Preparing for an Agile Transition

Are you ready?

Transforming a team or organization to Agile thinking and working requires those involved to be ready for the change. Readiness on all levels: managerial, coaches and the people doing the work. Many organizations start implementing Scrum and/or Agile, often without regard for readiness. Those transitions might succeed in the short run but will likely bounce back into old habbits (the ‘jelly problem’).

Mind the grass roots

For years the main complaint in Agile was lack of management support. These days more often Agile transitions are started because upper management wants it. That’s great but it could lead to ignoring the grass roots. Make sure you create grass root support for Agile. Keep in mind that bombastic presentations about the benefits of Agile works for managers, not for the work floor. You need to light the Agile fire and that can take a while to get lit. One option could be to keep management support for Agile secret until the employees start to get exited about Agile.

Tip: Tell management that any organizational change takes years, especially in large organizations. Suggest to start very small, low key and possibly even under cover.

Tip: Use a big bang Agile transition only after a period of slow grass roots and management preparation.

Mind the managers

If Agile is introduced by management, they often think that it means management is not the problem and that can hinder the transition. Management really does need to change, otherwise you didn’t need Agile. It can also increase cynicism amongst the people because they feel it all needs to come from them. The biggest problem is management has a tendency to use command & control to implement Agile, which makes Agile a set of tricks not an organizational change.

Tip: Make it explicit that managers will not lose their job after the Agile transition.

Tip: Discuss with management what they want to change in their own behavior before or as part of the Agile transition. If they say ‘nothing’, try again or give back the assignment.

The Jelly Problem

Organizations are in a way like jellies. You can push them and something will happen, they will move and shake. You think you’re getting somewhere but leave it alone for a while and the jelly just reverts to its old shape. A lot of change programs, including Agile, end up with the same jelly as they started.

Tip: Don’t confuse movement for progress, make sure everyone is on board with the change and spend explicit time making the Agile transition permanent.

Tip: Find out how previous change programs took place, why did they fail or succeed? Learn from that and adjust your transition accordingly.

Change in Progress

Lean teaches us that overburdening (‘muri’) is a key to waste. It’s often overlooked that people can be overburdened with organizational change. Many organizations that  currently start an Agile transition will likely have other changes already in progress. Employees often have multiple changes to deal with:

  • Change teams,
  • change locations,
  • change your brand and vision,
  • change operating system,
  • change customer communication,
  • change to conform to new regulations,
  • change to comply with methods and certification (e.g. ISO),
  • change functions and roles (e.g. because of cost cuts or mergers)

How many changes are taking place while you are doing your Agile transition? How many have only recently finished? Are you sure people are not fatigued of all the changes? If so, your Agile transition will have a small chance of succeeding. So the key to reducing overburdening is using ‘pull’ for your change programs.

Tip: Don’t push your transition onto overburdened people, find indications that the organization really has the time and capacity for doing the next change. Especially be aware of inactive but unfinished change programs.

Tip: On management level keep track of all change programs that are planned or in progress in the same part of the organization (see image)

Change in progress


Preparing for an Agile Transition

When not to use BBD (yet)

What is BDD

This blog is not about explaining BDD in detail, but here’s a short description. BDD is a way to build software against tests that are defined beforehand. BDD allows you to make sure your whole application is working, not just parts of it. It’s basically an outside-in way of testing, as apposed to unit testing which is focussed on the inner parts of the application.

What BDD is not

BDD is not a way to discover your application’s requirements or use cases. It’s a way of documenting the requirements and use cases in an executable way. Even the Wikipedia article on BDD gets it wrong here, so it’s a common misconception.

The pitfall I’ve come across is always starting your user story implementation with BDD. In the cases where you know how your application should behave that’s fine, but when the behavior still needs to be fleshed out BDD can get in your way. The confusion is between problem description and solution design, BDD is solution design while you might confuse it for problem description.

So let’s take an example:

Suppose your customer wants to have a view on the customers orders. The orders are stored in a database, but not necessarily in a user friendly structure. The user also isn’t very familiar with all the data that is stored in the order, because some of the data comes from external systems. Now, when you start asking your user for BDD examples, you will probable fail. You can’t get examples for statuses, missing information, multi-line orders etc. because the user simply doesn’t know what he/she wants exactly at this stage.

So the usual course of action is to either discuss some examples of the data, but in this example the we ‘just build something ™’. We asked the users to interact with the data for a few weeks by just showing the raw data structure. The users could relate the stored orders to other sources of information, their work process and past systems that stored customer orders. Only after that experience could they tell us how they wanted to see the data, what features they would like, what manual steps they’d like automated. And only now could we actually create a BDD scenario.

