We recently celebrated the 15 year anniversary of the publishing of the Agile Manifesto.  As you’ll recall, in February 2001, 17 thought leaders in software development gathered in Utah to discuss better ways to build software. A set of values and principles were established which provided guidance for planning, building and releasing software. As agile evolved, several methodologies emerged to provide specific practices for the application of agile. Examples of these are Scrum, XP, Lean, Crystal, etc. These methodologies can be opinionated, but do provide companies with ready-made blueprints for structuring their agile programs.

At a few past companies, I have had the opportunity to craft software development processes that align with agile principals. In these cases, I haven’t utilized the strict application of a single methodology.  Rather, I have tried to mold the agile principals themselves into a set of practices that best match the culture of the target organization. Collaborating with other product stakeholders, this usually results in a unique interpretation of agile for that company. Since agile espouses introspection and continuous improvement, adaptation is natural.

Given the 15 year milestone, I thought it would be useful to revisit the values behind the agile manifesto and how those can be applied to a modern software delivery organization. This may be rudimentary to experienced agile practitioners, but might offer insights for new software development leaders charged with being “agile”.

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

One of the core shifts introduced by agile was recognition that great software is produced by empowered individuals working closely together on small teams. This ran counter to the approach used by large organizations attempting to coordinate activities across hundreds of developers. In order to manage enormous teams, tools were championed that allowed disparate teams to schedule project work into sequences of events (Gantt charts) through desktop applications. With this move to formalized project management, teams stopped discussing the software in person and focused their effort on managing a tool.

Agile shifts this mentality back to individuals and their personal interactions. It encourages practices like the ones below.

  • Limit team size. Agile teams should be small (less than 10) and should include representatives from each function required to address the project work. For Internet apps, this means the product manager, UX/UI designer and engineers from each functional area (front-end, back-end, services, devops, etc.).  The key is that the team doesn’t have a major dependency on someone not part of the core team.  There can be other influencers, like from marketing or customer service, who participate as extended team members.
  • Colocation.  The core team should sit together. Physical proximity encourages high bandwidth collaboration. I realize that newer communication methods like IM and group chat facilitate non-spoken communication, but as humans, we are wired to rapidly broadcast information and gather feedback from non-verbal cues. As one of the agile principles states, “the most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.” I am also a big proponent of fluid seating arrangements, where individuals can shift their seating based on their current agile team assignment. They may still have a “permanent” desk, but for the duration of their team assignment, they sit with the other members of the agile team.
  • Encourage informal discussions. I love to see the following situation. One member of an agile team has a question about a requirement. Then, one or more team members suggest they grab a conference room to discuss. The group heads to the room, closes the door and can be seen feverishly working out the problem on a white board. This occurrence stems from the agile concept that these types of informal, in-person communications should occur frequently during a project. These should not be categorized as interruptions and discouraged.
  • The team should have the proper environment, tools and support needed to accomplish their mission. In order to be self-empowered, the team should have full control over their work environment, the tools they use and necessary support from other teams. This is where engineering leadership can contribute to the team’s success. If you are a member of leadership (director, VP Eng, etc.), a big part of your job is to monitor your teams’ updates and identify any outside circumstances that might be creating impedance. These could be dependencies on other teams, difficulty getting their work environment set up or access to the right tools. Look for these obstacles and clear them.
  • Trust the team. If the team is staffed with empowered individuals armed with a clear direction, they should be able to accomplish their goals. As a member of leadership, you should trust that they can do this and get out of the way. Resist the temptation to tweak or guide. As long as expected outcomes are clear, maintain your role as an observer.

Agile anti-patterns:

  • Heavy emphasis on updating tools. On a functioning agile team, you should see a lot of informal discussion. The tools used to manage the agile process are useful for reflecting status, but are not a replacement for personal interactions.
  • Rushed meetings.  Over the last 10 years, I have seen a growing resistance to holding meetings. The observation has been that many companies load up employee schedules with so many meetings that they don’t have time to actually perform work. The knee-jerk reaction has been to question the value of all meetings or rush them in order to “get some time back”. Meetings, which I will simply define as a conversation between two or more persons at a pre-scheduled time, have a  purpose in an agile environment. They allow for necessary team member interactions to answer questions, review designs, plan work, or do anything that requires agreement. Allowing these discussions to occur at a scheduled time simply makes it easier for individuals to plan their day.  So, I think meetings are fine, as long as they are limited to necessary participants and produce an outcome. If you see meetings avoided or rushed, step back and determine if the team has a mechanism available to foster debate and make decisions.

