Learning Agile goes to press!

After over three years of research, writing, and review, our new book, Learning Agile, is finished! Jenny and I are really excited about it, and we think it’s our best work yet.

We write this book because we really want you to learn agile! Agile has revolutionized the way teams approach software development, but with dozens of agile methodologies to choose from, the decision to “go agile” can be tricky. This practical book helps you sort it out, first by grounding you in agile’s underlying principles, then by describing four specific—and well-used—agile methods: Scrum, extreme programming (XP), Lean, and Kanban. Each method focuses on a different area of development, but they all aim to change your team’s mindset—from individuals who simply follow a plan to a cohesive group that makes decisions together. Whether you’re considering agile for the first time, or trying it again, you’ll learn how to choose a method that best fits your team and your company.

Here’s what you’ll learn in Learning Agile:

  • Understand the purpose behind agile’s core values and principles
  • Learn Scrum’s emphasis on project management, self-organization, and collective commitment
  • Focus on software design and architecture with XP practices such as test-first and pair programming
  • Use Lean thinking to empower your team, eliminate waste, and deliver software fast
  • Learn how Kanban’s practices help you deliver great software by managing flow
  • Adopt agile practices and principles with an agile coach

We’ve already gotten some great praise. Here’s what other people have to say about it:

Another amazing book by the team of Andrew and Jennifer. Their writing style is engaging, their mastery of all things agile is paramount, and their content is not only comprehensive, it’s wonderfully actionable.
—Grady Booch – IBM Fellow

What Andrew and Jenny have done is create an approachable, relatable, understandable compendium of what agile is. You don’t have to decide in advance what your agile approach is. You can read about all of them, and then decide. On your way, you can learn the system of agile and how it works.
—Johanna Rothman – Author and Consultant, www.jrothman.com

An excellent guide for any team member looking to deepen their understanding of agile. Stellman and Greene cover agile values and practices with an extremely clear and engaging writing style. The humor, examples, and clever metaphors offer a refreshing delivery. But where the book really shines is how it pinpoints frequent problems with agile teams, and offers practical advice on how to move forward to achieve deeper results.
—Matthew Dundas – CTO, Katori

Andrew Stellman and Jennifer Greene have done an impressive job putting together a comprehensive, practical resource that is easily accessible for anyone who is trying to ‘get’ Agile. They cover a lot of ground in Learning Agile, and have taken great care to go beyond simply detailing the behaviors most should expect of Agile teams. In exploring different elements of Agile, the authors present not just the standard practices and desired results, but also common misconceptions, and the positive and negative results they may bring. The authors also explore how specific practices and behaviors might impact individuals in different roles. This book is a great resource for new and experienced Agile practitioners alike.
—Dave Prior PMP CST PMI-ACP – Agile Consultant and Trainer

Andrew Stellman and Jennifer Greene have been there, seen that, bought the T-Shirt, and now written the book! This is a truly fantastic introduction to the major Agile methodologies for software professionals of all levels and disciplines. It will help you understand the common pitfalls faced by development teams, and learn how to avoid them.
—Adam Reeve – Engineer and team lead at a major social networking site

The biggest obstacle to overcome in building a high-performance agile team is not learning how, but learning why. Helping teams discover the why is the key to unlock their potential for greater commitment and more creative collaboration. With a focus on values and principles Andrew and Jennifer have provided an outstanding tool to help you and your team discover the why. I can’t wait to share it.
—Todd Webb – Technical Product Leader at a global e-commerce company

You can read the first chapter for free in the Free Sampler PDF.

Learning Agile is available directly from O’Reilly, where you can buy the paper copy, a DRM-free eBook, or a great deal where you can get both for a discount. It’s also available at Amazon.com and all major retailers.

Scrum and Self-Organizing Teams

“Grand principles that generate no action are mere vapor. Conversely, specific practices in the absence of guiding principles are often inappropriately used.”

– Jim Highsmith, Agile Project Management: Creating Innovative Products (2nd ed.)

The board game Othello has the slogan, “A minute to learn, a lifetime to master.” This applies really well to a team that’s learning Scrum. The basic practices and mechanics of Scrum are straightforward, and not difficult to adopt. This is why many teams use Scrum as a starting point for going agile.

The basic pattern for a Scrum project is simple, which makes it very attractive for teams who want to go agile. And if that were all it took to adopt Scum effectively, we’d all be running great agile teams! But many teams find that they run into trouble with their Scrum adoption, and usually end up with what feels like an “empty” implementation. We explore this in our new talk, Scrum and Self-Organizing Teams: Openness, Courage, Pigs, and Chickens [pdf].

