The Agile Management Fad

Is Agile a management fad?  Is its blistering adoption throughout the world rooted in a proven value driven approach or the hysteria of the masses clamoring for a new trend to profit from and identify with?

Fad – defined

According to Wikipedia a management fad has certain characteristics. Let’s look through these defining elements and see if Agile can fit this definition.

1. New Jargon for Existing Business Processes?  Seems that there are plenty of examples that fit this like:

Manifesto = Mission

User Story = Requirement

Planning Poker = Estimating

Daily Scrum = Daily 15 minute meeting

Scrum Master = Coordinator/Facilitator with no authority.

2. External Consultants Who Specialize In the Implementation of the FadWould anyone deny that agile has these in abundance?  Agile consultants are everywhere and firms specializing in agility are in no short supply.

3. A certification or appraisal process performed by an external agency for a fee.  Yep. Many of these exist. Although they don’t all agree with one another on the merits for earning that certification, CSM, CSP, PMI-ACP, and the icAgile body of certifications represent a diversity of vehicles for achieving formal certification.

4. Amending the job titles of existing employees to include references to the fad.  There could be room for debate on this one, but a short search on monster.com or dice.com show a plethora of ‘agile project manager’ versus ‘project manager’ positions.   Equally, we’ve seen software developers that specialize in agile practices now called “ninjas” and there is the  “agile scrum coach” that now replaces the old title “application development manager”.

5. Claims of a measurable business improvement via measurement of a metric that is defined by the fad itself.  Velocity is the most prominent measure that comes to mind.  Further velocity is defined in increments the fad defines: story points.

6. An internal sponsoring department or individual that gains influence due to the fad’s implementation.  Organizational Agile Coaches, or an Agile Center of Excellence are two examples that have become common.

7.  Big words and complex phrases.  This one is kind of subjective, but YAGNI might quality. SolutionsIQ even published an agile glossary so you can keep up with all the terms & definitions.

Fad? Yes.  Value?  Yes.

So by this definition agile is, well,…a fad.   But does that mean agile practices have no value?  Here’s some of the things we’ve learned ( or re-learned ) from agility:

1.  Daily communication among team members really matters when the work is complex.

2.  The people doing the work must be accountable for it.  Don’t let them hide behind a project manager.  Let them take pride in what they do.

3.  Requirements require constant communication, clarification and understanding.  It’s a continuous phase communication cycle, not a document.

4.  Regular, timely feedback on work improves quality and job satisfaction.

5.  Teams need help coordinating, facilitating and communicating between themselves and others.

Agile’s popularity is still growing.  Clearly some of us see benefit even as the marketing machine twists agility into something it never really was or will ever be.  Like management fads before it ( Six Sigma, TQM, and CMMI ) agile has made an impact on how we create value.

Is there a cult following?  Of course.  Everyone likes being popular and making money.  But the end state of the agile bubble will be a reconciliation back to reality.  There’s no silver bullet.  Problems still exist and we’re never fast or perfect enough for the shareholders or customers.  Room for improvement is omnipresent.

Summary

The fever pitch of the fad is a beacon.  Full value has been realized, copied, marketed and redistributed without concern for the result.  While time exists and there is still competitive advantage…the crowd still gathers.  But, the drivers of innovation have long moved off the curve of agility, hybridizing and envisioning new methods and tools for further improvement.  Another wave will again crest and break onto the shores of software management and leadership bringing the promise of ultimate productivity and quality, but delivering only incremental improvement.

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Iterations Are to IT What Containers Were To Shipping

Introduction

Container shipping transformed the way goods were transported across geography and channel.   Instead of having many diverse payloads in differing container configurations for different modes of transport; a standard was defined for a rectangular container that could, through a set of standardized connection points,  be bolted to ship, train, or truck.   The result of simplifying the container configuration meant that transferring cargo between modes of transport became easier, shipping times were reduced from port, to rail, to truck.  Handling and management costs also went down because there was less variation in the cargo.

In the same way agile is standardizing the time-boxed delivery mechanism for software development.  Widely, today, the iteration is seen as that container.  In the majority of agile shops the 2 week iteration with a daily stand-up, front end planning session, and back-end review session; is the norm.  The channel of delivery might be scrum, xp, lean/kanban, or some hybrid of these.  The choice of which channel to use is deeply dependent on the business environment surrounding the software shop.   But regardless of the rails the iteration rolls over; it has become the choice for time-packaging completed requirements.

What are the implications of this to business and development groups?  What changes does this standard for team delivery impose/challenge the modern organization with?

Finance and Accounting

How capital projects are financed for internally used software has not followed the train of direction the iteration has brought forth.  Traditionally, project estimation is bottom up and we derive funding by establishing a level of effort ( LOE ) across the project, with some breakdown into work packages.    Iterations have the capacity to be the bricks of capital financing upon which projects are funded.

