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Managing the Expectations from Agile

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At the Agile Eastern Europe 2015 conference Gil Zilberfeld gave the presentation the new agile. InfoQ did an interview with Zilberfeld about managing the expectations that organizations have of agile and how to prevent misconceptions, valuable ideas and practices from agile and what the future will bring for agile.

InfoQ: What are the expectations that organizations typically have about the benefits that they expect to gain from agile?

Zilberfeld: Organizations that have decided to start their agile journey have some ideas about what they want to achieve, and they usually concentrate on improved efficiency and productivity - release faster and cut costs. These expectations go along with "regular" management goals and KPIs. While concentrating on the cut-and-dry goals, they fail to understand the investment required in order to get there and how long the road is.

The last part is crucial, because with many organizations selling agile certifications after very short courses, it appears that all that is required for an organization to become agile is training. The misconception of agile as an end state, rather than an ongoing commitment for continuous improvement, is where organizations declare "our agile transformation is a failure".

InfoQ: Do you know what causes organizations to think this way about agile? Are there thing that agile consultants and coaches can do to prevent misconceptions?

Zilberfeld: Since scrum has crossed the chasm, it fit into the way organizations have always trained their people. Send them to a course, and presto! You have a certified professional. In the other end, the market responded by providing these training and certificates. Marketing around scrum and agile focused on boosting productivity and cutting costs, so no wonder the entire ecosystem created these expectations.

Another issue which plagues scrum, is that it "forgot" technical excellence is the basis to sustainable software delivery. In the old days, scrum coaches suggested eXtreme Programming practices to support the technical side. When scrum won the agile wars, it did so by talking to managers in process language, and the technological side was hidden. It didn’t help that many coaches did not have the technological background to train teams on TDD, continuous integration or clean code.

As a coach that I make sure that teams work on both sides – process and code. I think that agile consultants should have technical excellence as part of their coaching plan when they work with their customers. Their clients’ agile experience will improve a lot.

InfoQ: Do you think that organizations are getting benefits from agile?

Zilberfeld: The real question is: Are they getting what they have expected? You’ll hear lots of complaints about agile implementations. There’s a saying: "Agile doesn’t solve problems, it makes them visible". Problems that were swept under the rug before, now need handling. And there are many of those.

When that happens, not only does the organization need with deal with instilling new processes, (which is painful by itself), but it also deal with all the "newly discovered" problems. This is where the disenchantment with agile happens.

If the dedication is there, management pushes through, and is committed to solve the problems, then they get the benefits.

In that sense, agile is just a catalyst of exposing problems. If problem identification was there in the first place, and there was a commitment to solve it, they would have done so without agile.

InfoQ: Can you elaborate about the ideas and practices that agile has brought us? Which ones do you consider valuable?

Zilberfeld: There are many practices and principles that are valuable. The one that is close to my heart is visualization, straight from kanban. It’s funny, the agile manifesto doesn’t explicitly talk about communication, while it’s the engine behind any benefit. And process visualization is powerful.

The more people visualize through hand drawings, mind maps, kanban boards or status charts, they have a common reference to base their discussion. Most of that information is already in our heads, but when we don’t have that common reference, we assume others know what we’re thinking, what the goal is and how to get there. The cost of drawing stuff is so small and the value so big, it’s a shame people don’t use that more.

Another value that is massively important is shorter feedback cycles. Agile introduced practices that help us learn and act quickly, changing work in a way we did not experience before. Scrum has built in mechanisms for feedback – demo and retrospective. TDD has quick feedback built in, and continuous integration lets us know if we broke functionality immediately after check-in. And of course, process visualization is its own feedback mechanism.

If we can do all this inside the team, we can definitely do that outside. Lean Startup processed do actually that. Building an MVP (minimal viable product) quickly and getting feedback on it. Or changing a feature on the site, collecting using information and pivoting – Once we’ve got the methodology working, and the technical basis, we can shorten feedback cycles, by running short and cheap experiments, get them out and learn from them.

And product development is just the start. Beyond Budgeting works the same way with finance. The organization gets a small budget for a short period, and invests it as it sees fit. After that period, it checks the success of the investment – if it was successful, it will continue investing with the next budget. If it failed, it will stop doing that. This behavior is how we run our own personal budgets, in short cycles. Organizations are now learning to do the same.

InfoQ: What do you expect that future will bring in agile?

Zilberfeld: If the last 15 years have taught us anything, is that agile is expanding into other areas from its software development origins. The Beyond Budgeting movement is performing small experiments, and defies the old big yearly budget idea. Extreme manufacturing creates cheap, yet fit for purpose machines in short incremental cycles, sometimes days. Development practices like TDD are now part of embedded software, and even circuit verification.

Throw in complexity, and who knows where agile will go next.

InfoQ is covering the Agile Eastern Europe conference with news, Q&As and articles. Earlier InfoQ published Adoption of Agile in Eastern Europe.

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