Thursday, March 25, 2010

Are You Agile Enough?

I recently read an article in SD Times about how organizations tailor agile processes to fit into their environment, rather than feeling a need to be dogmatic. Adapting a process to work in your environment is very important to being successful. It's also  important, however to understand how the variations you are making help you move toward your goals.

Being agile is a means to an end; your goal is to develop better software more effectively, not to be able to wear a "We are Agile" badge. If you're considering adopting agile, you are probably doing do because your current approach isn't getting you where you need to be so it's worth giving the 'by the book' technique a shot before you try to adapt an agile method to your circumstances. This especially applies to when you consider omitting practices.  Like many approaches,  there is a synergy between the the core agile practices; any one can help you be better but the big wins come when you do them all.

 The essential parts of an agile process in my experience are:
  • Feedback, with a goal of continuous improvement.
  • Honest evaluation of why you're doing and why.
  • A (periodically) stable codebase so that you  deliver functionality to customers quickly
  • A set of goals that lead to customer value.
  • A belief that the team doing the execution can find the best solution and that management needs to step back to encourage innovation.
Agile methods define some techniques for achieving these goals. Scrum has you doing sprint planning, daily scrums and sprint reviews. You need technical practices like unit testing and continuous integration to verify that the code does what your project plan expects it to do. There are other ways to achieve these goals, but if you are trying to change how you work, a template is helpful.

When I read something like this finding reported in the article:
Of agile’s core tenets—daily standup, iteration planning and unit testing—VerisonOne found in its fourth annual “State of Agile Development” survey that 69% of the 2,570 participants adhered to these three things.
Even a variation of Scrum exists. Known as “ScrumBut,” it was dubbed for shops that don’t fully comply with the methodology. It is for those who say, “We are doing Scrum, but…” While some people may view this as non-agile, others argue it’s simply a customization of an agile process to work better for that particular company and its structures.
I wonder what these teams are they doing instead of the core "standard" practices to achieve the goals of agile.  The argument about whether those practicing "Scrum-But" are "agile" misses the point of the label, which is to highlight the areas where teams can work to improve their productivity.

My former colleague Bruce Eckfeldt was quoted in the article as saying:
“I see the methodologies as a continuum, and at the end of the day it’s all agile with the same principles and practices,” ... “There’s nothing set in stone on how to do something. You’re always looking to improve."
If you're not improving as fast as you like, consider what steps in your process you are skipping.  It's really hard to grasp the concepts behind agile until you are disciplined and try to apply the practices. If you have another approach that gets you to the end goal, by all means do it, but at the core, agile methods don't define a lot of detail. The basics are mechanically easy. The hard part is getting comfortable with the transparency agile methods require.

"Agile" methods define a set of goals and techniques to attain these goals.  If you are trying to adopt agile, but don't want to adopt all of the practices of a method, it's fair to say that your organization isn't ready for a given practice, but be honest about it. Without the honesty and transparency, you're missing the key difference of agile methods.

As to the relationship between textbook and practical agile when adopting agile methods, Bruce is quoted as saying:
“things may be reasonably pure,” but then people start to see what works or not and begin “to look beyond the textbook versions of agile.”
The trick is not to customize too soon. Until you give the process a fair trial, there is a great tendency to fall back on comfortable ways.

Organizations look to agile methods because their current approaches don't allow them to deliver as quickly as they can. And in the end, organizations and people need to change, whether they are adopting agile, or any new process. 

Before adapting you need to understand the core values or agile before you risk throwing the benefits away. You need to understand why you want to make the adaptation and honestly express the reason. And most important of all, you need to be clear and consistent about your goals. For example, if you want to encourage unit testing, you need to be clear that unit testing is encouraged, and accept that initially slightly slower progress is possible and OK if people are learning to write tests. Nothing can kill a change endeavor more quickly than inconsistent messages.

Being dogmatic for the sake of method purity isn't useful. Following the process until you understand the benefits of the practices can be very useful as a way to facilitate change.  I'll end with a brief story.

When I first heard of XP, at an OOPSLA conference I came back to work and suggested that our definition of "done" include unit tests. The other person on my team grumbled each time I asked "did you test that?" The grumbling continued until a couple of days later when, being presented with a problem report from our QA team, he was able to diagnose the source of the problem in minutes with the help of unit tests. "Cool," I head him mumble as he found and fixed the problem.

Had we not given the discipline of testing a good shot because we believed that unit tests didn't help, we would not have understood why the practice mattered. If you think that a method has value, try it, learn, then adapt. The opposite, adapting before you try, is less useful.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Checklist Manifesto as Agile Primer

I recently read Atul Gawande's book The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right and found a number of of useful lessons in the book for agile developers. Agile software development methods often have very few explicit processes, but these processes are essential, and require discipline to execute well. We're often tempted to skip steps, either because:
  • We think that the step doesn't apply in a particular situation or
  • We forgot
The former is reasonable when we really understand why the step isn't relevant, but we are often tempted to convince ourselves that a step is unnecessary before we've mastered the basic process. One common example is the Scrum Team that is tempted to skip one or more of the standard planning or review activities.  And forgetting is just something that happens when we're busy and moving quickly.

