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Agile Adjustments: a WordCount Story

I originally wrote this for the AYE website in 2007. It’s no longer published there so I’m posting it here. Despite itching to tweak some words and add a better conclusion, I resisted the temptation to edit it other than formatting it for this blog. It’s as I wrote it in 2007. (Despite being 4 years old, I think this post is still relevant…perhaps even more so today with Agile having crossed the chasm.)

We were in the middle of my Agile Testing class, and the simulation had run for two rounds so far. Some of the participants created “software” on index cards. Others tested it. Still others deployed it. The participants were wholly engaged in their work for the fictitious “Word Count, Inc.” As the facilitator, I was running the simulation in 15 minute rounds followed by 15 minute reflect-and-adjust mini-retrospectives.

After the second round, during the mini-retrospective, I asked, “What do you see happening?”

“The deployment team looked like they were twiddling their thumbs for most of the round,” one participant observed.

Another participant added, “I think that’s because most of the cards are still on the QA table,” she said. “QA is a bottleneck.”

“No, the problem is that development didn’t deliver anything until the very last minute.” objected one of the QA team members.

“Well that’s because it took us most of the last round to coordinate with the deployment team,” one of the Developers countered.

“Your cards were all mixed up when you delivered them. We sent them back so you could sort them out. That’s hardly a ‘coordination’ problem.” scowled a Deployment team member.

Mixed up source code, software stuck in QA, late deliverables. Sounded like a real world project to me.

I shifted the conversation: “What would you like to change to improve the outcome in the next iteration?”

The answers varied: “Hold more project meetings to coordinate efforts!” “Appoint a project manager to keep everything on track!” “More people in QA!” “Define a source code control process!” The suggestions may all have been different, but there was a general trend: the participants wanted to add control points, process steps, and personnel in an attempt to reduce the chaos.

For the next round, the team adopted new practices: adding a new role of project manager; adding more meetings; and adding a strict change control process. During the next round I observed the team use half their available time standing in a big group discussing how to proceed. It seemed to me that in their attempt to control the chaos, they created a process in which it was almost impossible to get anything done. Once again, they weren’t able to deploy an updated version. And at the end of the round, the project manager quit the role in disgust and went back to “coding” on cards.

The team meant well when they added the role of project manager, and added more meetings, but their strategy backfired.

Most groups that go through the WordCount, Inc. simulation encounter problems similar to the ones that this team encountered. Some react by attempting to introduce the same kinds of controls as this group, with similar results. But some respond differently.

One group responded to the mixed-up-source-code problem by creating a centralized code repository that was visible and shared by all. Instead of creating a change control process to manage the multiple copies of the source code floating around, they posted one copy to be shared by all in a central location: the paper equivalent of source control.

Another group responded to coordination and bottleneck problems by co-locating teams. Instead of holding meetings, they coordinated efforts by working together.

Yet another group established an “automated” regression test suite that the deployment team always ran prior to each deployment. They then posted the test results on a Big Visible Chart so everyone knew the current state of the deployed system.

These steps all had the effect of making the team more Agile by increasing visibility, increasing feedback, improving collaboration, and increasing communication. And the end result for each group was success.

When reflecting-and-adjusting, it’s easy to reach for command-and-control solutions, to add quality gates and checkpoints and formal processes. But the irony is that such process changes often increase the level of chaos rather than reducing it. They introduce delays and bloat the process without solving the core problem.

It happens in the real world too.

One organization struggling with buggy code decided to create a role of Code Czar. Before any code could be checked into the source control system, it had to go through the Code Czar who would walk through the proposed changes with the programmer. The Code Czar role required someone very senior. Someone with tremendous experience with the large, complex code base under development. Someone who was also very, very busy. The result: code checkins were delayed whenever the Code Czar was unavailable. Worse, despite having more experience than anyone else on the team, the Code Czar couldn’t always tell what effect a given set of changes might have. The delays in checkins weren’t worth it; they did not result in an overall improvement in code quality.

By contrast, many teams find that automated unit tests work far better as a code quality feedback mechanism than a designated human code reviewer. Instead of waiting for a very busy person to become available, programmers can find out for themselves in minutes if their latest changes will have undesired side effects.

Even Agile teams that regularly reflect-and-adapt in iteration retrospectives are not immune to the temptation to revert to command-and-control practices. For example, Agile teams struggling to test everything during an iteration sometimes create a formal testing phase outside the iteration. I even heard of one organization that was struggling with completing all the tasks in an iteration attempt to solve the problem by having their Scrum Master do a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) and delegate tasks to specific team members. Not surprisingly, both solutions caused more problems than they solved.

So how can you tell if a given process change will actually be an improvement and make a team more Agile? Before implementing a process change, consider how (or if) the proposed change supports Agile values like visibility, feedback, communication, collaboration, efficiency, and rapid and frequent deliveries. Also ask yourself these questions:

Does the process change rely on humans achieving perfection? To succeed in the role, the Code Czar would have had to have perfect knowledge of all the interdependencies in the code. Similarly, some processes rely on having perfect requirements up front. Successful practices don’t rely on perfect knowledge or perfect work products. Instead, they rely on fast feedback and visibility to enable the team to detect problems early, correct them while they’re small, and enable the team to improve iteratively.

Does it result in more time talking than working? Beware any process improvement that involves more meetings. More meetings rarely solve either communication or coordination problems. As the project manager in the simulation discovered, talking about work doesn’t increase the amount of work actually accomplished. As an alternative to meetings, consider collaborative working sessions where team members do the work rather than talking about it.

Does it introduce unnecessary delays or false dependencies? Whenever a process change increases the number of formal hand-offs, it slows things down but may not improve the overall outcome. The Code Czar learned this the hard way.

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