Scrum to drive agile marketing campaigns. It has been fun working with the talented folks in our professional services team to implement Scrum. We just started our second sprint this last week and have many more to come!

Happy 5th Scrumiversary to Geonetric!  I can’t wait to see what the next five years will hold!

Improving Team Performance with a Clothespin!

Photo of a task card with a clothespin attached, both affixed to a scrum board.

I’m never short of amazed when I discover how simple solutions can solve complex issues. One of the main goals on Geonetric’s software engineering team, day in and day out, is to deliver value to our clients. That’s accomplished by creating really cool and useful features to enhance our software.

Too often, we’re so eager to add all those really cool and useful features that we take on too much work. It’s a good problem to have – but still a problem.

So as the team’s Scrum master I decided to fix this issue. I gave each member of the software engineering team two clothespins with their name on them. Each member was told to find two tasks on the board that they wanted to work on and attach their clothespin to it. They could not start on something new until one task was done – or in other words, they couldn’t move their clothespin until the first task was finished. The goal: limiting our work-in-progress.  And the result: it worked. The clothespin helped us put a physical and tangible constraint on the process to encourage a desired behavior.

The approach is a bit of a hybrid, bringing in Kanban philosophy and practice to Scrum. By focusing on a reduced set of tasks, in our Behavior Driven Development system, we can know quickly if what we built works, and others can see it, rather than stock piling large sets of tasks that aren’t viewable or usable.

The clothespin can really be anything. It’s a symbol for the shift in thinking we really want: continually developing deliverable software. In a system where small parts are continually added, with instant feedback, this is possible.

What’s Your Confidence Today?

Every morning you look at your to-do list and create a game plan for that day. Let’s say you have five things you want to get done. What’s the chances one of those things will have a roadblock? Maybe you even foresee the road block but haven’t figured out how to get around it yet. How helpful would it be to have a quick conversation with your team at that moment? How awesome would it be if you could quickly tap their insight to find a work around or solution? Not only would it save you time, but everyone on your team would know what you are working on and can plan their to-do list more efficiently as well.

Our software engineering team at Geonetric has formal training in Scrum and we’ve been practicing it for nearly five years. Over that time, we’ve developed our own spin on Scrum to make it work especially well for our team. And during our daily stand-ups it became apparent how handy it would be to know everyone’s confidence that the work would be completed by the end of the sprint. And how useful it would be to hear roadblocks ahead of time, when there is still plenty of time to remedy the situation.

As a Scrum Master, I searched the Internet and the Agile society world to see if anything like this existed. I didn’t find anything. Are we even allowed to do this at our stand-up each day? This wasn’t one of the three questions Scrum taught us to live by each day at stand-up.

Regardless of whether or not it fit into formal Scrum processes, we developed our own “Sprint Confidence Rating Scale.” It serves as a daily measure of how confident our Scrum team is that we will finish the work we committed to do by the end of the sprint (and more importantly, our release).

Image depicting a spectrum of faces and moods to denote confidence.

And what has it taught us? That one little question can tell your team a lot. So for those of you that also practice Scrum, I encourage you to take a minute at the end of your stand-up to learn about where the team currently stands. You might be surprised to hear the feedback. But it’s better to know earlier than later, when it becomes harder to work around an issue.

Did we break Scrum? I don’t think so. But it makes sense for us to ask that question each day, so why not ask it?

Check the Map More Than Once a Day

Photograph of a map with a push pin stuck in itFour years ago, Geonetric made a big change. We knew the software development process we had in place could be improved. Enter Scrum, an Agile software development methodology. On our “scrumiversary” we like to reflect on how far we’ve come, and to renew our dedication to continuous improvement.

One of the key principles of Agile is ‘inspect and adapt’ – that is, to constantly evaluate what you’re doing and analyze the value those activities are producing. If you’re familiar with Lean strategies for process improvement, than you’re probably familiar with the concept of a feedback loop. One such loop is the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) process.

In many ways, Scrum is little more than a structured feedback loop. We plan work for a fixed period of time, do some work, check the results, and discuss what action to take next. Scrum has loops inside of loops, with multi-week, daily, and even real-time activities that examine and improve the software we’re building, and the process we use to build it.

As part of our focus on continuous improvement, we invited a software process expert into Geonetric this past month to help take us to the next level. As you would expect from a world-renowned expert, the advice he gave seemed pretty straight-forward – on the surface. He reminded us to make those inspection loops as small as possible. As he said, if you’re taking a road trip you should be checking the map more than once a day.

Easier said than done, of course. This reminder to look up and check your progress frequently applies not only to software development, but any Web project. As you’re planning your work, how can you build in a feedback loop, and how quickly can you generate that feedback? Can you put methods in place to get feedback in the next week… or even by the end of the day? So often on a project we get caught up in plan, do, do, do… ad nauseam, that we forget to check and see if what we’re doing is consistently delivering value.

