Ask an Agile Coach: How do I handle the effect of carryover on velocity?

Our previous installment of Ask an Agile Coach had a new question in the comments:

As for the case when some of the user stories didn’t get completed, what happens to the user stories which were partially completed–say, 80% finished–but didn’t quite make it? How do you keep your velocity metric from getting hosed?

Practitioners have asked me variations of these questions many times over the years. I'll paraphrase them into a single question:

How do I handle the effect of carryover on velocity?

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Ask an Agile Coach

I never have a shortage of people with questions about applying Agile in the myriad possible scenarios of software development for business. This ongoing series focuses on answers to those questions.

If you would like your question to be anonymous, please let me know when submitting. I'd recommend email or a Twitter DM since you kind of let everyone know it's your question if you use the other methods of contact. :-)

Have a question? Submit it via Twitter, LinkedIn, or email to barry at barryhawkins dot com. I look forward to answering them here!

Agile with External Clients: Master User Story Facilitation

The Agile with External Clients series continues today with the topic of requirements facilitation and management, with user stories as the primary vehicle for the task. This article's mantra is captured by one of my favorite phrases around Agile, which comes from the last sentence of the Agile Alliance website's entry, What is Agile Software Development?:

…to craft the code and the team such that the inevitable requirements churn was not a crisis.

This is the core difference for me between Agile Software Development approaches and the phased, non-iterative processes that dominate much, if not most, of the industry. Over the years, the most effective tool I have had in my arsenal for transitioning groups into more iterative, collaborative approaches to gathering, refining, and prioritizing requirements has been user stories. When I say user stories, I am referring to the format and philosophy laid out by Mike Cohn in his indispensable book User Stories Applied: For Agile Software Development. I am not referring to the user stories as defined in Behaviour-Driven Development (BDD), but that is another topic for another time.

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Agile with External Clients: To Run It Agile, Sell It Agile

This installation of the Agile with External Clients series shows the relationship between how an engagement is sold and how that affects a group's attempt to execute the project using an Agile approach. Let's start with a maxim for every member of a professional services group or consulting practice to burn into their mind:

The Sold Destiny Principle

The way something is packaged and sold frames the expectations of the customer.

One of my first questions when engaging with a new client is "How is your product/service sold?" This is an important question because of The Sold Destiny Principle. If services are being sold in a way that does not dovetail seamlessly into how those services are delivered, the team builds friction into the way their work is done, heaping frustration upon all parties involved, including the customers.

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Agile with External Clients

I speak at conferences around the country each year, most often on the topic of real-world, full-blown application of Agile Software Development using Scrum. I always appreciate when folks come to me after the end of a conference talk to ask questions about the topic of adopting or applying Agile in various scenarios. I usually end up having at least a couple new challenges to my assumptions, which helps me further inspect and adapt my approach to coaching and mentoring.

I will almost always have at least one person who presents what they think is the tough question, the one area where Agile and Scrum simply cannot work. The question, in the form an assertion, usually goes something like this:

"This stuff is all well and good when you are working inside a company and your clients are the people that work with you in the same company, but our clients are external customers, and we have fixed-bid projects, which is why we cannot use anything like this."

The embedded question in statements like the one above is, "Can Agile, and Scrum in particular, be used when you do professional services work for external clients, even with fixed-bid projects?"

Yes, you can.

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Still a place for blogging

A few years ago, my blogging fell off sharply. There were multiple reasons for that. I began to spend my discretionary time elsewhere, including with my young child and playing World of Warcraft with my wife after the little one was asleep. Additionally, I began to lose interest in some of the main topics I had been writing about, in particular my involvement in the Debian project.

At that time, I began to wonder if perhaps blogging had become passé. Jokes about the ubiquity of banal blogs seemed to show up everywhere. I had adopted Twitter and Facebook fairly early, and I thought for some time that perhaps these social networking outlets were the successors to blogging.

They are not.

