Why we believe Agile still works

‘’Agile’’ is a set of well-established software development methodologies. It remains an interesting way of doing things for those who are not familiar with it. 

Author: Andre Peters August 2020

The ceremonies, callouts, servant leadership principles, and bright coloured walls seem exciting. The ''old school project management'' people may say: ''What about detailed project schedules, work breakdown structures, and the many other tools we need to manage a project? '' ''This software delivery stuff is never going to work when it comes to products and programmes!'' Some may still be on an agile river of discovery and waiting for the ''waterfall''. Signature Business Solutions has been involved with agile ways of working for many years and we are still a fan. Allow us to share a few thoughts on why we still subscribe to Agile. Apologies to the agile experts if we get some of the theory wrong, but this is our practical experience with agile and its worked for some large product initiatives in banking (disclaimer: this article was not sponsored by stationery companies supplying stickies, whiteboard markers or sharpies :)

1. Agile requires business (product) and IT to work much closer together.

We want to qualify this. Business needs to make an effort to be part of the development team. They need to be co-located if possible, available, and supportive during design and build work. They need to join stand-ups, showcases, and other planning ceremonies. "Hooray" for the awesome Product Owners and Scrum Masters who pull the product, business, and dev team together. Business's voice is heard and smaller incremental delivery ensures value is provided sooner. Requirements management does however need a bit of magic and skill. 

2. Learnings happen quicker and retros rule!

With previous project methodologies, we wrote cumbersome requirements and specs. Pages and pages of detailed stuff. This took effort and skill and would end up with business saying: "what the heck is this? This is not what we wanted". Heartbreaking for the project team. With agile, lessons are learned quicker. Pieces of code or functionality are delivered in stages and displayed at showcases so businesses can have a look at it. We have more pro-active "user acceptance" testing during the process and testing is part of design and delivery. Retros are one of our favourite ceremonies. We learn new things after every sprint as a team and hopefully, negative stuff is surfaced. What worked and what are you confused about? Sometimes these sessions are uncomfortable, but we need to chat about painful things. Its no use ignoring a sore tooth which affects the whole body. Let's learn and be honest. We give everyone an opportunity to speak up and we assume that everyone tried their best i.e. as a prime directive. 

3. Planning is more "real".

Companies may decide to plan and work based on a certain planning cycle (e.g. 12 weeks). What goes into the planning process is more realistic as per the agile ways of planning. We need to ask ourselves: ‘’Can we do this amount of work within this amount of time? Sizing works. Initially, you may be sceptical about these airy-fairy methods. But honestly, estimates are estimates and life happens. Agile has a focus on getting things done, balanced with some careful planning. “You simply have to put one foot in front of the other and keep going. Put blinders on and plow right ahead.”– George Lucas. 

4. Stories and points.

Sprint planning is great and we pull in only tasks we can handle. Velocity was a new concept to many. Agile makes planning real in terms of only taking on work that the team is able to deliver within the agreed timeframe. The team takes part in planning the work to be done and product should be part of this conversation. 

5. Continuous delivery and flow.

Note of caution here: if not managed carefully, constant delivery may burn out key people. People like developers and scrum masters may be on the brink of burn out if the pace is too fast. It is a good idea for companies to manage their delivery, and not kill their teams with wave after wave of products and features without proper velocity and capacity planning.  Taking on more and more work is important but the flow of work is more important. One of our favourite sayings is: ''start finishing and stop starting''. Read that statement again. It simply means that we need to complete the existing work we have and stop taking on new work. Its no use having many user stories and nothing gets done. Be honest in how the work is flowing, your cadence, and what you are able to complete are key. “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.” – Confucius

6. People and leadership aspects are very important.

We need effective feedback. Don't ignore emotions. Let the teams direct themselves. In agile, these principles really shine through. These concepts make sense and they resonate with many, but agile ways of working make these principles real and practical. We are huge fans of devolving power and authority and collaboration. It works. 

7. Drawing on whiteboards and visualising things.

Using a whiteboard marker on a wall, board, or glass wall is common in a lot of our teams. Just make very sure it is not a permanent marker. Less than perfect writing and atrocious spelling is okay when explaining concepts vs. sending a document or process map. Research tells us the brain processes facts quicker when we draw pictures. ’Drawing diagrams may not be new or a product of agile, but we find people are more accepting of sketches and mind maps since we moved to agile. A picture is literally better than a thousand words. Having your team standing around a board helps with getting consensus and clearing up the confusion. It helps us with understanding a subject. Someone once said: ''my thoughts are detangled through the tip of a pen (or whiteboard marker or sharpie)''. 

8. The way we communicate is better.

We want fewer e-mails, less meetings, and less detailed minutes’’. Don't misunderstand us, we may still need to send out emails to record important decisions, but we should not be e-mail junkies. Face to face conversations are better. People don't like lengthy mails. Successful leaders get consensus outside of meetings, lobby difficult stakeholders, and remove blockages without e-mails and big meetings. Viva WhatsApp and other ways of chatting. Showing business what you have delivered in a 15-minute showcase is better than any long e-mail or detailed document explaining the feature. Get interactive. If you want to share documents, use a document sharing tool but a demo works even better. 

We could tell you stories about T-shaped resourcing, fostering innovation, speed dating, and other wonderful tools. Agile has spawned many great things. We know many management fads and crazes have been dreamed up through the years. Management theory changes all the time. But something about agile makes sense. Products are delivered quicker, people are engaged, planning is practical and learning happens regularly and pro-actively. We would, therefore, suggest a closer look at agile if you have not embraced it. Agile is a way of thinking and doing things. Just paying lip service to it won't work. Ultimately, you want products to market quicker and agile does assist with this.