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Product-Aligned Software Teams

Product-Aligned Software Teams

For a long time now, and starting in earnest in the early 1990s, people involved with software development and delivery have been shifting various aspects of the work to the “left,” if you visualize a software delivery pipeline that runs from left to right. What’s the endgame?

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The Refried Beans of Agile

As a young computer programmer, I moved to Dallas, Texas, without ever having been there before, and with no idea what the place was like. There were three attractors for me: (1) Reputedly good prospects for a career in information technology, (2) no State income tax, and (3) good Mexican food. Those of you know know me IRL will be unsurprised by which of those was the strongest attractor for me. Indeed, as I rolled into town the first time, I was delighted to see a Mexican restaurant on nearly every corner.

Some years later, I was working with a guy who had just completed an introductory Six Sigma class and had started the journey toward Green Belt status. In other words, an Expert. As he listened to the almost-daily discussion about which Mexican restaurant we should go to, he had a brilliant idea. He would assess Mexican restaurants by the quality of their refried beans.

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Tactical Agile

Once “agile” methods had crossed the chasm, organizations in the Late Adopter and Laggard categories began to try and roll out “agile” across their enterprises, or at least across their IT departments.

To support deep-pocketed enterprises that wanted to scale “agile,” consultancies sprouted up offering “frameworks” that could be dropped into place to achieve agility. They are generally based on Scrum and/or Kanban principles, in a way that often lends itself to fun (provided you aren’t the one paying for them).

As the years passed, large enterprises made multiple attempts to implement agile frameworks. With each attempt, they are growing smarter about what will or will not work at scale. But these lessons are excruciatingly expensive.

Despite the general results, consultancies that specialize in scaling agile methods continue to promote the idea. New books have appeared that explain how to scale agile in large enterprises. I checked Amazon books briefly, and got 14 hits for relatively recent books on the subject. But is it even a “subject?”

It occurs to me the basic reason for most of the difficulty is that “agile” as such simply does not scale. If that’s the case, then how can larger enterprises gain the benefits of agility? I think there is a way. It boils down to applying “agile” tactically rather than strategically; except perhaps to say that the strategy is to apply “agile” tactically.

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Whither Tuckman?

There’s a common model people seem to believe in implicitly, known as the Tuckman model, named for psychologist Bruce Tuckman, who published the idea in 1965. The idea is that all teams go through several distinct stages: Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing. You can probably guess what those stages are like based on their names. The model has been a mainstay of agile coaches for many years.

But I’ve had doubts about the Tuckman model for a long time. My personal experience has been that once people get used to working in a collaborative way, they can move to new teams without any friction.
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Terminal Velocity for Agile Teams

The most popular metric for agile software development teams, by quite a margin, seems to be velocity. Yet, experienced agilists don’t find velocity particularly useful. Even some of the authors of the Agile Manifesto who played a part in defining velocity, as well as story points and planning poker, have moved on. But today, as large organizations undertake major initiatives to “transform” into agile organizations, there is a strong emphasis on velocity as a key metric.

Despite the advice of leading agile consultants and coaches, and books like Doc Norton’s Escape Velocity and my own Software Development Metrics, corporate leaders stress the importance of velocity in their transformation programs, and require their software development teams to track and report it.
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