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Disciplined Agile

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This blog contains details about various aspects of PMI's Disciplined Agile (DA) tool kit, including new and upcoming topics.

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How to Choose an Agile Release Cadence

Metronome

One of the things that a delivery team needs to do, often in collaboration with product management, is choose the release cadence of their product. This is an important aspect of, you guessed it, release planning.  Your release cadence defines how often you release your solution both internally and externally into production (or the marketplace). The issue is how to determine how often the product should be released into production. In this blog we explore:

  1. Where are you deploying to?
  2. What affects release cadence?
  3. What release cadence choices do you have?
  4. What do we recommend?

 

Where Are You Deploying?

There are several target environments that you might choose to deploy to. These environments include:

  1. Demo environment(s). Many teams maintain a demo environment for their solution so that their stakeholders can see what has been developed to date at their leisure. Demo environments support transparency with your stakeholders, reduce the number of “one-off” requests by stakeholders for demos (because they can simply see the solution for themselves), and of course they provide a stable environment in which your teams can run demos.
  2. Testing environment(s). Many teams have their own testing environments, or they work with independent test teams with their own testing environments, or both. You should strive to test as often and early as possible, an implication being that want to deploy into your test environment(s) as often as you possibly can.
  3. Production/marketplace. Some teams will release their solutions into their production environments (or to someone else’s cloud) where end users will use the systems. In the case of commercial software companies they will release their solutions into the marketplace where they are then sold to customers. Throughout this blog whenever we use the term production we also mean the marketplace.

For the sake of terminology, deploying into demo or testing environments are often referred to as internal releases and into production as an external release.

 

What Affects Release Cadence?

There are several factors that affect the choice of release cadence:

  1. Stakeholder needs. How often do your stakeholders, and in particular your end users, want your solution to be released? This can be a difficult issue because very often your stakeholders might not be able to perceive what is appropriate for them. We’ve seen stakeholders ask for quarterly releases, be delighted when then get monthly releases, and then start asking for weekly releases once they realize the potential of modern agile strategies.
  2. Stakeholder capability to accept change. We like to think that more often is better, and in the vast majority of situations it is. As difficult to believe as this may seem, at the far extreme we’ve also seen some systems where the natural release cadence is once every three or four years because that’s the rate at which stakeholders are able to accept change. In this case the product was a transaction processing (TP) system infrastructure product, but we’ve heard similar stories about major database management systems (DBMSs) products too. Granted, a release cadence this long is very rare but it does happen in a small number of situations. Far more common is the mistaken belief by IT professionals that their stakeholders are unwilling or unable to accept shorter release cycles. We’ve seen numerous organizations where the IT people tell us that their stakeholders can’t handle anything more regular than a quarterly or bi-annual release, yet these same stakeholders regularly use commercial software that is updated several times a week.
  3. Your organizational culture. Some organizations, particularly those with an existing traditional release management team, often have release cultures that lean towards larger and less frequent releases. These organizations often have significant investments in legacy systems and insufficient investments in automated regression tests/checks. As a result releasing solutions into production tend to be seen as a risky endeavour. At the other extreme we’ve seen companies with more of a continuous delivery mindset that have a “release as swiftly and often as you can” culture. These organizations have typically invested heavily in code quality, automated regression testing, and automated deployment thus making deployment a simple and virtually risk-free effort.
  4. The team’s ability to deliver. Of course a primary determinant of your release cadence will be how often you’re able to actually produce a potentially consumable solution. This is affected by the skills of your team members, your ability to collaborate, your ability to vertically slice functionality into small features, and your delivery infrastructure.
  5. Your delivery infrastructure. How easy it is to release a potentially consumable solution into production is determined in part by your technical environment. This includes the extent of your automated regression tests, your automated deployment scripts, and your capability to monitor production. In general, the greater the level of automation the more often you can release.
  6. Your solution architecture. Is your solution architected to be released incrementally? Is it possible to enable/disable functionality at a granular level (perhaps via feature toggles or a similar technique)?
  7. The cost/risk to release.   Cost and risk tend to go hand-in-hand when it comes to releasing solutions into production. This is because the more manual your release/deployment processes the more expensive they become and the more likely there are to be problems somewhere in the process. Conversely, the more you automate the overall deployment effort the cheaper it is to deploy and the less risky it becomes as you’re more likely to run into, and then automate a solution to, deployment problems. The less expensive and less risky it is to release your solution the more viable it becomes to release more often.
  8. Release cadence of other teams. Like it or not your team is likely dependent on the work of other teams. For example you may need web services being built by another team, and you can’t fully release your solution until those web services are available in production.  We’ve written detailed articles about how to manage dependencies between agile/lean and traditional teamsdependencies between agile teams, and dependencies between agile and lean teams.

