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The Agile Manifesto – Essay 3: Working Software over Comprehensive Documentation

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How much documentation does it take to run a project with ten people working for six months?  For some organizations it takes way too much:

Photo of heavy documentation for software project

This binder (about 3 or 4 inches thick) is all the documentation associated with such a project.  In looking carefully at the project, creating the documentation took far more time than the time spent on designing, writing and testing the software.  Yet, the documentation does not produce any value.  Only the software produces value.  The Agile Manifesto, asks us to focus on the outcome (working software) and to make tradeoffs to minimize the means (comprehensive documentation).

The Agile Manifesto asks us to challenge our assumptions about documentation.  In many work environments, documentation is an attempt to address some interesting and important needs:

  • Knowledge sharing among stakeholders and the people working on a project.
  • Knowledge sharing across time as people come in and out of a project.
  • Verification and traceability for contracts or other compliance needs.
  • Decision-making and analysis for business and technical problems.
  • Management oversight and control.
  • Various aspects of individual accountability.

Documentation is usually heavier (more comprehensive) the more the following circumstances exist in an organization:

  • Geographical distribution of people.
  • Lack of trust between people, departments or organizations.
  • Regulated work environments.
  • Depth of management hierarchy.
  • Number of people directly and indirectly involved.
  • Knowledge and skill sets highly segregated between people.
  • Culture of respect for written texts.

Working Software

What if the software itself could address the needs that often documentation is used to address?  Let’s look at them in turn:

  • Knowledge sharing among stakeholders and the people working on a project.
    If the software is functional at all stages, as supported by Agile methods such as Scrum and Extreme Programming, then the software becomes an effective representation of the knowledge of all the people who have participated in building it.
  • Knowledge sharing across time as people come in and out of a project.
    Software that is technically excellent is often easier to understand for people who are new to it.  For example, excellence in user experience and design means new users can get up to speed on software faster.  Use of good design patterns and automated testing allows new developers to understand existing software easily.
  • Verification and traceability for contracts or other compliance needs.
    Test-driven development (code) and specification by example (scripting and code) are forms of traceable, executable documentation that easily stay in-sync with the underlying software system.
  • Decision-making and analysis for business and technical problems.
    In particular, diagrams can help a great deal here.  However, electronic tools for creating such diagrams can be slow and awkward.  Consider the practice of Agile Modelling (basically using a whiteboard and taking photos) as a good alternative to precise technical diagramming if you are doing problem-solving.
  • Management oversight and control.
    Reports and metrics drive much of the traditional documentation in an organization.  Simplifying reports and metrics often leads to a clearer picture of what is going on, reduces the opportunities to “game” the system, and always results in lower levels of documentation.  As well, some reports and metrics can be generated 100% through automated means.  All that said, the fundamental premise in the Agile manifesto is that management should base decisions on what is actually built – the “Working software” by looking at it and using it.
  • Various aspects of individual accountability.
    If you really need this, a good version control system can give you the information for this.  Sign-offs and other types of accountability documentation are typically just waste that doesn’t actually help in process improvement.  Most people who are in high-compliance environments already have licenses and/or security clearances that provide this accountability.  If you software is working, however, then this isn’t even a concern as trust is built and bureaucracy can be reduced.

In my recent training programs as research for this article, I have surveyed over 100 people on one aspect of documentation – code documentation.  Every individual surveyed is either currently coding or has a coding background, and every single person had the same answer to a simple scenario question:

Imagine that you have just joined a new organization and you are about to start working as a software developer.  One of the existing team members comes up to you and introduces himself.  He has with him a piece of paper with a complicated-looking diagram and a full binder that looks to be holding about 250 pages.  He asks you, “you need to get up to speed quickly on our existing system – we’re starting you coding tomorrow – would you prefer to go over the architecture diagram with me or would you prefer to review the detailed specifications and design documents.” He indicates the one-page diagram and the binder respectively.  Which would you prefer?

(I’ve put up a Survey Monkey one-question survey: Code Documentation Preference to extend the reach of this question.  It should take you all of 60 seconds to do it.  I’ll post results when I write the next Agile Manifesto essay in a month or two.)

The fact that everyone answers the same way is interesting.  What is even more interesting to me is that if you think through this scenario, it is actually almost the worst-case scenario where you might want documentation for your developers.  That means that in “better” cases where documentation for developers may not be as urgent or necessary, then the approach of just going to talk with someone is a lot better.

