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Commitment Considered Harmful

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Commitment Considered Harmful

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Some Agile evangelists are very keen on the idea of “Commitment.” i.e. the development team “commit” to doing an amount of work within a time-box (normally an iteration.) The team do this work come hell or high-water. They do what it takes. Once they’ve said they’ll do it they do it.

I believe the idea of Commitment was baked into Scrum - see the Scrum Primer by Larman, Benefield and Deemer for example. And I’ve heard Jeff Sutherland proclaim the power of Commitment in person. But it seem Scrum is less keen on it these days. The October 2011 “Scrum Guide” by Schwaber and Sutherland does not contain the words Commit or Commitment so I guess “commitment” is no longer part of Scrum. Who knew?

I’ve long harbored my doubts about Commitment (e.g. from last year see “Unspoken Cultural differences in Agile & Scrum” and “My warped, crazy, wrong version of Agile”, and from 2010 “Two ways to fill an iteration”) but now I’m going to go further and say the Commitment protocol for filling an iteration is actively damaging for software development teams in anything other than the very short run. This reassessment has been triggered by a) watching the #NoEstimates discussion on Twitter and b) visiting clients were teams attempt to follow the Commitment protocol.

1) Commitment can lead to gaming by developers who have an incentive to under commit (my argument in “Two ways to fill an iteration”).

2) Commitment can lead to gaming by the need/business side who have an incentive to make the team over commit

3) Commitment combined with velocity measurement and task estimation leads to confused and opaque ways of scheduling work into a sprint, Since (#1 and #2) developers over estimate stories and tasks and the business representatives apply pressure to reduce estimates. This prevents points and velocity of floating free instead they become a battle ground. (Points are a fiat currency, if you don’t allow it to float someone, somewhere, has to provide currency support; overtime from developers, or , more likely, inaccurate measurement.)

4) At one client commitment led to busy developers for the first half of the sprint (with testers under worked) and then as the sprint came to a close very busy testers with developers taking things a little easier. Except developers where also delivering bugs to Testers, the nice pile of bugs kept developers busy but meant that a sprint wasn’t really closed because each sprint contained bugs. On paper, on the day the sprint closed the sprint was done, but it soon required rework. There was also a suspicion that as the end of sprint approached Testers lowered their acceptance threshold and both Developers and Testers asked fewer probing, potentially disruptive, questions later in the sprint.

5) Developers under pressure - even self imposed - to deliver may choose to cut corners, i.e. let bugs through. Bugs are expensive and disruptive.

6) Developers asked to Commit ask for more and more detail before the sprint starts. A “cover your ass” attitude takes hold and stores start to resemble functional requirements of old with all the old problems that brought.

7) Developers become defensive pointing to User Stories and Acceptance Criteria and saying “Your bug isn’t included in the criteria so I didn’t do it” (the other end of a “cover your ass” attitude.)

8) Developers who have not totally mastered Test Driven Development will be tempted - even incentivised - to skip this practice in order to go faster. They may even go faster in the short run - building up “technical debt” - but in the long run will go far far slower.

9) Business/Customers conversely have no motivation to support development adoption of TDD or to invest in automated acceptance test (ATDD, BDD, SbE etc) of their own because, after all, the developers are committed.

Maybe I should say that I currently believe Estimates can work, I have sympathy with the #NoEstimates argument but I have clients where Estimates do work, one manager claims “to be able to bring a project in to the day” using estimates. So I have trouble reconciling #NoEstimates with experience.

Part of the #NoEstimates argument is that “estimates” are too easily mistaken for “commitments” and when they do so teams cannot be expected to honour them but some people do. Obviously if you remove commitment then the transmission mechanism is removed and estimates might still be useful.

While I’ve been suspecting much of the above its taken me a while to come to these conclusions. In part this is because I don’t see that many teams that actually do Commitment. Most of the teams I see are in the UK and I’ve always thought Commitment was a very American idea - it always creates images of American Football teams in my mind - “win one for the Gipper”.

Actually most teams I see are teams I have taught so they don’t do it. (they do some variation on Xanpan if I’m being honest). While I talk about Commitment I teach the Velocity protocol and it is estimation and velocity that is baked into Xanpan. (I hope to be able to push out my notes on Xanpan very soon so join the list.)

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