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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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Scott Ambler
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Guided Continuous Improvement (GCI) article is now online

While working with organizations to help them to learn how to improve their way of working (WoW), we’ve developed a technique that we call guided continuous improvement (GCI).  Adopting an agile method such as Scrum, or a framework such as SAFe, may give you an initial start at improving your WoW you will quickly find yourself in “method prison.” The organizations that break out of method prison do so with a kaizen-based continuous improvement approach, or better yet GCI.

First, some definitions:

  • A kaizen loop is an approach where a team experiments with a small change in their WoW, adopting the change if it works in their given context and abandoning it if it doesn’t.
  • Continuous improvement is the act of applying a series of kaizen loops to improve your WoW over time.
  • Guided continuous improvement (GCI) extends the kaizen loop strategy to use proven guidance to help teams identify techniques that are likely to work in their context.  This increases the percentage of successful experiments and thereby increases the overall rate of process improvement.

In the article we go into the details of the technique, exploring:

  • Why every team is unique
  • Why agile methods/frameworks will only get you so far
  • How to apply a kaizen-based improvement strategy
  • How to improve kaizen loops with the DA toolkit
  • How to break out of “method prison”

We hope you find the article to be a game changer for your agile adoption efforts.

Posted by Scott Ambler on: April 26, 2019 06:19 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Evolving Your Agile Way of Working (WoW)

Butterfly emerges

Choosing your way of working (WoW) isn’t just a one-time event, instead it is an ongoing effort.  Figure 1 shows the workflow for choosing and then evolving your WoW.  In our previous blog, Choosing Your Initial Way of Working (WoW), we worked through the left-hand side of Figure 1.  In this blog we explore how a team evolves their WoW via a series of experiments, hopefully ones that are guided by the Disciplined Agile (DA) toolkit.

Figure 1. The workflow for choosing and evolving your WoW.

Tailoring and Evolving Your WoW

As you can see in Figure 1, evolving your WoW is a two-step process at a high-level.  First, you identify that you have a potential issue with your current WoW and second you experiment with one or more potential improvements that you believe will address the issue that you’ve identified.  And of course you repeat this strategy whenever needed.

Identify Potential Process Issue

There are various ways that a team can identify a potential process issue:

  1. Retrospectives. Retrospectives are a strategy for a team to reflect upon what is working well for them and what isn’t working so well. Some teams, particularly agile ones, will choose to hold a retrospective at the end of each iteration/sprint whereas lean teams tend to hold them on an as needed basis.  Regardless, one of the outputs of such a working session is a list of one or more potential issues the team wants to address.
  2. Someone recognizes there’s an issue. Sometimes it’s as simple as someone saying “Hey, I think that X is a problem. Is there anything we can do about it?”
  3. Someone from outside the team points it out. It can also be as simple as someone from outside of the team – one of your stakeholders, a colleague on another team, a leader within your organization, or others – identifying a potential issue.

The point is that there are multiple ways that potential issues are identified.  So what are you going to do about them?

Experiment with Potential Improvement(s)

For any process issues that you believe you can address, the next step is to experiment with one or more potential solutions. Experiment?  What?!?!?!?!  That’s right, experiment. Any given practice works well in some situations but not in others.  Just because a technique worked well for another team, maybe even one that you’ve worked on in the past, that doesn’t mean that it will work well for your team in the context of the situation that you currently face. There is no such thing as a best practice, regardless of the endless marketing you may have heard telling you otherwise.

What you need to do as a team is to identify ways that you can potentially address an issue, narrow down your options, and see how well a given technique works for you by trying it out in practice.  In other words, you need to run an experiment.  Figure 2 depicts a continuous improvement loop, also known as a “kaizen loop,” where you choose a technique to experiment with, you try it for a sufficient amount of time to determine whether it works for you, and then you decide what aspects of the technique (if any) you should keep and which you should abandon.  And if you’re enterprise aware your team will share your learnings with others.  Guided continuous improvement takes this one step further by employing the DA toolkit to help identify potential new WoW for you to experiment with that is more likely to work for you, thereby increasing your team’s rate of improvement.  Better decisions lead to better outcomes.

Figure 2. Guided continuous improvement.

