Scrum

Scrum Alliance - Progress on Transforming the World of Work

I’m a Scrum coach.  I like to think that I help people, teams, and organizations change the way they connect with their work, think about their work, and function.  I have chosen to do this under the auspices of the Scrum Alliance as a Certified Enterprise Coach.  One of the things that drove me to do this was the mission of the Scrum Alliance - Transforming the World of Work.  I am passionate about this mission and have dedicated my career to this endeavour.  I believe that many people toil in disengagement and dissatisfaction within their work environment.  I believe this harms both the individuals and the organizations for whom they work.  I believe there is a better way.  I believe we are uncovering better ways of working.  I believe Scrum is a framework that fosters that discovery. 

I assume that in order to really transform the world of work on a significant scale, we will need a critical mass of people with enough understanding and experience demonstrating and living the values of Scrum  The relatively low number of Certified Scrum Professionals and Certified Team Coaches could indicate that we are failing to reach this critical mass.  Anecdotally we see and hear that there are not nearly enough people in the world who understand and execute the values and principles within the Scrum framework.  So our anecdotal evidence appears to match the data.

I suspect that not enough people are interested in CSP certification and beyond because they don’t see a compelling reason for it.  If there was value, people would seek it out.  So how could it be more valuable? 

One approach might be to think about certifying organizations in Scrum.  That organizational certification might include some critical mass of CSP’s and/or CTC’s.  Customers of those organizations would have some assurances that their vendors were actually proficient in the use of Scrum.  The organizations themselves would then need to have CSPs and beyond as part of their organization which would lead to individuals seeking out CSP certification.  This would provide some impetus for individuals to continue their learning and it could provide some organizations with a competitive advantage.

I believe we are missing something in not helping address the needs of these organizations’ customers.  Isn’t this all supposed to be about delighting the customer?   I believe we should direct our Scrum awareness marketing activities in a much broader context.  We need the customers of the organizations that use Scrum to see the value of Scrum and WANT their products developed using Scrum because they value their involvement and the inherent innovation.  It is through the awareness of the customers that we’ll see acceleration in the adoption of Scrum.

Catalytic Poisoning; Coaches and Chemicals

As an agile coach, my purpose is to help people, teams, and organizations transform the way they think about their work and how they function as an organization. My role serves as a catalyst in these transformations, asking questions and inspiring clients to create their own new thinking. As with any change involving people, this does not happen overnight. These transitions can take several months to several years, and I’ve been considering how my coaching perspective is affected in these long term engagements. 

In considering this, I was reminded of another type of “catalyst” I learned about in school. In the world of chemical transformations, tiny amounts of a substance can be introduced to a reaction to increase the speed of a transformation and decrease the amount of energy required for the transformation to take place. These substances are called catalysts and they are usually unaffected by the chemical reaction taking place around them.

If you are a regular reader, you know I am a big fan of analogies from other aspects of life. This one was pretty clear to me when I happened upon it. When added to a new or already existing agile transformation, a coach’s mission is to increase the speed of a transformation and decrease the amount of overall energy required for the transformation.

However, catalysts (whether chemicals or coaches) can occasionally be inhibited, deactivated, or destroyed by secondary reactions.  Some secondary processes cover a catalyst in bi-products (see my previous post on Scaling) and inhibit the effect of the catalyst.  If that inhibiting effect is permanent, it is known as ‘poisoning’. It is important that coaches remain vigilant to recognize the risk of this, and prevent it.

During a long term engagement with a client, it is inevitable that relationships form, biases shift, and as a result, dysfunctional patterns can emerge.  As coaches we are trained to avoid these pitfalls, yet we are human. While my objectivity is often desired, it is my subjectivity that is often required in order to be an effective coach. I need to connect with people.  I need to understand them--- their fears, their motivations, their relationships with their teammates.  As time marches on, making these connections can occasionally draw me into situations where I risk losing my coaching stance and perspective.  Occasionally, my investment in the outcome of the work can become more important to me than the means to accomplish it.

In a recent example involving multiple teams, multiple companies, and multiple cultures over an 18 month period, my catalytic effect had deteriorated immensely to the risk of being poisoned.  My ability to affect the teams and organization through coaching was handicapped.  After recognizing this, I introduced a person to the transformation with different experience, different perspective, different history, and different relationships.  This had the two-fold effect of re-energizing the transformation---and opening space for another catalyst leader.  People and teams were able to better learn for themselves by being involved in new and meaningful conversations, and I too was encouraged by this new energy.  I’ve had some limited experience with paired coaching and this example has led me to believe there is likely tremendous value in utilizing that concept in large transformations.

