The true DNA of an agile project (exploding the myths)

Ignore the new vocabulary and you’ll find nothing new in the concepts.

If you have heard me pour scorn over some of the claims made for agile, you may be surprised to know that I’m an agile practitioner with some considerable experience and not at all adverse to the approach.  That said, I always repeat the words of my agile mentor Keith Richards (no not him silly) when I asked the obvious silly question. He said ” It’s horses for courses.  When you turn up for training we assume a certain level of education, intelligence and experience”.

OK so what is the big noise about. Well the underlying promise of agile emerged back in the seventies soon after the first Standish report when some of the industry leaders cooked up an alternative to the waterfall way of wasting money.
The theory and indeed the practice is totally valid when followed with a level of honesty.  You tell me how much you can spend, or how long you have and I’ll guarantee you a working system.
Note the difference from waterfall where you have two options: fix both budget and time and have a failure nine times out of ten, or fix  just one and reduce the odds by 2/3.(MSF).

Agile delivers on the promise when billed honestly and executed  honestly.
Here’s the metaphor.  Say you meet with your co-directors and agree that right now the thing that will  accelerate you to your goals is an very large extra table  in the boardroom with a tiny door and spiral staircase and you have only £n  to spend, or n months to deliver it. I will discuss your needs at length, then I will come back with a proposal that looks like this.

The minimum required to make this work is a top and thee legs. You don’t need four to make a table work, though I agree it would be nice.  It can’t be bought and even the top has to be constructed on site.
The legs are standard things and fundamental so I will order three of these and have them delivered.
We will start making prototypes using scrap wood  for legs and sticking planks together until we have a table that is just stable enough and functional enough to meet your needs.

This we are confident we can achieve within your constraints, if we have extra time or budget, which I expect we will have, we can add a fourth leg, or smooth it over, or add a coat of varnish. You can decide when the time comes, which is more important. That’s it. No miracles, no free lunches, just less pontification, more action and a product that is fit for purpose, if not always entirely pretty.

 When you wouldn’t use agile.

You would never use it to build a space shuttle. That type of project requires a right first time approach.  I shouldn’t joke about a tragedy like that. There can never be a serious consequence of getting it wrong first time. You shouldn’t use it unless you are bought in fully to the three legged table, if your mind is set on four, stick to what you know. If you are buying in the team either as contractors or a service company, it is risky, because highly competent  people is a prerequisite.
If your main motivation is to be involved on a day to day basis as opposed to making a decision up front. It is poison, keep away.

Lernaean Hydra, your time is up.

Simple, but powerful tools to truly build a relationship with the customer, some obvious gaping opportunities to cut costs and some basic principals of architecture that even the bin man could understand in one lesson and yet are ignored by 99 percent of technical architects. If you are serious about competing in business, read this.


Lernaean Hydra (slain by Hercules ) was an ancient serpent-like beast, with reptilian traits (as its name evinces), that possessed many heads — the poets mention more heads than the vase-painters could paint, and for each head cut off it grew two more
Next time you are trying to stay awake through the IVR while being invited to search their website instead of calling the machine, or chatting to a script via “live” text, think of Lernaean Hydra.

Ever ordered something online from Acme Gadgets PLC and then tried taking it into their Acme store just down the road because it didn’t work or you needed help? Oh no you don’t, this is the wrong head, you need to call the IVR and report it to yet another head, then wait till yet another head sends out the courier to take it away and . . . familiar? I bet most readers could immediately think of several of their current suppliers who behave just like that. Could this be your business?
I recently completed some work for a well known utility and when their customer moved house she first received a “Sorry you are leaving us …” message, she then naturally panicked and spent an hour or two with the IVR to eventually speak to someone who passed her eventually to someone else to be told that all is well and she will have a supply at her new house after all. Maybe!. Experience suggests otherwise. Another week and she received the “Welcome as a new customer” letter. You may find this hard to believe, but during all this time, a Programme was running internally to reduce the size of the call centre by preventing people from calling it (Logical). The most successful trick was hiding the phone number up to 9 clicks deep.
Since then I encountered the same experience when I myself changed mobile packages with the same mobile network. It’s very easy as a business to drift into this situation, mainly because you can get away with it, i.e. the competition are just as bad. It doesn’t help that the systems you have available to run your business don’t talk to each other well and few architects have the knowledge, or the will to fix this problem even if somebody somewhere were to express the desire.