Working software over comprehensive documentation

Another key tenet of agile development is to focus the team on delivering software versus waiting for a full set of requirements. Documentation is encouraged in agile. However, agile doesn’t gate the start of development on the completion of documentation. I still see this practice in some shops that profess the use of agile. If the developers wait until the requirements document is complete before they start coding, it will serialize the project and extend the end-to-end delivery schedule. Also, complete documentation is a farce. It is impossible for a product manager to anticipate every facet of a new feature. Many design decisions can be made at time of implementation.

An emphasis on working software provides other benefits in the form of agile practices for structuring work.

  • Break up large projects into incremental deliverables. Agile’s focus on delivering working software is the foundation for the convention of a sprint.  A sprint’s purpose is to time box project work, forcing segmentation of the overall project. Sprints should always include a release to production. This release can either be represented by many small features or portions of a very large feature.  Even if a large feature isn’t fully “live” at end of sprint, it is still important to conduct the release. Access to the feature can be limited to internal users by a feature flag. Each release forces integration and testing, spreading that cost over more cycles.
  • Track progress. Working software is the currency of a project – it provides a clear means of measuring progress. Work items in an agile sprint are usually organized into a burn down chart. This provides an advancing view of completed versus remaining work items. Remaining work should approach zero as the sprint proceeds. Delivering working software throughout the sprint provides the clearest way to validate progress.
  • Lower technical risk. As engineers plan their work items, they should address the technically hardest deliverables first. This allows the team to clear the biggest obstacles early in the project. Addressing these items in working software proves the feasibility of the solution.
  • Apply the simplest approach. Organizing project work into discrete deliverables released frequently encourages product and technical designs to be simple. In product design terms, this is often referred to as the minimum viable product. The value of a MVP is well understood. Until users provide real feedback, it is difficult to estimate the potential success of a new feature idea. Similarly, for infrastructure design, simplicity prevents over-engineering.  While sound technical design is critical to scalability and extensibility, trying to address future scenarios with extra technology capabilities can become wasted effort if those requirements never materialize.  As one of the agile principles states – “simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work not done–is essential.”

Agile anti-patterns:

  • Perfecting the design spec before sharing with engineering.  Teams may sometimes delay showing the design spec for a project to engineering until it is fully baked and signed off. The reasoning is that the team doesn’t want to waste engineer time by reviewing an incomplete spec. There is some credence to this, but I also think there is value in sharing a spec before it is complete. This allows the engineers to begin processing the future design – conceiving of improvements and planning their technical approach. Waiting until the spec is fully baked usually creates schedule pressure that limits feedback or negotiation of items that would lower delivery cost.

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

Agile imbues the software development process with a strong emphasis on the end customer. For consumer applications delivered over the Internet, the end customer represents the millions of users of a company’s apps. Since it isn’t feasible to involve all these users in the software development process, we rely on the product manager to represent their feedback. In this model, the product manager is the customer. There are other customers to an agile project – like outside stakeholders. Even the core team members can be viewed as customers of agile.

Promoting a customer-centric view is critical to the agile process.

