Archive for July, 2014

The Importance of Two Things in Agile

7.7.2014

To me, there are two things in Agile from which everything else follows. Before moving on, what are those two things in your opinion?

Getting things DONE

The first thing is the potentially shippable product increment, delivered frequently. In Scrum this means that at least at the end of every Sprint, the technical quality of the product meets the criteria of shipping the product (but it doesn’t have to be shipped, for whatever reason, such as not having a shippable feature state). In Kanban flow, this state is reached at the end of every developed item.

This state means, for example:

  • the product has been properly tested and there are no known bugs
  • the product has been integrated with its environment
  • code is clean and refactored
  • documentation is up to date

If we don’t have that state, it should be the most important thing the team works on achieving. It is generally much more important than adding any new capability into the product.

Because, if we don’t have that state, we don’t have 80% of what makes Agile really work. The team is really doing glorified waterfall. “Almost Agile”, but still not Agile. We also don’t know where the project really is, since there is an undefined amount of work remaining in the features created so far (which is exactly the key problem with waterfall based project management). Essentially, we fool ourselves.

For achieving this in software context, Extreme Programming is a necessary framework (or something very very much like it). Scrum and Kanban are silent on this, but it has always been an assumption that smart software teams are aware how critical it is and use it appropriately. For those who have not experienced XP for real, it is unfortunately too easy to dismiss the importance (because they just don’t understand how much it really changes the name of the game).

Relentless improvement

The second thing is retrospectives – the continuous process of evaluating the way of working (including achieving & improving the technical quality of the product).

Unfortunately, this is often the first thing teams omit in a hurry or when getting less excited about their work. This is a symptom of “work harder” belief gone wrong. Yes, there are moments when working hard (i.e. focusing on getting stuff done) is very important, but it should never replace “working smarter”. And dropping retrospection is exactly that.

All examples of really masterful people or teams exhibit retrospection. They spend time to understand the system and focus on finding behaviors that enable them to get more done at their normal effort. They look at the world with new eyes that allow them to rephrase their problem, thus opening opportunities to new innovative solutions.

Masterful teams understand the importance of potentially shippable outcomes, and continually retrospect any faults that escape their process. They want to understand how to further “error-proof” their work. Of course, it’s a work that will never completely finish or achieve perfection, given that things tend to change and some surprises always happen.

And it is not just the process they retrospect, they also look at other elements of their value delivery. How can we better understand our users real problems? Are we able to come up with innovative solutions? Are we creating a successful business? Do we have the right skills or enough variety in our team? Do we appreciate and support each other enough? Are we communicating effectively in our meetings and daily operation? Are we seeing the reality, or an illusion of some kind? Are our challenges big enough to maintain the drive we have?

And everything else follows

If we follow these two elements, we can distill all other practices and frameworks we need.

We probably need to plan what we seek to achieve in some way (e.g. Sprint Planning and release planning). And we also want to replan daily for surprises (e.g. Daily Scrum) and inspect that outcome with stakeholders (e.g. Sprint Review). And so on. We don’t have to choose Scrum as our framework – we can also choose some other metaphor, like Kanban – but the process does emerge from these needs.

We can also refine our general approach. Is an iterative and incremental approach right for all the things we do? Do we need to assign singular responsibility for certain parts (like prioritizing things to do)?

As a consequence, a masterful Agile team will have a great process, but that process may be unlike anyone elses’ process. And that’s the point – they have not copied their process, but evolved it through countless small improvements and experiments. That’s the heart of Agile.

 

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UI Design in Scrum

3.7.2014

Again, I’ll post an email response to question from an alumni.

The question:

I am working on an agile project and I don’t know when to incorporate prototyping.

The project is a private web application with a number of complex workflows. We have developed high level user stories, but we would like to validate some of the user stories by testing them with a clickable prototype. 

I can approach this a few ways, and I am a little confused. Maybe your advice could help me.

Option 1:  I treat the prototype as part of the user story, as part of the iterative process. I build it into the sprint process and validate it during one of my sprints and iterate from there. 

Option 2: I conduct the prototype work separately before I incorporate it into a sprint and make it part of the discovery / validation process at the beginning of the project. This is how we handled the prototyping for the example I shared. The design/ux team developed and validated the prototype prior to putting the user story into the sprint.

Option 3: A better solution from Petri? 🙂

To me, both approaches mentioned are valid approaches (what is an invalid approach? One that never works? Anyway…).

 

I would use option 1 in these two scenarios:

  • The amount of uncertainty is manageable by the team without undue disturbance to other agreed items.
  • All, or most, of team’s work is stories like this. Thus, it is just the natural form of stories for the type or stage of the process, probably an early explorative stage of the product development.
  • There is great haste to moving the item forward, and it is better to commit to uncertain work (and face the consequences) than to spend time learning first.

 

I would use option 2 when either:

  • There is significant uncertainty about the thing to be done, and the team would not feel comfortable committing to the work as a Sprint story.
  • There are some constraints, like an approval from third party, and that stakeholder is not reliably available for normal sprint work. For example, the appearance has to be approved by Marketing.

Many product programs end up using “two teams” – the development team and the research “team” – that share some of the members. Imagine this as two overlapping circles (which are inside a larger circle – the product). One is focused on developing well-understood stories into Sprint releases, the other is trying to understand what is worth doing. in Scrum terms, the former would be the Development Team, and the latter would be like a Product Owner office (consisting of the PO, some external stakeholders, and some of the team members on a part-time basis).

Both “teams” would have their own flows. The Development Team probably uses something like Scrum, with agreed batches (but they could also use Kanban-like flow), given that the work this team undertakes is probably well understood. The research team is likely to use a Kanban-like flow, given that the work is highly uncertain and there probably are more “balls in the air” at any given time (i.e. there is research work going on in many epics/stories at a given time, and it is not necessarily very clear how long each item will take).

Most Development Team members spend 5-10% of their time in the research team, but some members, like UX designers or domain experts, may spend as much as 50% of their time there. This depends on a given Sprint and will fluctuate as needed. The people must manage their participation in both flows in a responsible way :).

A blog post looking at this model in more detail can be found e.g. from Marko Taipale.

 

And there is a option 3. It’s not better, just a slightly different approach.

This approach is called “spikes”, “research stories”, or a few other names. It’s kinda like a combination of the two above. Take a research item, write it as a story, and put it into a Sprint. The outcome is a learning outcome, not a product increment. The trick is, these items are not estimated, but timeboxed. In the Sprint Planning, the Team and the PO agree how much time is spent on that item, max (i.e. less time can be spent if a solution is found in that time). When the timebox expires, the team ceases working on that item and reports whatever they learnt in that time in the Sprint Review.

I would use this approach when:

  • The research items are reasonably few in number (like 0-2 per Sprint)
  • There is no “PO office” to handle research
    • Or if there is, but the item is heavily related to the “How”, i.e. technical domain)
  • The PO or the Team want to learn first (in a low-cost way) either about the What or the How, before being able to refine the story further and commit to actual development work.
  • The work can be time-boxed and easily fits inside a Sprint (i.e. there is more development work than spikes in a Sprint).

Getting Agile puts useful additional detail on this option. Also Agile Atlas has a section on this topic.

Depending on circumstances, I might use all three approaches in a project, as appropriate. Each has benefits that some stories would benefit from.