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Problem Solved: Formula to figure out How Much Detail is Required with Agile Requirements

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WARNING: Shameless plug for my session at Agile2014 ahead.

I recently got the priviledge to listen to Alistair Cockburn talk to a small group at the VersionOne offices. He told the story about Kent Beck and how the idea of how the user story on notecards was born (I’ve read about this before, but it was great hearing it from Alistair). He talked about how the card was just that — a card with a title that reminded the developer and the target customer/user what they were building, maybe there were a few notes jotted down on the card. The narrative about the story wasn’t captured on the card — the details were verbally communicated because the developer and customer were all in close proximity of one another — they did this crazy thing, they simply walked down the hallway and talked.

In addition to this story, Alistair spoke about his experiences with a team that had development in Singapore and the business folks and architecture worked in the states. The company was having challenges with the team in Singapore at getting things done efficiently and, in some cases, getting things done right. It seemed like there was an inordinate amount of time that had to be spent on discussing requirements and getting questions worked out. The company decided to send some of the business and architect team members to Singapore to work out some improvements. When they did — the quality and productivity went up. When they returned, it took just a couple weeks before productivity slipped and all gains were lost. The reason for these results seems obvious — timezones, communication barriers, and not being able to have impromptu conversations can have a great impact on how well teams understand the requirements especially since a lot of conversations capture the specifics.

Hearing these two stories triggered some ideas in my head, and I thought — why can’t there be a simple formula we can use to gauge the amount of detail (words) we capture in a story to make it work. Through some hard work — I’ve now have that formula.

Here are some factors that I think go into figuring this out:

  • Complexity – just how well does the team understand the story and how hard the team thinks it will be, either from experience or flat out guessing. Usually captured as story points.
  • Difference in Timezones – the number of hours that separate us greatly impacts how fast communications can happen, especially if the communications occur near the bookend points of the day.
  • Auditing Requirements – audits are generally costly and require an additional amount of documentation overhead.
  • Multiple Offices – when people are in different buildings, it raises the amount of details that have to be captured.
  • Offices on Different Continents – although this somewhat relates to timezones, there is also the fact that people speak different languages. Even if they all agree to use english as the primary business language, there’s still slang, accents, and even cultural differences that impact communications.

How Long the Team has Worked Together – knowing each other is key, we figure out accents, we are able to exchange less verbal words, and we learn how to work with one another — what level of information is required to work effectively as a team.

So I reached out to some friends and the folks at Tagri Tech, and with their help — here’s the formula we came up with:

Amount of Words in Story = (Complexity * (1+ max absolute difference between timezones) * (1 + # of annual audits) * (Total # of locations * # of continents)) / (# of quarters the team has worked together)

And here’s the formula in action:

Documentation Formula

Multiple simulations have been ran and I found that the formula works in less than 0.01% of the situations. The people I’ve been working with at Tagri Tech’s statistics analysis department have ascertained that every team is different, and every product is different — this means that no matter how much documentation you have — the people involved in creating the documentation or the target consumer of the documentation really are not going to read it. They found that while some documentation like compliance reporting and end user documentation are necessary, much of the collaboration level docs are only consumed by the person that created it.

Ultimately, Teams will generally work together to figure out how much details are truly required to facilitate working effectively. If your teams are having challenges with how much documentation is required within Agile Software Development projects, then please come to Agile 2014 and check out my session on Friday at 9AM in the Sanibel room, we’ll talk about some ways teams can workout their own formula.

The State of Agile Software Development – Are we in a phase of Innovation Discontinuity?

in Agile by

Hey, this post was originally published by the good folks at SD Times as an opinion piece. I appreciate the honor as well as being asked to contribute. I also appreciate those who helped a ton to edit including Maureen Upchurch and the marketing team at VersionOne. They helped me get it down to a more concise form. Below is the unedited version of the opinion piece, it has a few more links and some of my bad english and ramblings in all it’s glory. Please give it a read and let me know what you think. – Matt

Khan ... I mean ... AGILE!Unless you’ve been under rock, you might have noticed a heightened level of discourse abound in the agile software development community. There is always a healthy amount of naysayer banter surrounding Agile coming from those that have tried and failed or those that have been forced to “be agile” and fail or those who use the phrase “we’re Agile” and don’t know what the hell it means. But, if you’ve been paying attention over the last several months, you will have noticed more and more harsh words and general discomfort about the state of Agile coming from the pioneers and visionaries (early adopters) of agile software development.

A couple examples are Agile is Dead (Long Live Agility) by Dave Thomas and Tim Ottinger’s post I Want My Agile Back which has spawned it’s own Google+ page. Oh yeah, and I should shouldn’t forget, there’s The Anti Agile Manifesto which is a whole site unto itself. Now don’t get me wrong, these posts are not all negative, in fact I find them inspiring. Dave and Tim provide constructive facts and ideas to move forward. But just the fact that we are having this discussion shines a light on the state of Agile today.

So does the elevated level of scrutiny and general unhappiness in the software development community mean certain doom for Agile Software Development?

