More agile than you think

This topic has been on my mind for a while, and I wanted to share my thoughts because it taught me very important things.

Roughly a year ago, our team decided to give SCRUM a try, as an experiment, since it was the most popular approach in the software industry towards improved efficiency and faster delivery. So we organized our teams and scheduled daily stand-ups, weekly retrospectives etc.

Within a few days, we realized that the stand-ups were becoming mere status updates, and any valuable discussion happened outside of these scheduled meetings, in impromptu chats and one-on-ones. A lot of times people went through the pain of having to explain their work to someone who didn’t fully understand or wasn’t directly involved in the project. These meetings became very mechanical to say the least.

Very soon people started losing their enthusiasm and appeared quite distracted. This was not because of all the changes in process, but because these meetings were turning out to be huge distractions and a waste of time for most people. When it came to the third question of a stand-up – “Is anything blocking you?” – I am sure many of us wanted to say “This meeting!” So within a month this process was wrapped up, and we went back to our own way of doing things.

Now, I am neither for nor against agile. I am sure the proposers of this methodology had the best of intentions and were probably working against rigid conventions of their time. This approach has also been widely adopted and working very well for many teams. But I feel that problems arise when “preachers” of agile (sorry I still think ‘agile’ is an adjective, not a noun) , who don’t understand the dynamics of the team and its people, turn this beautiful concept into another set of strict rules. Isn’t this contradictory to being agile anyway?

I believe that any process has to be initiated for and by the team itself. It’s not about following a certain set of rules mechanically, but letting the team and its process evolve organically so that what works for us stays and everything else is discarded. And no process can be copied from one company and pasted onto another because each team is unique. Moreover, do our clients care what practices we follow as long as we deliver what we promised?

Looking back at these experiments with agile, I realized something about Vena. The very fact that we promptly discarded the process that wasn’t working for us proves that we are more agile than we think. I have seen people walk in in the morning, go straight to someone else’s desk, and start discussing a problem as if they had never left the office. All critical issues in production get a fix within an hour or so. All this speaks to the agility of the team.

Vena instills a sense of ownership and freedom, where everybody feels it is their responsibility to bring up thoughts/questions about anything that might impact the product or the team, knowing that their voice will be heard.

Throughout my life at Vena, I’ve seen that on a daily basis, we value:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan

That is the manifesto of agile software development by the way 🙂 We just prefer to do it the Vena way.

It has been a couple of months since I first drafted this post. It triggered some healthy discussions and feedback and so much has changed since then, I thought I should add a follow up to it before publishing. Vena had record growth in the past year ( as in all the years since we launched), our team almost doubled in size and we got the coolest office ever!!!

So we recently embarked on another round of experiments implementing the agile methodology (yes, we do take breaks, but we never give up). This time we got experts in the team to help us do this. First off, they didn’t start by talking about some process. They started by talking to people, establishing great connections with every individual in the team. This is a very good sign. More than managers, we see them as coaches, who take the time to understand how teams operated and what each of us valued in the workplace. Yep, you know the people I’m talking about 🙂

As a starting point we restructured the whole team into smaller goal-focused teams. Since each team had one common mission, stand-ups became much more meaningful, commitments on the part of each member naturally strengthened and the teams are much more focused. I can see that all signs are pointing in the right direction. And I trust the team 100% to make any adjustments if needed as we work on this together, again because Vena has made me a great believer in people. The culture here has always been very nurturing and has been about empowering people to be at their best.

We as a team are working towards a process that will help us scale without chaos but at the same time preserve the culture and values that are so close to our hearts. A process that will encourage us to break some “rules” when needed, a process that would facilitate and not dictate, a process that will help spread the mindset of the experts, because one of the reasons I am drawn to work every morning is the sheer inspiration from all the great minds that we have at Vena.

Ok, time for some ping pong 🙂

Posted by Salu Suresh

Software tester