SAFe – Command and Control Agile?

SAFe (the Scaled Agile Framework, with a random “e” at the end) seems to be the talk of the agile world at the moment, and as you’d expect, opinions are both strong and divided. On the one side you’ve got the likes of Ken Schwaber and David Anderson (the guys who brought us Scrum and Kanban respectively), while on the other side you’ve got, well, pretty much anyone who stands to make any money out of SAFe.

scrum_v_safe

I’m working at a company in London who might be about to go down the SAFe route, so obviously I’ve had to do a bit of research into this new framework, as it could soon be directly impacting me in my capacity as an agile coach and devops ninja.

My initial questions were:

  1. What the hell is this and how come I’ve never heard of it?
  2. Why is there no mention of devops?
  3. Is it really as prescriptive as it sounds?
  4. Isn’t it a bit “anti-agile”? (recall “individuals and interactions over processes and tools”, part of the agile manifesto)

So I started looking into SAFe. There’s quite a bit of information on the SAFe website, and the “Big Picture” on the homepage is crammed with information, jargon and stuff. At first glance it seemed fairly sensible on the higher levels, but overly prescriptive on the team level. Then you start clicking on icons, and that’s when it gets interesting…

Story Sizing, Velocity and Estimating: They tell us that all teams should have the same velocity and the same sizing (i.e. 1 point in team A should be exactly the same as 1 point in team B). They also say that 1 point should equal 1 day. I find this quite interesting, as this time-based evaluation is flawed for a number of reasons. Velocity (in normal scrum) should be obtained by measurement, not by simply saying “right, there’s 5 people in the team, 5×8=40, therefore our velocity will be 40!” This pains me, because I firmly believe that each team should be allowed to work out their own sustainable velocity, based on observation and results (and applying the Deming cycle of making a change and seeing if it improves output). If we are all given a goal of x points to achieve in a sprint, all we will do as a team is fiddle our estimations so that we hit that target. That’s exactly why we don’t use velocity as a target. What am I missing here?

ScrumXP: SAFe seems to suggest that you MUST do 2 week sprints. You have no option in this. Doesn’t seem to matter if you want to have a kanban system based around a weekly release schedule. SAFe seems largely ignorant of this. Is SAFe suggesting that Kanban doesn’t work? Has anyone told David Anderson?

SAFe prescribes Hardening Sprints: These are sprints set aside at the end of every release (one every 5th Sprint), to allow you to do such things as User Acceptance Testing and Performance Testing. In Continuous Delivery we work towards making these activities happen as early as possible in the release pipeline, in order to shorten the feedback loop. We really don’t want to be finding out that our product isn’t performant a day before we expect to release it! I certainly wouldn’t encourage the use of hardening sprints in the SAFe way, instead I would encourage people to build these activities into their pipelines as early as possible. I think of hardening Sprints as a bad smell, isn’t it just a way of confessing that you don’t expect to catch certain things until the end? So rather than try to fix that situation and reduce that feedback loop, you’re kind of just saying “hey, s**t happens, we’ll catch it in the hardening sprint”.

Innovation Sprints: These happen at the same time as the hardening sprint. SAFe is suggesting that during a normal sprint we don’t have time for innovation. And that is quite often the case – but wouldn’t it be better if we actually did have sufficient time for continuous innovation, rather than actually have a dedicated half-sprint for innovation? The book “Slack” by Tom DeMarco talks about the myth of total efficiency, and suggests that by slowing down and building in some slack time, we get greater returns. This is better achieved as part of everyday practice rather than working at some mythical “total efficiency” level and then having an “innovation sprint”. The SAFe approach seems to be an easy option. Rather than taking the time to determine a team’s sustainable velocity which includes sufficient time for innovation, it suggests just saving it up for a sprint at the end of every release. Don’t forget that at the same point, the team will apparently be doing “hardening” activities, gearing up for a release, and planning the next one. For some reason I feel uncomfortable with the idea that innovation is something that should be scheduled once every 10 weeks, rather than something that should be encouraged and nurtured as part of normal practice.

The Scrum Master: SAFe has this to say about the Scrum Master:

In SAFe, we assume that the Scrum Master is also a developer, tester, project manager or other skilled individual (though not the team’s manager) who fulfills his Scrum Master role on a part time basis.

