About Johanna Rothman

Johanna consults, speaks, and writes about managing product development. She helps managers and leaders do reasonable things that work. You can read more of her writings at jrothman.com.

Design Your Agile Project, Part 4

If you are thinking of agile as part of a program, each team has to have its own approach to agile. Why? Because each team has its own risks and problems. You don’t need to standardize agile for anyone. If you treat people as if they are adults and explain the principles that you want (working software all the time and expose the interdependencies), provide training or whatever other resources they need, you are likely to get what you want.

That’s why I wrote Design Your Agile Project, Part 1 for teams who are collocated, and can use any approach to agile. Design Your Agile Project, Part 2 is for teams who have many challenges, but are collocated, and can work through those challenges. Design Your Agile Project, Part 3 is for teams who are geographically distributed and have to think about what to do.

In the program, what you need is for each team to deliver, all the time. The program wants as close to continuous delivery as possible. You can reduce the interdependencies—or plan for them. You can certainly expose them.

Feedback is Necessary

Did you see Jason Yip’s tweet (@jchyip) the other day, where he quoted this, “”Large organizations…lose their resilience simply because the feedback mechanisms…have too many layers of delay and distortion.”

This is why you cannot standardize on anything for any team in a program. Why? A program needs resilience. It needs to be able to release early and often. Just because it’s a program does not mean it does not need to be able to obtain feedback.

Each team must know the principles:

  1. You need to see all the work in progress.
  2. You want to flow work through the entire team.
  3. You want to see working software, sooner, rather than later.

Teams use agile and lean principles. Management treats the people on the teams as if they are adults. The teams look at their own issues and design their own approach to agile/lean, always keeping in mind the idea that they need to deliver early and often.

Now, let’s talk about what happens when you want to meld these teams into a program.

Each Team is the Heart of the Program

You might think that things roll down from the program manager or the core team. Not in my world. This is where each team’s autonomy, each team’s ability to make its own decisions about how it implements its approach to agile or lean is key.

The teams are the heart of the program. All of the teams: the core team, the technical teams, the teams that the core team represents.

This is a change from traditional process thinking. It’s a change from traditional program management thinking. This kind of thinking requires that the teams know how to do agile already, and are new to the program, not to agile. This kind of thinking also means that the program manager is a servant leader.

In a program, you will have interdependencies. You want to minimize them. How do you do that? By reducing batch size, the size of each feature. By coordinating the features with a program roadmap. And, by looking at the value of each feature, not its cost (estimate).

That means the teams need to become good at delivering, not estimating. It also means the product owners need to become very good at creating ranked backlogs for the teams, and changing them. It means that the program needs a roadmap that can and does change.

Remember, agile is about the ability to change, because the teams get to done at regular intervals, whether those intervals are iterations or because the teams work in flow.

What If the Teams are New to Agile?

What if you want to have a program with teams that are new to agile or lean? You can do anything on your program. You need to assess your risks. Let’s look at the Cynefin framework to see where your risks might place you, if your teams are new to agile.

CynefinIf your teams are new to agile, and they are all in one physical location, and they know the domain of the product under development, i.e. you are only changing how they are developing, maybe you are just in the Complex part of the framework. You are changing the culture of the program.

However, if you have new-to-agile teams, who don’t know the product domain, who are geographically distributed or dispersed from one another, and you want to transition to agile, do you see that you might be in the Chaotic part of the framework? That you have no way of knowing the risks?

That is much more difficult.

Let me provide you an example. Imagine that you are working with developers in Europe who have a 15-person development team. They have only programmers on their team. They have never worked with testers. Why? They have never seen the need to do so. They have been successful, according to them, up until now.

You are in New York, where the product management is. You know the product domain. The developers? Well, maybe not so much.

Several years ago, I consulted to a company that had this precise organization. They were going to “revolutionize aerospace.” Only the product managers understood the aerospace information. The developers had no domain expertise and they were several timezones away. The developers had worked together before, but had never worked with testers. They had never seen the need. They had never worked on a regulated product before.

When I suggested they had “unknowable unknowns,” and that their risks were higher than they thought they had, the senior management laughed at me. I told them yes, agile was fine, but I thought they should use one- or two-week iterations with kanban boards to expose their bottlenecks.

They ignored my advice. The company went with four-week iterations, spent a pile of money, had no product to show after 18 months. Oh, the developers bandied words such as “refactoring” and “TDD” and “BDD.” What they did was BDUF (Big Design Up Front) because they had no idea what they were doing. The company went under.

What do you do when not everyone knows what “agile” is, when you create a new product, when you are introducing that much cultural change?

Don’t panic! You work in ways to reduce your risk.

Stay tuned for Part 5.

Reference: Design Your Agile Project, Part 4 from our JCG partner Johanna Rothman at the Managing Product Development blog.

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