Agile as… Anti-Satnav

Satnav view of London

Both my children moved to north London a couple of weeks back. Much to our astonishment, they’re sharing an old Carmelite friary with a dozen assorted friends and strangers. And then yesterday, for the first time, we went to visit them.

For various reasons to do with Mother’s Day we had to get there by driving right across central London on a Sunday evening. The weather was miserable and the roads massively packed. Although I’m at home in some parts of London, the trip from the city centre to the north of the capital is unfamiliar territory, so we turned on the satnav. We made it with no mishaps, but I didn’t really enjoy the experience. It wasn’t just the traffic or the rain: I just don’t like driving when I don’t really know where I’m going. I suppose I’m really a map person – wanting to see where I am all the time, know where each turn is taking me, have a continuing sense of exactly how far till we reach our destination, and so on. Are we nearly there?

Which is exactly what satnav doesn’t give you. Of course. It’s all ‘After 300 hundred yards turn right into The Bishop’s Avenue’ and ‘take the third exit onto…’ But where was I? No idea. On my way, I guess – but that hardly seemed like it. Right up until the very last instruction, I had no sense at all that I was nearing our goal.

I always used to feel that waterfall was a bit like that. Someone somewhere had something resembling a map, and if there was decent briefing we all got to see that – once. After that it was like driving through a major city after being allowed a single glimpse of the route.

And below that level? None of our business. From time to time the corporate satnav’s voice would chime in – someone from the programme office telling us to do this, someone from the ‘leadership team’ telling us to stop doing that – and we all comply. Someone somewhere knew what I was building this component for, but it wasn’t me. Every now and again the project manager or team lead or a passing stakeholder (such a rare sight) would drip-feed a little more into the mix, but by and large we had very little sense of the bigger picture.

And then we’d have the occasional programme town hall meeting, where we would be congratulated on how well we were doing, even when we all knew it was nonsense. It was rather like a satnav’s occasional bland assurances that ‘You are on the quickest route to your destination’. Oh really? I especially recall the town hall that put out exactly that message, and then a week later the programme’s final delivery date was delayed by a year. How many projects and programmes does it take even the most naïve analyst or tester to realise that these reassurances hide far more than they conceal?

Which is one of the very best things about Agile. It’s the very opposite of satnav. You all always know exactly where you are, because:

  • The whole team decides what to deliver.
  • The whole team does the planning.
  • You don’t do anything you can’t commit to.
  • You work directly with the user who knows exactly what this story is for.
  • Every single Daily Stand-Up Meeting puts you back in touch with your team as a whole.

And so on – with Agile there shouldn’t be a single aspect of the process as a whole you’re in the dark about. Big picture, fine-grained details – it should all be at your fingertips. And no place for empty corporate rhetoric or marketing. It all feels so much better.

About the Author:

Chief Architect, Agile201.com.

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