Sunday, November 8, 2009

Fail, To Succeed

I was listening to a commentary on NPR about a pre-school graduation which mentioned a comment from an education expert Leon Botstein that "we should be rewarding: Curiosity. Creativity. Taking risks. Taking the subjects that you're afraid you might fail. Working hard in those subjects, even if you do fail. We should reward children when they show joy in learning."

This led me to thinking about a reason that some teams struggle with being agile. Agile teams are good at making corrections based on feedback. For this to work you need to be willing to honestly evaluate your progress against a plan, and be willing to revise the plan (and how you work) based on this feedback. This is a hard thing to do if you're used to the idea that any feedback other than "you're doing OK" is bad. (I have more to say about this in a contribution to the 97 Things Every Programmer Should Know project.)

Agile methods help you create an environment where it's safer to try things by providing for feedback at such an interval that things can't go that wrong. By making small steps and evaluating the results, you can take small risks that you believe will be for the better. And if it didn't work out, you haven't lost that much.

This process is visible at all scales in an agile project.

Sprint Reviews give the team a chance to evaluate features every sprint. It happens that, based on review feedback that features are removed as well as added or enhanced. And that's fine because the team only spent a week or two. In other environments such decisions might not be made til it was far too late to change course and either implement something new or avoid embarrassment.

Integration builds give the team rapid feedback when a code change causes an integration problem (even when the developer thought that it was adequately tested).

Unit Tests give you a chance to understand the impact of a refactor before you commit a change. You can see a problem before anyone else is affected. And you can decide to abort a change with unintended consequences.

Frequent commits to a a version management system allow you to recover from changes that become more involved than you thought.

Being willing to fail allows you to improve as long as the failures are small and easily identified. Being agile means being willing to take small risks.

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