 

Release Cadence Choices

Table 1 lists many common release cadences, from more than annual to several times a day. It also lists the potential tradeoffs of each approach and indicates when you may want to adopt each one.

Table 1. Comparing external release cadence options.

Strategy Potential Advantages Potential Disadvantages When to Apply
Many times a day Enables very short time to market

 

Enables teams to adapt quickly to changing stakeholder needs

Enables granular release of functionality

Requires extensive continuous integration (CI) and continuous deployment (CD) automation

 

Requires high discipline to maintain quality

Your solution architecture must support toggling of features to enable deployment of larger functions as a collection of smaller features

Effective for high-use systems, particularly those used by external customers in highly-competitive environments
Daily Same as above

 

Provides a regular (daily) release cadence that is predictable

Same as above Same as above
Weekly Provides a regular (weekly) release cadence that is predictable

 

Enables quick time to market and responsiveness to changing needs

Same as above Effective for high-use solutions, particularly e-commerce or BI/reporting systems

 

Appropriate for teams following the Lean lifecycle

Monthly Provides a regular (monthly) release cadence that is predictable

 

Enables quick time to market and responsiveness to changing needs

Requires extensive continuous integration (CI) and continuous deployment (CD) automation

 

Requires high discipline to maintain quality

Effective for medium-priority solutions

 

Appropriate for teams following the Agile/Basic lifecycle with one-week iterations or the Lean lifecycle

Quarterly Provides a regular (quarterly) release cadence that is predictable

 

Enables quick time to market and responsiveness to changing needs

Enables simpler requirements management practices (compared with longer release cadences) due to lower impact of a feature moving to the next release

This is a major milestone for teams moving towards an “advanced” lean-agile strategy as it motivates greater discipline.

Requires continuous integration (CI)

 

Requires automated deployment strategies

Effective for medium-priority solutions

 

Appropriate for teams following the Agile/Basic lifecycle with one or two week iterations

Variable Works well with a project mindset (although that’s questionable in and of itself) Teams need to be able to judge when their work reaches the minimally marketable release (MMR) stage and the business value added exceeds cost of transition. This decision point is captured in the DAD project lifecycles by the “sufficient functionality” milestone

 

Politics can hamper this decision point. You should put an upper limit on the acceptable time between release

Project teams

 

Stable teams assigned large “projects”

Bi-annual Good starting point for teams new to agile who are currently working on traditional projects with longer release cadences because it motivates adoption of disciplined strategies Can be difficult for stakeholders who are used to less frequent releases The team may need significant agile coaching as they will run into many of the “but we’re different and that agile stuff can’t possibly work here” type of problems
Annual Provides a regular (annual) release cadence that is predictable

 

 

Very risky, the team is likely to miss their date

 

Requires internal releases to obtain feedback

The deployment has likely become high risk because you do it so infrequently (self fulfilling problem)

Appropriate for low priority systems or for high-risk deployments (note that the deployments may have become high-risk because you do them so infrequently)
More than annual   See annual

 

 

See annual

 

This is common for infrastructure systems, such as a database or transaction managers, that have many other systems highly dependent upon them

 

Our Recommendations

When it comes to releasing your solution, we have several recommendations for you to consider:

  1. Automate, automate, automate. The more you have automated, the lower the cost of deployment and the lower the risk. This enables you to release more often with confidence.
  2. Release internally very often. This is your opportunity to get good at releasing your solution, at squeezing out the cost and the risk.
  3. Release externally as often as possible. The faster and more often you can release into production the more competitive your organization will be.
  4. Always look for ways to release more often. Impressed with your ability to release once a month? Aim for bi-weekly. You’ve now releasing bi-weekly? What’s stopping you from releasing weekly? Weekly releases? Meh! Release daily! Your team is releasing daily grandpa? How about automatically releasing many times a day every time you have a working build?

 

Further Reading

Posted by Scott Ambler on: August 19, 2016 07:59 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Put Practices in Context: #NoBestPractices

There is no such thing as a “best practice”, except perhaps from a marketing point of view.  All practices (and strategies) are contextual in nature.  In some situations a practice works incredibly well and it other situations a practice can be the kiss-of-death.  Two of the philosophies behind the Disciplined Agile (DA) tool kit are that choice is good and that you should understand the trade-offs of the options available to you.  In short, practices are contextual in nature and you should strive to adopt the ones that work best for the situation that you find yourself in.