Documentation and Maps

The problem with documentation is the same problem we have with maps: “the map is not the territory” (quote from the wisdom of my father, Garry Berteig).  We sometimes forget this simple idea.  When we look at, say, Google Maps, we always have in the back of our consciousness that the map is just a guide and it is not a guarantee.  We know that if we arrive at a place, we will see the richness of the real world, not the simplified lines and colours of a map.  We don’t consider maps as legally binding contracts (usually).  We use maps to orient ourselves… as we look around at our reality.  We can share directions using maps, but we don’t share purpose or problems with maps.  And finally, maps assume that physical reality is changing relatively slowly (even Google Maps).

Many times when we create documentation in organizations, however, we get confused about the map versus the territory.

Agility and Documentation

Of course, code is a funny thing: all code is documentation too.  The code is not the behaviour.  But in software, code (e.g. Java, ASM, Scheme, Prolog, Python, etc.) is as close as possible to the perfect map.  Software is (mostly) deterministic.  Software (mostly) doesn’t change itself.  Software (mostly) runs in a state absent from in-place human changes to that software.  Software (mostly) runs on a system (virtual or physical) that has stable characteristics.  The code we write is a map.  From this perspective, documentation becomes even less important if we have people that already understand the language(s)/platform(s) deeply.


This essay is a continuation of my series on the Agile Manifesto.  The previous two essays are “Value and Values” and “Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools“.

 


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Ranking: the Best and Worst Roles to Transition to ScrumMasters

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So you’re trying to do Scrum well because you heard it gave you great results.  You know that the ScrumMaster role is critical.  How do you find the right people to fill that role?  Here is a list of several roles that people commonly leave to become ScrumMasters, and a few not-so-common roles as well, all ranked by how well those people typically do once they become ScrumMasters.  From Worst to Best:

  • Worst: PMI-trained Project Managers (PMPs).  Too focused on control and cost and schedule.  Not easily able to give teams the space to self-organize.  Not able to detach themselves from results and focus on the process, values and teamwork needed to make Scrum successful.
  • Bad, but not awful: Functional Managers.  The power dynamic can be a serious hindrance to allowing teams to self-organize.  But, good functional managers already are good at building teams, and empowering individuals to solve problems.
  • Bad, but not awful: Technical Leads.  Here, the biggest problem is the desire to solve all the team’s technical problems instead of letting them do it.  Now, instead of detachment from results (project managers), it’s detachment from solutions.
  • So-so: Quality Assurance people.  Good at rooting out root-cause for problems… just need to shift from technical mindset or business mindset to cultural and process mindset.  Another problem is that QA is not nearly as respected as it should be and QA people typically don’t have a lot of organizational influence.
  • So-so: Junior techies: Enthusiasm can make up for a lot of gaps and naiveté can help solve problems in creative ways, but there will be a huge uphill battle in terms of respect and influence in an organization.
  • Good: non-PMI-trained Project Managers: rely on teamwork and influence rather than tools, processes and control (of course there are exceptions).
  • Awesome: Executive Assistants.  Respected and respectful, use influence for everything, know everyone, know all the processes, know all the ways to “just get it done”. Of course, they don’t usually know much about technology, but that often turns out to be good: they don’t make assumptions, and are humble about helping the technical team!

The ScrumMaster creates high performance teams using the Scrum process and values.  The ScrumMaster is not accountable for business results, nor project success, nor technical solutions, nor even audit process compliance.  The ScrumMaster is responsible for removing obstacles to a team’s performance of their work.  The ScrumMaster is an organizational change agent.

Other things you might want to consider when looking for a ScrumMaster:

  • Does the person have experience managing volunteer groups?
  • Does the person have good people skills in general?
  • Does the person want to create high-performance teams?
  • Can the person learn anything – business, process, technical, people, etc.?

Bottom line: try and avoid having PMI-trained project managers become ScrumMasters.  Even with good training, even with time to adjust, I often find that Scrum teams with PMI-trained project managers are always struggling and almost never become true teams.


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Agile Benefits: Five Essential Reasons to Try Agile

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Although there many other benefits of agile, and although those provide us with other reasons to try agile, the five essential benefits of agile are:

Rapid Learning – disciplined application of the scientific method to explore the best ways to deliver valuable results.

Early Return on Investment – opportunity to use the results of work starting with the work delivered at the end of the first iteration.

Satisfied Stakeholders – engagement in the process in a way that allows meaningful contributions from all stakeholders.

Increased Control – mechanisms to track/measure and therefore steer the direction that work is going so that it meets goals.

Responsiveness to Change – processes, tools, roles and principles that allow a team and an organization to embrace change rather than reject, control or suffer from change.

These reasons are sufficient and apply to operations work, project work and open-ended research work, whenever humans are involved. The above links take you to more detailed descriptions of each of these benefits.

What are some of the other benefits of agile?


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