5 Guidelines From Agile Modeling for Agile Best Practices

agile-modeling-guide-agile-best-practicesThroughout the life of project there are many potential pitfalls to implementing and practicing agile. As the agile principles and values are put into practice it’s important to take steps that keep the path of agile best practices for which you are looking to benefit from. The use of Agile Modeling is an excellent way to integrate agile principles and values that can complement almost any other agile methodology (i.e. Scrum, XP, etc.).

Agile Modeling components don’t all need to be implemented to make your project agile, however the more you can put in place with thought and importance in each project situation, can provide solid benefits over time. Most importantly, they provide a good framework to building an agile mindset, and integrate seamlessly in an ongoing agile project. The following is a short list of some components:

1 – Active Stakeholder Participation

As with any agile project, the best way to guarantee success is to make sure your stakeholders are involved at all times. The Product Owner usually is the voice of the stakeholders, and we would all hope that it is always that one person that could speak for many. The importance of “Active” is the key to success. There can be times where stakeholders come out from hiding and suddenly become a decisive voice (make or break) in the success of a project. Late stakeholders that become active at the end of a project open big risks as it is the most costly point at which to make changes to accommodate their expectations.

2 – Document Continuously and/or Document Late

Notice here that we mentioned “and/or,” as an approach to documenting your deliverables. It likely will depend on the type of solution and dependencies of functionalities between features as deliverables. That is to say, it’s always best to document continuously so that you don’t have to wait until the last-minute to remember which features were implemented in your solution. As expected in an agile iterative nature, you are looking to deliver a potentially shippable solution at the end of each sprint. This would require regular documentation revisions if the features were to change and evolve drastically over the course of numerous sprints.

Admittedly it sounds contradictory, but this is where it would be best to document late, since it would be less wasteful if you were to document your deliverable once all features were integrated as much as possible. Particular attention needs to be placed on the nature of the product and development. As in the case of software development, releases occur frequently, some major and some minor. Some consideration as to what will be major and minor can allow for less waste when it comes to documenting.

3 – Iteration Modeling

As the initial part of any iteration, we expect take some time for planning. Usually that time will vary from a half day to an entire day depending on the duration of your iteration/sprint. Iteration Modeling outlines the features and design of what is expected to be delivered by the end of the sprint. Some features may end up being developed in sub-parts over a number of sprints, as well as entire parts. The importance here, is to outline how modular some features may be to the rest of them. With that in place, it becomes much easier to prioritize a sprint backlog, which brings us to the next point.

4 – Prioritized Requirements

There are many factors that go into prioritizing requirements, but the one starting point to attaining this is to actually have a backlog (or list of work items) in the first place. In most cases this Sprint Backlog will come from a much larger list called the Product Backlog. As many practitioners soon find out, prioritizing is a key activity that requires identification of numerous factors such as: ROI, risks, stakeholder needs, functional dependencies, available resources, etc.

5 – Single Source Information

If there is one thing that can cause duplication is a highly bureaucratic and disorganized framework from which an organization is set up. Although seemingly simple, having one single source of information is a major challenge for an organization. Many will point to 1 wiki page as a source of information, whereas other departments try to set their own identities and create their own versions of information that gives them a sense of purpose. From an agile project approach, it is extremely important that all parties learn to use one source of information so that it is updated in 1 location to reduce redundancy and waste.

Many companies today, still strive to revise documents of the same content, but in different locations every time there’s update. Beyond just the internal operations, the complexity of multiple sources increases when working on a project where the client looks to use their own sources of project information in conjunction with that of the vendor’s information. In this scenario, duplication is not efficient and is highly wasteful throughout all organizations, as everyone struggles to find out which is the latest version of the code, documentation, template, etc.

More Agile Modeling Guidelines

From an Agile Modeling perspective there are many more components that make up the framework of agile best practices. The important factor to consider is that it will not be an overnight implementation, nor will it be an overnight success. It takes a considerable amount of time and resources to make an agile system work, but unfortunately, not many want to invest, and expect instant gratification. As history will show, even the concept of instant plug-and-play came with a series of bugs and fixes.

[Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]


 

Why Apply Agile Project Management Principles (part 2 of 2)

The following is Part 2 of the previous post regarding agile’s 12 guiding principles, and why they are important for agile project management. For Part 1, << click here >>.

7- Working software is the primary measure of progress.

why-apply-agile-project-management-principles-2-of-2Since we can’t use what isn’t finished, there should be no reason to consider it as “done” until it really is complete. In other project methodologies, specifically waterfall, we measure progress as an overall percentage and consider that percentage as a measure of completion. Working software is the only measure from which we are considering progress since what does not work, has no way of receiving ROI. It’s like giving someone credit for climbing a mountain at 90%, but they never reached the peak. Further to this principle, it also confirms that if something doesn’t work, why would you consider it complete in any way, when there is no real guarantee that it will ever work.

8- Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.

This principle calls out to respecting the human aspect of agile team work. To maintain and motivate an agile working team we need to consider balancing the cost of development to the cost of human quality of life. It therefore promotes a work-life balance as being the main consideration to sustainability of the long-term “constant pace.” We’ve all heard of burnouts and the detrimental effects they cause to sustainability. When considering sustainability, it’s not just about what can be profitable over time, but also considering people-conscious limits. Some companies don’t set limits or are afraid of telling their customers that they have limits on how long developers will do the work. They see it as a competitive advantage to have developers work long hours during the week or over the weekend. While it may seem advantageous in the short-run, it is not sustainable in the long run, as it will cause the team to burnout, get sick, or leave.

9- Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.

While it may be tempting to develop code, or product just once and give it a thumbs-up, it may not necessarily mean that it is optimal. This principle covers the need to always look into best practices before, during, and after the code or product has been developed. Even when reaching completion, there’s room to improve and update as necessary, and the iterative process or attempt to gain workflow automation in agile, allows for this to happen if and when needed. In software we can refactor the code so that it runs smoothly, however it doesn’t imply that the original code should have been done to the standard of “just enough” to get by. While developing an element of code or product, you need to design it with intent of how it will provide value for the end-user, since poor quality in the end will cause higher costs and time wasted throughout the product life cycle.

10- Simplicity (the art of maximizing the amount of work not done) is essential.

When developing products, we tend to get bogged down by how many features the end product will have. Knowing which features will be needed as a minimum viable product can be tougher than it seems. However this principle also looks at “amount of work not done.” It promotes the concept of working smarter not harder, since working harder doesn’t mean there will be any efficiency built into the agile solution. Being able to prioritize features is the key element to maximizing simplicity, as most customers fall for the illusion that a product with many features is a product with built-in value. However, what gets lost in that perception is that there is no value if 70% of the features won’t even be used by the end-user once it’s released. Being able to prioritize is certainly a hard-to-acquire skill and activity, but it is one of the essential pieces to building simplicity.

11- The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.

This principle leads straight to the agile team roles, and their ability to be “self-organizing.” This drives the idea that the best can come out of a team that is highly motivated, and has a high level of buy-in. When the architectures, requirements and designs come from the team closest to the product, you will likely get a better result than if they were imposed on the team from an external or top-down approach. It therefore leads to more a pull type approach from the team rather than a push type approach from upper management. The dynamics and results from a self-organizing team allows for the team to take ownership and pride in the product they will produce.

12- At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

Continuous improvement is something that resonates throughout an agile project. This agile project management principle calls out to the necessity of improving constantly and frequently with the mention of “regular intervals.” This of course implies that there is an iterative aspect to the tuning of becoming more effective, however it is not limited to just one period of time. The use of agile retrospective events is certainly the highlight of reflecting over ways to improve what happened in the previous sprint, but this principle also doesn’t limit it to just that. We could almost say that this principle should be carried on a daily basis, and with the agile team looking to find ways to “tune” themselves regularly. When looking at it from a waterfall vs agile perspective, we must consider that most waterfall projects only do this once in the project management life cycle and likely at the very end, when it’s already too late to do anything about it. Regular intervals for tuning and adjusting behavior makes it more pertinent and effective since it will be addressed throughout multiple sprints and it will allow a chance for the improved adjustment to be implemented.

[Source for Agile Manifesto Principles: Manifesto for Agile Software Development]
[Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]


 

5 Ways to Recondition a Waterfall Mindset to an Agile Mindset

5-ways-to-recondition-a-waterfall-mindset-to-an-agile-mindsetThe hardest part about attaining an agile mindset is undoing the beliefs and experiences of the past, especially if they were set over years and years of performing under a waterfall project methodology. Many would agree they had would have rather just started off with agile right from the start, instead of now realizing that experience must be undone. But like the expression says “better late than never.” Those who now have their eyes open to the benefits of adopting an agile mindset know there is no turning back. Or maybe that’s not as easy as it may seem. Undeniably, we are always influenced by our past experience and reprogramming our mindset to challenge our waterfall vs agile beliefs can come into play at any time.

Here are 5 ways you can recondition or progress toward an agile mindset:

1 – Keeping your priorities in check

If there is one thing that a waterfall methodology makes us lousy at is practicing our priorities. Since in waterfall we rely on a project plan with features set at the very beginning while expecting few changes later on, we lose the sense of why we are developing features later on that we no longer need. You may still see this in certain instances in agile project whereby the client still asks that all the original scope be delivered by the end of the timeline even when they may realize there no longer is any value to having some of those features. With an agile mindset all stakeholders would better understand that the project is a success as long as the prioritized features (not necessarily the entire product backlog) were developed within the agreed timeline.

