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The "Why" Behind Agile Inceptions

by Scott Heffield, Veracity VP of Innovation and Solution Delivery

After working on literally hundreds of technology projects over the years, Veracity has created a standardized planning process we try to include at the beginning of every project. We call it an Agile Inception. If you search a bit you can find similar processes with similar names. However, what makes Veracity’s Agile Inception unique is the short duration and the robust outputs. In a 2-3 day experience we can usually accomplish the following outcomes with a team:

  1. Alignment between executive stakeholders and builders
  2. Clear understanding of Business Goals and Business Value for the project
  3. Clear definition of MVP with strong estimates for Time, Budget, and Roles needed for the team of builders
  4. Good assessment of Risks along with a mitigation strategy
  5. High level sketch for Architecture and Technology Platform
  6. Clear plan of next steps to get started well

We have found an Agile Inception to be an extremely valuable and indispensable part of starting most projects. To help illustrate this let me shift gears a bit…

I wanna be a maker!

I love to watch a skilled "maker" at work. I find it exciting and inspirational to watch someone take raw materials and craft something useful and beautiful. My dad was exceptional at this and I grew up watching him build practical things around our house. For much of my adult life I've aspired to become proficient at building things with wood. I'm happy to say that over the last couple of years I've finally gotten started.  I've made a few small projects around the house, some storage pieces for my shop (um, garage), some Christmas gifts, and I've even started on some simple furniture. I'm having a lot of fun and it has been an interesting journey.

One of the surprising things I've found is the similarity between building a wood project and building a technology based project. Really! Let me explain.

What we think we want is often not what we really want.

Almost every woodworking project I've embarked on has been a bit of a letdown when completed. After finishing a creation I often look at it and think things like "Hmm, so I guess this is just a nice looking box. Not as magical as it looked in the picture." Like many things in life, it seems the thrill of the hunt is often more exciting than actually catching the prey. So what I've learned is that before I start a new project I try to think it through thoroughly. I look at different ideas for designs. I read comments from people who have built similar things. I try to ask myself if the thing I'm about to build will really be useful. Do I really want to spend my time and energy building this? I find that this exercise helps me to filter out a lot of cool things I could build, and instead helps me pick the things I really should build.

Technology projects are often the same way. When considering a new endeavor it is easy to be dazzled by the latest trend, or the latest new platform, or the latest shiny new toy. It is easy to build things that sound really cool on the design board, but once built they don't seem as practical and useful in real life.

Going through a disciplined Agile Inception process with your team will create an intentional space where everyone should talk through a project. The business cases will be discussed. The value propositions will be shared and hopefully challenged. Your team should reach a point where most people agree on a good project that really should be done.

It's hard to get everyone on the same page.

George Bernard Shaw wrote, "The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place." This is the risk at the beginning of a project. It is hard to communicate a vision to a team and get everyone aligned.

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I've learned that if I'm thinking about building something to be used in our home, like furniture, it is vitally important that I make sure my wife is on the same page. Now that probably sounds obvious, but it is easier said than done. Asking a question like "Hey, would you like me to build a cabinet for that empty corner in the kitchen?" is just the beginning. If she says "Yes" it doesn't mean that I can just find some plans and get started building.  I've learned I need to discuss what she wants, why she wants it, and how she plans to use it. It is helpful if I find several different options, using lots of pictures, not just words.

This same thing holds true when considering a technology project. Getting your team on the same page so that everyone understands what you're going to build isn't easy. However, at the end of an Agile Inception your team should be at a place where they really understand what they’re going to build. They should also understand why they’re going to build it, how they’ll measure success, and where each of them fit into the process.

We often underestimate a number of things when doing something new.

Almost every wood project I've embarked on has taken more time than I expected. Not just a little more time, but a lot more time. Like 3-4 times longer than I expected. It almost always costs a lot more than I expected. I usually do some quick math in my head and figure out the cost of the lumber, but it is easy to forget the cost of screws, glue, paint and other materials. I also often underestimate the complexity of a project, while overestimating my current skills and abilities. Physical size and scale can also be easily overlooked. The first pieces of furniture I built ended up being physically too large to work on inside my small garage workspace. However, I didn’t realize that until I started putting pieces together and realized the big pieces didn’t fit on the table. At a certain point I had to wait for good weather so that I could work on the large pieces outside where I had enough space.

Technology projects are often just like this. We often underestimate time, budget, skills, and our overall capacity for large projects. Unfortunately, we often don’t realize these things until we are in the middle of a project, having already spent a significant amount of time, money, and effort.

An Agile Inception creates a very intentional conversation between business stakeholders, product experts, and builders. Everyone comes together to ask hard questions about complexity, risk, purpose, the amount of work, and team capacity. Alternative paths are considered. Features are prioritized and quick wins are identified to create early value.

An estimate will never be completely accurate (otherwise it wouldn't be an estimate). However, going through a rigorous process with the right people in the conversation can help to create an estimate that will be useful to help make a good plan.

When getting started, we can waste a lot of time, money, and effort in unfocused ways.

For me the hardest part of a new project is actually making that first cut. I can research a project for weeks, buy the materials, and imagine how cool it will be to build it. I can shop for the new tool that will make a challenging cut even easier. I can watch videos of people using that cool new tool and building cool things. I can pick the finish I'm going to put on the project when I'm done and make sure I have just the right brush to apply that finish. All of those steps are good things, but they create the illusion of progress. I can do all that without actually building anything! Worse, those materials can sit in my garage for months until I make myself go out there on a Saturday morning and actually start cutting things. It is only in the mess of those first cuts that I really begin building something. Everything else is just foundational work leading up to getting started. In fact, some of it isn't really necessary at all. It just makes me feel like I'm being productive when I’m really not.

We do this all the time when starting a new technology project. We start debating which tools to use, what colors to make things, and where to put what button. We might even begin hiring a new team. These activities are important at the right time, but they can create the illusion of progress without actually creating any value. Worse, they often happen before good planning has taken place.

When starting a woodworking project I have found that a good set of plans can make a huge difference. A good set of plans offers a list of needed materials, some illustrations of how to do the challenging parts, some advice about the pitfalls, and step-by-step instructions I can follow. With plans like this I can usually get started well without wasting a lot of time doing unimportant things, buying unnecessary materials, and figuring out what to do first.

An Agile Inception helps to create a similar "get started" plan. Quick wins will be identified and potentially moved to the top of the backlog. The skills and capacity of the team will be assessed, along with a plan to address gaps. Complex elements, risks, and potential pitfalls will be identified, discussed, and planned for. A realistic estimate of timelines and budget will be created and each team member should be able to understand what they are committing to. Finally, the first few sprints will be mapped out at a high level so the team can get started quickly once the project is approved. All of this can help overcome inertia, prevent waste, and create good energy and momentum to help the team get moving.

Make the investment in an Agile Inception for your next project.

Bringing the team together for 2-3 days at the beginning of a project is an essential way to help your team prepare for a successful project.

An Agile Inception will help you:

  1. Figure out if what you are about to build is really what you want and need
  2. Get your team aligned around what they are building and why they are building it
  3. Help your team come up with realistic estimates for time, budget, skills and team capacity
  4. Help your team get started well, minimizing waste with a prioritized plan and clear next steps

We'd love to help your team run an effective Agile Inception. Reach out to our sales team to get something scheduled.

 

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