There are three aspects to this discomfort that I think majorly impact our experience of the agile philosophy and methodology that I think are worth considering:
- We deceive ourselves that being agile means you don’t need a vision.
- We don’t understand the pace that an iterative process requires.
- We don’t allow enough space for experimentation and failing within a safe environment.
Stop Deceiving Yourself
The biggest problem that I see again and again with agile teams is their thinking that you can dive into sprints and figure out what you’re doing as you go along. Vision is a major premise of the agile methodology. But we often forget that there is more to the work than the day-to-day grind.
It doesn’t matter how big or small your project is, you need to set a vision for it beforehand and make sure that someone is responsible for keeping an eye on that target throughout the process. Understand the end goal and define small, incremental blocks of work that will enable you to achieve it. Measure success by increments.
And the most important part—given that agile is an iterative process—is that you continually need to do ongoing work to maintain the current state of the vision. These statements may seem contradictory, but if you set the vision and forget it, there wasn’t really a point to your defining a vision in the first place. Things morph during the process, and ultimately, being agile is about being responsive. It’s okay for your vision to evolve, but it’s not okay to start without a clear vision to begin with.
Don’t let yourself get caught up in the chaos of iterating yourself into an incoherent whole. Find the balance between your ultimate vision and the natural progression of iterative processes.
The Truth About Iteration
We call the iterations of work that we do when following the agile methodology sprints, but many times I think that we forget the true meaning of the word—and that causes a breakdown in the process. For iterative processes to work well, there is a certain pace and rhythm that you have to maintain as a constant. When iterations constitute a broken, choppy cycle, we fall down, lose momentum, and get stuck in the weeds. To be successful, iterative processes need to remember these key factors:
- Iteration must happen quickly—without too much time to think in between sprints. If it doesn’t, you risk losing focus, forgetting the valuable insights that you need to address, and missing out on experimenting with ideas that occur in the moment. In essence, you’ll spin and lose time.
- Iterative loops must be small enough to be digestible. If they are too large, you risk slowing the pace—or in some cases, overwhelming people with too much at once and allowing things to slip through the cracks.
- Feedback needs to be constant. It is almost impossible to execute an iteration that actually moves you forward without getting feedback. Lapses in your feedback loop hurt your ability to make meaningful moves in a positive direction.
If you are feeling a little scared after reading these key factors, I don’t blame you. Rapid iteration is a rigorous exercise. I won’t lie about that. It takes effort to maintain the pace that will make you most successful.
It’s not surprising then that many teams find iterative processes so hard in comparison to the more traditional waterfall process. But you don’t have to kill yourself to make this work. Remember to give yourself breathing room. Plan time to check in on the big picture. Plan empty or catch-up sprints into the process if you need to. What is key is to work in the breathing room around the iterations, not in their midst when it might upset the pace.
Why Failing Doesn’t Always Mean You’ve Failed
One of the biggest advantages of an agile process is the one thing that usually gets left by the wayside: the fact that quick, iterative changes should allow us room for experimentation, which means failing with some ideas. The whole idea behind iteration is that you should test ideas as quickly as possible, find out which work, keep and refine those that do, and drop the rest.
Unfortunately, human nature often doesn’t want to test imperfect ideas—never mind admit that we had unsuccessful ideas to begin with. And at times, it’s difficult to accept the reality that we must let some ideas go because they don’t fit the vision, especially when we think they’re the most brilliant ideas in the world.
We also put a lot of negative energy around failing that doesn’t need to be there. We don’t need to hold on to ideas that don’t work. And just because every idea doesn’t work, doesn’t mean you’ve failed in any way shape or form. If you find the one idea that is right through a process of testing and respond by making iterative improvements, you’ve succeeded.
And remember that ideas don’t need to be perfected before you can get feedback on them. That’s why we, as UX professionals, sketch and paper-prototype our initial concepts. It’s not worth making the investment in pixel perfection until you know something is the right idea.
If you need to feel good about your failed ideas—or maybe are feeling pressure to explain why you tried them—figure out the story of how those ideas led to the right idea. What did you learn from those failures that led you to success? Because, if you are doing feedback and iteration right, I’ll bet you can’t tell that success story without telling about the failures.