The Path to Mastery: Begin with the Fundamentals

Somewhere along the path of studying Aikido for 25  years I found a useful perspective on the art that applies to a lot of skills in life.  Aikido is easy to understand. It’s a way of living that leaves behind it a trail of techniques. What’s hard is overcoming the unending stream of little frustrations and often self-imposed limitations. What’s hard is learning how to make getting up part of falling down. What’s hard is healing after getting hurt. What’s hard is learning the importance of recognizing when a white belt is more of a master than you are. In short, what’s hard is mastering the art.

The same can be said about practicing Agile. Agile is easy to understand. It is four fundamental values and twelve principles. The rest is just a trail of techniques and supporting tools – rapid application development, XP, scrum, Kanban, Lean, SAFe, TDD, BDD, stories, sprints, stand-ups – all just variations from a very simple foundation and adapted to meet the prevailing circumstances. Learning how to apply the best technique for a given situation is learned by walking the path toward mastery – working through the endless stream of frustrations and limitations, learning how to make failing part of succeeding, recognizing when you’re not the smartest person in the room, and learning how to heal after getting hurt.

If an Aikidoka is attempting to apply a particular technique to an opponent  and it isn’t working, their choices are to change how they’re performing the technique, change the technique, or invent a new technique based on the fundamentals. Expecting the world to adapt to how you think it should go is a fool’s path. Opponents in life – whether real people, ideas, or situations – are notoriously uncompromising in this regard.  The laws of physics, as they say, don’t much care about what’s going on inside your skull. They stubbornly refuse to accommodate your beliefs about how things “should” go.

The same applies to Agile practices. If something doesn’t seem to be working, it’s time to step in front of the Agile mirror and ask yourself a few questions. What is it about the fundamentals you’re not paying attention to? Which of the values are out of balance? What technique is being misapplied? What different technique will better serve? If your team or organization needs to practice Lean ScrumXPban SAFe-ly than do that. Be bold in your quest to find what works best for your team. The hue and cry you hear won’t be from the gods, only those who think they are – mere mortals more intent on ossifying Agile as policy, preserving their status, or preventing the perceived corruption of their legacy.

But I’m getting ahead of things. Before you can competently discern which practices a situation needs and how to best structure them you must know the fundamentals.

There are no shortcuts.

In this series of posts I hope to open a dialog about mastering Agile practices. We’ll begin by studying several maps that have been created over time that describe the path toward mastery, discuss the benefits and shortcomings of each of these maps, and explore the reasons why many people have a difficult time following these maps. From there we’ll move into the fundamentals of Agile practices and see how a solid understanding of these fundamentals can be used to respond to a wide variety of situations and contexts. Along the way we’ll discover how to develop an Agile mindset.

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How to Know You Have a Well Defined Minimum Viable Product

Conceptually, the idea of a minimum viable product (MVP) is easy to grasp. Early in a project, it’s a deliverable that reflects some semblance to the final product such that it’s barely able to stand on it’s own without lots of hand-holding and explanation for the customer’s benefit. In short, it’s terrible, buggy, and unstable. By design, MVPs lack features that may eventually prove to be essential to the final product. And we deliberately show the MVP to the customer!

We do this because the MVP is the engine that turns the build-measure-learn feedback loop. The key here is the “learn” phase. The essential features to the final product are often unclear or even unknown early in a project. Furthermore, they are largely undefinable or unknowable without multiple iterations through the build-measure-learn feedback cycle with the customer early in the process.

So early MVPs aren’t very good. They’re also not very expensive. This, too, is by design because an MVP’s very raison d’être is to test the assumptions we make early on in a project. They are low budget experiments that follow from a simple strategy:

  1. State the good faith assumptions about what the customer wants and needs.
  2. Describe the tests the MVP will satisfy that are capable of measuring the MVP’s impact on the stated assumptions.
  3. Build an MVP that tests the assumptions.
  4. Evaluate the results.

If the assumptions are not stated and the tests are vague, the MVP will fail to achieve it’s purpose and will likely result in wasted effort.

The “product” in “minimum viable product” can be almost anything: a partial or early design flow, a wireframe, a collection of simulated email exchanges, the outline to a user guide, a static screen mock-up, a shell of screen panels with placeholder text that can nonetheless be navigated – anything that can be placed in front of a customer for feedback qualifies as an MVP. In other words, a sprint can contain multiple MVPs depending on the functional groups involved with the sprint and the maturity of the project. As the project progresses, the individual functional group MVPs will begin to integrate and converge on larger and more refined MVPs, each gaining in stability and quality.