Experiment to evolve your WoW

An Example

Let’s consider an example.  We’ve been working together as a team for several months, have released the initial version of our solution into production, and have been working on our next release for about a month.  Our Team Lead has informed us that we’ve coming to the end of the funding for the team.  When we formed the team we received funding for a 6-month project, following our company’s fixed cost approach to funding solution delivery teams.  Our team expanded in size so that we could become a complete, whole team, and a side effect of that is that after a bit more than 4 months we’ve run out of money.  This is a problem that the team needs to address.

Terry, our Team Lead, gathers the team to work through the issue.  The first thing we do is discuss whether this is an issue that we can even influence.  The Team Lead believes that we can because our organization’s leadership is very happy with our work and can see the value in the product that we’re working on.  Because they have been receiving advice from an Executive Agile Coach they are beginning to realize that the way that they fund teams needs to evolve. Terry believes that our team is in a position to suggest, and then experiment with, a new approach to funding.

As a team we discuss what we need to do, realizing that there are really two issues commingled here: First, we’re funding a project, not the actual team.  Second, we’re taking a fixed-price approach. Carlos, our Agile Coach, suggests that we review the options captured by the Secure Funding process goal, the goal diagram for which is shown in Figure 3. It indicates that both project-based funding and fixed-price funding are the least effective options for agile teams, and more importantly it also indicates that there are better options available to us.  We look up the trade-offs associated with the options in our copies of Choose Your WoW! and after a bit of heated discussion agree that we should suggest to our management team that we adopt a stage-gate funding strategy for a product (long-lived) team.  Several of us wanted to push for a time-and-materials (T&M) approach, but we felt that would be a future improvement that we could experiment with once we’re successful with stage-gate funding.

Figure 3. The Secure Funding process goal diagram.

Secure Funding process goal

Terry, with the support of Polly (our Product Owner), manages to convince our senior managers to experiment with a new approach to financing.  Terry and Polly were able to describe the trade-offs associated with both the existing approach to funding and their suggested new approach. Interestingly, their suggestion was whole-heartedly supported by Florinda our finance officer.  She’s been concerned for several years about the way that IT projects have been funded, and is eager to move from a cost-based funding model towards one focused on investing our company’s money wisely. Our team was given the go-ahead to try the new funding strategy.

Sure enough, we run the experiment with stage-gate funding of a product team and it works well.  Our “stages” were three months in length, and after two rounds of such funding we successfully experimented with a T&M approach as we’d originally hoped.

Posted by Scott Ambler on: February 14, 2019 11:10 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Choosing Your Initial Way of Working (WoW)

Small number of choices

A fundamental philosophy of agile is that teams should be allowed to own their process, to choose their way of working (WoW). In Disciplined Agile (DA) we take it one step further with the idea that teams should not only be allowed to choose their WoW, they should be supported and enabled in doing so.  In other words, let’s help teams to be awesome.

Figure 1 depicts the workflow for how a team can choose and then evolve their WoW. The workflow shows four key activities that a team will iteratively work through as they need. In this blog we focus on initially choosing your team’s WoW.

Figure 1. The workflow for choosing and evolving your WoW (click to enlarge).

Tailoring and Evolving Your WoW

When adopting your initial WoW, the first thing to do is to identify whether you team is allowed to choose its WoW or whether one has been chosen for them. Let’s start by exploring how you would proceed if you’re allowed to choose your own WoW.

Tailoring Your Initial WoW

When a team is allowed to choose its own WoW the first step is to select the appropriate lifecycle given the situation faced by the team. Lifecycles, in some ways, are “methods” in that they show the high-level workflow for a team. They are the glue that combines detailed techniques/practices into a coherent whole (more on this below). Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD) supports several lifecycles:

  1. Agile. A Scrum-based project lifecycle.
  2. Lean. A Kanban-based project lifecycle.
  3. Continuous Delivery: Agile. A Scrum-based lifecycle for long-standing product teams.
  4. Continuous Delivery: Lean. A Kanban-based lifecycle for long-standing product teams.
  5. Exploratory. An experimentation-based lifecycle, based on Lean Startup, for exploring marketplace needs.
  6. Program. A lifecycle for a large “team of teams.”

Although the focus of DA is on agile and lean ways of working, DA recognizes that in some cases you may still decide to adopt a waterfall/serial lifecycle. DA doesn’t explicitly support waterfall, but as you can see in Figure 2 we do recognize that in very low-risk situations a traditional approach makes sense.

Figure 2. A flowchart summarizing how to choose a lifecycle (click to enlarge).