It's when we skip steps that processes break down. Think about the time's you've had a hard time tracking down a problem. How often was this problem in code that you wrote a unit test for?  While it's often tempting to say that a change is "too trivial" to break something, how likely would you make that same decision if you had to go through a process (either on paper or enforced by tools) that asks "did you write a unit test?" to which you had to explicitly say "no?"

As another example, consider the various meetings  that are part of your agile process such as your daily scrum.  Jean Tabaka's book Collaboration Explained: Facilitation Skills for Software Project Leaders,  discusses the value of posting and following agendas for the meetings that agile teams have.   In some sense these agendas are just checklists that we follow to set up a context that allows us to meet the goal of the meeting is an efficient manner. In my experience, Daily Scrums and XP stand-ups become less valuable when they stray from the agenda, because people lose focus, and start thinking of them as less valuable. And the posted agenda (checklist) empowers those who find a side conversation distracting to move the meeting along.

Discipline is essential to an effective agile software development process. But discipline, Gawande points out, is hard:
Discipline is hard—harder than trustworthiness and skill and perhaps even than selflessness. We are by nature flawed and inconstant creatures. We can’t even keep from snacking between meals. We are not built for discipline. We are built for novelty and excitement, not for careful attention to detail. Discipline is something we have to work at.
So, if checklists enforce discipline, do they do so at the expense of judgement and creativity? Gawande says no:
...the question of when to follow one’s judgment and when to follow protocol is central to doing the job well—or to doing anything else that is hard. You want people to make sure to get the stupid stuff right. Yet you also want to leave room for craft and judgment and the ability to respond to unexpected difficulties that arise along the way. The value of checklists for simple problems seems self-evident.
Using example from aviation, structural engineering, and medicine, Gawande demonstrates that well made checklists allow you to focus on the activities that require creativity, by providing a way to get the basics right.
The checklist gets the dumb stuff out of the way, the routines your brain shouldn’t have to occupy itself with
As much as I find checklists useful, if used the wrong way, they can do bad things to productivity and creativity.  As Gawande says:
Bad checklists are vague and imprecise. They are too long; they are hard to use; they are impractical. ... They treat the people using the tools as dumb and try to spell out every single step. They turn people’s brains off rather than turn them on. ...Good checklists, on the other hand, are precise. ... They do not try to spell out everything... Good checklists are, above all, practical.
Perhaps a surgeon, using examples from aviation, medicine, and structural engineering can teach agile developers something valuable. The main lesson that appealed to me as someone who values (lightweight) process is  process can enable you to be more effective and move quickly by liberating you from thinking about the well known issues, and allowing you to focus on the hard problems.

If your team is struggling with process and not getting enough done, think about whether there are some simple things you are forgetting, and write them down. And, most importantly, iterate on the checklists.

Note: This was also the first non-fiction book that I read on a Kindle  so I'm discovering how useful the Kindle is to capture notes as I read. I'll have more to say later about other lessons from the Checklist Manifesto about teamwork and collaboration.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Agile Portfolio Management

 I've heard people criticize agile methods as being too reactive and focusing too much on the little picture and ignoring larger goals. This is a misunderstanding of a basic idea of agile. Agile methods are't about thinking small.  Agile methods are about making small steps towards a goal, applying programming an management discipline along the way. (For more, have look at an elevator pitch for agile I wrote last year.)

The basic approach of all agile methods is to
  • Define a goal
  • Break the goal into incremental bits so that you can iterate towards the goal
  • Periodically (at the end of each iteration) pause to evaluate both your progress towards the goal, and whether the goal makes sense. 
Teams often skip the second part of the this evaluation, but it's the constant evaluation of the long term goals that makes it possible to reconcile the concepts of being agile and planning.

If you have doubts about whether long-range planning in an agile environment is even possible, read Johanna Rothman's book Manage Your Project Portfolio: Increase Your Capacity and Finish More Projects, which I  recently received a review copy of.

A project portfolio is "an organization of projects, by date, and by value, that the organization commits to or is planning to commit to." This sounds like a scaled up version of a product backlog that you might use to organize your work in an agile project, but with a longer time scale. So it's certainly aligned with agility.

In this book, Johanna motivates the importance of the project portfolio to enabling agile development, and also demonstrates how the technical and project management techniques of agile teams make it easier to define and iterate on a project portfolio.

Johanna is an expert on merging the human side and technical sides of projects.  I learned quite a bit about managing people from Behind Closed Doors: Secrets of Great Management which she co-authored with Esther Derby. In  Manage It!: Your Guide to Modern, Pragmatic Project Management Johanna discussed how to manage projects. And one of the more challenging part of managing a project portfolio is overcoming the resistance some people have to defining a goal for a project, a portfolio for a product line, and mission for an organization. In Manage Your Project Portfolio she shows how how to address common obstacles to defining a project portfolio, evolving it, and using it as a tool  to allow everyone to understand where the organization is aiming.

And the benefits of a project portfolio don't just help with "fuzzy" concepts like vision, but can also help reduce and address items such as technical debt. In addition to an overview of concepts, and concrete guidance on how to address problems, the book interleaves stories that establish that this work is based on real-world experience, and help you to relate to the issues the book addresses.

I recommend this book to anyone who has a role in defining projects.

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