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Getting Started with Iterative Project Management

📄 Contents

  1. Embarking on Your First Iterative Project
  2. Adopting an Iterative Approach Iteratively
  3. Conclusion
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This chapter offers practical advice on adopting iterative software development practices within your projects and your organization.
This chapter is from the book

"Desirable ends do not come of themselves. Men must conceive them, believe in them, further them, and execute them."

Carl Van Doren

This book has presented an approach to improving business results through the systematic application of the principles of iterative development, but the principles do not apply themselves. In this final chapter we present practical advice on adopting these practices within your projects and your organization. We realize that you come to the subject of iterative project management with different goals and different constraints on how much change you can introduce. You might be someone who is

  • Completely new to managing iterative development projects and about to start on your very first iterative project
  • Already engaged in managing iterative projects and struggling to put the theory into practice
  • Already managing iterative development projects and looking to improve and validate your approach
  • Engaged in rolling out or supporting the rollout of iterative development techniques to your department or organization

To support all these views and more, this chapter looks at how to you can apply what you have learned to

  • Implement your first project
  • Build on your current success
  • Help change your organization

We discuss how you can start to apply the techniques immediately to the projects that you manage and how you can build upon this success to progressively expand your use of iterative software development practices.

Embarking on Your First Iterative Project

Embarking on your first iterative project probably fills you with some uneasiness, and you might have some doubts about your project taking on what you might perceive to be additional risk. In this section we help you take that first step.

Why Iterate?

As we have noted a number of times in prior chapters, iterative development is undertaken to eliminate project risks early in the project, before they can have a chance to sink the project. By tackling risk explicitly, your project will be more likely to succeed. That alone should provide fairly powerful motivation. Other reasons for adopting an iterative approach include

  • To achieve higher quality
  • To achieve faster results
  • To achieve results more reliably, or sometimes just to achieve results at all
  • To reduce staff frustration and turnover
  • To achieve greater flexibility and business agility
  • To reduce costs

Understanding these and any other goals is important so that you can factor them into the actions that you and your team will take.

The impetus for change can come from any number of sources: from senior management wanting to achieve better business results, from senior technical leaders wanting to resolve recurrent project problems, or from project teams that want to improve themselves. Whatever the source, the stimulus for change tends to gestate until a sponsor picks it up.

There also needs to be a sense of urgency about the need to change; some crisis or significant opportunity is required to get the project team members to be interested in the extra work of learning how to do something new. Change is initiated for a variety of reasons. The reasons listed here are the major themes that lie behind most change initiatives. Often the reasons for the change are not well articulated or even well understood.

Unless there is a sense of urgency, the stimulus for change will never become great enough to overcome resistance. People become comfortable with the status quo, and it is difficult to get them to change unless they feel that they will personally benefit from the change. They need to believe that unless they change the way they work, bad things will happen, or in the case of opportunities, good things will fail to happen.

This is not to say that threatening or frightening people is an effective motivational technique (it is not). It merely observes that people need to feel that if they don't change, they will fail. In the early stages of a change, only a few people might feel this need to change. As long as the change is small enough that it only affects a small group, this is sufficient to move ahead.

Potential Barriers to the Adoption of Iterative Practices

Before you start, you need to understand the potential barriers to the change so that you can make the right choices of timing, project, and approach. Some of the more important questions to ask include in the following:

  • How supportive is senior management of the change? The measurements and milestones they establish can easily derail an iterative approach, as is the case when they ask even seemingly innocent questions such as "When will the design be completed?" or "When will requirements be signed-off?"
  • What is the scope of your authority to make changes? How much of the development lifecycle are you responsible for? For example, the requirements might have already been specified in a format and to a level of detail that would make it more difficult to adopt an iterative approach.
  • What are the team's feelings about the changes? How enthusiastic is the team about iterating? To achieve the transition to iterative development, you will need the support of the team, especially the other members of the leadership team.
  • What else does the team have to do? How many other projects and initiatives is the team involved in? If the team is not focused on and dedicated to the project, the transition to iterative practices will probably be slower and take more time and energy to complete.
  • What capability do you need to improve? It is important to understand the capability of the team and how well the current capability supports the proposed iterative approach. For example, is there any testing capability in the team? Testing will be needed from the first iteration, which is often a problem in companies organized around the phases of a waterfall process where the expectation is that testers will only be needed late in the project lifecycle.
  • What work has already been done? Few projects start from scratch. You need to know what products and artifacts have already been produced.
  • Where are you in the project lifecycle? It is important to understand the state of the project. Changes are easier to make during an evolution's Inception and Elaboration phases than they are during its Construction and Transition phases. [1]

Selecting the right project and the right team members for the initial effort is important. Table 11-1 presents some of the key characteristics to look for in your first iterative project.

