Agile Is Just A Means To An End

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A couple of months ago I posted that software is just a means to an end.

Here’s an equally commonly lost point – in fact it’s almost identical.

Agile (or Lean, TOC, whatever) is a means, not a solution.

Our customers, users and stakeholders don’t want “agile”, they want “success”. Once they have success they’d quite like a means of making that success more repeatable but ultimately they simply want success.

We seek to promote our way of working (one of our goals as an agile community) but risk missing the actual goals of our stakeholders?

Our conversations should move away from Agile by name and onto:

  • how do we best attain our stakeholders goals?
  • how do we effectively identify those goals?
  • how do we attain consensus on what those goals are?
  • what do “success”, “good” and “OK” look like for everyone involved?

If we step back, agile is just a marketing term – a simple pattern for a collection of mostly proven ways in which we believe we can work effectively. Where we need that marketing or verbal anchor, let’s use it – (much like we’ll use whatever agile practices and culture we know are useful in attaining our stakeholders goals) – but let’s ensure we’re not having methodology and culture conversations for the sake of methodology and culture alone.

Before diving into “agile” discussions, step back and (re-)establish what success should look like for your customers and users from their perspective.

SMART Goals and The Elephant Test

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Just under 4 years ago I set myself a goal to “socialize the concept of technical debt” within my organization. I had a strategy but no visible means of measurement. When I’d achieved my goal it was obvious that I’d succeeded but I had no direct evidence to prove it. – and why bother? – I succeeded.

Thanks to Luke Morgan (Agile Muze) for the inspiration of the “Elephant Test” – I’d never heard of it until last week.

For years everyone I know has been indoctrinated into using “SMART” goals (as defined in the early 1980s). As a line manager, employee of multiple large corporations and one-time domain expert in learning and performance management systems I too bought into and supported the “SMART” mnemonic.

Here’s a challenge – try running a 5 whys exercise on each of the attributes of SMART.

  • Specific,
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Timely

I can develop valuable meaningful responses (not excuses) to most of these except measurable.

I’ve spent enough years working for corporations that love to measure to have a very good handle on the values and dangers of measurement. But until my inspiration from Luke, I never had an alternative.

Today I do!

Why measure something when you implicitly know, trust and recognize what you’re looking at?

The Elephant Test “is hard to describe, but instantly recognizable when spotted”.

A big leap in agile management is trust. Trust your teams to do the right thing.

  • If you trust your team to set and accomplish their own reasonable goals, you must also trust their judgement.
  • If you trust their judgement, they must be able to recognize when they’ve achieved a goal.

Measurement is the most brute force way of recognizing something – but not the only way.

Software development and management is a knowledge activity. We tacitly know what’s right and wrong and we openly share that recognition. Occasionally we choose to measure but much of the time we trust our judgement and that of our teams.

So if the team says they saw an Elephant, chances are they saw an elephant.

Or don’t you trust them?

If that Elephant happens to be that your team believes they’ve met their goal and their stakeholders agree, why must that goal be explicitly measurable?

I know when I’ve made a difference and those around me know when I’ve done a good job. That team consensus is far more rewarding and more trustworthy than preparing measurable evidence – it’s also a lot harder to game and a lot harder to sub-optimize your behavior to group perception than around numbers.

Next time you’re looking at goal setting. Don’t go overboard on making them all measurable. If they can pass the elephant test, that should be more than sufficient.

Try starting out with a clear simple vision, good direction, a suitable time window, a strategy and some commitment to do the right thing and work from there. You’ll know amongst yourselves when elephant-testable goals have been achieved (and delivered in good faith). These may also be some of the most valuable impacts your team can have.

Your Leaders Are Not Gods

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It’s lonely at the top, but who makes it that way?

In Large companies there seems to be a myth – often perpetuated at the middle tier – that senior leaders are somehow “gods” that cannot be spoken to or at least not in the same way as mere mortals.

The business leaders that I’ve had the pleasure of talking to have been very smart, politically astute, personable, socially aware and most of all they care what people have to say. Admittedly they’re strapped for free time but they’re still human beings.

A casual conversation, sharing of thoughts and opinions or mail exchange should be possible at any level. In fact that no-nonsense, relaxed, open and honest communication is a breath of fresh air from the political games and data feeds faced most of the day.

In any organization that claims to be lean or agile, isolating communication with our leaders to single PowerPoint slides and 2 minute bursts of data defeats the entire point of a true lean corporate culture.

“Go see” also means listen, share, learn, coach, mentor, teach, act, support and most critically interact.

Most leaders understand this (they all started out somewhere) but you may have to cut through a layer of defense to get there and re-educate along the way.

When your leaders do go see, make sure they really see and understand. It’s not all a parade no matter how your local glitterati might want to make it one.

Remember no matter where you are in the food chain, a truly agile organization values individuals and interactions.

Stop Working With Blunt Tools

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Clarke Ching introduced me to a story of 2 woodcutters – one worked furiously but finished late whilst another stopped frequently to sharpen his tools and finished early.  (He tells it better than I do) – I think it’s actually based on an Abraham Lincoln quote:

“If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend six hours sharpening my ax.”

Let’s think more about developing software the Lincoln way

What tool sharpening should you do before you start chopping?

If you paid off or prevented some of the debt you were facing before new work started, would it enable your project to run faster, more smoothly, with reduced risk, a lower chance of defects or a lower maintenance cost?

A previous employer had a great strategy. Every new release of the product had 2 top priority named features on the priority list for “cleaning up” and “levelling up”.

Cleaning up:

  1. Get all unit and regression tests passing (and keep them there).
  2. Address all build failures and warnings (and keep them under control).
  3. Delete all functionality, code and tests that will have been deprecated for more than 3 releases. (and add alerts to functionality that will be removed in the next release)
  4. Fix all defects that put us below releasable quality before we’ve even started (and keep them there).

Levelling up:

  1. Raise the tools we use to those that are best supported, newest in the market or offer improvements to our working conditions.
  2. Raise the libraries we use to the latest supported versions and address any issues.
  3. Raise the platform versions we’ll support when the product ships and address any issues. (and remove support for obsolete or out of date platforms).

No major release started full-tilt on functional work until these were cleared.

Like all good practices, this isn’t new thinking, it correlates to 3 components of the lean 5S strategy; sort (seiri), straighten (seiton) and shine (seiso). Rather than just describing what was done, here’s some tangible benefits for the clean up & level up approach…

  1. There were no unpleasant surprises for our customers on a new release. We had a standard platform, support and deprecation policy and kept to it. Our customers liked it when we did predictable things.
  2. For the development teams levelling up was a common risk. Addressing this at the beginning of a project was a valuable de-risking activity. Where we hit critical problems, we could make clear, early upgrade decisions and where there were fewer issues we would develop full-time on updated versions throughout the project with regression on older supported platforms available from prior development cycles.
  3. Removing old parts of the product made life significantly easier for the teams. The reduced testing, regression and maintenance load allowed us to speed up development – much like scraping barnacles off the hull of a boat to help it run faster. Cleaning up also allowed us to take some sensible baseline code metrics before any new work started.
  4. Giving teams space and time to clean and level up before starting functional work had a positive impact on morale. We felt that we were trusted to “do the right thing” rather than “just ship it”. This empowered us to continue doing the right thing throughout the rest of our work.

Give your teams some time out to sharpen their tools and sort, straighten & shine the workshop before new work starts. It will make a difference to the performance of your team and the quality of the end result.