Now set that aside for a minute. Actions are pretty bad when they become mixed-up and after all everyone gets it wrong at times, but what about when actions are designed to be obtuse. Imagine a company that has set aside many millions of pounds for an advertising and marketing campaign whose goal is to “ convince the customer the we are their best friend and totally committed to giving them a great service”. Now imagine if the self same CEO told you he is “investing” in another programme to allow no more one-to-one contact with customers apart from the bereavement team. This would mean that instead of a wait between 35 and 85 minutes for any kind of assistance there would be no assistance for the majority of queries and issues other than searching an FAQ. Would that situation leave you with one or two questions?
I have just spoken to such a person, so this is not fiction, in fact it is the current trend in many industries. Imagine if a business like this were to ban Social Media engagement because they were worried that the customers would get talking about the lack of service. You guessed it. No doubt most readers have their own list of experiences with corporate schizophrenia.

Now perhaps you thought Lernaean Hydra with her many heads is a disturbing picture of a business that likes to believe it has a personality and a brand and is customer friendly, but the truth is far, far worse, because in reality our monsters not only have many heads but at least one derrière per head and out of these derrieres pours endless mountains of poo. It’s not pleasant and it doesn’t even grow the lawn, but some clever people are determined to gather all of it and analyse it to look for traces of information that might tell them more about their businesses. Well let me tell you up front that for the most part they will simply turn a lot of small poos into a “big poo”. If they ever did find the answers, here’s what it would say: “Your customers despise you, but they tolerate you because they know that the alternative is much the same.”

You buy something for 15 pence and sell it for a pound and only make 7 pence profit, the rest you waste on nonsense like this and your shareholders are also in despair. Your employees are autonomons who live out the bizarre role you gave them because they are very adaptable and resigned to the inevitable.
Any executive who wants to know about her business need only walk around for a few days without the mask and talk to the people on the job and dare I say it, talk to customers. These know all these answers, but nobody asks them.

For qualitative issues we used to use samples as big as 300 when I worked in research, but we all knew that equally useful results could be had with 20 or 30 and there are many who say a great deal fewer will give us reliable answers. In fact there are empirical studies to prove it. Do we need “big data”, no we certainly don’t. If there is anything we do need it is “small data”, or better still “smart data”.
What I am saying here is not that we don’t need the information, but simply that we don’t need a great stinking pile of data in order to get that information, nor do we need the cost associated with it. Maybe the health service could find cures by analysing past results etc, but that is something different from the little dashboards most of our clients and are capable of dealing with and imagining with when they are shelling out for humungous data servers.
Microsoft recently released a convincing paper demonstrating that few companies on earth have more data than can be analysed and presented on a bog standard database server. I agree.
Don’t get me wrong there is a role for big data, but not the one most people are determined to tackle with it.

When you exist in an environment where inexplicable behaviour can go un-challenged, the next step is for this behaviour to find its way into the planning process and even strategy, if not by design, then at least through tolerance. What this says about modern business is truly frightening and what it says about customers and their power to move markets is in many ways even more frightening. I happen to believe as did Milton Friedman, that only the power of truly free markets can guarantee individual freedoms long term, though unlike Friedman, I accept that sometimes freedom needs some minimal regulation. We could talk about free markets, or about corporate strategy, but that is for a different forum. I am just concerned with cutting through the nonsense and pointing out the glaringly obvious as a starting point on the road back to business sanity.

In the next instalment, I will be talking about good management practice leading to sensible, though sometimes revolutionary use of technology to support strategies that can drive any business into a clear lead in any sector you wish to name.
I believe we have a duty in business to use technology intelligently to serve our customers and drive returns to employees and shareholders and in the following instalment, I will show you a simple technique to make sure that you know how your technology decisions are impacting your customers so you can make better decisions.

In another instalment, I will talk about some obvious gaping opportunities to cut unnecessary costs and some basic principals of architecture that even the bin man could understand in one lesson and yet is ignored by 99 percent of technical architects

In further instalments I will talk about the cultural barriers (the stuff we don’t ever discuss around here) that stand in the way of making businesses work though technology and I will show you simple tools to help you discuss and master strategy and planning as a precursor to technology investments.


Good management strategy and practice supported by intelligent modern systems