The ‘inspect and adapt’ principle is something Geonetric supports throughout the company – not just in our software development. You can see it in our products and services – from the tight integration between VitalSite and Google Analytics, to the quarterly S.T.A.T. reports our clients receive. We constantly strive to connect actions to results.

Happy Scrumiversary Geonetric!

Photo of candle in the shape of the number 3 standing on a cupcakeAs our Scrum team closes the curtain on yet another Sprint (and as is the routine, we start planning for yet another sprint), our hard-working Product Owner, David Sturtz, indicated to me October 24th was Geonetric’s 3rd Scrumiversary!

I “googled” the term, Scrumiversary.  Google had no idea what I was looking for. So all the credit goes to David  if the term ever makes it into Scrum lexicon!

Three years?  Have we really been using the agile development method for that long?  I’ve been Geonetric’s “Certified Scrum Master” for nearly two years now, and in that time, our Scrum team has gone through many changes… with our team members, our product road map, even our move downstairs into our own suite.  But one thing has stayed consistent:  Scrum.

It’s really cool to think that in today’s rapidly changing technological atmosphere, we went away from the norm.  It’s not just some idea we were gung-ho on, just to revert back to what was comfortable six months later.  We’ve worked hard as a team to stay true to the basic principles of the Scrum methodology and here we are, beginning Sprint 55 today!

As an engineering team, we often get  so wrapped up in our current work  we don’t celebrate our successes.  It’s human nature to focus on all those things that need improvement.  It’s our job to get better every sprint, to be more efficient, and to improve our quality.  But today, we should take a couple of deep breaths and be proud of the progress we’ve made.  We should celebrate our transition from our old ways to implementing Scrum.  And we should celebrate the commitment we’ve made to getting better at Scrum over the last three years.  It’s been a collaborative effort that our entire company has adopted, which is  a luxury  not every Scrum team has.  The end result is that we have a lot going on and it’s not magic that keeps us all on the same page.  It’s Scrum.

So Happy Scrumiversary Geonetric!  Here’s to the last three years and to many more ahead!

Icing on the Cake

Photograph of a white cake with pink icingA few years ago, we transitioned our software engineering team to an agile software development method called Scrum. It was a huge change for us, but in essence it was designed to:

  • Focus efforts on a single core product
  • Ensure we innovate quickly, try out new ideas and test them rapidly
  • Release a constant stream of upgrades of our Web and Patient Portal products to all clients every 90 days
  • Respond quickly to marketplace input as technology and trends change

At the time I characterized the approach as “using software engineering as a competitive weapon,” and we’ve succeeded in doing exactly that, as evidenced by our win Tuesday night at the Technology Association of Iowa’s Prometheus Awards. We took home the 2009 “IT Innovation in Health” award for our patient portal product.

Scrum allows us to differentiate ourselves in a couple of intriguing ways.

One, we get to focus all our energy on our core platform, and are producing upgrades with amazing new features – not just regularly, but frequently and consistently.  In fact, we’ve built one of the most advanced calendar of events on the market. We built our platform from the ground up, we have total control. We’re never at the mercy of some other vendor with conflicting priorities.

Two, since we’ve been on the same platform for more than 10 years, our clients don’t have to suffer through any painful transitions or upgrades.  We built the most flexible, next generation platform on the market for a reason, and have spent years mastering it.

A competitive weapon, indeed.

We’ve built a great team, and a great product, and I’m excited to continue to win awards for our innovation in healthcare IT.

Every Client, Every Quarter

When was the last time you spoke to your vendor’s CEO? (When was the last time your vendor’s CEO called you about anything?)  As the CEO at Geonetric, I’m available to take a client’s call just about any time. And as I mentioned in my ‘This is the CEO Calling…’ post, I initiate a call to every client every quarter to get their feedback.

Client Satisfaction is the overall measure of Geonetric’s performance from the client’s perspective. We ask three questions, with time for open-ended comments. And the results aren’t just something for the executive team to review behind closed doors. Nope. We compile and trend the data and present it at an all-company meeting. Every quarter. Because it’s just that important.

And in the spirit of transparency, I’ve been sharing the scores in blog posts with readers throughout the year.

The results

We measure client satisfaction on a scale of 1-6, with 6 being “exceptional” and 1 being “poor.”  Our goal is to average 5 or higher – so a single low score can really hurt!

As you can see in the charts, we’ve fallen just a bit short of our goal recently. However, I’m pleased to report that our overall score went up this quarter – and in fact, is the highest score we’ve had since 2007.