Table 11-1. The Characteristics of a Good First Iterative Project





Iterative development needs a team that wants to iterate (or at least to try new approaches).

"Unbelievers" will revert to their old ways of working, masking this by using "iterative" terms.

Project Size

The project needs to big enough to have at least four iterations but small enough that it will deliver results in four to six months. You want to choose projects that can demonstrate rapid success in dealing with real problems.

It will take a few iterations for the benefits to be accepted by the team. The team will need time to get used to the new ways of working.

Team Composition

Iterative development requires a full development team to be in place.

The team might be small but needs to cover all the software development disciplines all the time. Testers are needed early and throughout the project, not just at the end.

Technical Leadership

You need the support of people who can accurately gauge technical risk and help you to use this assessment to drive the definition and mitigation of technical risks.

The selection of appropriate risk reduction strategies requires a high level of technical knowledge about the proposed solution. The management team relies on the architecture team to successfully guide the project through the Elaboration phase.

Business Criticality

The project needs to be business-critical enough to get the attention and involvement of stakeholders throughout the project.

Stakeholder involvement is needed throughout the project if the full benefits of iterative development are to be achieved.

The lack of these characteristics does not, by itself, present an insurmountable problem, but it will slow the pace of the project, in particular extending the first two phases where the major business and technical risks are addressed.

When you start your first iterative project, factor the successful adoption of iterative techniques into the critical success factors for the project and the career development objectives for the team members. This is especially important if circumstances require an investment in training and mentoring the team to enable the transformation to take place.

Conventional wisdom suggests that you should choose low-impact, non-critical projects to be the focus of early change efforts to reduce the change effort's risk and the potential for failure. The problem with this is that although these projects are lower risk, their non-criticality usually means that they are starved for resources and not considered "mainstream" enough to ever be taken seriously as success stories. This dooms the overall change initiative. Low-priority projects are not visible enough to engender the support needed to drive the change forward.

Instead you should

  • Look for a small number of must-do projects that have organizational focus and strong support
  • Look for projects with a smaller set of stakeholders to keep communication simpler
  • Look for projects with high internal visibility—ones that would make good success stories
  • Choose projects that are short- to medium-term in length
  • Staff the projects with the best people available (respected leaders)
  • Organize projects to generate short-term wins—divide work into iterations
  • Keep the project size small in the first few iterations and then scale up
  • Focus on choosing the right projects and committing resources to them

Choosing critical projects sounds risky, but there is no sense in hiding from the fact that only critical projects will get the attention and resources necessary to succeed. The key is choosing projects critical enough to get resources but that can start small and then scale up in a controlled way, not becoming too large before the architecture and technical risks can be brought under control. Scaling up should be targeted for the Construction phase but not before.

Communicating the Goals of Change

To motivate the change in approach, you must be able to clearly and concisely communicate why a different approach is needed. If the business goal is to achieve better responsiveness to changing market needs, the goal for the iterative project effort might be something like be able to go from idea to released product in nine months (or less!). The more precise and measurable the goals, the easier they are to achieve.

It's important for you to do a couple things when you are communicating the reasons for the change:

  • Be concise and articulate, and be able to explain it in a few minutes or less— The vision needs to be precise and specific, without sounding like empty slogans exhorting people to "do better." It should set specific goals that can be translated into criteria by which people can make decisions.
  • Link problems to outcomes, such as "If we don't do X better, Y will happen"— Linking problems to outcomes is essential to getting a sense of urgency to solving the problem. Being specific is also important. Generalization is easy but not very compelling. Ultimately you need to set specific goals. Being specific about the problem and its impact sends this message from the beginning. For example, "Our inability to deliver releases within X% of the projected date results in lost opportunities of Y million dollars per year" directly links the problem to its outcome.

You must communicate this vision at every possible opportunity, at every level of the organization. Everyone should understand what is being done and why. Learn to be able to concisely describe the vision in a few minutes and present it as an "elevator pitch"—think of a chance meeting in an elevator with a key decision maker. You have this person's undivided attention for, at most, a few minutes. The vision needs to be crisp, concise, and compelling enough to explain in just these few minutes. Everyone today is busy; they don't have time to carefully read pages and pages of reasoning and justification. Set it out for them, and your message will have a better chance of being internalized. The vision need not be very specific about how the change will be achieved, but it does need to be compelling.

