There are three areas to focus on to improve agility:
- The process itself: stories, feedback, incremental and iterative development…
- Building strong teams: Self organisation, collaboration, continuous improvement…
- Using effective technical practices: TDD, continuous integration, clean code…
Out of these three, most organisations focus a lot on the process, but ignore teams and technical practices. This leads to what I call 1/3 Agile, where we are limited to only a subset of the benefits.What stop us from building better teams and using better technical practices?
The audience raised a number of obstacles that stop them from having strong teams and tech practices. These obstacles generally fall into three buckets:
- Culture: Some say that their organisation culture is still command and control, and these practices wont work there
- Authority: Some say that they don’t have the authority to make the change, and it must come from senior management
- Skillset: Some say that they would like to do these but don’t know how
We have two options when faced with these obstacles.
- We can give up and stay with the status quo
- Or we can be a change agent and shape the future
Do we want to be remembered as someone who wanted to do something great, but wasn’t allowed to by the organisation, and in the end you did nothing of note? I hope not and in that case, the other option is to be an active change agent.Being a change agent
Three vital skills that we need to put to use are:
- Showing leadership
- Building relationships
- Exerting influence
- First, leadership doesn’t require authority. Anyone can be a leader–it is not reserved for the executive management. In fact, in 99% of the time, leaders do not have authority. Even in the case of senior management, whom employees assume have the most authority, most of the work is done without authority. This is because a lot of work involves collaboration across many groups and departments and unless you are the CEO, you don’t have authority across the organisation. So we have to dispel with the notion that leadership requires authority.
- Before the transformation, team members may be thinking of their job as showing up, writing some code or testing, collecting a paycheck and going home. They may be thinking the same during the transformation as well. So they may not care about the transformation: agile, waterfall, whatever it is is irrelevant, and you won’t be able to make a strong team if they don’t care. You need to ask them: why are we here? what are we doing? where are we going?
- When it comes to teams, the first step of to take is to communicate a vision. Most of the time, there is a lack of vision. Team members don’t know why they are doing this “agile thing”, apart from the fact that someone, somewhere said that the company is going agile (what does that mean?). It is up to you, as the change agent, to make sure the teams see a vision where strong, self organised teams are creating great software. Without teams buying into this vision, nothing else will bear much fruit.
- There is a saying: “Role power gives compliance, relationship power gives commitment.“
- Role power is the authority derived from your role. or designation, in the organisation. When you ask someone to do something from a position of authority, they will comply. Their performance appraisal and paycheck depends on it. But they may not be enthusiastic about it. They might just do the minimum required to make you happy, and then stop.
- There is another source of power in an organisation and that is relationship power. This is the power from having good relationships with other people. When you need something done and you leverage a good relationship, it gets done because the other person believes in you or trusts you. They always have the option to decline, so the fact that they are doing it means they will do it a lot better. They are not doing it just to comply with you.
- Compliance has no lasting power. The moment you look somewhere else, the compliance will stop as well. Commitment is the only way to build long lasting change.
- Building relationships is important. Of course, build relationships with the teams you work with, but also build relationships with others in different places in the organisation.
- Al Switzler and the folks at VitalSmarts have a book called Influencer. Their influencing model is based on six leverage points on influencing which fall into 3 categories: Personal, Social, Structural
- Personal is when you try to change a person’s outlook directly
- Social is when you use peers, groups, communities to influence change
- Structural is about changing the system or environment in such a way to influence change
- When trying to make a change, it is important to align the message to the person or group. Only when it is aligned is there motivation to make the change.
- For example, if you are trying to transform a team, you need to first understand what each individual wants from their work. Some may want an opportunity to write beautiful code. Others may want the excitement of delivering value to their customers. Some people want work life balance to spend time with their kids. You need to show a vision of how agile can help team members reach these goals in the future. Maybe you will emphasise technical practices to the first person, and rapid incremental delivery to the second one, and sustainable pace to the third one. Of course, you will also explain that this is the end state, it may take many months to get there, but you will get buy in for going on the journey.
- Similarly, when talking to senior managers, you will need to align with their goals. Maybe they care about time to market, or innovation, or delivering quality with high customer satisfaction.
- If there is no alignment, there will be no buy in. If you talk to developers about time to market, they may not care; they may thing that agile is just a way to manipulate them to get more work from them. Same way if you talk to a manager that agile gives work life balance, they may not care; worse, they may think that it is a touchy-feely thing which will reduce the company’s profits.
- Often times, a big problem is that a few people believe in agile and they declare a transformation for the organization. But the vision is only from their point of view. For example, a CEO might tell at an all-hands, that we are adopting agile because we need to deliver faster to the market. But unless the message is translated to benefits for all the other people in the middle — from senior management, middle management, first line management, and team members — then without that no transformation will happen. Maybe something might happen only to comply with the directive, from the role authority of the CEO. But there will be no commitment. It will fizzle out.
- One of the biggest obstacles that gets highlighted is that of culture. Be it organisational culture, or the Indian culture, it is the most common reason given as to why team practices and technical practices cannot be implemented.
- Some people say that Indian culture is by nature command and control, right from schooling to the society, and the same continues even when people come for work. Hence self organisation cannot work.
- Others say that Indian companies are built as command and control organisation and cannot be changed.
- Still others say that since most Indian companies are service companies with clients abroad, and their USP is about competing on price, hence command and control is required.
- I don’t buy these arguments. There are companies in India where self organised teams are a reality. These companies are hiring the same Indians as everyone else. Hence I don’t buy the argument that self organisation is not possible in India due to culture. There is something more to it.
- Similarly, even in highly command and control organisations, there are certain departments or teams where the culture is different.
