The State of Agile, overview of a 5 part series.

This is an overview of a 5 part series starting tomorrow.

Agile adoption is often more difficult than it needs to be because most people settle for pre-packaged frameworks instead of what their particular org needs. This has people focus more on a framework than on the actual skills their ppl need to get the job done. Follow up training for these skills (eg ATDD) usually doesn’t happen. Resistance often sets in because people are put back in their jobs with higher expectations but no higher skills. This is made worse if the framework doesn’t match what’s needed close enough.

What keeps this in place is the focus on certification. While a good amount of what works in one place does work in another, the transition to these practices takes one of several paths. Many consultants offer only one type of framework, forcing them to push it only & blame their clients for not following it if it doesn’t work

What’s needed is to be guided to understand their problems, the root causes of these problems and a set of proven practices that can solve them. This is harder to manage, but the results are worth it & the cost is much less over the long term. It is also more likely to be sustainable as people actually learn the skills needed.

The challenges of Essential SAFe

This is an excerpt from Adopting SAFe at Small- or Medium- Scale a chapter from my upcoming book “Achieving Business Agility at Small- to Mid-Scale.

Essential SAFe, the smallest option of SAFe, was designed for programs within a large organization. It was not designed for an entire organization that is the size of a program. Here are examples of challenges that come with this.

  • The planning pace for SAFe is two to three months. At the small-scale, it is more reasonable and Agile to plan one to two months ahead.
  • Different type of organizations often require different methods of planning
  • Having an innovation and planning iteration should not be required at small- to mid-scale (not to mention that the cost of it would be proportionately long given the shorter planning increments.
  • Many concepts needed at small- to mid-scale are not in Essential SAFe (in particular, how to go from strategy to the product backlog)

Fortunately, what to add, modify or leave out can be guided using Lean-Agile principles – most of which are ironically included in Essential SAFe.
This enables those wanting to use Essential SAFe as a core to have a framework that is effective, efficient and most importantly, is the right for them.

The surprisingly few degrees of freedom in an Agile adoption

Every organization thinks they are different. And in many ways they are. But the principles apply equally to all. So no one size fits all, but there are surprisingly few degrees of freedom, so to speak. This post discusses those degrees of freedom – where choices should be made to best fit the organization doing the adopting.

At the team level

Scrum, Kanban or a blend of both

  • cross-functional teams or manage people not on a team with Kanban

At the program level

  • how to kick off the adoption (use a planning event?)
  • if & how often to do a planning event
  • how do we best organize our talent
  • where are the product owners for the teams?
  • are product managers needed?

At the adoption level

  • who is best to lead the adoption?
  • at what pace should we go?

This obviously leaves a lot out. I suggest most of what’s left out is somewhat common across organizations. Please provide feedback to tell me what I’ve left out.

The contradictions in many Scrum-based Framework Training (Scrum, SAFe, …)

Many proponents of Scrum based frameworks say:

  1. knowledge workers are people who know more than their managers
  2. we must trust & respect people
  3. people must self-organize

But then their courses go on to tell people what to do. They say – stick with these rules & then later you can modify them to fit you.

One then hears “shu ha ri” which is a martial arts term meaning to first obey, then modify & eventually transcend. But there are several things wrong with this metaphor.

We’re not in the martial arts where the idea is not to think but to act. Also, in the martial arts you train for a very long time before putting the learning into action & most ppl learn many different styles since different methods are needed for different situations. Also, people who break with what they’ve been taught are called are called ScrumButters or SAFeButters. Not surprising dogma results.

This contradictory logic is often ignored. We’re being told “we need to self-organize” but do “this” & later change, but if you change to something we don’t like “you’re doing it wrong.” And everyone ignores the self-serving nature of this.

What’s needed: training specific to the organization to get them started right.

Examining Test-First

“Test-first “sounds like it’s about testing, but it’s really about collaboration, shared understanding and better design. Test-first originated with eXtreme Programming (XP) with the focus was on writing tests before code. Fortunately, a natural law of software development is that programs written by first considering their behavior are more flexible and robust than programs written by considering their implementation.

Since then, test-first has expanded to be used between product owners and the team by specifying the requirements in the form of acceptance tests. This is called Acceptance TDD (ATDD)

ATDD requires the collaboration of all parties involved. This collaboration on understanding behavior prior to implementation clarifies what is being required while removing the delay between specification of requirements, their implementation and then their final validation. This both helps ensure the right functionality is built while increasing efficiency.

The benefits of ATDD are

  • improved collaboration
  • clear acceptance criteria
  • prepared for automated testing
  • improved developer-tester communication
  • reduced time for feedback
  • agreement on requirements
  • improved code quality

It’s one of the best steps towards building the right thing in the right way.

For more information see:

Benefits of Acceptance Test-Driven Development using Behavior-Driven Development

How to Start with ATDD using BDD

Unexamined Assumption: use Essential SAFe for small and mid-scale companies.

