WHY? Such a powerful question

Recently I was watching a situation with a development team where a very important question seemed to be forgotten… WHY ?  This got me thinking about the countless times I have seen work done for no apparent reason than it’s “On The Wishlist”, “We have a card for it”, or “Because Customer Service Says So”.

Many times I have seen features get created where at the end of the release, the final user of the feature says, “Oh, we haven’t needed it to do that for about 3 months now”.  This part of the requirements is long gone.

This brings me back to Waterfall Methodology and something I would expect to see. With it’s linear approach to the Software Development Cycle, it is almost to be expected that there will be some waste of this nature.  This is not to say that Waterfall is never appropriate.  It is just an expected part of the process if you have a long development cycle.

However, using an Agile Methodology such as Scrum or OpenAgile, this should simply not happen.  Agile methodologies are based on Communication.  This communication is paramount during the Sprint or Cycle but is absolutely mandatory during the planning meeting. A team cannot simply be given a list of instructions to follow.  The team needs to understand what their Goal is.

In Scrum, the Product Owner is responsible for guiding the team as to which features should be queued up next based on Return on Investment (which generally means actually needed).

In OpenAgile, the team has a similar approach of consultation with the “end user’ and the planning of work based on Return of Value, and plan appropriately.

Although in Scrum and OpenAgile, there is discussion about Return on Investment, Value, bug free code, Test Driven Development, etc. there often appears to be little discussion about the idea of why we are doing something.

User Stories, if done correctly can significantly improve this problem because the “story” needs to have a goal as to who benefits.  We are doing this Feature for this “x” to get this benefit.

It is however, the responsibility of a Team to ask “Why would someone want to do this ?”, or “Why are we updating this information in the first place”. Often, the insights are very revealing.

Let’s take a simple example.

I the late 80′s, I was working as a developer with a company where the company’s approach was to provide the developers a “requirement” , choose a developer and send them off to do the work (pre-Scrum days).

The developer was to modify a Stored Procedure to go through a table and update every 3rd record in the table to be 50% higher.  It was a fairly complex procedure and a developer at this company spent almost a week re-writing the procedure and getting it implemented. The development team sat down with the engineers and customer and developed a method of testing and verification, backups of the database were made and the implementation work began.

No one asked Why.

Several weeks later a similar request was made in a different part of the system. I spent some time with the developers and encouraged them to ask Why the first modification was made.  The answer was “That is what Sherry said to we should do.  The customers are yelling and this is what we need to do to fix it”.

Those of you using Scrum or OpenAgile are probably already cringing and thinking.. Gees… you could write a book just on this one paragraph alone.  I’ll leave that for another day :->

The actual problem was there was a different part of the system which updated the tables based on Quarterly Results.  This was the actual reason every 3rd record in the table was wrong.  That procedure was incorrect and shared by other parts of the system.

If someone had not stepped in, this cycle of fixing the by-product of the defect could have gone on for many more months.

I convinced the owner to change the procedures to allow the developers to ask questions as a team before work was queued up. I simply asked for this one simple right.

A few months later, the overall bug rate of the application went down, customer complaints went down and the development team started to feel engaged and part of the process.  It was a different place after that.  People enjoyed working there.

As part of the planning stage of your Sprint or Cycle, please consider asking questions such as

-Why are we changing the Field Size from 80 Characters to 250 Characters ?
-Why should the system need a procedure to update these types of records .. Doesn’t the system do it properly ?
-Why would we want to force through Credit Card Transactions without the CVV Code (the security number) ?
- Why are we making a whole new authentication system ?
- How did this become a requirement ?

This type of question is not intended to be a confrontational thing!  Often those requesting the features may feel that you are being confrontational.  Remain calm, and make sure to let the requester know this is a standard part of your process and not a question of their power or knowledge.  The goal is to get knowledge, and not to figure out who is right or wrong.

After discussing it with the person, you may find they do not have a true understanding of why they are requesting the feature or change.  It is possible the idea of what or how to do it will change just from the communication alone (which is when you want it to happen.. not after it’s done).  The discussion may also allow the product to be better than they originally envisioned.

OpenAgile has a term called “Consultatative Decision Making”.  It is the idea that decisions are made based on consultation and discussion with all those involved that may have valuable input to making a decision.

Scrum also values discussion and communication as a fundamental part of Development.

The FIRST value of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development is “Individuals and Interactions over processes and tools”

In the case of the example above, we chose to fix the stored procedure which was creating the bad data and wrote a one-time script to adjust the corrupted records. We never had to revisit this problem again.

It sounds simple enough, but the basic premise of WHY is absolutely mandatory to this process or all decision making will be based on following instructions blindly with no sense of ownership by the team.

References :

Scrum – http://www.scrumalliance.org
OpenAgile – http://www.openagile.com
Manifesto for Agile Software Development – http://www.agilemanifesto.org/

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