Monday, November 3, 2008

Discipline and agile


Most of the people while reading this word would think about the military discipline and never associate that with agile. It's quite funny that for many people being agile is mostly lacking discipline, while in my opinion it's impossible being successful in the agile world without discipline.

In the old days life in a software project was ruled by The Gantt, a simple diagram illustrating the start and end date of every activity in a project. Those dates were thought in the design phase of the project and defined by different people (usually the analysts) than the ones that were implementing the actual software. Developers were receiving a long and detailed frozen specification document from analysts and were then supposed to handover to a testing department the software they've realized.

Now let's think about the agile world as seen by someone used to work in the waterfall way: there are no separate phases (analysis, development, testing...) but just a small requirement gathering at the beginning of the project, maybe there aren't even strongly defined release dates, there's not even a project manager telling people what to do next: it sounds really awful! "How can those people work in that way? That's anarchy! They can just do whatever they want. How can they even know if they're on track?!?".

And now is when the discipline part plays an essential role!

The Manifesto for Agile Software Development says that working software is more valuable than comprehensive documentation, so an agile project doesn't have any big specification document or such, instead there's a list of feature the project should provide. A team without discipline could then think that instead of realizing those features one at a time they could go on in the old way and start doing horizontal development: "let's now start building the persistence layer, then let's add a business layer on top of it" and so on, maybe even parallelizing those developments without any kind of integration until everything is almost done. This would make impossible showing anything to the customer until the end, because everything would be 90% done. How can that team be sure that they're developing what the customer really wants?

A disciplined team would do something different: estimating the complexity of all the features and then start working on one of those at a time, maybe the project's most important, and implement it completely (from GUI to persistence for example). The team would then show the implemented features to the customer as soon as possible, in order to get feedbacks that would allow them to know if they're moving in the right direction or not. Knowing how complex a feature is and how much time did it take to realize if the project is on track, is falling behind or even if it's going better than expected. Making the daily work visible, maybe using a burndown chart, will immediately show how the things are going, allowing the team to take actions if things are not proceeding so well, but it requires a strong discipline (keeping always up to date the scrum board or kanban board for example), even if it would be easy sometimes to cheat and say that something not done is done "because there's time tomorrow to finish it".


Ari Tanninen said...

There is discipline and then there is discipline. To use the military analogy contrast regular troops with special forces.

Regulars are all about external discipline and enforcement and looking sharp and snappy at all times. But the special forces types are laid back, taking it easy, buttons open. Or so it seems on the surface because these guys have internal discipline you would not believe, but only where it counts and where it is needed.

Just compare Delta Force and Rangers in Black Hawk down and you know exactly what I mean. :D

A good agile developer is like a delta operator, relaxed where it does not matter and discipline nazi where it matters. But an outsider may not realize what is going on since it does not show on the surface.

Joachim v said...

Having discipline, moral and a clear goal these are the corner stone’s in any industry. It is all about roles and responsibilities. I love being thrown out of a team room by the Scrum Master because I’m too loud or otherwise interfering with the work, because then I know that the Scrum Master is doing his job. The Scrum Master is the sergeant doing what it takes to make his team perform. When a staff officer comes in and want the troops to show how they have washed their dishes when they are just about to go out on a two week tour the sergeant will show the officer the door and take the shit from his own superiors later ( been there done that, in the army but in a different context). I also believe that an agile development model can’t perform if the structure around is lacking. Let it be that that the rest of the company is using the w-model for their internal projects and evaluations there must be a way that these models can communicate. My personal view on this is that through clear roles and responsibilities, that are not in conflict with each other, this will happen. Of course somebody will now and then get the shit but what matters is that things are done not how they are done. If the team is perfoming it is easy to show the bottom line of the amount of software in production from the agile team compared to promiseware from other teams.