Tag Archives: agile

How Your Waterfall Project Can Be More Agile

5 Practices to Make Any Project More Agile

A core foundational concept in Agile is to get feedback from real users early enough to be able to address any issues that arise.  In traditional Waterfall, we assume we can do enough work up front that there will be no issues at the end, but reality shows that this almost never happens. Instead, at the very end of the project, we do User Acceptance Testing and discover issues that we either rush to patch or we plan a follow up project to address them.

Even if your project cannot adopt an Agile methodology, there is a better way to do Waterfall that still lets you take advantage of all the experience you have doing Waterfall projects and requires very little change within your organization.

There are 5 practices we strongly recommend because they can be done by any project following any kind of methodology. We have in practice with real projects seen them dramatically improve the results of Waterfall projects, and in fact have found historical evidence that some of these practices were recommended in the past for Waterfall efforts. These 5 practices are:

  • Divide the work into increments
  • Plan, estimate, and prioritize each increment
  • Synchronize work including vendors
  • Demo each increment
  • Retrospective each increment

This is what as known as Incremental Waterfall with the addition of the Agile practices of work synchronization, demonstrations of progress, and multiple retrospectives. For Waterfall projects, these practices should not require much change to current processes. Some of the phase gates may need to be passed each increment, such as detailed requirements or design each increment, so some additional time should be allowed for in the schedule. The time is made up later when better quality leads to shorter test cycles and involvement of users means much less (if any) late rework. Big picture work such as overall planning, high level requirements, architecture, and solution selection can be done at the beginning because they are common across all increments and typically do not change much throughout the project lifetime.

In general the approach for a Waterfall project will be a relatively short up front planning, requirements, and architecture phase followed by a set of increments for implementation. Each increment will include the work of detailed planning, requirements, design, implementation, and testing. The complete release process may take place at each increment if desired, or may be delayed until the end of the project.

Each practice is described in more detail below.

Divide the work into increments

An increment is a working subset of the overall solution. This practice would mean examining a project to determine the best way to divide it into 2 or more incremental deliveries of working solution. Note that these deliveries do not have to be general availability, but rather could be collected in a holding area until the whole solution is complete. But each increment will go through a full test cycle including especially user acceptance testing.

The criteria for determining what goes into each increment should include business value (the most valuable work should be done earliest), risk (we should use feedback from real users to drive out risk as early as possible), and the ability to deliver a working subset of the overall solution (minimum viable product). This practice by itself has dramatically improved traditional Waterfall projects by providing feedback well before the end of the project.

In fact, this practice was proposed for Waterfall projects in 1970 by Dr. Winston W. Royce based on his previous long time experience with large Waterfall projects (Managing the Development of Large Software Systems, Proceedings IEEE Wescon August 1970, pages 1-9). His experience and research showed that there would almost always need to be at least a second increment of a Waterfall project to refine the solution based on lessons learned, and so teams should just plan for it. We see the same realization at most of our large customers, where large Waterfall projects have typically been followed by another improvement or fix-it project. We are suggesting to formalize this practice with multiple planned increments of any software project.

Plan, estimate, and prioritize each increment

No matter the length of the increment, the detailed work planning, refining of estimates, and prioritizing of work should happen not long before the start of the increment, instead of doing all of it up front for the whole project. This allows the flexibility to take advantage of lessons learned in one increment to apply to the planning for subsequent increments. It is also a good time to review project metrics to verify the work is going according to plan, and allows a planned time to make adjustments as needed rather than waiting for the end of the project to discover there are issues.

We expect high level planning at the start of the project for all except the most innovative and fast-changing work (which by nature cannot be planned much in advance). This practice is to wait to do detailed planning until just before you need it so that the plans are the most accurate based on the information you have to date. This practice avoids spending time doing detailed work that is likely to be changed later in the project. The less well-understood the work is, the more important this practice becomes.

Synchronize work including vendors

Everyone involved with the project should regularly synchronize their work, including a representative from each vendor. This synchronization can take the form of a daily standup. In some cases, that may be more frequent than needed, but this synchronization should take place at least weekly. Synchronization should be often enough to remove the risk of unnecessary delays due to unknown work blockages.

Note that this is not meant to be a long status meeting, but is rather a 15 minute or less structured ceremony where each person just states what he or she has recently completed, what work he or she is working on now, and anything preventing (blocking) the person from completing his or her work. The most important information to come from this meeting is typically the blockages. The work blockages can be addressed after the synchronization meeting.

It is very important that the vendor representatives be included. A big problem when working with vendors is lack of visibility into what they are working on. Communication can be difficult already when working with another company, so anything we can do to promote regular, meaningful communication will improve (sometimes greatly) the work we do with vendors. Our customers who have worked this way with vendor representatives report a uniformly better experience than just handing work “over the wall” and expecting everything to be fine.

