What is Better About Agile Development?

June 4, 2010

This post is a reprint of the article Top 10 Reasons to Use Agile Development that I wrote for DevX.com, published on April 27, 2010 and used here with permission. Given the comments generated from my last post on this site and on Reddit, I thought it would be appropriate to provide my thoughts on the benefits of Agile development. And I'm very interested to learn your thoughts on the subject!

You’ve heard the buzz: Agile development is all about solving the problems associated with traditional software development. The Agile Manifesto states, “We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it.” But just what is better about Agile development?

As a software development manager, I’ve had to consider this very question as we’ve progressed from testing the Agile waters to a full-blown implementation of Agile across our organization in the past few years. My thinking and this list are the result of my personal experience with Agile, numerous conversations, training, and plenty of reading on the subject of Agile development written by other experienced, very capable practitioners.

1)      Superior ROI.
With many software projects, the business is forced to wait for the completion of the entire project before it can begin deriving a benefit from that investment. Given the challenges in meeting software schedules, those on the business side of the house not only have to wait for delivery of the software, they have the potential to be disappointed in a couple of ways:

a)      Features are trimmed from the final delivery.
b)      Quality trade-offs are made.

(There are other ways to be disappointed, and many are addressed in this list.)

Agile emphasizes delivering early and often, enabling the business to begin generating a return on its investment much earlier. Agile does ask for discipline and participation from the business as part of the deal, such as rigorously prioritizing the features and being available to answer questions during the development cycle. In return, the business gets its highest-valued features delivered early, and delivered with quality.

2)      Business agility is embraced.
In order to capitalize on opportunities, the capability for a business to adapt and respond to change is critical. Software development practices shouldn’t run counter to business needs by forcing the business to choose and adhere to a set of pre-determined features that will be delivered months, if not years, into the future.

Agile development welcomes and adapts to change. Because software is delivered in short iterations (measured in a few weeks) from a prioritized backlog of features, Agile development projects are able to easily adapt in accordance with changing business conditions.

3)      Agile development reduces risk.
There are a number of risks (a.k.a., challenges) with every software project. Schedules, budgets, scope creep, and one of the most demoralizing for everyone involved – particularly if you’ve exceeded your planned schedule and budget – delivery of software where the users “got what they asked for, but it isn’t what they wanted” because the requirements were not understood in the first place. (This sometimes masquerades as “changes in requirements.”)

Agile development seeks to avoid these issues with frequent delivery of working software that allows the business users the opportunity to provide feedback based on frequent inspection. This permits the team to make immediate corrections if there was a misunderstanding.

The frequent delivery of working software also keeps schedules and budgets in check. There is complete transparency and certainty about the progress of the team because the features delivered slice vertically through the architectural layers. This eliminates the late-stage integration and quality issues suffered with software projects that use different delivery mechanisms.

Finally, the business has the option of discontinuing further investment and retaining what has been delivered at any time, instead of being forced to make a full (or greater) investment in order to build out the software to a state where it is suitable for use.

4)      Agile development increases productivity.
Producing software that meets the needs of the business requires the involvement of knowledge workers from a variety of disciplines – business and technical – to work together. Agile development focuses the team’s attention like a laser on delivering the highest-priority, highest-valued features in short increments of time using the most productive mechanisms to accomplish the work.

As part of this delivery, Agile development goes beyond using directed teams that are in reality nothing more than a collection of individuals working on assigned tasks. Agile teams embrace collaboration in the truest sense of the word; there are shared goals, shared knowledge, shared learning, shared progress, and a shared responsibility by the team to meet its commitments.

Another productivity increase comes from teams operating autonomously, where the teams make informed decisions about their day-to-day work without the need for constant managerial direction. Not only does this expedite certain decisions by keeping them localized, employees who have more control over their day-to-day work are more energized and engaged about their work.

When an autonomous, highly collaborative, multi-disciplinary team is firing on all cylinders, the productivity gains can be extraordinary.

5)      Agile development creates a sustainable development environment.
Software projects rarely meet their initial schedule. Overtime with the mandate to “work harder” is frequently used as it becomes apparent that a project will be running longer than anticipated. Often times, frustrated managers feel justified in holding those who provided the estimates at fault for not meeting their commitments – in spite of the fact that an estimate is supposed to be an approximation and not a precise figure.

There are a number of problems with the regular use of overtime, including more mistakes being made by tired employees, risk of costly turnover, and the simple fact that a constant overtime model is not sustainable in the long run.

Agile development sizes User Stories in points and tracks team velocity – the User Story points that are completed in each 2-4 week iteration. Over a period of time, it becomes crystal clear how much work can be realistically accomplished by a team on a sustainable basis. The goal then becomes one of working smarter to improve, not harder.

6)      Agile development enables emergent innovation.
Big innovations are easy to recognize, but hard to come by; they typically materialize from work outside of day-to-day projects. Because Agile creates a sustainable development environment, a greater opportunity exists for innovation to emerge from the employees. Teams that are working constant overtime to meet schedules simply lack the time or inclination to think about anything else other than the difficult schedule in front of them. In sustainable development environments, people have the time to think more about the business and explore – creating the potential for innovation that did not exist previously.