Knowing when you, as a catalyst, have been inhibited is one of the many coaching skills necessary to ensure that your clients’ transformations continue to evolve.  I suspect the risks increase more for in-house coaches rather than consultants, but I'd like to hear what you think.

An-Isotropic Scaling

In the vernacular of my former career as a metallurgist, 'scaling' is defined as 'the accumulation of unwanted material on solid surfaces to the detriment of function'.  Over the last year or two, I've been amused by the discussions around scaling in agile environments and the applicability of that definition.  There are many, although not all,  in the agile community who might define scaling as 'the accumulation of unwanted process and overhead on solid teams to the detriment of their function'.

In metallurgy, there is the notion of isotropic vs an-isotropic scaling.  That is, the difference between uniform scaling and non-uniform scaling.  It is natural to visualize scaling anything uniformly along all axes.  When we look at a picture, we think in terms of increasing or decreasing it uniformly in all directions, resulting in a larger (or smaller) version of itself.  Sometimes we use uniform scaling and fix the ratio of expansion or contraction along the axes to match the original and maintain a shape.  However, there are situations where the reason for scaling actually dictate non-uniform scaling; the bigger picture isn't the goal, rather increased utility or performance at a different size is the goal.  I believe that to be the case with scaling an agile organization.

Isotropic scaling of an existing system can very often lead to expansion (or contraction) in unnecessary areas and not enough expansion (or contraction) in others for the desired effect. 

Very often, expansion within an organization requires growth at different rates-- and in different directions.  This is precisely the definition of an-isotropic scaling. Further, it’s quite possible that the expansion in one area actually requires a contraction in others for the system to be effective.  Rather than focusing on keeping the shape of the organization intact through uniform scaling, it might be helpful to recognize that  non-uniform scaling, by definition, changes the shape of an organization.

Too often, expansion is seen as the solution to problems- problems that would actually benefit from contraction. A classic example is the notion that we need to increase the number of support teams to handle increasing numbers of customer support issues.  Using a systems thinking approach, the real solution to this problem is to uncover the cause of growth in customer support issues and address that, rather than expanding to handle the symptoms.

When we are scaling an organization, we need to identify what problem we are trying to solve.  Are we trying to coordinate existing and additional teams for some form of consistency (perhaps architectural or technological)?  Are we trying to increase the throughput of the organization in terms of different products/services delivered?  The specific solutions to those scaling issues may depend on the maturity of leadership, teams, products or portfolio management, and will likely require growth at different rates in each of those.  With mature products and teams, perhaps it is simply the portfolio management system that needs to scale up.  With mature leadership and products and services, perhaps it is only the teams that need to multiply.  Without taking into consideration the people and their relationships, it is very possible that process and overhead will be added to the detriment of an already well functioning part of the whole.  As many organizations consider people simply ‘human resources’ within a process, it is too easy for those organizations to ignore the human part of growth or contraction.

There are, of course, instances where isotopic growth is required.  When we are considering the increase in capacity for software delivery, there is often a desire to ‘hire developers’ to accomplish this.  In this case, the increase in capacity usually needs to be isotropic (perhaps with fixed axes); adding developers, testers, Scrum Master, Product Owner. Adding developers alone doesn’t increase capacity, adding multi-discipline teams increases capacity.

An agile mindset keeps us focused on inspecting and adapting based on a clear understanding of what problem we are trying to solve.  Scaling an agile organization is no different; we need to keep focused on the problem we are trying to solve, rather than simply uniformly scaling a system that works in its current situation.

 

Musical Scales

Having spent years playing in musical ensembles, I’ve recently considered the similarities between 'scaling' musical groups and other types of teams.  For the listener (the customer), the value in scaling musical groups is in the increased variety of instruments and their associated interactions and dynamics. But what is the experience of scaling like for the musicians?

