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Yours, Mine, and Ours- Ownership on Agile Teams

During a panel discussion on people issues on agile teams I participated in during a meeting of the New England Agile Bazaar the issue of how to address the problem of people taking credit for work someone else did arose. (The short answer is that you can solve the problem through a combination of agile tracking methods to make progress visible, and some people management techniques.) This entry isn't about that question.

The issue of credit in agile teams reminded me of a recurring puzzlement: when someone on a team says something like "we used Jim's component...." what does that mean? Some of the choices are:
  • I want to give Jim Credit for doing something useful.
  • I want to make it clear who's responsible if it doesn't work.
  • Jim is the only one who knows how it works, and the only one who can make changes.
There may be other choices, but this type of dynamic comes up a lot and I wonder what it has to do with the tension between the collective code ownership value of agile methods, and the innate tendency for people to want to get and give credit.

I tend to think that on an agile project, everyone should be able to work on any part of the code. Some people may have more appropriate skills for a task initially, but if the most "skilled" person is busy, anyone should be able to jump in and make a change. And if I'm doing something that touches Jim's code and something seems wrong in Jim's code, I should be free to fix it.

This form of Collective Code Ownership has advantages:
  • The Truck Number of the project increase as knowledge is shared.
  • The code gets "reviewed" and improved by everyone who touches it. You're less likely to have code that follows idioms only one person understands without the expense of formal reviews.
  • There is more peer pressure to do things well, as other will be looking at the code.
Agile practices enable this kind of collective code ownership by encouraging unit tests, accepted coding standards, and team collaboration to decide how the backlog gets completed.

While giving and getting praise and credit is good, and while anyone working on a feature should feel responsibility to do the best that they can, on an agile project, teams should be wary of a "you touched it, you own it" dynamic. That makes for fragile code, interrupt driven work, and a lower velocity as "the experts" become bottlenecks.

Silos of knowledge don't benefit the team in the medium or long term. Encourage people to work on code that someone else has "authored." On an agile project, the team commits to delivering functionality for a sprint and your code is everyone's code.

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