Group Coherence for Project Teams - Continuous Improvement

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Summary:

One of the principles in the Agile Manifesto states, "At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly." This principle guides both aspiring and seasoned Agile teams in the pursuit of continuous improvement and can support whatever Agile adoption path an organization may choose. Kent Beck adds observations about this topic.

"'Continuous improvement is a bit of a misnomer. It means continuous awareness, responsiveness to feedback, and openness to improvement. When you know how to improve, then you improve. You make a change; observe the effects; then digest the change, turning it into a solid habit. Eventually you hit a plateau from which you can absorb more feedback and identify the next opportunity." 

Extreme Programming Explained: Embrace Change  (Beck amp; Andres 2005, p141)  Addison-Wesley Boston MA

This quote describes a process that we recognize as the ability to identify difference and learn through attentive repetition, either for individuals or groups. Through practice, we can get a feel for the contextual application of knowledge, rather than the acquisition of individual techniques." Practice is the only ingredient that the research group found to be connected to every other ingredient. Beck refers to continuous improvement in the context of an individual's learning process. "Change myself, then offer the fruits of that change to others." Practice is a process through which groups can also learn and change.

Although individuals contribute to the features developed by a project team, the product of their work (the features themselves) does not belong to an individual, but is the product of the entire group. Just as the music produced by a jazz ensemble includes the individual improvisations of each member, the music belongs to the group. To whom does the technical debt and code quality in software systems belong? Why do some environments not take advantage of the opportunity for iteration provided by Agile methods to turn releases into non-events?

We propose that items such as code quality, technical debt and release cycles have tacit ownership at the group level. This is unconscious, as group ownership is often minimally recognized in organizations. These unacknowledged group items are vulnerable to decisions and prioritization made by individuals without the group's voice, at the expense of the opportunity for the group to learn. Untapped group learning can be brought to awareness through group Practice thus supporting the pursuit of continuous improvement in these often challenging areas.

Challenges - Release Process
Large organizations are prone to centralize their release process in an attempt to protect their live systems from rogue updates, or their customers from a greater pace of change than they can absorb. A common implementation of this protection is to use an additional team for production releases independent of the development team. In reality the development team is invariably called in to resolve issues that surface during the release process. This illustrates tacit ownership of the release process that belongs to both release and project teams. The whole-group ownership of the release is not acknowledged. The resulting integration feedback loop is late, long and cumbersome and releases are big events involving multiple departments and stressful interactions with long hours.

In environments where a centralized release process is assumed to be the constraint and not up for discussion, Agile is stunted in its ability to provide continuous Practice in the software delivery. A common reason to avoid the process conversation is the excuse that "our complex business needs such a process." However, by not allowing Agile teams to release to production early and often, we prevent the Practice that would allow them to turn the release process into a non-event.

 Challenges - Technical Debt
The centralized release process implementation can result in development and test environments with limited ability to test performance, integration, code coverage or product usability. This forces a lot of critical testing to be done during the release rather than the development process. The project team's best

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