Friday 23 July 2010

In Agile, the Practitioners Own the Process

Dear Junior

The term "process management" might be one of the driest around in system development, but in the shift to agile, the term hides a secret both surprising and delightful. 

Demystifying "process", is nothing but our daily habits, what we do when creating systems. Examples of process include how we decide when we commit stuff, how we manage our requirements, whether we do pair programming, when to do code reviews, how we decide something is finished , etc. It is really about our every-day habits of life when working.

Put that way "process management" becomes how we decide what habits we should have, or how we change them, like if we should introduce code review, or take them away, if we should be more rigorous on "no failing tests" when committing, etc.

Put that way "process management" is simply how we get better at development over time.

Process Management Traditional Style

In traditional process management each organisation has some kind of authority that decides what process we should follow. It might come in the form of a "Chief Process Officer" or as a "Project Office", but the point is that somewhere we decide the process. The groups that do the daily work of creating and maintaining systems are then to follow this process. These groups can be projects, maintenance groups or have some other organisational structure. For simplicity let us call them "practitioners" for short. So, project office decide the process, practitioners follow the process.

In many cases "project office decide, practitioners follow" is an illusion. There actually exist (take my word for it) project offices that write a process behind locked doors and then hand out a binder to the rest of the org, while believing the process will be followed. Truth is that those documents will never be read outside the project office, and will obviously not be followed.  

As an example, the project office might have decided that all code should be reviewed, and then fully believe that so is done — because it is in the process. The truth might be that no code is ever reviewed at all and the practitioners might not even know code review is part of the formal process. This "alienated project office" is of course a process management anti-pattern.

A good process office traditional style will of course behave differently. It will stay in touch with the practitioners and check whether the process is followed. If it is not, they will question why it is not followed, and explain the rationale of why they process look the way it does. It will also gather feedback and change the process to better fit  changed of discovered needs. 

However, even if the project offices adapt the process upon request, it is still in charge. If a practitioner what to change the process (e g "continuous, automated deployment to test environment"), she will suggest that change to the project office that will evaluate it. If the project office thinks it is a good idea, they will change the process, and the practitioner can start following the improved process. However, the practitioner cannot single-handed change the process just because she thought it was a "nice idea, worthy to give a try".

Process Management Agile Style

Agile development on the other hand relies heavily on the idea of continuous improvement. The basic idea is that that the process you have today is just the best you have come up with this far. Further more, the challenge of today is to find out what you should do different tomorrow. Agile development also honours doing experiments — if you get an interesting idea, then try it out for some time. At next retrospective, you evaluate the change and keep the it if it proved beneficial — or throw it away and try something else. 

Experimentation is not only a right in agile, it can also be claimed to be a responsibility. Taking it to an extreme, it can even be claimed that if you have not changed your process in some significant way the last year, you are probably no longer agile. It is probably a sign you no longer do experimentation coming up with no ideas to try. That you have found "the perfect process" is just to improbable to be likely. 

Here comes the mind-shift: for the practitioners to do this experimentation, they should have a mandate to do these continuous changes to the process. In other words, they should be empowered to change the process (ever so slightly) at their own will.They should not need to ask project office for permission. We want to keep the threshold for new ideas as low as possible. 

Rephrased, the practitioners are actually unilaterally allowed to change the process. They now own the process they follow themselves, it is no longer owned by the project office.

Project Office Still Valuable

This does not mean that the project office becomes obsolete. Quite the opposite, it might even become more important. When all practitioners can form their process, it becomes even more interesting to have some group that pays attention to all these changes, gather the changes that where successful, and can promote cross learning between practitioners of different groups. 

A team might for example struggles with that some pieces of the code is only understood by one single developer. Independently another team has solved a similar situation by using pair programming whenever such code is touched. The project office might then recognise the situation and suggest that the struggling team try that method to see if it will help them.

At this point of time the Project Office might change its name to enforce their new role. Some have re-branded themselves as the Agile Office, which I think is nice turn. Mike Cohn has reported that at one of his clients they called this group the "Agile Enablement Team" to emphasise that their goal is to enable other to become more agile.

What about Standard Process 

In agile process management you can still have a standard process. The difference is that the standard process will not be pre-defined, but rather emerge. The project office will gather ideas that have worked at some team, e g "pair program on baldy understood code",  and suggested it to some other team. If it worked at the second team as well it will promote the idea a little more active, and if it fits the organisation as a whole, it will soon enough be a standard among most or all teams. At this point "pair program on badly understood code" has become part of a de facto standard.

Over time, more a more practices will emerge and spread to all teams and a standard process will be formed. But, it will only do so if those practices actually work well throughout the organisation. And, it will not be cut in stone, but open to be challenged and evolved in the same dynamical manner. 

So, the standard process will not become a standard process because someone say so, instead it will become the de facto standard process because a majority of the teams have tried and found the same set of ideas valuable and fit within the organisation. Here the project office plays a key role in facilitating and guiding this evolution so that the good ideas are spread and that the practises have a chance to converge instead of diverging.

The Shift

In traditional process management, the process is owned by the process office and followed by the practitioners.

In agile process management, the process is owned by the practitioners and facilitated by the process office.

Small mind shift in theory, huge difference in practice.



P.s. The situation of the Project Office in an agile environment resembles very much the situation of the architect who is unable to enforce architecture, but instead must work with the practitioners to explain and evolve it.