Architecting the Process

Jimmy Bogard has moved on to Lean from Scrum. InfoQ asks “Is Kanban the new Scrum?”, while Jim Bird asks “What can you get out of Kanban?”. Dan North touched a raw nerve by suggesting that techniques like TDD should be used only when they add value rather than universally. A post titled “Seven Things I Hate About Agile” is answered by another named “7 things I hate about people that don’t know Agile”.

bettyfjord, commenting on Jimmy Bogard’s “Why I’m done with Scrum”, probably spoke for many with the observation:

As a dev with many years’ experience delivering and responding in very high-pressure environments, I still cannot believe how seriously this methodology stuff gets debated. Y’all clearly don’t have enough work to do.

Certainly the process wars have consumed countless hours and electrons that could otherwise have been spent producing software. That being said, if we don’t make time to talk about how we work, when does it get evaluated? If our processes aren’t evaluated, how do we know they’re optimal, or at least moving in that direction? If we’re taking it on faith that our process is the one true way to develop, how agile is that?

At first glance, certainty sounds like a good thing. According to, to be certain is to be “free from doubt”. Doubt, however, can be a powerful driver of innovation. Over the centuries, people have from time to time held the opinion that progress has reached its end point. Their certainty has, without exception, been wrong and the doubters right.

Even when we find that our processes serve our needs, the evaluation still provides value in the form of validation. Unexamined processes risk becoming psychological experiments proving that groups will adhere to practices long after any need exists, just because “that’s the way we do it”.

Rather than expecting one methodology to suffice for all, it seems much more reasonable to accept that organizations, their systems and the focus of their development teams will differ. An independent software vendor (ISV) will have different circumstances and priorities to deal with than an in-house corporate development team who will operate under constraints different from contractors. Within these categories, goals and priorities can differ greatly. A startup with the next great game will almost certainly operate differently from a company selling financial software. For either to use the same process as the other would be a disaster.

The working environment can likewise vary within an organization. Teams working on innovative web initiatives for an enterprise would most likely be severely hampered by the restrictions the financial system teams work under. Likewise, allowing the financial systems teams the same latitude given the R&D groups could carry both professional and legal consequences. Even teams working on different aspects of the same product could benefit from different processes. Time-boxed methods may work better for those doing new development, particularly on products that can’t be continuously deployed. At the same time, those providing support for the same product may benefit from processes that maximize delivery.

Bogard’s situation illustrates another reason to favor a pragmatic approach. Technologies, people and organizations all change. Just because a particular process fits today’s situation does not mean that it will continue to work in the future. Constant evaluation and refinement is key to remaining relevant. As Jim Highsmith has noted:

There is no Agility for Dummies. Agility isn’t a silver bullet. You don’t achieve it in five easy steps. So what is it? For myself, I’ve characterized agility in two statements:

Agility is the ability to both create and respond to change in order to profit in a turbulent business environment.

Agility is the ability to balance flexibility and stability.

Part of responding to change and remaining flexible is avoiding letting processes calcify. From another Highsmith post:

The Agile Manifesto was carefully worded to promote adaptability—to steer people away from rigid interpretations of the principles. Take the delivery principle for example, “Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.” It would have been much easier to write this principle as “Deliver working software every two weeks,” but that wording would lead people to rigidity (they get there on their own anyway).

Furthermore, what happens in too many organizations is that practices become static and then quietly elevated to the level of principle—something that can’t be violated. A good practice, “daily standups,” becomes bureaucratic when it is interpreted as “You must do daily standups, or else!” When questioned, the proponents of this newly crowned principle usually respond with “well, Joe Jones who wrote the book on Agile says so on page 48.” They lose track of why they are using the practice and it becomes a de facto standard rather than a guideline.

In the past, I’ve noted that “why” is the most important question architects should ask themselves when designing. Likewise, when designing a process, we should ask what we’re trying to accomplish and whether the processes we’re adopting will further those goals.

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  1. #1 by kirschilan on September 23, 2012 - 2:44 am

    As an agilist, I urge people to questions everything and to assume nothing. This does not mean that you should make your own process, ignoring the knowledge of others. On the contrary – you should question WHY it was made so, and do not assume that this process, as is, is right for you also.
    Scrum, for example, encourages to have your daily stand-ups, well, daily. There is a good reason for that – to the extent that Scrumists will say that it is ok to change the daily to a lower frequency – but then it will not be Scrum.
    In this context, if you can foster continuous improvement with weekly stand-ups – go ahead! As long as you reserve yourself the right to question it, and to revoke assumptions made about it in the past.

    • #2 by Gene Hughson on September 23, 2012 - 9:46 am

      I’ve long been a believer in the power of questioning. When the answer is “not optimal”, I’ve learned of a weakness that I can address. When the answer is “optimal”, I’ve confirmed that I’m doing things right (where right is defined as best for my current circumstance). Either way, it’s a win.

  2. #3 by charliealfred on September 24, 2012 - 9:14 am

    Well said, Gene! Any process that doesn’t fit the problem (environment and business forces), the product (the intended solution), and/or the people is like wearing somebody else’s clothes that are from the other gender and 4 sizes too big or small.

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