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The Friction of Agile

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Everything is very simple in War, but the simplest thing is difficult. These difficulties accumulate and produce a friction which no man can imagine exactly who has not seen War… This enormous friction, which is not concentrated, as in mechanics, at a few points, is therefore everywhere brought into contact with chance, and thus incidents take place upon which it was impossible to calculate…

IMHO, this excerpt from On War applies exceptionally well to Agile roll-outs these days:

  • Simplicity: The four principles of the Agile Manifesto are intuitively compelling. You could (and probably should) use them as the core definition of what Agile is all about. Likewise, you do not need more than a single hand-drawn matrix to illustrate how WIP limits in Kanban work. In contrast to various other terms used in development and IT – e.g. SOA – the conceptual power of Agile methods is easy to grasp.
  • Friction: Assume you were building a company from scratch without any pre-conceived notions of the organizational constructs you would put in place. Assume as well that you were developing your organization with end-to-end Agile effectiveness in mind. You would probably devise a holistically integrated organization. For example, you might opt for an organizational design in which each level of the organization will include all functions relevant to Agile – R&D, IT, Marketing, Support, Sales etc. In other words, ideally you will not go for the traditional organizational design: a vertical R&D stove pipe, a vertical Marketing stove pipe, a vertical Sales stove pipe, etc.  As in reality you are unlikely to get the charter to start with a clean sheet of paper, the friction arises in each and every point in which your end-to-end organizational design for Agile deviates from the traditional organizational constructs your company uses.
  • Not concentrated: As Clausewitz points out, the friction of war is not mechanical friction – you can’t address it by pouring in a ‘organizational lubricant’ in just a few places. Flooding the whole organization with the lubricant is likely to create a morass in which all agility will be lost.

I recommend four principles to minimize the organizational friction of Agile, as follows:

  • Acknowledge you accrued organizational debt: It is conceptually quite similar to accruing technical debt – various organizational decisions and compromises taken along the way were rushed to the extent that they leave much to be desired. The organizational constructs and practices that sprang out of these decisions need to be refactored.
  • Carry out the organizational refactoring work from the outside to the inside:  A truly holistic Agile design will incorporate customers and partners. Start with the way you will integrate them, thence apply this very same way to the integration of  the organizational entities within your company.
  • Build on the strengths of your core corporate culture: As pointed out by Drucker:

… culture is singularly persistent… changing [organizational] behavior works only if it can be based on the existing ‘culture’… [Drucker, 1991]

Since the end of the Cold War, a fair amount of debate has taken place around the applicability of the friction of war principles to armed conflicts in the information age. The conclusion is of interest to both military personnel, Agile practitioners and IT professionals:

… while technological advances might temporarily mitigate general friction, they could neither eliminate it nor substantially reduce its potential magnitude.

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Technical Debt: Refactoring vis-a-vis Starting Afresh

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Only three options are available to you once your technical debt overwhelms the development and customer support teams:

  1. Continue as is.
  2. Start refactoring in earnest to pay back your debt.
  3. Switch to a new code base, either by launching an unencumbered development project or through acquiring new software from another company.

The first option, obviously, does not solve any problem – you simply continue a struggle that becomes more and more difficult over time. As indicated in the post Elbow Room for Handling Technical Debt, the second option is quite difficult to carry out if it is exercised at a late point in the software’s life cycle. This post examines the third option – starting afresh.

The attraction of starting afresh is always tempting. The sins of the past, hidden in layers over layers of technical debt and manifesting themselves in low customer satisfaction and poor customer retention, are (sort of) forgiven. The shiny new software holds the promise of better days to come.

Trouble is, your old sins are there to get you in three nasty ways:

  1. New technical debt: Even if the shiny new software is very good indeed, it will decay over time. Unless you transformed your software engineering practices to ensure refactoring is carried out on an ongoing basis, sooner or later you will accrue new technical debt.
  2. Migration: Good that the new software might be, it is not likely to provide all the functionality the old software had. Migrating your customers will require a lot of hard work, particularly if your customers developed elaborate business processes on top of your old software.
  3. Critical race between old and new: For a period of time (say a couple of years) the old software is likely to run alongside the new software. Any significant new regulatory requirement will force you to update both the old software and the new software. Ditto for security. Any nifty new technology you might want to embed in your new software is likely to be equally desirable to customers who still use your old software. You will be pressed to incorporate the new technology in the old software, not just in the new software.

Before opting for new software (in preference to refactoring the old software), I would recommend you compare the economics of the two option. My rule of a thumb for the calculus of introducing new enterprise software to replace legacy software is straightforward:

For a period of about two years, assume the run rate for dev/test/support will be 150% of your current investment in development, test and support of the old software.

Please note that the 150% figure is just the expected run rate for running the new software alongside the legacy software. You will need, of course, to add the cost of acquiring/producing the new software to the economic calculus.

You might be able to reduce the ‘150% for two years’ investment by applying some draconian migration measures. Such measures, of course, will affect your customers. In the final analysis, your decision to acquire new software must be viewed as the following simple question:

What value do you place on your customer base?!

Elbow Room for Handling Technical Debt

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It has become something of a pattern recently. Somebody contacts me about software that has become extremely difficult to maintain. Irrespective of the domain in which the software is applied, the situation is usually characterized by an overwhelming amount of technical debt accompanied by an unaccptably high error feedback ratio. Between those “twins”, both customer support and development are thrashing to the extent that development of new functionality has pretty much ceased. “Just” maintaining the software consumes 90-100% of the cycles of the development teams (and >100% of the cycles of the customer support team).

I do not really mind being considered kind of “Software 911” service. What I find fustraing, however, is that I (and other consultants) typically get called too late. The technical debt when we get called is so overwhelming that it is extremely difficult to generate the cycles required for refactoring the code and establishing solid software engineering  practices. The refactoring “medicine” can’t be taken because customer crises leave no time for learning how to refactor nor for carrying out refactoring in a thoughtful manner. Folks trying to refactor the code get interrupted so often to deal with crises that any attempt to establish flow gets in trouble. The elbow room required for systemic refactoring work simply does not exist anymore.

I am not quite certain where the fine line between “Software 911” and “Pathology 911” lies. My hunch is that once >50% of development resources are assigned to maintaining the software on an on-going basis, it is time to get into refactoring big time. If you don’t, sooner or later you are likely to find you can’t afford the software you developed.

Written by israelgat

October 7, 2009 at 6:56 pm