4 things - avoiding the Agile death march

Agile initiatives can have a surprisingly short run. At first everything seems rosy, but as soon as the going gets tough, the experiment is history. In "Unintended Consequences -- the Agile death march" I told the sad story of a team demoralized and stricken with "delight withdrawal". It got so bad that team members were resigning. The abandonment of Agile by the organization was the next likely step. But did it need to be so? What might have been done differently to avoid such a messy outcome?

Here are 4 things you can do to avoid the Agile death march:

  1.  Start with an empowered Product Owner -- An effective Product Owner must have authority to make decisions on behalf of all stakeholders. A Product Owner can and should seek advice, but should not have to seek permission to make decisions related to the product. The empowerment of the Product Owner should be clearly communicated and respected by others in leadership and authority positions.
  2. Listen to and act on customer feedback -- When a Product Backlog is initially built, the team is as ignorant as it will ever be about the actual needs of the customer. If the team is to build the right product, the Product Owner must take advantage of feedback from customers who are using the product. Getting product into the hands of real customers is the enabler of this feedback. Actually listening to the customer and acting the new information they provide closes the feedback loop.
  3. Ruthlessly refine the Product Backlog -- The Product Backlog thrives on refinement. The Pareto Principle tells us that 80% of the value in the backlog is in a subset of the backlog that represents 20% of the overall effort. In a properly ordered Product Backlog, that 20% is at the top of the queue. Unless the queue is revitalized with new high value items, the unavoidable outcome is diminishing returns as the team consumes the queue. At some point, the returns may not justify the investment. An appropriate refinement at this point might be for the Product Owner to de-scope the remaining items.
  4. Set appropriate expectations -- Change happens! Expect it and set appropriate expectations for others. Nothing is safe from change: the work, the plan, the vision, customer wants and needs. Don't think of the Product Backlog as a list of requirements. It's more like a "to do" list, evolving as needs emerge and drop away.

In "Unintended Consequences...", Mary's chief problem was a lack of empowerment - thing number 1 on the list above. This missing essential ingredient undermined all of her efforts on things 2-4 . The importance of an empowered Product Owner can not be over-stated. Give them the power and hold them accountable.