Ripping the Planning Out of Agile

October 10, 2014

needle-31827_640

Recently I was following some twitter feed about #NoEstimates. I’m no expert, but it seems to be a conversation about the fundamental value, or lack of value, that planning provides to teams. What they seem to be arguing is that planning represents a lot of wasted effort that would be better spent elsewhere.

Fundamentally I would have to agree. I’ve wasted a tremendous amount of time arguing about story points, burning down hours, and calculating person days – all for what seems like very little benefit.

What I would rather do is spend more time talking about the problem we are trying to solve. I really value a deep understanding of the system and the changes that we intend to make to it. If I have that much, then I’m well situated to deliver fast enough that nobody’s going to give me much grief about not having estimates. That’s my theory anyway. The sooner you can deliver working software, the sooner people will shut up about estimates.

But often we never do talk about the problem at anything other than a very superficial level. We spend most of our time trying to size the effort according to some artificial schema that has nothing to do with the work or any real empirical evidence at all.

So what if there were no plan? What if we took Scrum and did everything but the planning? You show up Monday morning and you have no idea what you are going to work on. The team sits down with the customer and talks about their most pressing need. They work out what they need to build, make important design decisions, and coordinate among themselves. At no point are there any hours, or points, or days. What would happen to the cadence of the sprint if we removed the planning? Basically, we would have our daily standup, and then we would review our accomplishments at the end of the sprint and look for ways to improve.

That sounds pretty good actually. Like anything else, I’m sure it has pros and cons:

Pros: Save time and energy otherwise wasted on estimation, and use that time instead for important problem solving work.

Cons: Stakeholders really like estimates. It’s like crack. They start to shake and twitch if you take their estimates away. Not many will even let you talk about it.

It might be worth a try sometime. It would certainly make an interesting experiment for a sprint or two. What if the sprint were focused entirely on the improvement cycle instead?

Advertisements

Coping with a Fear of Inaccuracy

September 24, 2014

“Even imperfect answers can improve decision making.” – Donald Reinertson

When I read this from Reinertson’s book on flow, I realized that I had found the reason that people have so much trouble with story points. It’s a matter of overcoming their fear of inaccuracy. They are under the misguided belief in the accuracy of using hours or days to estimate work on projects. They’re basically afraid of being wrong (aren’t we all?) and that is the source of a lot of resistance to change. Being wrong sucks. I get that. Nevertheless, I’m wrong a lot.

Fortunately, wrong isn’t always boolean (unless you happen to step in front of a swiftly moving bus). There are shades of wrong. You can be just a little wrong, your aim just a little off, and still be headed in the right direction. Or you can be a lot wrong (the bus). That’s where frequently re-examining your decisions can help you catch the stuff that’s a lot wrong and fix it. What about the stuff that’s a little wrong? Don’t sweat it.

In the software world, a little wrong is still pretty useful. There is a tremendous amount of error and missing information. Compared to that, being slightly wrong isn’t so bad. Being slightly wrong gets you started – at least in mostly the right direction. You’re going to fine tune it anyway, so there’s really no need for decision making precision. That will come later, when you know more.

To me, the ability to overcome our fear of being wrong stems from an all-or-nothing mindset. We can’t allow ourselves to be even a little wrong for fear of failure. As Reinertson rightly points out, there is a time and a place for precision in decision making, but it’s not ALL the time.