The most personally rewarding musical ensembles I've played in were small groups of 2-4 people, where the interaction with each other was constant and immediate. We would sit together in a configuration that allowed us all to see each other without anyone having their back to the audience. It was important that we could make eye contact with each other, breathe together, and take cues from one another. The notation on the page is only the framework to create music.  The nuances within that framework and the interpretation of that framework are where the music lives.   It was a joyful experience to anticipate each other's timing and intonation based on our history and immediate body language. We respected each other's abilities, and reveled in our mates' individual contributions to an overall musical experience. All of this took practice, time, and passion.

As a member of a symphony orchestra (50-70 people), the situation changed significantly.  Once again we all played from the same score, had similar (but not identical) aural interactions, and our visual interactions were still limited by proximity to others.  We took cues from other players in our section and from the conductor. The orchestra's seating arrangement involved 'sections' of like instruments arranged in a semi-circle around the conductor.  If you were at the front of your section, you could take cues from people at the front of other sections.  If you were at the back of your section, you took cues from the people in front of and beside you.  The quality of the music produced was defined not only by the underlying score-- but the ability of the large group of musicians to be collectively in time, dynamically aligned, and in tune with that score.   The conductor was responsible for interpreting the score emotionally and showing the orchestra the timing/dynamics necessary to express that emotion.  A significant amount of time was spent keeping an eye on the conductor, especially when there were complex musical interactions.  The conductor faced the orchestra, back to the audience, and was the unifying force behind the music.  

I love watching and listening to people who are exceptional at their craft. The highlight of orchestral work for me was experiencing soloist performances against the backdrop of the rest of the orchestra. The soloist was the star of a moment, with the orchestra playing a supporting role. If we were in perfect unison  (intonation, timing, dynamics) the resulting effect was magnificent.

While the powerful music created by orchestras can be divine, I’m still drawn to creating music in duets, trios, and quartets.  Why?  I can only surmise that for me, it’s about the symbiotic and continuous exchange with people I trust and admire. The arrangement of a symphony  orchestra is strikingly similar to many traditional organizational structures.  Can you see how and why?  Do you see similarities to the way your department, division, or company functions?  What could you and those around you do differently to shift the experience closer to that of a quartet?  Let me know -  @snowdolphin

 

 

Mindset over Mechanics

Recently I had the good fortune to attend the Global Scrum Gathering in Orlando, Florida (#SGFLA).  The stated theme of the gathering was "Transforming the World of Work".  A strong undercurrent amongst participants was that while Scrum has helped incrementally improve many teams and organizations, so much more could be achieved. 

What's missing? 

As a community we've been all too focused on the mechanics of Scrum.  Despite subscribing to the Agile Manifesto's primary value of "Individuals and Interactions", we've somehow placed more focus on the other 3 values; maybe because they're easier.  At the gathering, I participated in many conversations centred on the need for being agile (rather than doing agile) and being agile hinges on having an agile mindset.  Helping individuals, teams, and organizations achieve an agile mindset should be our FIRST priority. 

Without that shift in mindset realized, I've witnessed and willfully participated in the decay of many agile transitions based in mechanics. To be clear, mechanics ARE important, but in the spirit of the Agile manifesto we value agile mindset more.  As Steve Denning stated in his recent review of HBR's 'Embracing Agile':

"Agile isn’t just a methodology to be implemented within the existing management framework. Agile is a dramatically different framework for management itself."

"If managers themselves see Agile as “methodologies for their employees” to be deployed like any other management methodology, the chance of strong sustainable Agile implementation with full benefits is remote. Getting the full value of Agile depends on managers themselves consistently embodying the Agile mindset in all their own words and actions."

A significant part of the role of any coach is to focus on mindset.  By focusing first on mindset, the mechanics are much more likely to come naturally and continue to evolve.  Agile is, after all, a journey not a destination.  During the gathering, at Michael Sahota's workshop on Reinventing Organizations, he said: "The consciousness of the change approach limits the outcome."  Effectively, without helping change the mindset and consciousness (=culture!) of the people and organizations we work with, our efforts to transform the world of work will never achieve their potential. The engineer in me is reminded of a quote often attributed to Albert Einstein "Problems cannot be solved with the same mind set that created them."  Quantum mechanics may be much more complex than Scrum mechanics, but the need for a different mindset to see their true value remains the same.

What's the mindset of the people in your organization?

Project grammar

I sometimes wonder if the field of Project Management spends too much time emphasizing management of the noun vs management of the verb.

