Agile Manifesto – The Dark Side – Part 4 of 4

Finally reached the last of my 4 posts looking at the other side of Agile. The last line of the manifesto:

Responding to change over following a plan

This is slightly different to the other 3 in that it feels obvious, common sense, but so does the right hand side when considered in isolation – following a plan – well Duh yeah, who doesn’t, no plan no clue!

So making a case for having a plan is slightly easier, but then what is the problem, what do the agile community have to say about planning that warrants a direct attack in the manifesto.

When explaining Agile in training events or discussion groups I usually enhance this line with an extra word – makes things a little more colloquial but really stresses the point:

Responding to change over BLINDLY following a plan.

Now the issue is clearer. Having a good understanding of where you are, what is going on, the consequences of dependencies and whether we are likely to deliver what we thought we would when we thought we would, is a good thing. The problems occur in three places:

  • When the plan attempts to predict beyond your delivery horizon
  • When there is a lack of acceptance that the current position isn’t the planned one
  • When achievement to the plan is more important than delivering Value

I often joke about plans that if when you start a project you have a plan that says you’ll deliver in 18 months time, on the 14th of March for example, then can we pay upfront for a massive launch party on the 15th March….? Of course not – so why so much effort, scrutiny and confidence in something you don’t truly believe in?

The best plans enable change, those that don’t are either ignored, undergo endless expensive change control or drift off into fantasy in comparison to reality and then suffer catastrophic failure.

The ability to change a plan isn’t about changing the right answer, it is about avoiding the wrong one. Don Reinertsen explains this wonderfully with the following: If you were offered a chance to guess a three digit number for three dollars and if correct you win $3000, would you take it? Statistically you are break even. Now if I give the option to pay $1 for the first digit and then be told if correct before paying $1 for the second digit, and the same for the third. Which has the biggest payoff? The later costs the same to play, wins the same but is 96% better value, and it isn’t because the player is more likely to get the right answer, or because they pass less or win more. It is because they can identify a losing situation and can change their plans.

So within the wonderful world of planning, which elements should be encouraged? Engaging in a truly Agile delivery does bring some challenges to the business that are required to consume a constantly changing / enhanced technology landscape; the training material approach will need to adjust, communications need to be aligned for example. Having a high level plan of what features are in the pipeline will keep these departments together and then a low level detailed plan of what is being worked on NOW will enable the associated organisational change management activities to keep up.

A roadmap, of the type Pichler espouses for example:

is a great plan in that it indicates direction and purpose but doesn’t give details that can instruct delivery teams blindly.

At a sprint level – when in a scaled environment, ensuring that after sprint planning all teams are aware of all dependencies is also an important activity – how this is done – central google doc, notecard for reference in Scrum of Scrums is contextual.

Eisenhower once said that “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything”. What he meant by this is that through planning you get a clear understanding of what is happening now, an awareness of all the moving parts and how they interact – and that is vital because it enables you to respond. The reasons behind why the plan being worthless can be answered with another great quote from Moltke the Elder (19th Century Prussian military strategist), “No plan survives first contact with the enemy”. There are too many variables at play to expect any long term plan to be expected to remain static.

In my experience the benefit of planning over following a plan is that it forces acceptance of the realities of the situation you are in, free from the illusion of where you’d like to be.