The three failures of Continuous Delivery

Everyone seems to want to get on the Continuous Delivery train. Rightfully so, I think. For most, though, it’s not an easy ride. From my work with client and conversations with other coaches there’s a few common barriers to adoption.

In the end, the goal should be to be able to react faster to the market. And, to be honest, to finally be in actual control. But in business terms, it’s about cycle times. That’s what allows you to not just react quickly to market circumstances, but to actively probe markets and test product ideas.

So, as I mentioned, there’s a few common problems companies run into. First, just the basic technical steps to create a fully automated pipeline. Then, getting the tests sorted to a level that gives enough confidence to deploy to production whenever they’ve run. Only when those technical matters have been sorted do we get to the more interesting issues of allowing the business to make use of the possibilities offered by the newfound agility. Those have their own challenges.

Let’s have a look at the the ways these particular subject give teams trouble. In the hope that being forewarned some will be able to avoid them. I’ll go into more detail on how to avoid them in subsequent posts.

Get a pipeline

Now, if you’ve paid any attention to the literature, you know that at the core, CD is all about important things like process and a culture of quality. Which is all true, but that probably won’t help you very much. Most development organisations have spent years wrapping themselves in workarounds and buffers all painstakingly created to prevent detection of their real problems. So taking a relatively small, technical, step in setting up a delivery pipeline at least seems somewhat feasible and will by its nature start showing where some of the real problems lie.

A Delivery Pipeline

From what I’ve seen, just trying to set up that pipeline is trouble enough. That’s why I’ve put it as the first barrier to adoption of CD. It may seem easy, but there turn out to be many basic technical challenges. Most teams go through those same pains, and it’s not really surprising. There’s quite a bit of (often new) knowledge and skills involved. And teams usually have to deal with all kinds of legacy code and infrastructure, which doesn’t make it any easier.

Mostly, what companies find here is that they are missing is skills. And there are a lot of skills involved! A real DevOps approach should include operations knowledge in a team, but even then most of the skills needed to create a modern, fully automated infrastructure are something that takes most organisations a long time to develop.
It’s not that these things are beyond those teams, it’s just that they’ve not had to deal with them before. Sure, it is easy enough to package your application in a docker container and run it locally, but people are discovering it is quite a different thing to build it out further than that.

Testing

Testing is the achilles heel of many development teams. Most agile teams work hard to get and keep their code under test. Many fail. The advantage that Continuous Delivery has is that it sets explicit expectations on quality. There’s really no room to skimp on testing if every push you do should end up on production.
Like was the case for Continuous Integration, testing is what makes a Delivery Pipeline useful. It’s great if you have fully automated deployment, but if you have no way to determine if the code you’re building can be trusted, you’ll still not be in production any sooner.
There’s different ways teams fail with testing. Insufficient unit testing. Too limited protocol and service testing. A reliance on slow and brittle end-to-end testing. Skipping manual / exploratory testing, that may no longer be a gateway before going into production but is still very much necessary.

Business

Organisations that manage to get past the first two hurdles have at their disposal a tool that can bring them unimagined business advantages. But even having come this far, existing silo’s, processes and political positioning prevent organisations from profiting from their newly found technical capabilities.

Symptoms of this can be found in the ignoring, or even complete lack, of market data in deciding on new products and functionality. In continuing a practice of long term planning, without built in checks to see if the intended goals are being achieved. In basing priorities on political influence instead of business goals. And even in a reluctance to release new features to users even once they’re available behind a feature toggle in production.

These issues can be the most difficult to address and need to be picked up at the highest management levels. They are attacked with changes in goal setting, reward systems, and organisational structure.

Interlocking pieces

As with any process, these different elements cannot exist for long without the others to support them. Testing withers if it cannot be run quickly and frequently enough. A delivery pipeline has little value if you have no way to know if you can trust the code that it’s building. And a highly evolved technical team that is not clearly and directly involved with business goals and customers will easily find more fulfilling work elsewhere.

