Thursday, May 25, 2017

When Agile is not common sense

It's been about 8 years since I got my Agile training from James Grenning and started an Agile Pilot with my team. Right from the start I was super keen and got people practising TDD and Pair Programming even though I didn't really know if that effort would pay off. I just knew we had lots of problems with the old way so I wanted to embrace the new.

So I'd run my own little sessions with the broader team in Sydney sharing Agile concepts and ideas. Giving us a chance to discuss things and keep learning long after James had left. But often I would present new ideas and a few people in the group would respond "oh of course, that's just common sense". Initially I thought it was great as they were embracing these ideas as valuable even though it was not what we were doing before. But after a while I started to get frustrated because they we're not really listening. If some small part of a concept fit nicely with their "common sense" then they took that on and ignored the rest.

For example I'd point out that Agile asks us to plan regularly but to never put too much value into any plan. You need to be prepared to throw out your plan from yesterday because you learned something new today. "Oh of course, that's just common sense." But what I'd observe is they didn't re-plan regularly, they would just stick to the old plan unless something was clearly going wrong, and only then would re-plan in an attempt to react. They didn't adopt the new idea as they didn't understand that it's about being proactive. They didn't understand the value in making continuous minor adjustments or even just discussing how their understanding has shifted over time.

So I did a presentation to them about when Agile is not common sense. Put out the ideas that clearly challenged their old thinking and through that made my case that they allow other ideas to challenge them too. My list has grown over the years and it's still something I refer to when I feel people are being to complacent.

We all understand the value in having tests. But writing a test before there is any code? Writing a test before we have a clear picture of what we're building? TDD should challenge the way you learned to program.

Pair Programming
Two heads are smarter than one. But we all assume it'll be the same speed as just 1 person so under value the benefits. But in studies we find that, with practice, the speed increases by quite a lot. Most of programming is not typing it's thinking about the problem. The same is true for creating tests in that typing is a very small part of the time spent. With practice we see pairs operate at about 1.8x the speed of an individual while also having 50% fewer bugs.

Mob Programming
See pair programming

No Estimates
Estimates can be a dysfunction. Is someone asking for a completion date or trying to figure out a cost, plan a release or looking for a deadline to enforce. Move the conversation away from estimates as much as possible.

If something is difficult or error prone then do it more often
Teams will often avoid doing a minor release due to headaches in the release process. A good coach will then insist that releases be daily until release issues are resolved. It applies to many areas where we avoid facing issues rather than fixing them.

Maximise the work not done
We want to work on a prioritised list so that we can avoid doing things that have little value. Sure the customer says they want A, B & C but if C will help them immediately then do that and give them the software before working on A & B. You might find out that with C fixed that B drops from being the second most important feature to no longer being required.

Safe to fail
Encourage teams to challenge themselves and occasionally fail. If the team never fails then how do you know they are actually trying to improve? If treat everything as so important you cannot risk failure then you do not allow improvement. So you are not allowing teams to operate at their best when you demand only the best.

Having a detailed and complete test suite allows quicker changes to your code
Many with only a little experience at writing tests would disagree. The tests break in confusing ways. Changes to the software trigger many required changes in the tests. But really that's just changing code with poor tests that are too tightly coupled and fail in bad ways.

That's my list for now. As an aside it's worth remembering that common sense is cultural and really just wraps up a lot of assumptions we share. I do this contrast more to challenge people's thinking than really seeing a lot of value in something being common sense or not. When we start thinking of something as common sense we assume others know it and that's an unhelpful assumption.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Applying the Toyota Kata

Last year I got to attend a workshop on the Toyota Kata by Hakan Forss and I could immediately see how it could be useful but I didn't have an obvious place to apply it until recently.

So what is the Toyota Kata? I see it as an alternative to retrospectives. It lets you define a collection of goals and run experiments to see if you can get progress towards that goal. Unlike retrospectives you can define goals that may seem distant (release to customers on every passing commit), may be simply something you want to maintain (have zero bugs in production) or be impossible (have zero wait time in moving a story from backlog to done). Once you've built this collection of measurable goals you decide what you're going to try and your expected outcome (we will to TDD and have 50% less bugs in production). You can define what the period is before you check in again and decide on the next step. But as with anything Agile; shorter is better. You can work it into a normal two week scrum cycle or if improvements are important enough then spend a small time on it every day. Next time you get together you can assess how the experiment(s) did and what you want to try and do next.

I really like how it's focused on doing small experiments rather than committing yourself to something to fix the problem immediately. Especially for those big issues it frees you up to try anything because you'll know soon if it helped and can try something else. With normal retrospectives it can be hard to get people to conduct experiments.

So my team recently went from doing 2 week sprints to a Kan-ban style flow of work. I had some concerns that it could lead to a range of problems and wanted it to be a positive change, So we figured out some measurable goals where we wanted improvement and things we to maintain. The improvement ended up being focused around cycle time as I felt sprints encouraged us to get things done because a sprint was ending even though it's an artificial deadline. If a task lasted more than a sprint we were able to quickly see it as an issue. Other measures were around velocity (measured in weeks instead of sprints) and team comfort (do they like the change or would they rather go back).

So far things have been great. Our cycle time is getting better and everyone is comfortable with the process. It's not a clear winner where people love the new process over the old. And our goals for cycle time seem lofty compared to what we ended up measuring. But it's given us a structure to keep experimenting and keep chipping away at these things. I absolutely would recommend it to anyone facing issues they feel cannot be resolved in a normal retrospective cycle. It can compliment or replace retrospectives as you see fit.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

So I've been advised to create a Coaching Manual

I'm trying to build up my skills as an Agile Coach. In a way I've been doing this already now for about 8 years. But it's getting a bit more structure and organisation.

The way I see it learning is part of software development. It always has been. Some people get comfortable with their knowledge and workload and stop learning but that has never been me. When I get too comfortable I start looking for something else to do.

But my learnings are just a jumble in my brain. Sometimes it impresses me as I can pull out a name, a quote or apply a process to something specific. And sometimes it lets me down so I have to revisit and revise like I'm doing right now. I'm listening to Esther Derby talk about her Six Rules of Change and writing this at the same time. Not something I recommend but I just want a refresher as I've studied it before. I'll probably grab the slides later and use it as part of a mini-presentation. Sorry you just ran into my jumble.

What I'm trying to say is it's time to organise that jumble into something written. And the best place I can think of to write it is here. So I'll try and every week regurgitate something out of my head and into words. Usually it'll be referencing someone else smarter than me rather than anything terribly unique. But that's okay as it'll form a nice reference I can go back to for myself.