Are we agile yet? Grrrrr...

Published 21 Oct 2008 by Michael Dubakov

“Are we agile?”, “How agile are we?”, “Are we more agile than they are?” Honestly, I am getting tired of these questions. Why do you care? Will it make you happier when you are able to tattoo “100% agile” on your body? Is it a goal to be “agile”? Definitely not! All agile tests are just a garbage. All efforts on agile process certifications/assessments are useless.

There are so many factors influencing software development process that make impossible any certification. Your company is special, you have special people in the development team, you have special conditions, rules, and other external factors. CMMI, PMBOK, and other heavy approaches do not help to build legendary team. They only may help to build an average team and eliminate some quite obvious mistakes in the development process.

The right question to ask is: “How can we be more productive as a team?“. It is your project. It is your team. You have goals to improve team productivity (“Done-Done” stories in a period of time), create outstanding software and make customers happy. Agile Tests that answer question “Are we agile?” shift the focus to the wrong direction.

Look, if your team has to pass an Agile “test”, they will focus on passing it. That is a plain dumb goal and a waste of time. Let’s say a manager reads about a famous agile test and sets the goal to pass it. Development team, as a complex adaptive system, adapts to the rules and environment. It will change development process and apply practices to pass the test as effectively as possible. However the team’s productivity may suffer. Why? Simply because the test is too general and can’t be applied to any team. Remember, your team is special.

Let’s take Scrum and famous Nokia test. The first question is “Describe your iterations” and the worst answer to the question is “We do not use iterations”. Well, it is a Scrum test and Scrum insists on having iterations (sprints). But what if your team works more effectively without iterations? What if your team implements “by-feature” using Kanban? What if you have a large project and long iterations are a relief? What if your team holds retrospective meeting and decides to use iteration-less development? Hey, you will fail your “agility” test! Will you be less agile? Why do you care? You will be more productive, that is what you need.

Another example. Third question in Nokia test is “Describe your requirements at the time an iteration starts”. The best answer according to Nokia test is “We have good user stories tied to agile specifications as needed”. What the hell agile specification is? I don’t know such a term. Is it “just enough” documentation? Is it executable specification? Who knows… Maybe your team is fine with just user stories and produces great results. But you will receive less points on the test.

The only good “test” I’ve ever seen is from exceptional Alistair’s book. It contains seven properties of successful Agile development projects. Even in this very broad test some properties may not improve your productivity. So I can’t imagine how it is possible to create general test that will work for all teams/projects/environments/etc. It is as achievable as perpetual motion machine…

Anyway, my point is to focus on real goals and throw away fake goals to pass an agile test, be “100% agile” and “agilier” than the team in a next cubicle.

Here is the very good quote:

From my readings of the literature on Japanese management practice, the focus appears to be on the “hows” and “whats” rather than why something should be done. Although there is some mention of “why”, this appears to be almost incidental. This may be a result of the cohesive nature of Japanese society, the lack of industrial conflict that was endemic in the UK and many other Western countries, or a product of Japanese management thinking.

I do agree. We often fall into a set of practices, tools and “how-to” solutions. We often take Scrum, or XP, or any other process and apply it in hope to solve all the problems. We don’t so often ask “why” indeed. Why we need to change our software development process? It is very important to develop a “need for change” message for your team, your product, your company.

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