PROject (n)
A temporary group endeavour undertaken to create a unique product, service or result.

proJECT (v)
To thrust forward.
To estimate or predict based on present data or trends.
To direct one's voice so as to be heard clearly at a distance.
To cause an image to appear on a surface.

Isn't project management really about managing the actions/decisions necessary to achieve a desired outcome?  Focusing on projections of the desired outcome, based on present data or trends, is how we truly manage risk on a project; the risk of shipping the wrong product, the risk of shipping a low quality product, and the risk of shipping late or not at all.  The first key to mitigating these risks, of course, is to ensure that the present data and trends used to make the projections are both valid and valuable.  The second key is to update the present data regularly, accordingly update the projections, and then make decisions.  These concepts describe two of the primary elements of iterative/incremental development.  Successful proJECT management is much more akin to causing an image to appear or hearing clearly at a distance than it is to simply endeavouring to achieve a result.

When you're up to your ass in alligators ...

Most teams use some sort of defect management tool which allows them (and other interested parties) to record defects along with meta-data about the defect such as severity and priority.  Severity is usually an objective value but priority is subjective.  For instance, severity is usually defined in terms like 'High - Results in crash or data loss', 'Medium - Work around available', or 'Low - Cosmetic' etc.  High severity defects are sometimes low priority and sometimes low severity defects are high priority.  For instance, the misspelling of a company name may be low severity but high priority while an application crash generated from a situation that is unlikely to be encountered by the customer may be low priority due to a cost/benefit assessment.  Team members can assign severity but usually only a Product Owner is responsible for assessing the value of addressing (or not) a defect.  This is because usually those people who are responsible for fixing defects are the same as those responsible for adding value via new functionality.  Product Owners need to be able to prioritize the value of fixing a defect against adding new functionality.

When your team is faced with 'draining the swamp' of legacy defects, they must face the need for effective defect prioritization.  The first step in addressing this issue is assessing whether the 'defects' are indeed defects (functionality that does not behave as previously agreed upon by all involved parties) or enhancements (behaviour that has not yet been designed/implemented/tested).  In my view, if the team did not agree that some behaviour was expected, designed, implemented and tested, the behaviour is an enhancement to the current functionality.  Once the enhancements have been distinguished from the true defects, those enhancements can be turned into Stories and prioritized just like any other Story which adds value to the application.  The remaining defects then need to be prioritized in terms of the value they prevent the application from maintaining.  Something of value used to work properly and now does not do so.  How important is that to the success criteria of the product and/or release?

In order to mitigate risk on a software development project, one of the principles of Scrum is that teams try to focus on delivering the next most valuable functionality while keeping the product potentially shippable.  We are to work on the next most valuable functionality in order to insure that if we run out of money or time (and we will) that we have created the most value for the money and time expended.  This should apply in the world of defects as well as enhancements.   Often the difficulty with doing so is that the number of defects in various priority queues are so large that it is difficult to assess whether the team is working on addressing the most valuable defects at any given time.  If 100 defects are denoted as High Priority but we can't address them all in one iteration, which ones shall we address to accrue the greatest value?

In most defect management tools there are usually priority choices like Must Fix, High, Medium and Low.  These classifications are perhaps arbitrary in that the only important thing about them is that each is related to the other by a higher or lower value. However many 'buckets' exist, treating them as static is not an effective mechanism for executing against priority.  Prioritization is a subjective exercise and usually prone to changes based on business conditions and newly reported issues from the field.  To that end, the highest priority queues should constantly be being emptied by the end of any given iteration.  This means that Product Owners must be vigilante about either 'promoting' defects from Medium to High and from Low to Medium (which seems like busy work) or simply limiting the highest priority bucket to a queue size that the team is likely to be able to completely address.  The key here is always making it apparent to the team which defects are the most important to fix in any given iteration.  Very often I see queues of 100's of High priority defects and 10's of Low priority defects.  This is usually the exact reverse of what we'd like to see!  We are much better at managing smaller queues … for instance queues that we can see and contemplate in their entirety.

