Tuesday, November 19, 2013

When NOT to Use Agile

When HealthCare.gov first rolled out, everyone experienced how terribly it was built. Many Agile enthusiasts cried out, “If only they had used Agile…!” We have since learned that HealthCare.gov used Scrum. It’s uncertain how superficial their adoption was. Michael Daconta has already done a great job describing their poor use of Agile methods in the GCN blog, and NPR has published findings from the McKinsley & Co. consultants who were brought on in March to do a progress report.

My focus here is not about the degree to which Agile was or was not properly used for HealthCare.gov. My focus is to debate under what circumstances, if any, Agile will not work. When would you NOT use Agile?
My assumptions for this debate are as follows:
  1. Agile is any processes, practices, tools, and frameworks that comply with the Agile Manifesto and its 12 Principles.
  2. In the spirit of healthy debate, I assume the audience to be open to the possibility of new and different ways of doing things. This applies particularly to both Agile skeptics and to those entrenched in a specific Agile approach.
  3. The ideas in this discussion are not etched in stone. I encourage you to share your own ideas so we can learn and grow together.

Possible Agile Risks

I was recently invited to an introductory Agile presentation. The audience was Project Managers with varying Agile knowledge and experience. It facilitated a conversation for answering questions and resolving concerns around Agile adoption. About halfway through, there was a slide that had five “Possible Agile Risks”:
  1. Business or management commitment
    • Agile requires an increased level of commitment from the business and IT management to be successful
  2. Remote or distributed teams
    • Agile benefits from close collaboration on a consistent basis. Distributed teams pose a challenge in the effort to do this effectively
  3. Remote product owners
    • The business must be consistently involved, so a remote product owner may be challenging to engage
  4. Balance delivering new features with high-quality, sustainable code
    • Agile delivers new features frequently, but this should never come at the expense of creating low quality code
  5. Team not provided adequate guidance as they implement Agile
    • Anything new will take time to get good at, it is important to supply the team with training and guidance so they can improve quickly

This disclaimer followed these risks: “These risks do not preclude teams from applying Agile; they just need to be addressed in the scenarios they are present.”

Before we get to my reaction, let’s walk through these risks. Let’s identify why they’re risky in an Agile environment.

Business or Management Commitment

A deep understanding of the business is essential to the success of the software that supports it. In Agile methodologies, this means a dedicated person who has a deep understanding of the customer’s needs, often called a “Product Owner”. Traditionally, this person is seen as “from the business side”. However, getting someone from the “business side” isn’t always possible and is, arguably, unnecessary.

In my area we have Business Analysts who understand the business needs. They are bilingual in business and IT speech. Our developers and testers have a deep business understanding of the business because they’ve been supporting it for a long time. Some Agile practitioners feel the Product Owner role is unnecessary; they believe the team should understand the customers’ needs better than anyone. The team can, therefore, manage the work themselves.

In Agile, management is not a clearly defined position. Managers may feel their job is threatened by a “self-managing” team. A manager must have the team’s best interests at heart. They must become Lean-Thinking Servant Leaders, not Command-and-Control Managers. This is a cultural shift from Waterfall. Agile teams without Servant Leader management will plateau until they are allowed to “self manage”. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t find some measure of success.

Remote or Distributed Teams

This is one of the first and most frequent challenges brought up when introducing Agile. A team is distributed when its members are not capable of frequent face-to-face conversation. Lack of co-location for an Agile team is a challenge, no question. However, modern tools such as IM-enabled ad-hoc video conferencing, digital code review tools, etc. make long-distance coordination much simpler. It may be hard to work out timing with time-zone differences, but it’s possible to have a time overlap for some real-time collaboration. This may result in having a tech lead that takes the brunt of the development’s complexity to reduce the need for collaboration among the other team members, though this will limit the team’s overall productivity.

Remote Product Owners

For this I say, “See my previous 2 sections.” However, perhaps there are situations where the team is new to the product? Perhaps the SMEs are remote? Even worse, what if those remote SMEs do not dedicate time to work with the development team? Wait, what on earth are you thinking? Seriously, this is a bad idea, regardless of methodology. You are stacking the deck against yourself and setting the team up to fail.

Balance New Features with Quality Code

One of the 12 Agile Principles states, “Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.” Delivering new features at the expense of quality is the technical equivalent of being “penny wise, pound foolish”. This may be faster short-term, but the long-term consequences are a slow-down of delivery. Without addressing the quality of the application, it will eventually be cheaper to replace the application than to fix it. This isn’t unique to Agile. This brings me to my initial reaction to ‘Possible Agile Risks’.

My reaction to "Possible Agile Risks"

When I first saw this list, my reaction was that the first four are not “Possible Agile Risks”. Instead, they are “Possible Software Development Risks”! The four risks of commitment, distributed teams, remote product owners, and quality are often associated with Agile development because Agile brings risks to light early. Agile makes it much more painful to ignore risks than to address them. They are not less risky with non-Agile approaches. In fact, the realization of these risks is more likely in a non-Agile approach. In Waterfall projects, risks manifest so late in the process that they are painful and expensive to fix. The first four are risks to all projects; but not necessarily the fifth and final risk on the list.

Agile Training and Guidance

Without proper training and guidance, it is difficult for those unfamiliar with the Agile paradigm to be successful with an Agile approach. Most people new to Software Development find the Agile way of thinking to be a more intuitive and human-centered. In those cases, there is less risk because less training is needed.

Those entrenched with Waterfall approaches will find it difficult to switch gears. This is the only risk I could concede as being a “Potential Agile Risk”.

Where’s the Risk?

So there are my thoughts on five risks commonly thought to make Agile less successful. I have yet to find a risk that is made any less risky by Waterfall. Does that mean Agile’s guaranteed to succeed? Absolutely not. In fact, Agile will push you to your limits. Then, right as you’re starting to feel comfortable, it pushes you some more. However, Agile will consequently turn your team into the best team they can be. Agile will expose risks and inefficiencies sooner. It will also make them more painful. As long as you don’t ignore the pain, taking care of those risks and inefficiencies will be less expensive because they are dealt with early.

But hey, maybe I’m wrong. What risks have you heard associated with Agile? What situations are wholly inappropriate for the basic tenants of the Agile Manifesto?
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