Ruthlessly Helpful

Stephen Ritchie's offerings of ruthlessly helpful software engineering practices.

Agile Requires Agility

For a long time there has been a widely held belief, early in the collective unconscious and later described in various methodologies: Effective software development requires key elements, like clear deliverable-objectives, a shared understanding of the requirements, realistic estimates of effort, a proper high-level design, and, the most important element of all, effective people.

What happens when the project context doesn’t meet the minimum, essential conditions for a process like Agile development? The project has many missing, ambiguous, or conflicting objectives, and those objectives are nearly always described as activities, not deliverables. There are major differences between what the project leaders, analysts, developers and testers, each think the system is required to do. Every estimate is either prohibitively pessimistic or ultimately turns out to be overly optimistic. The software architecture collapses because it’s not able to carry the system from one sprint to the next, or it’s overly complicated. The project’s people are not sure what to do, how to do it, or aren’t motivated to do it.

In the field of agricultural development, there is the concept of appropriate technology; they say Gandhi fathered this idea. Agricultural development is more successful when straightforward and familiar technologies are used to move from the current status quo to a new, improved status quo. For example, before the tractor would be used effectively farmers should first get comfortable using a team of oxen to plow the fields.

Some ideas to move the team’s status quo from the current state of readiness to the perquisite level:

  • Rephrase project objectives from activities to deliverables. For example, “write the requirements document for feature Xyz” becomes “Requirement Xyz; verified complete, clear and consistent by QA.”
  • Refocus the team away from providing initial estimates, which are often just guesses anyway, toward a timebox and working the prioritized list of deliverables. Use each timebox’s results as the future predictor.
  • Listen carefully and ask probing questions to ensure everyone’s on the same page with respect to what the system’s supposed to do; keep coming back to a topic if there are significant differences.
  • Find ways to continuously validate and verify that the architecture is up to the task; not under-engineered or over-engineered.
  • Look for the tell-tale signs of knowledge-, skill-, or attitude-gaps. Team members tentative about what they’re supposed to be do. wanting more training, time  to experiment or feeling under prepared, or a general concern that project is not on the right track and won’t go better.

A catch-phrase for software development; Agile requires agility. Keep an eye on the appropriateness by monitoring the team’s level of agility and positively influence a transition to the next plateau.


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