Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Agile - Grandmother was right - you can't fit a quart into a pint pot

My Grandmother used have lots of sayings.  I remember - "We had one of those and the wheels fell off", "As much use as a chocolate fireguard" and "Look after the pennies and the pounds look after themseleves".  My favourites as a project manager were "If you're in a hole don't dig" and "you can't fit a quart into a pint pot".  It's the last one that came to mind today!

Lean project management has lots of great attributes – more effective use of people & resources, better quality development, increased communications and faster time to market.  Yet however hard I look through research & documentation I can’t find the evidence that it’s also some form of “miracle worker”.

I’ve been involved in a lot of discussions on failing projects and the reasons for failure always seem to be the same – no one really thought about how they were going to do it.  Of course people understood why and, to a certain extent, what they want to do.  But when it comes to – so how are we going to do it – managers wanted to avoid the self-evident truth.

But back to basics - it doesn’t matter what methodology you use you’re still going to be faced with a fundamental aspect of physics.  If a project has a certain amount of work involved to complete it then it really doesn’t matter which approach you adopt – Waterfall, Agile, RUP or Lean – it will still take the same amount of time & effort to finish. A quart doesn’t fit in a pint pot…

Of course, lean approaches are better at focussing on real requirements and what will add value.  They deliver functionality up front avoiding big bang delivery.  However, there are implementations that need a base amount of functionality to be useful & chores to be completed to generate any significant value before they can be rolled out.  It doesn’t matter if we work as a small team, communicate better, concentrate on high value items or adopt Scrum methods to concentrate on great delivery processes ultimately the development work that needs to be done remains essentially the same.

Today I’ve had the ultimate Agile discussion.  Essentially it consisted of:

Looking at the user stories we’re looking at 4 sprints to complete the base functionality and probably another 3 to add the high priority business requirements.  That’s about 21 weeks.

But we need it by Christmas

I appreciate that but that doesn’t change the amount of work that we need to do it will still take 21 weeks

But we need it by Christmas

What requirements do you want us to drop?

None – but we need it by Christmas – maybe if you don’t test it so much?

The work hasn’t changed – it will take 21 weeks

I thought Agile was meant to be quicker?

It is more focussed and relevant but it can’t make 21 weeks of work take 10 weeks

I think you get the idea…..

That’s the problem with something being sold as the new solution.  Everyone says Agile is quicker, faster & more improved.  Of course we all know it isn’t but that’s the press it’s got.

So I’m left with the age old problem.  Lean project management is a much better solution to delivering great software.  However, it’s reputation is going to be tarnished by a few individuals who’ve sold the “faster” tag and Agile can’t always deliver.  I’m sure that someone soon is going to suggest that planning things upfront, signing up to detailed designs & requirements and agreeing a detailed plan that managed centrally is the best way to get things delivered quickly.  I wonder what they’ll call that approach – I suspect it will be popular if they promise to deliver 21 weeks work in 10 weeks by simply adding more people.

I’ll let you know how the argument is resolved.


Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Agile, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and Fire Control

"Perhaps they are singing songs to you, and I just think they're asking me questions" explains the Ruler of the Universe when talking to his cat.

I've been reading the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy - Resturant at the End of the Universe for the nth time this week.  I've always loved Douglas Adam's sense of humour and there is a particular section that really sums up the problems I've had this week with a new "Agile Team" that have asked me to coach them and help them understand why people aren't accepting their new approach.

In one part of the story Zaphod, Trillian and Zarniwoop visit the man who runs the Universe. He clearly isn't what they expect and he tends to avoid answering a question directly.  It's worth a read and you can find the book online here.

Apart from being an amusing distraction I think it highlights some of the problems that Agile Projects have to deal with all of the time.  This week in my new team we've discussed our Agile approach, the impacts it has on our customers & our teams and what we should do to improve things.

Without exception it's been one excuse after another.  Sitting in the meeting room (just like the Ruler of the Universe's shack in the middle of nowwhere) you'd think the the rest of the organisation doesn't exist once the meeting room door is closed.  The team deny that they simply aren't delivering what's needed.  They can't remember the questions that were raised at the last retrospective and anyway they are in denial that their unstructured approach is leading to all sorts of problems and issues.

Douglas Adams writes "How can I tell, that the past isn't a fiction designed to account for the discrepancy between my immediate physical sensations and my state of mind?"

The equvalent I heard in this group today was "I think that customers have decided they don't like the Agile approach so they're making up issues just to get us to go back to the old ways of working"

The lack of ability for an Agile team to accept personal accountability & responsibility for delivery is a hangover from the Waterfall Approach.  It can be argued, and indeed I have many times, that the PRINCE2 methodology provides the Project Organisation with lots of hiding places.  In the news today you will have read about the £469m Project Failure of the FiRe Control Programme (BBC article).  What wasn't recorded was how all of this money was wasted.  £40-50m on "Management Fees", £20m on "Consultancy" fees.  The actual buildings only cost £36m (nine buildings at around £4m each) or £14m less than the Project Management fees!

Funnily enough though there's no one to blame.  No one is accountable and everyone did a good job apart from the fact that nothing actually got delivered and none of the project objectives were met at all.

That's how this team and the project have felt this week.  Close the door and hide from the real world.  Nothing's our fault, we've nothing to learn so I think that I've nothing I can teach them either.

Pity - because they're a great bunch of people and I hate to admit failure.

Tomorrow's another day - and at least we haven't wasted £469m!



Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Can Agile Horses Sing?

While lazying in the back garden I've had lots of time to reflect on the last 12 months.  I've always thought that the retrospective was one of the best parts of Agile (or indeed of any decent methodology) because it's the one opportunity to concentrate on simply doing things better.

So have I learnt anything that will help me help others better in the next 12 months?  I guess that one of the advantages of being a turnaround project manager is that you get to see a lot of project train wrecks and get the opportunity to see them become successful ventures.  Ok, they don't always deliver exactly what you'd hoped when you put together than business plan but in most cases they deliver greater value simply because you had to concentrate on what you needed rather than what you wanted.

I've a few pet hates.  One of those are people who seem to think that they can diss the case for Agile by saying "...oh yeah BUT in the REAL WORLD..." I've spend the last 6 months helping my eldest daughter with her philisophy A2 Level and 50% of that seemed to be about deciding if the world we live in really exists or not. There are arguments that it's completely in our heads, that we rely on sensory data and make up a world to intepret it and that none of us really see the real world - it's a bit like watching a film.

That's exactly how a recent experience has been for me.  I feel I've been living in a surreal environment which is so far from the real world that I'm beginning to believe what all those philosophers were on about - it's just like watching a film.  Unfortunately not a comedy, although there have been moments, nor a action filled movie.  If I had to describe the style I would have said a bit like the Hammer Horror films of the 70's - unbeliveable storyline, no real purpose and a lack of anything that you can relate to real world thinking.

Let me expand.  Firstly they really think that they're Agile.  They have a Scrum Board, hold daily standups (ok they have 20 people attending and they take over 90 mins but they do stand up) and they consume vast quantities of post-it notes.  I've watched this board for the last three weeks.  Everyday they discuss progress but not one single post-it note has ever moved.  I actually checked to see if they were glued down.  They've never seen anyone from the business but they don't need to because they already know what the solution is.  One product owner dared to send a list of requirements and these were immediately put onto post-it notes and placed in the "blocked" column on the Scrum board - "At least it looks like we're working on those if Bob turns up one day".

Yesterday I sat in a meeting where the IS Programme Manager presented the plans for the next release which is happening in 10 weeks!  Actually he also presented what would be in the releases in Q1, Q2 & Q3 for 2012 as well.  So let's get this straight - Detailed plans for 2011& 2012, releases fixed 12 months in advance, scrums of 20+ people having one & half hour meetings every morning and a lack of customer involvement in development - but we're Agile?  I ran the first Agile Training sessions this week and everyone loved it.  Of course "it won't work in the real world..." was the general feeling.  "And what you're doing does?" I argued.  "Every project you have running is late & overbudget, customers are complaining about bug-filled software & threatening to leave and staff turnover reaching 40% per year".  Apparently that's the point - they're running Agile and it clearly doesn't work in the real world.

Sadly, I don't think I can convince them - they really believe that they've adopted Agile and they really believe they're living in the "real world".  It's a shame a because the business proposition they have is fantastic but they can't change their mindset sufficiently to deliver a solution to meet it. 

But I've accepted the challenge because reminds me of the story of the Prisoner & the King. 

Nasrudin was caught in the act and sentenced to die. Hauled up before the king, he was asked by the Royal Presence: "Is there any reason at all why I shouldn't have your head off right now?" To which he replied: "Oh, King, live forever! Know that I, the mullah Nasrudin, am the greatest teacher in your kingdom, and it would surely be a waste to kill such a great teacher. So skilled am I that I could even teach your favorite horse to sing, given a year to work on it." The king was amused, and said: "Very well then, you move into the stable immediately, and if the horse isn't singing a year from now, we'll think of something interesting to do with you."
As he was returning to his cell to pick up his spare rags, his cellmate remonstrated with him: "Now that was really stupid. You know you can't teach that horse to sing, no matter how long you try."
Nasrudin's response: "Not at all. I have a year now that I didn't have before. And a lot of things can happen in a year. The king might die. The horse might die. I might die.
"And, who knows? Maybe the horse will sing."

and just maybe I can convince them to become really Agile?