Keeping The Agile Development Approach Flexible and Increasing Velocity

The Agile development approach is a hot topic and has been for a while.  Although it is adopted in a lot of shops and well-documented, there are still some issues with it.  The way we implement the Agile approach can defeat the purpose of a flexible model that allows a high velocity of production.  That assumes you have enough resources to effectively do more than one thing at a time.  However, there are some ways to adjust your scrums and sprints to get the most out of this methodology.

Agile as Small Waterfall

One of the flaws I have come across is that teams treat a sprint as a short waterfall process.  It does include all of the same steps as the waterfall approach (gather requirements, design, implement, test, deploy) but does not need to be as linear.  For example, a waterfall approach to a sprint would be a few days for requirements, then to design, then implement for a while, then test, and end with a deployment.  All you gained in this is reducing the scope of the requirements and what is deployed.  I am over-simplifying a little bit.  However, this is close enough to a lot of sprints I have seen.

The productivity problem is that you have resources during the sprint that are not used.  Testing is not done until the end, so testers are idle at the start.  Designers are not needed much during implementation, so they are almost unused.  Team members do a lot of work at a high pace during their portion of the sprint and hang around the rest of the time.  You can use that spare time for training and skills improvement (not a bad idea), but there are better uses of your resources.

Continuous Progress

The goal is likely to keep all of your resources working on a steady and constant basis.  This can be partially achieved by including everyone in every step.  It makes sense for testers and developers to be involved in design and designers engaged in implementation, testing, and deployment.  However, this is almost like busywork in some of those cases.  A better approach is to overlap your sprints.  This is easy to do with multiple teams.  Nevertheless, it can be accomplished with a single unit as well.

The effect is that you will have more than one sprint active at a time.  Multiple teams will have this, but a single group may as well.  With multiple units, a productive approach is to have members be a part of more than one sprint at a time.  The implementation team will be the only group that tends to have a single sprint focus most of the time.

Overlap For Productivity

Let’s use a two-week sprint as an example of how this works.  Sprint A starts on week one and requirements are gathered (from the backlog).  The implementation and testing team go over the items for the sprint and provide feedback, estimates, and ask for clarifications as needed.  This is the first few days of the sprint (we will assume two).  Next, we move into implementation.  For this example, implementation is six days which leaves two for integration testing and deployment.  That is not enough time for sufficient testing so we will have our testers running through scripts where possible as tickets are completed during this phase.

The designers will be supporting the implementation phase, as needed.  However, they will also be looking ahead to the next sprint.  The design team can dig deep into designing for the next sprint and use this time to get feedback on design decisions as well as poll customers/users.  That should make it easy to keep the selection and clarification part of the next sprint go smoothly (maybe a day instead of a couple).

As we move into testing, then the implementation team and designers will start work on the next sprint.  They will be selecting and clarifying tasks while the testers test.  As we move into deployment for Sprint One, we will also be working on implementation in Sprint Two.  Rinse and repeat.  The overlap of a few days will help keep designers busy and the developers implementing.

If you have two or more teams, you can overlap implementation, keep design short and assign designers to possibly several sprints at a time.  This will also allow for more design time to be allocated to each sprint.  That will pay off in clarity around requirements as well as reduced design related flaws.

Minor Tweaks

As you can see, these changes are not earth-shattering, nor are they complicated to introduce.  Your scrum master and designers might have a little more asked of them.  Nevertheless, the payoff is worthwhile, and they will find a rhythm with this process early on.  It also helps avoid a roller coaster of activity that can often occur with team members when you do not find ways to keep them busy and focused throughout a sprint.  Better yet, this is an easy change to try for a few sprints to see if it works for you and your team.

I would love to hear other suggestions and feedback on how your attempts at improving your agile development velocity turn out.  We can all learn from the successes (and failures) of others.

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