- If we look at it, there are three levels of culture: The country culture, the organisation culture, and the team culture. Generally, team culture overrides organisational culture, which overrides country culture. Certainly all the cultures have an impact, for example when dealing with other departments, the organisation culture may play a primary role. And when dealing with relationships, country culture is primary. But at a team level, it is possible to create your own cocoon of culture through leadership and relationship building.
- Lots of people talk about culture as an excuse for not even trying. This is the big mistake we make.
- Sometimes the reason given for not trying team and technical practices is that someone in the organisation will not approve of it.
- Actually, the truth in most organisations (especially larger ones) is that as long as the deliveries are being met, generally no one cares what else you do. So, if the team is excited about TDD, they can just go ahead and do it and no one will even notice. Just make sure that the delivery is not getting messed up, and you wont attract any attention to yourself.
- What this means is that it is possible to make incremental changes for the better, slowly over a period of time. Just make sure you don’t tell anyone It is only after you become successful that people will even take notice.
- There is a quote attributed to Grace Hopper: It is easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission
- In some organisations, it is better not to ask. Some people are tuned to saying No for anything that they don’t understand. Often you can just go ahead and do your changes and no one will even care. And later if someone questions, then you can show them the benefits you are getting.
- Sometimes, running experiments this way sounds risky and change agents are unwilling to place themselves in a vulnerable spot like this. But a change agent has to do it. Hopefully, you have built relationships with others that will reduce this risk.
- Do not ignore networking. Take every opportunity to build relationships with others, especially people outside your team or department.
- Social capital is very very important for making change happen.
- In his book Tame The Flow, Steve Tendon contrasts span on control vs sphere of influence.
- Span of control is the number of things that are directly under our control. Usually this is quite small — maybe the team, perhaps a few more things.
- Sphere of influence is the number of things that we have no direct control over, but we can influence. We can get things done in the sphere of influence, but it has to be done via someone else.
- Being able to get things done through other people is the single most important skill for a change agent, and this is only possible through having good, strong relationships.
- One person cannot drive a large change. It is vital to build a community to support the change. Find the folks who are supportive, and encourage them.
- Don’t limit the community to a single role. Who knows, maybe there is a director in another department who is interested in agile. Welcome her. Maybe she could influence the director in your department who is lukewarm to agile.
- A healthy community also helps to drive social influence. People are most likely to listen to peers. If their peers are talking about self organisation or technical practices, then they are more inclined to try it than if an external person like you tried to convince them.
- Being a change agent is a unique opportunity to learn and put into use crucial skills that are very important to career success
- Don’t wait for change to miraculously happen from elsewhere
- Don’t wait for the organisation culture to miraculously change before you take the next step with your teams
- Building these skills takes a long time, and lots of practice, so start today!
- Remember, that YOU can make the difference
Derek Neighbors, Jade Meskill, Clayton Lengel-Zigich, and Roy van de Water discuss:
- What happens when someone has central control
Derek Neighbors: Hello, and welcome to another episode of Agile Weekly Podcast. I’m Derek Neighbors.
Roy van de Water: I’m Roy van de Water.
Jade Meskill: I’m Jade Meskill
Clayton Lengel‑Zigich: I’m Clayton Lengel‑Zigich
Derek: We’ve got another fantastic, hypothetical situation.
Derek: You may spot this in the wild, I don’t know. We’re talking about things that could potentially maybe happen, someday, to some teams.
Say you had a czar of a department, or a unit, or a job function.
Roy: Like a real Russian Tsar?
Derek: Yeah, like an architect…
Jade: I’m a Marxist, sorry.
Derek: In the hypothetical situation, we would probably see this as being an architect, or maybe be a designer of some kind. When I say designer, I mean the chief of the companies, the [inaudible 00:55] top guy.
Jade: Or the head programmer?
Derek: The head jock honcho.
Jade: On the team, the technical lead or something?
Derek: Not even that. Above the technical lead, the top of the food chain. They have this stance that says, “The only thing that can done can only go to production if I have approved it.”
Roy: You’re saying everything has to go through this guy?
Derek: Everything has to go through this gal. She is totally 100 percent, “The design, every pixel has to be done by me,” or “Every single method has to be approved by me if we’re writing code.”
This person works in a large organization, thousands of people per se, and lo and behold, they can’t go to every planning meeting.
The good news is they have some mini‑czars that they can send out to these planning meetings. They can go to these planning meetings, and help the developers and the designers do things.
Then what happens is all sorts of decisions happen in a planning meeting. When these mini‑czars come back to the big honcho, the big honcho says, “Nope, I don’t like it. It needs to be this way.” Now they go back to the team and have to tell the team, “Sorry.’”
Derek: …What does that look like? What happens? How do you fix that? How do you rectify that situation? What are the downsides to that stuff?
Roy: First off, is there anything wrong with that?
Clayton: Yeah, I’ll take the devil’s advocate approach. The reason that all the design has to go through that one person is because if you want to maintain a consistent brand experience for the end‑user, you can’t just let people ‑‑ especially developers who don’t have any design sense ‑‑ to go off and do a bunch of crazy stuff.
Roy: There’s a bunch of awesome examples where I’ve seen exactly that with Google. In fact, I’ve heard, Derek, you complained about this specifically that Google has all of these products out there of totally different experiences, that are totally not integrating because they’re all being developed in isolation.
Derek: Ever since their designs are [inaudible 02:56] left…
Derek: They have not been on‑brand.
Jade: I’ve seen these on the development side, too, where you’ve got all these dumb programmers that we hired that are up there writing a bunch of crap. If they could just do it like me, everything would be so much better.
