Are We Done Yet?

Recently, there has a been a bit of talk about being done in the context of Agile software development.  If I’m not mistaken, as far as Agile frameworks go, it would seem that the Definition of Done as described by Scrum influences many an Agile team. We also know that there are variations on this as well such Done-Done and Done-Done-Done.

But when are we really DONE?

In some regard this depends on how we define done.  Is a movie done when production is over?  Is a presentation done when the slide deck has been prepared?  Is a meal done once it has been cooked?  Is a software increment done when coding and testing are complete?

Teams engaged in real (there is a lot of fake and dark Agile out there) Agile software development are guided by a set of 4 values and 12 principles.  The very first principle in the Agile Manifesto goes as follows:

Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software

When we use this principle to guide how we define done, I cannot understand how we can consider ourselves done until we’ve delivered an increment of value to our customers. Not just deployed (and hidden behind feature toggles or something like that) but delivered such that our customers can interact with the increment in some form or fashion.

So the next time your team debates whether you are done, ask yourselves if your customers are using the increment.

(Thanks to Mia Augustine for inspiring this post).

P.S. IMHO Scrum’s Definition of Done (in the best case scenario) is really (more appropriately named) Definition of Ready To Be Delivered.

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Tips For Working Without Timeboxes

My previous piece on timeboxes led to a fair amount of dialogue on Twitter.  Some of it was positive and some of it was critical.  However, a particular tweet (that led to some back and forth) stood out to me.

In the absence of “real deadlines”, do we need to timeboxes to rein in our development teams?

As promised in the previous post, I’d like to share some approaches that teams I have been on have used to reduce their dependency on timeboxes.  I do want to be very clear that I have also used these techniques in conjunction with timeboxes.

Ruthlessly Delivering Small Increments Of  Value

Regardless of whether you use stories or not (all our work does not have to be represented as stories), I will encourage you to decompose your work into small bites of customer value.   The INVEST method (associated with user stories) is a good guide to use. Each ‘increment of value” should take a few days to complete. 

There is a common misconception that I often encounter which suggests that the bites of value a team works on should be exactly what will be “released” to the customer.  I believe this to be a grave mistake.  Let me illustrate with a common example.

Imagine a team is developing an API that supports GET, PUT and POST as methods.  Let’s also imagine that the team decided the API will not be made available to customers until all three methods are implemented.  Should this be treated as one bite of value or three bites of value?  Most technology folk I know will argue that it should be one bite of value because it will not be released until all the methods are supported.  I probably would have argued for this earlier in my career as well.  Well now I beg to differ.

It is clear (at least to me) that there are least three units of value available with this API and while it is true that all three methods need to be implemented before the API is made available, each method can independently be developed and validated for proper function. If each method was treated as its own “story”, we’d find that each story meets INVEST criteria.

But what difference does it make?  After all, nothing will be released until all three methods have been implemented.  That is fair point.  And yet I’m compelled to ask the following questions:

  • Why would we delay (internal) feedback on the first method just because the second and third methods haven’t been implemented?
  • Why would we couple the the release of value with deployment?
  • What if it so happens that we learn that we can release the API progressively?
  • Why would be knowingly limit the options of how we approach the work?

As I learned many years ago, “bite small, chew fast”.  There are many tips on how to split/slice stories.  Google is our friend.

Limit Work-In-Progress

Timeboxing, done right, helps us to be extremely selective about what we want to accomplish in a given timeframe.  We take the time to understand the capacity available to us and then select the most appropriate work that we think we can get done in that time period.

The good news is that we shouldn’t require a time constraint to explicitly limit our work in progress.  It’s a proven fact that the more work we have going on concurrently, the less we actually get done.  Unfortunately many organizations don’t pay attention to how much they have going on and instead attempt to ensure that they are operating near 100% utilization which invariably slows things down and ensure.  Teams are primarily rewarded for how busy they look.  I see many Product Owners struggle with limiting work in progress.

A word to the wise about limiting work in progress. If we don’t limit the size of the unit of value as well, we’ll still be working on items for an extended period of time with little to show for it.