MVPs are not an end unto themselves. They are tangible evidence of the development process in action. The practice of iteratively developing MVPs helps develop to skill of rapid evaluation and learning among product owners and agile delivery team members. A buggy, unstable, ugly, bloated, or poorly worded MVP is only a problem if it’s put forward as the final product. The driving goal behind iterative MVPs is not perfection, rather it is to support the process of learning what needs to be developed for the optimal solution that solves the customer’s problems.

“Unlike a prototype or concept test, an MVP is designed not just to answer product design or technical questions. Its goal is to test fundamental business hypotheses.” – Eric Ries, The Lean Startup

So how might product owners and Agile teams begin to get a handle on defining an MVP? There are several questions the product owner and team can ask of themselves, in light of the product backlog, that may help guide their focus and decisions. (Use of the following term “stakeholders” can mean company executives or external customers.)

  • Identify the likely set of stakeholders who will be attending the sprint review. What will these stakeholders need to see so that they can offer valuable feedback? What does the team need to show in order to spark the most valuable feedback from the stakeholders?
  • What expectations have been set for the stakeholders?
  • Is the distinction clear between what the stakeholders want vs what they need?
  • Is the distinction clear between high and low value? Is the design cart before the value horse?
  • What are the top two features or functions the stakeholders  will be expecting to see? What value – to the stakeholders – will these features or functions deliver?
  • Will the identified features or functions provide long term value or do they risk generating significant rework down the road?
  • Are the identified features or functions leveraging code, content, or UI/UX reuse?

Recognizing an MVP – Less is More

Since an MVP can be almost anything,  it is perhaps easier to begin any conversation about MVPs by touching on the elements missing from an MVP.

An MVP is not a quality product. Using any generally accepted definition of “quality” in the marketplace, an MVP will fail on all accounts. Well, on most accounts. The key is to consider relative quality. At the beginning of a sprint, the standards of quality for an MVP are framed by the sprint goals and objectives. If it meets those goals, the team has successfully created a quality MVP. If measured against the external marketplace or the quality expectations of the customer, the MVP will almost assuredly fail inspection.

Your MVPs will probably be ugly, especially at first. They will be missing features. They will be unstable. Build them anyway. Put them in front of the customer for feedback. Learn. And move on to the next MVP. Progressively, they will begin to converge on the final product that is of high quality in the eyes of the customer. MVPs are the stepping stones that get you across the development stream and to the other side where all is sunny, beautiful, and stable. (For more information on avoiding the trap of presupposing what a customer means by quality and value, see “The Value of ‘Good Enough…For Now’“)

An MVP is not permanent. Agile teams should expect to throw away several, maybe even many, MVPs on their way to the final product. If they aren’t, then it is probable they are not learning what they need to about what the customer actually wants. In this respect, waste can be a good, even important thing. The driving purpose of the MVP is to rapidly develop the team’s understanding of what the customer needs, the problems they are expecting to have solved, and the level of quality necessary to satisfy each of these goals.

MVPs are not the truth. They are experiments meant to get the team to the truth. By virtue of their low-quality, low-cost nature, MVPs quickly shake out the attributes to the solution the customer cares about and wants. The solid empirical foundation they provide is orders of magnitude more valuable to the Agile team than any amount of speculative strategy planning or theoretical posturing.

Photo by Sarah Dorweiler on Unsplash

Concave, Convex, and Nonlinear Fragility

Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, “Antifragile,” is a wealth of information. I’ve returned to it often since first reading it several years ago. My latest revisit has been to better understand his ideas about representing the nonlinear and asymmetric aspects of fragile/antifragile in terms of “concave” and “convex.” My first read of this left me a bit confused, but I got the gist of it and moved on. Taleb is a very smart guy so I need to understand this.

