Agile Purists beware: The following post may cause uncontrolled vomiting, convulsions, gnashing of teeth or "soap box"-style ranting to anyone who will listen.
Alright, now that we've got that out of the way, let's talk about that headline!
First, Some Context...
At work, I've just started working on a small three-person project to build a relatively simple Windows application. Two of us on the team serve the roles of project manager/ScrumMaster, Business Analyst and Developer. The third serves as our customer/acceptance tester.
Last week was our first week of our first two-week iteration. Our "customer" was on vacation for part of the week, but we held our planning meeting ahead of time so that the other two could move forward and have something to show our third when she returned. We implemented daily scrum meetings, but found them to be a bit excessive for just two people. So, for part of the week, we held our scrums over an Instant Messager.
Doesn't This Go Against the Agile Manifesto?
I asked myself this question at first. One of the tenets of the Manifesto is the idea of "Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools", with the implicit supporting argument that face-to-face communication is the preferred approach. However, remember that these ideas are not absolute. We do not have to promote individuals and interactions by sacrificing our ability to take advantage of technologies and tools. Instead, we should take advantage of tools and processes where it is beneficial to do so.
In our case, myself and the other developer sit on different floors. Rather than walking to a separate floor for a 2-3 minute meeting every day, it made more sense to take advantage of a tool, like a phone or instant messager.
Why This is Not a Good Practice in General
Now, I'm under no illusions that this is a good practice in general, nor that it should become a recommended practice at large. While there were some benefits in our specific case, this practice would quickly become unweildy as soon as we start adding more people to the daily scrums. Even with three people, I feel like more could be accomplished more efficiently if we met face-to-face (or, at the least, over the phone).
The point I want to get across is that we need to remain pragmatic in our approach to software/solution development, and not fall into the trap of following any manifesto, principle or practice so blindly that it becomes detrimental to the team. It's up to us to decide what makes the most sense for our specific situations.
Let's consider the following statement:
Don't always deliver what the customer wants;
Always deliver what the customer needs.
There's a subtle distinction between the two parts of the above sentence, but it's an important one.
Most of us have heard the argument "Do you really need that?" at some point in our lives, usually when it has to do with something we really want, and are willing to argue passionately about its inclusion in the realm of all things necessary. Usually, this "voice of reason" manifests itself as a parent, spouse or some incorporeal, 3-inch tall, white-robed, haloed dude - or chica - hanging out on your shoulder.
But I digress. The point is that it's a good question to ask ourselves. Do we really need something, or is it just something we desire to have?
Wants vs. Needs in Software Development
All too often, we - the technical folks - will get a long list of requirements from our business stakeholders, some of which are necessary for them to do business, and some of which are fluff features, or "nice-to-have's". Unfortunately, it's also common for these different category of features to be lumped together into the same set of requirements, and it's difficult for us to tell which is which. It's our own fault; we've conditioned our business partners to think this way.
So how do we tackle the list? Generally, I've seen it done one of a couple ways:
- We treat all requirements as gospel and just start running through the list until we burn out, project time and/or money runs out, or (rarely) we deliver everything.
- We start cherry-picking through the list, based on what we think the business needs.
Both scenarios have major implications. In the first, we risk burning out our teams, the business partners, or both. Burned-out folks tend to leave, or produce lower-quality results. In the second scenario, we are putting the decision of what is important to the business in the hands of the technical folks (as opposed to the hands of those who are actually doing the business work). I've got another post planned for this second scenario, so I'll just leave it at that for now.
So What's the Alternative?
Half of the Agile Manifesto talks about promoting Customer Collaboration and drawing focus to Individuals and Interactions. So, the first step is to get the business partner involved in the planning of what gets worked on first. After all, they were the source of the requirements, so they should have a good idea of what's most important to them.
Using iterations (the backbone of iterative and agile methodologies) can also help to promote adaptive and risk-based planning by forcing the team (which includes the business partners) to decide on a subset of requirements to implement during each iteration. Responsible teams will choose features that are the highest priority. (Note the word responsible in that last sentence. Agile practices alone do not a successful team make). Iterations also help the team to "course correct" between iterations of a project if they start going in the wrong direction, or if changing business needs dictate a change in what features are most important.
And while I've said this before, I must stress it again. Get the customer / business partner involved. Let them tell the team what they need, and what they want. And, like that voice of reason, the team should sometimes question their needs to make sure they really are needs, and not just a want hidden behind charismatic arguments.
Ok, I need to go rogue here for a minute...
Have you seen the latest technological experiment the Obama administration is trying this week? When I first saw this, I was strangely excited. I'm not usually big on politics, but I've got to admit that I'm impressed by how much the Obama administration is reaching out to the public for input. It's becoming increasingly harder to be apathetic about the direction this country is going -- and that's a good thing!
So, have you asked your question yet?
It is especially meaningful how he relates this, from a software development perspective, to requirements documentation and the impact it can have in that respect, as well as the day-to-day e-mail traffic that goes into and out of... mostly into... my Inbox.
I often find myself among the minority of developers who, instead of firing off an e-mail, opts to pick up the phone, or stop over for some face time with my fellow business users, business analysts or project managers. Perhaps that is the weakness of IT: brilliant (usually) at analytical and technical skills, but lackluster in social interaction skills...
Think back on the past week. How often have you opted to write an e-mail to a co-worker instead of pick up the phone or walked 10, 20, (or, god forbid, 50) feet to the person's desk? Worse yet, how often have you been part of a conversation that took place entirely via e-mail. You know, the kind where a dozen (or more) people are included in the e-mail chain -- 18 of which could care less about the discussion?
(I know I've brought that issue up once before...)
It is at times like these where I stand up, blow the virtual whistle (loudly) and suggest (strongly) that we schedule some face-time to hash out this discussion in person (or at least via conference call).
Now, think about what agile methodologies and practices propose to combat this issue...
Daily scrum meetings?
On-site / Nearby customers?