That’s why my advice is to start in this order, picking up the next challenge as soon as there’s clear progress on the previous. You start building technical skills and then use that base as a flywheel to get a change in the rest of the company going.

Don’t Refactor. Rebuild. Kinda.

I recently had the chance to speak at the wonderful Lean Agile Scotland conference. The conference had a very wide range of subjects being discussed on an amazingly high level: complexity theory, lean thinking, agile methods, and even technical practices!

I followed a great presentation by Steve Smith on how the popularity of feature branching strategies make Continuous Integration difficult to impossible. I couldn’t have asked for a better lead in for my own talk.

Which is about giving up and starting over. Kinda.

Learning environments

Why? Because, when you really get down to it, refactoring an old piece of junk, sorry, legacy code, is bloody difficult!

Sure, if you give me a few experienced XP guys, or ‘software craftsmen’, and let us at it, we’ll get it done. But I don’t usually have that luxury. And most organisations don’t.

When you have a team that is new to the agile development practices, like TDD, refactoring, clean code, etc. then learning that stuff in the context of a big ball of mud is really hard.

You see, when people start to learn about something like TDD, they do some exercises, read a book, maybe even get a training. They’ll see this kind of code:

Example code from Kent Beck's book: "Test Drive Developmen: By Example"

Example code from Kent Beck’s book: “Test Drive Development: By Example”

Then they get back to work, and are on their own again, and they’re confronted with something like this:

Code Sample from my post "Code Cleaning: A refactoring example in 50 easy steps"

Code Sample from my post “Code Cleaning: A refactoring example in 50 easy steps”

And then, when they say that TDD doesn’t work, or that agile won’t work in their ‘real world’ situation we say they didn’t try hard enough. In these circumstances it is very hard to succeed. 

So how can we deal with situations like this? As I mentioned above, an influx of experienced developers that know how to get a legacy system under control is wonderful, but not very likely. Developers that haven’t done that sort of thing before really will need time to gain the necessary skills, and that needs to be done in a more controlled, or controllable, environment. Like a new codebase, started from scratch.

Easy now, I understand your reluctance! Throwing away everything you’ve built and starting over is pretty much the reverse of the advice we normally give.

Let me explain using an example.

Contine reading

The ‘Just Do It’ Approach To Change Management

Last Friday I gave a talk at the Dare 2013 conference in Antwerp. The talk was about the experiences I and my colleague Ciarán ÓNeíll have had in a recent project, in which we found that sometimes a very directive, Just Do It approach will actually be the best way to get people in an agile mindset.

Update: The full video of this talk as given on ‘Agile on the Beach’ is available on youtube.

This was surprising to us, to say the least, and so we’ve tried to find some theory supporting our experiences. And though theory is not the focus of this story, it helps if we set the scene by referencing two bits of theory that we think fits our experience.

Just Do It

A long time ago, in a country far away, there was this psychologist called William James, who wrote:

“If you want a quality, act as if you already have it.” – William James (1842-1910)

We often say that if you want to change your behaviour, you need to change your mind, be disciplined, etc. But this principle tells us that it works the other way around as well: if you change your behaviour this can change your thinking. Or mindset, perhaps?

For more about the ‘As If’ Principle, see the book by Richard Wiseman

Another piece of theory that is related is complexity thinking as embodied by the Cynefin framework. Cynefin talks about taking different actions when managing situations that are in different domains: simple, complicated, complex or chaos.

Cynefin Framework

The project

And in chaos, our story begins.

This particular project was a development project for a large insurance company. The project had already been active for over half a year when we joined. It was a bad case of waterfall, with unclear requirements, lots of silo’s, lots of finger pointing and no progress.

The customer got tired of this, and got in a high-powered project manager who was given far reaching mandate to get the project going. (ie. no guarantees, just get *something* done) This guy decided that he’d heard good things about this ‘Agile’ thing, and that it might be appropriate here as a risk-management tool. Which was where we came in.

