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  • James Kelly

Agile after 18 months: fix your backlog

No one ever said that implementing agile would be easy.

It is a major initiative that has significant challenges in cultural and behaviour change. Even once you've had success in making these changes, there are some components that only become problems over time.

We recently completed a survey of Australian agile projects and asked them what presented the biggest challenges once the initial cultural and process changes had taken place.

As you can see in these results, managing/maintaining the backlog is the biggest issue faced by these companies. That issue was closely followed by running retrospectives, keeping meaningful measures, and integrating budgets.

The backlog in particular seemed to be challenging but not a major problem initially. After all, they had collated all of the existing features, requests, and changes into a backlog. The common feedback from these teams was that keeping it maintained over time and in a usable format was difficult. The backlogs had grown and grown to be wish lists of someday-maybe ideas, rather than a well-defined set of requirements that were prioritised.

Another initial seemingly easy challenge that grew to be problematic was that of retrospectives. Many teams were familiar with retrospectives and had participated in them from time to time. What they didn't count on was the frequency and integrating the lessons learnt back into the next sprint. Many people had never really taken improvements from retrospectives and actually done anything with them.

Another important issue with retrospectives was keeping them fresh and effective. Because of the regularity of them when using agile, they tended to become stale and grew less effective over time. So much so that they were often no longer conducted as frequently if at all.

The inability to integrate agile projects into company KPI/metrics systems and budgeting systems was also a very common problem that continued well into year 2 and beyond and is probably unsurprising to people involved in agile implementation initiatives. As an industry, we still seem to have not solved this problem, and it is only when organizations take a more strategic view of these systems and structures do we see better integration.

Tip #1 - Fix the backlog

Project after project showed us that the quality of the backlog remains the number one challenge. After 12 months, many backlogs remained a partially sorted list of vaguely defined actions.

Too much time was spent at the beginning of each sprint arguing over what specific functions, changes, and tasks meant and whether they should be prioritized.

Make sure that some quality control is applied to requirements BEFORE they are added to the backlog. A checklist should be developed to ensure that features are well-defined and can be compared and prioritised when the time is right.

Tip #2 - Keep your retrospectives fresh and clear

Keep your retrospectives simple and with an emphasis on finding problems and efficiencies. Without proper focus, retrospectives are often bloated, confused and without well-defined goals.

With each retrospective, identified a goal to be achieved which is either a problem to solve or a productivity improvement e.g. "how to resolve conflicting requirements sooner" or "how to reduce waiting times".

"Keep them clear - sprint retrospectives should either solve a problem or help to improve productivity." – James Kelly

Tip #3 - KPIs/Metrics and Budgets

Ensuring appropriate KPIs/metrics are identified and working with budget constraints on an ongoing basis is crucial. Agile projects do not exist in a vacuum and so keeping them on the company KPI dashboard is critical for agile initiative success. Experiment with different metrics during the early stages of the agile implementation. It's unlikely you'll stumble upon the most effective metrics from the start, so keep them meaningful to the team and to the rest of the organization.

Regularly determine the challenges

As you can see from the survey results, many of the challenges with implementing agile methods get easier over time, and others grow more difficult. What worked initially will probably not work two years later. Almost every organization is in a constant state of change. Agile itself needs to be agile and to keep assessing the problems and challenges which will inevitably arise. Keep looking at the problems and what you can do to solve the most important ones.

Which challenges have you encountered? Leave a comment below.

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