Derek: Yeah, where do you think our tech‑level of that comes from?
Jade: Yeah. [laughs]
Clayton: I suppose we pay these people six figure to be morons.
Derek: The dumbest, highest paid people, we have.
Roy: I get that. The guy at the top, his neck is on the line if should go south, he wants to make sure that everything goes north. Right?
Derek: Yeah, it’s pretty scalable, they are able to ship a lot of production software this way.
Clayton: That’s a trade‑off. If you go through this bottleneck where one person has to approve everything, obviously everything goes very slowly, and you don’t ship very often.
Jade: And you redo a lot.
Clayton: Yeah, you probably use a lot of rework, as obviously the market’s going to change, and you’re going to have to go back and fix things and change your strategy. But theoretically, everything looks pretty good, and it’s pretty close to being “perfect” when it does ship.
Roy: I guess that depends on their value system then. Do you value the ability to move fast, to make changes and respond to changing requirements in the changing world? Or do you prefer to have a perfect experience? Because I could see value in both of those.
Derek: Yeah, if a lot of people really applaud Apple and Steve Jobs and what he did ‑‑ he certainly was not interested in shipping on a very tight schedule and going very fast. He was much more concerned about shipping perfect products than he was shipping bad products more frequently.
Roy: Right. Another example is like Rolls‑Royce or something, where, I don’t care if it has the latest and greatest features, but…Hold on, let’s be clear here. I’m not buying a Rolls‑Royce.
Roy: I could see people don’t really care about [inaudible 04:46] features, they care about every product being extremely high quality. I don’t know if they actually have this, but I could see them having a philosophy like the CEO hand‑checks every single car before it leaves the factory, because they insist on having that premium experience, and that everything is perfect.
Jade: Apple’s an interesting case, because they’ve shipped a lot of great hardware. They shipped a lot of really poor software that is not consistent and not very good.
Derek: You’ve obviously used their online store before.
Jade: [laughs] Yeah.
Clayton: I’ve always had a tough time with the Apple comparison. I think that’s the first one that people jump to, but no one ever really acknowledges the difference in hardware.
Jade: It’s much harder to fix hardware once it’s gone up the book.
Clayton: Yeah, so that’s different. That’s something that we should clarify.
Derek: When I look at this hypothetical situation, the thing that I think is the biggest pain for me or the biggest thing that I see that people aren’t talking about, is what does it feel like being a team member who goes through a planning meeting with a group of people and comes up with a solution and an idea only to, an hour later or a day later or two days later, say, “Uhh, what you’re doing is really stupid and really dumb. This is the right way to do it. Throw away everything you’ve done and go do this other thing instead.”
What does that feel like as a team member, do you think?
Roy: I can see two parts to that. First off, we talked a lot about autonomous teams. I would feel like, as a team member, a large part of your autonomy gets taken away if someone comes back and says, “You have to do it my way.”
If it’s taken from the standpoint of, “Hey, have you considered using other options”? And they are truly better ideas. If you follow the core commitments and you choose to always seek to better an idea and to accept any idea no matter where it comes from, then that sounds like it would only be a positive experience.
I think that how that interaction takes place, and the attitude of both parties, has a huge impact on how that’s going to go down.
Clayton: I would feel pretty useless and like my time was being wasted. I would probably not even bother attending. Or if I did attend, it would just be for show. I would probably not even be paying attention because, really, what difference does it make?
Roy: But there is a difference. Clayton, if I came to you. Let’s say you plan on a Monday and I come to you on a Wednesday. I say, “Hey, I saw what you guys planned out on Monday. Have you considered using other possibilities”? Would you have that same reaction?
Clayton: If you said, “Had you considered these other possibilities”? We had some dialog, and I said, “OK, let’s talk about it next Monday.” I think that would be one thing. If you said, “Put the brakes on. Really think hard about these other choices, because you’re doing them no matter what.” Then I would feel like, “What’s the point. Why did I waste that time”?
Jade: I can tell you what it’s like to be on the other side of that. I’ve been that person. It sucks. You can’t trust anybody. You are paranoid and you need to be…
Roy: Just to be clear, what side are you talking about?
Jade: The person who’s the bottleneck. Who…
Roy: Oh, I see.
Jade: …is changing things for everybody.
Roy: And insisting that your rules be followed?
Jade: Yeah. It’s a very crappy position to be in. You don’t sleep well. You’re not relaxed. You’re always stressed out because everything is going wrong around you all the time. You don’t trust anybody. I think that’s really where…that’s the core of the issue. You don’t trust anybody.
Derek: In this particular hypothetical, there’s also a middle person. We’ve not talked about that middle person. Not only is the person that is doing the work probably leaving frustrated…
Roy: So you’re talking about the Vice Czar in this, right?
Derek: The Vice Czar goes into this thing thinking, “Oh, I totally represent the attitudes and the patterns and the thinking of my boss.” We go in and I walk out thinking, “Man, this is all going to be really good.” Then I go back and they say, “Why did you make this decision? You’re letting them do that? I can’t believe that”!
Now, not only do I have to feel like maybe my boss doesn’t trust me, but now I have to go deliver that news to a whole group of people to say, “Hey guys, even though I said that this was probably the right thing to do, as it turns out, the Grand Czar does not agree with me.”
What does that got to feel like?
Clayton: You lose face with the other people. I know that I told you that it was good, or that we agreed that it was good, but it turns out that it’s not. So either I can play that off as, “The czar guy is a real jerk. Man, what an asshole! I hate that guy too.” Or you would have to just hope that people aren’t thinking, “This person is really stupid. They don’t understand what their boss wants. Man, I’m not going to bother asking their opinion anymore.”
