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Archive for the ‘Agile’ Category

The failure of Agile?

Posted by Yannick Martel on August 17, 2009

Is this yet another blog post about the failure of agile? No, not really. More about the failure of Agile adoption, that is failing to notably improving the development process and its effectiveness in delivering features.

A major roadblock with Agile adoption is that Agile is more than a new project management methodology. It is a new approach to product development and application management, based on a number of principles and values, many of which related to management, not just project management. Thus an effective adoption requires new management methods, and its adoption can be gravely impaired by attitudes from decision-makers outside of the project if too far from Agile values.

This means that for an effective adoption (you want results, don’t you?) managers need to also change their attitudes and expectations. They need to change how they interact with their teams and what they expect from them, both explicitely and implicitely.

What if they don’t? Agile will just pass as another fad, but might be an occasion for your competition to benefit from huge productivity improvements and gain an edge. And as Edwards Deming mentionned: “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”

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Posted by Yannick Martel on June 12, 2009

Without a good product owner, a project can go that bad!

Without a good product owner, a project can go that bad!

I expressed on a recent post that the activities done upstream from software development where amongst the most difficult ones in producing a quality software product. Specifically, I was thinking about the role of the product owner.

A software developer has a very creative job, implementing requested features, within the boundaries of time and the constraints of language, framework, existing software and knowledge. Still, the job is pretty clear, even if difficult at times. Then tests, automated or not are there to help declare a job is done.

The role of the product owner in an Agile project on the other hand, is to will something and communicate his willingness. He is to produce a view of the software which would be the most useful for the company or organization, define a trajectory, negotiate with peers, feed this view iteration after iteration to the development team and interact on a daily basis to adjust. It is a bit like the job of a captain guiding his ship through a difficult passage, but without the ability to be happy about your job even if you reach a “correct” destination.

As a ship captain, a good product owner must listen, and then decide – I repeat as it is very important: listen and then decide. We concentrate here two major risks, on which the whole project might flounder: listening without deciding or deciding without listening. This is willing with being helped. Alas, in many corporations willing is not encouraged amongst managers, as it goes with taking risks, and accepting help is seen as weakness.

Is that an obstacle to truly benefiting from Agile methodologies? Yes, but indeed no project can go right without somebody assuming this charge, whatever the method – as for many things Agile only help making it more apparent.

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Working on the bottleneck – the right one

Posted by Yannick Martel on June 12, 2009

Are you attentive?

Are you paying attention?

From Lean Management and The Goal, you know where to look for when you wish to improve a complex process: you need to search for bottlenecks in the process flow, and first of all the major bottleneck. Find it and then concentrate all your actions on improving it. Then the process will get better (produce more and/or faster), but you will find have another bottleneck, another limiting factor. Just find it and work on it, and so on.

In IT, Agile has been proposed as a solution to the difficulties in the software product development  process. As Agile concentrates on software design and development, it can really help only if difficulties were indeed in design and development. That’s probably partly true as we effectively see improvements when Agile practices are really applied in development projects.

But then from Lean Management, we know we should look for the next bottleneck in the process. Where to look for it? We get an answer by looking at a typical Agile project: somewhere between three and eight weeks after the beginning, the pressure is no more on the development team but on the product owners. And thus we have found our next (and maybe really first and most important – why not?) bottleneck: the team in charge of knowing what to ask.

To me, it is particularly important to effectively address this bottleneck, first because the bottleneck is stronger: knowing what to code is at least as important as knowing how to code it – and generally coding correctly is easier that knowing what to code. Once the development team is ready and eager to produce value, all concentrated on it, it can gell pretty fast and request to be guided, request to know what to produce – pressure has moved.

But there is another, more subtle, reason: softtware development is more related to product design and development than manufacturing (more related to designing a new model of Prius than manufacturing it). It is a profoundly creative activitiy, requiring communication, trust and confidence. If a strong bottleneck is left in the process and it is not addressed, then you risk mining the efforts which have been done elsewhere and loosing everything you’ve earned. More concretely: if your product definition process is visibly the bottleneck and you don’t address it, the demoralizing effect will destroy whatever gains you’ve done by implementing Agile in your development team and you’ll quickly loose the discipline to go on with Agile practices and continuous improvements – maybe creating a secondary bottleneck again.

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Rowing, steering or shouting?

Posted by Yannick Martel on February 11, 2009

On the shore, ready and willing to go!

On the shore, ready and willing to go!

Recently we had a discussion with an interesting man at a major company. This man wanted a team set up to develop tools for new services. He wanted to go with Agile, and we suggested some critical resources for a team (coach, teach lead…) alongside with some developers. This man was worried he would get too many steersmen, and not enough rowers. We finally convinced him that our people would also provide muscle for his ideas, and we then set up his team.

Then, later, I gave some thought to his worries: yes, you need muscle, rowers, for his dreams to come true, and for sure you need a steersman with strong hands. On the other hand, we frequently see many people around IT projects, which he might have called steersmen, but indeed the boats are not controlled so well, and these persons are not steering. So what are they doing? They are only sitting on the shore, shouting advices…

It is much more comfortable on the shore: the ground is stable, it’s less humid, you don’t risk falling into the river. But the race is won by people in the boat. Of course it’s some help to be supported from the shore. But if your best people are not on the boat, rowing or steering, you’ve got a problem.