Wow, that’s some assumption. They seem to suggest that you can just take any developer, tester etc and send them on a scrum course, and hey presto, you have a scrum master. And yes, you could do this, but what sort of scrum master are you getting? They also say:

responsibilities can generally be accomplished in about 25% of the time for that team member

which I again find surprising. A Scrum Master is just one quarter of a person’s time?? Seriously? Mentoring a team, coaching individuals, removing impediments, applying the principles of Scrum, helping the team work towards a goal, leading a team towards continuous improvement – all of these things are expected of the Scrum Master in SAFe, and yet they can all be achieved in “about 25%” of a person’s time, apparently. And where does an agile coach come into this? Well, they don’t exist in SAFe. In SAFe you have SAFe consultants instead.

The Product Manager and The product Owner: These are 2 very separate, very different roles in SAFe. A Product Owner works with the Scrum Team, but doesn’t have contact with the customer. The Product Manager has contact with the customer but deals with the scrum team through the Product Owner. Also the product owner doesn’t own the product vision – that responsibility belongs to the product manager – this seems strange to me, I would have naturally thought that the product “owner” would own the product vision. So essentially we’re adding yet another link in the chain between the customer and the team.  I’m struggling to see this as a good thing, when in my experience a close relationship between the business and the team has always been of great benefit.

There is no Business Analyst role in SAFe, which I find quite interesting. This role seems to have been split out into the Product Owner and Product manager roles. For instance, the PO is meant to do the Just-In-Time analysis on the backlog stories.

in SAFe, the UX Designer is NOT part of the agile team. Rather, they work “at the Program Level” (whatever the hell that means, possibly on a different floor, maybe) yet they still do the following:

  • Provide Agile Teams with the next increment of UI design, UX guidelines, and design elements in a just-in-time fashion
  • Attend sprint planning, backlog grooming, iteration demos
  • Work in an extremely incremental way
  • Rely on fast and frequent feedback via rapid code implementation
  • Are highly collaborative, and…
  • The UI criteria are included in the “Definition of Done” and User Story acceptance criteria

But I must remind you that according to SAFe they are NOT part of the agile team 🙂 Is it just me or does this come across as a bit, I don’t know, pedantic?

Pretty much the same rule applies to devops (which was included in a later version of SAFe) – devops people aren’t in the team BUT, you can simply achieve “devops” in part by:

 integrating personnel from the operations team with the Agile teams

Er, ok. So they’re not part of the team but they’re integrated with the team. Riiiiight. On a plus note – it does mention “designing for deployability”, which can never be overstated in my opinion.

These are just my initial observations and I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to say on the subject as we embark on our SAFe journey. I’m hoping it’s not as prescriptive as it sounds, as I honestly don’t believe there’s a one-size-fits-all solution to adopting Agile. I very much believe that every organisation needs to go on their own journey with agile, and find out what works best for them. It’s my opinion that the lessons you learn on this journey are more important than the end result. In my experience, most organisations will have invariably witnessed a fantastic cultural shift during their gradual transition to agile, and I find it very difficult to see how a prescribed framework such as SAFe can facilitate this cultural shift.

The Agile Silver Bullet

agile_silver_bulletSo is SAFe really an agile silver bullet? I doubt it, but time will tell. I certainly don’t disagree with the majority of the contents of the “Big Picture” but where I do disagree, I feel very concerned, as I seem to disagree on a very fundamental level.

I would be much happier if SAFe was a lot less prescriptive-sounding. I can see SAFe being popular with larger-scale organisations with a penchant for job-titles and an unhealthy affinity for bureaucracy, I mean, it’s a framework, and they lap that stuff up! I can also see it being quite effective in those situations, after all, pretty much anything’s better than Waterfall!

I can see SAFe appealing to people who aren’t prepared to go on the agile journey, because they fear it. They fear they will fail, and they fear a lack of clarity. This framework puts nice titles everywhere, tickboxes to be ticked and nice clear processes to blindly follow. I can imagine it would be hard not to look like you’re making progress! I don’t yet trust the framework, but that could still change, but for the time being I’ve got the impression that it’s command-and-control agile, more of a tick-box exercise than a vessel for personal and organisational development.