And this wasn’t the usual agile transition, with its mix of proponents and reluctants, where you coach and teach, but also have to sell the process to large extend.

Here, everyone was external (to the customer), no-one wanted Agile, or had much experience with it, but the customer was demanding it! And taking full responsibility for delivery, switching the project to a time-and-material basis for the external parties.

A whole new ballgame.

Initial actions

We started out by getting everyone involved local. Up to then, people from four different vendors been in different locations, in different countries even. Roughly 60 people in all, we all worked from the office in Amsterdam. Most of these people had never met or even spoken!

We started with implementing a fairly standard Scrum process.

Step one was requiring multi-functional teams, mixing the vendors. This was tolerated. Mostly, I think, because people thought they could ignore it. Then we explained the other requirements. One week sprints, small stories (<2 / 3 days), grooming, planning, demo, retro. These things were all, in turn, declared completely impossible and certainly in our circumstances unworkable. But the customer demanded it, so they tried. And at the end of the first week, we had our first (weak) demo.

So, we started with basic Scrum. The difference was in the way this was sold to the teams. Or wasn’t.

That is not to say that we didn’t explain the reasons behind the way of working, or had discussions about its merit. It’s just that in the end, there was no option of not doing it.

And… It worked!

The big surprise to us was how well this worked. People adjusted quickly, got to work, and started delivering working software almost immediately. Every new practice we introduced, starting with testing within the sprint, met with some resistance, and within 4 to 6 weeks was considered normal.

After a while we noticed that our retrospectives changed from simply complaining about the process to open discussion about impediments and valuable input for improvements generated by our teams.

And that’s what we do all this for, right? The continuous improvement mindset? Scrum, after all, is supposed to surface the real problems.

Well. It sure did.

Automated testing

One of those problems was one which you will be familiar with. If you’ve been delivering software weekly for a while, testing manually won’t keep up. And so we got more and more quality issues.

We had been expecting this, and we had our answer ready. And since we’d had great success so far in our top-down approach, we didn’t hesitate much, and we started asking for automated testing.

Adoption

Resistance here was very high. Much more so than for other changes. Impossible! But we’d heard all those arguments before, and why would this situation be any different? We set down the rules: every story is tested, tests are automated, all this happens within the sprint.

the-princess-bride-inconceivable

And sure enough, after a couple of sprints, we started seeing automated tests in the sprint, and a hit in velocity recovered to almost the level we had had before.

See. It’s Simple! Just F-ing Do It!

Limitations

Then after another 3-4 sprints, it all fell apart.

Tests were failing frequently, were only built against the UI, had lots of technical shortcomings. And tests were built within the team, but still in isolation: a ‘test automation’ person built them, and even those were decidedly unconvinced they were doing the right thing.

In the end, it took us another 6 months to dig our way out of this hole. This took much coaching, getting extra expertise in, pairing, teaching. Only then did we arrive at the stop-the-line mindset about our tests that we needed.

Even with all of that going on, though we were actually delivering working software.

And we were doing that, much quicker than expected. After the initial delays in the project, the customer hadn’t expected to start using the system until… well, about now, I think. But instead we had a (very) minimal, but viable product in time for calculating the 2012 year-end figures. And while we were at it, since we could roll-out new environments at a whim (well… almost:-) due to our efforts in the area of Continuous Delivery, we could also do a re-calculation of the 2011 figures.

These new calculations enabled the company to free a lot of money, so business wise there’s no doubt this was the right thing to do.

But it also meant that, suddenly, we were in production, and we weren’t really prepared to deliver support for that. Well, we really weren’t prepared!

Kanban

And that brings us to one of the most invasive changes we did during the project. After about 5 months, we moved away from Scrum and switched to Kanban.

Just Do It

At that time I was the scrum master of one of the teams, the one doing all the operations work. And our changes in priority were coming very fast, with many requests for support of production. In our retros, the team were stating that they were at the same time feeling that nothing was getting done (our velocity was 0), and they felt stressed (overtime was happening). Not a good combination. This went on for a few sprints, and then we declared Kanban.

