The Name of the Game is Change

Slide1

The second principle from the Agile Manifesto is “Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.”

I call this the Product Manager’s dream principle: “I get to change the requirements, even after development has started! Woot!”

First let’s break this principle down and see what it really means and then let’s talk about how to deal with it.

There are 4 ideas embedded in the PM’s dream:

  1. Welcoming changing requirements in general
  2. Welcoming changing requirements even late in development
  3. Harnessing change
  4. Customer’s competitive advantage

These ideas come from the grim realization that requirements are going to change, at any stage of the development process, and there isn’t a damn thing you or any process can do about it. We can pretend that we have control over change. We can ask business owners and product managers to sign an iron-clad contract but Mother Nature and Murphy’s Law are not going to stop working on our plans.

Given that change is inevitable we can either hate it or love it or just deal. If this principle was written from the hating change POV it would read “Abhor changing requirements, especially late in development…” On the other hand if the authors of the Agile Manifesto loved change the principle would have read “Encourage changing requirements, the later the better…”

“Welcoming changing requirements” is a positive way to deal with a problematic issue in the same way that many cultures have a tradition of adopting strangers. It’s a smart coping mechanism and recognition that shit happens.

Why do Agilists welcome change and not run the other way and lock the door? Because they are confident that Agile process and policies are setup to withstand change. They have accounted for change in the Agile process and thus change is not going to do much damage to the overall big picture.

Agilists also recognize, according to this principle, that they can “harness change”. Agilists can guide change instead of being driven by it. That’s a pretty tall order but with the right process, one that assumes the inevitable, Agilists take advantage of the opportunities that change creates. Change is where true competitive advantage comes from! Not from a carefully designed, well executed plan, but from a process that gives customers the chance to quickly capitalize on changing market conditions. Wiggle room beats precision any day of the week.

Stephen Jay Gould once wrote about how his interest in fossilized snails, from which he would derive many insights about evolution, came about completely by accident. Gould spent his life discovering and teaching how random events lead to advantages that life is able to exploit. That’s agility right there.

Working with Niles Eldredge, Gould popularized the theory that evolution works in cataclysms called punctuated equilibrium: Short periods of sudden change separated by long periods of relative calm. Agilists see a lot of punctuated equilibrium in software development. Everything in the project is going along as planned and then WAMMO! The market changes, a bug appears, or a forgotten requirement emerges! (This is in well run organizations. In poorly run organizations the change is constant and internally generated.)

OK, now that I have accepted change how do I deal with it? Each school of Agile development from XP to SCRUM has different foci for dealing with change. I’ve seen five patterns emerge that successfully welcome change (but I’d love to hear about others):

  1. Time boxing: Limit the amount of time you spend on any one task so that the cost of change isn’t devastatingly high.
  2. Locked iterations: Restrict change to outside development cycles. Once a dev iteration is started ignore change until victory can be declared. If you really must change requirements in the middle of an iteration stop and re-plan.
  3. JIT planning: Plan as little as possible and as late into the project as possible.
  4. Light design and documentation: Waste as little time as possible on design and documentation as it’s all going to change anyway.
  5. Measure and analyze: Don’t act on assumptions or intuition. Do what the data tells you to avoid surprises.

These solutions in isolation create as many problems as they solve. But when used together in a well thought out and integrated process they create a flexible fabric that can capture the energy of change and use it to gain an advantage. This is hard to do, not because it’s complex, but because many engineers (and normal people too) are uncomfortable with change. One strategy that helps people surf the chaos is to keep a central vision in place with a general roadmap of how to get there. As long as the vision is stable then change is the process of getting there.

Our Highest Priority

Labor is greater than money

The first principle of the Agile Manifesto is “Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.”

Easier said than done 🙂

This principle is deceptively simple and simply radical. I don’t believe it’s an accident that it’s the first principle and it’s first 3 words ensure that what we pay it detailed attention.

So let’s pick it apart!

There are five major ideas embedded inside this 16 word sentence:

  1. Highest Priority
  2. Customer Satisfaction
  3. Early Delivery
  4. Continuous Delivery
  5. Valuable Software

All five of these ideas deserve a blog post or two (the highest praise one can give in the 21st century). But a paragraph each will have to do.

To have a “highest priority” is not a foregone conclusion. Usually you have competing priorities. The classic problem with software development priorities is expressed in the consultant’s conundrum:

Fast, cheap, or good — Pick any two!

The consultant’s conundrum has no “highest priority” and thus an impossible problem to resolve. I’m going to tell you a secret. No matter what the consultant (or Jakob Neilsen) says, you can’t pick all three, or even any two. You can only pick one priority. This is the first principle of agile development and the lack of a single highest priority is the root cause of why projects fail.

To focus on “customer satisfaction” is another tragically overlooked value in the real world. Most business, except the ones that succeed for the long term, focus on everything but happy customers. Even though really smart people write books like Patricia Seybold’s Customers.com, revenue or awards or downloads are still made into objectives in and of themselves. Another secret: SUSTAINABLE REVENUE FOLLOWS CUSTOMER SATISFACTION! (Sorry for the caps–my shift key got stuck.)

The third and forth ideas, “Early Delivery” and “Continuous Delivery”, are difficult to do because they go against many humans’ natures. Some of us naturally crave feedback and offer up unfinished works for critical review early and often. But that type of human seems not to get into software development. It’s the lonely author, or lonely blogger,  who seems to dominate our industry. He wants to knock the socks off his audience so he waits until every thing is done before revealing his magnum opus to the world. This behavior in a business context is rationalized by the idea that you only get one chance to make a first impression. I feel my shift key being to stick as I prepare to refute this idea–but I will resist shouting in type because of the overwhelming evidence supporting early and continuous delivery: Microsoft, Google, Adobe, Apple, Salesforce. When these companies (and any other tech companies) are successful, it’s when they release incrementally and improve over time guided by customer feedback. When these companies fail, it’s when they hold off for the big bang.

The final idea of the first principle of the Agile Manifesto is the hardest to define. What is “Valuable Software”? What is value? The wikipedia.org article on Value (economics) is messy and ultimately not helpful. Like truth, value is subjective and only understood when time and multiple perspectives are integrated. So let us go back the classic definition and say that valuable software is that which “saves labor” (which leaves out gaming and entertainment, but I consider walking away from my computer a form of labor).

If the software you are building does not “save labor” then perhaps you shouldn’t be creating it. I’m serious. There is plenty of software out there that is not valuable by this definition. Yes, I’m thinking of you MS Project! At the end of the day software is about automation and by that I mean the automation of labor.

To me, and many others, the Agile principles are not a silver bullet to cure all the ills of software development. They are a recognition that the software development process is not separate from software being produced. A product that is not valuable can not benefit from Agile development anymore than quackery can benefit from healthcare reform. Our highest is priority is not to make it fast, cheap, or good. Our highest priority is to make it valuable.