Strategic choices

Bringing together the necessary disciplines to form high-performance cross-functional teams is a key management decision when creating good software products. All software products are one-offs, unique, so having the product owner, designer, developers and testers in the same team is the most effective way to make essential trade-offs when delivering “good enough” solutions. Add to this the importance of early feedback that only comes from doing iterative releases, and an empowered cross-functional teams becomes the best vehicle for success in a highly-competitive marketplace.

True product teams do exist, but more often they are really just delivery teams, or at best feature teams. The distinction can be captured with the question: Are we giving the teams problems to solve or solutions to build? True product teams are trusted to come up with the best solutions to meet business objectives. However, lack of trust is often a big issue, but so is a lack of maturity. Product teams take time to form and usually need coaching. Management should also focus on the teams’ outcomes and allow them to do their jobs without too much interference.

One way of organising the company is to give the product discovery activities to a separate “Product Team” with the necessary competencies: POs, designers, business analysts, etc. This team should then come up with the winning product concepts for the cross-functional teams to build. This reduces the other teams to being delivery teams doing exactly what the “Product Team” decides. One side-effect of this is that there is now no room for doing experiments in the teams since the course is already plotted.

The problem with this model is that “Product Team” will have been given a purpose with the expectation to deliver something useful. There is then pressure on the team to come up with guaranteed money-spinners for the company, and they will work hard to describe a viable product solution, often using high-fidelity prototypes. This results in a large chunk of work, essentially a requirements document, even if it is in graphical format, that must be handed over to the feature/delivery teams, who must then start over, making the necessary trade-offs and reorganising the work into iterations. The delivery teams may well use Agile techniques and tools to build the solution, but it is really just operating in a big waterfall process.

The best products are built by teams that care about the products they build and the customers that use them. Naturally, they will have insights and ideas about improvements (experiments) that can be made to the product, and in a true product team this is how discovery and delivery are combined to deliver just enough software to satisfy the customers’ needs. However, in the waterfall process described above the ability of the delivery/feature team to influence the product is limited because a) the waterfall process is one-way and b) the “Product Team” see concept work as being their sole responsibility. This is a major cause of frustration for the teams and as a result there is a big risk that the most engaged team members will leave to find companies where they are allowed to make impact on the product.

The PO is a key member in a cross-functional team. If the team is a true product team then the PO will take total ownership of the product and be involved in all aspects of the product lifecycle, from concept and feature development to back-office processes and support tools, legal requirements, and more. However, in the waterfall process above, they essentially have only two roles, one is as a delivery manager in the delivery team, the other as a feature expert in the “Product Team”. Neither role covers the totality of a true Product Owner role; in fact the waterfall process is really just driving a feature factory. Of course, delivering customer value is the most important thing the team can do, but it is not the only thing, the problem is that the waterfall process does not support delivering other types of value.

In giving responsibility for these two closely interlinked processes of discovery and delivery to different teams, management is obliged to ensure that a good relationship exists between the teams to ensure success, and that the one-way waterfall process becomes instead a two-way exchange of ideas between partners. In the worst case, management are de facto prioritising feature delivery over every other type of work, ignoring the fact that different types of value exist, value which can have just as much impact on the company fortunes as feature development.

Companies already in the situation described above can try to improve it, but a sense of trust has to exist between all of the teams to do so, because changing how we work requires that we trust that the changes are for the good of the company and not only for the good of one team. This requires strong management support.

The agile way to migrate from Gmail to Office 365

I was recently working on a migration from Google Apps to Office 365 and was not happy with the big bang approach for migrating email as suggested by Microsoft. This is just too big a risk since email is a critical service for communication within the company – and with customers. It also meant that everyone would start using Office 365 at the same time, which provided no opportunity to improve the migration process once it was set in motion.

So I worked out a way to do an agile migration, where users could be migrated in batches and the administrator could refine the migration process with each iteration Kaizen-style. I decided to publish a generalised procedure that hopefully could be of use to others looking for a better way. At the very least, it should provide some insights into how to plan your own Office 365 migration.

Thanks to Finn McCann for reviewing the document and providing valuable insights. Enjoy!

Big Data and the new EU regulations

On Tuesday, the new EU regulations regarding Big Data went into force. This affects all companies and authorities who are registering and storing personal data. This replaces the patchwork of rules and regulations that exist today:

On 4 May 2016, the official texts of the Regulation and the Directive have been published in the EU Official Journal in all the official languages. While the Regulation will enter into force on 24 May 2016, it shall apply from 25 May 2018. The Directive enters into force on 5 May 2016 and EU Member States have to transpose it into their national law by 6 May 2018. ( Read more)

The major points of the legislation are (source Wikipedia) :

  1. Responsibility and accountability: controllers have much more responsibility for the proper management of personal data.
  2. Consent: Valid consent must be explicit for data collected. Consent for children under 16 must be given by child’s parent or custodian.
  3. Data Protection Officer: A person with expert knowledge of data protection law and practices should assist the controller.
  4. Data breaches: Breaches must be reported to the Supervisory Authority as soon as they become aware of the data breach.
  5. Right to erasure: The data subject has the right to request erasure of personal data related to him.
  6. Data portability: A person shall be able to transfer their personal data from one electronic processing system to and into another.

