A Luxury Problem: How Emerging Iterations Eat Team Commitment For Breakfast

We’ve managed our complete development with Pivotal Tracker for over a month now, and never looked back. All in all, our administrative overhead simply vanished and the flow of implementing user stories smoothed out quite a bit. All’s well that ends well, you might want to say. But the last couple of weeks raised some questions.

Emerging Iterations Remove Overhead

As you might already know, Pivotal Tracker is an agile project management tool featuring emerging iterations instead of user defined iterations. This has the big advantage that you, as an agile project lead, do not have to care about setting up and maintaining iterations. E.g. the backlog is automatically cut into iterations based on your team’s velocity. This enables the product owner to easily see the impact of any priority change in the backlog. So far, so good.

Commitment And Iteration Planning Might Suffer

On the way to emerging iterations, I see one important agile practice endangered: Commitment. When a team plans an iteration e.g. by estimating stories, breaking down stories into tasks, etc – they get a very good idea about the real efforts and difficulties involved. With that knowledge the team can then commit to delivering a set of stories. An experienced team will use its velocity as a guideline on how many stories to accept for an iteration. There is a conscious decision made which stories to take and which not. And, by applying practices like the fist of five or anything similar, each member of the team actively commits to the team goal (or the team re-plans the iteration until a common team goal can be established). This process of detailed iteration planning and team commitment is endangered with emerging iterations.

Emerging Iterations Unveil Hidden Problems In Your Agile Project Management Process

An agile project management tool with emerging iterations does a lot on its own:

  • Cut the backlog into iterations according to the teams average velocity
  • Assign stories to an iteration according to the teams average velocity
  • Start an iteration
  • End an iteration

Due to these automatically created iterations, a few unpleasant things happened in our team. Of course, it’s not the fault of the agile project management tool. On the contrary, it’s a good example of how a streamlined process support unveils hidden problems.

  • Instead of an iteration planning game, the team just looks at what the tool says should be possible this iteration
  • Team members accept that plan as given without any team or even personal commitment
  • As there tends to be much less discussion about what is in the iteration and what is deliberately not, the product owner keeps changing the iterations content continuously – even during the iteration itself

Especially that last trend hinders the team to optimize its work as there is no stable plan – not even for the current iteration. When we planned iterations, we considered them untouchable as a lot of effort already went into the planning and the whole team committed to them.

Don’t Let Your Tool Fool You

Again, the agile project management tool is not the culprit here. On the contrary, it frees us from a lot of tedious tasks and gives us real time visibility of the status of our backlog. But this luxury is not a replacement for careful investigation and discussion of user stories. And it is no replacement for careful planning and prioritization of the user stories on our backlog. As we’re a small team for running an entire company, everyone tries to work as efficient as possible – mostly on their own. While this bad habit can be cured by some weekly meetings where we all agree on e.g. an iteration plan, a tool like Pivotal Tracker has no mercy on us. It forces us to talk constantly as every change in priorities is communicated in real time and therefore has a real time impact on the schedule.

This is yet another vivid example of how agile practices and agile project management tools makes us feel uncomfortable. Because it forces us to immediately deal with our process issues, its a great chance to improve and get better!

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