Demo each increment

At least once per increment, the working solution is demonstrated to at least the project sponsor and stakeholders. By far the better choice is to have real end users also attend the demonstration. This demonstration has two purposes: it provides a real deadline when work has to be finished so that it can be demonstrated, and it provides an early opportunity for users to provide feedback on whether or not the solution meets their needs.

Note that this does not replace formal user acceptance testing, but rather is a demonstration of progress and an opportunity for feedback well before the end of a project. Instead of providing status through reports showing perhaps 85% of requirements are completed (for example), we demonstrate working solutions as a measure of progress. If the solution is not complete enough to be demonstrated, we count it as zero percent complete.

We treat solutions as zero complete or 100% percent complete and do not try to determine an increment in between. This is because with any kind of knowledge work, it is not actually possible to truly determine how much is left to do. We can only know how much has been done. We all know of cases where the solution was 90% complete but that last 10% took 90% of the resources. We prevent that in this practice by only counting a 100% solution as complete and anything else as zero.

The demonstration provides a good opportunity to review the progress of the project to get an idea of whether it is on schedule, ahead, or behind. The outcome of the demonstration is that either the work to date is acceptable as is, or defects or change requests are created to fix problems that are detected at the demonstration. The work to fix the defects or change requests can be planned into subsequent increments of the project so that these problems do not exist in the released version of the product.

Retrospective each increment

Most companies have some kind of retrospective or lessons learned at the end of a project. Unfortunately, that is too late to do any kind of good for that team. Instead, at the end of each increment, the team will review the past increment, and in a non-judgmental way discuss what went really well, what did not go so well, and what they will do in the next increment to improve as a team.

We suggest the team start the retrospective by reciting a statement such as “We acknowledge that everyone has done the best job they were able to do in the circumstances that existed during this increment” and suggest the team end the retrospective with expressions of gratitude and thanks to other members of the team or even people outside the team who helped in some special way (it is nice to let those people know in person that they did a great job if they do not happen to be at the retrospective). This helps set a non-judgmental tone to the ceremony. The most important thing is to avoid blaming and finger pointing, to make the ceremony constructive.

The outcome of the retrospective is a small set of specific action items the team will take to improve the coming increment. We recommend starting with just 1 or 2 action items so as to not overwhelm the team with improvement work while they are focused on delivering a product. Often the outcome of the retrospective are suggestions that become habits over time, as the team incorporates better and more efficient ways of working together.

Team Members Co-located

Co-location is a fundamental practice for Agile teams, including Scrum. I touched on this in a previous post, but want to spend more time on the topic now.

By co-location I mean that all Scrum Team Members, including the Scrum Master and Product Owner, work together in the same physical location.  Not just the same city, not just the same building, not just the same floor, but literally grouped together with constant access to each other.

No offices either. If each person is in his/her own office, we are not co-locating. And get rid of those cubicle walls. They inhibit conversation.  A friend calls offices and cubicles located next to each other co-isolation. Think about it.

Scrum assumes we are literally working together as a team.  Not a group of individuals who happen to be working on the same thing, but really a team working together to achieve a purpose.

Why is co-location important?

1. When everyone is together communication happens face-to-face. There are fewer misunderstandings when we talk with each other compared to telephone or written communication.

2. If you need to talk with me about something, we can do it immediately. Our work is not blocked because someone is not available. (Some smart person will say, well what if that someone is on vacation or out sick. Paired development resolves that issue.)

3. Team building happens. You don’t need special team building exercises or events. The fact that we are together working on something leads to us to form a team. (And if it doesn’t happen, that becomes obvious as well and we can take steps to resolve inter-personal issues.)

So co-location = less misunderstanding + fewer work blockages + becoming more efficient as a team

There will be times when someone (or some 2) team members really want to work uninterrupted by anyone else. You might find a headset handy. Or maybe you will create a “cone of silence” to surround you and your computer. Or ….  The team can get creative and find ways to communicate when there is a need for someone to be left alone for a while.

Then when you come out of your cone of silence, your team is right there ready to share whatever you created.


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Scrum Works Best When …

Scrum and all Agile methods work best when:

  1. Team members are co-located
  2. Team members are together through the entire work day
  3. Information is radiated visually
  4. Every member of the team is 100% on that team with no responsibilities outside the team
  5. All work is done in pairs of team members
  6. The team has a large suite of automated unit tests
  7. The team practices continuous integration of work
  8. The team is skilled in refactoring and has a large, maintained regression test suite

The first 2 items (team members are co-located and team members are together through the entire work day) address the importance of face-to-face communication. This is because all human language is imprecise. We make up for the imprecision through body-language, tone of voice, and emphasis on some words over others.

We lose all of those advantages when we use written communication, and therefore we lose meaning.

With telephone, we lose body language and have the added problem of possible noise on the line or words that are dropped in transmission, and therefore we lose meaning.

Video conferencing would appear to solve all these problems, but it is only as good as the clarity of the connection and how much the camera is able to see. Even with video conferencing, we lose the meaning of what others are saying.

