The Importance of Two Things in Agile

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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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