For a Scrum team to become effective, they need to do more than just follow the basic Scrum pattern. Effective Scrum teams are self-organizing, as Ken Schwaber explains (note the phrase that we emphasized):

For Scrum to work, the team has to deeply and viscerally understand collective commitment and self-organization. Scrum’s theory, practices, and rules are easy to grasp intellectually. But until a group of individuals has made a collective commitment to deliver something tangible in a fixed amount of time, those individuals probably don’t get Scrum. When the team members stop acting as many and adopt and commit to a common purpose, the team becomes capable of self-organization and can quickly cut through complexity and produce actionable plans.

– Ken Schwaber, Agile Project Management with Scrum

The goal of this talk is to help teams “get Scrum” by building on the practices and patterns of Scrum, and through those practices show the ideas behind the principles of collective commitment and self-organization.

In Agile Project Management with Scrum, Ken Schwaber introduced five Scrum values: courage, commitment, respect, focus, and openness. Understanding these values is an important key to understanding self-organizing teams.

 Self-organizing teams work differently than command-and-control teams because they have different values. Understanding self-organization starts with learning how these values are practical things that can be incorporated into your projects:
  • Each person is committed to the project’s goals. That level of commitment can be achieved when the team has the authority to make decisions in order to meet those goals, and everyone has a say in how the project is planned and executed. For example, sometimes a requirements document isn’t perfect. To make the project successful, a team might have to ignore a documented requirement in order to deliver a product that’s much more valuable. This is only possible once they’re given the authority to make that decision.
  • Team members respect each other. When team members have mutual respect, they’re able to trust each other to do a good job with the work they’ve taken on. But that respect doesn’t always come easily to programmers and other technical people. Many programmers, especially highly skilled ones, often base their respect purely on technical ability. This can be a barrier to effective Scrum adoption. If a programmer doesn’t respect the product owner, he won’t listen to that product owner when they talk about the goals of the project.
  • Everyone is focused on the work. When a Scrum team member is working on a sprint, that’s his only job for the duration of the sprint. He is free to do whatever work is needed to complete the iteration backlog, and handle any changes that are made to that backlog during the sprint. When every team member is focused on the sprint goals and given the freedom to do whatever work is needed to meet those goals, the whole team is able to organize itself and easily redirect whenever a change is needed.
  • Openness. When you’re working on a Scrum team, everyone else on the team should always be aware of what you’re working on and how it moves the project towards its current goals. Many of the Scrum practices are aimed at encouraging openness among the team members. Task boards, for example, allow everyone to see all of the work being done by each team member, and how much work is left to do. Burn-down charts let each person gauge for themselves how quickly the sprint is meeting its iteration goals. The Daily Scrum, when done effectively, is a almost pure exercise in openness, because each person lays bare their tasks, challenges, and progress for the whole team to see. All of these things can help the team to create an atmosphere of mutual support and encouragement.
  • Team members have the courage to stand up for the project. When you choose openness over opaqueness, you make the team stronger rather than making yourself stronger at the expense of the team. It takes courage to do that, but when you do you end up with a better product and a better work environment. Scrum teams have the courage to live by values and principles that benefit the project. It takes courage to ward off the constant pushback from a company whose values clash with the Scrum and agile values. This requires vigilance on the part of every team member, especially the Scrum Master. But it also requires each person to be willing to trust that delivering valuable software will help them overcome resistance to these values. This requires courage too, especially when it comes time to sit down for a review with the boss. It takes courage to say to yourself, “Helping this team produce valuable software is more important to me that how the company sees my own personal contribution.”

Methodologies have built-in values

Every company has its own culture that includes specific values. For example, some companies value separation of duties, where each person has their specific role to play, and is protected from having to be accountable for things that they can’t easily influence or control. Other companies value transparency, where information is shared freely and even low-level employees can influence management decisions. Neither of these is the “right” way to run a company. Every individual company has a culture that evolves over time, based on the way it’s managed and the decisions that are made.

Every methodology has values built into it. Specific agile principles are often tied to (or implemented by) individual practices, and that those practices are an effective way for a team to bring each principle to the project. A team in a company that reserves decision-making for managers only will find it difficult to truly commit to projects. The same goes for any value or principle: if they clash with the company’s values, it presents a barrier to adoption.

But in a company where the culture matches the agile values and principles, an agile team will be much more successful than a command-and-control team. (This is one of the sources of the “astonishing results” that some agile teams report.)

You might be surprised at just how well the agile values and principles match your company’s culture. A good first step in introducing agile to your company is to talk about the values, and how they might impact your company’s culture. If you find that your agile adoption runs into trouble, finding the mismatch between agile values and company culture can help you smooth out the transition (or at least help you feel better by understanding why things went wrong).