Selecting an agile lifecycle

Your lifecycle will of course evolve, either incrementally via normal evolution of your WoW or because your team explicitly decides to adopt a different one (once they’ve learned more about themselves as a team).

Once your team has chosen an initial lifecycle, the next is to select the detailed techniques that you’re going to follow as a team.  This is typically done as a series of process tailoring workshops where the team works through the appropriate goal diagrams to identify how they want to work together.  Figure 3 depicts the goal diagram for Secure Funding, you can see how it walks you through the decision points that you need to consider and potential techniques for addressing those decision points. Don’t worry, if you’re not familiar with all of the options they are described in the book Choose Your WoW!, with a description and the trade-offs associated with each technique summarized in tables. Knowing your options, and the trade-offs associated with them, enables your team to make better process decisions (which in turn leads to better process outcomes). This is something we call guided continuous improvement.

Figure 3. The Secure Funding process goal (click to enlarge).

Secure Funding process goal

In theory it’s possible to do a single “big bang” process tailoring workshop when a team is in initially formed, but we’ve found that leads to process bloat because the team has to guess at too many things all at once.  Unless you’re in a regulatory environment requiring defined process descriptions up front, it’s usually better to tailor your WoW in stages on an as-needed basis.

Adopt Existing Method or Framework

In some organizations teams are still not allowed to choose their WoW.  This may happen for several reasons:

  • The organization is new to agile.
  • Your organizational leadership wants every team to follow the same process (this is a spectacularly bad idea because context counts). This is often because they don’t understand that you can have a consistent governance process without inflicting the same process on all the teams.
  • You’ve hired coaches that only know one method or framework.
  • Leadership still has a command-and-control culture or they don’t trust your team to do this (either because you don’t have the experience required on your team or because you’re not using something like the DA toolkit yet).
  • You’re in a regulatory environment (e.g. medical device development) and don’t realize that you can choose and evolve your WoW in any way that you like, as long as you remain compliant and document what you do (yes, that’s annoying).

The problem with forcing a team to follow an existing method or framework, no matter how popular it is, is that it rarely fits the situation faced by the team. It might be a great method, but it’s the wrong one for the team – context counts, every team is unique and faces a unique situation, so should be allowed to choose and evolve their own WoW to enable them to be as effective as they can be. Think of it like this: If a team is competent enough to build a solution for their stakeholders, surely they must also be competent enough (perhaps given a bit of help) to choose their own WoW?

Regardless of whether you were allowed to choose your initial WoW or had one forced upon your team, this is only a start. Your team will still want to evolve your WoW as you learn and as your situation evolves. More on this in our next blog.

MORE INFORMATION


For more information about how your agile team can choose and evolve its way of work, we recommend our book Choose Your WoW! A Disciplined Agile Delivery Handbook for Optimizing Your Way of Working. If you want to succeed at enterprise agile you need choices, not prescriptions.

Posted by Scott Ambler on: February 06, 2019 08:19 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Running Multiple Improvement Experiments in Parallel

Running multiple experiments in parallel

In Continuous Improvement Through Experimentation we described how a team could improve their way of working (WoW) via the strategy depicted in Figure 1.  In Better Decisions Lead to Better Process Outcomes we showed how you can increase the rate of improvement by identifying potential improvements that are likely to work in your situation.  In this blog we describe how to accelerate your team’s improvement by running multiple improvement experiments in parallel.

Figure 1. Running an experiment to evolve your WoW (click to enlarge).

Experiment to evolve your WoW

The strategy is exactly as it sounds.  Instead of running a single process improvement experiment at a time you run several at once.  You may decide to do this for one of several reasons:

  • You want to compare several strategies that potentially address the same process issue you hope to resolve.
  • You have several process issues that you hope to resolve at the same time.
  • Your team is currently running an experiment and feels it has capacity to take on another improvement experiment.
  • Techniques are dependent on one another, such as automated regression testing and continuous integration (CI).

Although this strategy will help your team to increase its rate of improvement, there are two fundamental challenges with it.  First, it is harder to assess the effectiveness of an individual technique when multiple experiments are being run in parallel because they can interact with each other.  For example, you decide to experiment with holding stakeholder demos and with active stakeholder participation at the same time (you weren’t doing either one until now).  When you see improvements in the quality of stakeholder satisfaction with the product you’re developing, is that the result of one of the practices but not the other or both of them in combination? If can’t definitively answer that question, it will make it hard to assess the effectiveness of each technique.

