The right agile for the job

A lot of people blog about picking the right tool for the job and this usually focuses on programming languages, techniques and databases. However it is just as important to pick the right tool for your development life cycle. I have worked with a number of clients who have defaulted to scrum as their ‘agile’ process but a lot of the time this is inappropriate for the way they are working. Just as picking the wrong database for your data can lead to development overhead, picking the wrong agile technique can also have issues.

As a preface, I have no problem with sprints per say, however they are not really the right tool for most of the companies I have consulted for. All of these companies have one or more in house products which are either a web based business tool (eg order management), a software as a service platform or an ecommerce site. In all cases, they have total control over their infrastructure and they are not selling the software itself to end users.

Scrum as a model focuses on breaking down a development project into multiple small iterative sprints, each sprint has a work commitment from the development team and is time boxed; the default for this seems to be two weeks. At the end of each sprint, a decision is made by the team as to weather or not to make a release and then the tasks for the next sprint are prioritised and committed to. Any unfinished work from a previous sprint should be reevaluated in terms of business priorities before being added to a new sprint.

Under these circumstances what makes scrum an inappropriate model? In my opinion it comes down to the answer to two key questions: 1) What happens when a ticket is completed? Does it get immediately deployed or do you wait until the end of the sprint? 2) What happens to tickets which are not completed by the end of the sprint? The answer to the above is usually 1) We release it as soon as possible 2) We roll them over to the next sprint. This is an inherently continuous process, yet the sprints done in a scrum model focus on breaking down development into discrete blocks.

Despite this obvious mismatch between scrum and the reality of development, companies are still reluctant to switch away to a more appropriate model. This usually comes down to one reason: estimates. Businesses like estimates, they want to know when a feature will be ready for use so that they can plan for things like marketing. The scrum model prescribes a planning session at the start of each sprint where developers estimate tickets and schedule them into the forthcoming sprint. This allows the business to say we will get this batch of features by the end of the sprint, everyone is happy?

The trouble with scrum is the same trouble that you get with any model mismatch, inefficiencies creep in and you can often feel that scrum is not agile enough for the business reality, for example when an urgent bug fixes jump in mid sprint or when a tricky release ties up a developer for two days and consequently several tickets end up being incomplete at the end of the sprint.

What can we do instead?

There exists another agile model which is more suited to continuous delivery process that many of these companies aspire to; it can provide true agility in a world where business priorities can change daily. It enables deployments to live as just another part of the workflow meaning that the value of finished work can be immediately realised by the business and there is no concept of unfinished work since developers simply work on the most important item until it is done and has been released to live, then they pick up the new most important item. What is this magic process called? Kanban.

The general application of the Kanban process is fairly straight forward; consider the full life cycle of a story or ticket within your company; it might have phases such as business analysis, technical design, development, QA, user acceptance and released. Each one of these becomes a column on the board; you add an additional column on the left to represent the backlog of unstarted tasks. Priority of tickets goes from right to left, top to bottom; meaning a story which is closer to being live takes precedence over tickets which still have more work to do. The product owner can rearange the priorities within the columns as they see fit whereas other players (BAs, testers, devs etc) pick up the highest priority ticket they can work on (eg a tester cannot pick up a story from the backlog column; only from the development complete column)

The main complaint I hear when encouraging companies to try a Kanban approach is ‘we like scrum because it allows us to plan and estimate delivery of code’. This usually follows with me pointing out that most of the estimates for time to complete work are completely wrong and what is the point of an estimate which is only accurate 50% of the time? The discussion then usually moves to how can we get developers to be better at estimates. Answer: you can’t, getting better at estimating how long it will take to complete a task only happens if you do it repeatedly, becoming practiced at it and knowing all the things that can cause you to slow down. For software development every development task is different - if you find yourself doing the same thing over and over; you find an abstraction to generalise the problem so we never really get to the practiced point where you can estimate well. (Knowledge of the quirks of a code base which can slow you down can help you improve outlier bad estimates but this doesn’t help the general case)

What about estimates?

So how can we provide the business with the ability to plan for the future using the Kanban model whilst also trying to get improved estimates from the developers? Well, the answer is to remove the developers from the estimating process entirely and instead rely on a more objective measure: statistics. Statistics are nice and forgiving; they can give you not just an estimate but an indication of how relyable that estimate is, they can tell you interesting things like how much is a reasonable contingency or tell you how much time is required to give you a 99% chance of delivering by the agreed date.

How does this work in practice? Simple, everytime a story is picked up to be worked on, make a note of the date. When that story is completed and released to live make a note of the date. Total up the amount of time each story spends in progress and discard the top and bottom 10% (These are outliers: quick bug fixes or stories which should have been broken down better) take an average of the remaining 80%.

Whenever a someone wants to get an estimate of how long a feature will take to get live; total up the amount of stories required to deliver it; multiply by the average - this will give you a pretty reasonable time frame for how long it will take. Next look at how many stories have higher priority than the stories that make up the feature, multiply those by the average as well. Divide each of the averages by your teams availability. Adding the higher priority stories estimate to the current date gives us a good estimate of when work will start on the feature, then adding on the time to deliver it will give a reasonable estimate of when it will be done.

If you want better estimates you can refine your statistical techniques by looking at the standard deviation of the story delivery time: multiplying by the average gives you a point at which you are 50% confident it will be completed by using standard deviation, you can give estimates for when you are 99% confident of; or whatever level of confidence the business requires. To take into account changes in delivery speed over time (eg as your team becomes more familiar with the tools) you could use a n-point moving average over a number of weeks/months. You could also break down by area (eg time in development vs time in test) to further refine the estimates.