In order to keep a product potentially shippable at the end of each iteration, some teams adopt a Task Priority list describing a working agreement about the team's default task priorities:
a) Fix any build/install issues (if we don't have a build/install, we can't test)
b) Fix any automated tests (if our tests are broken, we don't know what works and what doesn't)
c) Fix any regression defects (if we have open regression defects then we have likely regressed in value)
d) Fix any current iteration Story defects (standard practice to meet acceptance criteria)
e) Implement new Stories

a) and b) above certainly keep the product from being in a known potentially shippable state while c) keeps the product from maintaining a known value.  Issues associated with d) and e) above are about adding incremental value to already valuable software.  On large multi-team projects, distinguishing those issues keeping the product from being potentially shippable from issues of maintaining or adding value can help with queue size.  For instance Must Fix can incorporate a) and b) while c) can be distributed across High Medium and Low priorities.  Note that in this context, Must Fix is not associated with a value judgement, it is associated with a fairly common Definition of Done that teams use to help them keep a product in a known state.

Of course the best solution to the problem of how to effectively drain the swamp is to prevent the swamp from forming in the first place.

Applying the Dreyfus Learning Model to Focus Your Coaching Approach.

Agile2011-badge.jpg

Over the past five years, Jaron Lambert (@jaronlambert) and I have helped several companies and dozens of teams transition to agile product development processes.  In working with the myriad of teams and people, we've learned that the best way for us to help people learn agile principles and techniques is to use the Dreyfus Skills Acquisition Model.  This model employs the usage of non-situational rules for novice practitioners.  The adherence to these rules promotes the transition to an advanced stage of learning by providing the student with a foundation for recognizing patterns and principles for application in new situations.  We've discovered (as the model predicts) that skipping this stage of learning can lead to problems absorbing and implementing the philosophies and principles of the agile manifesto.  To that end, Jaron and I have collated a set of rules we have found useful in working with Novice teams.  This is a living collation and we'd be very happy to hear what other coaches and ScrumMasters (or others) think does and does not help their teams' learning process.

Jaron and I will be speaking about the 5 stages of learning that teams traverse (not just Novice) according to the Dreyfus model as they learn agile concepts and philosophies.

Environment

  • Co-locate where ever possible, set up your teamʼs space for optimal teamwork.
  • Maximize face-to-face communication; minimize email communication within the team.
  • Minimize distractions. Remove or minimize anything that distracts the team from finishing the work that they committed to (i.e. completing all the Stories in the iteration plan). Inform the Program/Project Manager of any distractions that canʼt be removed directly.

Roles

  • The Product Manager is the “messenger of the market” and articulates why we should spend time/money on any development. Product Managers describe what the market needs in a Market Requirements Document (M.R.D) and are responsible for describing those needs in User Stories.
  • Product Managers set the business priority and help define acceptance criteria during iteration planning, answer questions from the team during the iteration, and accept stories before the end of the iteration.
  • Program/Project Managers (Scrum Masters) shepherd the process. They provide the Product Manager with all currently available information so that the Product Manager can make informed and timely decisions. Program/Project Managers answer process questions from the team.
  • Program/Project Managers facilitate removal of any/all roadblocks for the team, ensuring that someone on the team is responsible for any roadblock and keeping track of unresolved roadblocks.
  • All other team members are responsible for delivery: reliably delivering quality software solutions (i.e. implementing stories).
  • All other team members provide the Product Manager with solution options (alternative ways to implement solutions to stories) with associated costs.

Release Planning

  • Review the MRD to ensure that the entire team has an understanding of the goals of the release (i.e. Problems, the users who have them, and the situations under which they have them)
  • Write stories using the template: “As a {persona} I want to be able to {do something} so that {some goal is achieved}”, See “Writing Stories”, Chapter 2 from User Stories Applied by Mike Cohn.
  • Size all the stories in the backlog using a modified Fibonacci sequence (0,0.5,1,2,3,5,8,13,20,40,100). The size of a story represents the overall complexity, difficulty, and effort to complete the story.
  • Add up the story sizes to get the total story points in the release.

Backlog Grooming

  • Product Manager grooms the Release Backlog for their product. They keep it organized and prioritized, and add or remove stories so the Release Backlog always describes expectations for the release.
  • Team Members are responsible for sizing the stories in the release backlog, and breaking stories from the Product Manager into smaller stories that deliver value within an iteration (see “Twenty Ways to Split Stories”, http://xp123.com/xplor/xp0512/).

