It’s a buzzword if you make it one

I saw this on LinkedIn a few years ago:

The bulk of my professional career has been spent working on software solutions for start-up companies. These projects typically (1) do not have established coding practices, (2) have tight timelines, and (3) have requirements that can change on a day-to-day basis.

With this in mind, I am always interested in learning about more effective approaches to software development. So my question is: “Is agile development yet another buzzword, or is there substance to this approach?”

Here’s how I responded:

Think about Agile as a means to get solid, well-tested software that is designed well, solves problems, and is amenable to change. You don’t need to have every coding standard determined up front–perhaps you’ll want to use an Agile process and mindset just to develop those standards–but your efforts will definitely fail if you think of Agile as a mess of shortcuts.

If it’s slapdash, it ain’t Agile. If it’s a shortcut, it ain’t Agile. Agile probably feels like the long way, actually, because you have to pay more attention as you go along.

Agile usually means less design up front in exchange for continuous design as the project evolves. The exchange part is important: there’s still no free lunch. But it’s not design-design-design-code-code-code. It’s design, code, design, code, design, code. (Or better still, it’s design, test, code, design, test, code…)

Your item #3 in particular (daily requirements changes) could point to managerial dysfunction, which makes Agile really hard; or it could point to a dynamic business model, which makes Agile incredibly useful. Or both. You may well find that a well-executed Agile development process draws attention to poor executive management. (Whoops.)

In answer to your question, though, Agility is definitely real. What’s not real is the idea that you can sprinkle Agile fairy dust on a hierarchical mess and everything is all better.

In fact, about the worst thing you can do is to impose Agile practices (such as daily standups, user stories, and sprints) without working the cultural changes that motivate them. For example, I’ve seen the daily standup used as a manager’s checkin and problem-solving session. That’s not a bad thing to do, but it’s not Agile because it makes one person the bottleneck, and it almost always becomes a scorecard situation rather a collaboration.

Likewise, the essence of the sprint (in Scrum) is that you use each one’s retrospective to inform the plans for the next one. The idea is to get rapid feedback from everyone and actually adjust to it. Which explained why I laffed out loud when overhearing a neighboring team’s project manager crow that “We’re really Agile! We have all our sprints planned for the next two years!” Sure, she got her Gantt chart filled out, but she precluded all meaningful input from the team.

Long story short: it’s real. But the key is to forget about the Agile practices and “tricks” you want to learn. Stop, pay attention to what your team is (overtly or covertly) asking for, and go about changing things in response to how your team really works. There are no buzzwords or shortcuts to it. You have to be willing to listen, to give up power, and in many cases to find out you are totally wrong.

If you’re up to that? Then it’s not a buzzword. But that’s up to you.

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Do you have a startup company that’s not yet all the way started up? Not quite done with the software tech product that defines you? Not sure how to finish it, or where to go next? Are you still stuck for a platform? Worried about funding? Afraid of making expensive mistakes?

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So you have this small business. You probably just started it. You’ve got a pretty good business plan, you’ve stashed some money to keep it going until it breaks even and can pay you, you’ve worked out health insurance and stuff… or maybe you’re keeping your day job and working a lot of nights and weekends to get it together. And it’s a cool idea: some product or service that people are definitely going to want to pay money for. It’s exciting and terrifying, because you don’t know what could go wrong, but you’re also a little apprehensive about how it will go right in the end.

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