If it’s important, never stop!

One of the most common novice questions about Agile methods is, “When do we do X?”

People always ask this about something important, and I’ve heard it asked about a bunch of things, including design, research, testing, architecture, and optimization. I think that’s a very reasonable question, as other methods have phases for things like that. From the novice perspective, we’ve taken away the phases, so it sure can look like we’ve just discarded everything but the coding.

The agile approach

My answer is that if something is important, you should never stop doing it. Make sure a little of it happens every week, and maybe every day. Close those plan-act-evaluate loops as often as possible:

  • Is the user experience important to you? Then have a designer in the room, giving continuous feedback to developers. Do regular user testing. Instrument your production software and release it often, so you can see how well your theories play out.
  • Is reliability important to you? Then involve QA as part of the definition of the story. Build your acceptance tests alongside the production code. Write your code test first.
  • Is maintainability important to you? Then never stop improving the design of the code through refactoring, promiscuous pairing, and collective ownership of the code.
  • Is making the right product important to you? If so, always have a product manager in the room. Make sure people talk about the why of a feature, not just the what.
  • Is productivity important to you? Then have the team look back every week and find some way to improve your process. Encourage everybody to always be on the lookout for ways to do things better.

And so on, for everything that you think is important to your project.

The error of phases

A big mistake of phased processes is to think that you can get a great product by ignoring important activities for weeks or months at a time. But people only stay good at things that they do frequently. Even worse, spending months with your back turned on some important facet of your project inevitably harms it. As humans, it’s inescapable that we forget the past and insufficiently understand the future. And new information is always coming in, no matter what phase you’re in.

In truth, creating a cohesive product for an ever-evolving environment and audience requires regular attention to every aspect that matters. Instead of treating some important perspective as in the past or part of the future, bring them all into the present. If some activity really matters to your project, make sure somebody on your team is thinking about it every day.

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