Iteration Planning

  • The Product Manager decides priorities for the team to work on in the next iteration. Team selects the stories they can complete within the iteration and decides how they work on the tasks during the iteration.
  • Only plan to work on sized stories.
  • Only plan to work on stories with agreed upon acceptance criteria (discuss and agree on the criteria, and document it during the planning). Team breaks each story into tasks and clearly defined acceptance criteria.
  • Agree on the definition of ʻdoneʼ for the team (update it whenever necessary).
  • Agree on ʻRules of Engagementʼ (update them whenever necessary).

Iteration/Sprint Execution

  • The teamʼs priority of work:
  • Keep the build/install working and testable (getting a brokenbuild/ install, and getting broken automated tests working, is always top priority).
  • Keep existing functionality working (fixing defects with functionality that worked before the current iteration is #2 priority).
  • Keep the functionality being built this iteration working (fixing defects on this iterationʼs stories is #3 priority)
  • Build out current stories (implementing new functionality is #4 priority)
  • Philosophies to continually keep in mind:
    • The fewer stories in progress the better (3 things shippable and 2 things unstarted is better than 5 things ʻalmost doneʼ).
  • The fewer tasks in progress thebetter.
  • Donʼt work on anything unless youʼve already agreed with your team mates how it will be tested and how you will know if youʼve been successful.
  • Donʼt add a new story to the current iteration mid-iteration (unless every other story is complete).
  • Donʼt split a story mid-iteration. Teams need to consistently complete the stories they committed to and establish a velocity. While they are gaining experience doing that, they will learn better habits faster by recognizing 0 points for incomplete stories and reflecting on how to better deliver on the iteration plan.

Daily Standup

  • Each member of the team updates the other team members on progress against the stories they are working on:
  • What did you accomplish yesterday (since the last standup)?
  • What do you plan to accomplish today (before the next staandup)?
  • What is getting in your way?
  • What is your latest estimate of how much time is left on your current task(s)?
  • Only people with work assigned in the iteration should speak.
  • Topics outside these questions should be addressed outside the Daily Standup.
  • Does the plan need to change as a result of the above? If so, change it now!
  • If anyone doesnʼt have enough to do today, decide what they will do at the standup.
  • All members of the team watch for “bad smells” in their scrums, and mention any apparent infractions. All members of the team work together to remove “bad smells” from their daily scrums.

Demos

  • Demonstrate only what the team accomplished (i.e. Stories the Product Manager has already accepted).
  • Record any issues, bugs, or enhancements that come up (and assign them or add them to the backlog after the demo).
  • Product Manager accepts (or decides not to accept) any remaining stories.
  • Avoid troubleshooting, discussing solutions, brainstorming ideas, exploring functionality, or anything else that takes away from clearly demonstrating the work that was completed this iteration.

Retrospectives

  • What was the teamʼs velocity this iteration? Has the team established a consistent velocity? If so, what is it? If not, what is preventing the team from establishing a constant velocity?
  • What did we say weʼd improve / stop doing last retrospective? Did we?
  • Each member of the team has a chance to say (focus on the process, not the people):
  • What went well / what should we keep doing?
  • What could be improved / what should we stop doing / what is holding us back?
  • Team identifies the most important item(s) or issue(s) to focus on next iteration (1 or 2 items / issues is enough).
  • Change or add to “Rules of Engagement”?
  • Modify the teamʼs definition of “Done”?

Thoughts on 'Potentially Shippable'

Scrum calls for the delivery of a 'potentially shippable' product increment at the conclusion of each iteration.  The reason it is 'potentially shippable' (rather than simply 'shippable') is that ideally it should only be a pure business decision as to whether enough value has been accrued to warrant actually shipping.  Therefore, the functionality that is exposed to the user works as intended based on the implemented Stories/Acceptance Criteria which in turn presumes that the quality is fit for purpose.

The value of keeping software in a 'potentially shippable' state at regular intervals is twofold: a) a real/tangible indication of progress for use in making date vs scope decisions and b) the ability to garner meaningful feedback at regular intervals.

If the software is in a 'potentially shippable' state, progress towards the end-goal is based on working, tested workflows/functionality implemented in software and not based solely on overall task estimates.  If the software is in a 'potentially shippable' state, feedback from existing customers, potential customers, and internal stakeholders can be meaningful.  Otherwise feedback can be, at worst, invalid, and at best confusing.

