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Making Agile Work

Archive for April 2009

When an Agile Project does not Seem to be Working

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Colleague and friend Paul Beavers suggested writing a post on this topic. To quote Paul:

… it is clear the [Agile] methodology often gets blamed for poor quality and poor general execution.  The root cause of these problems is not methodology but more the mere implementation of it.  It would  be valuable to read ideas on how to recognize things are not performing and how to keep leading an organization through the tough times. 

Recognizing when things are not working

The post Early Warning Signs highlighted various specific indicators one could use to foresee problems. Examining the same subject from a somewhat different perspective, Jean wrote about Twelve Top Agile Adoption Failure ModesChristophe Louvion has recently conducted a session on the topic 101 Things Leaders do that Kill Team Productivity.  It should be fairly easy to sense that something is not right by consulting theses three sources in conjunction with your own intuition.

A good practice to follow is establishing a base line with respect to the state of your software engineering practices before starting an Agile implementation. Collect and record the data for a metric or two. For example, number of bugs per thousand lines of code is a useful metric for quite a few purposes. When you suspect the Agile implementation might not be working, compare the historical data you collected with current data. You will be able to assess your progress (or lack thereof) on a relative scale instead of an absolute one.

What to do about it

IMHO self-awareness is more than 50% of the solution. It comes in two “flavors”:

  1. If the things that do not work are under your control, start addressing them with realistic expectations in mind. For example, it might take a few months to get an inadequate build process to the point is satisfies the requirements of your Agile process.
  2. When the things that do not work are beyond your control, your task is to make the right folks fully aware of the obstacles. It is a minute of truth for you as an Agile champion: you might need to convey some hard facts to various senior folks in your eco system. It is not too hard to do if you are wholeheartedly convinced Agile is the right thing to do. It is next to impossible to do if you are ambivalent about Agile.

One other thing to do is assess whether Agile is indeed a good fit for your business imperatives and corporate culture. Chances are you had already made this assessment prior to starting Agile. Reassess in view of the actual experience of the Agile initiative.

Written by israelgat

April 15, 2009 at 11:07 am

Don’t agile the Agile

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I have been known to frequently say say don’t agile the Agile. I use this quip in two ways:

  1. To demonstrate the importance of patience in rolling out Agile. I consider patience a critical ingredient in the ‘secret sauce’ required to properly introduce Agile in a company that is new to Agile methods.
  2. To set expectations realistically for executive who wonder about the payoff period for an Agile roll-out.  It is particularly important to do so when an executive has a view of Agile as a silver bullet.

During the Rally Agile Success Tour I realized many Agile champions are under pressure in their companies to promise quick results. No doubt, Agile gives you good forums to demonstrate what has been accomplished -bi-weekly demos and frequent releases. But, Agile also introduces a lot of change:

  • The software changes. You are doing new software, evolving software or fixing software.
  • The software process changes. You are introducing Agile methods.
  • The organization changes. New organizational entities such as Scrum teams get formed and evolve.

These three dimensions of change take place simultaneously. You and your teams need time to assimilate the changes. In particular, techniques to manage inter-dependencies between the three could require a fair amount of time  to master.

Jim Highsmith told me he asks the executive with whom he discusses Agile roll-out to recount an example how his/her organization has recently managed change. I borrowed this good question from Jim and I use it often. The typical response to the question is a minute of silence followed by something like “this is a very good question”. In most cases, the executive “fails” to provide an example that has as many dimension of change as an Agile roll-out would have. When this point is reached, the message don’t agile the Agile is heard.

(Note: Agile roll-out can and often will introduce additional dimensions of change. For example, you might need to revise your customer support policy as well as the way your Support organization functions. I do not mention such secondary changes in this post as the three primary dimensions indicated above are more than plenty).

Written by israelgat

April 14, 2009 at 11:43 am

Marauder Strategy for Agile Companies

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Colleague Annie Shum sent me the URL to a recent post by Clayton Christensen in The Huffington Post. In this post Christensen characterizes “disruption” in the following manner:

Disruption is the causal mechanism behind the “creative destruction” that [economist Joseph] Schumpeter saw so pervasively at work in capitalist economies. [Links added by IG]

Christensen’s post is largely about the automobile industry. It, however, ties nicely to an email exchange Jeff Sutherland and I had about Agile as a disruption inside the company vis-a-vis its intentional use as a disruptive methodology in the market. To quote Jeff:

We are starting to see organizations like yours that can use Scrum to disrupt a market. There is a tremendous amount of low hanging fruit out there. Dysfunctional companies that can’t deliver. I’ve been recommending a “Marauder” strategy to the venture group. Find a company who has a large amount of resources. Set them loose like pirates on the ocean and they seek out slow ships and take them out.