Second, you only have so much capacity for experimenting with new WoW. It can be hard enough, sometimes, to convince your organization’s leadership to allow you the time to experiment in the first place.  Getting time to run multiple experiments is even harder.

Our point is that running an experimentation-based approach to evolving your way of working (WoW) makes sense.  In some cases running multiple experiments in parallel can be even more effective.

MORE INFORMATION

For more information about choosing and evolving your WoW, we humbly suggest that you consider reading our book Choose Your WoW! A Disciplined Agile Delivery Handbook for Optimizing Your Way of Working. If you want to succeed at enterprise agile you need choices, not prescriptions.

Posted by Scott Ambler on: February 01, 2019 09:35 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Better Decisions Lead to Better Outcomes: Guided Continuous Improvement

In our previous blog, Continuous Improvement Through Experimentation, we worked through how teams can evolve their way of working (WoW) through experimentation and kaizen.  Figure 1 depicts the logic of a single pass through a Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle for doing so. The team identifies a potential way to improve their WoW, they experiment with it for a bit, they assess how well it worked for them, then they keep what works well and drop what doesn’t.

Figure 1. Continuous improvement through experimentation (click to enlarge).

Experiment to evolve your WoW

Figure 2 shows how the effectiveness of a team’s WoW rises over time via this experimentation-based strategy.  When an experiment with a new technique works (the experiment is successful) the team’s effectiveness increases.  When an experiment “fails” their effectiveness dips for a bit but then rises back to where it was once they go back to their previous WoW.

Figure 2. Team effectiveness improves over time by experimenting with new WoW (click to enlarge).

Experiment to evolve WoW

So what can we do to improve on this? The linchpin is the very first step in the process of Figure 1, the identification of a technique to experiment with.  As you see in Figure 3, when we improve the likelihood that a technique will work in our situation then our effectiveness rises faster due to more successful experiments.  We call this guided continuous improvement.

Figure 3. Guided continuous improvement increases the chance of successful experiments (click to enlarge).

Guided experiments to improve WoW

It’s a simple idea – with better process decisions we achieve better process outcomes, as you can see in Figure 4. There are three ways that you can do this:

  1. Hire an experienced coach (and listen to them). Although it can be
    hard to find an experienced agile coach they do exist and if you’re lucky enough to have one then follow their guidance.
  2. Apply the Disciplined Agile (DA) toolkit. There are several ways you can apply the DA toolkit to help you to make better process decisions.  Instead of prescribing the “best practices” you must adopt, DA instead advises you on process-related issues you need to think about and the options available to you.  Such issues include what you should consider when choosing a lifecycle, what you should consider when forming your team, and what you should consider when addressing changing stakeholder needs (to name a few important things). The DA toolkit then presents you with potential options and the trade-offs associated with those options.  This gives you an idea as to what techniques you might want to experiment with and what is likely to happen if you do, enabling you to make better process decisions. This site overviews these decisions, as you can see by following the previous links, and the book Choose Your WoW! summarizes the trade-offs for Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD).
  3. Both of the above. Good coaches have the humility to recognize that they don’t know everything, and will leverage the DA toolkit to help your team to make better decisions about new ways of working (WoW) to experiment with.

Figure 4. Team effectiveness improves at a quicker rate with guided continuous improvement (click to enlarge). 

Guided continuous improvement works better

Continuous improvement, evolving your WoW through experiments, is a proven way to achieve lasting process improvement. Lean practitioners have been doing this for decades and virtually every DevOps case study advises you to evolve your WoW this way. Guided continuous improvement takes it one step further and streamlines your experimentation efforts.

MORE INFORMATION

For more information about choosing and evolving your WoW, we humbly suggest that you consider reading our book Choose Your WoW! A Disciplined Agile Delivery Handbook for Optimizing Your Way of Working. If you want to succeed at enterprise agile you need choices, not prescriptions.

Posted by Scott Ambler on: January 25, 2019 11:26 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)
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"Nearly every great advance in science arises from a crisis in the old theory, through an endeavor to find a way out of the difficulties created. We must examine old ideas, old theories, although they belong to the past, for this is the only way to understand the importance of the new ones and the extent of their validity."

- Albert Einstein

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