Early Warning Signs
Colleague Michael Mah describes comparing time-to-market, productivity and quality of a project team against industry averages as being outside the elevator. With the focus on iteration and release, it feels like being in an elevator – precious little contact with the outside world. For example, you do not know where other elevators are headed and what their speed is until you step out of the elevator. As long as you are in your “elevator”, it is quite difficult to objectively assess whether your Agile roll-out is or is not going well.
Until you collect the data and acquire the analytics to compare your team to other project teams in the industry, here are a few early warning signs for Agile implementations that might be heading toward trouble. Like everything in Agile, they give you the opportunity to take the input as call to action and apply the necessary measures to improve your process.
Time spent with Agile teams in the trenches
This is the simplest yet the most reliable warning sign. If you are the executive in charge of the Agile roll-out, examine your calendar over a certain period of time with respect to two questions:
- Do I spend enough quality time with the Agile teams to be able to notice the rest of the early warning signs listed below?
- Am I involved in a manner that clearly demonstrates my support of and commitment to the Agile roll-out?
The data you collect from your calendar is simple. For example:
- Number of stand-up meetings attended.
- Number of bi-weekly demos attended.
- Number of hours spent in release planning.
You do not need to say much in any of these forums. You might even choose to be completely silent through a stand-up meeting . However, you must spend quality time with the teams that are getting into Agile. Allocating 20-25% of your time to being with the Agile teams in the trenches is quite appropriate, particularly in the initial roll-out phases.
Failure to prioritize
The great advantage of this warning sign is that it can be spotted fairly early. In its implicit form, this sign manifests itself as multiple backlogs when one backlog should have sufficed from a product perspective. In its explicit form it manifests itself as everything is important statements and pressures. In severe cases you might even notice that the Product Owner is not really part of the team, that an us versus them attitude prevails.
Chronic reductions in scope
Flexibility is very different from mushiness around the minimum credible line of a release. Repeated reductions in scope, as distinct from substituting one requirement for another, is a certifiable sign of trouble. Something is wrong if reductions in scope happen one iteration after another. Something is terribly wrong if team members believe the Agile philosophy is supportive of scope reductions in an unconstrained manner.
In some cases the heart of the matter might be as simple as inadequate estimation techniques, not inadequate execution. However, until estimation accuracy improves, relationships between R&D and marketing and sales are likely to be strained.
This warning sign tends to manifest itself later rather than earlier in the Agile release. However, it is quite easy to spot.
Weak focus on outcome
This warning sign is a close cousin of chronic reduction in scope. It usually manifests itself as misplaced focus. For example:
- The focus is on the team progress rather than overall project progress
- Output numbers become more important than outcomes
- Managers and directors bicker about which team was “behind”
- Product marketing changes the backlog frequently under the “Agile flexibility” banner
Not keeping up
Keeping up with all facets of Agile practices amidst short iterations can be quite demanding. Watch out for repeated failures to keep up with:
- Continuous integration
- Completing stories within the iteration
- Resolution of blocking issues
- Regular bi-weekly demos
- On-going release-ability
- Technical debt
This warning sign is best used in the aggregate rather than in a discrete manner. To properly use this sign, watch for cumulative effects rather than a single failure.
Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Igor Bergman, Walter Bodwell, Mike Lunt and Roy Ritthaler for sharing their warning signs with me and with the readers of this blog.