Basic Agile Flow

Tim Ottinger and Jeff Langr

There are many ways to conduct an agile project. Some work with huge backlogs, some with spur-of-the moment requirements, some have continual release, some have non-time-boxed continual flow. We recommend starting with the structure shown on this Agile in a Flash card.

Following this plan, the customer team puts together a prioritized list (feature backlog) of desired features for the upcoming product release. The release is broken into iterations, and the team and customer agree on what will be delivered at the start of each iteration (no sooner). The iteration is of fixed length, something that allows the team to begin gathering consistent data, which in turn they feed back into their estimates and subsequently a larger plan. Upon incrementing and iterating the software a few times, the software reaches a state that it may be released to the customer. Does the system implement the agreed-upon features (did it pass all of its acceptance tests)? Yes: Release to production!

The flow outlined above is a reasonable starting point for a team transitioning to agile. It represents a kind of "Shu" in the Shu-Ha-Ri cycle, where one follows a certain technique or style for a while to build up their ability to perform it. In fact, both of us started with this basic pattern and found that it worked just fine.

As you move to more "Ha" stage, you might experiment with reducing the size of stories so that more of them are done and "in the can" before the end of the iteration.  You might work on making the software releasable at every iteration boundary. You might shorten your iteration period so you can gather data more often, provide smaller increments to certification, and get feedback from users more quickly. You might pick fewer stories per iteration. You may experiment with self-organizing to get work done.  It is a waste to spend a lot of time detailing features which may be done in the remote future or not at all, so you may reduce the entire feature backlog to perhaps a handful of stories. You may learn (as Deming recommends) to use more effective quality practices and eliminate a "certification" stage, as indeed many software shops are doing (research topic: continual release).

Once you are into the Ha and the Ri stages, using agile principles and values should lead you to more informal yet more effective approaches. Here's an "agile flow" card for the more seasoned agile team:

In a bit more detail:
- The customer describes a small subset of needs orally, to the team.
- Through negotiation with the customer, the team commits to completing code that satisfies some, most, or all those needs in a given period.
- The team agrees on a working set of rules that define how they will deliver quality code, under good, sustainable working conditions, in the specified period. (Hint: The team might use retrospectives to help derive and tweak the rules.)
- Repeat. This magic word allows the introduction of things like projects containing releases, and releases containing iterations. Or not.