May 26, 2015
Ditch The Backlog and Start Iterating!Goals.
The old ways have a habit of sneaking back in through the back door. And so it is with Agile Software Development that, despite all our protestations about being iterative and open to feedback and change, The Big PlanTM found its way back cunningly disguised as the backlog.
The reality is that most Agile teams are not iterating their designs in rapid feedback cycles, but instead are incrementally working their way through a plan for a solution that was cooked up by what we used to call "requirements analysts" - generally speaking, people who talk to the customer to find out what they want and draw up a specification - right at the start.
The backlog on many teams doesn't change much. And this is because the goal of each small frequent delivery is not to try out the software and see how it can be made better in the next delivery, but to test each delivery to check that it conforms to The Big PlanTM.
The box-ticking exercise of user acceptance testing usually just asks "is that what we agreed?" The software isn't tested for real, by real users, working on real problems to ask "is that what we really need?"
And so it is that many Agile teams still get that skip-ful of feedback when the "iterated" solution finds its way into the real world. To all intents and purposes, that's a Big Bang release. Y'know, the kind we thought we'd stopped doing.
Better to get that kind of feedback throughout. Better also to shift focus from The Big PlanTM to actual end user goals, not a list of system features that someone believed would meet those goals (if they ever thought to ask what those goals were.)
Imagine we're working for an airline. We turn up for work and are presented with a backlog of feature requests for an online check-in facility. Dutifully, we work our way through this backlog, agreeing acceptance tests with our customer and ticking them off one by one. Eventually, the system goes live. At which point we discover that, because all of the flights we operate are long-haul, and therefore almost all our passengers need to check in baggage for the hold, we've had almost zero impact on the time it takes to check-in.
What we could have been doing, instead of working our way through The Big PlanTM, is working our way towards reducing check-in times. If that was the original goal, then that's what we should have been iterating towards.
This is actually a founding principle of Agile, before it was called "Agile". Tom Gilb's ideas about evolutionary project management, dating back to the late 1980s, clearly highlight the need to focus on goals, not plans. Each iteration needs to bring us closer to the goal, and we need to test and measurre progress not by software delivered against plan - I mean, damn, there was a major clue right there! - but by progress towards reaching our goals.
Instead of putting all our faith in the online check-in solution that was presented to us, we could have been focusing on those baggage check-in queues and streamlining them. The solution might not even involve software. In which case we swallow our pride and acknowledge we don't have the answer, instead of wasting a big chunk of time and money pretending we do.
This requires a different relationship with the customer, where developers like us are just one part of a cross-discipline team tasked with solving problems that may or may nor involve software. We should be incentivised to write software that really achieves something, and to be prepared to change direction when we learn that we're on the wrong track.
The first step in that journey is to ditch the backlog. Put a match to The Big PlanTM.
Instead of plans, have goals; a handful of headline requirements that really are requirements - to reduce check-in times, to detect and treat heart disease sooner, to save 1p on the cost of manufacturing a widget, to get 20% more children in Africa through school, or whatever the goal is that someone thinks is valuable enough to invest the kind of money software costs to create and maintain in. We ain't done until the goal's been achieved at least to some extent, or until we've abandoned the goal.
That requires developers to play an integral part in a wider - and probably longer-term - game. We are not actors who turn up and say the lines someone else wrote on a set someone else built. We write our lines and build our sets and then act them out to an audience whose feedback should determine what happens next in the story.
Posted 2 years, 6 months ago on May 26, 2015