The first thing I needed to sort out on this revisit was Taleb’s use of language. The fragile/antifragile comparison is variously described in his book as:

  • Concave/Convex
  • Slumped solicitor/Humped solicitor
  • Curves inward/Curves outward
  • Frown/Smile
  • Negative convexity effects/Positive convexity effects
  • Pain more than gain/Gain more than pain
  • Doesn’t “like” volatility (presumable)/”Likes” volatility

Tracking his descriptions is made a little more challenging by reversals in reference when writing of both together (concave and convex then convex and concave) and mis-matches between the text and illustrations. For example:

Nonlinearity comes in two kinds: concave (curves inward), as in the case of the king and the stone, or its opposite, convex (curves outward). And of course, mixed, with concave and convex sections. (note the order: concave / convex) Figures 10 and 11 show the following simplifications of nonlinearity: the convex and the concave resemble a smile and a frown, respectively. (note the order: convex / concave)

Figure 10 shows:

So, “convex, curves outward” is illustrated as an upward curve and “concave, curves inward” is illustrated as a downward curve. Outward is upward and inward is downward. It reads like a yoga pose instruction or a play-by-play call for a game of a Twister.

After this presentation, Taleb simplifies the ideas:

I use the term “convexity effect” for both, in order to simplify the vocabulary, saying “positive convexity effects” and “negative convexity effects.”

This was helpful. The big gain is when Taleb gets to the math and graphs what he’s talking about. Maybe the presentation to this point is helpful to non-math thinkers, but for me it was more obfuscating than illuminating. My adaptation of the graphs presented by Taleb:

With this picture, it’s easier for me to understand the non-linear relationship between a variable’s volatility and fragility vs antifragility. The rest of the chapter is easier to understand with this picture of the relationships in mind.

That Isn’t What I Expected

Adverse surprises during a team driven project are about as welcome as whooping cough at a glassblowers convention. Minimizing the opportunity for surprises comes down to how well expectations are defined at the very beginning and how well they are managed during the course of the project. Unidentified expectations are like landmines in the project path. When they explode, it’s bad and the course of the project WILL change. Product owners can’t elucidate all the expectations a stakeholder may have, but with experience they can define the major ones. With practice and attention, experienced product owners can tease out all but the minor expectations that are often dependant on discovery within the project’s sprints.

Key to this skill is knowing the questions to ask at the beginning. In my experience, stakeholders rarely deliberately hold back their expectations. They just don’t know what they don’t know and it is the product owner’s responsibility to establish clarity around expectations. Intuitively obvious expectations rarely play out as such.

A few questions for stakeholders that I’ve found helpful:

  • What business problems do you intend to solve with this project?
  • What do you need to see to know the project is progressing?
  • What will you see when the project is done?
  • What is your availability commitment for the duration of the project?
  • How often to you expect to meet to review progress?
  • How long do YOU think it will take to complete the project?
  • To what extent are your functional groups integrated?
  • Describe your process from design to development to implementation?
  • Are there other stakeholders we need to know about and include?
  • What factors have helped and hurt success with past projects?

This is by no means an exhaustive list of questions. And they may even seem obvious. The answers, however, are almost never obvious.

I also find it effective to challenge stakeholders with scenarios.

  • What happens if we discover this project will take two months longer than expected?
  • What happens if we discover a desired solution is technically unfeasible?
  • How will you support us if we encounter significant delays from client deliverables?

Product owners need to keep pursuing clarity around expectations until they are satisfied they have a good understanding of how the people side of the project will unfold. This will go a long way to helping the development team handle the technical side of the project.

While stakeholders answer these questions, product owners need to pay attention not just the words stakeholders use, but how they answer as well. They need to be scanning for underlying assumptions that drive the answers. These often reflect relevant cultural drivers which can signal significant expectations seemingly unrelated to the project at hand.

For example, perhaps the product owner has established the expectation of a three business day turnaround for feedback from the stakeholder when asked to review periodic project deliverables. “We can complete our reviews within three business days and work to get them to you as fast as possible,” says the stakeholder somewhat hesitantly as he looks off into the distance. Where the pain begins is when the inattentive product owner discovers that, while the feedback may be ready, the client organization has a thick layer of compliance and the feedback is hung up in legal for an additional one to two weeks…every time. If the stakeholder’s responses reflect something less than 100% commitment, keep asking questions designed to surface underlying assumptions.

As each sprint concludes, and eventually the project as well, the savvy product owner knows their work with expectations isn’t complete. Retrospectives for each sprint, each release, and the project conclusion should make note of the expectations that were missed and consider questions that could have been asked that would have helped surface the surprise expectations sooner.

This is also an excellent time to consider if any of the existing expectations have changed or if it appears there may be new expectations emerging. Internal forces, such as changes in team composition, and external forces, such as shifting market demands, can significantly impact the set of expectations a product owner is tasked with managing.

If  you expected to read these kinds of things about surfacing stakeholder expectations, then you’re probably an experienced product owner.


Image by S K from Pixabay