Most of the teams and organizations I coach are working on using agile methods to improve their software development approach. Somewhere along the way, someone has realized that there must be a better way… either better than chaos, or better than bureaucracy. Over the years that I have been practicing agile methods, I have come to believe that quality is not negotiable.
At the Coach’s meeting ten days ago, several of the attendees used a series of phrases to refer to the learning process or cycle that Agile Work promotes. These vocabularies all have a different slant or implication but they all map to each other fairly well.
Work can often be divided up so that the smaller pieces are valuable on their own. By dividing work this way, a team can deliver value incrementally. The team can choose a short period of time called an iteration and select a small amount of work to complete in that time. This work should be valuable on its own. For example, if a team is building something, then at the end of each iteration whatever is built is usable as it is. This means that each iteration includes all the planning and design as well as construction or creation necessary to deliver a final product or result.
For example, a volunteer group may desire to attract new members. A non-agile approach would have the group plan their membership campaign completely before actually executing on it. An agile approach using iterative delivery would have the group plan a small piece of work that will attract some small number of new members, execute it, and then start a new iteration. One iteration may cover the creation of and delivery of a door-to-door flyer in a neighborhood. Another iteration may cover the design, creation and publishing of a small advertisement in a local newspaper. Each iteration includes all the steps necessary to produce a furthering of the group’s goal of attracting new members.
In a business environment, iterative delivery allows for a much faster return on investment. The following diagram compares delivering value iteratively with a non-agile project delivery where results are delivered only at the end of the project:
One can see clearly from the diagrams that the non-agile delivery of value at the end of a project is also extremely risk prone and suseptible to change. If the project is cancelled just before it delivers, then a fairly substantial amount of effort is wasted. In the agile iterative delivery situation, an endeavor can be cancelled at almost any time and it is likely that substantial value has already been delivered.
Even if the work cannot actually be delivered incrementally, it almost always can be divided in a way so that it can be inspected in stages. Either method of dividing work allows us to do the work in iterations.
Iterations are fixed and consistent units of time during which work is performed and between which planning, inspection and adjustment is done. The empowered team will decide on the length of iterations for their work. As a rule of thumb iterations should be shorter than the horizon of predictability. Generally, iterations should never be longer than one month, no matter what the endeavor.
At the end of each iteration, a demonstration of the work completed is given to the stakeholders in order to amplify learning and feedback. Between iterations, the stakeholders collaborate with the team to prioritize the remaining work and choose what will be worked on during the next iteration. During the iteration, the stakeholders need to be accessible for questions and clarifications.
Iterative and incremental delivery is used to allow for the early discovery and correction of mistakes and the incorporation of learning and feedback while at the same time delivering value early.
Here are my rough notes from the May 2005 Scrum Gathering in Boston. Regrettably I was not in the room for most of Mike Cohn’s presentation on User Stories… but his book (User Stories Applied : For Agile Software Development) is excellent 🙂
The notes in this entry include predictions from Ken Schwaber, a presentation from Bob Schatz formerly of Primavera on their enterprise-wide implementation of Scrum, a panel discussion with Tim Bacon, Jeff McKenna, and Diana Larsen, moderated by Esther Derby. In the afternoon we heard from Pete Deemer about Yahoo!’s enterprise adoption of Scrum, Mike Cohn about User Stories, and to close the day we had an energetic presentation from Tim Dorsey of WildCard Systems about their enterprise implementation of Scrum.
Kent Beck’s book “Extreme Programming Explained : Embrace Change” provides a good introduction to how software development can embrace the constant change that affects our world. Some of the practices he introduces are very software-specific. However, the overall basic message is sound and provides a foundational principle for all agile work. (By the way, the book is excellent.)
Change really does occur everywhere. Change is constant. A google search for “embrace change” or “change is constant” will both turn up an incredible variety of articles, papers, discussions, books and viewpoints that all affirm the constant nature of change and the need to embrace it.
Nevertheless, it is sometimes difficult to accomodate change when we also have a legitimate and deep desire to know what is coming next.
For many teams, the environment in which they work is constantly changing. This change can be caused by competition between organizations, scientific or technological advances, fads and cultural shifts, major events in people’s personal lives or even just a change of opinion with a stakeholder. Any change, even small change, can invalidate a planned course of action. However, goals (as distinct from plans) are more stable and often survive even major environmental changes. Therefore, rather than trying to plan the future, an agile team can focus on being able to respond to change while still reaching a goal.
Nevertheless, a team needs some sense of what it will do in the near future. A team can work with a “horizon of predictability”. This is the distance into the future which a team can be reasonably certain that plans will be stable. Depending on the environment, this may be as little as a few minutes, or as long as a month. It is rarely longer. The horizon of predictability is not a precise demarcation, rather, expect change with a probability based on the horizon of predictability. Then, plan to respond to change. Be detached from the concrete details of a plan, particularly if they occur outside the horizon of predictability.
Responding to change requires a major mental shift for many people that is difficult and takes time and environmental support. People are often penalized socially or formally for being flexible or adaptable. This quality can appear to be “wishy-washy”, uncertain, indecisive, uncommitted or even rebellious.
The terms “agility” or “agile work” refer to this principle of embracing constant change since it is the most visible of the principles. However, the ability to respond to change relies on the establishment of agile work disciplines and practices.
Plan driven methodologies which attempt to mechanize the process of doing work are in opposition to the three Agile Work Principles.
We are Creators
A plan methodology attempts to define intermediate and end work products independently of the input and effort of those who perform the work of creating the work products. This disenfranchises people from their work and leads to low morale. It also establishes a heirarchy of value for the people working on an effort where those who create the plans are perceived as more important or valuable than those who execute on the plans.
Change is Natural
This principle is usually acknowledged, but is usually described as a “problem” to be dealt with rather than as a basic principle to be fully embraced. A plan methodology has “change control” or “change management” and “risk management” and puts the whole notion of change in a negative light. This approach also disenfranchises people because they are constantly placed in opposition to reality.
Reality is Perceived
Plans attempt to legislate reality. “Thus and so must the project go” results in a constant struggle between the plan and peoples’ perception of reality. Plans marginalize the importance of perception on the belief that reality can be objectively understood. If reality can be objectively understood, then it can be mechanistically manipulated. Thus results can be pre-determined without regard for the perception of those results.
Queues of work form at three types of levels in an agile organization.
At the largest level is the project portfolio. The queue for this level contains all the projects that are not yet being actively worked upon by project teams.
At the intermediate level is the backlog of project functionality. The queue for this level contains packages of business function or infrastructure components necessary to implement business function. These packages are selected by a project team to fit into a single iteration.
The packages in turn are also elements in a queue. This smallest level of queue contains individual tasks required to implement all the business function and infrastructure that make up a selected package of work. The team members select tasks off this queue based on priority and dependencies.
In many agile methods, the queue management approach is fairly explicit at the intermediate and small levels. However, very little is said about the largest level. Some organizations have solved this by limiting the size of projects:
To be successful, high-tech CIOs recommend biting off projects in small chunks…. Gregoire notes that Dell is growing so fast that at the end of an 18-month project, the company would be significantly different from when it began. “A project has to take less than six months [to complete]. That’s the only way we can make sure [it stays] with the business,” he says. (http://www.cio.com/archive/120198/tech.html)