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Making Agile Work Measuring Agile Success Rate the Right Way

Much has been said recently about the success/failure rate of Agile projects. In particular, a debate arose around the success rate of Scrum vis-a-vis Kanban.  For example, in a post entitled Some Day Kanban will fail 75% of the Time, colleague Jurgen Appelo states as follows:

Unfortunately, some people arguing against Scrum include these ScrumBut teams in their evaluations of the “high failure rate” of Scrum. They love quoting that “at least 75 percent of Scrum implementations fail.” And I think “Yes of course, 75% fails when that includes the teams that don’t understand what they’re doing.”

I would like to add one other “dimension” to the discussion: boundary conditions.

Any Agile initiative – Crystal, Scrum, Kanban, etc. – typically starts from a certain state of affairs of the code that has already been developed using a Waterfall method or no method at all. Even brand new projects produce code that invariably interacts with other software components that are already deployed, warts and everything. Pristine environments with no technical debt for the Agile initiative to deal with are rare.

Like it or not, the Agile initiative is saddled from the outset with a certain amount of technical debt. Code has been duplicated, rules violated, complexity ran amuck, etc. A typical enterprise software team starts with hundreds of thousands $$ in technical debt, if not millions. This debt needs to be “paid back.” Probably not over night, but certainly over a period of time. As illustrated by the following figure from Jim Highsmith, things get ugly if the debt is not paid back over an extended period of time.

in-can-you-afford-the-software-you-are-developing

The evaluation of success or failure of the Agile initiative needs to take technical debt into account. A team of 50 with an accrued technical debt of $100,000 has a much easier job on its hands transitioning to Agile than a similar size team starting with $1M in technical debt on its hands.

Whatever criteria you use to determine whether an Agile initiative has been successful, I would suggest the following boundary condition needs to be satisfied:

Technical debt at the end of the project/initiative must be significantly lower than technical debt at the start of the project.

Use the techniques outlined in Using Credit Limits to Constrain Development on Margin to calculate technical debt before and after. In addition to qualifying your Agile success, quantifying technical debt will do a lot towards improving the quality of your software.

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