2 – Knowing the difference between variable and fixed timeline

Referring to the previous point, in waterfall we agree on a timeline that we then may need to extend if there were any delays or unforeseen gaps that occurred. In agile we can fix the timeline if all stakeholders agree to priority of the features that they would like to have implemented. If all the top priority features are implemented by the end of previously determined set of sprints, it very likely will not need to have the timeline extended. That would also allow everyone to walk away with confidence knowing that the most important features were implemented. This basically means you need to adopt the concept of a fixed timeline and variable scope from an agile mindset, vs the fixed scope and variable timeline concept from a waterfall mindset.

3 – Avoid mixing project Gantt charts with Sprint and Kanban boards

Some of us might be tempted to report to many stakeholders and provide multiple types of reports in general. This could be internal auditors, PMO, upper management, etc. What you need everyone to realize is that there is no need to report in so many ways. In waterfall methodologies we tend to use “unlean” processes that give rise to the tendency to send a different report to each stakeholder in the hopes that everyone is reading them thoroughly. The truth is, some of these reports may be so complex, that most will look at them without a critical eye, only to be surprised that the report had raised many risks that surfaced. This is where having an agile mindset would come in handy. Mostly all stakeholders including the agile team are concerned about progress and the rate of progress. Keeping it simple with the use of Kanban or Sprint boards, and providing easy to read information radiators like Burndown, Burnup, or Cumulative flow diagrams will give a quick and informative idea on where it all stands.

4 – Dedicate yourself to agile training in all forms

We should not just learn about agile methodologies and claim we know all there is to know. Agile working tools evolve over time and it’s important to keep your ear to the ground on what the latest developments and ideas are from the industry experts and peers. Simply having a discussion with colleagues that have similar interests in agile implementation is a start. But as you would notice there are many other means to sharpening your agile mindset and agile tools. Participating in regular industry forums, conferences, agile training courses and annual tours can be highly beneficial and open your eyes to some concepts that were not previously discovered. Also picking up some books on agile, and reading a few from time to time will make sure you are feeding your way to improving your day-to-day ideas on how to promote and implement agile in your immediate work environments. Finally the scrum master role should be well instated, at some times with the help of agile business coach on board with your team. The agile coach in particular can gauge and see what can help improve what may already be in place, and furthermore stimulate ideas and get everyone elevated to an agile mindset.

5 – Keep asking yourself why certain processes and values have been adopted into the agile methodology

There are some in the industry that have a skewed idea of agile. Mainly because it’s something they may have heard someone else talk about and it just may seem to be a common buzzword. Those with a waterfall mindset may just think agile is a process, and will treat it as such. This will give rise to even more issues, as they may try to put sprints into place, and not really knowing why they are used in the first place. For instance, they might not actually believe in delivering anything beginning with the first sprint, although technically that should be possible. Also the duration of the sprint should be determined on how risky or how much change in the priority of the backlog items you expect to have. The main point here is to always be asking why certain processes exist and why they would be beneficial to the overall methodology. The other side of the coin is that some will implement agile in an environment where it isn’t even necessary, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Bringing these tips into consideration will help alleviate the built-in or innate experience that many of us have, especially if coming from a waterfall mindset. Also to be considered, is that nobody can switch on to an agile mindset overnight by reading an agile book or attending an agile conference. However, continuous learning, coaching and mentoring agility will certainly build on it.

[Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]


How to Manage Epics as an Agile Tool in Planning

how-to-manage-epics-as-an-agile-tool-in-planningAs part of a large project, you may have a complex product to develop. Whether for intangible (software, games) or tangible (hardware, electronics), there is a need to structure your backlog by level of complexity and size. Although we typically do not go so far as creating Epics in all agile instances, they can prove to be a handy agile tool if created and used in an organized fashion.

The idea behind Epics are to create a sense of commonality between multiple user stories. It is important at this stage to be sure your agile team members are not using the terms for Epics interchangeably with other terms that could drive confusion in day-to-day communication. But along with this defined approach, all team roles (product owners, business analysts, scrum masters, developers, etc) should think of Epics structures and how they will be used going forward. Here we look at Epic examples in hierarchies for Features, Themes or Requirements.

Features in Epic Hierarchies

One way to look at an Epic is to identify it as the high-level feature. As an example we are referring to the physical features of a landing page on a website. It would have a header, footer, content, images, media, etc. With that you can further breakdown the characteristics with user stories, and then tasks to look like the following:

Epic(Feature) —> User Story —> Task(s)
Example: Header —> As user, I would be able to use a search bar to search the site content… —> Investigate Search Bar functionality

Themes in Epic Hierarchies

Epic —> Theme —> User Story —> Task(s)
Example: Landing Page —> Page Structure —-> As a user, I would see 3 columns… —> Create left column, Create right column, Create center column

Requirements in Epic Hierarchies

If you were developing a series of websites for instance, you would need to repeat a set of requirements for each website. In this case you would likely re-use the requirements as you start each website, and then vary those features. The following example would facilitate re-use of the requirements from one website to the next.

