About Spiking on Unknowns
Agile works really well on things that you've done before — but how well does it work on things that you have never done?
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As an Agile developer, I often start projects without a clear sense of exactly what I’m building. This used to be very difficult for me. I wanted to start with a complete specification for what I was to build, but today I know that it’s more efficient and effective to discover exactly what needs to be built just in time.
However, this sometimes leaves me with a set of unknowns in my critical path, like boulders blocking the road in front of me, that have to be addressed before I can move forward. These unknowns can be anything from how an API behaves to finding a framework that does things I need to have done.
That’s OK, though. When I find an unknown in my critical path, I simply spike on it.
Spiking is when one or more team members focus on answering one or more questions within a given time box. The goal is to answer the questions before the allotted time expires. If I can’t answer the questions then I’ll try to answer at least part of the questions and formulate a plan and timeline for answering the remaining critical parts.
I find that spiking on unknowns is an invaluable practice during iterative development. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds, especially when you’re doing research. Having a defined goal within a fixed period of time can be very helpful. When the time expires, I check in and see how close I’ve come to answering my questions. If I got satisfactory answers, then I move on. If I still need to do more research I will set up another spike.
Spiking on unknowns ensures that I don’t get lost for any length of time. I can always step back and reevaluate. Sometimes 80% of the resolution is sufficient and I don’t have to go for a total solution. Using time boxes to check in and evaluate my progress has become a useful practice that I have extended to many areas of my life.
If you hang around my office for any length of time, you’ll probably notice a Pomodoro timer going off every 25 minutes. Every time the timer goes off, I stretch but I also check in with myself and ask myself three questions: What have I learned? Where am I stuck? What am I going to try next?
Unknowns are only scary if they catch you off guard. Spiking on unknowns is a way to prepare and address issues before they come up. Generally, my spikes are anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, but I have spiked for several days in the past. I try to keep my spikes as short as possible because this gives me more opportunities to check in and evaluate my progress.
The key to a successful spike is to have the right questions to research and enough time to get good answers.
Published at DZone with permission of David Bernstein, DZone MVB. See the original article here.
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