Item 3 (information is radiated visually) is important because putting team information in an online tool inhibits the transparent sharing of information. If I have to open some software and browse to find the information I want, there is a barrier to me getting the information. If the information is posted on a wall in my team work area, then that information is instantly available to anyone in the area. Including me and my team mates.

Item 4 (Every member of the team is 100% on that team with no responsibilities outside the team) addresses the importance of reducing interruption. Study after study has proven conclusively that human beings do not multitask well. I don’t care what people choose to believe, the proof is overwhelming and it is true for every generation. Young people don’t multitask any better than mature adults.

Study after study has show that switching between tasks takes time, and the more complex the tasks are, the longer it takes to unload one from your brain and load the second one in. When a knowledge worker (writers, analysts, designers, coders, architects of all kinds) is working on two projects, approximately 20% of that person’s available work time is lost in switching between tasks. This is bad enough, but the problem only grows worse as more projects are added.

Item 5 (all work is done in pairs of team members) gives at least two benefits. First, by pairing the work, you always have more than one person who knows what that work is and who can explain it to others. Second, if someone has to be out of work for a few hours, then their partner can quickly catch them up-to-speed on what has happened on the project during that time. This greatly reduces the time to switch between work and the outside world. Pairing is also an effective way to quickly get a new team member up-to-speed.

Finally, items 6-8 (the team has a large suite of automated unit tests, the team practices continuous integration of work, the team is skilled in refactoring and has a large, maintained regression test suite) address the uncertainty of software. We will almost never get it completely right the first time, and so we need mechanisms to help us make continuous small improvement (kaizen), trying and testing until the software is what it needs to be. We are not looking for perfection, but quality and value. We get the quality and value quickly by writing small amounts of code, then testing it and getting it right before writing the next small amount of code.

This stuff works when you do it. If you want to pick and choose just the things you like, you will never get the full benefit of Scrum and Agile practices.


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The War Floor

What does every manager ask for when they really want to get a software project completed quickly? “Give me a war room.” We all know, almost instinctively, what they mean.

A mid-sized room full of white boards and peg boards covered with notes and drawings. Six or seven desks pushed together in the center of the room, each with one or two people working together staring intently at laptops connected to giant monitors. Questions, when asked, are spoken out loud so anyone can quickly answer.

There is an intensity to the room. A sense that the room was assembled for a purpose, a propose everyone in the room knows and understands.

The war room is a solid metaphor for agile space, but does it scale? Can you turn an office constructed as a giant cube farm into agile space without building lots of rooms?


In fact, we can do far better than a war room. We can turn that entire cube farm into a war floor! A war floor is much nicer than just a war room.

To turn your old cube farm (or even your new cube farm) into a war floor do the following:

1. Remove the cubes
2. Make all walls whiteboards, metal boards, and pegboards
3. Acquire portable tables and computers
4. Acquire nice chairs for team members and folding chairs for visitors during demos
5. Drop power and internet from the ceiling
6. Let the team create the space they need for each project

Let agile teams be agile.

An agile war floor is a giant open space where team members arrange their desks and chairs to match the specific needs of the specific product they are working on. They always arrange their desks so they have at least one wall close by to be their task board. The rest, they improvise.

Removing the cubes allows for density and restructuring in an agile manner as the needs change. The war floor adjusts it appearance dynamically, in real time, as the needs of the team change. All without expensive build outs.

Build agile work spaces. Work spaces the team can change at the drop of a hat. The space, more than anything else, sets the tone for the entire agile journey. Do it well, and it will pay off for years to come in better agile behavior.




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Working the Same Hours

For a Scrum team to work together effectively, they need to be at work at the same time.


At the same time.

The team will have to come to agreement on those hours, but that means, for example, that the whole team is there from 8am-5pm with a one hour lunch break from noon-1.

I know some of you are unhappy about that. But really, how can you expect to work directly with someone if that someone is not there.

Remember a Scrum team is not a collection of individuals who happen to be working on the same project. A Scrum team is a group of people working literally together on something. Like an old-fashioned barn raising where everyone is lifting the roof of the barn up at the same time. You won’t get the roof raised if one person shows up from 9-10, then two more come from 10-noon, then another 3 come from 1-4.  You need the whole crew there at the same time to lift together.

Now some teams will set “core hours”, say from 10-3, when everyone is required to be there and meetings can be scheduled (and why we are talking about meetings for a Scrum team that are together all the time is a mystery to me).

What this really means is that this team has introduced inefficiency and the probability of work blockages the other 4 working hours of the day.  So this team has cut their effective work time in half.  And what do they gain?

Well, this person has to drop their kids at school, and that one has to pick them up after school, and the train schedule means someone else will be late, and ….

What you are saying is that it is more important to optimize the individual.

But Scrum and Agile teach that you get the greatest gains and benefits by optimizing the team.  Oh, and a lot of other studies show the same thing. Optimizing the individual is sub-optimal.

You have to all work the same hours. People in most other industries make it work, when they really have no choice of their work schedule.  A Scrum Team can do it as well.

It’s that important.


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