Once upon a timebox

Treat agile like a fairy god-mother, not a big bad wolf

Little_Red_Riding_Hood.jpg

Has anyone asked you if you are agile lately? Probably not. It’s not really a question most people ask. Certainly not in a social environment. Not without consequences at any rate. Unless you are in software development. Then it becomes not so much a question, as a story waiting to happen. Settle down. Get yourself a drink. If you are talking to an agile practitioner, you will be there a while.

For a project management methodology, agile seems to frighten a surprising number of people. Becoming an agile project manager in the first place entails a considerable amount of coursework and training (and deliberately not using a capital ‘a’). The books are enormous and detailed. There are exams. And a whole lexicon of cool new terms like ‘iterative’ and ‘timebox’. And new ways to use the words you already know like ‘sprint’ (not running) and ‘scrum’ (not rugby).

So intelligent and talented people who should be using agile, end up avoiding it.

Don’t be afraid. Do you like stories? Because all fairytales are agile.

If you can understand fairytales, you can work in agile.

The highest agile priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of a valuable product.1

Start with what you know and work from there. It doesn’t have to be finished. It just has to work.

The fairytale plot is delivered in bite-size pieces—nobody knows the little mermaid will end up sacrificing her tail in an incredibly painful ordeal with a sea witch in order to run into her prince’s arms and be utterly rejected. You probably wouldn’t even start reading the story if you did. Even if you are very jaded and cynical.

The most important thing is keeping the reader happily on the hook—the plot is unravelled gradually, piquing interest as it progresses in a way that is both predictable and infinitely satisfying. You know where you are with a wicked stepmother. You know she’s going to behave atrociously to her borrowed progeny. And you know she’s going to get it in the end.

Get the right people for the job on board. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.1

All fairytales depend on their characters doing what they are supposed to be doing—the staggeringly beautiful princess, the devastatingly handsome prince charming, the heroic woodcutter, the evil stepmother, the defenceless grandmother, the surprisingly erudite wolf. They all have specific, well-defined roles to which they are perfectly adapted for playing out the story.

All the people involved in an agile project collaborate constantly to deliver the optimum solution1,2

Fairytale characters work together —Cinderella’s fairy godmother collaborates with a flock of domestic vermin to create a spectacular ball-worthy display guaranteed to win the heart of any regal dauphine worth his salt. Whilst over in the Fairytale Wood, Little Red Riding Hood and the woodcutter cleverly liaise the amazing speaking wolf into a compromising position involving his neck and an uncompromising axe.

Face-to-face dialogue is the most effective and efficient way to exchange information2

The only communication that ever has a great outcome in stories is dialogue between characters. Whilst fairytale characters do not traditionally email each other, they sometimes leave elaborate creative clues. Symbols carved in an oak tree. A trail of bread crumbs. We all know how that turned out for Hansel.

Agile avoids the daunting prospect of big design upfront, without the inevitable risk of no design upfront2

Things work best when they are Just Right—in the Goldilocks zone, there is not too much, and not too little. This is the area where the story really starts to cook with gas. If Goldilocks had been forced to eat all of Daddy Bear’s scalding porridge, it is unlikely she would have had the appetite for Baby Bear’s perfect breakfast. The story would have left the cottage with chronic indigestion and no happy ending.

You eat an elephant one bite at a time.

On-time delivery is an agile imperative to gain early return on investment1,2

Fairytales are big on meeting deadlines —get out of there by midnight. Or it all fades away and you have to carry a pumpkin home surrounded by rats. Never mind if you lose a shoe. That will be dealt with later.

The ability to respond to change at any stage of development is what makes the process agile1,2

Unpredictability (also known as change) is an integral part of the story – Snow White managed to avoid death-by-evil-queen twice, but that crucial third time she found she just had to have a bite of the wrong side of the apple and died. The dwarves were very disappointed in this change of behaviour, but rallied magnificently with a see-through coffin so the prince could see how lovely she looked and move in for the lifesaving lip lock. I bet they poked some air-holes in it too.

Users have needs, not requirements.1 Develop software with that at its core.

The authors of fairytales know what their readers need – the Brothers Grimm made an entire career out of finding out what made the biggest eyes around the campfire. So did Steve Jobs. How do they know what these needs are? They keep asking.

Agile is not just a project management methodology. It’s a vocational reassessment of what is important and how to deliver it to the benefit of all concerned.

Case study archives are replete with evidence of how agile projects deliver higher return on investment and stakeholder value than software development projects managed with traditional or ad-hoc methods.1

The reasons cited all come down to three measures of success: a high level of collaboration and communication, continuous iterative delivery and the ability to adapt to change and translate this into an advantage.1

But you don’t have to believe a thousand successful software companies. Ask anyone who has ever been managed in an agile project.

Once you go agile, there is no going back. End of story.

Wendy Shepherd

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