adrift on a cosmic ocean

Writings on various topics (mostly technical) from Oliver Hookins and Angela Collins. We have lived in Berlin since 2009, have two kids, and have far too little time to really justify having a blog.

"We're doing our own flavour of Agile/Scrum"

Posted by Oliver on the 13th of December, 2016 in category Tech
Tagged with: agilescrumwaterfallxp

I won't descend into hyperbole and say you should run, shrieking and naked into the dark night, when you hear these words. But, it's worth pondering what exactly it means. I think I've (over)used this phrase myself plenty over the years and right now find myself examining why so many people find themselves needing to invent their own version of well accepted software workflow methodologies.

You might say "we just pick the parts that work for us" or "we continually iterate on our workflow and so it is constantly evolving rather than sticking to static definitions of Agile", or "we haven't found estimations useful". Many teams that have a significant infrastructure component to their work find themselves split between Scrum and Kanban. I always imagine that traditional or strict Scrum works best when you are working on a single application and codebase, with pretty well restricted scope and limited technologies in play. I actually crave working in such an environment, since working in teams with broad missions and wide varieties of technologies can make organising the work extremely difficult. At the same time you don't want to split a reasonably-sized team of 6-8 people into teams of 1-2 people just to make their mission/vision clear.

Some reasons I think "custom Agile/Scrum" happens:

  • Most or all of the team has never actually worked in a real Waterfall development model, and can't appreciate the reason for all the Agile/Scrum rituals, processes and ideals. This will continue to happen more and more frequently, and is almost guaranteed if you are dealing with those dreaded Millenials.
  • Estimations are hard, and we'd rather not do them.
  • Backlog grooming is hard, and we don't want to waste time on it. Meeting fatigue in general kills a lot of the rituals.
  • Unclear accountability on the team. Who does it fall on when we don't meet our goals? What is the outcome?
  • Too many disparate streams of work to have one clear deliverable at the end of the sprint.
  • Various factors as mentioned in the previous paragraph leading to a hybrid Scrum-Kanban methodology being adopted.
  • The need to use electronic tools e.g. Jira/Trello/Mingle/TargetProcess (have you heard of that one?) etc, rather than old fashioned cards or sticky notes on the wall. Conforming to the constraints of your tool of choice (or lack of choice) inevitably make a lot of the rituals much harder. Aligning processes with other teams (sometimes on other continents) also adds to the friction.

So anyway, why is any of this a problem? Well, let's consider for a moment what the purpose of these workflow tools and processes is. Or at least, in my opinion (and if you disagree, please let me know and let's discuss it!):

  • Feedback
  • Learning
  • Improvement

I think these three elements are so important to a team, whether you implement Scrum or Kanban or something else. If you pick and choose from different agile methodologies, you'd better be sure you have all of these elements present. Let me give some examples of where the process fails.

You have a diverse team with a broad mission, and various roles like backend, frontend, QA, design etc. Not everybody is able to work on the same thing so your sprint goals look like five or 10 different topics. At the end of the sprint, maybe 70-80% of them are completed, but that's ok right? You got the majority done - time to celebrate, demo what you did finish and move what's left over to the next sprint.

Unfortunately what this does is create a habit of acceptable failure. You become accustomed to never completing all the sprint goals, moving tickets over to the following sprint and not reacting to it. Quarterly goals slip but that's also acceptable. You take on additional "emergency" work into the sprint without much question as slipping from 70% to 65% isn't a big difference. You've just lost one of your most important feedback mechanisms.

If you had a single concrete goal for the sprint, and held yourself to delivering that thing each sprint, you would instead build up the habit of success being normal. The first sprint where that single goal is not delivered gives you a huge red flag that something went wrong and there is a learning opportunity. What did you fail to consider in this sprint that caused the goal to be missed? Did you take on some emergency work that took longer than expected? It's also a great opportunity for engineers to improve how they estimate their work and how they prioritise. It also facilitates better discussions around priorities - if you come to me and ask me to complete some "small" task, I will ask you to take on responsibility for the entire sprint goal being missed, and explaining that to the stakeholders. 100% to 0% is a much harder pill to swallow than 85% to 80% - and in the latter case I believe these important conversations just aren't happening.

But let's say Scrum really doesn't work for you. I think that's totally fine, as long as you own up to this and replace the feedback mechanisms of Scrum with that of something else - but not stay in some undefined grey area in the middle. Two-week (or some alternative time period) sprints may not work well, or you might deliver to production every week, or every three weeks. Something that doesn't align with the sprint. Now you are in a situation where you are working in sprints/iterations that are just arbitrary time containers for work but aren't set up to deliver you any valuable feedback. Don't stay in the grey zone - own up to it and at least move to something else like Kanban.

But if you are using Kanban, do think about what feedback mechanisms you now need. Simply limiting work in progress and considering your workflow a pipeline doesn't provide much intelligence to you about how well it is functioning. Measuring cycle time of tasks is the feedback loop here that tells you when things are going off the rails. If you get to the point where your cycle time is pretty consistent but you find your backlog is growing more and more out of control, you have scope creep or too much additional work is making its way into your team. Either way there is a potential conversation around priorities and what work is critical to the team's success to be had. Alternatively if cycle time is all over the place then the team can learn from these poor estimates and improve their thought process around the work. Having neither cycle time nor sprint goal success adequately measured leaves you unable to judge healthy workflow or react to it when it could be improved.

I guess you could also disagree with all of this. I'd still argue that if you are in a business or venture that cares about being successful, you want to know that how you are going about your work actually matters. If it isn't being done very efficiently, you want to know with reasonable certainty what part of your methodology is letting you down and respond to it. If you can't put your finger on the problem and concretely say "this is wrong, let's improve it" then you are not only avoiding potential success, but also missing out on amazing opportunities for learning and the challenge of solving interesting problems!

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