The Airing of Grievances: Agile

Agile has essentially replaced the Waterfall model as the “right” software development methodology. It’s a really great process when it’s done right, but people ruin it when they do it wrong. And, oh, how badly it can go wrong. I got a lot of problems with bad Agile practices, and now you’re gonna hear about it!

Breaking the Rules

Agile is a lot like the board game Monopoly. The rules are long and complicated, but they are designed to make the game efficient. However, for some reason, everyone insists on making up their own rules for the game, rather than following the official instructions. For example, players won’t put a property up for auction when they land on it and refuse to buy it, or they will build houses before securing a monopoly. Then, as a result, the game goes on forever and loses its fun. In Agile, every organization seems to want to do things their own special way (as many of these grievances describe), and it almost never goes well when they do. The rules are not meant to be broken, and if they are, there will be consequences.

Going Rogue

Agile is meant to keep people focused on the most important tasks. Much time is spent planning and pivoting to stay on top of priorities. Team members should not deviate from committed work. Don’t go rogue! Don’t work on uncommitted tasks! If something is absolutely pressing, then talk with the scrum master to change the commitments.

Teams that are Too Big

How big is your Agile team? If the answer has more than one digit, then the team is too darn big. The ideal size is 5-9 people because communication becomes too hard with more. Large teams just don’t scale – it’s the law of diminishing returns.

Long Meetings

Nobody wants to be stuck in a long, boring meeting. While there are many Agile ceremonies (planning, grooming, stand-up, review, and retrospective), their meetings are meant to be efficient and productive. Stand-ups should be 15 minutes tops – nobody should ever need to give more than three sentences for their status, and nobody really wants to hear anything longer anyway! People should come prepared for planning and grooming so they don’t literally take all day. Demos should be short and sweet. Keep things moving!

Putting People on More Than One Team

Nobody should be cursed to provide deliverables for more than one Agile team. That’s not fair to the individual, who must spend double-duty in meetings, nor is it fair to the teams, who don’t have a dedicated resource for their work. It applies to every role: developer, tester, product owner, or scrum master. It also burns people out very quickly.

Too Many Top Priorities

I was once part of an Agile team where the product owner issued about a dozen “top priorities.” For. Every. Sprint. Our team had no clue what was really important.

Agonizing Over Story Points

Story points are meant to be sizing estimates for velocity. They don’t need to be perfectly accurate. They shouldn’t track hours. Don’t make big fights over it. Don’t go back and change values. Don’t twist planning poker into a political gambit. PLEASE!

Missing User Story Descriptions

The user story is the primary work artifact. It tells how a new feature should work from the perspective of the user… or, at least it should. If your user story contains just one line (like saying “Build the profile page”), then you just might be doing it wrong. Write user stories in the “As a ___, I want ___, so that ___” format, and provide extra descriptions to help the team understand what the story covers. Non-descriptive stories lead to poorly developed features.

Missing Acceptance Criteria

How do we know when a story is complete? If there’s no acceptance criteria, we don’t! Testers also won’t know what to check. Please write helpful acceptance criteria. A bullet list is fine, and Gherkin would be even better.

Not Including Testing and Automation in the Definition of Done

No. No. No. No. No. No. NO! A story is not complete if it is not tested. It must not be accepted without tests passing and automated. Otherwise, be prepared for an avalanche of technical debt as bugs pile up and the team can’t keep up. The premise of Agile is to deliver small, working features in iterations. Testing must be included! Don’t create separate stories for testing. Don’t push it off to the next sprint. If a team cannot get testing done, then perhaps it should increase story point sizings to include testing and/or commit to less work during a sprint.

Blaming QA for Incomplete Stories

I once heard a developer say bluntly to my automation team, “QA is the bottleneck.” Don’t shoot the messenger! Tests fail because the product under test has problems. Many times, testers don’t even receive builds until very late in the sprint. When stories don’t get done, don’t start a blame game – it’s the whole team’s fault. Try shifting left (perhaps by using BDD) or committing to less work per sprint.

Ignoring Technical Debt

Technical debt is the cost of consequences from poor development decisions. Examples may include: using single-threading when multi-threading is needed, avoiding design patterns, and even building up a test automation framework. Product owners don’t seem to like tech debt tasks because they don’t deliver new features. Unfortunately, tech debt will often cripple a team’s ability to deliver new features – pay now or pay later. Don’t ignore tech debt!

Confusing Agile with “Short Waterfall”

Agile is meant to be a process paradigm shift. It is not meant to be a condensed version of the Waterfall model. Sprints should be short. Responsibilities should be shared. Teams should be self-empowered. Break down silos and become truly Agile!

Using “Agile” and “Lean” Interchangeably

The Lean Startup is a methodology for starting a new business using minimal overhead and reacting quickly to lessons learned. It involves using Agile for product development, but it encompasses so much more than just Agile. Don’t use the terms interchangeably! Get on point with your buzzword bingo game.

Misusing the Term “Continuous Integration”

A nightly build is not CI. A weekly regression run is not CI. Manually-triggered tests are not CI. Manual deployments are not CI. Hand-written test reports are not CI. Don’t lie to yourself – CI is continuous integration, and everything must be automatic.

Forcing Scrum When Kanban May Be Better

Scrum is probably the most widely used Agile process, to the point where most people presume “Agile” means “Scrum.” However, Scrum is not appropriate for all teams. Kanban is a much better process when work items must be done “just in time” – like tech support tickets, build deployments, system maintenance, or emergency recoveries. Good candidates for Kanban are IT help desks and DevOps teams. I’ve used Kanban on automation tools/frameworks teams very successfully. Don’t shoehorn everyone into Scrum.

Hanging Agile Manifesto Posters on the Wall

What are you, Communist?

Complaining about Agile

Complaining doesn’t make it better! Honestly, in my experience, the worst complainers are old-school people who just don’t like change. Then, problems become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or, they try to break rules and then gripe when things don’t work. If your complaint is about Agile in general, then go take a long, hard look in the mirror. However, if you find a problem in how your team is doing Agile, then bring it up during the retrospective – that’s Agile’s auto-correct mechanism. Complaining for complaint’s sake drags everybody down.

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