Roy: Right. Even the boss is probably getting frustrated with them. They’re coming back with ideas representing the team. It’s probably not what the boss wants in the first place. They’re never going to think the same way. So this person is probably just getting shit on from both sides.
Derek: So we’ve got the hypothetical. We’ve got some of maybe how it feels to be all of the roles in the hypothetical. How would you go about fixing it?
Roy: In my opinion, if you can figure out some way to have the team earn the Czar’s trust and rid the organization of the Czar, not rid of the person but rid of the role, I think that will go a long way. Somebody who is insistent on all of these best practices, good coding styles, good design, or whatever, they should be going out and championing all of those things and explaining why it’s so important and really convincing people and winning them over rather than telling them what to do.
Jade: A lot of times they do have a lot of really great knowledge and sometimes even some special insight that other people don’t have, but you’re right.
They should be going out and helping those other people to gain that skill and also experience things from the other side of the fence.
The things that are changing during planning or the real complexities on the ground of dealing with this on the fly, those type of things so that there is some empathy for what the people are going through while they’re out dealing with these situations.
But again, it comes back to building trust with those people. You believe that they’re doing the best thing that they can.
Roy: It gets tough though when you set up a system like that in which you’re like, “I’m the one who is going to decide on the design, so Clayton don’t even bother wasting time coming up with designs or whatever.”
“Don’t even bother coming up with the method definitions because I’m going to shoot it down and give my own implementation anyway.”
Now all of a sudden Clayton hates me, and it’s going to be really difficult for Clayton to earn my trust because he is going to be trying to get away as much as he can to please the people that are breathing down his neck without getting my ire.
He is going to be subverting me, which is going to cause me to trust him even less like that’s just going to be a feedback loop.
Clayton: There are definitely cases where people get in this situation like what Jade described like no trust and I don’t think most people would want to be in that, but there are some people who do enjoy the aspect of controlling everything.
They want to be the hero and they want to be seen as the smartest guy in the room and all that stuff.
I would say that probably is a pretty big component in a lot of these cases compared to the person who really doesn’t want it to be that way all the time, but it’s just like, “Oh, woe is me,” it just happened to be that way.
There is some aspect to that. I think unwinding some of that desire for control where they don’t feel like all of their self‑worth at their job is based on whether or not they got all the answers right all the time. I think that could go a long way.
Derek: When I look at it, Steve Jobs might be a good example. I didn’t know Steve and I certainly didn’t see him work, but I would…
Roy: Me and old buddy Steve, yeah.
Derek: I think that if I were to…
Roy: I call him Steve.
Derek: …guess how he operated, he trusted his people. Because I don’t think he could get the results he got without trusting them. What he wanted to control was the essence of the spirit of the products that were put out.
Not necessarily how they were built and so to me the difference is you come back from a planning meeting and I say, “Oh my God, you’re doing all the stuff wrong and this is how you should have done it.” I don’t think that’s how Steve operated.
He probably operated in a “I’m going to let you do whatever and when you show it to me, if it’s crap, I’m going to say it’s crap, but I’m not going to ship that and fuck you go do it right, and when you get it right, we will ship it. Until then, leave me alone, don’t waste my time.”
“Why did you call me to this fucking demo that sucks this bad”? What I think is very, very different than saying, “I’m going to tell you exactly how to do every little thing.”
I might tell you at the demo to say like “I’m not doing that and I had expected this.” And I think that’s a subtle difference, but that’s very different than trying to control how everybody does their job.
Instead of saying here’s the bar of expectation and I’m going to make you live up to that, I’m not going to tell you how to live up to it.
Jade: I think that’s right.
Derek: How do you get somebody to get to the point where they’re allowed to let the essence of what their standard is hold but not have total mistrust.
Jade: I think there are some systemic problems in that as well that that person is probably being held accountable for those decisions by their people.
Getting some understanding put in place there is a big help. To help their boss see that like they don’t need to be held to that.
They need to be held to the standard of they’re making everyone around them better and helping them achieve that essence and not being a control freak.
Because usually it’s people that don’t want to do that. They end up in that situation because of some externality.
Derek: Right, fear usually, they’re afraid of something.
Roy: I wonder if people that are successful at it and managed to climb their way to the top might not be the ones that enjoy it though.
Jade: There are people that enjoy having that control like Clayton said, and those people might not be able to help them.
Derek: All right. See you next month.
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One of the common complaints about agile is that there are too many ceremonies. The issue isn’t with meetings per-se. The problem is that too many of the meetings are not as productive as they could be. Here are 4 ways to make the meeting more productive:Keep the ceremony on track
A common cause for an ineffective meeting is that the conversation goes into tangential topics and the meeting outcome is never met. This leads to another meeting to be scheduled, or delays in the work. Here are some examples:
- In a grooming meeting, the conversation goes away from preparing upcoming stories. The PO and team instead start discussing the status of current stories. By the end of the meeting, none of the stories are groomed. When the next planning meeting came around many stories will not be in a position to be picked up.
- In a daily standup, the discussion goes towards solving one particular blocker. The whole team is standing and getting totally bored while two team members have a long discussion on the blocker.