The most prevalent driver of angst that is causing intense, partisan politic like arguments are the concepts around Enterprise Agile or scaling agile. It is well known, that organizations need to address their Enterprise Agility — which means organizations can adapt rapidly and efficiently in response to business and or market changes. In fulfilling the need of Enterprise Agility — large organizations are working to adopt agile processes within software development and other departments. A number of frameworks and approaches have emerged to address the Enterprise Agile needs and as a part of this movement, a consultancy-economy has formed to help implement the frameworks. This makes agile software development purists uncomfortable. The fear is that the only thing the consultancies and frameworks are doing is providing middle management and PMOs what they always wanted — a heavy-weight, control-oriented, certified process that has the word “Agile” in it. This is exactly what the original anarchists who wrote the Agile Manifesto were trying to change.

As a coach in the field, I’ve seen reasons to be concerned. A couple examples I’ve seen are where some software development teams scoffing at the ideas of craftsmanship, or the inspect-and-adapt loop was being used as a management tool to force their views of improvement upon the teams. Even with my concerns, I don’t view the frameworks or consultancies as the core challenge around the state of Agile.

Instead, I think the concepts of Agile are at a point of innovation discontinuity. In 2006, Diana Larson wrote that Agile has crossed “The Chasm”[1] that exists in the Early Adopters phase of Everett Rogers’ Innovation Adoption Lifecycle[2]. I would definitely agree and I believe that that we are on the downward side of Late Majority curve. If someone simply looked at the Innovation Adoption Lifecycle, they might assume that this means Agile will simply die-off and yield to the next best thing. The problem with this belief is that it has been demonstrated that as a core technological innovation reaches the crest of the Early Majority curve — a whole new round of innovations emerge that improve and or change the original innovation; thus, continuously extending the lifecycle. At this point in the curve, a bubble forms — this bubble is called innovation discontinuity[3]. It’s a bubble where the original innovators demonstrate dissatisfaction to changes of their invention, while the new innovators morph the technology to meet the current and, hopefully, future needs of a changing market.

Point of Discontinuity

We can debate as to whether or not the move by the large organizations to adopt agile processes and practices have pushed us into this round of innovation and subsequent discontinuity. Or, was agile software development already in a period of innovation discontinuity and the ideas of Enterprise Agile have just exasperated it. At the end of the day, I’m not sure it matters — what does matter is that the agile community has grown substantially, and we need to base ourselves in the values and principles of the Agile Manifesto that have served us well over the past thirteen years.

At this point of innovation discontinuity, we need to focus our efforts and learning energies on several fronts. We need to renew the emphasis on agile engineering good practices and embrace the ideas of craftsmanship — without this, agility does not happen. We must practice relentless transparency — trust does not exist without it. We must get our executive and management ranks engaged — education is not enough. We must always put people first in that people are how things get done, not the processes. And finally, as Dave Thomas’ blog points out, we have to get back to the core of Agility — assess where you are, take a small step toward your goal, adjust based on learning, and repeat — all the while, making change easy with all decisions made.

I firmly believe Agile Software Development is not doomed. And it is imperative that if you are one of those who believe ardently in the founding values, principles, and practices of Agile Software Development — that now, more than ever — get involved in the community. Some discourse is valuable; however, we need to make sure the resulting conversations drive innovation not decay. At the end of the day, I think all we want to do is make better software and solutions that customers want to buy and we enjoy making[4].

[1] Agile Alliance Survey: Are We There Yet?, InfoQ, Diana Larsen, http://www.infoq.com/articles/agile-alliance-survey-2006

[2] Diffusion of Innovations, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diffusion_of_innovations

[3] Technology Innovation S-curve, just Google it :). Great post about personal growth/innovation s-curve – http://blogs.hbr.org/2012/09/throw-your-life-a-curve/

[4] A reference to Bob Martin’s (a.k.a. Uncle Bob) “mushy” statement made in Snow Bird to close out the two day meeting that birthed the Agile Manifesto http://www.pmp-projects.org/Agile-Manifesto.pdf

Hey Buddy, 2001 Called and Wants Its Agile Back

in Agile/Resources by
State of Agile

In the past couple months, and really over the last few years, the frustration level of where agile software development is heading has been growing. The good thing is that the frustration is not forcing folks to give up, instead we’ve seen some great conversations form and a desire to ensure that as we move into another round of innovation with technology, processes, and practices — now more than ever we need to understand the original agreement and intent of the Agile Manifesto.

Tonight I was given the opportunity to talk to the PMI Atlanta Agile Interest group. I really enjoyed it and I appreciate the discussions.

Please take a look at the presentation, and let me know if you want to chat. There’s some great talk to be had.