The challenge to IT finance groups is to derive the cost accounting for an iteration ( essentially a two week productive work team ) and then establish capital planning policies and procedures that estimate, plan, track and account by those iterations.

At first blush this sounds simple.  Why not just figure out the appropriate team composition: say 3 developers, 2 qa folks, 1 product owner and 1 team leader.   7 people X 50 hours a week = 350 hours X $70.00 per hour = $24,500.00 per iteration.  So now we just need to figure out how many iterations we need.  Right?

But wait….

What if I need a DBA, Infrastructure Person, or support analyst engaged?  How about software licensing, pc costs,  PTO ( paid time off ), employee rates vs consulting rates,  and other indirect costs?   What about the funding mix for any iteration?  Surely not all of it is CAPEX.  Some of it may be OPEX.  But what mix of a typical iteration should be OPEX vs CAPEX?   Should certain iteration models exist depending on what the team is doing?

These questions begin to explode the subtlety.  By standardizing delivery on iterations, the finance group and IT leadership can standardize the IT shop and its costs.  Should success be achieved, CAPEX and OPEX planning should become less complex and more routine; fundamentally reducing the infrastructure, roles, and process associated with this annual event while simultaneously establishing a standardized point of accountability and process planning.

This also changes the very nature of estimation from detailed to relative.  We’re now looking at value creation, rather than cost control.  The challenge back to the business will be how much value is derived at various cost points and at what point cost becomes too much.   Project costing becomes a negotiation toward shared value based on relative targets achieving a defined set of NPVs.

Management and Leadership

In an iterative organization the control, power, and operation are at the iteration team level.  Influencing those groups will require a leadership and management structure that is comfortable with fluid and mobile adaptation of resources to project needs.  Leadership truly begins to shine in this type of paradigm.  No longer dependent on a static formal organizational structure to derive power, the real leaders will begin to exert influence over these mobile iterative pods.

Those succeeding in such an organization will be gifted in the art of servant leadership, coaching, influence, and mentorship.  Command and control will be reserved for extreme HR issues alone.

Innovation

Iterations also change the shape of R&D and new innovative initiatives.  Iterations demand transparency, accountability, and risk reconciliation.  The iteration opens things up and standardizes the cycle of delivery.  To many this may stifle the idea of invention and creation by putting it on a disciplined cycle, but does it?   In plain english: business demands a return on its investment.  Research for research sake is a university concept.

Org Charts & Structure

How is organizational structure affected by the expansion of iterations?  While most IT shops today are familiar with the matrixed organizational structure, the iterative organizational structure groups teams into standardized pods for delivery.

The pods would favor generalists who are good at a multitude of IT functions but perhaps are not perfect at all aspects.  This structure would be fluid and adapt to organizational need.  An example iterative structure is below.  In this way the iterative POD is responsible to the director as a team.  All individuals in those pods report to him/her.

Personal Career Growth and Development

Iterations have already had an enormous influence on personal career development at software shops.  It’s not enough to be just a code whiz. Iterations place emphasis on teamwork, personal accountability, and decent communication skills.  Flexibility is also a key aptitude sought in the iterative individual.

Good delivery PODs are ready made hired guns.  Teams of professionals that could potentially write their own engagement.  In this way staffing by placement firms and consulting groups changes from individual placement to team sourcing.

Summary

The transformation of the shipping and distribution industries to containers wasn’t a simple overnight change.  Standardization requires upheaval and new ways of thinking, approaching old problems.  Organizations that adapt to the standard IT container and see it as more than just a ‘development thing’ are best positioned to yield the benefits that this change could bring.

A Caboodle of Pragilematic Posts

I’ve been hanging out and posting at the ASPE SDLC blog.  Yes…I have their permission to do that.  Geesh.  Check em out Gilbert:

Six Things To Avoid When Reporting Project Status - Project status is about the facts and your strategy to address and manage those facts.

This Daily Standup Is a Joke – This article details some challenges associated with daily stand-ups and some potential strategies for dealing with these.

An Axiom of Project Success –  What’s the common thread to project success?  We’ve seen projects that should have died.  We’ve also seen projects fall apart that seemed like they were in the bag.  This post attempts to nail the overriding factor.

That’s Great…But How Does Agile Benefit Our Shareholders?  - Selling agile to key leaders in your organization takes more than just a thorough understanding of story points, and time-boxing.  This post brings it home for those wanting  a bigger bang for their agile swang.  Whatever that means.

Custom Built Software Is a Depreciating Asset

Custom built software.  It occurred to me this week that this ‘asset’ as it’s categorized by GAAP is a depreciating asset, much like a car or piece of capital equipment ( machinery ).