It was always the case in the navies of the age of sail: captains and admirals had to go with their teams, in their ships. The majority of victims were not from actual combat, but from just sailing on the sea: from weather, the waves, scurvy… Captains and admirals had to suffer them as well. They had to go, because the means of communication and the distance required them to be close physically to be able to command. Of course, they needed good people in the offices, at the Admiralty, but they also needed strong captains in the ships.

Now, that is the same with our projects: we need strong people rowing and steering, because whatever you do the distance is too large with the people who are just shouting from the shore – not physically, but mentally.

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Why the Church as a model?

Posted by Yannick Martel on December 9, 2008

The Church in the village

The Church in the village

From my previous post on the Church as an organizational model worth studying (here), I hope that you agree at least a bit that some of the organizational qualities of the Church are desirable as well for modern corporations. Now the question is: why is that so? Let’s look first at the qualities which the army brought to the first “modern” corporate entities.

The army as a model brings a strong command and control organization. It is designed for hierarchical control, with limited space for horizontal sharing (interestingly modern armies in the XXst century have learned some new ways to cooperate – maybe some matter for another post). This was good for a train company in a simpler time, when it was important to manage traffic with some fluidity and adequate security, in a mostly predictable and stable environment.

What about the Church? It was set up as an organization to propagate faith with limited resources, on a global space, with capacity to teach to a wide audience. The Church also needed (and still needs) to adapt the message and learning, to geographical and historical contexts (over space and time, language and culture), while keeping the cohesiveness and truthfulness.

A large part of today’s core of knowledge has been built over time via exchanges and cooperation between bishops (representing their local people), theologists (experts) and innovators. In essence, the Church has functioned as a learning and self-learning organization.

To me, a modern corporation also has a central core business to manage and develop. It must adapt to complex and different contexts, while staying coherent and cohesive. It must also learn about products, clients, technologies and its own purpose, while redefining the way it address it addresses the contradictions and tensions along its path. No wonder the organisational model of the Church can bring something to the business world of the XXIst century!

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A 2000 years old new model!

Posted by Yannick Martel on November 6, 2008


I recently came to read this fascinating article by Poppendieck.LLC, where the roots of the organisation of our modern corporate entities and teams are traced back to a train accident in 1841. The Western Railroad company conducted an investigation on the accident, and concluded it had to find a new model for its business to be able to manage safely its growth and the geographic dispersion – elements which were historically quite absent from the old workshop and small factories.

Two notable organisational models existed at the time: the army and the church. They choose the army. This founded the tradition of hierarchical organisations and the culture of delegating to individuals pieces of the job at hand. One individual is responsible for each piece, and delegates downwards to other individuals in charge of smaller and smaller pieces. When there is a problem, the fault is on the individual (or individuals) in charge of the faulty element – and we only have to blame him and ultimately change him to solve the problem.

Today this hierarchical model and the culture of (blame) delegation which goes with it show their limitations with the complex problems we face, such as cooperating to manage and evolve complex IT infrastructures. In many places we try to infuse a new culture of collective responsibility and to foster self-managed teams – along with other Agile practices.

What would modern corporations look like if they had got inspiration from the church during the post train-wreck reorganisation? This is quite difficult to say now! Interestingly though some of the practices which at OCTO we try to propagate parallel some elements of my personal experience of the Catholic Church of today.

Let’s take collective responsibility. The Agile mouvement holds that the best products are made by self-managed teams practicing collective responsibility. In the same way, the Church teaches that everybody is hurt when one fails: just as the Christ suffers from the sins of every one of us, every one of us suffers from the sins of any of us. Thus everyone of us can mention to a brother his fault. If the brother doesn’t hear me, then I have to grab a few other brothers and come again to talk to him. As in Agile, if I see a problem, then I own it – even if I don’t actually know how to solve it. Christians have been traditionnally very active socially, for instance in charity organisations which often have emerged without the need for central leadership or coordinated and structured action from “management”. The local Church as well works if not always smoothly at least reasonably well thanks to individual initiatives and much goodwill.

Talking about organisation, from an outsider’s perspective, the Church has a complex organisation, but we have indeed two levels of hierarchy: fidels and bishops. The bishops are guiding the fidels in their area – that’s it. Even the Pope is only the bishop of Roma. He has higher authority because he is the successor of Saint Peter, but that’s a very different authority from a boss at GlobalCorp Inc. He is officially referred as the “servant to the servants”, his role being to help and guide the other bishops, who are to help and guide the people of God. To me, it looks very much like the inverted pyramid of the Toyota Way: the managers’ role is to help workers who are everyday on the gemba, the floor of the factory. They are to provide longer-term guidance and help with their experience – to serve, not to request obedience. It is also similar to the role of managers in self-directed Agile development teams: helping, not interfering or directing work.