John Kotter [2] observes that failure to communicate the vision is a key factor in failed change efforts. You will probably need to communicate the vision 10 to 100 times more often than you are planning to. People usually focus on the impact and cost of changing; everyone needs to understand the impact of not changing. Only when people feel that their outcomes will suffer if they don't change will the change really take root.

Determining the Pace of Change

Every person and every project has a limited tolerance for change. People who have been successful with change initiatives in the past are more likely to embrace change, whereas people and projects that have a mixed or poor record of success with change will be more resistant to change. Trying to make too many changes too fast will be destabilizing and will make things worse, at least for a period of time. Most people have a threshold to the pace of change that they can sustain—try to push change faster, and the entire effort can stall and fall apart. The ability of the people to deal with change needs to be taken into account when planning change.

If the change is too large, people may lose hope that it will ever pay off and might abandon it. We have personally witnessed this many times, which is why we recommend an iterative approach to introducing change. This seems like simple common sense and no great innovation, but it remains a mystery to us why people so often try to push large changes in a single large initiative.

Expectations must be managed carefully. The tendency for teams to want to do everything immediately needs to be tempered; a sense of "proportion and pace" is crucial. The improvements must be driven fast enough to achieve the desired results as quickly as possible, but not so fast that the team gets confused or disheartened at the lack of progress caused by trying to do too much change at once.

Dealing with Skepticism

You will encounter skepticism and disbelief in the approach that you are proposing. You should be prepared to answer the skeptics because they are likely to become your biggest supporters if you can win them over. Everyone has seen grand new approaches that claim wonderful benefits but fail to produce results. The skeptics will ask, "What will be different this time?" The argument is based on the observation that every project manager starts every project with a new plan and the best of intentions, but the result is always the same: project slips, frustration, and failure. You must be able to answer the question, "Why should we believe you are doing something significant enough to affect the outcome?"

We have encountered this question often enough to have some thoughts on how to answer it. Appropriate responses include the following:

  • "We recognize that change is inevitable, and we are taking an approach that recognizes that. We will set goals for our progress, we will measure ourselves against those goals, and we will adapt our approach in light of new information rather than assuming that we had all the answers at the start of the project, which you know is not true."
  • "We will focus on the big risks early, while we can still do something about them, and we will take explicit action to reduce those risks. If our first attempts do not work, we will keep at them until we have dealt with the risks."
  • "We will focus on delivering the most important things the business really needs in an agreed-upon time frame rather than delivering everything they want. This is an important change from how we have done things in the past."

In short, you need to say and show how the iterative approach is pragmatic and deals with the realities of the world. Although real convincing comes only with the proof provided by real progress, most skeptics find the honesty of statements like these to be refreshing, provided that they are backed up with action.

Starting with Just Iterative Development

As discussed in Chapter 1, "What Is Iterative Development?" iterative behavior can be thought of as starting from the activity of developers. For a project to be considered iterative, it is essential that the software be developed iteratively—that is, the core development disciplines of Analysis, Design, and Implementation (which includes developer-driven testing) are applied repeatedly to evolve the software. Fortunately, this is the most natural way for developers to work. As Figure 11-1 shows, when these disciplines are executed in an iterative fashion, additional disciplines can be added around the core development ones to get the whole team iterating in an effective and collaborative manner.


Figure 11-1 Development (Analysis, Design, Implementation) Lies at the Core of the Iterative Approach.

In some organizations, where waterfall development has become so entrenched that it has influenced the organizational structure and management responsibilities, you might find that

  • The development work does not start until the requirements work is complete, and/or
  • The other stakeholders and managers in the organization are very suspicious and don't believe that iterative development is suitable for them.

In this case you can still apply and benefit from iterative development and project management techniques by adopting the "requirements pipeline" pattern last seen in Chapter 1 and repeated in Figure 11-2.


Figure 11-2 Developing Iteratively Inside a Waterfall Requirements Model

This compromise is often adopted in organizations new to iterative development, and it reflects the fact that the desire to iterate commonly originates in the development teams. To prove their iterative development capability, they will start to develop the software iteratively while the requirements and overall system testing are done in the traditional manner. In this case, the job of the development team is made easier if the requirements are captured in a form that enables the identification of sensible chunks of work to be implemented in the iterations.

After the development team has demonstrated the capability to implement sets of requirements in an iterative fashion, you can then expand the scope of the iterations to include the requirements and assessment disciplines. The projects will not be truly iterative in the way we have described throughout the rest of the book until you change the way that the development team works with the business.