  • Conduct regular demos. Outside of the release at the end of a sprint, the team should strive for frequent, informal demos of their work. When a task is completed that can be “shown”, the responsible developer should grab the product manager and do a quick demo. The purpose of this is to solicit feedback as early as possible. Any time delay will increase the cost of making changes. Also, I like to see agile teams demo to each other periodically. One team I managed conducted “Demo Fridays”, where each team member showed what they had built the week before.
  • Speak in terms of customer goals. When the team conducts sprint planning, the product manager should lay out their objectives for the sprint in terms of end user benefits. Focusing the sprint outcomes on the customer allows everyone to align their tasks with what will have the most impact on the business.
  • Maintain a feature backlog that includes tech debt. Agile teams should construct a ready backlog of work items. These usually include feature ideas and product enhancements, prioritized in terms of expected impact. The feature backlog should also include tech debt tasks.  If you aren’t familiar with the term, tech debt represents work items that make future feature delivery faster, easier or more reliable. These are generally items sponsored by engineers that don’t contribute to the product’s feature set. They are important nonetheless, as they represent an investment in future delivery of the product. Teams can determine the appropriate mix for their situation, but I like to see at least 25% of available cycles in a sprint allocated towards tech debt.
  • Radiate information. Agile advocates public display of information related to the project. This could be UI designs, the burn down chart, database schema, system diagrams, or anything else that provides meaningful information to members of the team. This public display is generally done on the walls surrounding the team’s work area, using print-outs or monitors. Information radiators also have the added benefit of providing a convenient mechanism for presenting the team’s work to any visitors. Some teams I have managed publicized periodic “office hours”, encouraging other employees to drop by.

Agile anti-patterns:

  • Formal sign-offs. If you find members of the team requesting formal “sign-off” of delivered items, then the team may have a trust issue. Usually, this occurs at hand-off points in the process, like presenting product requirements or validating completed work items. If sign-off is requested, then the team likely is struggling with their ability to respond to change.
  • Only demoing UI features. Some teams think that only features with a user interface are worth demonstrating. In the spirit of delivering working software, any completed component of a project should be demoed. Even a back-end service with no interface or a database design can be presented. The key is that the developer shows the work to another person.

Responding to change over following a plan

In Internet time, the product landscape is constantly shifting. Yesterday’s great feature idea may no longer be viable today. Teams need to be able to adapt quickly and shift priorities to capitalize on new business opportunities as they emerge. The agile preference for responding to change allows this flexibility. While a plan is important, the team should orient around an expectation for change. As one of the agile principles states – “agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.”

  • Prioritize sprint tasks based on expected impact. As agile teams plan their sprint work, they should schedule the highest priority items first. This also implies that if the priority of an active item changes, then its position on the sprint plan will be adjusted as well.
  • Daily stand-ups. One practice to ensure that team members are kept updated on changes to the schedule is the daily stand-up.  I like to keep these focused on the standard set of updates – what each team member accomplished yesterday, plans to address today and if they are blocked. These updates give the rest of the team a sense for the progress of other team members, and most importantly, where the schedule may be deviating from plan. Any issues raised during the individual updates can be addressed in smaller break-out discussions following the stand-up meeting. The stand-up meeting should be short, no more than 15 minutes.  However, enough time should be allowed for sufficient updates and treatment of any follow-up items. Occasionally, I have observed stand-ups being rushed, as if finishing a stand-up in under 5 minutes is an accomplishment.
  • Mid-sprint reviews.  As team members complete sprint tasks, these should be marked off in the sprint tracking tool. This progress against the schedule will be reflected in the burn down chart for the sprint. While progress can be tracked daily, I think it is a good practice for the team to formally review sprint progress at least once during the sprint. I like to do these check-ins mid-sprint, either at the end of a daily stand-up or in a scheduled meeting. The team should display the burn down chart on a shared monitor and discuss progress. Ideally, half the work items are completed at this point.  If not, the team should explore why and make adjustments to the plan for the second half of the sprint.
  • Retrospectives.  Another theme of agile is the notion of introspection and continuous improvement. The process by which the team works should be constantly reviewed using a reliable feedback loop. Retrospectives are formal meetings at the end of each sprint in which the team reflects on the sprint’s activities.  Discussion revolves around what went well and what needs improvement. This review should be conducted with an objective, blameless tone. For the items that need improvement, the team should identify actionable tasks to address them. Those tasks are then added to the backlog for future scheduling.

Agile anti-patterns:

  • No changes to the sprint plan as the sprint progresses. If the sprint plan always proceeds exactly as expected, then there is likely something wrong. The team should take advantage of the fluidity of agile to ensure that the most important work items are being addressed first.
  • Retrospectives with no improvement items. I have observed retrospectives for some teams narrow to a list of compliments between team members. Recognition is important, but retrospectives should also result in improvements. I like to see a 2:1 ratio of items that went well versus those that need improvement. This ensures there is space for recognition, but enough critical thinking to drive the team towards continuous improvement.