One of the goals of iterative/incremental development is to minimize the difference between 'potentially shippable' and 'shippable'.  Ideally it is simply a business decision whether there is enough value to actually warrant shipping.  In practicality, however, for many teams there are activities that they need to perform prior to actually releasing that they are unable to perform every iteration.  In some cases, the totality of all manual, automated and performance acceptance tests possible and/or necessary to execute and analyze in order to fully assess whether a given build is 'shippable' takes on the order of weeks to months.  In other cases, there is just too much legacy code which is not covered by automated testing to allow for the creation of something considered 'potentially shippable' within any given iteration.

With this in mind, teams need to be able to focus on those activities that they can accomplish inside an iteration which will best lead them to having confidence that the iteration backlog Stories work and that previously implemented workflows still function correctly.  Doing so will lead to a smaller gap between 'potentially shippable' and 'shippable'.  If a significant part of the cost of change in a code base is the uncertainty created by the change and our inability to validate (in a timely manner) that our workflows have not been inadvertently effected, then we should always be striving to minimize the time it takes to do that validation.  Validating quicker leads to finding and fixing problems quicker and cheaper.  Automate, automate, automate.

IDEALLY:

- acceptance criteria outline the circumstances under which each new workflow functions and the associated expected results
- if the acceptance criteria are met, and we have proved that the acceptance criteria for previously accepted workflows continue to be met, then we are potentially shippable.

PRACTICALLY:

- acceptance criteria for any given Story need to include regression tests for previously working functionality (either manual or some subset of long-running automated tests) which the team has assessed are likely to have been effected by the code changes necessary to complete the Story in question.

- alternatively, the Definition of Done can be altered to include a statement about the inclusion of relevant, focused regression tests which are either performed manually or are a subset of an existing long-running test automation suite.

- those manual regression tests then need to become an ongoing part of the automated test suite

The usual objection to this approach is that it means that teams apparently deliver less in an iteration.  This of course is a red herring as the teams were never actually delivering as much as they thought in an iteration because the regression testing necessary to deliver functionality was hidden in the 'stabilization/hardening' period prior to release.  Moving that regression testing forward moves teams closer to the ideal and should lead to shorter stabilization/hardening periods.

I'm often asked "How do we measure if we are 'potentially shippable'?"  My response to this is generally the same, "You're 'potentially shippable' if the software behaves the way you say it does."  Without some way to adequately describe (and ultimately test) this behaviour, it is difficult to know if you are 'potentially shippable'.  This behaviour is, of course, described in stories and their respective acceptence criteria.

Spike ... Do the Right Thing. [Redux on Aug. 30 post]

Doing the right thing is often context dependent.  I've had occasion with my current clients to discuss  the concept of Spikes and how they are treated by numerous teams.  I've realized that where a team currently resides in the continuum of learning iterative/incremental development has quite an effect on how I discuss this topic.  The current industry norm is to treat a Spike as a type of Story.  This has been reinforced by web-based tools limiting trackable items to Stories, Tasks or Defects.  I've seen novice teams struggle with this notion and here's why:

  • Summarily, the purpose of a Story is to describe some piece of functionality valuable to, and testable by, a customer.
  • The purpose of a Spike is to investigate the solution options and feasibility of addressing a particular problem space or Story.

Stories should have direct customer value as well as a size estimate (representing effort, uncertainty etc) from the team, while Spikes have no direct customer value and are generally time-boxed to no more than 2 days.

From this perspective, Spikes should not be called Stories because they violate the spirit of the principal purpose of a Story (to express something of value to a customer).  I think much of the confusion on this topic stems from our desire to want to name things based on how we manage them.  I think people would like to manage Spikes in the same manner they manage Stories but then assume that means the Spike should be called a type of Story.

I've seen novice teams want (naturally) to do things like give the 'Spike Story' a size and then directly equate that size to the length of the time-box.  This tends to negate the value of using Story Points for sizing Stories in a backlog.

Conversely, if a team treats a Spike as a Story and gives it a size of zero, that is inconsistent with the fact that they are spending time on it.  It also grates against those who look for Stories which we "get for free" (and therefore give a size of 0) as a result of some overlapping work on another Story.  These are subtleties which a mature team understands but a novice team, new to Stories, can find challenging.

So how about Spikes as Tasks?

