Iterations are the heartbeat of agile–a consistent pulse, something that can be measured. If iterations are the heartbeat, the heart is retrospectives, representing the core and true spirit of agile: How do we adapt, how do we continually improve?

Too many teams don’t run retrospectives, and many of those that do fall off quickly. Often they fell into the trap of running a consistently boring meeting: What things did we do well, what things do we want to improve upon? Worse, they treated the outcome of the retrospective as a bunch of vague promises. I’d certainly stop attending them if that’s all they were.

A solution to the first is the Esther Derby/Diana Larsen book, Agile Retrospectives. The biggest value of this book is that it provides a number of activities to help you run your retrospectives. It provides a great starting point to devising your own activities–being creative is an important way of keeping people interested in attending retrospectives. There are a number of areas that remain to be explored with respect to retrospectives. For example, I’m currently continuing to explore distributed retrospectives.

With respect to the second challenge–lack of commitment–I like treating the retrospective items as stories, or experiments, that are introduced for the upcoming iteration (but these are not project stories). Thus acceptance criteria are required, and the stories must be specific, concrete things that people will (or won’t) do. During the subsequent retrospective, the team can’t consider the experiment complete if the acceptance criteria has not been met, and thus shouldn’t base subsequent actions on that experiment.

There’s always someone who wants an agile litmus test. “You aren’t agile if…” I feel comfortable in saying that “you aren’t agile if you aren’t consistently doing retrospectives and adapting the process based on them.”

Complete Stories, Not Iterations. Again.

No matter how hard I try, there’s always a hammer in my life. Sure, I try to use all those other new-fangled tools that are perhaps more appropriate to the problem, but I find that my hammer is a versatile tool that helps me bang my way out of many trouble spots. My recent agile hammer is “complete stories, not iterations.” In other words, collaborate! I’ve made a few blog posts and written at least one article on the topic.

Everything seems to keep coming back to this. A focus on completing stories as a team, and not moving on until the story is “done done,” tends to eliminate many of the questions that otherwise exist.

For example, “Should we create stories for defects?”

The glib answer is of course, “Well, if you’re doing agile properly, you don’t have defects.” But the more satisfying and less annoying answer is, “Well, if you’re collaborating to get stories completed, you don’t have many defects that survive the iteration.” If you can deliver a story every day or two through an iteration, the story can move into preliminary testing, and odds are that you’ll uncover many defects before the iteration completes. That means you can either fix them before the iteration completes, or you haven’t finished the story (it’s not “done done”), and the story is slotted wholesale into a subsequent iteration.

Voila. Concern over whether or not to create defect stories? Poof! (If you still have the question, the answer is “yes,” because they can be estimated, and because they take development effort that adds into team velocity.)

Q. How Many Days Are There in a Two-Week Iteration?

A1. (a manager) = 14
A2. (everyone else) = 10

Stories and the Tedium of Iteration Planning Meetings

In “Tools, Iterations, and Stories,” I said you should “focus on implementing and completing stories, not iterations. If your iteration is 10 days, and you have 10 stories of 1 point each, you should have delivered one story by the end of the first day, and two stories by the end of the second day, and so on.”

Then, in a blog post titled “Stories and the Tedium of Daily Standups,” I talked about how a focus on completing stories, not tasks and iterations, would make daily stand-ups interesting enough to bother with (anew–since many teams that initiate daily stand-ups often find them boring and thus slowly stop doing them).

There’s another important side-effect of organizing an iteration around incrementally completing stories: Iteration planning meetings are more interesting.

Implicitly, to be able to complete stories as an iteration progresses requires team members to actually collaborate on a story. Imagine that. It’s at the heart of the emphasis on continual communication in agile, yet many teams tend to miss this key point. In my next blog posting I’ll talk about the side-effect of improved quality. For now, I’ll restrict my thoughts to the impact of story planning on iteration planning meetings.

If an iteration planning covers four stories to be implemented by a team of four developers, there are two primary ways this meeting could go: 1) The customer details each story by focusing on each individual that will work it, or 2) The customer details all stories, discussing them with all four team members. The downside of option #2 is that it will probably take a little longer to work through all the stories. In fact, if you went with option #1, you really wouldn’t need a team meeting. The customer could just meet individually with each developer.

Effectively, what you have with option #1 is a meeting in which 3 out of 4 developers have little interest in the story discussion at any given point in time. Information about other developers’ stories is mental clutter, and consciously or subconsciously, each developer will tune out to some extent for 75% of the meeting. They will view iteration planning meetings as mostly a waste of time.

In contrast, option #2 requires everyone to be attentive. We all have to understand every story, and we most certainly have to start figuring out how each one breaks up. We probably need to do a little bit of design. People attending these sorts of iteration planning meetings are engaged. They leave the meeting with the impression that it held considerable value for them.