Let’s work through an example.  A hot button for many people are strategies around cost estimation, typically used for budgeting and forecasting purposes.  In DAD initial estimation is addressed by the Plan the Release process goal, the goal diagram for which is shown below.  As you can see with the Estimating Strategy factor there are several options available to you.  We’re not saying that these are all of the potential estimating options available, but we are saying that this is a fairly good representative range.  The arrow on the left-hand side of the strategies list indicates that the strategies towards the top of the list are generally more effective for initial planning than the strategies towards the bottom of the list.  Your mileage may vary of course.

Plan the Release process goal

The following table summarizes the trade-offs involved with two of the estimating strategies, in the case formal point counting (such as function points) and an educated guess by an experienced individual.  One of the reasons why Choose Your WoW! is so thick is that much of it is tables like this communicating the trade-offs of the hundreds of practices and strategies encapsulated by the toolkit.  As you can see, there are advantages and disadvantages to both strategies.  You can also see that there are situations where each strategy potentially makes sense.  Although you may not like a given strategy, I personally abhor formal point counting, you should still respect the fact that the strategy is viable in certain situations (perhaps not yours).

 

Strategy Advantages Disadvantages Considerations
Formal point counting
  • Fulfills contractual obligations in some situations – for example, the US Government often requires function-point based estimates.
  • Provides a consistent way to compare projects and team productivity.
  • Often increases the political acceptability of the estimate due to the complexity of the effort to create it.
  • Greatly extends the Inception phase effort.
  • Provides a scientific façade over the estimation activity, even though estimation is often more of an art in practice.
  • Reduces team acceptance of the estimate because the estimate is typically produced by a professional estimator.
  • Historical data won’t exist for new technology platforms or development techniques, requiring you to guess the value of some complexity factors.
  • Provides a mechanism to compare the productivity of development teams, which can motivate them to over estimate and thereby decrease comparability and the value of your historical database.
  • Total cost of ownership (TCO) is very high as it motivates questionable specification practices, which in turn motivate change prevention and other poor behaviors by the development team.
  • Overly long estimation efforts in an effort to get the “right answer” often prove to be far more costly than the actual benefit provided.
  • Beware of misguided desires for “accurate” or “consistent” estimates which prove costly to produce in practice yet don’t improve the decision making ability of senior management to any great extent
Educated guess by experienced individual
  • Very quick and inexpensive way to get a reasonable estimate.
  • Requires that you have an experienced person involved with your project (if you don’t, then you should consider this a serious risk).
  • Explicitly reveals to stakeholders that estimating is often more art than science.
  • Some stakeholders may be uncomfortable with the fact that you’re guessing.
  • Beware of estimates by people who are inexperienced with the platform or domain or who do not know the abilities of team.

 

There are several reasons why DAD’s goal-driven approach is important:

  1. It makes your choices explicit.  If your team wants to truly own your process then it first needs to know what choices are available to it.
  2. It makes it clear that practices are contextual in nature.  No practice is perfect for all situations, every single one has advantages and disadvantages.  Are you choosing the ones that are most appropriate for your situation?
  3. You can have more coherent discussions of the trade-offs that you’re making.  We have endless religious battles in the IT industry around process-related topics.  This often happens because people choose to focus on the benefits of their favorite practices and to downplay the disadvantages (or worse yet are oblivious to them).  To help your team move to more effective practices it’s important to recognize the trade-offs involved with each, to then discuss them rationally, and then decide to adopt the strategy that is most viable given your situation.  Note that this doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to adopt the best practice from the start, but that instead you’ll adopt the best one that you can right now.  Later on, perhaps as the result of a retrospective, you’ll decide to make improvements to your approach (in the case of process factors where the strategies are ranked by effectiveness, your team may choose to adopt a strategy higher in the list).
  4. Improves the effectiveness of retrospectives.  During a retrospective it is fairly straightforward to identify potential problems that you’re facing, what isn’t as easy is identifying potential solutions.  You can improve retrospectives by having these process goal diagrams available to you to suggest potential strategies that you should considering adopting.
  5. You can avoid reinventing existing practices.  Many very smart and very experienced people have found ways to deal with the same challenges that you’re facing today.  Furthermore, many of them have shared these strategies publicly.  If you don’t know that these strategies exist you are at risk of wasting time reinventing them, time that could be better spent adding real value to your organization.
  6. It enables scaling.  Teams in different situation will make different process decisions.  Although teams at scale, perhaps they are large teams or geographically distributed, will follow many of the same practices as small co-located teams they will also adopt a few strategies that make sense for them given their situation.   DAD’s process goals provide the insight that teams need to understand how they can address the challenges associated with the scaling factors that they face.

For a more detailed discussion about the challenges around “best practices”, you may find the article Questioning Best Practices to be an interesting read. 

Posted by Scott Ambler on: March 05, 2015 05:16 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)
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