Reading up: 5 Books To Read If You Want To Really Understand Agile

Last year, I posted an overview of some books every programmer should read. Those still stand, and I find more and more examples where I would like to re-iterate the advice to read those books.

This post is about other books, though. Books related to Agile and Lean principles and practices. There are many books on those subjects, and quite a number of those have become standard-works. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find an Agilist that has not read Agile Estimation and Planning, User Stories Applied, Agile Project Management with Scrum, etc. If you’re lucky, they’ll even know Agile Software Development, Principles, Patterns and Practices.

So those are on all the lists anyway, and thus not very interesting for me to write about. So I’ll do it a little differently. This is a list of a few books that, at different moments, have really helped me take my understanding of Agile to new levels.

Let’s start with the basics. I spent a little time on an XP team at the start of my career, but I didn’t really appreciate the significance of that at the time. After all, I didn’t really have anything to compare it to! So it took me a while to get back on that track. Time mostly spent wondering why there was so little testing going on in the teams I found myself on, and trying to fix that. At one point, though, the company I was working in was changing over to using Scrum, and I was first in line to go get trained, and get going with it.

/images/2011/08/coverlandingpage.jpgScrum and XP From The Trenches

Scrum and XP from the Trenches - Henrik Kniberg

Before the training, I was of course reading up on the material, finding a lot of familiar concepts, and being very happy with what I was finding. The most useful text I encountered was Henrik Kniberg’s ‘Scrum and XP from the Trenches’. Useful, because it is short, free (to download, though you can buy a hard copy, nowadays), incredibly practical and emphasizes the combination of Scrum and XP. I’m very much convinced that that combination is crucial to get to any kind of success with Scrum.

So if you’re new to Scrum (or even if you’re not, but somehow missed this book), go through this book to get a quick but very thourough overview of what to do. And what not. I wouldn’t do everything exactly as Henrik describes in the book, but then, neither does he, anymore! Scrum is about learning, and adapting, so it would be surprising (and worrying!) if the people who work with it don’t learn how to do it better as time goes by.

Scaling Lean & Agile development - Craig Larman and Bas Vodde

Fast-forwarding some time, and skipping a number of books, we come to a time where we were discussing the options of organising the development efforts around a large-ish project, that would occupy about half of our approx. 120 persons large department. Coincidentally (or perhaps not) I and another Scrum Master had both been reading the sample chapter on Feature Teams from Larman and Vodde’s book ‘Scaling Lean & Agile Development’. The subject matter of that chapter fit perfectly with our new plans, and we did (eventually…) end-up with a feature team set-up as described in the book. The clear way in which everything was explained, and the immediate practical value of the advice (Try… / Avoid…) made this immediately valuable (so go download and read that sample chapter, already!)

/images/2011/08/250px-Scaling_lean_and_agile_dev_-_cover.jpgScaling Lean and Agile Development - Book cover

Of course, finding something good like that meant buying the book as well. One of the rare non-fiction books that I couldn’t put down, so I read it in one weekend. For me, even though I bought it for use in an Agile environment, this book was an eye-opening introduction to the concepts of Lean and of Systems Thinking. The book starts of with a 5 chapter section on ‘Thinking Tools’, including Systems Thinking, Lean Thinking and Queueing Theory. These concepts are explained very clearly, and if they’re new for you, this will make quite a lot of the issues you see around you at work and in organisations click into place. The ‘Organizational Tools’ section then goes into more practical detail on how to arrange your organisation (Teams, Feature Teams) and your work (Requirements Areas) in such a way that you can do Large-Scale Scrum.

The authors’ idea of large-scale is 100-500 persons working on a single product. This is larger than the situations I’ve worked with (which was roughly 60 persons max., as I said above), but not only does the advice (and thinking tools!) in this book work just as well for just two scrum teams, it will also certainly help your work with single teams, or with multiple teams in an organisation where each team works on a different product.

A companion book has been released (Practices for Scaling Lean & Agile Development) which, though less horizon-expanding for me, gives more concrete practical advice based on the idea in the first book.

Leading Lean Software Development - Mary and Tom Poppendieck

Now, as you can imagine, my appetite was whet on the subject of Lean. Now Lean is a subject that came out of studying the ways of working at Toyota, which in turn was inspired by the work of W. Edward Deming. So if you’re looking, there’s a lot to read on this subject. The people who’ve done most in bringing the concepts of Lean out of the production context of Toyota (and the general management context of Deming) are Mary and Tom Poppendieck. They’ve written three books dealing with Lean in software development, but the first one that I read was the last one released: ‘Leading Lean Software Development

/images/2011/08/41d0WXfsICL._SL500_AA300_.jpgLeading Lean Software Development - Book Cover

This book deals with the different aspects of managing software development, and is valid whether you want to call your way of working Lean or Agile. All the advice in here is great, but the way in which is given is even better! The whole book is set-up in such a way that each subject discussed is from the point of view of the roles that are impacted by the new way of working.