In all these cases, keeping the ceremony on track would have saved everyone some valuable time. The next time you notice a discussion going on a tangent, put the discussion on the parking lot, or schedule another meeting specifically for that discussion. Then get back on track for the reason you have set up the meeting.Reduce distractions
Be sure to run meetings without laptops and phones on silent. The biggest meeting killer is when someone is talking and meantime everyone else is checking email or doing something else. When folks are distracted, the meeting loses its purpose, and further discussions have to take place during the to go over the same ground that was covered in the meeting. When everyone is focused, the meeting can be finished earlier and everyone can get back to work.Set aside certain slots for scheduling meetings
Software development requires a block of time to concentrate. Having a meeting in the middle can disrupt that time. It is better to have a 60 minute meeting followed by 4 hours of coding time, rather than 2 hours of coding time, then the meeting, followed by another 2 hours of time. Agile ceremonies happen on a regular schedule, so you can easily schedule them in the most convenient time. For example, some teams schedule all their ceremonies in the morning and keep the afternoons free of meetings. This is more productive than randomly having meetings throughout the day.Ensure that the ceremony pre-requisites are met
A few days before the ceremony the Scrummaster or team should make a quick check that everything is ready. For instance, the stories should be well formed, and ready for discussion. If they are missing acceptance criteria or there are outstanding decisions to be taken, then the story should be de-prioritised from the discussion. Otherwise you will waste time in the ceremony going off track. Similarly, if some architecture review was identified in the grooming, then ensure it happens before the meeting.
Derek Neighbors, Jade Meskill, Clayton Lengel-Zigich, and Roy van de Water discuss:
Clayton Lengel‑Zigich: It is hard doing that every week.
Derek Neighbors: You don’t do it quite as good as Jade does.
Jade Meskill: All right, go Roy.
Roy van de Water: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Agile Weekly Monthly Podcast. I’m Roy van de Water.
Jade: I’m Jade Meskill.
Clayton: I’m Clayton Lengel‑Zigich.
Derek: I’m Derek Neighbors and joining us today is the improv group.
Roy: In the room next door.
Jade: Yelling very loudly.
Roy: Today we are talking about thinking simply, instead of thinking complexly. Jade, you and I have been…
Jade: Accused of being simple?
Roy: Accused of being simple.
Roy: Can you tell me a little about what that idea means?
Jade: Sure. We’ve been trying to…
[shouting in background]
Jade: These guys are really… [laughs] yelling in there.
Roy: I’d like to denote that they were entirely quite for the last 45 minutes before we walked into this studio.
Derek: It’s like they’re Chicago trading for [indecipherable 1:10] .
Jade: Buy! Buy! Sell! Sell! [laughs]
Derek: You do the savings, I’ll do it.
Jade: We’ve been working on some concepts of trying to write very, very small, simple applications, taking the UNIX philosophy and applying it to web applications to avoid the over‑complication that tends to arise in larger systems.
Roy: What does an over‑complication look like?
Jade: Usually a system where the responsibility is not very well delineated between either modules or different parts of the application. It tends to be very messy and sloppy, where it’s hard to tell where something…There’s no discrete functionality, I guess is the best way to say it.
Derek: The way that I think about it is, if you had a web application where the code that displays the page where you enter in the details about a job is in the same place as the code that makes the…Say the job in a database in the same place in the code that schedules the job, in the same place in the code that runs the schedule of job, in the same place in the code that…They’re all in the same place.
Roy: It sounds like everything is in the same place, it sounds pretty simple to me.
Derek: Right, until you get everything in the same place, and then something goes wrong, or you want to change something. We have this problem with the Agile Weekly podcast or Agile Weekly website, where we had a bunch of things that were all clinched together.
If I took the approach of a normal, say, Rails application, like the standard Rails way of doing things. When certain pieces of the system got a little too big, or too unwieldy, it was hard to…it seemed like it was simple because it was all in the same place, but the real simplicity came when we broke those out into little pieces.
Then you have these…you’re going back to [indecipherable 3:08] sampler, mentioning the UNIX philosophy, with these little teeny pieces that all did their one little thing really well. They all just worked together.
Roy: So why wasn’t it obvious to be that way in the first place?
Jade: Because in the beginning that would have actually been more complex.
Roy: So how do you know when you are doing something complexly instead of simply?
Jade: I think when it becomes hard to explain, it’s probably too complicated.
Roy: Is that like the metaphor ideal, like you should be able to describe whatever you’re building as a metaphor, and as soon as your metaphor circuit is breaking down that means that you’re putting too much in there? Is that…
Jade: I think that’s a good way of putting it. If it’s not something that you can explain in a simple, conceptual way, it’s probably gotten a little bit out of control.
Roy: Is this idea of complexity versus simplicity something that is on the overall project, or is it something that you see replicating down to the individual components of a method, or a class, or something like that?
Jade: It’s an important recursive idea that happens. If you are being simple with the very small parts of your system, it’s easier to be simple at the larger scale as well.
Derek: I think developers in general…they find it easier to think in these terms when they’re maybe down in the class with the [indecipherable 4:31] methods. I think that’s where they live, and all that stuff. Then you go up a few levels and even talking about what features you’re delivering.
I think a lot of developers might understand that concept at that level, but then it gets in the features and it’s like, “Well, the product guy said just build this stuff, and like well, OK, whatever, I don’t care.” Where I think that’s the even more important part, that’s an equally important part to be having this discussion about simple…
The planning meetings that we’ve been involved in lately for sure. I think we’re constantly driving towards trying to find something that’s simple, but not too simple, or not too simplistic. That’s a really hard thing to do.
Jade: Yeah, I think being simple is hard.
Roy: So this is the type of thing that I might solve using design patterns, like, “Can I just throw those at this problem?”
Jade: We have an observer. Let’s find out…
Clayton: I think the interesting thing to me, it’s always easier to add complexity that it is to remove complexity. When you start to get that Zen peace, it’s way easier to say, “Let’s start super simple and we can add what we need to add,” which is a very hard discipline to build.