Here’s the trend:
Question: Overall, how satisfied are you with the products and services you receive from Geonetric?

Product Service Scores

Question: How likely would you be to recommend Geonetric to another hospital?
Recommend Geonetric

Question: How strategically aligned is Geonetric with your hospital’s goals?
Geonetric Aligned with Hospital Goals

Even more insightful than the numbers are the comments. I heard many positive remarks, with the key themes being:

Responsiveness:  “You get stuff done quickly, a day or less.”

We hear a lot of complaints about other vendors and their lack of responsiveness. At Geonetric, we take client service seriously. From our staff of experienced project managers, to weekly status calls with clients, to a new-and-improved Client Communicator – we have the people, tools and processes in place to respond to clients’ questions and requests promptly. And that, along with our team of in-house experts, allows us to deliver some pretty amazing results in record time.

Progress: “We got a lot done this quarter.”

Looking back over the quarter, we couldn’t agree more. Our clients are constantly moving forward – just look at Adventist’s new portal, Mercy’s cool virtual site launch, CHOMP’s Web 2.0 features, Southern Regional’s many videos, and Mary Greeley’s extensive list of functionality…just to name a few! We’re proud of the great work we’re doing with all our clients.

Advice: “The intellectual experience you bring to the table is amazing.”

We pride ourselves on our brain power, and we’re always excited to share our expertise with our clients. Just check out some of the posts from our client services team who are masters of everything from Google Search to Social Media to Viral Video. Or read the ponderings of our eHealth Evangelist about industry issues like meaningful use and the direction of patient portals.

Of course, there are always some opportunities for improvement:

VS5 Calendar, especially the check handling capability

Product issues inevitably surface, and that’s why we’ve adopted Scrum, an agile development process, that allows us to push important new features through to our clients as often as every six weeks.  In fact, we’ll be rolling out the newest version of our Calendar module next week with the features our clients have requested, including an expansion of the module’s ability to record payments by check. Let us know if you’d like a product demo.

Responsiveness, mostly around product features or things that require technical intervention

We know that some of our processes require too much human intervention. Our clients’ Web teams are becoming increasingly savvy and expect to be able to do more on their own. We’ve looked closely at our processes and software, identified several tasks that unnecessarily require our technical team to intervene, and are slowly eliminating those as we open up new self-service features and train our clients on the enhanced VitalSite software.

Internal Geonetric Communication, mainly between project managers and other resources, such as developers, designers, and/or content strategists

Even in a company of 63, where our employees treat each other more like family than co-workers, internal communications can still be an occasional issue – just like with many of our clients. So, we’re expanding our intranet and implementing a new CRM system to resolve these issues. And our new popcorn machine is turning out to be the equivalent of the ubiquitous water cooler – a great place to gather and share ideas.

Always aiming for more

Even with our Overall Client Satisfaction score at its highest, we’re still aiming to improve – there’s always much more to do. That’s what makes this company and this industry so exciting.

I’ll be calling each client to get their feedback again next quarter to see if the changes we’re making resolve their concerns. And if you’re wishing the CEO at your vendor cared about your opinion, maybe you should consider switching vendors to one that does.

What Did You Learn Today?

Have you taken the StrengthsFinder profile? It’s a very interesting way to pinpoint your talents (strengths) and build success based on them. If I’m loving my job, you can bet it’s because I’m getting the opportunity to maximize my natural strengths.

One of my top strengths, according to my profile, is called “Learner.” I love to learn and I’m energized by the process of learning. Apparently, I’m not the only one at Geonetric with this particular strength. We have regular “brown bag” lunches where anyone in the company can sign up to lead a session on a topic of interest to them – work related or not.

Just this past month, our resident shutterbug (and senior project manager) led us into the world of photography and shared picture-taking strategies; our high-purple-belt director of strategic services taught us about Taekwondo and self defense; one of our summer interns dazzled us with his ability to create animated graphics through computer 3d modeling; we learned the latest research on user experience from our gifted information architect and scrum-master; and I got to share my knowledge of marketing with people who typically spend their time writing .NET code. Today, I’ll learn about taking care of my heart from a member of the American Heart Association. And that’s not even counting our monthly read-to-lead book club.

Many companies talk about “growing” their employees … and many employees talk about being lifelong learners. I’m fortunate enough to work at a company where it’s not just talk. How cool is that?

Adopting Agile Processes

As we were in the middle of developing the newest version of our VitalSite product last fall, we weren’t making the progress we wanted-even though the whole team was running full tilt and putting in its best efforts. We had always been a bit informal about how we developed software-somewhere between draconian rigid requirements and completely freeform cowboy (and cowgirl!) coding practices. The problem was that being in the middle wasn’t working. So, we looked at some of the newest practices in the industry.

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