Bootstrapping an Iterative Project

Starting your first iterative project is really just like starting any other iterative project. You apply the "bootstrapping" process described in Chapter 7, "Evolution and Phase Planning":

  • Start with a small team focused on the business and technical risks
  • Challenge the team to start with a four-week iteration
  • Adjust the iteration length in response to work and team culture
  • Plan to deliver business benefit every three to six months
  • Plan releases as well as iterations
  • Start with a colocated team
  • Address the architectural risks before scaling up

Regardless of how large the project might appear to be, remember the principles of scalable iterative project management presented in Chapter 5, "A Layered Approach to Planning and Managing Iterative Projects," Chapter 6, "Overall Project Planning," and Chapter 10, "A Scalable Approach to Managing Iterative Projects":

  • Start with the assumption that it is small— If you start big, it will stay big, and generally the larger a project, the more likely it is to fail.
  • Do everything within your power to keep the project small— If you don't fight to keep things small, they will naturally tend to get large.
  • Layer the plans and keep them succinct and focused— To be comprehensible, plans must be small. Exploit the layering inherent in iterative projects to avoid unnecessary precision in planning the work.

The first iteration of your first iterative project will be the hardest to plan and manage; chances are you won't know exactly what to do and neither will your team, and this uncertainty is unsettling. It is also likely to be a new experience for the stakeholders as well as the project team, which will only compound the problems. To compensate for this, make sure that the iteration has modest objectives: whatever you do, don't set yourself and the team up to fail by setting ridiculously aggressive objectives.

If you are following the advice presented in this book, then the iteration should be of average length (we recommend four weeks but are prepared to accept four to six weeks as a starting point). It is common for initial iterations to run over their schedule. Allowing this to happen establishes a bad precedent. Keep an eye on progress during the iteration and be ready to scale back on ambitions even in the middle of the iteration to make sure that you will have time to assess results. This usually means moving some scope from the current iteration to the next in order to maintain the iteration time box. When you assess the iteration, you can decide whether to make future iterations longer.

Your first iteration will probably be over-planned. Don't worry; just keep learning and looking for ways to simplify the plans. The main trap to watch out for is overly aggressive planning, especially overestimating the productivity of a new team adopting new practices. If the team becomes demoralized, it will be impossible to get the project back on track, so set reasonable goals early and then ramp up expectations when the team is executing effectively.

Overly aggressive planning has other side effects on the expectations of external stakeholders. These stakeholders tend to focus almost exclusively on whether you did what you said you were going to do, and they will notice if you miss a milestone or if the project consistently fails to meet the commitments you have made to them and the other parts of the organization. The results of overly aggressive planning are illustrated by the following story.

We once met a project manager who, having failed to complete the Elaboration phase in the predicted number of iterations, needed to adjust his plans. The reason that the phase could not be completed successfully was that the architectural baseline could not be tested because no hardware was available to run the tests.

On inquiring of the supplier when the hardware was likely to be available, the supplier responded that delivery would take at least six weeks, and that could only be achieved because they were such a valued customer and could be promoted to the top of the queue.

Learning this did not stop the project manager from re-planning the phase by adding one four-week iteration to the plan. The hardware predictably failed to magically appear earlier than promised, and the project again failed to complete the testing. This repeated failure to achieve the milestone led to a complete loss of trust between the project manager and the steering committee, and caused the manager's removal from the project.

It will take some time and effort to achieve the full benefits of an iterative approach. Your first evolution is unlikely to accomplish more than successfully producing the same amount of software in a non-iterative fashion, but there will be less rework, the project will be less risky, and the chances of delivering in the predicted timescales will be increased. As a result, it is important that you do not set unrealistic expectations for what can be achieved. Iterative development is not necessarily faster than traditional development, but you will be more certain of delivering the right result in an acceptable amount of time.

Maintaining Momentum

The more you iterate, the better you and your team will get at it. Each iteration results in management, planning, process adoption, and team interactions improving and iteration becoming easier. By struggling through the first few iterations, you and the team learn how to iterate and how to work together in an iterative fashion. Over time, the levels of planning, reporting, designing, and everything else will settle at a natural level suitable for the team and the project. You achieve this by reviewing results at the end of each iteration and adapting your tactics and plans, discarding or amending things that don't add value, and adding techniques as needed to resolve issues.

It will probably take you and your team a number of evolutions to become really proficient at iterating. The key is to keep going and use the evolutionary and iterative nature of the projects to evolve the team's capability alongside the solutions that they are developing. Achieving continuous improvement through iteration is the subject of the next section.

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