Even if you’re talking product. That struck it for me. Can’t say how many times you’re talking about a feature and you’re up there at a whiteboard drawing it out, and somebody’s like, “Well that’s just too simple.”
At the end of the day, if you give this to the developers, it might turn into a two‑week feature request even though it sounds so simple right now, on the surface. As human beings we like to overcomplicate everything all the time.
Roy: What drives that, though? Why do we want to overcomplicate things?
Clayton: Some of it is uncertainty, or, we have this need for completeness. If we only say we’re going to show X, it’s like, “Yeah, but Y and Z and A and B are all available to us, too. We have to show them.”
“Why? What if we just showed X? What if X is enough? That is all that feature needs, why do we need the…”
“Because those other things exist, so we have to show them.” There’s very much this, because we can, we should, mentality.
Derek: Another thing we see in our work is that people have an aversion or misunderstanding of iterative development. It’s like, if we don’t do this now, we’re…
Jade: You mean incremental development?
Derek: Yeah. If we don’t do this now, we’re never going to do it. If you guys don’t plan every single thing that we think we know, then we’re totally screwed. You guys are going to forget it.
To be fair, I bet you there’s a lot of product people out there who have teams that maybe aren’t the most reliable and don’t deliver what they say they’re going to deliver, and all those things.
When someone were to come in and say, “Hey, we’re going to do some really simple thing and ship it real soon,” it’s like, “Yeah…I don’t believe you.” Like, I’m not going to take that risk.
Clayton: To me, it sounds like there’s a little bit of the 85‑15 rule, where you can deliver 85 percent of the value with 15 percent of the effort. Then you spend the other 85 percent of your time delivering the last 15 percent of the value.
I have worked with different product people, designers and architects in the past, where they want to get all 100 percent, because they know that if you spend 15 percent of the effort now to deliver 85 percent of the value, you’re never going to spend the other 85 percent to deliver the last 15 percent.
Which may be a really awesome business decision, but you’ll never be 100 percent as good as it could be.
Roy: Some of it is, building off Clayton’s response there, is, there are a lot of teams where if you say, “OK, fine, let’s just do X.”
You say, “OK, let’s do Y.” “OK, let’s do Z.” Then you say, “OK, let’s do A.”
Then they’re like, “We’re going to have to re‑evaluate the whole thing. If you would have told us up front that we had to do A, we would have totally built this in a different way. Now that you want A, we just have to throw away the last six months’ worth of work, and start all over, and if only you would’ve told us.”
Once they get trained for that it becomes, if I know anything I must disclose it now and tell you that you have to build it into the app, because if I disclose it later you may come back and tell me, “Oh man, we have to throw everything out and start again.”
Clayton: By disclosing everything up front and insisting that it all gets done, the product owner is really trying to maximize his choice later on down the road. His ability to choose later on.
Roy: They’re trying to mitigate their risk, I believe. If they disclose all that and say we need to do all of that, then they think they’re mitigating the risk of somebody coming back later and saying, “Oh, we can’t do that because you didn’t tell us.”
In reality, what they do is increase their risk exponentially, because they make it so it becomes almost impossible to deliver what they’re asking for.
Jade: The cognitive load becomes much more to deal with and “grok” all of those additional features when they’re not needed.
Derek: It sounds to me like then you’re going to try to build a system that’s overly architected just in case you have to build any of the number of features you’re told you have to support.
Roy: One thing recently that clarified this a bit more for me was that we had a situation where we wanted to deliver some features that would have been nice to have a database.
Having a database was a non‑trivial thing, so we used the file‑system. We had a table with a row and a column in it. That’s all there was.
Derek: A folder with files in it?
Roy: Yeah. We had a folder with files. That was sufficiently complex for what we wanted to do. I think some people hear that, and they think, “What are you, f‑ing crazy? You can’t use the file‑system…”
Roy: “…Use a database, that’s crazy.” What we understood was, right now, for what we’re trying to do, for this little slice, that’s what we need right now. We acknowledged that that is not a long‑term solution, but it’s going to be as long‑term as it needs to be for what we want to do with it.
Jade: It was very simple to replace.
Derek: I think where this started to come and play for me was when we started to cross the chasm, so to speak, in doing a lot more mobile development.
So things that we thought were pretty trick and pretty sleek and pretty simple and pretty small started to fall down really quick when a customer would say, “hey by the way, I need an android version or an iPhone version of this.” and I was like, “oh shit, like dude like how in the, man!”
And so when it got to the point like “OK, let’s make everything like API and we’ll have the front end consumed of the web version consume that API and hey now we can have the iPhone version.”
Jade: Anything can use this API
Derek: API right like it started to like I think click a little bit more just even in that that you could kind of separate this concerns a little bit better.
Then you can start to say “OK how about make perhaps even smaller and smaller,” and keep slicing those so that they are easier and easier to replace, so when you do find something new you might not have to rewrite the whole system to do something. You might be able to rewrite a little piece of the system to do something which is a lot less risk and a lot easier to do.
Jade: That’s kind of where [indecipherable 11:27] and I got into writing these micro‑applications that had very discreet functionality.
We were having trouble, even with that simplified view of things of just having an API and a web service that was still wasn’t good enough. There was still too much co‑mingling of functionality between different classes and you know, the abstractions were good enough.
We took a crazy stance and tried to work on like how can we build the smallest possible thing to do this one job, and then chain all of those things together as needed?
Roy: I felt like that worked for those instances I am curious to try more places and see how well it runs across the board.
In that case it was a project that only ended up being a collection of five or six of these smaller apps, but when you start to build a more complex user experience where you have a whole store form or something where the user [indecipherable 12:24] component you try to keep all of those pieces separate. I wonder how well that’s going to play together.