Best Day Ever

in Agile/Humor/Product Management/Project Management by

My dog Mocha has a great tail — her fur is fawn colored and her tail has a white tip. My wife and I call Mocha’s tail the Happiness Meter. You see, you can tell how Mocha feels based on what her tail is doing. She has multiple wagging patterns:


Every morning, when I wake up — Mocha is there with her tail going in the helicopter pattern. Yes, this means that she is extremely happy to simply be waking up to another day. She does this every day — to her every day is the BEST DAY EVER. The one thing to know about Mocha is that she’s getting older, she definitely has stiffness in her joints, she has a bum knee, and she suffers from bouts of mild pancreatitis. Even if Mocha went to bed not feeling well or wakes up stiff — her outlook is always, this is going to be the BEST DAY EVER.

We’ve all heard of the power of positive thinking — heck, there’s probably a couple hundred books on Amazon written about or referring to the power of positivity. But since we are humans, it’s difficult to squelch down the trials and tribulations of day. In the software development world, we talk about “the death march.” This is that project that drags on, is considered a failure before the first user even sees it, the one where the management tells folks to work on the weekend, the one where for every bug fixed someone finds two more. If you work in information technology, then you’ve been on one of these projects.

Now since you are reading an Agile blog, you are probably waiting for the Agile Punchline or to hear about the Agile Secret Sauce to help over come the challenges of these projects. Well, the reality is that Agile generally will expose problems earlier and maybe make you realize that this project is going to be painful and heading for certain doom. We hope that we course correct or try something different, but sometimes we are simply just in a bad place and cannot get out of the rut.

So while working on these projects, people come dragging in for another day of drudgery. Another day of running on the hamster wheel and not getting anywhere. Another day that the project is dragging us down — in fact, today just may end up as the worst day ever.

Remember, today didn’t start out as the worst day ever, it started as the BEST DAY EVER.

  • Today is the day that no matter what happens we will find something positive and see how today is better than yesterday.
  • Today we will find that our small failure is just that, a small failure — and we learn from it, and have a piece of knowledge that we didn’t have yesterday.
  • Today is the day that we celebrate finding defects, because those are defects our customers did not find.
  • Today is the day that we find joy in having to refactor some old crappy code, because we know that when the next developer visits that code — they’ll get to enjoy changing it, not dreading the fact that they are likely to break something.
  • Today is the day that we move one day closer to getting the project out the door.
  • Today is a great day to laugh with a coworker.
  • Today we admire what has been accomplished versus what is remains.
  • Today is going to be the BEST DAY EVER.

And if you don’t believe me, just ask Mocha.

Why I Love the Boards We Use In Agile Software Development

in Agile/Agile Engineering/Product Management/Project Management by

I know this is going to sound weird, but I have an affinity for the boards we use in Agile Software Development (or Agile Project Management). I’m using the generic term board, but you may refer to them as Storyboards, Taskboards, Testing boards, kanban boards, or simply job boards.

If I get into the way-back machine; back to when I first started my career. I was in Valdosta, Georgia working my first job out of college, Trus Joist MacMillan, and I was being walked around the manufacturing facility. I was in awe and deep appreciation for what I was learning. As I went through the customer service area, I noticed a large magnetic board and on it were these color coded cards with lines that represented stages and dates running across the top. I inquisitively asked, “what is that?” They quickly and proudly gave me the run down that these things all represented our customer’s requests for goods (a.k.a. orders). The columns represented stages of the manufacturing cycle and the lanes represented weeks. This board was the central information hub for the plant — the board described everything going on from department-to-department. It gave the all plant team members indicators as to how well are we satisfying our customers, what’s coming up for the next week, and which customer orders were being held up. The other thing I noticed is that as you went throughout the facility, other departments had similar boards that were a reflection of the main board but for the specific customer requests they were working and the boards reflected each departments workflow.

Does this sound familiar?

If it doesn’t, then you are probably not working in an agile world, or living under a rock, or you are using agile by you are missing out on something great. Me and my colleagues talk about metrics a lot – with our customers and internally. Well, in case you didn’t notice, the boards themselves are living breathing metrics. The boards are the team’s communications central as well as a key way to see collectively “how are we doing?”

In fact, the boards often ask just as many questions that they answer. These questions can vary based on your role and whether or not you are an embedded team member using the board or a bystander looking to gain insights from the board. I took on the the challenge of looking at questions asked and answered by the boards and found 40, yes 40 — check them out on this mind map. I’m sure there are more; however, I figured 40 was a good start and stop.

Mindmap of Questions with Boards

Besides all the questions boards ask and answer, I also love boards for their ability to simplify the portrayal of real-time information while being able to have complex information tucked away in the details. Teams can easily innovate and adapt their boards with the use of colors, pictures, lines, layouts, materials, etc.

Finally, I love boards because they actually build the teams. They provide a place to recognize accomplishments, share challenges, and they are the place to stand around and talk about what is happening on the project. If you are using an electronic board, you can still gain these valuable intangibles by keeping the board up-to-date and driving all collaborations on what is happening on the boards. Boards give teams focus, while also given them information that empowers them to make decisions to get things done and meet commitments.

Please share your thoughts on why you like, love, or hate the boards your teams use. Share some examples. If you are not using a board today, why not? Trust me — you will be glad you did.

Checkout this gallery of board examples that I found:

Neon Board
Quadrant Board
Agile Task Board
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