Quantifying Desired Product Qualities

I am a fan of the work of Tom Gilb, EVO and Planguage.  If you’re not familiar with any of these, you should probably look them up (and also watch this talk by Tom).  I believe that there are ideas from Tom’s work that can be of help to those of us in the business of developing software products..

For example, when we say that our API should be fast, what do we mean by fast?  Or when we say that the website should handle a lot of users, what do we mean by a lot?  These are qualities that our solution is supposed to have that are often simply described in qualitative terms.  Qualitative attributes leave up to the imagination of whoever is responsible for ensuring that product has the desired quality.  In the absence of explicit quality attributes, teams succumb to pitfall of gold plating.

Specifying in quantitative terms what “goodness” will look like is critical if we want to stay focused and avoid going down rabbit holes.  One could argue that this is the Specific (S) and Measurable (M) from SMART Goals applied to our work items.

In summary, while I’m still a fan of using time boxes, there are ways of working that can reduce the dependency of a team on explicit timeboxes.  Regardless of whether you use timeboxes or not, you will still benefit from adopting these techniques as you do your work.

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Should A Scrum Master Have A Goal To Make Themselves Unneeded?

It has become quite common to come across articles or posts that state that the goal of a Scrum Master should be to make themselves unneeded or as a colleague recently put it, “put him or herself out of a job”.  I disagree.

The role of the Scrum Master is clearly defined in the Scrum Guide.  To summarize, the Scrum Masters provides service and help to the:

  • Product Owner
  • Development Team
  • The Organization at large

Suggesting that the goal of the Scrum Master is to make themselves unneeded is to suggest that the Scrum Master should be focused on either ensuring that (a) the services they provide are no longer needed and/or (b) someone else besides them provides these services.  In other words, ensuring that they are temporary!  In my opinion, this completely misses the point, is an unnecessary distraction and a potential source of much frustration.

The goal of every team member should be to make a contribution to the team in support of its quest to be successful and this includes the Scrum Master.  The goal of the Scrum Master should be to provide the help needed so that the team can effectively and efficiently deliver software that is valuable.  It is not to make themselves unnecessary.

How about coaching? Is that a permanent thing?  The Scrum Master coaches three distinct groups and even if the Product Owner and Development Team arrive at a point where they no longer need coaching, I’m not convinced the “Organization at large” in a complex environment (ever) arrives at such a point.  Never mind that the Scrum (Agile) body of knowledge continues to evolves, rarely ever does the system remain the same.  If you know of any organizations that have arrived at such point where they could no longer benefit from continued coaching, please feel free to share.

But for grins and giggles, let’s agree that it is actually quite possible for an organization to get to the point where (a) the help provided by the Scrum Master is no longer needed or (b) other roles in the organization can effectively and efficiently provide this help as it changes (because it will change).  In my opinion, this then is simply a by-product of the Scrum Master’s continued service to the organization and is not a goal that is defined upfront.

And yet, if you insist that the goal of the Scrum Master is to make themselves unneeded, then I have a book recommendation for you.  Check out  Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly.  It might be beneficial to you on your journey to make yourself unnecessary or unneeded.

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Modern or modern Agile?

I’m a sports geek.  I love sports. I love watching sports. I love playing sports. I love most things sports.

For my birthday last year, my wife gave me a wonderful sports book titled:  On the Origins of Sports: The Early History and Original Rules of Everybody’s Favorite Game.  If you’re a sports geek like I am, you’ll probably enjoy reading it.


The book takes a look at 21 different sports (including soccer, football, hockey, fantasy football and many others sports) in society today.  What’s wonderful about the book is that it guides the reader through the evolution of the different sports, from their origins to their current (or should I say modern) day form.

While there were many things that I learned while reading the book, a particular theme stuck with me.  In spite of the changes that occurred in a given sport, be it in the rules, the size of the playing surface, the nature of the equipment, the number of players etc. the essence (soul or spirit) of the sport remained the same.  The moment the essence changed, a new sport emerged.