Clayton: I feel pretty confident in it from the next example like; pick any five UNIX commands. It could probably do a bunch of stuff. If you chose wisely.
Derek: Yeah, It does fall down at certain point though. What I mean by that is, there’s a whole lot of things people do, they don’t do with Unix commands any more. You could use “set OK” and “grip” to do a whole lot of things.
Derrck: But you probably open up “vi” or “sublime” to do it instead because the interface is easier even though its [indecipherable 13:00] all mashed into an application than a whole lot more than those simple things.
I think there are this kind of. It is nice to assemble them small‑ly. Into small little apps that interact but when you have to chain too many interactions together, the complexity of remembering what and how to chain things starts to become cumbersome.
Clayton: That and when there’s like a whole bunch of apps that you don’t even know existed.
Clayton: So you start rewriting them yourself
Derek: Yeah. What tends to happen is when you have things that have common things you start to see those assembled into other apps.
I would say that OK and grip get used within most editors the developers use today. Because they make sense to kind of bundle natively into an editor rather than a drop out to a shell and do them. I think the work that those things did and put in place are straight up stolen and re‑used inside of those editors.
Jade: It’s like when we talked about, we built a simple app but at some point it became too complicated. It was simpler to take a different approach of writing smaller, more complicated apps. Think this is the contrary example of at some point that becomes absurd. The interactions are too complicated.
Jade: Now you find a simpler way to merge those things together.
Derek: It goes back to; it’s always easier to get more complex.
If we’ve got the set the OK, the grip, and we need to put them all together like we know those things really well now and so we know how to assemble them into an interface or into certain things a lot better than if we would have tried to build those things as part of the bigger complicated thing to start with.
Jade: I think that’s where some of the ideas around, like hexagonal design can come into play. Where you’re composing complex systems out of simpler modules and simpler pieces.
Clayton: We’ve been talking a lot about in terms of software, but this same stuff applies to process things.
You can take the components and do them very well and you can build some sort of process that works and maybe it gets too big sometimes or maybe you decompose or whatever, but it’s not just whole scale, you know.
From a coding example, jumping straight into some massive java architecture thing and that’s the same thing as like what you’re going to get on the juror train and see if this mother app…
Clayton: …Or it’s like trying to get a good user story. I am like “let’s try and get good at talking to each other as a team first.”
Derek: Let’s get good at working together.
Jade: Yeah, let’s try those things first and then you know, you can juror me to death.
Roy: Hey I will see you next month
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I was recently involved in an online discussion about how to calculate the benefits realized by software development teams. As with most online discussions it quickly devolved into camps and the conversation didn’t progress much after that. In this case there was what I would characterize as a traditional project camp and a much smaller agile/lean product camp. Although each camp had interesting points, the important thing for me in the conversation was the wide cultural and experience gap between the people involved in the conversation.
The following diagram summarizes the main viewpoints and the differences between them. The traditional project camp promoted a strategy where the potential return on investment (ROI) for a project would be calculated, a decision would be made to finance the project based (partly) on that ROI, the project would run, the solution delivered into production, and then at some point in the future the actual ROI would be calculated. Everyone was a bit vague on how the actual ROI would be calculated, but they agreed that it could be done although would be driven by the context of the situation. Of course several people pointed out that it rarely works that way. Even if the potential ROI was initially calculated it would likely be based on wishful thinking and it would be incredibly unlikely that the actual ROI would be calculated once the solution was in production. This is because few organizations are actually interested in investing the time to do so and some would even be afraid to do so. Hence the planned and actual versions of the traditional strategy in the diagram.
The agile/lean camp had a very different vision. Instead of investing in upfront ROI calculation, which would have required a fair bit of upfront requirements modelling and architectural modelling to get the information, the idea was that we should instead focus on a single feature or small change. If this change made sense to the stakeholders then it would be implemented, typically on the order of days or weeks instead of months, and put quickly into production. If your application is properly instrumented, which is becoming more and more common given the growing adoption of DevOps strategies, you can easily determine whether the addition of the new feature/change adds real value.Cultural differences get in your way
The traditional project camp certainly believed in their process. In theory it sounded good, and I’m sure you could make it work, but in practice it was very fragile. The long feedback cycle, potentially months if not years, pretty much doomed the traditional approach to measuring benefits of software development to failure. The initial ROI guesstimate was often a work of fiction and rarely would it be compared to actuals. The cultural belief in bureaucracy motivated the traditional project camp to ignore the obvious challenges with their chosen approach.
The agile/lean camp also believed in their strategy. In theory it works very well, and more and more organizations are clearly pulling this off in practice, but it does require great discipline and investment in your environment. In particular, you need investment in modern development practices such as continuous integration (CI), continuous deployment (CD), and instrumented solutions (all important aspects of a disciplined agile DevOps strategy). These are very good things to do anyway, it just so happens that they have an interesting side effect of making it easy (and inexpensive) to measure the actual benefits of changes to your software-based solutions. The cultural belief in short feedback cycles, in taking a series of smaller steps instead of one large one, and in their ability to automate some potentially complex processes motivated the agile/lean camp to see the traditional camp as hopeless and part of the problem.
Several people in the traditional project camp struggled to understand the agile/lean approach, which is certainly understandable given how different that vision is compared with traditional software development environments. Sadly a few of the traditionalists chose to malign the agile/lean strategy instead of respectfully considering it. They missed an excellent opportunity to learn and potentially improve their game. Similarly the agilists started to tune out, dropping out of the conversation and forgoing the opportunity to help others see their point of view. In short, each camp suffered from cultural challenges that prevented them from coherently discussing how to measure the benefits of software development efforts.How Should You Measure the Effectiveness of Software Development?