So how would you build courage on a team? How would you get a team to believe in themselves, and believe that Scrum will not only help them build more valuable software, but that they company will see the value in their new methodology?

Getting Agile Right

Last week Jenny and I gave our new talk, Getting Agile Right [pdf], for the first time. We’re really excited, because it also marks our first public announcement of our current book project for  O’Reilly: a new book about agile development and project management. It’s aimed at people preparing for the PMI-ACP certification, but our goal is to help anyone who’s interested in agile really understand the ideas behind it.

We talk to a lot of teams and help  them understand what’s gone right and wrong with their projects, and look for common patterns of project problems and failure (that’s what our Why Projects Fail talk [pdf] is all about.) People starting with agile often us about something that we call “better-than-not-doing-it results.” Basically, they adopt a bunch of great agile practices, and they see a clear improvement. It was definitely worth going agile, but something feels a little hollow about it. They were expecting the “astonishing results” and “hyper-productive teams” that they’d read about in agile books and blog posts, but there’s a feeling that at its core, the team hasn’t really changed how they do things, they just made incremental improvements.

I recently read Lyssa Adkins’ excellent book, Coaching Agile Teams, and one of the really insightful things she points out is that “metaphor is a powerful thing.” Jenny and I put a lot of thought into coming up with a good metaphor to help explain what’s going on. We hit on a really good one: the story of the blind men and the elephant. I like the Jain version of the story (from Wikipedia):

A Jain version of the story says that six blind men were asked to determine what an elephant looked like by feeling different parts of the elephant’s body. The blind man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a hand fan; the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe.

A king explains to them: “All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently is because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all the features you mentioned.”

So what does this have to do with agile teams having trouble getting past better-than-not-doing-it results?

Teams that get better-than-not-doing-it results from agile are often the ones who were already able to get software out the door reasonably well before starting with agile, and were hoping that agile adoption would help them get a real improvement. The problem is that before the team started adopting agile practices, they were experiencing problems—not the serious, software crisis problems that caused their projects to fail outright, but problems that caused friction and discomfort on the team. The source of these problems is something that we call a “fractured perspective”: the developers think about developer stuff, project managers think about project manager stuff, and they throw the code over the wall to a business user who thinks about business stuff. Everyone is really busy thinking about his or her own project work. There isn’t a lot of communication between people, and they’re really functioning as individuals working separately towards compatible goals, not as a team.

That’s where the Blind Men and the Elephant story comes in—it’s a good metaphor for how a team with a fractured perspective adopts agile. Each person sees the practices that impact his or her work. Developers concentrate on, say, test-driven development, refactoring, and automated builds. Project managers like task boards, project velocity, and burndown charts. Business users use release planning and user stories to get a better grasp on what the team is doing. Team leads use daily standups and retrospectives to manage and improve the team. Everybody wants something different from the project, and they each see a few practices that do something specific to help them.

And that’s definitely going to improve things, because agile practices are generally really good. The problem is that since everyone—developers, project managers, business users, and team leads—sees the project from a different perspective, they’ll concentrate on only those practices that immediately appeal to them. There’s a paradoxical effect (we call it, “See! I was right all along”) where each person now sees only the part of agile that affects his specific project work, and draws the conclusion that agile is all about getting everyone else to come around to his point of view.

But agile is more than just practices. In fact, that’s one of the core ideas behind agile: principles over practices. So while the agile “elephant” is made up of many great practices, the whole thing is greater than the sum of the parts. And if you only see practices—especially if you’re only looking at the practices that directly affect your project work—then you’ll only see one small piece of agile. The “elephant” of agile is made up of the practices day to day, but it’s much bigger than just those practices.

A team whose members only see the practices and don’t think about the principles will miss out on the important interactions between people. Their perspective stays fractured, and they stay separate and don’t really function as an effective team. They’ll still get their work done, but they miss out on the great team interactions and collaboration that make agile really work.

This is built into agile. If it’s been a while since you’ve had a look at the agile manifesto, open it up again and have a look at the very first value:


Individuals and interactions over processes and tools


Processes, methodologies, and tools are still important (“…while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.”). But even more important than specific practices are the individuals and interactions. It’s these values, and the twelve principles, that show us how the practices work together, and serve as a guide for how teams adopt those practices.

That’s one of the lessons of our “Getting Agile Right” talk [pdf]. It’s also going to be one of the big themes in our upcoming book, due out from O’Reilly next year, about agile development, project management, and the new PMI-ACP agile certification. We’ll continue to make posts to help connect these dots and learn more about agile.