Keep Your Development Focus Sharp

Brian Button recently suggested, for XPSTL, “a series of presentations where we discuss the biggest challenges we, as team members and developers for the most part, face in our day-to-day jobs with respect to being agile. The challenges can be in technical areas, organizational change issues, or whatever else people think is hard.”

I’ll bite.

First, some background: the context here is an agile but not XP project, with a widely distributed team. The software is sold in an “application service provider” model; we usually deploy updated software weekly, though our planning is not particularly crisp around iteration boundaries. We use source control, a build server, an issue tracking system (paper cards aren’t of much use in a distributed team), unit tests, a few acceptance tests, a mailing list, Campfire, Java, and Eclipse. We build and sell an “enterprise” software product, so our product management is driven both by meeting current customer-specific needs and general target market needs.

We have listed a great number of desired features (and tasks, and bug fixes), and grouped them in to a few large buckets, which are roughly “releases” in the XP sense of the word. A small subset of those work items are considered “To Do” items, i.e. items that should be worked on now, to be deployed it the next week or two.

The ongoing challenge we face is in disciplining our own desires – in limiting the list of what we will do next, to what we can reasonably expect to accomplish soon, and then to work vigorously on getting those things out the door. Thus our goal is to, at all times, keep the team focused on a relative handful (at most a couple dozen) of key things to work on now, to bring those items to end-to-end closure.

Our challenge is in the perpetual tendency to derail the process, in any number of ways:

  • As new issues come up, there is a tendency to throw these in the “do now” list, without regard to their importance in the backlog.
  • Items get stuck waiting for requirements feedback. Either get the feedback quickly, or kick the items off your “to do” list in to the backlog, and go work on something you can finish.
  • Items get stuck waiting for integration in to core code.Items get stuck waiting for a production / deployment task, because your team is hesitant to touch a production system. The solution is to test, test, and test again, then deploy (using whatever the local process is, for your team / project / organization).
  • Items grow in scope, as they are discussed and implemented. The fix for this is to split off the additional scope in to another item (XP card) and put it in the backlog to be prioritized; trim the work item in front of you to a reasonable size and get it shipped.

All of these cause an overall derailment not because they add “bad” items, but because they reduce the focus, and thus reduce the tendency to get items finished and out the door. My advice is to keep your (team’s) focus sharp.