Carlota Perez, who has been often cited in this blog (click here, here and here), is a disciple of Schumpeter. I really like the way the “dots” are connected: Schumpeter –> Perez –> Christensen –> Schumpeter. Their theories of disruption and constructive destruction express themselves nicely in the business design proposed by Jeff.

A Note on the Macro-Economic Crisis

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Re-reading Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital: The Dynamics of Bubbles and Golden Ages by Carlota Perez, I was struck by the following paragraph:

So, once again, the amount of money available to financial capital has grown larger than the set it recognizes as good opportunities. Since it has come to consider normal the huge gains from the successful new industries, it expects to get them from each and every investment and will not be satisfied with less. So rather than go back to funding unsophisticated production, it develops sophisticated instruments to make money out of money. [Italicized  and highlighted by IG]

Perez published the book in 2002. Her words of wisdom seem to be appropriate today even more than they might had been then.

(Click here and here for related discussions of Agile in the context of the current macro-economic crisis.)

Written by israelgat

April 13, 2009 at 12:20 pm

Persona of the Agile Team

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Many of us encountered situations in which the spread of Agile in an organization came to a halt. It was quite successful at the project level, but did not spread to the product line; it worked well for the product line, but did not get accepted by the business unit; or, it proved itself in the business unit, but success did not lead to adoption at the enterprise level.

I recently read The Living Company by Arie de Geus. His perspective is that a company has a persona. To quote de Geus:

… as a living entity, a company is always insecure, never stable, always subject to shifting relationships between the company and the outside world.

Furthermore, de Geus suggests a company has its own ladder of personae: Individual –> Team –> Work Group –> Division –> Company –> Corporation –> Society. According to de Geus, the persona of an organizational entity satisfies the criteria (cited by William Stern) for a living persona. Like live human beings, organizational entities:

… must find their place in the world; they must develop a sense of relationship between their own persona’s ethical priorities and the values in the surrounding world…. The Persona has an influence on the world around it as an example, a “role model,” but it can never equalize the world’s view with its own.

If you accepted this premise, implications with respect to spreading Agile are intriguing.  A mismatch between the involved organizational personae might be the obstacle to broader acceptance of Agile. The mismatch might be related to Agile. Or, it could equally well be unrelated. For example, it might revolve around the need of one organizational entity or another to self-preserve itself.

I find it fascinating that Ken Schwaber has actually discussed Agile success and failure along somewhat similar lines, as follows:

I estimate that 75% of those organizations using Scrum will not succeed in getting the benefits that they hope for from it… The intention of Scrum is to make [their dysfunctions] transparent so the organization can fix them. Unfortunately, many organizations change Scrum to accommodate the inadequacies or dysfunctions instead of solving them. [AgileCollab interview of February 19, 2008]

The corollary from the observations of Stern, de Geus and Schwaber might seem counter-intuitive. If the spread of Agile in your company has stalled, providing qualitative and quantitative data on the benefits of Agile might not be the best way to win over support for broader adoption. Instead of hard sell of Agile benefits, focus on cross-organizational dynamics, pathologies and development.

Written by israelgat

April 12, 2009 at 8:43 pm

Addition to the Social Contract

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Readers of the post A Social Contract for Agile might recall the recommendations to the executive championing Agile roll-out amidst layoffs: Commit to invest in Agile training ; apply the training to employees who  might be affected by forthcoming layoffs just as you apply it to those likely to be kept with the company.

Having just read The Living Company by Arie de Geus, I am much impressed by his suggestion how to handle layoffs. He proposes the following line when employees must be laid off:

Yes, the institution is in dire times, and we have to so something about it. One of the things we have to do (having taken some care to reshape our cost structure everywhere) is to eliminate some jobs, including yours. Having said this, we still have an implicit contact with you. Are there other ways to develop your potential that do not stand in the way of developing the potential of the company?

These words of wisdom are anchored in an overarching view of the employer-employee relationship in an enlightened  class of companies de Geus calls river companies. I would contentd his words could be effectively used in any company on two conditions:

  1. The Agile executive is 101% sincere. He/she will do his very best to implement this modus within his sphere of influence. 
  2. The company understands and accepts that the benefits of the Agile executive doing so exceed any downside legal risk.