What do I mean by the “essence” of the sport?  What is the “soul” or the “spirit” of the sport?  By essence, I’m referring to the core values, objectives and aims of the sport.  For example, in soccer, it’s kicking a round leather ball into the opposition’s goal and in basketball its bouncing and shooting a round ball through a hoop.  Regardless of how the infrastructure of the sport may have evolved, the values and principles of the sport were preserved.  American football has evolved since its invention in 1800’s and yet its essence has remained (largely) the same.

This brings me to my thoughts on the Modern Agile movement. First of all, I think there is a difference between “Modern Agile” and “modern Agile”.  I do like the things I see promoted as part of Modern Agile. I think Modern Agile may be attempting to define a new soul. I think Modern Agile may be a completely new game. I may also be completely wrong.

On the other hand, I consider “modern Agile” to be the evolution in the infrastructure that is used to play the sport of Agile.  In other words, it is the change in the practices that we use in support of Agile values and principles.  The essence of Agile is found in the Agile Manifesto and curiously enough, the Agile Manifesto actually starts with “…uncovering better ways…” and a principle that requires continuous inspection and adaptation. So Agile at its core demands evolution.  (Now I know that there are some who believe the Agile Manifesto has outlived its usefulness and if that’s you, then you’ve probably already moved on to a new sport).

The moment we decide to change the essence of Agile, I’m not sure it remains Agile. This could be the right thing to do. It could be that we actually need a new sport.  And we have recent examples of this such as the Lean Startup.  But even though both table tennis (ping pong) and (lawn) tennis have similarities, they are clearly different sports.  One is not the “modern” version of the other and it’s important that we recognize this.  Who says we can’t play more than one sport?

What say you?


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Thoughts on “Managing” Software Development

I’ve written in the past on management and managers and you can find some of those thoughts here however I want to share some additional thoughts.  These thoughts are basically my answer to the question of: what does a Software Delivery/Development/Engineering manager do?

(Even if you’re one of those who believe managers are not needed in knowledge work, I’ll crave your indulgence to read on).

(I do believe that Software Development/Engineering Manager are better role names than Software Delivery Manager but I digress).

It is dangerous to define the job duties of a role without taking into consideration the guiding philosophies of an organization.  For example, let’s just look at the concept of the manager. The definition of management (and hence managers) in an organization that adopts the principles of Frederick Taylor will be markedly different from that of an organization that adopts the principles of Edward Deming.  In other words, roles are not defined in the abstract.  The organizational philosophy ultimately defines the role.

I belong to the school of Deming when it comes to management, and as a result, my definition and description of a software delivery manager is going to be based on Deming’s view on management and managers.  I posit that real Agile and/or Lean organizations take a similar stance.

A software delivery manager is a “manager of software delivery” and if we decompose the role into its component parts we have manager and software delivery.

Douglas McGregor basically describes the Taylorist manager as person who works with the assumption that:

…workers have an inherent dislike of work and hence needs to be directed, controlled and threatened with punishment in order get them to work hard to achieve company objectives  

The Taylorist manager is all about control and external direction ergo this manager focuses on defining how the work should be done by the individuals on the team and then measuring individuals to ensure they are meeting pre-determined targets the manager defined.  This manager leaves little room for individuals and teams to self-direct as these managers need to do all the planning and provide all direction.

So how does Deming describe as the role of the manager?  According to Deming (excuse the gender-specific tone), a manager:

  1. Understands how the work of the group fits with the aims of the company. He teaches his people to understand how the work of the group supports these aims.
  2. Works with preceding stages and following stages
  3. Tries to create joy in work for everybody
  4. Is a coach and counsel, not a judge
  5. Uses figures to help understand his people
  6. Works to improve the system that he and his people work in
  7. Creates trusts
  8. Does not expect perfection
  9. Listens and learns
  10. Enables workers to do their jobs

Deming is not alone in his thinking.  Other management thought leaders such as McGregor, Drucker, Ackoff, and Senge all share the same thoughts.

If I were to summarize, I would say that the role of the Agile (and some would say modern) manager is to:

Create an environment where people and teams can do their best work for themselves and the organization in a manner that is both rewarding and fulfilling

The modern manager realizes that s/he is dependent on their team to be successful.  The team is also dependent on the manager.  In a nutshell, the team and the manager are interdependent.  The manager and the team share in the responsibility of developing and delivering software.

