Agile Pitfalls

So your team is adopting Agile practices? Maybe even your whole company? Your managers and their managers are all talking about it, and the wonderful future it will bring, with gains in productivity and developer happiness. But while it can be exciting and productive when done correctly, unfortunately too many do not understand what it means to be Agile. They’ve probably read a few articles about it, and know words like Scrum and Kanban and Velocity, and now think they understand Agile. They set out to change their teams to be Agile, and the team begins to estimate user stories, do regular standups, and divide development tasks into 2-week sprints. They’re agile now, right?

Not even close.

Agile, first and foremost, is about trust. Trust in the developers on the team to create quality software. Trust in the product managers to state the business’s needs accurately. Trust in management that the additional transparancy required for agile development will not be used to criticize performance in the future. Trust that bringing a problem to the forefront will be appreciated instead of perceived as an attempt to blame. Trust that if events happen to change the situation, that the team will make the adjustments required. Trust that blame will never be the goal.

If any member of the team feels that their honesty and openness will be used against them in any way, they will respond by hiding things and disengaging from the team. Sure, they’ll still appear to be doing things the new way, but they won’t be forthcoming about problems they are encountering, and will instead paint a positive but unrealistic picture of their progress. Managers need to be aware of this, and back it up by rewarding openness.

So while it is true that adopting some or all of the practices that fall under the term “agile” can improve your team’s software development, there are plenty of pitfalls to watch out for. While some of these pitfalls are the result of not understanding how agile practices are supposed to work, most stem from mistrust and fear that the transparency will be used against them at some point in the future, such as performance reviews. I’ve listed several, in order from the least impactful to the most:

Note: I’m using the term “standup” to refer to the regular meeting of the team responsible for the work being done. Some places call it a “scrum”, but scrum is actually one particular set of agile practices, with a standup being one of them. I prefer to call it “standup” for two reasons: first, it emphasizes that everyone should be standing. That may sound silly, but it does wonders for keeping things brief and on-point. Second, if you’re familiar with the sport of rugby, a scrum is visually the opposite of how your team should look.

rugby scrum
Now *this* is a scrum!

Many of these pitfalls may seem trivial, but together they add up to reduce any gains you might expect to make by implementing Agile practices.

“Gaming” story point estimation

What I mean by “gaming” is inflating the number of points you estimate for your story so that it looks like you’re doing more (or more difficult) work than you actually are. This happens a lot in environments where team members feel that their performance evaluations will be based on their velocity. So when it comes time to estimate story points, these developers will consistently offer higher numbers, and argue for them by overstating the expected complexity. This behavior pre-dates Agile development; see this Dilbert cartoon from 1995 for a similar example. It’s human nature to want to look like you’ve accomplished a lot, especially when your potential raise and/or promotion is dependent on it. Again, managers can help reduce this by never using completed story points as a metric for evaluation, or even praising someone for completing a “tough” story. It’s a team effort, and praise should be for the entire team.

Using standup for planning

This is common in the early stages of development, when people are still figuring things out. During standup, someone mentions an issue they are having, and another person chimes in with some advice. A discussion then ensues about various approaches to solve the issue, with the pros and cons of each being argued back and forth. Before you know it, 20 minutes has gone by, and you’re still on the first person’s report.

If something comes up during standup that requires discussion longer than a minute or so, it should be tabled until after standup. Write it down somewhere so it isn’t forgotten, and then move on. After standup, anyone interested in discussing that issue can do so, and the rest can go back to what they were doing.

Treating story point estimates as real things

Who hasn’t reviewed a requirement, and thought “this isn’t so difficult”, only to find once you try to make that change, a lot of other things break? That’s just a reality when working with non-trivial systems. In an atmosphere of trust, that developer would share this news at the next standup (at the latest), so that everyone knows that the original estimate was wrong. But sometimes developers are made to feel that if it takes too long to finish a story that was estimated as fairly easy, that would be seen as failure, and be held against them. In such an environment, many developers might hide this information, and struggle with the problems by themselves, instead of feeling safe enough to share the difficulty with their team.

Not having a consistent definition of “done” for Kanban

We all know what the word “done” means, right? Well, it’s not so clear when it comes to software. Is it done when the unit tests pass? When the functional tests pass? When it is merged into the master branch? When it is released into production?
Each team should define what they mean by “done”, and apply that consistently. Otherwise, you’ll have stories that still need attention marked as “done”, and that will make any measure of velocity meaningless.

Using standup to account for your time

This is one of the most common pitfalls to teams new to scrum. During standup, you typically describe what you’ve been working on the previous day, what you plan to work on today, and (most importantly) if there is anything preventing you from being successful. This serves several purposes: to keep people from duplicating efforts by knowing what others are working on, and to catch those inevitable problems before they grow to become disasters.

But if your manager (or someone else with a higher-level role) is in the standup, many team members can feel pressure to list every single thing that they worked on, or meetings they went to, or side tasks that they helped out on… none of which has any bearing on the project at hand. Especially if they have been working on a single thing, while others in the team have been working on several smaller tasks. It just sounds like they are goofing off, or not being as productive as other members of the team. If you are the manager of a team and you notice team members doing this, it’s important to reassure them that you’re not tracking how they spend their time at standup. That would also be a good time to reinforce to the team what standup should be about. Again, if that trust is not there among the team members, standup will become a waste of people’s time.

Rigid adherence to practices

All of the above can and do contribute to failures in teams adopting agile practices. But this last one is far worse than all of the others combined. It’s bad enough to merit its own blog post.

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