Context is king

I know the common phrase is “content is king”, but as far as Agile is concerned it’s context that is key.

When a team starts a new initiative, it’s important that they understand who it is for, why it is important, what value is it expected to provide, what problem(s) will it solve, etc. Without this context, the team can’t be expected to know if they are building the right thing – all they can do is follow the Product Owner’s direction.

As much as we look to the PO to represent the stakeholders’ needs, the development team need to understand the bigger picture: how does this feature fit into the product? With a wider context, the team can think about a general technical direction, bearing in mind things will change and the project might end before finishing the whole thing (hopefully because the customers are happy rather than running out of time/money).

The team can also identify risks, dependencies and unknowns – not all of them, of course, because there will always be discoveries as they dig deeper. They can create spikes, run experiments, build a proof of concept, and/or change the prioritisation of the backlog in order to reduce those concerns. This is a big difference from my experience of waterfall projects where the project manager would fill in the risk assessment sheet and file it away.

Tackling the high-risk issues early can improve the confidence in the rest of the backlog, or (in at least one project I can recall) result in the project being canned because it would be too expensive to resolve a showstopper… and this is a good thing! It’s far better than we identified the risk and investigated our options, so that the PO could make an informed decision whether to proceed. The alternative is to plough time and effort into the project and only think about the problem when we couldn’t ignore it any longer – that would have been a huge waste.

So how do we help the teams gain the context they need? I find Jeff Patton’s Story Mapping incredibly useful – the template I use is slightly different to Jeff’s because I really want the initial conversation to focus on the who and why pieces. The “Frame the problem” section is important in Jeff’s approach too, but I find the addition of specific sections in the template reminds the team (and the facilitator!) that we need to spend time really discussing and understanding this context.

I find teams often want to jump to the details, the minutiae, the weeds – junior developers tend to be detail-oriented, so it’s important to repeatedly bring them back to the bigger picture. An experienced software engineer knows that the technical details are important but so are other things: are we building the right thing (e.g. does it address the problem? does it provide value?) as well as are we building it right (e.g. is our testing strategy solid? is our architecture evolving?).

Context is important throughout: in Refinement and Planning, we should set goals that move us towards the initiative’s objective; during the sprint, keeping the context in mind helps ensure we build what’s needed, not necessarily something because that’s what’s written in a user story; and then the Sprint Review should use the initiative’s context as the frame for understanding progress and any impact on the product backlog. Refer to it early & often. If we were in a team room, big posters of business and technical context FTW! (Jim Benson did a great presentation on this in the Agile Virtual Summit recently, but I’ll come back to this in another post.)

Happy Birthday Agile

It’s twenty years since the Agile Manifesto was created in Snowbird, Utah. There’s obviously been lots of people posting about whether it’s still relevant, whether it should be revised, and so on, but I think it’s still important and applicable.

It starts with: “We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it.
It doesn’t claim to be definitive; “We are uncovering” means we still have room to learn and improve how we do this. There are many “flavours” of agile, including Heart of Agile and Modern Agile, and some organisations develop their own take on agile (but “hybrid” agile-waterfall monstrosities don’t count in my book).

The next few lines (i.e. the rest of the manifesto) seem to be problematic for some people because they don’t fully understand “we value the items on the left more” – the manifesto’s authors even spell it out by saying “while there is value in the items on the right” and yet some people still think “Agile means we don’t do documentation”.

The first of these, “we have come to value: Individuals and interactions over processes and tools” is one I’ve see many organisations fail to grasp. It’s a long-running joke in the community that “installing Jira” equals “adopting agile”. I’ll refrain from ranting about Jira because the point is that any tool is not the way to become agile – it’s about people. I remember another coach saying “If a company doesn’t understand that it’s all about people then they don’t deserve agile”! 🙂

The next line, “we have come to value: Working software over comprehensive documentation“, is the one I see people misunderstand most – I wonder if that’s because so many people hate writing documentation? If you think about the two extremes, neither is ideal: documentation without software is clearly not a useful product, but also software with no documentation is rarely desirable (a simple tool with no user interaction might just about be ok, but even then anyone trying to fix/enhance the code is likely to benefit from some docs). That’s why we value working software more than documentation but not instead of.

I think the third line is easier to appreciate if you’ve ever worked on a waterfall project where we’re expected to blindly follow the documented specifications and hit deadlines, even if it means delivering something we know to be wrong. By valuing “Customer collaboration over contract negotiation” it means we would rather work with our customer, e.g. show them demos (or better yet give them something they can use) and get feedback early and often. If you don’t work with your customer and respect them, then how can you expect to keep them as a customer? (Ignoring monopolies/cartels, obviously; add banks to the list of rants I’m avoiding in this post!)

The final line, “Responding to change over following a plan” is closely linked with the previous one – in an ever-changing environment like software development there is always going to be change, whether that’s feedback from the customer “course-correcting” the direction of the product, or how the team works together (e.g. coming out of a retrospective), or the tools/technology that we’re working with. To ignore those changes is to say that we can’t learn anything during a project; I can’t think of a single instance where that’s been true, even working on tightly constrained legislation/standards-based projects – there’s always something discovered along the way. However, just like documentation, that doesn’t mean we work without plans – we need to understand where we’re heading and how we think we can get there… but we also need to revise the plan when things change. We need a roadmap (i.e. a destination and options for getting there) rather than a single route set in stone … but that feels like a future post 🙂

Priorities Change

One of the Product Owner’s key responsibilities is to ensure the backlog (well, the top of it, at least) reflects the stakeholders’ priorities. Of course, the certainty of those priorities decreases the further out you try to look: we ought to be pretty confident in the priorities for the next couple of weeks, but less so for a couple of months away, and if we’re thinking 6 months ahead then it’s quite a low certainty. (Your timescales may be different but the “funnel” model should still be applicable.)

The reason certainty decreases the further into the future you try to predict is that things change! Hopefully, you’re learning more about your customers over time, but also their needs change. There are also changes in technology which mean something you couldn’t build last year is now possible, or maybe the costs have dropped so now it’s worthwhile.

Like everything we do in Agile, it’s about feedback: we think the customer needs X so let’s build just enough so that we can test the market, i.e. a Minimal Viable Product. Based on the learning from that we should adjust the backlog, so putting too much effort into the details of a plan that’s likely to change is waste. No matter how much you believe you know what your customers need and spend time drawing up a 12-month plan, if your plan doesn’t change then either (a) you’re a genius, (b) you’re really lucky and should play the lottery, or (c) you’re not listening to your customers.

Even in a tightly regulated market, things change – if your product is constrained by legislation, there can be changes resulting from interpretations of the law or even changes in the law itself. If your plan is unable to reflect those changes in a timely manner, don’t be surprised when someone beats you to the release of a “fully compliant” version.

The key is to have a plan which gives enough context for the current/imminent work but which is flexible enough to react to changing information, as well as to have people who understand that a plan could (and should) change when circumstances change.

Maybe that’s the most important piece: having people who ask why when a plan doesn’t change?