(If you work for an organization that says they are Agile and but exhibit Tayloristic management tactics, I hope for your sake that the organization is in the early stages of Agile cultural adaption.  If they aren’t, you’ve been warned).

So we’ve defined manager but how about software delivery? Software delivery is simply the aim of the system that the manager and their team(s) belong to. This system has the goal of delivering software that addresses the needs of stakeholders.

What then are the duties of the software delivery manager?  Here are a few that immediately come to mind:

  • Provide clarity to team members and teams on organizational objectives and what achieving them entails
  • Define operating constraints and boundaries for teams in which they operate
  • Provide teams with the appropriate authority, resources, information and accountability
  • Provide career guidance and coaching to individual team members and teams
  • Staff teams appropriately within budgetary constraints.  Manage their budget responsibility
  • Partner and network with other managers in the organization in addressing organizational impediments
  • Provide feedback to the teams on the software that is being developed.  Engage in product “inspect and adapt” sessions.

What else would you add to this list?

While we’re talking about software delivery teams, I need to remind us that in Lean and Agile organizations, the work is done by cross-functional teams.  The implication of this is that software delivery teams will often be composed of individuals from more than one functional group in the organization.  A software engineering delivery manager will often need to team up with managers from other functional groups in the organization e.g. infrastructure manager and together they will provide the team the support it needs.

It’s also important to remember that Agile teams (regardless of the framework of choice), as a part of being cross-functional, have a role on the team responsible for championing the product (or something similar to a product).  This role, often referred to as the Product Owner, and not the software delivery manager, decides what the team should focus on.

So there you have it.  These are my thoughts on the Software Delivery/Development/Engineer Manager.  I anticipate that some readers will disagree with me.  Please share your thoughts in the comments.  But as you disagree with me, take a moment to explore why it is that you disagree with me.  In fact, I would implore that you examine the underlying philosophy and mental models that inform your definition. Where do they come from?  Do you know?  Are they based upon Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management, Deming’s principles or something else?  

Our actions reveal our beliefs.

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Timeboxing Is Still Valuable (at least I think so).

In a previous post, I shared a couple of quick thoughts on the need for high-performing teams to have goals.  In this post, I want to focus on the touchy subject that has become timeboxing. It’s become cool for Agilists (including thought leaders) to wax negative on the technique.  The popularity of the Kanban Method – an approach that does not use time boxes (at least explicitly) – has contributed to the unpopularity of timeboxes (and approaches that use timeboxes).  In fact, it is now common to hear teams that still use time boxes as part of their development process described as not being progressive, stuck in the past or not modern.

Let me start off with an assertion.  If you work in a context where time is bounded in some form or fashion, then you are working within a timebox.  For example, if there is some work that needs to be completed by a certain date, we have a timebox.

If you happen to work in an environment where “whenever it gets done, is when it gets done” then this post may not be for you because time isn’t a constraint in your environment.  Time is unbounded.  Then again, you may still get some value from using timeboxes in such environments so feel free to read on.

Not Just An Agile Thing…

Timeboxing is a classic work/time management technique that is decades old.  When we timebox, we are dedicating a specific amount of time to accomplishing a particular goal/task/activity.  It’s really that simple.  If you set aside thirty minutes every day to playing the piano (like I do), that thirty minutes is a timebox. If you set a software release date of this date next year, then you have a timebox of one year.  Timeboxes can be long or short.

Timeboxing, as a time management technique, brings high levels of focus and attention to work that is being done within the timebox.  I was recently reminded of the power of timeboxes in a story someone shared with me.  They had given an associate of theirs an assignment but after several months, there had been very little traction or progress and it was becoming frustrating for everyone.  They had a meeting and decided to assign a  “box of time” to the assignment and then assess progress at the end of the “box of time”.  Before you knew it the assignment that had dragged on for months was completed in a matter of weeks.  The timebox brought much needed focus that had been lacking.  (It should be noted that the inability to assign a “box of time” to an activity is an indicator of the state of the system.)

