If you search on the Internet for “agile project initiation” you are going to find a LOT of templates. People want structure and easy answers, so of course, these simple answers rise to the top of every search. Many (if not most) of the templates offered are pared-down formats from the Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK) Project Initiation Documents (PID). There is nothing basically wrong with the idea of using templates or most of the templates offered, except – they tend to become prescriptive when they should be taken as guidance.
From the Agile Manifesto: “…we have come to value:
Working software over comprehensive documentation,”
With that in mind, we should ask – why do we document agile projects? Often, the answer is – because it is required (by someone) when in reality the answer should be – to communicate. But again, that simple answer fails to guide us to the necessary outcome:
- Documentation should be a natural part of agile project initiation, but not the goal. It should proceed from on-going discussions between stakeholders, the product owner and the development team that is developed in Sprint 0, but it must not end there. The conversations and the documentation of outcomes must continue through the lifecycle of the project and the product.
Documents gathered from product owners and key stakeholders are starting points, not final documents. Documents developed by a designated team member to fill out a template are strawmen to be examined, discussed, questioned, and used as a base for the ongoing development of understanding within the entire project team.
- Living documentation formats should be preferred over static. In smaller projects, it may not be necessary to manage documentation formally, but in most cases using the same concepts as those used for source code management is a valid guideline. Properly maintained, living documentation answers the questions, “when was this decision made? by whom?” and gives a revision history that tells the story when necessary, but only makes it apparent when needed. It needs to include simple artifacts of these discussions – photographs of whiteboards, screenshots of modified mockups, etc. – in preference to notes developed after the fact and out of the sight of the team.
- During Sprint 0, the aim must be to develop enough trust among the project team members to allow questions and dialog to form the base for a common understanding of those items that are included in most PID templates. If initial documentation is “handed down from on high” to team members without open, trusting discussion – it cannot be internalized by the team and it will not respond to the inevitable changes that will come as discovery and learning continue throughout the project. Agile software development embraces change by allowing the project team to recognize the inconsistencies and discoveries that will come out during development, surface them and deal with their impact through discussion and collaborative negotiation.
And before we get too far away from it – there are some really strong ideas in the Agile Modeling page on Agile/Lean Documentation. Honestly, though, there is a lot of information in that reference that should really be digested as a part of understanding agile, not as a guideline for a new project. For that purpose, this short piece is a better resource. But, if the outcome of project initiation is not a bunch of filled out PID templates that we can all take back to our cubicles and file away – What is it?
Agile Project Initiation is All About Communication
With the ideas we have mentioned in mind, we have to acknowledge that open, trusting, collaborative communication does not happen automatically in an agile project team. There are natural stages that every group will go through before they can have the kind open discussion needed without fearing it will harm relationships and respect. Discussions need to be wider than the project infrastructure, technology, and user stories, without the feeling an individual is stepping over the boundaries by asking about non-functional issues. We might need to know:
- Does the culture and background of key user profiles matter to the software development team?
- Does the role of key subject matter experts (SMEs) in product development for an organization make a difference to who needs to be included in discussions?
- Are we using a Lean Product Development model with the inclusion of stakeholder users as part of Minimum Viable Product (MVP) development?
- If we are working in a DevOps implementation, how does that change our standard production procedures?
There are all sorts of questions that are not (and cannot be) included in standard PID templates but could be critical to a specific project. If we don’t discuss our viewpoints and ask questions, we run the risk of assuming we have a common understanding and making decisions based on those assumptions. Every project, every team, every organization is different. In the best case, we can open ourselves up to collaborative discussion by getting the team together, face-to-face during project initiation, for dialog and team building using team games and facilitation with a bias to being productive, explorative, and fun. Using these techniques, we can strengthen the bonds and shared risks necessary to maintain a successful project throughout its lifecycle.
In cases where face-to-face project initiation is not possible (hopefully more rare than the rule), much can be accomplished with video/voice meetings if they are relatively short and like agile documentation, structured just enough to ensure the meetings reach necessary outcomes and allow for continued direct discussions among stakeholders in the team when needed. There is nothing much worse than sitting in a meeting where a long, passionate discussion between two team members seems to be sucking all the air out of the room – and the meeting outcomes are lost.
This piece is relatively short and again, more of a guideline than a prescription for agile project initiation, as it should be if we are to “eat our own dog food.” Bottom line:
- Don’t be afraid to pull out a template when you start your next project, or when you look at it – crumple it up and throw it away so you can start your own list based on what you know and don’t know.
- What you think you know or don’t know are assumptions and should be treated as such both during project initiation and throughout the project. Only a discussion with open questions between team members can validate ideas and give us a basis for moving forward. And the assumption that is understood as valid today may not be completely correct at another time.
- Documentation must be limited to what is necessary when it is necessary and maintained throughout the project as living knowledge. Agile documentation should not be the domain of one person or one role. It must be available and dynamic – allowing everyone on the team to contribute when necessary – in a wiki-style rather than as a bunch of locked Word documents.
- Agile project initiation should focus on both the productive side – bringing together the information needed to organize the project, initialize environments, and the functional user stories needed, as well as the people/team side – developing the understanding, trust, and communication necessary to work collaboratively throughout the project. Ignoring either side is perilous. Assuming the job is done at the end of Sprint 0 is fatal.
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