How My Team Does Agile, 2014 Edition

I’ve spent a lot of time and energy over the past few years trying to get my team doing agile software development in a way that feels good to me. We’ve really come a long way, and we’re really getting close to where I want us to be.

Where We Started

When I first joined the team, I was really unhappy with our agile practices. We were running two-week sprints. Before a sprint started, we’d have two meetings: pre-planning and sprint planning. In pre-planning, we’d have 12 developers on their laptops and phones as we went through their assignments person by person. Nobody was invested in anything that anybody else was working on, and so they didn’t bother to pay attention. Everybody would leave with their individual assignments, and they’d come up with the tasks they’d work on to email to the team lead before the sprint planning meeting.

Sprint planning was even worse. We would literally watch the team lead copy/paste tasks from emails into a spreadsheet to be inserted into TFS. There’d be no input or feedback from the team on the tasks, and everybody would just sit and wait for their turn to read their tasks as they were being entered into the spreadsheet. It sounds bad, but it got worse. The cell phone use and not-paying-attention lead to a ban on cell phones and laptops, so you’d just have to sit there and try not to fall asleep.

Coming out of sprint planning, you’d have a list of tasks that you came up with that nobody paid any attention to. There was no accountability. You could probably submit the same list of tasks two sprints in a row without being questioned. But that’s not even the worst part!

The biggest problem that I saw was what I describe as a “culture of failure.” Nobody was completing their tasks in the sprint, and nobody cared. At the end of the sprint, we’d just close ’em out and make new ones, no questions asked. To this day, I can’t wrap my head around how an entire team of developers can be responsible for coming up with their own tasks with their own estimates with no questions asked and not complete them all EVER! (Deep breaths, self… Writing about the past is conjuring some bad juju, and I’m getting angry.)

Where We Are Now

So, yea. That was where we were, and I’m happy to say that we’ve come a long way. I believe we’re experiencing a lot of success today primarily because of a few key changes. We transformed a large team of INDIVIDUALS into lean execution TEAMS, we shortened our sprints from two weeks to just one, we started to focus on our backlog, and we stopped accepting work into sprints unless we believed it could be completed.

Converting our single large team into three smaller execution teams was a big challenge. We had to look at our developers and identify who might and might not work well together. I think we did a pretty good job with that since it’s been about a year, and we’ve only made one or two “trades” between the teams. In order to build the team mentality, we’re assigning work to the team instead of the individuals. The teams are responsible for determining how work is divided, and we really don’t care how it gets done as long as it gets done. Each of our three teams operates a little differently, and each of them is more functional than the big glob we had before.

But the small teams weren’t enough. We were still having problems with planning enough work to get into a sprint. The result is that halfway through, we’d have a lot of items that were blocked or no longer needed. This is mostly because we were stretching to scrape up enough work to fill the sprint, so a lot of what made it in wasn’t ready. That meant a lot of time spent working on things that we didn’t plan for or possibly not working on anything! Additionally, we’d have distractions coming up constantly that couldn’t wait for the next sprint–so that’s more items being pushed out or not worked on. Shortening sprints to one week addressed a lot of those issues. We don’t need as big of a backlog since we only need a week’s worth of work at a time. Distractions are less of a problem because we’re never more than a week away from the next sprint; it’s much easier to tell a customer than you can’t do something for a few days than a few weeks.

With shorter sprints implemented, we could focus on our backlog and ensuring that we have enough work ready to go with each sprint. This was a huge shift. Instead of asking developers what they were working on, we were giving them assignments based on project needs and priorities. If there was any question about the complete-ability of an item, we’d pull it out of the sprint and either add a task to improve its complete-ability or replace it with something else entirely.

So let’s review what we’ve got now: teams that are invested in what their members are working on and short sprints filled with items that can actually be completed. We’re still not completing 100% of our sprint work each week, but we’re having more success than we’ve ever had before.

What Comes Next

The team’s in a good place, but we’ve still got a lot to improve on. We don’t do a great job of story-writing. Our backlog has a lot of “do X” stories that don’t provide much context. Why are we doing that? What else do we need to get where we’re going? Because of this approach, we have a lot of new work that pops up at the end of the sprint as we realize that we now have to “do Y” and “do Z” before we’re done with a certain feature.

So my next focus will be on making sure we write quality stories. Let’s have non-functional stories to create the system functionality needed to complete bigger functional stories. Let’s make sure our stories have valid descriptions and clear completion criteria. Let’s scope stories so we can confidently fit them into a single sprint. Let’s identify the functional stories needed to complete a project so we can have a clear picture of what “done” means before we begin, sharpening our focus on what we’re trying to accomplish while simultaneously building a strong backlog. Yes, the future will be good!

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