Epic(Requirement) —> Feature —> User Story —> Task(s)
Example: Website Landing Page —> Website Page Navigation —> As a user, I will be able to navigate to all site pages from the landing page… —> Create Navigation Bar

There is no definite way to use Epics, these are simply examples. The variations can be infinite and can vary from team to team, project to project, or product to product. But as we know that Epics are typically large user stories, and represent a level above the user story. One thing that needs to remain stable is that the agile team must agree to structure that makes sense for them.

Using Epics to Stay Organized

Using Epics as an agile tool to organize the stories, can enable easier overview of the different product components (features/requirements/themes). As the sprint backlog can list tasks to be developed by multiple agile working teams on different features at the same time, the overview of each Epic can help the Product Owner prioritize stories and interlinking dependencies with each other.

Another useful setup that helps in the structuring of swimlanes for your Sprint/Kankan boards is to have them created according to your Epics. This makes the horizontal divisions clear on the common groupings. It also adds another dimension to manage on your board, but it certainly would be helpful in larger sized projects.

The most important part in creating structures, is to keep it simple. If there is too much team discussion and confusion where everyone is lost in managing the structure, it means that it’s not simple or clear enough. Of course, if all else fails, keep in mind that Epics are not essential. If your team doesn’t see a need for them to exist in your agile product management scheme, just leave them out, as they might not be required due to your project not being as large or complex as originally thought.

[Image courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]


How to Prioritize Backlogs with Agile Teams

When we look at a long list of tasks to complete, we sometimes lose focus on deciding which ones really matter with regard to any specific criteria that would give us the intended outcome. The simple answer is to say that everything on the list is urgent and important, but it isn’t always true. Sometimes level of importance changes with time and it is for that reason (or at least one them), that we have separate backlogs for each sprint in an Agile project. There’s a list of tools that we can use in Agile that would allow us to sort it out, however we need to change our mindset first before we go there.

How do we know what needs to get done first?

When we look at all features we would like to build into our product, we tend to get an indefinite sense of their importance. Common thinking will naturally lead everyone to say that everything in that backlog will need to be done. It may be true, but as we know there are factors to consider before giving all items in a list a high priority. The other issue is that most of us think we know what we want, but then are influenced by factors that are not necessarily our own. From a business stance, we may be acting on behalf of another group of stakeholders, so outside influence might be a consideration to some extent. In certain cases, where there is very little known about a product we are about to develop, an event called an Agile Spike used to elaborate and analyze the feasibility of a suggested product.

Can We Determine the Difference Between Urgent and Important?

prioritize-backlogs-agile-teamsThe first, but often skipped step in prioritizing agile solutions, is to create backlogs with an order based on a fixed set of criteria. Even then, we tend to group items that are urgent and important into the same batch. If we look at the list during agile planning and think in terms of reducing risk, we may be able to get a clearer idea of which items we need to address first. Also keep in mind that risk and value have an inverse relationship, wherein if we reduce risk, we are also increasing value. To think of this in other terms, if we had a usable product that was absolutely risk-free after purchase, we would certainly value it more than it’s risk-prone alternatives.

The second way to look at prioritizing our feature list of items is by looking at potential return on investment (ROI) especially as part of agile release planning. When we get a feature that resolves the majority of risk, but also gives us a monetary return, it should be included as part of a strategic agile product management plan that increases potential for profitability and long-term sustainability. Hence by prioritizing we give ourselves the benefit of continued growth to the business.

Lastly, we can look at what to prioritize from the current market outlook. This would either be in regard to latest or upcoming technologies, purchasing trends, expert insight, demographics, etc. If we anticipate that there are certain events that will take place in the near future, we can give priority to our backlog items.

Recommended Tools:

MoSCoW method, High-Medium-Low, 1-2-3-4-5, Priority-Impact Matrix, Action-Priority Matrix, NPV.

How do we narrow it down?

As always, agile processes are constantly evolving and this is where regular agile courses and agile consulting can add value to your entire organization. There are numerous ways we can prioritize a backlog and structure the thought process. The main point to consider is that we should not base it on a random set of criteria, but rather a more decisive one in which an agile working team can have a fixed set that is used throughout prioritization activities. Your criteria should resonate with overall business goals and targets. The key is to avoid making it overly tedious try to establish the activity as an agile games session (i.e. planning poker), and establish a set of 3 to 4 criteria that everyone agrees on that would facilitate prioritization and make your efforts worthwhile.

[Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]