If you’d started with BDD, you would have been describing user goals and scenario’s that they couldn’t really support. Since you’re not building to solve their problems (because you don’t know them yet) how can you create BDD scenario’s? In that case your BDD tests will just be system integration tests, not value driven scenarios. So skip BDD in this case until you’ve learned a little bit more.

Lean Startup Approach – paper mockups

In the Lean Startup reminded us all of finding out what problem you’re solving before you start solving it. The goal in the Lean Startup is learning about your customers problems, desires, needs etc. The trick is to find the fastest (and cheapest) way to learn so that you can solve the right problem effectively. Sometimes writing code is the easiest way to start learning, get something out there. Now this kind of code is similar to the post-it notes in a customer brainstorming session: you throw them away.

Wrapping up

So to summarize, if you know how the application should behave use BDD. Often when a user just wants the same features he/she has seen before on another application or website, the behavior is clear. If application behavior is not clear, make sure the problems/needs are discovered and you’ve agreed on the application design before starting BDD.

A drawing that explain the two scenarios:

Application behavior is known, use BDD
Discovering through building, use BDD later
When not to use BBD (yet)

The State of Agile Estimation

The problem with estimating

Estimation is one of the holy grails of software development. Imagine if you could tell your customer exactly when something is done and how much it will cost…no more deadlines, no more surprises. That would be something, right?

But the world is not perfect, it’s complex. So estimation is hard. And when you work on something risky and challenging, which is hard to estimate, your customer probably wants to have accurate estimates even more!

Agile estimation has been around for a long time, XP and Scrum have brought us story points, velocity and (with the help of some project managers) project burn-downs.

Two years ago, my team was doing Scrum estimation by the book (I still don’t know which one though). The backlog was estimated for months ahead estimation and velocity was tracked as if our life depended on it. As in many teams, this didn’t work quite the way it was advertised. Planning meetings were tough, estimates (in points) often way off, pressure was mounting and code was rushed at the end of the sprints to reach the velocity the team committed to. No, if you have any experience in Agile, you’ll probably find a few mistakes in there.

So we want estimates, but they are hard to get right. We’ve had some interesting experience with estimation ourselves.

Stop estimating

We decided to stop estimating. First we needed to get the quality right, the process stable and the testing to be synchronized with coding. So we decided to reduce estimation to a bare minimum. Since we started we went through the following levels of estimation:

  1. Full fledge Scrum Estimation and Tracking ™
  2. No estimation, just keep working until the MMF was done (an MMF is something the user can see, touch, taste or smell)
  3. Estimate the size of the MMF
  4. Try to keep the MMF size within 2 weeks

We’ve been stuck at 4 for quite a while, using a continuous development process. MMFs are not always the same size though, some can’t be reduced to two weeks and others are just not estimated correctly. There are two reasons I want to get back to a higher level of estimation and tracking:

  1. Visualize what the team achieves in a given period, much like we track our product performance in the field; you want to know if you’re improving.
  2. Give the stakeholders some idea when to expect which MMF in the coming months.

These two goals are different, the target is different, one is the team, the other is the stakeholders. I’m hoping to find a minimum viable tracking system that can serve both goals.

Wanting to track the work done and have some (rough) prediction of what we will deliver in the coming months is our goal. Let’s see how to achieve that.

The state of estimation

So, to get back at (team) estimation after disbanding it for 3 years should be interesting. A quick search shows me a mixed bag of the current state of Agile estimation. Three years ago, estimation was non optional. Everyone was doing Scrum (or waterfall) and estimates and velocity were the best things since sliced bread. Today, the situation has changed, with probably many people sharing the same experience we had (estimation sucks). So there seems to be two main approaches to estimation these days:

  1. Use very little estimating and focus on fast delivery
  2. Do estimation all the time

Examples for the first (little estimation) often stem from the Kanban arena. Some suggest just counting bite size stories. The stories are roughly the same size, so you can just count how many you’re doing each time period. Predicting far ahead into the future is not possible (and not a goal). has removed velocity and story points from the guide, but the act of estimation is mentioned and still a key attribute of Scrum. How you estimate, it doesn’t say. Joel Semeniuk gives a good overview of how to tackle estimation.

Try, inspect, improve, repeat

We’ll give estimates another go. The mean principles I think should apply:

  • Estimate on a high level
  • Separate size estimation from measuring time spent
  • Track predication accuracy

Expect another blog post as we learn more about reintroducing estimating. If only I could tell you when I will write it 😉


The State of Agile Estimation

The Task Board Retrospective

When did you last improve your task board?