It’s Points All the Way Down!

TurtlesAllTheWayDownBertrand Russell once gave a lecture on astronomy, and how the earth rotates around the sun, and how the solar system is part of a vast galaxy, etc and so forth… At one point he was interrupted by an old lady, or so the story goes, who said “What you’re saying is rubbish, the world is a flat plate resting on the back of a giant turtle”. When Bertrand Russell questioned her as to what’s below the turtle, she replied “Another turtle”. Bertrand persisted with “And what’s below that turtle then?” to which the lady replied “It’s no use – it’s turtles all the way down!”

I was reminded of this story recently when I was in discussion with a colleague about sprint planning. My colleague was explaining to me that they use story points for sizing and estimating stories, but they then break their sprint stories down into smaller tasks and use hours to estimate these tasks, rather than continue to use points.

I had never come across this particular practice before. Of course, I’ve seen teams who do everything in hours, I’ve just never worked with a team which used both points and hours. I’ve always worked in points for story sizing, and when the stories need breaking down, I would break them down into smaller points: It’s points all the way down! I’ve never had any problems with this approach, so I was curious as to the advantage of switching to hours.

My first port of call, as always, was Google. When that came up empty I turned to Twitter, and got a friendly response from none other than Mike Cohn.

 

Now, I never thought I’d find myself disagreeing with Mike Cohn, indeed his book “Succeeding With Agile” has been something of a bible for me for the last few years, but on this issue I am still not convinced.

Mike has written a really interesting blog post on why he uses hours rather than story points for sprint planning (you can find it here). One of his reasons is because he feels hours are better short-term measure than points. In some circumstances I would agree with him (perhaps if your stories are MASSIVE, and you need to break them down into much smaller tasks), but in my experience it doesn’t generally appear to hold true. I use points for both stories and tasks – the only difference is that when we get around to task estimation & sizing, we expect to be a little more accurate than when we estimated the stories in the product backlog. Quite often we will take a story of say 5 points, and break that down into two 3 point tasks. So 3 + 3 doesn’t add up to 5. Who cares? the 5 was an estimate anyway, and I always push to make everyone understand that estimates are just guesses, and the further out we make the estimate, the more approximate it’s going to be. By the time we get around to doing our sprint planning i expect us to take a much deeper look into these stories, and benefit from additional analysis, so naturally I expect our estimate to change.

I usually do everything I can to steer away from hours, because it can often be too confusing for people outside of the team to understand why the total hours don’t add up to the total available resource hours. I’d rather just not have this conversation sometimes! Also, after explaining to everyone the key benefits and purpose of using points, I can imagine they’d be confused as to why we were suddenly ditching all the advantages of points, and switching back to hours for the sprint planning. By the way, I’ve covered the reason why we use points over hours in my previous blog post here.

Anyway, I just thought I’d write this post to show that both approaches are common, and I guess it’s just a matter of “whatever works best for you”. But I’m still not convinced with the whole hours thing!

What’s the Point in Points? Agile Estimating with Dinosaurs and Bees

FUN With Points!

Over the last few months I’ve been getting some teams up and running with Scrum, and one area I always seem to have “fun” with is introducing people to the points-based system of estimating. So much fun in fact, that I’ve decided to write this very blog post about it! See how much fun it is already? No? ok.

When we do our estimating (during the planning sessions) we look at each story (work item or task) and guess how big it is in terms of effort. But we don’t just think about how long it’ll take, we also consider the following:

  • Complexity
  • Amount of unknowns

So for our teams, the size of a story represents how much effort it’ll take, how complicated it is, and how unsure we are that we know everything we need to know about getting that task done.