Even on “routine” tasks, the collaborative nature of Agile development creates the opportunity for smaller innovations to occur. Requirements are discussed as User Stories, involving what the business needs along with the benefit that it hopes to realize. The important aspect of this is that the requirements aren’t considered to be cast in concrete; there is a discussion about what the business is hoping to achieve.

The discussion yields important insight and understanding for the entire team. The worst-case scenario is that everyone will be on the same page. At other times, the dialog between business experts and the technical experts can yield unexpected results, like turning complex, difficult features into elegant, differentiating features.

7)      Agile development builds trust and relationships.
Through early and often delivery of working software to the business – even if this is nothing more than demonstrating the features – the business will grow to trust the development team. In addition, the continual dialog and the ability for the business to adjust and adapt the software gradually changes the “us versus them” dynamic into a “we.”

The same will happen for the members of the Agile development team. Instead of everyone divided by functional roles, Agile teams make the most effective use of the team members as dictated by the needs of the team to meet its commitments. The shared goal becomes more important than each individual working strictly within his or her area of expertise, with defined policies and procedures for handing off work between functional roles. This breaks down barriers between functional disciplines, enabling the team to reach higher levels of productivity.

8)      Agile development expects continuous improvement.
Agile development expects its practitioners to be continually learning and adapting, and is something that is enabled in part through sustainable development. Sustainable development provides the time and energy for the development team to expand their working knowledge of their profession through self-learning.

In addition, Agile teams conduct regular retrospectives at the end of each iteration to review what is working well and what can be improved.  Team members are expected to assess their teamwork and their use of (or lack thereof) technical practices and to make adjustments in the upcoming iteration to improve.

9)      Agile development is motivating and engaging.
Agile recognizes that knowledge workers have the greatest understanding about their own work, and that they are the ones best qualified to plan and organize how they will accomplish that work. Agile development utilizes an autonomous, self-directed work environment that is a powerful motivator. This control over their workday, plus operating in a sustainable mode and the feeling of accomplishment that is a by-product of continuous delivery of working software, all combine to provide a solid motivational boost to each and every person on an Agile team.

10)   Agile addresses the realities of software development and the needs of the business.
The challenges that every software project faces stem from the fact that we’re not producing pre-defined widgets; there is uniqueness involved with every software project. Agile development’s entire approach addresses the major problems encountered with software projects and managing talented knowledge workers while being aligned with, and responsive to, the business.

I’ll close where I opened. There is a reason that the Agile Manifesto states, “We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it.” Agile is a better way.

5 comments

Richard said...

While in general I agree agile makes sense, my experience shows agile only works when the rest of the company gets it.

If you have stakeholders ("chickens") who don't participate, who continually add or change features in the middle of sprints, and who push all the project management off onto the team, agile fails, just like any other methodology will fail.

Likewise, if the team members don't get agile or the team is too small or too heterogeneous for team members to self-select their issues, agile will sputter.

If some of the team is offshore, well, you have bigger problems: your management confuses quantity with quality.

However, not everyone has a work environment as dysfunctional as mine.

Burndown charts are a great tool for showing actual progress, and mine also show the accumulation of new requirements as the sprint progresses.

Sprint retrospectives are a good way to talk about what work, what didn't, and what we can do about it: this promotes team buy-in.

Getting to your article, I take issue with some of your claims.

4) Agile development *can* increase productivity, but it depends on the rest of the organization being involved.

6) Wow, sorry, my BS detector goes off when I see "innovation." If you read Scott Berkun's work, it's pretty clear innovation can happen in some very unusual places, like the Soviet Union during the Cold War, which is about as far from agile as you can get. I'd say agile can lead to a healthier work environment - less stress, more time to think about things instead of jumping in and coding.

7) Again, I'd use *can*. If the rest of the organization is working with you, agile can help earn trust by letting you make and meet commitments.

8) I have to call BS here. All methodologies assume the people involved are bright, motivated, and want to do better. I'd say agile *encourages* continuous improvement, not expects.

Finally, this "knowledge worker" phrase is a bit tired. I am an *engineer*: while I have taken some computer science courses, I started off as a "real" engineer (nuclear) and think much of the problem we're dealing with is students being taught computer science instead of software engineering.

Anyway, that's my 2¢, and thanks for the article.

June 25, 2010 at 12:55 PM
Star said...

All you say about Agile is right & great. But then I look at your profile on the right side and it says "manager". You can be a great manager if you understand Agile. But the one point is that it has to start with the programmers. You can not order it. Let the guys who do the work do whatever they want. Then nudge them into an easy way to interact with managment and schedules. Every time I see Agile fail it is because it is top down. Now I think of it more as a tool that enables managment to work with bottom up.

June 26, 2010 at 8:43 AM
Joshua Smith said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator. July 21, 2011 at 9:25 AM
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