Thursday, March 8, 2012

Does Agile process actually discourage collaboration and innovation?

Before everyone freaks out at that assertion, give me a sec to explain. :)

In the Dev SIG today, we were discussing our challenges with integrating UX into
development, and had an awesome discussion. I think Kerry will be posting some
notes. Most of the discussion though, went to ideas and challenges with
creating and understanding requirements, and the processes that we use to scale
destroying a lot of our effectiveness. The question we all left with, via Greg
Symons, was how do we scale our efforts while preserving this close connection
in understanding between the actual customer and those that aim to serve them?

In thinking about this, our recent discussions about backlog, and recalling past
projects, I realized some crucial skills that we seem to have largely lost. In
the days of waterfall, we were actually much more effective at it.

My first agile project was with XP, living in Oregon, and fortunate enough to
have Kent Beck provide a little guidance on our implementation. Sitting face to
face with me, on the other side of a half wall cube, was an actual customer of
our system, who had used it and things like it for more than 20 years. I could
sit and watch how they used it, ask them questions, find out exactly what they
were trying to accomplish and exchange ideas. From this experience I came away
with a great appreciation for the power of a direct collaborative exchange
between developers and real customers.

My next project, was waterfall. One of the guys on my team, wickedly smart, his
background was mainly RUP, and he just -loved- requirements process. What he
taught me were techniques for understanding, figuring out the core purpose,
figuring out the context of that purpose, and exploring alternatives to build a
deeper understanding of what a user really needs. Some of these were
documentation techniques, and others were just how you ask questions and
respond. I learned a ton. On our team, the customers would make a request, and
the developers were responsible for working with the customers to discover the

With Scrum-esque Agile process, this understanding process is outsourced to the
product owner. As we try to scale, we use a product owner to act as a
communication proxy, and with it create a barrier of understanding between
developers and actual customers. Developers seldom really understand their
customers, and when given the opportunity to connect with them, the number of
discoveries of all the things we've been doing that could have been so much
better, are astounding.

I've done agile before on a new project, sitting in the same room with our real
users, understanding their problems, taking what they asked for and figuring out
what they needed, and also having control of the architecture, design, interface
and running the team to build it - the innovation of the project and what we
build was incredible. Industry cutting-edge stuff was just spilling out of
everything we did. And it all came out of sitting in a room together and
building deep understanding of both the goals, and the possibilities. This was
agile with no PO proxy. The developers managed the backlog, but really wrote
very little down... we did 1 week releases.

Developers seldom have much skill in requirements these days. And are often
handed a specification or a problem statement that is usually still quite far
from the root problem.

In building in this understanding disconnect, and losing these skills, are we
really just building walls that prevent collaboration and tearing down our
opportunities to innovate?

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