Bringing Agile to the Organization

Almost all of the literature out there recommends the first step being finding a “pilot” project where you can use an agile methodology.  The project can’t be too complex, too simple, too large, too small, too critical, or too unimportant. 

I’m starting to wonder if we’re over-thinking this.  Why don’t we decide what to use depending on the project?  If RUP fits REALLY well, then why don’t we use that?  If Scrum fits REALLY well, then we should have the option of using that…right? 
In reality, the only thing that will ever hold back a true agile adoption on a project or an organization is the culture.  And, the other reality is that most organizations have a culture that does not support an agile framework.
But, how do we change the culture?  Do we change the process first and hope the culture changes with it?  Or, do we try to change the culture ahead of a process change?
At my current place of employment, agile methodologies are accepted, along with any methodology that makes sense.  There isn’t a “corporate” methodology.  I really like that.  Imagine if a company was by-the-book Scrum.  No other options.  Imagine having to beg for permission to “pilot” Kanban…ugh.
My point is this…maybe we should stop the notion of “piloting” Scrum, or Extreme Programming with the intention of rolling it out and making it the “approved” delivery methodology.  Maybe we should instead focus on sound principles that we know are true, universal, and also happen to be highly valued in agile and lean.  Principles such as:
  • The primary measure of progress is working software
  • Business and IT working together daily
  • Face to face communication
  • Reducing waste
  • Building quality in
  • Delivering as fast as possible
  • Delivering working software frequently
  • Self-organizing teams
  • Welcome change
  • Sustainable development
  • Technical excellence
  • Keeping it simple
  • Continuously improving the process
 As long as we let these principles drive our process, and people are empowered and allowed to make mistakes which will in turn promote learning, the process will work.

The Cross Functional Team vs. the Functional Community

An agile team consists of everyone it takes to deliver value to the customer.  The typical team consists of analysts, developers,  and testers. Of course the team is not limited to these roles.  The team could also include technical documenters, DBAs, or whoever else has a hand in creating value.

In traditional organizations, “team” is defined as a functional group.  The development “team”, the “testing” team, the “analyst” team, etc.  This makes sense in a traditional, waterfall-ish environment.

In an agile, cross-functional environment, it is not helpful to define “teams” around functions.  Okay, “maybe” its okay in a production support capacity, but that’s still pushing it as there will still need to be cross-functional work with production support.

Teams have a common, unified goal. Functional “teams” do not.  For example, a functional “team” that consists of a dozen Java programmers, with each programmer on a different project, can hardly be called a “team”.  They have no common goal, other than to adhere to the (hopefully) high development standards that have been put in place.

I propose that instead of calling these functional groups “teams”, we call them communities.  Here’s a simple definition of community that I found on “A group of people having common interests“.  The Java “community” will work together to make sure that they have common standards of excellence, share knowledge and experiences, and provide each other guidance as needed.  However, these people will have different goals, depending on the project on which they have been assigned.

Up Front & Iterative Planning

You know the question…”what kind of projects are best suited for agile?”.  To me, this is the same as asking “what kind of projects are best suited for empowered teams, technical excellence, servant leadership, reducing waste?”.  Would there ever be a time when you would not want these things?  I know, that is a very smart-allec response, but I just can’t help myself.

I then ask “what’s the other option?”.  This surprisingly stumps people when I ask this.  We all know there is no such thing as “true” waterfall in software.  So, to help them along, I clarify what I “think” they are asking which is “what kinds of projects are best suited for big, upfront planning and design vs. iterative & incremental delivery?”.  People almost always agree with the restatement of the question.

I believe that everything can and must be done iteratively and incrementally in software.  However, the level of “up front” may change with the type of project.  Gutting out an old accounting system and replacing it with an Oracle or Great Plains solution will require more up-front planning and analysis than a green-field Web 2.0 social networking application.

So, fellow agilists, “up-front” is not a bad word, it has to be done.  We know this already with release planning, and even sprint planning, we just don’t call it “up-front”.  Just be careful…VERY careful.  You run the risk digressing into waterfall.  At times, there will need to be more “up-front” than other times.  Always be asking yourself, “what is the soonest we can deliver value to customer?”.