Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Adopting and Adapting Agile Practices: It's more than just Cherry-Picking

I'm deeply interested in anything that will help me and help my team do a better job of building good software. But I’ve been around long enough to learn that there isn’t one way to build good software – that XP, or Scrum, or XBreed, or RUP, or Crystal, or CMMI, or TSP/PSP, or Scrumban, or any of yesterday’s or today's or tomorrow’s new better ways of making software, that none of these methods will give me all of the answers, solve all of my problems: or yours either. I’m a pragmatist. I’ve learned from experience and from thoughtful people like Steve McConnell a simple truth: that there are smart ideas and smart ways of doing things; and there are stupid ideas and stupid ways of doing things. That if you do more smart things and less stupid things, you will have a better chance of success. And that the hard part is recognizing that you are doing stupid things, and then having the discipline to stop doing these stupid things and do smart things instead.

I like to work with other pragmatists, people who are open-minded, who want to understand, who keep looking for what works. I long ago ran out of patience for orthodoxy and for people without the experience, creativity, patience and courage to question and learn, to find their own answers, and who believe that all you need to do is follow the One Right Way. And that if you do anything less, you will fail: that any house you build will be a house of straw (…that article still burns me up).

The people who put together Scrum, or XP, RUP, TSP/PSP, Software Kanban or these other ways to manage software development are smart, and they spent a lot of time thinking through the problems of how to build software, experimenting and learning. I look closely into how other people build software, I try to understand the decisions that they made and why they made them. But that doesn’t mean that what worked for them will be a perfect fit for my organization or your organization, my circumstances or yours.

And it’s clear that I’m not alone in thinking this way. A study published earlier this year by Forrester Research on Agile Development: Mainstream Adoption Has Changed Agility reported some interesting statistics on the state of the practice for software development methods, what development methods companies are following and how they are doing adopting new ideas:
  • Roughly 1/3 of developers and development managers are following Waterfall or Iterative methods such as RUP or Spiral
  • Another 1/3 are following Agile methods (Scrum, XP, Lean, FDD, …)
  • And 1/3 aren’t following any method at all, or if they are, they don’t know what it is.
Of the organizations adopting Agile methods, less than 1/3 stick to a particular Agile methodology as closely as possible. More than 2/3 deliberately mix different Agile practices; or incorporate Agile practices and ideas into “non-Agile” approaches. The report explains that:
“Perhaps the clearest sign of the mainstreaming of Agile is the abandonment of orthodoxy: Teams are puzzling out the mix of methodologies and combining them to fit within their organizational realities…”
The reasons for this are clear: most organizations find that it is better to learn from these methods and adapt them to their specific circumstances, their culture, their needs, their constraints. The report calls this “cherry-picking”, a “mix-and-match” approach to take the best bits from different methods and create a customized solution.

But I think that “cherry picking” is the wrong metaphor here. It’s more than just taking the “best bits”: it’s understanding why these practices work, and how they work together, how they support each other. Then focusing in on where you are experiencing problems, where you need to save costs, where you need to be faster or where you need to create some other advantage: where you will get the highest return. It’s taking what makes the most sense to you, what fits the best for your organization, what’s important. Understanding what you need and which practices (alone or together) can be applied to your needs; seeing what works, and then building on this to improve.

Some practices make plain good sense no matter where you work and how you work. Frequent builds, or better continuous build and continuous integration, is a no-brainer. Shortening development and delivery cycles, with more frequent checkpoints. Automated developer testing. But it doesn’t matter if you don’t do pair programming, if the developers in your organization don’t like it, won’t do it – as long as you understand why mainline XPers think that pair programming is useful and important, and that you find your own way to write good code, maybe through peer code reviews and static analysis (note I said “and”, not “or”: static analysis is not a substitute for code reviews). It doesn’t matter if what you are doing is XP or Scrum or Scrumban or that you can find a label for it at all. What matters is that it works, and that you are committed to making it work, and to learning, and to making it better.


dre said...

Have you seen ICONIX?

Jim Bird said...


You surprise me as usual. I have not worked with the ICONIX method but I will look into it. Thank you.

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