Most teams working with an Agile process like Scrum use a task board (physical or digital). Even many teams that only do a bit of Agile or Scrum will work with a task board. It’s a core practice in Agile software development, not specific to any methodology. So, it’s common practice.

So like all things in Agile it should be subject to scrutiny once in a while. A fair question is, why have a task board at all? Just because you’re doing Agile(tm)? No one benefits from blind adoption, so ask yourself this question. Not to get rid of your task board, but to find out if it really fits your purpose and to find room for improvement.

Continue reading “The Task Board Retrospective”

The Task Board Retrospective

McLuhan, the iPad is the message

Marshal McLuhan‘s work is one of the cornerstones of ‘media theory’. His view on media as an extension of ourself and the effect they have on our society are profound. I was introduced to McLuhan by Mark Federman at Agile2008. Although it would take years of study to fathom the depth of McLuhans insights, one convenient tool to get more insight into any (new) medium is the quadrant with four questions. These questions help you understand the true meaning and effect of a medium. The focus here is on the medium itself, not the content, that’s why McLuhan is often quoted saying ‘the medium is the message’. The medium can have a far greater impact on society than the content, television being a good example of this.

When exploring a new medium, four interesting questions to ask are:

– What does it improve or enhance?
– What does it neglect, displace or make obsolete?
– What does it bring back from the past that has been neglected recently?
– What does it overturn? (When pushed to its extremes, a technology fosters side effects that are opposite to the effects that were first expected, both positive and negative).

Now you could ask yourself these questions regarding the iPad, which is a new medium for conveying information and is quite visible an extension of its user. Using it as a knowledge base, navigating, helping us communicate with others it extends our natural abilities.

Back to the questions, let’s give them a try, perhaps your answers would be different, that would be a great start of a discussion of what the iPad actually means. Think sociological effects, not just purely functional. What helps is to image everyone having an iPad and/or using it for everything, what would be different in such a world? Answers can be both positive and negative.

What does the iPad improve or enhance?

  • It increases the time spent behind a computer (in the park, in bed, on the train etc.)
  • It enhances people’s ability to interact with data and software, it helps computerize society

What does the iPad make obsolete?

  • Some people thought it would make the laptop or net-book obsolete. I’m not too sure about that, but you might say it makes the laptop less favorable for watching movies or pictures. But that’s is not a sociological effect in itself.
  • Books, encyclopedias, cook books, news papers.
  • It makes staying at home or at a desk obsolete (when consuming data)

What does the iPad bring back from the past?

  • The touch interface obviously brings back the tactile experience which other computers don’t have. Before the age of computers, dealing with information and entertainment was much more tactile, we had books and magazines and games were physical as well (board games). The iPad brings back interaction using our touch senses.
  • It brings back the book, but improved. Perhaps reading and engaging in stories will get an impulse.

What does the iPad overturn?

  • You could imagine that if everyone stopped using PCs and laptops and only iPads, users would consume only bite-sized data and though the iPad is an information-sharing device, if it’s the only thing you use, you might stop producing data. In effect limiting the information sharing.
  • Can’t think of more, this one is hard… 🙂

Hopefully this has raised your interest in McLuhan and made you think a bit more about what sociological effects a new medium (like the iPad) has, often they have a far more profound impact on our society and way of thinking than we initially presume.

McLuhan, the iPad is the message

Quality vs. Automated Software Testing

Inspection is not enough

Deming is world famous, especially in the Agile/Lean world. During his life Deming taught top management how to improve design (and thus service), product quality, testing and sales. His name is synonymous to quality improvement and his philosophies are still seen as visionary.

One of  Deming’s principles is: “Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality. Eliminate the need for massive inspection by building quality into the product in the first place.” Sounds good, right? In stead of testing every last inch of your product, you increase it’s intrinsic quality which is more sustainable, has a direct benefit for the customer and eventually lowers cost.

Now how does that relate to software development? In software development we do quite a bit of inspection, not only by peer reviews but mostly by testing. We test documents, units of code, modules of code, systems, user interfaces, services etc. We test functionality, speed, error handling, ease of use, fit for purpose etc. etc. My interpretation of what Deming would say to us: focus less on creating more tests, focus more on product and process quality.

Continue reading “Quality vs. Automated Software Testing”

Quality vs. Automated Software Testing

Fitting Scrum to project organizations

Isn’t Scrum a project management method?

wood-toyNo it’s not. It’s a product development method (or framework). The good thing is that projects always have a product development part, so Scrum can be embedded in your project. But beware of the  ‘Scrum organizational model’ which is geared mostly to product development companies. If your organization chooses to have projects for all new development, you’ll need to embed Scrum in a project management model.

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Fitting Scrum to project organizations