The Biggest Mistakes We Made on Our Agile Journey (and Why We are Glad We Made Them) — Failure IS NOT an Option

failure

I am working with Tim Coonfield to develop a talk for the one day Agile Shift conference scheduled for April 12, 2019 in Houston, TX titled “10 Biggest Mistakes We Made on Our Agile Journey (and Why We are Glad We Made Them)“. This is the first in a series of articles that Tim and I will use to explore some of those mistakes and what we learned from them. You can find other articles in this series here.

If you are interested in hearing this talk or some of the other awesome speakers and topics that will be covered at the event, you can learn more about the conference and purchase tickets here.

Everything I will share here happened at Global Custom Commerce (GCC), a Home Depot Company, as we developed and improved our 2nd generation e-commerce platform, called Autobahn, designed to make it easy for customers to shop for and buy more complex configurable products and services like custom window blinds, custom windows, flooring and decks.  

In 2011, when the Autobahn platform started development, GCC was already the #1 seller of custom window coverings online and owned several brands including blinds.com. We were a couple years away from acquisition by the Home Depot and had about 80 employees. The existing e-commerce platform had been in production for a number of years and was still actively being improved by a large team following a traditional project management philosophy using Gantt charts and reporting on percent complete.

The Autobahn project marked a number of firsts for GCC including our first use of cloud hosting at AWS and our first use of agile methodologies. This article highlights one of our bigger mistakes and how we were able to improve as a result.

In the early days of the effort to deliver our 2nd generation e-commerce platform, Autobahn, we adopted the Scrum methodology and were following all the practices “by the book” including sprint planning, stand-ups, sprint review and sprint retrospectives.  However, the company continued to use more traditional project management techniques and reporting processes. As a result, the team was required to work with the PMO to keep a Gantt chart updated with progress by mapping completed stories to estimates of percent complete (i.e. a mistake I’ll cover in another article). The team was also concerned that, even though the CEO was shepherding the project himself, many leaders in the company were not happy about the company investing resources to build a new e-commerce platform instead of investing more in the existing one. There was also the issue of racing to replace the existing platform, which remained under active development since nobody in the company was interested in moving our e-commerce business to the new platform until it was more capable than the existing one. Despite these challenges, the team was optimistic that we would deliver on time and within budget.

For the first few months things appeared to be going well.  Every sprint we delivered exactly as promised. I know the Scrum guide talks about forecasts these days, but back then the book called for commitment — a very clear promise from the team to the business that they would deliver what they said they would deliver at planning. As the project started to gain momentum, we shifted focus from basic CRUD to the critical functionality required to sell any sort of configurable product or service.

As the required functionality got more complex, we started to have more difficulty delivering the way we intended. However, we could usually figure out a way to get enough done to demo by interpreting the story narrowly or, in some cases, by pushing the PO to pull out things that we convinced ourselves were not truly critical into new stories to be tackled in future sprints. At times, a couple of us also worked crazy hours over the weekend to make sure things got done as planned. The good news, we thought, was that velocity kept increasing so there was no doubt that we could tackle all those new stories and still deliver according to the original plan. We certainly thought that the combination of increasing velocity and the on-time trend shown in the project plan would make us look good to the business and help us keep our project alive.

Then came THAT story. It’s not really important which story exactly or what it was expected to deliver. What does matter is that after the first week of our two week sprint we knew we were in trouble and we knew THAT story was the problem. As per usual, a couple of us decided to work over the weekend to break through the hard bits so the team could finish wrapping it up in the second week of the sprint. Sunday night we still had not broken through. In fact, we had started to recognize that we had more work ahead of us than we had believed back on Friday evening.

The following Monday, the whole team got together after daily stand-up to talk about THAT story yet again. The team members that worked over the weekend shared details about the issues they had solved and the new issues they had uncovered. Nobody seemed overly worried. After all, we were the team that always delivered and failure just wasn’t an option. We spent a hour or so breaking down the remaining work into a set of tasks and put them up on the board. We updated our burn down and were pleased to note that we were still going to deliver THAT story, and everything else we had committed to, within the sprint even if it was going to require a little extra effort along the way.

Late in the day on Monday, I recognized I was in for a long night. As I stood up to stretch, I noticed other team members around me still hard at work and realized they were likely behind on their tasks too. A few hours later, I realized I was simply staring at the screen and was not really accomplishing much so I packed up to head home with a plan to start fresh early the next morning. The rest of the team appeared to be in about the same place as they headed out after a very, very long day.

It was pretty much the same story Tuesday and Wednesday. Despite lots of conversation, creative re-planning each morning and long days trying very hard to finish tasks, we just couldn’t seem to break through into the home stretch. Left unsaid was a rapidly growing sense of dread — THAT story wasn’t getting done.

Thursday morning we spent significant time after stand-up focusing on how to trim THAT story back, move bits out or otherwise bend the fabric of reality to allow us to call it done.  Our newest team member then said what desperately needed saying, “THAT story is not getting done this sprint. If we keep wasting time on it, we won’t finish up testing the other stories in the sprint either.”  He then advanced a heresy we had not even allowed ourselves to consider, “Perhaps,” he said, “we should fail with honor. We tried our best and we’ll get everything else done this sprint”.

We stood there for a moment and silently asked ourselves essentially the same question: how will the business react and how will we explain it? We started to discuss the idea and very quickly got past the fear. We would simply acknowledge the story wasn’t done and that it could go into the next sprint if the business still wanted it at the top of the priority list. We wouldn’t make excuses and we wouldn’t talk about percent complete. Our direct manager, who coded with the team, was very uncomfortable with the idea and did not want us to do it at first. He knew the political environment and worried about the backlash. In the end, he came around and the team decided to put THAT story aside and make sure the rest of the stories in the sprint were truly done before the demo.

I got the dubious honor of demoing the last completed story and discussing the failed one. Despite all the brave talk the morning before, I distinctly remember the little flutter in my gut as I finished up demoing the last completed story.  I remember staring at the ugly unfinished story on the projector screen as I said, “and THAT story did not get done”.

I took a deep breath and just a second passed before one of the business leaders asked the obvious question, at least the obvious question for someone used to reviewing projects using Gantt charts clearly illustrating percent complete. She asked, “So how close is it to done?”

I delivered the answer, carefully vetted with the team and rehearsed in advance, four simple words designed to explain our commitment to agile principles and to clear communications and transparency, “It’s simply not done”.

Of course, there was more to say after that. It started with a discussion about why percentage complete is an illusion and quickly moved into a group effort to figure out the best way to move forward. After a few minutes, I realized everyone there, the developers and the business, were engaged in looking for solutions and not spending any time at all assigning blame.

None of us should have been surprised, though we were. After all, one of our four company values is “experiment without fear of failure”. In essence, that’s just another way of saying that sometimes you’ll stumble and that’s OK as long as you learn and improve based on the experience. We saw it and lived it that day for sure. It was the beginning of a true partnership between the team and the business to figure out how to really deliver the benefit of a new e-commerce platform to our customers.

It’s also between the lines in the Agile Manifesto.  All of the unintentional spin and irrational optimism inherent in those pretty Gantt charts showing tasks 80% done gets pushed aside by a perfectly clear idea: What’s done is done.  Transparency from a development team is critical to actually making informed decisions about what to do next. “Responding to change”, one of the four values in the Agile Manifesto, is as much about what you learn on the technical side as it is about reacting to evolving business realities. The day our team and our business embraced that simple idea was one of the most important days in our agile journey.

Author: Tom Cabanski

Software Developer and Entrepreneur