But Why Not Just Use Hours?

clockI get this question quite a lot. There’s a couple of reasons why hours don’t rock my world in quite the way that points do. Firstly, they’re an absolute measurement, rather than a relative measurement (more on relative measurements in a bit), and also because they encourage us to focus on how long something will take, and discourage us from thinking about complexity and unknowns. When estimating in hours, we naturally think primarily about the actual amount of time it would take to do that task, and hey presto, we have an answer. This answer quite often doesn’t take complexity and “unknowns” into account – but why? Basically it’s because we’re human. If were asked to think in hours, we naturally just think about how long a task will take, not how difficult it is or how many unknowns we should consider.

dinosaurSo when we’re all finally agreed that hours just doesn’t cut it, I go straight into the whole “points” concept. Unfortunately, for some people this basic concept is far too similar to hours, and they get confused. I was talking about this with Matthew Skelton (of London Continuous Delivery group fame – aka @matthewpskelton), and he suggested that I start off by getting people to use completely abstract objects to do their sizing, such as dinosaurs for example. I think this is a great idea for an exercise to get people away from thinking in terms of hours, but I’m not sure how well it would work in an actual sprint – you might need a team of people who are dinosaur fanatics! Anyway, I’ve mentioned this dinosaur idea a few times, in order to demonstrate that our points are completely abstract and not directly related to hours, and it has worked nicely (cheers Matthew!).

Relative Sizing

Next we move on to the exciting topic of relative sizing. Once the team have got their heads around the idea that a story shouldn’t be estimated in hours alone, it’s time to teach them a new way of measuring how big a story is.

There was a paper published in the American Journal of Psychology in 1967 called “Size-Estimation of Familiar Objects under Informative and Reduced Conditions of Viewing” by H. Richard Schiffman (vol 80 pp229-235 for those that are interested) which revealed that humans are better at estimating the size of an object when they had another familiar object to compare it to. We use this method of “relative sizing” when we estimate the sizes of our stories or tasks. We start off by picking the easiest (and usually the smallest) story of all, and give it a number – if we think this really will be just about the smallest sized story we ever want to record, we can give it the size of 1. I call this our “starter”. Some teams have given their starter a score of 2, because they often get stories which are much simpler, but not that frequently. I have no problem with this idea.

After we’ve defined our starter, we size all our other stories in comparison with it. So if our starter is 1 point, and our next story is 3 times bigger than our starter, we give it a 3! Simples.

Fibonacci Sequence

bumble_beeSome people use the Fibonacci Sequence as an additional rule in their estimating. The Fibonaccci sequence goes 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21…. etc and so forth. There aren’t many things more boring in life than people who are obsessed with the Fibonacci sequence. The only interesting thing about it is that male bees ancestry follows the Fibonacci sequence (has 1 parent because he came from an unmated female, 2 grandparents, 3 great-grandparents, 5 great-great-grandparents, and so on). Bees aside, the Fibonacci Sequence is fairly dull. One reason why some people use it in agile estimating is because they argue that if a story is bigger than a 3, then the sheer size alone should account for an additional increase due to the potential “uncertainty” factor. Suffice to say, I don’t agree.

Group Consensus

I read a book called The Agile Samurai by Jonathan Rasmusson (I really should do a book review of that at some point) and I came across a section explaining “The Wisdom of Crowds”. The Wisdom of Crowds, it explains, happens to be another book (by James Surowiecki) which, bear with me here, tells a story about a British scientist called Francis Galton. In 1906 Francis Galton did an experiment at a fair where people had to guess the weight of a butchered ox. Francis expected a professional butcher to provide the most accurate estimate, but to his surprise, the crowd of villagers actually came up with the best guess! In short, experts are often trumped by a crowd.

This concept has been adopted in agile estimation, where we use group consensus to help us agree what our estimate should be for a particular story.

Conclusion

That’s about it from me when it comes to points. So remember, hours are bad, dinosaurs are good, butchers are stupid and male bees have no fathers!!

 

Agile ITOps: Day 1

Today we started day 1 of our first ever ITOps sprint. This all came about because we needed a way of working out our productivity on “project tasks”, as well as learning how to triage our interruptions a bit better. None of the IT Ops team had tried any form of agile before, so there’s a mix of excitement and apprehension at the moment! I’ve opted for the old skool cards and sprint board (we’re using scrum by the way – more on this in a bit) rather than using an IT based system like Jira. This is mainly because everyone’s co-located, but also because I think it’s a good way to advertise what we’re doing within the office, and it’s an easy way to introduce a team to scrum.

The team already had a backlog of projects, so it was quite an easy job to break these down into cards. First of all we prioritised the projects and then sized up a bunch of tasks. We’re guessing, for this first sprint, that we’ll probably be around 40% to 50% productive on these project tasks, while the rest of our time will be taken up by interruptions (IT requests, responding to inquiries, dealing with unexpected issues etc).

