Are Agile plans Better because they are Feature-Based?

In Agile Estimating and Planning, Mike Cohn quotes Jim Highsmith on why Agile projects are better:

“One of the things I keep telling people is that agile planning is “better” planning because it utilizes features (stories, etc.) rather than tasks. It is easy to plan an entire project using standard tasks without really understanding the product being built. When planning by feature, the team has a much better understanding of the product.”

In the original post on a Yahoo mailing group,Highsmith also says “Sometimes key people in the agile movement have exaggerated at times to get noticed, I’ve done it myself at times–gone a little overboard to make a point. People then take this up and push it too far.”

This is clearly one of those times.

Activity-based Planning vs. Feature-based Planning

The argument runs like this. Activity-based plans described in a WBS and Gantt charts are built up from “standardized tasks”. These tasks or activities are not directly tied to the features that the customer wants or needs – they just describe the technical work that the development team needs to do, work that doesn’t make sense to the other stakeholders. According to Highsmith, you can build a plan like this without understanding what the software that you are building is actually supposed to do, and without understanding what is important to the customer.

An Agile plan, working from a feature backlog, is better because it “forces the team to think about the product at the right level – the features”.

I don’t think that I have worked on a software development project, planned any which way, where we didn’t think about and plan out the features that the customer wanted. Where we didn’t track and manage the activities needed to design, build and deliver software with these features, including the behind-the-scenes engineering work and heavy lifting: defining the architecture, setting up the development and build and test environments and tools, evaluating and implementing or building frameworks and libraries and other plumbing, defining APIs and taking care of integration with other systems and databases, security work and performance work and operations work and system and integration testing and especially dealing with outside dependencies.

Some of this work won’t make sense to the customer. It’s not the kind of work that is captured in a feature list. But that doesn’t mean that you should pretend that it doesn’t need to be done and it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t track it in your plans. Good project planning makes explicit the features that the customer cares about and when they will be worked on, and the important technical work that needs to get done. It has to reflect how the team thinks and works.

Activity-Based Planning is so Wrong in so very many Ways

In one of the first chapters, “Why Planning Fails”, Cohn enumerates the weaknesses of activity-based planning. First, most activity-based planners don’t bother to prioritize the work that needs to be done by what the customer wants or needs. This is because they assume that everything in the scope needs to be, and will be, done. So activities are scheduled in a way that is convenient for the development team. Which means that when the team inevitably realizes that they are over budget and won’t hit their schedule, they’ll have to cut features that are important to the customer – more important than the work that they’ve already wasted time working on.

Maybe. But there’s nothing stopping teams using activity-based planning from sequencing the work by customer priority and by technical dependencies and technical risk – which is what all teams, including Agile teams, have to do. This is how teams work when they follow a Spiral lifecycle, and teams that deliver work in incremental releases using Phased/Staged Delivery, or teams that Design and Build to Schedule, making sure that they get the high-priority work done early in order to hit a hard deadline. All of these are well-known software project planning and delivery approaches which are described in Steve McConnell’s Rapid Development and other books. Everyone that I know who delivers projects in a “traditional, plan-driven” way follows one of these methods, because they know that that a pure, naïve, plan-everything-upfront serial Waterfall model doesn’t work in the real world. So we can stop pretending otherwise.

Another criticism of activity-based planning is that it isn’t possible to accurately and efficiently define all of the work and all of the detailed dependencies for a software development project far in advance. Of course it isn’t. This is what Rolling Wave planning is for – lay out the major project milestones and phases and dependencies, and plan the next release or next few months/weeks/whatever in detail as you move forward. Although Cohn does a good job of explaining Rolling Wave planning in the context of Agile projects, it’s been a generally-recognized good planning practice for any kind of project for a long time now.

Agile plans aren’t better because they are Feature-Based

These, and the other arguments against activity-based planning in this book, are examples of a tired rhetorical technique that Glen Alleman describes perfectly as:

“Tell a story of someone doing dumb things on purpose and then give an example of how to correct the outcome using an agile method”.

Sure, a lot of Waterfall projects are badly run. And, yeah, sure, an Agile project has a better chance of succeeding over a poorly-planned, badly-managed, serial Waterfall project. But it’s not because Agile planning is feature-based or because activity-based planning is wrong. People can do dumb things no matter what approach they follow. The real power in Agile planning is in explicitly recognizing change and continuously managing uncertainty and risk through short iterations. Fortunately, that’s what the rest of Cohn’s book is about.

Reference: Are Agile plans Better because they are Feature-Based? from our JCG partner Jim Bird at the Building Real Software blog.

Jim Bird

Jim is an experienced CTO, software development manager and project manager, who has worked on high-performance, high-reliability mission-critical systems for many years, as well as building software development tools. His current interests include scaling Lean and Agile software development methodologies, software security and software assurance.
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