Written by israelgat

April 11, 2009 at 10:41 am

Interesting Interview with Curt Hibbs

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Colleague Clark Ching posted an interview with Curt Hibbs. The interview focuses on the recently published book The Art of  Lean Software Development: A Practical and Incremental Approach by Hibbs, Jewett and Sullivan. In the course of the interview, Curt shares the following episode:

I was having a discussion with a colleague about Lean software development. She knew next to nothing about it and was asking a lot of questions. Finally, she asked “If I could only do one thing, what should that be?”

The answer I gave was “Automated Testing”, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the motivations for asking such a question in the first place. I finally realized that she really didn’t want to spend a lot of time learning and understanding Lean software development, she just wanted to be told what to do.

Curt explores the episode in the context of skill acquisition and explains how it led to his co-authoring The Art of  Lean Software Development. From what I gather from the interview, the book has been conceived with a very crisp definition of the needs of a specific class of readers – the novice Agilist. To quote Curt:

This book is aimed squarely at the the novice and doesn’t require the reader to make a bunch of decisions for which they don’t yet have the experience to handle… I think that this target audience was not previously being served (or at least poorly served).

I like this ultra-sharp focus very much. I have not read the book yet, but I soon will.

Written by israelgat

April 10, 2009 at 11:01 am

Posted in Lean, Starting Agile

Ask An Expert Program by Agile Austin

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In his recent post on the blueprint for building a thriving Agile community, colleague Scott Killen outlined our plan to start an  “Ask An Expert” program by Agile Austin, as follows:

We will soon implement a program we call “Ask An Expert”.  This program will make an experienced agile practitioner available once a week for two hours of consultation.  The event will be hosted at a local restaurant with a separate room and wireless access.  Facilitators will register in advance and their availability and qualifications will be posted for prospective attendees to review.  We hope that individuals and entire teams will take advantage of the opportunity to consult with an experienced coach.

No doubt, some/many of the questions that will be posed to the experts will be of the “how” variety. In addition, I am very much hoping my colleagues and I will successfully address the “what” and “why” of Agile. For example: Why is Agile so very effective during this decade but was not earlier?  What enabled Scrum to get the traction it did? Why is a company’s sales strategy very related to doing software in an Agile manner? What is the mindset that enables end-to-end application of Agile? What is the relationship between Agile and innovation? Etc.

To me, questions like these are at the very heart of Agile adoption on a large scale. Important that the processes, practices and artifacts of Agile are, we often get stuck between Agile at the team level and acceptance of Agile at the enterprise level. The main reason IMHO  is difficulty in crisply articulating the answers to these and other “whys” and “whats”.

Hence, the “bring along your team/colleagues/executives” motto of this program. In addition to being a forum for “how” questions, use it as a vehicle to help socialize Agile in your company. Bring the skeptics to the program and we will do our very best to win them over.

Starting May 7, the program will be held every Thursday 6-8PM at Mangia’s Pizza, 8012 Mesa Drive, Austin, TX.

Written by israelgat

April 8, 2009 at 11:00 am

Posted in The Agile Life

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Clarke Ching – Agile Executive Podcast 001

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To listen to this podcast, download the podcast directly, subscribe to the blog/podcast feed in iTunes (or whatever), or click play below to hear it:

Kicking off our Agile Executive podcast series, I talk with Clarke Ching. We start out discussing two of Clarke’s books Rocks Into Gold and a longer version he’s working on. We then discuss the relation of Goldratt’s The Goal.

I ask Clarke to talk to his point that breaking things into smaller chunks end ups costing less. He says:

  • In bigger projects (vs. smaller ones), we end up building more low-priority things, thus “wasting” time
  • With a focus on delivering small chunks that work we get higher quality, rather then wiring up lower quality stuff

After this, I ask Clarke how he’s sorted out the boot-strapping problem of getting Agile started in organizations. He recommends:

  • The Weetabix Sell – selling the benefits, not the ingredients or “process”
  • Set expectations that it’s going to be hard work
  • find quick wins, preferably “without doing anything”

Finally, I ask Clarke to give us a report on the Agile scene across the pond, which he does nicely.

Written by Coté

April 7, 2009 at 2:03 pm

Posted in Podcasts

What is Driving Your Interest in Agile?

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Participant responses to the feedback questionnaire from the recent Rally event in NYC and the companion event in LA have been posted in the Rally Agile Success blog. Interestingly enough, in both cities time-to-market and visibility/transparency were rated higher drivers of interest in Agile than cost cutting.

Click here and here for details on what drives interest in Agile as well as other intriguing questions and responses from the events.

Written by israelgat

April 7, 2009 at 9:48 am

Posted in Benefits of Agile, Events, The Agile Life

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