After all the Catholic Church has stood the test of time, being in existence for nearly 2000 years, going through difficulties, periods of decays, rebirths, schisms, but still existing and bringing a message to humanity. We probably could learn a few things from this collective experience.

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Adaptable vs Adapted

Posted by Yannick Martel on September 25, 2008

Is it adapted? Would you like to adapt it?

Is it adapted? Would you like to adapt it?

As IT practitioners, we all want to produce solutions adapted to the needs of our clients. And usually we want our solutions to be fully adapted to a bit more than what we understand of the needs of our clients. We want to cover more in case we have missed something. We want to prepare for the future. This is why we make such long analysis, produce documents with complex business rules and go through long and tedious review and validation processes. This is also why we work hard at designing generic, elegant, general solutions. In the interest of the future. And that’s the right way to do, isn’t it?

No, Sir, it is not. As Auguste Detoeuf was saying in the 30’s in “Propos d’O.L. Barenton, confiseur”:

Contrairement à une opinion répandue, on fait quelquefois trop grand. Il faut faire juste, mais en ménageant tout pour agrandir le moment venu.
On se borne l’avenir en faisant trop large, aussi bien qu’en faisant trop étroit.

Or, translated in English:

Contrary to widespread belief, we sometimes build too large. We must build just right, while keeping open to enlarge when the time comes.
You can restrict the future by making too large, as well as too narrow.

In fact, when we we build “too large”, we develop mechanisms and answers for questions which have not been asked. When they arise, our solutions have to evolve because the answers we believe were right are not anymore. When other questions are asked, the complexity we have unnecessarily added is an obstacle to providing new, unanticipated answers. Thus by trying to be over-adapted, we prevent our solutions to be adaptable, which is really what our clients needs – really.

We should instead apply Gall’s law:

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. The inverse proposition also appears to be true: A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.

Our job in IT is to build complex systems. We should build a complex system by first building a simple system, satisfying simple needs. Then we can augment and satisfy more sophisticated requirements, while making sure that:

  • the system is still working;
  • the system is still adaptable.

These two points are difficult, and require effort every day, but only then you will be able to help your clients – and keep being able to do so.

This is the paradox: by being adaptable, we can succeed at always being adapted (although it is not guaranteed, and we can still fail). By aiming at being fully adapted today, we are guaranteed to fail at being adaptable, and thus to fail at being adapted tomorrow.

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Agile Adoption Patterns, 1, 2, 3

Posted by Yannick Martel on September 16, 2008

A sleeping volcano in Auvergne (France)

This looks like a plateau, but is in fact a volcano. Beware!

Let me confess it: I am not an expert in Agile. I have yet read only the first three chapters of Agile Adoption Patterns, from Amr Elssamadisy, and I already want to share with you how much it has inspired me. Especially in relationship with a specific project we at OCTO Technology are helping to get Agile. I will go on reading the remaining 43 chapters and may later review them here.

Agile is nowadays quite fashionable, and this very success generates its own problems. Amr mentions that the very first teams adopting Agile “methods” obtained 500% improvements in productivity, but that as Agile is becoming more pervasive and adopted by a wider audience we see more teams getting instead only 50% improvements, or failing to obtain any improvement at all. Indeed I now realize that the project I have in mind has probably reached this 50% plateau. Amr’s intention is to help us overcome this difficulty and implement an Agile adoption strategy to go much beyond.

For this, Amr’s gives me two keys. The first key is learning. Learning is the bottleneck in software development, the limiting factor in your effort to develop efficiently useful and dependable software. Learning might be about the functional domain, your user’s preferences, technologies, software development processes, whatever. Thus many of the Agile practices help people examine frequently what they have done and get an opportunity to learn and improve: short cycles, retrospectives, test-driven specifications, etc.

My “plateau” team is not today using some of the most important learning-oriented practises, such as refactoring and retrospective. The emphasis is more on velocity, not on learning. IMHO, this explains the plateau: once you have adopted some basic practices, you don’t improve anymore if you are not willing to experience frequently the slight unease of realizing you could have done better and turn it into the next incremental enhancement.

The second key is personal responsibility. The best Agile teams are self-directed, self-improving and responsible. Collective responsibility can only be based on the individual responsibiliy of team members. Many Agile practices help people in the team evolve towards more individual responsibility. Just as an individual cannot be ordered to be responsible, a team cannot be declared self-directed, but you can help it.

My “plateau” team is not today self-directed. It is composed of individuals moving in a hierarchical environment, which does not encourage personal responsibility. Agile adoption has not been positioned as a change in culture, only as “just another software development methodology”. I think we have not worked enough to empower the team, maybe because we did not fully appreciate the effects of the cultural gap.

The third chapter is about business values. What are your most important goals? What are your reasons for improving your software development process? Amr suggests some candidates, and invite to look for the right motivation for your team. If we know why, we have better chance to improve, and in the right place.

My best idea right now is to talk to the various members of the team and project sponsors, and try to understand what is the motive for getting the team Agile. Time to market? Yes, we would all like to get a release a few months sooner. Cost? Yes, of course, as everybody. But isn’t there any other reason, more specific to their situation? Then, I hope we will be able to get them motivated and empowered to overcome the plateau.

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