That’s not the way one usually introduces Kanban. Which is carefully, evolutionary, keeping everyone involved, not changing the process but just visualising it. You guys know how that’s supposed to be done right?

This was more along the lines: “Hey, if you can’t keep priorities stable for a week, we can’t plan. So we won’t.”

Of course, we did a little more than that. We carefully looked at the type of issues we had, and the people available to work on them. We based some initial WIP limits on that, as well as a number of classes of service. And we put in some very basic explicit policies. No interruptions, except in case of expedite items. If we start something, we finish it. No breaking of WIP limits. And no days longer than 8 hours.

Adoption

That brought a lot of rest to the team. And immediately showed better production. It also made the work being done much more transparent for the PO.

It worked well enough, that another team that was also experiencing issues with the planning horizon also opted to ‘go Kanban’. Later the rest of the teams followed, including the PO team.

Limitations

That is not to say there was no resistance to this change. The Product Owners in particular felt uncomfortable with it for quite some time. The teams also raised issues. All that generated many of those nice incremental, evolutionary changes. And still does. The mindset of changing your process to improve things has really taken root.

The most remarkable thing, though, about all that initial resistance was the direction. It was all about moving back to the familiar safety of… Scrum!

Wrap-up

I’d like to tell you more but this post is getting long enough already. I don’t have time to talk about our adventures with going from many POs to one, introducing Specification by Example, moving to feature teams, or our kanban ready board.

I do feel I need to leave you with some comforting words, though. Because parts of this story go against the normal grain of Agile values.

Directive leadership, instead of Servant Leadership? Top-Down change, instead of bottom-up support? Certainly more of a dose of Theory X than I can normally stomach!

And to see all of that work, and work quite well, is a little disconcerting. Yes, Cynefin says that decisive action is appropriate in some domains, but not quite in the same way.

And overcoming the familiar ‘That won’t work in our situation’ resistance by making people try it is certainly satisfying, but we’ve also seen that fail quite disastrously where deep skills are required. That needs guidance: Still no silver bullets.

Enlightened Despotism is a perhaps dangerous tool. But what if it is the tool that instills the habits of Agile thinking? The tool that forcibly shakes people out of their old habits? That makes the despot obsolete?

Practice can lead to mindset. The trick is in where to guide closely, and when to let go.

Turning it up to 11

Turning It Up To 11It’s odd how I’ve been unable to be very consistent in my subject-matter for this blog. I tend to hop around, going from very technical subject to very organisational ones. Some might see this as lacking focus. Maybe that’s true. I’ve never been able to separate execution from organisation and vision very well. To me they seem intrinsically linked. It’s comforting to me that even such luminaries as Kent Beck also seem to see things in this light.

If I look at my bifurcated (tri-? n-?) interests, I see a striking resemblance in the states of technological, managerial and commercial maturity in the world. In all of these areas, the state of affairs is abysmal. In all three areas, we seem to have recognised that this is the case. In all three, though, most people performing those roles are so used to the current state that only rarely do they see that a different approach could bring improvement. Could turn their work ‘up to 11’. There are some differences, though.

Technology

On the technology side, we’ve pretty much identified what works, and what doesn’t. Basically, XP got things right. Others before that also hit the right spot, but we know a mature team sticking to XP practices will not mess things up beyond salvation. If we compare that approach to what one finds in the run-of-the-mill waterfall situation, the differences are so great that there is truly no comparison. There are other questions still at least partially open, but most of those are concerned with scale, organisation, and finding out what should be built. And thus belong in the other categories. The main challenge is one of education. And, granted, a bit of proselytising.

Commercial

More commercial questions are less clear-cut, at least for me. In my work I’ve very rarely seen commercial, product development and marketing decisions taken with anything resembling a structured approach of any kind of rigour. A business case, if one is available at al is often only superficial, and almost never comes with any defined metrics and decision moments. The Lean Start-up movement is the only place I’ve seen that is trying to improve that. Taking this approach out of the start-up and into all the product development and marketing departments in the world is going to take a while, but it will happen. If only because companies capable of doing that will completely out-perform the ones that don’t.