Sprint 1 – planned, or “committed” tasks are on green cards, while interruptions go on those lovely pinky-reddish ones.

I’m using a points system which is roughly equivalent to 1 point = 1 hour’s effort. This is a bit more granular than you might expect in a dev sprint, but since we’re dealing with a very high number of smaller tasks, I’ve opted for this slightly more granular scale.

As well as project work, there was also an existing list of IT requests which were in the queue waiting to be done. I wanted to “commit” to getting some of these done, so we planned them in to the sprint. I had originally thought of setting a goal of reducing the IT request queue by 30 tickets, and having that as a card, but I decided against this because I don’t feel it really represents a single task in it’s own right. I might change my mind about this at a later date though! So instead of doing that, we just chose the highest priority IT requests, and then arranged them by logical groupings (for instance, 3 IT requests to rebuild laptops would be grouped together). At the end of our planning session we had committed to achieving approximately 40% productivity.

Managing Interruptions

We expect at least 50% of our time to be taken up by interruptions – this is based on a best-guess estimate, and will be refined from one sprint to the next as we progress on our agile journey. Whenever we get an interruption, let’s say someone comes over and says his laptop is broken, or we get an email saying a printer has mysteriously stopped working, then we scribble down a very brief summary of this issue on a red/pink card and make a quick call on whether it’s a higher priority that our current “in progress” tasks. If it is, then it goes straight into “in progress”, and we might have to move something out of “in progress” if the interruption means we need to park it for a while. Otherwise, the interruption will go in the backlog or in the “to do” list, depending on urgency.

At the end of the sprint we’re expecting to see a whole lot more red cards than green ones in the “Done” column. Indeed, we’re only a couple of hours into the first sprint an already the interruption cards contribute more than a 4:1 ratio in terms of hours actually worked today!

Interruptions already outweigh “committed” tasks by 4:1 in terms of hours worked – looks like my 40% guess was a bit optimistic!

Triage and Priorities

One of the goals of this agile style of working is to get us to think a bit smarter when it comes to prioritising interruptions. It’s been felt in the past that interruptions always get given higher priority over our project work, when perhaps they shouldn’t have been. I suspect that in reality there’s a combination of reasons why the interruptions got done over project work: they’re usually smaller tasks, someone is usually telling you it’s urgent, it’s nice to help people out, and sometimes it’s not very easy to tell someone that you aren’t going to do their request because it’s not high enough priority. By writing the interruptions down on a card, and being able to look at the board and see a list of tasks we have committed to deliver, I’m hoping that we will be able to make better judgement calls on the priority, and also make it easier to show people that their requests are competing with a large number of other tasks which we’ve promised to get done.

Why Scrum?

I don’t actually see this as the perfect solution by any means, and as you might be able to tell already, there’s a slight leaning towards Kanban. I eventually want to go full-kanban, so to speak, but I feel that our scrum based approach provides a much easier introduction to agile concepts. Kanban seems to be much more geared towards an Ops style environment, with it’s continuous additions of tasks to the backlog and its rolling process. I think the pull based system and the focus on “Work In Progress” will provide some good tools for the ITOps team to manage their work flow. For now though, they’re getting down with a bit of scrum to get used to the terms and the ideas, and to understand what the hell the devs are talking about!

Retrospectives, burn-downs and Continuous Improvement

We’ll stick with scrum for a while and at the end of our sprint we’ll demo what project work we actually got through, as well as advertise the amount of IT requests we did, and the number of “interruptions” we successfully handled (although I don’t think I’ll keep calling them “interruptions” :-)). I’m also looking forward to our first retrospective, which we’ll be doing at the end of each sprint as a learning task – we want to see what we did well and what we did badly, as well as take a good look at our original estimations!

I’ll keep track of our burndown, and as the weeks go by I’ll try to give the team as much supporting metrics/information as I can, such as the number of hours since an interruption, the number of project tasks that are stuck in “In Progress” etc. But most important of all, we’re looking at this as a learning experience, an opportunity for us to improve the way we manage projects and a chance for everyone to get better at prioritising and estimating.

I’ll keep the posts coming whenever I get the chance!