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The Agile Business Analyst

Agile Business Analysts?

I have recently been fleshing out my thoughts on the role of business analysts in an Agile team. This is something I have historically addressed on a case-by-case basis with clients, but when thinking about it last week at a client site, I realized that I do have a general take on how the role and responsibilities of a business analyst change when a group moves to using an Agile process. Per the usual, I'll be using Scrum as the example process where needed.

The Classical Roles

Historically the business analyst has had two primary roles. In a process where cross-functional communication and collaboration are minimized, these roles are essential. What little communication that takes place between the business and the software development teams purporting to serve them passes almost exclusively through one or more business analysts. I view the business analyst in a phased development approach as having two roles; Translator and Gatekeeper.

The Translator

The business analyst is primarily tasked with taking the needs of the business and translating them into a written document that is then handed to the software developers and testers. This role's necessity is based upon some fundamental assumptions. First, programmers and testers are on the whole, too socially retarded to actually talk to the business persons and find out what they want. Second, the business is primarily viewed as being unable to focus its thought long enough to tell the programmers and testers what they need. Since a key value of an Agile approach to software development is to have individuals and their interactions be the driving force rather than processes an tools (see The Agile Manifesto), the obliteration of this role is a primary objective.

The Gatekeeper

Business analysts are also viewed the gatekeepers for requirements in classical, phased software process approaches. This is a somewhat unfair role, since they rarely have the authority to prevent business or technology changes, like a meter maid trying to stop an armed terrorist. It's even more unnatural since change always happens, so it's like the meter maid being assigned to an anti-terrorist unit with no additional training, authority, or weapons.

The Agile Roles

Some of the more extreme practitioners of Agile methodologies say that business analysts have no role in an Agile team. I disagree, provided the role of the business analyst is allowed to evolve. The roles I've seen them take on as valuable members of an Agile team are Facilitator, Historian, and Journalist.

The Facilitator

A high degree of collaboration and interaction take place between business and technology in Agile Software Development. The business analyst can serve a critical need in these interactions, facilitating communication between business and technology and making sure that critical areas are being covered in an interaction. This can be a more fulfilling experience for an analyst, since they often talk to one side, then go to other to pass on the information, all the while thinking, "Man, this would be simpler if you were both in the room with me at the same time."

The Historian

The business analyst's documentation skill is excellent for capturing significant information that often gets lost in a team of purely technical people. I have seen some great uses of business analysts in this area. One is to document the system that the team actually builds (not the big, up-front imagined system that is covered in a phased design stage). Another is capturing key technological and architectural decisions and the context in which they were made, so that when a group revisits certain items asking, "Why in the world did we decide to do that?", they have the means to be reminded or informed why a particular path was chosen.

The Journalist

The business analyst can also be the team's journalist, making sure the latest information makes it out to all interested parties. One creative approach I've seen at a client site is a business analyst who has a project blog. He posts entries after each meeting between the business and technology, documenting what new user stories were created (even scans in the story cards!), a summary of the discussions held, and documents any key decisions that might have been made. Oh, and he provides an excellent executive summary at the top that's suitable for anyone's review, right up to the CEO. Tell me you wouldn't love to have that person in your Agile team.

More Expensive and Complicated Equals Better: Carseats and Software

So I finally got around to checking out the TED site; I've quickly become a fan. One of the first talks I watched was Steven Levitt's child carseats talk. Both the talk and the feedback comments on the TED site reminded me of things I see in software development. Here's the video if you haven't seen it.

Steven Levitt shows in his talk how 30 years of data on car crash fatalities imply that carseats do not outperform regular seatbelts for children ages 2 and up. Anyone who has a child or grandchildren will probably bristle at hearing that; as the father of a pre-schooler, it certainly gave me pause. We spent no small amount of time and decent chunk of money in selecting carseats for our child, thinking we had done our best to ensure our child's safety. For that matter, it would be illegal for us not to have done so. To see a decent-sized data sample suggesting my child would be better off in a seatbelt at her age is rather unsettling.