Does it derive value?  Yes….indirectly.  But ultimately it’s value is underutilized, and quickly de-valued.

Imperfect as it is…there is little alternative….FOR NOW.   So what’s the best strategy for investing in this ‘asset’?

Minimize it.  The less you put in.  The less you lose.

Find the cheapest way to accomplish your custom software needs and invest in that first.  Any other investment strategy invites disappointment, and reduced expectations in the future.  This strategy, however stark, also recognizes the truth…..big things start small and simple.

Prove it out with a minimal project and then decide whether additional value could be derived.

The Root Cause of Water-Scrum-Fall

Introduction

Water-Scrum-Fall is the norm in many organizations today.  Despite the attempts of scrum coaches and consultants, the weeds of waterfall grow back into the agile garden.  What causes this?  This article looks at the root cause for the water-scrum-fall phenomenon and makes a suggestion about how to address it.

The Root Cause

Water-scrum-fall’s reality is not the result of people being unwilling to adopt scrum.  It’s not the result of a lack of passion for agile processes and practices.  Nor is it caused by a lack of executive support.  The cause?

Capital budgeting

In companies that produce software for internal use water-scrum-fall finds it’s greatest adoption.  Internally used software is strictly accounted for by the regulations in SOP98-1 and this financial machinery is what guides the need to plan up front.

Capital projects are investments.  To determine an investment’s return you need to know the estimated initial cost, and estimated revenue ( or savings ) the project will create.  These things are estimated up front so that a decision can be made on whether or not to pursue the investment.  The up-front nature of capital budgeting compliments waterfall and BDUF. It is a core financial business process guided and regulated by FASB.  Think about that for a moment…and then read on.

Scrum practitioners run up against a wall with capital budgeting.  It doesn’t fit their operational practice for developing software.  Under scrum….we shouldn’t be designing, estimating and crafting the project up front.  Instead we should approach it incrementally.  The problem with this? It ignores how enterprise software development projects ( capital investments  ) are funded.  The result is that everyone compromises and innovates.  Water-Scrum-Fall is the child of this compromise.

The Challenge

Scrum and other agile practices pose a challenge to enterprise software development efforts and the capital budgeting process.  Indirectly they say “Why are we funding this as a capital investment?  It’s not.  It’s an ongoing operational cost and should be accounted for that way.  If we don’t plan on funding this software development effort for the long haul…then why are we doing it?”  Funding a software development effort as an operational expense, as is done within software companies, does fit the scrum operational practice better.  But again…the difference between a software development effort being labeled CAPEX or OPEX is guided by FASB.  It’s not up to the company.

How Do We Fix Water-Scrum-Fall?

I don’t think there’s a silver bullet here.  But in my last article, Is There a Better Way to Estimate Capital Projects? , I threw out a suggestion for how to estimate a capital investment using tolerances.  This bypasses the need for an up-front detailed analysis of what the the LOE ( Level of Effort ) would be for the project, but still gets the business what it needs: an initial funding point and resulting NPV that augments decision making.

Summary

So water-scrum-fall is a pragmatic reaction by agilists and IT professionals to work with the business and its financial processes.  Did the originators of scrum not understand the capital budgeting process?  Were they oblivious to the financial architecture of the businesses around them?  Maybe…but to their credit; they weren’t trying to address this.  Their focus was on how to do software in an adaptive fashion so that it more organically addressed the operational realities of manifesting a complex vision.

Central Spin – January 24 2012

Background on SPIN

The Software and Systems Process Improvement Network (SPIN) is a global organization, founded in 1991, of professionals dedicated to the improvement of software development and systems engineering. CentralSPIN, headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, is the newest SPIN chapter.  CentralSPIN supports members from the Central US region, including St. Louis, Chicago, Dallas, Denver and Atlanta. The chapter is affiliated with the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University (www.sei.cmu.edu/spin) and is sponsored by Daugherty Business Solutions (www.daugherty.com).

CentralSPIN is the newest of 119 sister SPINs in cities across the U.S. and around the world. SPIN’s mission is to provide leading, practical, and timely content on various process improvement topics for the IT industry. The CentralSPIN organization serves as a source of educational and practical information for its members, other SPIN organizations and the general community of project managers, business analysts and software professionals. Membership is free and open to all. The goals of CentralSPIN are to:

1.     Enhance members’ knowledge and skills through an active program of networking, publication, recognition of excellence, and mutual support

2.     Help sustain organizational commitment to the improvement of software excellence, maturity, and system processes, with particular focus on enabling project management and business analysis capabilities.

If you plan on attending,  click here or use the Register link below.  Membership and attendance are free, so please feel free to forward this to anyone else that you think may be interested.