I don’t think the case here is as clear cut as on the technology side, but we have a start. The principles of the Lean Start-up are based on the same ideas as Agile development: know what you want the result to be (validated learning) and iterate using short feedback loops. What to do, exactly, in those feedback loops is known for some types of learning, in some situations, but we’re still working on expanding our knowledge and skills in this area.

Management

As the solutions for the commercial and technical sides of things are rooted in experimentation and short feedback cycles, one might assume that the same would be true for the management side of things. And it’s true that those techniques have value in management in many situations. Many of the ideas on management are based on feedback cycles, Lean/Deming’s PDCA is one, for instance, but Cynefin‘s way of dealing with systems in the complex area is another. But we do seem to have many different ideas about how management should be done, how organisations should be structured and what gives people the best environment to work in.

One place where some of these ideas have gotten together is the Stoos Network. It’s interesting because of the different backgrounds of the people involved: Agile, Beyond Budgeting, Radical Management, Industry Leaders. Their initial gettogether this year resulted in a shared vision, with again an emphasis on learning.

“Organizations can become learning networks of individuals creating value, and the role of leaders should include the stewardship of the living rather than the management of the machine.” — Stoos Communique

This clearly expresses some of the shared values of the Stoos people, but still leaves quite a lot to the imagination. The people and ideas involved are interesting enough that I’ve volunteered to help organise one of the follow-up meetings,  the ‘Stoos Stampede’, which takes place in Amsterdam, 6 and 7 July.

Next to Stoos, as I said before, there are many ideas on how to change management. Lean has had an impact, but though the Toyota Way certainly does talk about people and how to support them in an organisation, this is not the prime focus of most Lean implementations. CALM has started talking about combining Complexity, Agile and Lean ideas, but so far has also not posted any results.  We’re still a bit lost at sea, here.

So what would we need from a new management philosophy?

  • We’d need to know how to structure an organisation. Stoos clearly think the current semi-hierarchical default is not workable for the future, or at the very least severely suboptimal. But what do ‘learning networks’ look like? And how do we grow them?
  • We’d need to know how to provide the organisation with a purpose. A Mission, a Vision, a Goal. Whatever you want to call it. Most organisations do have some sort of mission statement, but it is usually so far removed from the everyday practice of everyone working within the organisation that it might as well be absent.
  • We’d need to know how to connect that purpose to the rest of the organisation. How do we link the work of everyone in the organisation to its stated purpose? If the mission is specific this should be possible. But if we connect the work too tightly, it could be stifling.
  • We’d need to know how to connect the organisation with its customers, its suppliers, its partners. This would be different out of necessity, as the structure of the organisation itself is different. It would also be different out of philosophy, as those relations take on different meaning is the goals of the organisation outside of the monetary rise in importance.
  • We’d need to know how to align such organisations with the demands of the outside marketplace and governance. If the organisation is more oriented towards longer term viability and purposeful behaviour, this might have a good long term effect on profitability, but will certainly in the short term have a different financial behaviour. And budgeting and bookkeeping are areas that need very specific attention with an eye on the external rules these subjects need to comply with.

But apart from what new management would do to the idea of an organisation, there are also questions related more to the question of how to get there from here. Why would current managers want to change their organisations? Why would they want to change so drastically? There are plenty of reasons, but would they be convincing to the current CxO? What would they need to learn to be able to execute on such a vision? Will everyone enjoy working in these kinds of more empowering organisations, or will some people prefer something more hierarchical?

All of these things I want to know. Some of them we’ll discuss during the Stoos Stampede (propose a subject to discuss!), but personally I think we’re still at the very earliest stages of this particular change. In the mean time, we do have a few good examples, and some patterns that seem to work, and I’m going to try and get a few more organisations turned up to 11.