Blackwater Falls

A waterfall precedes and follows rapids

In Agile Teams In A Waterfall Environment: Fixed Budget, Fixed Scope, Fixed Date, I talked about a panel discussion that I participated in that was asked: 

“We have been presented with a project with a fixed budget, fixed scope, and fixed date — can we use agile to deliver this project?” 

Interpreting the question as can we “be” agile, the answer is no (heck no if you want to be emphatic).  However, does that mean we need to take our ball and march off the field — never to be or do agile? Again, the answer is also heck no. There are several strategies that a team or even an organization can take to make progress toward a better way of working. 

Walled Garden, which is adopting agile values and techniques at a team level and then constructing approaches to interface with entities outside the bubble you create.   This is the most extreme approach, but it is a way to explore and exhibit agile values. At a team level, a leader or manager often has a substantial amount of leeway to affect how work is done. Everything outside of the team is outside of the leader’s sphere of control, therefore handoffs and data sharing arrangements must be negotiated. The walled garden can be dangerous if the team does not control how they work and if experimentation is acceptable behavior. In the real world walled gardens are often used for experiments but if left to run too long they can cause a team or team of teams to be cut off from the rest of the organization.

Shift Left moves the involvement of engineering employees to the front end of work entry. An example of this type of behavior would be to include a person that will be involved in doing the work in the sales process. Work entry problems will mess up the best-laid plans whether agile or plan-based approaches are used. The acceptance of work into the queue is a sales exercise whether you are dealing with cash-carrying, external customers, or taking orders from internal stakeholders. Determining what is needed, whether it can be done, when it will be done, and how much it will cost are all subject to negotiation (that is what sales is all about). Involve current engineers in the process. The term current is used purposefully, don’t assume that since you coded or tested a few years ago that you understand the nuances of the profession today. Involving a sales engineer will help shape the buying or ordering process so that it is based more on technical information and rational analysis and less on saying anything to get the order. Making work entry more purposeful will reduce the number of fixed everything projects. 

Hybridize your approach to building and managing work.  Visualize your flow and adopt a kanban”y” version of Scrumban. Most kanban methods can be overlaid on any process and do not require you to change how you are working. Once you have visualized the flow of work you can observe the flow to see where the constraints and bottlenecks are. Having data and proof that decision-makers can see makes having the conversation about breaking the fixed scope, budget, and schedule paradigm tangible. Once you have completed the visualization process, layer in agile techniques such as periodic (every other week – not once a season) retrospectives and stand-ups to help identify risks and re-plan. 

None of these approaches will make anyone “be” agile. But, they will move a team and potentially an organization so that the “this is the way we do things” inertia is disrupted. As changes are exposed, use the agile values and principles as a standard to determine whether you are moving toward agility or are just checking the box without addressing the core issues of why accepting fixed time, date, and scope work is unacceptable in knowledge work scenarios. The great majority of work, whether developing or maintaining software, creating a marketing plan or discovering a vaccine can’t be accomplished by going to the store and grabbing a box off the shelf. Breaking the cycle unfortunately requires education, data, and emotional intelligence. Each of the strategies discussed are steps to break the inertia so that change can begin.