It’s there in black and white. Written down in 2001 by the gods of the agile manifesto and promoted in endless training sessions ever since. “Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.”
So how has agility become a laughable description of quick, dirty, unthinking cowboys (and girls) that document nothing, commit to nothing, and don’t deliver the right things.
I have a hunch I know why.
I work with many teams as their Scrum Master. They say we are following the Agile process, yet we aren’t getting what we need. When I ask them what their frustrations are, they that say requirements aren’t clear and they are told about the solutions they need to create, yet not problems that they need to solve. They tell me that they can’t get stories to ‘done’ and that releasing is hard.
What they are missing in those situations is rigour. Being held to account for the definition of ‘done’, documented test coverage, alongside the critique of every story and its acceptance criteria in a detailed and sometimes lengthy refinement meeting. Key to this are conversations about how the solution will be applied technically.
Introducing the space and time for rigour produced zero defect increments to the products, and time and again the attention to detail found hidden, thorny, intermittent problems with the code base which the teams could then put right.
Deep rigour takes time and energy. It means sweating over minute details, debating definitions and designing in collaborative, challenging refinement sessions. There simply seems to be little taste for this depth anymore.
How can a two-week sprint be planned in one or two hours at such detail? How can rigour be maintained if the Scrum Master is not technical or has multiple teams? And how can an agile coach — responsible for an entire release train — expect to instil that kind of rigour with a couple of hours oversight each week? How can lip service to acceptance criteria from un-trained product owners be enough?
And yet these are the kinds of behaviours, roles and responsibilities that have become more and more common. I see them in nearly all the organisations in which I work. It’s as if the value of rigour is no longer considered worthy of investment.
This is a shame. Rigour affects the bottom line. It makes the otherwise impossible, investable. It provides meaning and pride to individuals and it fills us with purpose.
The gods of the agile manifesto knew what they were writing. We should praise them with our actions and put technical excellence and considered design back on the top of our concerns.
No lesser action will turn the tide back on a sometimes-failing reputation.