Agile Reality over Rhetoric
There is a fair bit of rhetoric surrounding agile methods, some of which we subscribe to and some of which we don't. We'd like to briefly examine the rhetoric which we've found to be the most misleading for people trying to be effective at adopting agile techniques. The following list is in the format X but Y, where X is the rhetoric and Y is the strategy promoted by the Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD) process framework. This includes:
- Requirements evolve throughout the lifecycle BUT the scope should still be agreed to at the beginning of the project. There has to be an initial vision for a project, a vision which your stakeholders should help define and then agree to, and to come to that vision you will need to perform some initial requirements envisioning. A list of high level features is part of this initial vision. Yes, the details are very likely to evolve over time but the fundamental goals of your project and scope of your effort needs to be defined early in your project. In a very small minority of situations you may not be able to get the right people together, either physically or virtually, to define the initial vision -- this should be seen as a significant project risk.
- Simple designs are best BUT the architecture should be thought out early in the lifecycle. Too many developers interpret the advice to focus on simple designs to mean that they should build everything from scratch. Yet more often than not the simplest design is to take advantage of what is already there, and the best way to do that is to work closely with people who understand your existing technical infrastructure. Investing in a little bit of architectural envisioning early in the lifecycle enables your team to identify existing enterprise assets that you can leverage, to identify your architectural options, and to select what appears to be the best option available to you. The details will still emerge over time, and some decisions will be deferred until a later date when it's more appropriate to make them, but the bottom line is that disciplined agilists think before they act.
- Teams should be self organizing BUT they are still constrained (and enhanced) by your organizational ecosystem. Intellectual workers, including IT professionals, are most effective when they have a say in what work they do and how they do it. IT professionals can improve their productivity by following common conventions, leveraging and building out a common "dev-ops" infrastructure, building towards a common vision, and by working to common business and technical visions. In short, disciplined agile professionals are "enterprise aware".
- Delivery teams don't need prescriptive process definitions BUT they do need some high-level guidance to help organize their work. Individual IT professionals are typically highly-skilled and highly-educated people often with years of experience, and teams of such people clearly have a wide range of knowledge. As a result of this knowledge it is incredibly rare for such people to read detailed procedures for how to do their work. However, they often still require some high-level advice to help them to organize their work effectively. Teams can often benefit from techniques and patterns used by other teams and this knowledge sharing should be encouraged.
- IT professionals know what to do BUT they're still not process experts. A decade ago the strategy was to provide detailed process advice to teams, but recently the pendulum has swung the other way to provide little or no defined process at all. Over the last few years there's been a trend within the agile community to advise teams to define their own process so that it's tailored to their own unique situation. While this clearly strokes people's egos, it's relatively poor advice for several reasons. First, although every team is in a unique situation there is significant commonality so having at least a high-level process framework from which to start makes sense. Second, although these teams have a wide range of knowledge it might not be complete, nor consistent, nor is it clear what the trade-offs are of combining all the really good techniques that people know about. There is significant benefit in having a flexible process framework such as DAD which shows how everything fits together.
- IT professionals should validate their own work to the best of their ability BUT they likely aren't testing experts so therefore need help picking up the appropriate skills. The mantra in the agile community is to test often and test early, and better yet to test first. As a result agile teams have adopted a "whole team" approach where the development team does its own testing. This works when there are people on the team with sufficient testing skills and more importantly can transfer those skills to others. Minimally you will need to embed testers into your delivery teams, but you should also consider explicit training and mentoring of everyone on the team in testing and quality skills. You may find my agile testing and quality strategies article to be an interesting read.
- Disciplined agile teams work in an iterative manner BUT still follow a lifecycle which is serial over time. On any given day people on a DAD project team may be performing analysis, testing, design, programming, deployment, or a myriad of other activities and iterating back and forth between them. But, the DAD lifecycle includes three distinct phases which are performed in order. So, DAD is both iterative in the small but serial in the large.