The following is an excerpt from the chapter  Adopting SAFe at Small Scale in Al Shalloway’s new book – Achieving Agility at Small to Mid-Scale

The Challenge of Essential SAFe

SAFe proponents suggest Essential SAFe be used for small companies. The reason for this is that small companies don’t need the complexity that full SAFe entails. But even small companies have the issue of taking their strategies to fulfillment. This means that the concepts of strategies, epics, solutions, capabilities, and MVPs are still needed. The challenge, of course, is that these are defined at the levels above Essential SAFe.

Most small companies adopting SAFe are mostly attracted to:

  • the program increment and its planning event
  • the role of the release train engineer (RTE) to coordinate teams
  • having teams work in cadence with synchronization

These can be used as the cornerstone of their SAFe adoption. However, a simple Agile Product Management approach that takes the company from strategy to realization of value is still required.

See chapter above for more.

Unexamined Assumption – Developers spend a lot of time fixing bugs.

I’ve been delivering talks at conferences & user groups for over 20 years. One question I ask at most of my talks for developers is “how many of you spend most of your time fixing bugs?” Throughout all of these years, I get about 9 out of 10 telling me they do. But they don’t.

I go through this conversation with them:

  • Consider a time you were notified of a bug.
  • remember the time you spent trying to reproduce it
  • and then figured out how to fix it and did that
  • And then undid it because it broke something else
  • And then found the real cause and fixed it
  • Now, how much time was actually spent fixing the bug?
  • I’d suggest that most of your time was spent finding the bug.

Now this is not just semantics. Consider from when you write a bug (and yes, do you write them even though you say “I found a bug” as if someone else wrote it 😊 ). And let’s say it was found right away (maybe you have automated testing). It likely wouldn’t take very long to fix, because it’d probably be due to the last thing you did. But if you discover it weeks later, even if nothing changed, it might take you hours or days to find and fix it. If things have changed, it’d take longer. And think of the wasted time you would have caused others.

The moral? Spend a little time so that you don’t have to look for bugs.

Examining How to Adopt Scrum

Scrum presumes it is effective to give all teams a simple preset, immutable framework that each team must follow until they figure out how to manifest it.

Scrum is designed for and requires cross-functional teams doing work that is plannable. If these conditions aren’t met it is presumed that manifesting Scrum’s rigid framework will achieve Agile in all situations if people are motivated.

An underlying believe is that teams can’t initially understand what they are supposed to do so must be given a predefined set of rules that must be implemented without change until the team understands what’s happening.

While this approach works when cross-functional teams can/should be created & work can be planned, it can causes resistance & abandonment of misunderstood practices when teams have challenges adopting the framework or attached to their roles.

Have expert have 2 hr discussion w/ team&their management to see what alternative or additional practices would be useful. Use these to provide a set starting point and provide teams a guide on how to improve/change practices when they encounter challenges. While coaching still advisable, significantly less will be needed.

I invite people to discuss these alternatives.

What I Am Trying to Destroy

On a twitter thread there was an implication that perhaps the reason some people don’t engage with me is because they perceive my purpose is to destroy. I have told myself that as a good person that is not my intent. But I now realize it is.

Over the last 20 yrs I have observed many patterns of challenge & success in the adoption of Agile. I am convinced that Agile adoptions do not have to be as hard as they usually are. Most of the time they are difficult I see unexamined assumptions as contributing to this. This includes both beliefs underlying the approach used & how to teach it as well as if/when to introduce certain practices.

You destroy unexamined assumptions by examining them (they become examined beliefs). That’s what I am doing.

But many people make their livelihood on frameworks & methods that I believe are based on these unexamined beliefs. And this causes a cycle of poor Agile adoption w/o serious reflection. Unfortunately, as Upton Sinclair has observed, “Its hard to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

My mission is serve the practitioners and consultants who have an aligned mission – making organizations and their people more effective regardless of approach.

Let’s stop trying to get leadership/management to ‘be’ Agile

I’m often hearing how Agile is failing because leadership and management won’t adopt Agile values & principles. I would much rather they just keep some basic agreements:

Let’s stop for a minute and ask ourselves, do we want them to ‘be’ Agile or to do the following:
1-create clarity on what the most important work to do is
2-define these as a sequence of small increments for which we can realize value. Have each of these increments include technology &any other groups needed to realize value
3-provide technology clear acceptance criteria on these items
4-provide guidance across business units as to which are most important based on cost of delay
5-allow technology to self-organize & pull the work to be done in the sequence of greatest importance when technology has capacity
6-have an agreement with technology on how to handle emergencies
7-provide feedback when needed

We have come up with the following agreements we call the guardrails:
* Focus on realizing value
* Collaborate with each other in order to maximize the realization of value
* Make all work visible
* Sustain or increase predictability.
* Keep the work within capacitythroughout the value stream
* Encourage everyone to strive for continuous improvement.

For more information on the guardrails, go here.

To see guardrails tailored for leadership and management, go here.

This blog is an excerpt from my upcoming book –Achieving Business Agility at All Scales