How Agile Works

After 18 years of talk and hype about Agile, I find that it’s easy to lose sight of what Agile means in essence, and – importantly – how it works.

I see it as an inescapable reality of software development – or any sufficiently complex endeavour – that we shouldn’t expect to get it right first time. The odds of our first solution being the best solution are vanishingly small – the proverbial “hole in one”.

So we should expect to need to take multiple passes at a solution, so we can learn with each iteration of the design what works and what doesn’t and progressively get it less wrong.

If Agile is an algorithm, then it’s a search algorithm. It searches an effectively infinite solution space for a design that best fits our problem. The name of this search algorithm is evolution.

Starting with the simplest input, it tests that design against one or more fitness functions. The results of this test are fed back into the next iteration of the design. And around and around we go, adding a little, changing a little, and testing again and again.

In nature, evolution takes tiny steps forward. If a viable organism produced offspring that are too different from itself, chances are that next generation will be non-viable. Evolution doesn’t take big, risky leaps. Instead, it edges forward one tiny, low-risk change at a time.

The Agile design process doesn’t make 100 changes to a solution and then test for fitness. It makes one or two changes, and sees how they work out before making more.

The speed of this search algorithm depends on three things:

  • The frequency of iterations
  • The amount of change in each iteration
  • The quality of feedback into the next iteration

If releases of working software are too far apart, we learn too slowly about what works and what doesn’t.

If we change too much in each release, we increase the risk of making the solution non-viable. We also take on a much higher risk and cost if a release has to be rolled back, as we lose a tonne of changes. It’s in the nature of software that it works as a connected whole. It’s easy to roll back 1 of 1 changes. It’s very hard to roll back 1 of 100 changes.

The lessons we learn with each release will depend on how it was tested. We find that feedback gathered from real end users using the software for real is usually the most valuable feedback. Everything else is just guesswork until our code meets the real world.

“Agile” teams who do weekly show-and-tells, but release working software into production less frequently, are missing out on the best feedback. Our code’s just a hypothesis until real people try to use it for real.

This is why our working relationship with our customer is so important – critical, in fact. far too many teams who call themselves “Agile” don’t get to engage with the customer and end users directly, and the quality of the feedback suffers when we’re only hearing someone’s interpretation of what their feedback was. It works best when the people writing the code get to see and hear first-hand from the people using it.

For me, it’s not Agile if it doesn’t fully embrace those fundamental principles, because they’re the engine that makes it work. Agile teams do small, frequent releases of working software to real customers and end users who they work with directly.

To achieve this, there are some technical considerations. If it takes a long time to check that the software’s fit for release, then you will release less often. If it takes a long time to build and deploy the software, then you’ll release less often. If the changes get harder and harder to make, then you’ll release less often.

And even after we’ve solved the problem, the world doesn’t stand still. The most common effect of releasing software into the world is that – if the software gets used – the world changes. Typically, it changes in ways we weren’t expecting. Western democracies are still struggling with the impact of social media, for example. But on a smaller scale, releasing software into any environment can have unintended consequences.

It’s not enough to get it right once. We have to keep learning and keep changing the software, normally for its entire operational lifetime (which, on average, is about 8 years). So we have to be able to sustain the pace of releases pretty much indefinitely.

All this comes with a bunch of technical challenges that have to be met in order to achieve small, frequent releases at a sustainable pace. Most “Agile” teams fail to master these technical disciplines, and their employers resist making the investment in skills, time and tools required to build a “delivery engine” that’s up to the job.

Most “Agile” teams don’t have the direct working relationship with the people using their software required to gain the most useful feedback.

To put it more bluntly, most “Agile” teams aren’t really Agile at all. They mistake Jira and Jenkins and stand-up meetings and backlogs and burn-down charts for agility. None of those things are, in of themselves, Agile.

Question is: are you?

Author: codemanship

Founder of Codemanship Ltd and code craft coach and trainer

2 thoughts on “How Agile Works”

  1. A common criticism of the “evolutionary approach” of small changes, checked with a fitness function, is that one can get stuck in a “local optimum,” where large improvements are still possible, but cannot be reached without making things “worse” for a while.

    This is a real risk, particularly for an “unthinking” process. But my experience has been that we can overcome this problem with thinking, and communication, and close collaboration. Team members can propose and discuss larger changes that may provide substantial short and long term benefits before implementing them. And the whole team can discuss and agree upon a suitable approach, and contribute to achieving it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s