Further reading: The EU Data Protection Reform and Big Data Factsheet (PDF)

With regards to exporting data outside the EU, the now invalid Safe Harbour agreement has been replaced with the new EU-U.S Privacy Shield which is promises to improve the handling of EU citizens data by U.S. authorities and companies.

Further reading:EU-U.S. Privacy Shield (PDF)

A year with OneDrive for Business

As a completely cloud-based organisation, there was no backup service in place, but instead an ad hoc Dropbox solution was used to store files off-site. Each user simply created a free personal account which usually had sufficient capacity for most users. It was time to migrate to something better: OneDrive for Business, the final piece in the Microsoft’s cloud puzzle that is Office 365.

We were really looking forward to rolling out OneDrive and we started with a few pilot users. Here are some of the use cases that came up as part of the general rollout.


At a minimum, OneDrive functions as a backup for files that otherwise only exist on the employee’s computers and laptops. All business related files were moved from My Documents or the Dropbox folder to the new OneDrive folder. The OneDrive application then automatically uploads the files to the user’s 1TB personal storage space in the corporate Office 365 environment. This storage is part of the SharePoint Online file system and version control can be enabled to provide even more security in case of accidental changes or deletion.

Now, OneDrive maintains synchronisation in the background, it is completely transparent to the user, and Dropbox works the same. When users were using Dropbox they were working on local copies of their Word and Excel files. When the file was saved it was synced automatically to the cloud. (This is similar to classic version control systems like Subversion and CVS, but where synchronisation (“checking in”) is done manually.)

However, Microsoft Office turns this principle on its head. When the user opens an Office file, such as a Word file that is located in the OneDrive folder, what really happens is that Word fetches the server (cloud) copy of the file and opens that instead. When the file is saved, it is saved to the cloud and then the OneDrive client updates the local copy. In other words rather than letting OneDrive do its job, Office is also getting involved. Paul Thurott’s blog describes the behaviour more exactly and how to work around some of the excesses.

Normally all this does not concern the user as it is all completely transparent. Unfortunately, OneDrive for Business turned out to be not so robust and there were frequent problems with files being stuck out-of-sync and other generic “server errors” that defied analysis. Our road warriors could be in a 3G brown spot and the slow network connection could play havoc with the OneDrive/Office acrobatics described above. From an administration point-of-view this was difficult to troubleshoot until we understood what was happening with the files. But for most users who have never worked with version control-like systems before it was almost impossible to explain.

These recurring problems and the lack of understanding of what was happening caused a real crisis of confidence with some users. File synchronisation just cannot fail to work or it is worse than useless. There were calls to roll back to Dropbox. I explained that Microsoft just has to fix these stability issues since OneDrive is an essential component in the Office 365 service suite, and also that we gain so much functionality with OneDrive, such as integration with SharePoint.

Syncing other libraries

Once we got going with synchronising personal files using OneDrive, it was possible to start leveraging all the other features. SharePoint document libraries can also be synchronised to the local computer – a big step up from the limited file management functions in the SharePoint library web view. However, there are some limitations on the libraries that could be synced which we managed to work around.

Publishing on SharePoint

Now that any SharePoint document library could be synchronised, users could also update local copies of documents that were used in some embedded fashion in a SharePoint web part or webpage. For example the user could update a local copy of a spreadsheet in a synchronised Excel file and the web part or webpage would immediately be updated with the new table values or graphs.

Project collaboration

SharePoint websites are a great way to manage projects and a document library is often used to store the project documents. With OneDrive, all of the team members can synchronise with a common document library for the project. That way when one member adds or updates a file, the local copy for all the other team members is updated as well. No more emailing documents! There is even a OneDrive feature to allow multiple users to simultaneously edit the same file if needed.

External collaboration

Customers and suppliers can also use OneDrive for Business to access document libraries in the corporate SharePoint Online. This is an extension of the project collaboration use case above where the project team comprises both employees and external users. Just be very sure to restrict the privileges of the external users to just the document library or at most the project sub-site.


There is of course a mobile app that is handy for viewing your OneDrive files. However, it only shows files from the user’s personal OneDrive space and not any other SharePoint document libraries that were synced to the user’s computer.

Document templates

This is one of my favourite applications for OneDrive. The company has many document templates for various types of Word and PowerPoint documents. Normally in Office it is possible to configure a location for custom templates; this had to be a folder on the computer or a file share and this is still true for the Office 365 apps.

With OneDrive, it was possible to create a document library in SharePoint dedicated to storing document templates. This library was set up with a folder hierarchy for categorising the templates. Then every employee could simply synchronise the document library containing the templates. The local copy of the library could then be set as the custom template location in Office. So now, users can start Word or PowerPoint and select the correct template from within the application as normal.

Finally, using the SharePoint library permission settings, write access could be restricted to the template administrators, and all other employees were given read-only access which allowed them to use the templates but not to be able to change or delete them. Furthermore, when the administrators made updates to the templates, OneDrive would automatically sync the changes to every user’s local copy so that new documents would always be created using the latest templates.


OneDrive for Business is an essential tool for all Office 365 customers. It still has some robustness issues but it will delivery huge productivity benefits in project collaboration, web publishing and template portfolio management.