Over the last couple of decades, I’ve witnessed more than my fair share of “Agile transformations”, and seen most of them produce disappointing results. In this post, I’m going to explain why they failed, and propose a way to beat the trend.
First of all, we should probably ask ourselves: what is an Agile transformation? This might seem like an obvious question, but you’d be surprised just how difficult it is to pin down any kind of accepted definition.
For some, it’s a process of adopting certain processes and practices, like the rituals of Scrum. If we do the rituals, then we’re Agile. Right?
Not so fast, buddy!
This is what many call “Cargo Cult Agility”. If we wear the right clothes and make offerings to the right gods, we’ll be Agile.
If we lose the capital “A”, and talk instead about agility, what is the goal of an agile transformation? To enable organisations to change direction quickly, I would argue.
How do we make organisations more responsive to change? The answer lies in that organisation’s feedback loops.
In software development, the most important feedback loop comes from delivering working software and systems to end users. Until our code hits the real world, it’s all guesswork.
So if we can speed up our release cycles so we can get more feedback sooner, and maintain the pace of those releases for as long as the business needs us to – i.e., the lifetime of that software – then we can effectively out-learn our competition.
Given how important the release cycle is, then, it’s no surprise that most Agile (with a capital “A”) transformations tend to focus on that feedback loop. But this is a fundamental mistake. The release cycle contains inner loops – wheels within wheels within wheels. If our goal is to speed up this outer feedback loop, we should be focusing most of our attention on the innermost feedback loops.
To understand why, let’s think about how we go about speeding up nested loops in code.
Here’s some code that loops through a collection of releases. Each release loops through a list of features, and each feature has a list of scenarios that the system has to handle to implement that feature. For each scenario, it runs a build & test cycle multiple times. It’s a little model of a software development process.
Think of the development process as a set of gears. The largest gear turns the slowest, and drives a smaller, faster gear, which drives an even smaller and faster gear and so on.
In each loop, I’ve built in a delay of 10 ms to approximate the overhead of performing that particular loop (e.g., 10 ms to plan a release).
When I run this code, it takes 1 m 53 s to execute. Our release cycles are slow.
Now, here’s where most Agile transformations go wrong. They focus most of their attention on those outer loops. This produces very modest improvements in release cycle time.
Let’s “optimise” the three outer loops, reducing the delay by 90%.
When I run this optimised code, it executes in 1 m 44 s. That’s only a 9% improvement in release cycle time, and we had to work on three loops to get it.
This time, let’s ignore those outer loops and just work on the innermost loop – build & test.
Now it finished in just 22 seconds. That’s an 81% improvement, just from optimising that innermost loop.
When we look at the output from this code, it becomes obvious why.
RELEASE --FEATURE ----SCENARIO ------BUILD & TEST ------BUILD & TEST ------BUILD & TEST ------BUILD & TEST ------BUILD & TEST ------BUILD & TEST ------BUILD & TEST ------BUILD & TEST ------BUILD & TEST ------BUILD & TEST ----SCENARIO ------BUILD & TEST ------BUILD & TEST ------BUILD & TEST ------BUILD & TEST ------BUILD & TEST ------BUILD & TEST ------BUILD & TEST ------BUILD & TEST ------BUILD & TEST ------BUILD & TEST ----SCENARIO ------BUILD & TEST ------BUILD & TEST ------BUILD & TEST ------BUILD & TEST
Of course, this is a very simplistic model of a much more complex reality, but the principle at any scale works just as well, and the results I’ve seen over the years bear it out: to reduce release cycle times, focus your attention on the innermost feedback loops. I call this Inner-Loop Agility.
Think of the micro-iterations of Test-Driven Development, refactoring and Continuous Integration. They all involve one key step – the part where we find out if the software works – which is to build and test it. We test it at every green light in TDD. We test it after every refactoring. We test it before we check in our changes (and afterwards, on a build server to rule out configuration differences with our desktops).
In Agile Software Development, we build and test our code A LOT – many times an hour. And we can only do this if building and testing our code is fast. If it takes an hour, then we can’t have Inner Loop Agility. And if we can’t have Inner-Loop Agility, we can’t have fast release cycles.
Of course, we could test less often. That always ends well. Here’s the thing, the more changes we make to the code before we test it, the more bugs we introduce and then catch later. The later we catch bugs, the more they cost to fix. When we test less often, we tend to end up spending more and more of our cycle time fixing bugs.
It’s not uncommon for teams to end up doing zero-feature releases, where there’s just a bunch of bug fixes and no value-add for the customer in each release.
A very common end result of a costly Agile transformation is often little more than Agility Theatre. Sure, we do the sprints. We have the stand-ups. We estimate the story points. But’s it ends up being all work and little useful output in each release. The engine’s at maximum revvs, but our car’s going nowhere.
Basically, the gears of our development process are the wrong way round.
There’s no real mystery about why Agile transformations tend to focus most of their attention on the outer feedback loops.
Firstly, the people signing the cheques understand those loops, and can actively engage with them – in the mistaken belief that agility is all about them.
Secondly, the $billion industry – the “Agile-Industrial Complex” – that trains and mentors organisations during these transformations is largely made up of coaches and consultants who have either a lapsed programming background, or no programming background at all. In a sample of 100 Agile Coach CV’s, I found that 70% had no programming background, and a further 20% hadn’t done it for at least a decade. 90% of Agile Coaches can’t help you with the innermost feedback loops. Or to put it more bluntly, 90% of Agile Coaches focus on the feedback loops that deliver the least impressive reductions in release cycle time.
Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting these outer feedback loops don’t matter. There’s usually much work to be done at all levels from senior management down to help organisations speed up their cycle times, and to attempt it without management’s blessing is typically folly. Improving build and test cycles requires a very significant investment – in skills, in time, in resource – and that shouldn’t be underestimated.
But to focus almost exclusively on the outer feedback loops produces very modest results, and it’s arguably where Agile transformations have gained their somewhat dismal reputation among business stakeholders and software professionals alike.