Your measurement strategy should meet the following criteria:
- Measurements should be actioned. Both the traditional and agile/lean strategies described above meet this criteria in theory. However, because few organizations appear willing to calculate ROI after deployment as the traditional approach recommends, in practice the traditional strategy rarely meets this criteria. It is important to note that I used the word actioned, not actionable. Key difference.
- There must be positive value. The total cost of taking a measure must be less than the total value of the improvement in decision making you gain. I think that the traditional strategy falls down dramatically here, which is likely why most organizations don’t actually follow it in practice. The agile/lean strategy can also fall down WRT this criterion but is much less likely to because the feedback cycle between creating the feature and measuring it is so short (and thus it is easier to identify the change in results to the actual change itself).
- The measures must reflect the situation you face. There are many things you can measure that can give you insight into the ROI of your software development efforts. Changes in sales levels, how often given screen or function is invoked, savings incurred from a new way of working, improved timeliness of information (and thereby potentially better decision making), customer retention, customer return rate, and many others. What questions are important to you right now? What measures can help provide insight into those questions? It depends on the situation that you face, there are no hard and fast rules. For a better understanding of complexity factors faced by teams, see The Software Development Context Framework.
- The measures should be difficult to game. Once again, traditional falls down here. ROI estimates are notoriously flakey because they require people to make guesses about costs, revenues, time frames, and other issues. The measurements coming out of your instrumented applications are very difficult to game because they’re being generated as the result of doing your day-to-day business.
- The strategy must be compatible with your organization. Once again, this is a “it depends” type of situation. Can you imagine trying to convince an agile team to adopt the traditional strategy, or vice versa? Yes, you can choose to improve over time.
Not surprisingly, I put a lot more faith in the agile/lean approach to measuring value. Having said that, I do respect the traditional strategy as there are some situations where it may in fact work. Just not as many as traditional protagonists may believe.
We have recently developed a new feature for having discussions about your board. This is an early release we want to get out to get some early feedback from our customers.
If you click Discuss at the top of your board, you will see all other members online at the present time and be able to chat with them.
Please let us know if you’d like to beta test this feature and help us polish it!
What is your real objective? To plan for maintenance hours or to ensure that your team is optimally utilized working on both user stories and defects while turning out quality code on a continuous basis, including defect fixes?
We’ve heard them both before. They’re givens in the tech world:
- Understand your customer’s problem
- Get early and continuous feedback
Sounds easy enough, but even seasoned software teams know both are much easier said than done, even with our growing awareness of the “build-measure-learn” methods promoted by lean-minded practitioners.Thumbnail:
In Part 1 of our blog series on Monitoring the Build System, we walked through the challenges we faced and the ways we resolved them. In this blog, I'll discuss further details regarding our build system and the tools that we used.Thumbnail:
As part of our series on cycle time, we’ve covered what cycle time is, why it matters, and how you can use it to know if you're improving. In this video, you will see how Mingle + Cycle Time Analytics enables you to easily identify outliers and trends in your team's cycle time as well as spot bottlenecks in your team’s process.Thumbnail:
It wasn't long ago that most IT departments controlled vast swaths of spending regarding key company initiatives. They were the captains of the "mission critical" applications. Today, with the vast array of niche service providers and the proliferation of Cloud and SaaS, the choreographed ERP ecosystems of yesterday are becoming “old school.” Marketing departments in particular are at the forefront of this change.
In this follow-up to Part 1, Chad Wathington, Managing Director, ThoughtWorks Studios, examines a few examples of experience-focused Product Management with suggestions to help product managers cultivate that focus.Thumbnail:
Continuous improvement and product flow are popular themes on the Mingle team. Both internally as we reflect on our own development practices, and externally as we build an agile project management tool that helps teams collaborate and improve together. To help us better understand our flow and gain more insight into ways we can improve, we’ve started to incorporate cycle time into our team conversations.Thumbnail:
In Part 1 we saw how the Card Wall can be used as a Scrum Taskboard. In this short video we see how Mingle’s Feature Tracking Wall provides an overview of the progress of stories associated with different features.Thumbnail:
Recently, I had the pleasure of presenting with Richard Manners, Morrisons' Director of Retail Process Improvement, at TWLive Europe on May 15, 2013 to talk about how mobile has changed the face of retail forever, for consumers, in-store, and for operations.Thumbnail:
Success for retailers in the next few years is going to be defined by retail agility…the ability to take advantage of the explosion of new markets, channels, products, and customer segments. Successful retailers are the ones that are focusing their IT spend on customer-facing initiatives. Differentiation is no longer happening from investment in back-end systems. A strong customer-facing strategy is now an imperative for retail market leadership.Thumbnail:
I am part of this project where we run a pretty big CI Build system. We had been facing a few issues with it and we wanted to do some work around Build Monitoring to improve the system as a whole. The next couple of blogs (written in collaboration with Rohith Rajagopal) will talk about the problems and approaches that we considered. In this post we will describe our build system, the tool we use, general build systems and approaches towards monitoring the Build System.Thumbnail:
In this video series we explore ways you can deliver faster and how cycle time can play a significant role in getting you there. In Part 1 we started with the basics - What is Cycle Time? In this part we examine why Cycle Time is important and how we can use it to fine-tune our delivery process.Thumbnail:
It was just a few years ago that I read numerous articles predicting the inevitable death of retail stores. This doom and gloom scenario played out across most of the trade publications leaving retailers scratching their heads in wonderment and worried that if they didn't do something (they didn't know what) they would be overtaken by their cooler, lower cost, on-line cousins.Thumbnail: