Thursday, 23 May 2013

Agile, visions and nightmares...

An Old English Proverb states that:

A vision without a plan is just a dream, a plan without a dream is an hallucination but a vision with a plan can change the world

Sounds good but it doesn't work for me - not in the Agile world at least. So looking at the situation in front of me I think I prefer the Japanese version of the same idea:
Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare
We often think of a vision as being a lofty view of what we want to achieve in the far distance.  Something that's nice to have but in reality a soft, fluffy concept that doesn't really impact the actual plan and work that we're doing right now.

In my normal day to day activities I don't feel a great desire to plan everything I do.  It's not because I don't like planning, given my skills in DIY I'll do anything to put off the inevitable need to actually "do something".  It's just that I seem to do better if I work on a more general direction that I want to take and then get started by doing the obvious things first.

Yes it's true that sometimes I do work that I didn't need to do or I have to rework something that I got wrong.  However, after 30 years of experience I generally find that what I gain by getting on with things easily balances what I lose from thinking about something too much.  

Dwight D. Eisenhower is often quoted as observing:
Plans are nothing; planning is everything 
which seems to be in conflict with Tennessee Williams's quote that: 
Success is blocked by concentrating on it and planning for it... Success is shy - it won't come out while you're watching
But I don't think that it is.  Eisenhower was simply saying that the act of planning makes us more aware of what we want to do and brings together those people who are going to have to deliver it.  Williams was warning us not to take planning so far that the reason for the plan is lost.

Visions should be a simple set of guidelines that enable us to make simple decisions on what we should be doing today.  Simply put, we shouldn't be doing anything in our agile delivery unless it's taking us nearer to our vision.  More importantly, we shouldn't be doing anything that takes us in a different direction.

Too much planning constraints innovation and make it harder for us to adapt.  I coach a local Rugby Team as a SCRUM Coach.  I know - the irony doesn't escape me.  Every week we teach new skills and new ideas.  Successful rugby teams are not those that have hundreds of set pieces that they bring into play.  In training, my team scores a try everything they run the ball - in matches they don't.

Does that mean the set pieces are wrong?  No it's simply that a set of detailed strict plans leaves no space to change direction when the situation changes.  In order to win, the team must be able to adapt their plans as a single entity merging, simplifying or adding new rules as the situation demands.

So that's now not the way we train.  We have some simple visions, or guidelines, that govern each situation.  We teach the basic skills; passing, tackling, scrumming, throw ins and kicking. We teach base moves; loops, high kicks, missed passes and rushing.  We then look at various rugby scenarios as a team.  We ask the team to decide how they react in each situation and then to list what other options they could use given the limited set of skills that they have in their arsenal.  This is similar to the "futurespectives" I discussed in my last blog.

We also do this directly after the matches.  Reviewing actual videos of the play and deciding what actions we're going to take forward into the next training session and match.  These debriefing sessions (or retrospectives) are the most effective way we've found to improve performance.

So we are planning, we're just not actually drawing up actual plans.

That's the fundamental foundation of agile.  We don't know exactly what we're  going to deliver at the outset or even how we're going to deliver it.  We need guidelines & a vision to tell us if we're doing the right things.  There are some basic skills & base moves at our disposal but the team review & commit to a given course of action having reviewed all of the possible solutions and optimizing their approach based on the most immediate information to hand - i.e. they've learnt to adapt.

But my current client is still struggling with the concepts.  Apparently although we want to be Agile we want to lay down the plan in advance so that we know the answer before we start.  The problem is that this assumes that there is only one viable solution when we all know that there are many solutions to the same problem.  Admittedly, some of these plans are more viable than others but why start off assuming that there is only one road to success at the outset and limiting your possibilities.

This week may have been a turning point though.  Four months in the planning and their implementation plans A through D were all shot to nothing.  Deadlines can't change, costs can't change and we don't have time to sit and plan it all out again.

So we laid out our vision - this must be operational by 3rd September 2013

We've taken the bull by the horns and  we've been looking at our backlog of activities.  We simply prioritized them in terms of this vision and started on the ones that took us closer to the destination while eliminating those that didn't.  

Result?  We've reduced the scope of the project by 25%, brought the project delivery back on track and gained a very satisfied customer.  More importantly they've agreed that planning everything in advance gave us a false sense of security and nearly sunk our project.

So we solved the problem by being more Agile.  Having a clear vision that we all know & understand, evaluating value based on increasing probability of achieving what we've set out to achieve and not looking too far down the road (3 months in a 24 month project) we've regained control of the benefits & project delivery.  By starting activities and worrying about how we'll "join up the dots" at a later date we're already making great strides.  We know we will be able to "join up these dots" because there all founded on the same clear, unambiguous vision.  Anyway, half the fun is seeing how it all turns out and fixing problems as we reach them.

So the next time you feel tempted to start a protracted planning review remember that you'll gain more from setting a clear vision and getting on with it...  


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