By the end of the talk, I took away these observations:

  • This great swath of an initiative was started by a very small yet vocal group of proponents whose assertions received little scrutiny.
  • A solution tailored to the specific constraints of a portion of the audience has been put forth as the de facto solution for the entire audience.
  • There is an ongoing assumption that the more complicated and costly solution must be superior to the simpler, existing solution.
  • Cursory evaluation of a data set without rigorous attention to mitigating factors can lead to wildly inaccurate conclusions.
  • The acceptability of a given solution is often tested against a narrow band of the overall criteria, and the solution is often optimized to pass that test.
  • The likelihood that people will continue to choose the more expensive and complicated solution despite any data is high.

So, software professionals, does any of that sound familiar? It reminds me of numerous initiatives over the years that have led us inexorably to the software productivity morass we have slogged through for years now. I suppose the most heinous case study in my own experience would be J2EE and the insistence that it was the solution that any reasonable business application would choose for a platform. (Before you .Net folks jump on that one, DCOM and later the .Net enterprise stack was much the same.) And who hasn't read a benchmark or white paper with seemingly incontrovertible data depicted in highly-polished graphics insisting that Product Y is the one solution to address them all?

I noticed that there were comments below the video on its page at the TED site, largely because the negative verbiage of the topmost comment jumped out at me. I took the time to read through them all (there were 36 at the time of this writing), and to my amusement, I saw parallels between them and how people react to questioning and examining our existing practices and means of developing software. See if any of these strike a chord:

  • The idea that what we're doing might be wrong unsettles some people, and their response is often ferocious and irrational defense of the status quo.
  • Those who have a financial stake in the current mode of operation are less likely to be open to scrutinizing it.
  • There will be some people whose primary objection to the scrutiny is that they didn't think of doing it first; these people will sometimes attack the person questioning things on the grounds that it's all a selfish, attention-mongering endeavor.
  • There are some people who will also be open to examining why and how we're doing things; whether they conclude the same thing or not, they are a welcome presence among the larger mass of those who ardently refuse to entertain the possibility of a need to change.

In recent years I've been greatly encouraged by the willingness of companies to question whether or not the heavyweight frameworks and technology stacks are what they should be using. Helping companies slough off high-ceremony processes in favor of right-sized process that focuses on delivering the right software in a timely manner has been some of the more rewarding work I've done the past several years. I think we have an encouraging number of people in the industry who are challenging the "more expensive and complicated always equals better" mantra.

For the brave individuals willing to put these questions to the community at large, I hope you find some comfort in knowing that the resistance and rejection you will encounter is a thing to be expected; you are not alone in that respect. Here's hoping we continue to be open to self-examination, no matter what emotional responses it might provoke or what fear of the future it may stir up within us.

Just When a Wizard Would Have Been Most Useful: Coaching Versus Contracting

The Hobbit hardcover 75th Anniversary Edition

...Then they stopped, and Thorin muttered something about supper, "and where shall we get a dry patch to sleep on?"

Not until then did they notice Gandalf was missing. So far he had come all the way with them, never saying if he was in the adventure or merely keeping them company for a while. He had eaten most, talked most, and laughed most. But now he simply was not there at all!

"Just when a wizard would have been most useful, too," groaned Dori and Nori (who shared the hobbit's views about regular meals, plenty and often).

- J.R.R. Tokien, The Hobbit

I am very fond of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien; it would not surprise me to find that many of you recognize these words from the second chapter of The Hobbit titled "Roast Mutton". It occurred to me recently that there are parallels between Gandalf's role in The Hobbit and that of an Agile coach. Now, before my fellow Tolkien enthusiasts leap on their keyboards, bear with me on this. Know that I am not saying an Agile coach is on par with a wizard (OK, with one of the Istari sent by the Valar, but let's table that so as not to scare off the normal folk, alright?); that should be enough to calm you down.

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