The Agile Dinner Party


In John Stenbeck’s book introducing Agile Project management entitled “”PMI-ACP® and Certified Scrum Professional Exam Prep and Desk Reference”, he opens his second chapter “Introducing Agile Project Management” with a simple example of an agile project from daily life, although it might be seen as such by those doing the project.

Dinner Party scenario

1.   Dinner Party idea and division of labor

Let’s suppose you and three other friends are hosting a dinner party together on Friday.   You decide to divide the work based on what you are good at making.   Let’s say you are Bill, and you just happen to have a talent for being a mixologist.  Your friend David is good at hors d’oeuvres, Cathy is good at main dishes, and Francine is the dessert expert.    Between the four of you, you have the culinary skills to make an entire course of dishes for the dinner party.    To make sure that the dinner party goes well, you aim for a set of meetings on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

2.  Wednesday meeting–plan to acquire resources

On Wednesday, you and your friends decide the theme of the party, and what you will have on the menu for the drinks, hors d’oeuvres, entrees and desserts.   A shopping list is created for the menu created, a store suggested where the ingredients on the list will be bought, and each person will be responsible for buying the items from the respective store and bringing it to the next meeting on Thursday.

3.  Thursday meeting–preparation and logistics

On Thursday, you gather together the ingredients you purchased based on the shopping lists you created at the last meeting, and you do the pre-preparation for the party.     Any washing, chopping, peeling of vegetables and pre-preparation of any other foods (like sauce for lasagna) is done, and the results are stored in the refrigerator for the next day.

4.  Friday meeting–execution

You get to the place where the dinner party is supposed to take place–if it is the same place where the Thursday meeting was held, then you just need to get the ingredients from the refrigerator and prepare them while the others set the table, decorations, and make any other immediate preparations for the guests to arrive.    Then, it’s–party time!

5.  Saturday meeting–clean up, with retrospective

Of course, the immediate clean-up will be done right after the party is done, but your group decides to meet on Saturday to focus on how well the party went.

The first part of the meeting is where you review all of the e-mails and social media posts (Twitter, SnapChat, etc.) and decide how the guests received the party.    This is where you decide not just if the party was successful, but HOW successful it was.

The second part of the is a review of what went wrong and what could be improved for the next time your group puts on a dinner party.

Okay, now that I have a described preparation for a dinner party.   Let’s see how this illustrates some key concepts and challenges of Agile Project Management.

Agile Principle #1–The team must have the necessary skills to complete the project.    Notice how the four of you have different skills, all of which are needed to complete some part of a successful dinner party.    What would happen if your team didn’t have someone who, for example, could make great drinks for the party?    Then have someone on your team invite a friend to help, or if you have enough resources, hire a bartender!

Agile Principle #2–The team must be self-organized, highly-trusted, and accountable.    At the overall planning meeting, the various subsequent meetings are planned (called iterations in Agile Project Management).   There are four iterations planned, the meetings on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.    That takes care of the organized part.   What about the “self” in “self-organized”.   This is not a group where you say, “okay, let’s have a dinner party,   David, Cathy, and Francine, here’s what I want you to do …”   There is no one person who is the “project manager” in the traditional sense of the word.    You are all organizing the party together as a team.   You are highly trusted within your circle of friends that they are willing to go to your dinner party because they believe there is a good chance that they will enjoy themselves.   And your group is accountable because you are having a meeting afterwards to listen to the guests’ comments about the dinner party and to make improvements so that the next party is even better.

Agile Principle #3–The dinner party project must be broken into interrelated, incremental deliverables.   This is done through the 4 meetings called iterations.   The first sets forth what resources need to acquired, the second takes those resources and assembles them to be ready for the third iteration.    The third iteration is the dinner party itself, which uses the resources prepared at the second iteration.   And finally, the fourth iteration is taking the responses of guests to what was the third iteration (the party).   So each iteration builds upon what happens at the previous one.    And the “incremental” part?    The output of each iteration is known technically in Agile Project Management as a “potentially shippable product increment”, which means that, if the project were delayed or even terminated at that point, the results of the iteration would still prove to have added value and could possibly be used in other projects.

For example, iteration #1 produces a shopping list, which could be used for future parties if this one is called off.    Iteration #2 produces pre-prepared foods such as sauces, etc., which might be able to frozen and then reused at a future dinner party if necessary.    Now, Iteration #3 is also a “release”, which means that the cumulative work of the iterations is delivered to the customers (your friends).   Iteration #4 is a “product-focused” review meeting–it focuses on the feedback from the customers (again, your friends) and this keeps your team accountable.   The second part of the meeting, the “retrospective” is “process-focused”, meaning that it identities ways to improve the process so that a future dinner party will have even better quality.    This makes the Agile Project Management process educational (through the “retrospective”) meeting and successful (through the “review” meeting).

I enjoyed John Stenbeck’s example, and my idea for a great workshop on Agile Project Management would include, as a practical example, having the participants create a “dinner” (or “lunch”) party for the following week, where the person who runs the workshop would introduce the concepts mentioned above so that people are learning Agile Project Management while actually doing a practical example–and, of course, having fun eating the results afterwards!

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