This means that the chapters on Reliable Delivery are framed from the point of view of a Project Manager, with both examples and language that fits for that role. The chapters focused on Technical Excellence take into account the views and experiences found in Software Developers and Architects, breaking down the ways working all the way back to Edsger Dijkstra, and then building it up again explaining how modern ways of working such as TDD are the closest we’ve yet come to some of the ideas of early computer science.

Because of that focus on explaining things from different points of view, the message of the book is much stronger than it would otherwise be. Also, this gives you the necessary tools to discuss the sometimes radically different views with people in various roles. Useful is you are going to be in a coaching role, as I was just switching to at the time I read this.

Next to Reliable Delivery  (planning and flow) and Technical Excellence (how to build things) ,the book also has chapters covering Systems Thinking (seeing, and optimising)  the whole, Relentless Improvement, Great People (finding, growing and keeping them) and Aligned Leaders (for a common goal, and in moving to lean/agile).

Like the Larman and Vodde book, for me each chapter was instant recognition of the problems described, and gave continuous affirmment of a way of working that I find instinctively correct.

Kanban - David J. Anderson

Kanban is an Agile system for managing work in the same way Scrum is. Kanban is more directly related to Lean than is the case for Scrum, and is considered to be the Lean software development method. In the context of these books, Kanban is a concrete implementation of the ideas of Lean encountered in the Larman/Vodde and Poppendieck books. That is also how the book reads: very concrete, with step-by-step guides to implementation of Kanban. It also gives plenty of background on why the recommended works, of course, but this is secondary to the practical side. The author, David J. Anderson, is the inventor of the Kanban Method, and this is the book that defines it.

/images/2011/08/cover-thumb.pngKanban - Book Cover

Since this article’s title mentions Agile, it may be surprising that so much of the material in this list is about Lean ideas. I’ve written before on this blog that I thing the similarities between Agile and Lean are much more important than the differences. Quite a few of the ideas are the same. Certainly some of the tools are the same (for instance, a Scrum board is nothing more than a simple kanban board). Reading how those tools are used in other contexts, and why they work, can only improve your skills in using them in any context. Also, it’s important to avoid becoming a one-trick-pony. There are many situations where (ie.) a Kanban system will be much more appropriate than using Scrum would be. One example is the simple Kanban I helped set-up for our recruitment team.

Back to the book. As I said, this book stays very close to the day-to-day reality of improving software development processes. The subtitle is ‘Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business’, and the book describes why you should use the Kanban approach to guide a change process. The approach is much more incremental than a Scrum implementation usually is, which in some situations can mean the difference between failure and success. Of course, the book also goes into a lot of details on the mechanics of the parts of Kanban, how to use them in various situations, etc.  Not surprising for the book that defines the process, by its inventor.

Management 3.0 - Jurgen Appelo

/images/2011/08/mgmt30.pngManagement 3.0 - Book Cover

This particular book I didn’t want to like (probably because of the title), but a friend ’lent’ me a pdf copy, and after reading the first few chapters I had to cave in and order the book.

I haven’t actually finished it yet (this was last week), but am very much enjoying what I’ve read so far. The contents as well as a nicely irreverent style of humour make this a great read.

The reason the contents is so good, is that this book approaches management from the point of view of complex systems theory. Complex Adaptive Systems are mentioned often enough as a contributor to the way Scrum is set-up, but very rarely does anyone go into much detail on the how and why of that. Even rarer is this books look at how those concepts can and should be used for management. Not Project Management per se (the Poppendieck book above does a nice job of that as well), but also people management and teams.

If you’d like a quick introduction on why complex systems theory is useful for management of work, take a quick look at this video by Dave Snowden on how to organise a children’s party:


Snowden, and his company Cognitive-Edge are doing interesting work in this area, and I look forward to hearing him speak at the Lean and Kanban conference in Antwerp in October.

The book uses the grounding in complexity to discuss all the subjects that a manager should take care of (but often doesn’t, or not very effectively). Subjects covered include How To Energise People, The Basics of Self-Organisation, How To Empower Teams, How To Develop Competence and How To Grow Structure. And quite a few more, but I haven’t completely read it yet. What I have read is both directly applicable, but more importantly has given me new tools to think about my work.

That’s it for this post. It can be hard with so many great books out there to pick just a few that you should read. I’ve picked a few that gave me new thinking tools over the past five years, and presented them in the chronological order in which I read them. What books should really be in this list according to you? Or do you think other books cover these kind of subjects in an even better way? Let me know!