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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

“Being Agile” Means No Documentation, Right?

agile-pillsAsk most software professionals what Agile is and they’ll probably start talking about flexibility and delivering what the customer wants.  Some may even mention the word “iterations”.  But inevitably, they’ll say at some point that it means less or even no documentation.  After all, doesn’t creating, updating, and circulating painstakingly comprehensive documentation that everyone and their mother have officially signed off on go against the very core of Agile?  Of course it does!  But really, they’re missing the point!

Read The Agile Manifesto. (No, seriously - read it now. It’s short. I’ll wait.)  It’s essentially a list of values.  More specifically, it’s a right-side/left-side weighted list of values:  “Value this over that”. Many people seem to get the impression that this is really a “good vs. bad” list and that those values on the right side are evil and should essentially be tossed on the floor.  This leads to the conclusion that in order to be Agile we must throw away our fancy expensive tools, document as little as possible, and scoff at the idea of a project plan.  This conclusion is quite convenient because it essentially means “less work, more productivity!” (particularly in regards to the documentation and project planning).  I couldn’t disagree with this conclusion more.

My interpretation of the Manifesto targets “over” as the operative word.  It’s not just a list of right vs. wrong or good vs. bad.  It’s a list of priorities.  In other words, none of the concepts on the list should be removed from your development lifecycle – they are all important… just not equally important.  This is not a unique interpretation, in fact it says so right at the end of the manifesto!

So, the next time your team sits down to tackle that big new project, don’t make the first order of business to outlaw all meetings, documentation, and project plans.  Instead, collaborate with both your team and the business members involved (you do have business members sitting in the room, directly involved in the project planning, right?) and determine the bare minimum that will allow all of you to work and communicate in the best way possible.  This often means that you can pick and choose which parts of the Agile methodologies and process work for your particular project and end up with an amalgamation of Waterfall, Agile, XP, SCRUM and whatever other methodologies the members of your team have been exposed to (my favorite is “SCRUMerfall”).

The biggest implication of this is that there is no one way to implement Agile.  There is no checklist with which you can tick off boxes and confidently conclude that, “Yep, we’re Agile™!”  In fact, depending on your business and the members of your team, moving to Agile full-bore may actually be ill-advised.  Such a drastic change just ends up taking everyone out of their comfort zone which they inevitably fall back into by the end of the project.  This often results in frustration to the point that Agile is abandoned altogether because “we just need to ship something!”  Needless to say, this is far more devastating to a project.

Instead, I offer this approach: keep it simple and take it slow.  If your business members or customers are only involved at the beginning phases and nowhere to be seen until the project is delivered, invite them to your daily meetings; encourage them to keep up to speed on what’s going on on a daily basis and provide feedback.  If your current process is heavy on the documentation, try to reduce it as opposed to eliminating it outright.  If you need a “TPS Change Request” signed in triplicate with a 5-day “cooling off period” before a change is implemented, try a simple bug tracking system!  Tighten the feedback loop!

Finally, at the end of every “iteration” (whatever that means to you, as long as it’s relatively frequent), take as much time as you can spare (even if it’s an hour or so) and perform some kind of retrospective.  Learn from your mistakes.  Figure out what’s working for you and what’s not, then fix it.  Before you know it you’ve got a handful of iterations and/or projects under your belt and you sit down with your team to realize that, “Hey, this is working - we’re pretty Agile!” 

After all, Agile is a Zen state.  It’s a destination that you aim for, not force, and even if you never reach true “enlightenment” that doesn’t mean your team can’t be exponentially better off from merely taking the journey.