High-performing teams have goals.  The best goals have a time component associated with them.  When time is involved, we have a timebox present (be it implicit or explicit).  For many Agile frameworks and methods, timeboxing is foundational construct.

Popular in Agile Frameworks…

Agile frameworks and methods such as EVO, Scrum, XP, DSDM all make use of explicit timeboxes.  These timeboxes are traditionally very short periods of time (one to four weeks).  The different methods also prescribe the use timeboxes differently.  Some prescribe fixed duration timeboxes while others allow for dynamic duration timeboxing.

Most of the methods for which timeboxing is foundational associate a batch of work items with a single timebox e.g. completing a set of user stories in a Sprint towards a Sprint Goal.

Having individual work items have their individual timeboxes (fixed date) for is more common in the Kanban Method, which, in my opinion, also uses dynamic duration timeboxing.

There are pros and cons with the different ways that timeboxes can be used.  There are also external factors that need to be taken into consideration when deciding how to use timeboxes.  Be open to experimenting and trying new things if your team works with timeboxes.

In The Wrong Hands…

Any construct can be misused and timeboxes are no exception to this.  The misuse of timeboxes by senior leaders, managers, Scrum Masters, Product Owners etc etc has led to the falling out of favor of timeboxes in many software development circles.  The timebox is essentially used as a weapon against teams instead of an instrument of help for teams. The pressure of the two-week Sprint is something that many teams have come to dread and sadly it shouldn’t be so.

A lot of this misuse has it roots in Theory X thinking where organizations operate with the tacit assumption that people dislike their work and will do anything to shirk responsibility hence external control and direction is required in order to make sure individuals in the organization do work. With this mindset in place, timeboxes are used as a control mechanism by people in positions of “authority” (such as managers, Product Owners and Scrum Masters) BUT not the team itself.

Have you worked in or know of organizations where teams are told by someone outside of the team of HOW much work they need to get done in a Sprint or iteration before they even started and then are measured based on this as the progress?  Some popular Agile scaling frameworks (that will not be named) come awfully close to reinforcing such practice.  In these cases, timeboxes rule the teams instead of the teams ruling timeboxes.

There Is Still Goodness…

However, just because something can be (and is) misused doesn’t mean it isn’t useful. Timeboxes are very useful when used as a technique by teams for their own self-control and self-management.  When timeboxing is used to bring focus to goals and aims, it can be particularly helpful.  When used to ensure feedback is occurs in a timely fashion, it is also beneficial.

In my next post, I’ll take a look at practices that can help teams minimize the need for explicit timeboxes.

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Time-boxes, goals and realizing outcomes

Goal is defined as:

the end toward which effort is directed” or “the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result.

I don’t understand the debate over the Sprint Goal.

I also don’t understand how a teams can function and focus without goals (be they implicit or explicit although I would suggest that there is a danger in not making goals explicit).

If a team carves out a fixed set of time (a time-box) to do some work, they already have, albeit implicitly, established a goal i.e. completing a certain amount of work in a certain amount of time.  I don’t consider this type of a goal to be a best goal we could come up with because it’s output focused and you know I favor outcomes over outputs.  I will concede however, that this type of goal is probably better than no goal at all.

From the Scrum Guide, the Sprint Goal is:

an objective that will be met within the Sprint through the implementation of the Product Backlog, and it provides guidance to the Development Team on why it is building the Increment.

Seems pretty straightforward to me with a lot of latitude for the Scrum team to create their goal.  What do you think?

If your time-boxed work period has no goals, no aims, no objectives, no desired end what exactly is your team doing?  Where are you headed?

(I’m pretty sure some folks reading this are thinking to themselves that time-boxing is an archaic practice and should be dropped altogether.  Stay tuned for my next post).

And while this post has focused up till this point on teams working with time-boxes, I will go even further to suggest that any team that is developing and delivering software in support of a broader organizational vision – yes I’m looking at all the teams that say they are using Kanban out there –  that doesn’t have time-bound (see Agile Manifesto Principle #3)  goals is operating irresponsibly.

Goal are very useful.  Use them wisely.  Use them well.

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