I believe Spike activities have much more in common with Tasks than Stories.  However, there are inconsistencies and pitfalls here as well.  If a team treats a Spike as a Task inside a relevant story for an iteration, when the Task is complete, then the relevant Story should technically be removed from the iteration and returned to the release backlog (unless it is determined that the entire story can be completed before the end of the iteration) for future prioritization along with at least some of the resultant child/replacement Stories.  Depending on the the size of those resultant Stories (and the team's velocity) some of them may remain in the current iteration.  If we emphasize striving for completing all stories initially planned in an iteration we end up having to make exceptions for Stories containing Spikes.  Another pitfall is that when a team employs "yesterday's weather" for their next iteration, they need to ignore the size of a Story containing the Spike task.   Again, these things may be easily comprehended by a mature team but perhaps are contentious for teams transitioning to Agile methods, inexperienced in the use of Stories, and looking for absolutes (and THAT is a subject for a future post!).

How about neither Story nor Task?

In my experience, Spikes are generally an extension of Backlog Grooming and as such could be considered release overhead.  Spikes are generally not included as part of the release backlog but they likely result in a set of more defined Stories which may be part of the release backlog.  Perhaps it would be better for some teams to simply reduce team member availability during an iteration to account for the Spike time-box?  After all, we do this for things like Backlog Grooming meetings.  The one drawback to this approach is that there would be no explicit/transparent way for the team to manage the time spent on the Spike activity.

So why isn't a Spike just a Spike?

While the notion of a Spike overlaps the notion of Story in that both have a goal; and the notion of a Spike overlaps the notion of a Task in that both represent an activity, I think the differences between the 3 are signficant enough to warrant maintaining/managing a separate entity - 'Spike'.  This is easily accomplished on a traditional index card wall, but is usually explicitly prevented when utilizing a web-based management tool.  I believe this is one of the mistakes we as a community made when we transitioned to using these tools.  When we were using index cards we simply called it a Spike and off we went.  We didn't have to choose to create that entity as a Story or a Task so there was less confusion. 

Of course this is all just semantics ... Story, Task, Spike, Backlog Grooming ... what's the big deal?  The answer to this lies in the fact that we use words to communicate intent and without some consistency in the meanings of these words, it is difficult for people new to the concepts to keep it all straight.  The English language itself is full of inconsistencies and similarly, it is not until one is familiar with the patterns that one can grasp and remember the exceptions.

In the end what do we care about?

I really only care that the size of the release backlog is consistent with the team's current understanding of the backlog, and that the team's velocity actually represents the rate at which they may be able to reliably and sustainably address prioritized items in that backlog.  As Spikes occur, the resultant child/replacement stories will likely affect the cumulative size of the release backlog and the product owner can make the relevant business decisions with current information.

So depending on the individual team and their circumstances, any one of the 4 options might be the right thing.  If you're using a web-based tool (that limits your trackable items to Stories, Tasks and Defects) to manage your iterations and your team is relatively new to the use of Stories, consider treating Spike activities in the same way you treat other iteration overhead activities.

The Test

I've spent a lot of time over the past year thinking about and working with the Dreyfus learning model and the concepts of Shu-Ha-Ri as they apply to the evolution of agile software development teams.  During that time, I've also seen that much has been written about the Nokia Test.  This test, developed by one of the co-creators of Scrum, aims to assess a team's level of adoption of Scrum practices and principles.  Specifically this test was developed to help teams avoid the traps of 'Scrum but'.  Scrum is a fantastic approach to software development that I heartily endorse but I'm not sure that assessing adherence to the approach should come before assessing a team's ability to deliver what the business needs.

Rather than worry about whether 'we are agile', teams should primarily be concerned with whether they are providing the business with what it needs: a continuous flow of potentially shippable functionality and information pertaining to a realistic rate of progress which can be used to make timely business decisions.

How about asking these three questions to start instead:


  1. Does the team regularly deliver potentially shippable and incrementally valuable functionality at the end of each 2-4 week iteration?

  2. Can the team's product owner, given the team's historical velocity, predict with a satisfactory level of confidence, what value from the Release Backlog is likely to be shipped by a particular date?

  3. Is the team actively improving on 1 and 2 above?


If a team cannot answer 'Yes' to all three of these questions, using Agile techniques (and specifically following the Scrum framework) will likely lead the team in a direction consistent with one of the primary reasons to use agile techniques - project risk mitigation.

If the team can answer 'Yes' to all three of these questions, applying Agile techniques (and specifically following the Scrum framework) will likely lead the team to an increase in velocity.