Agile Development, Project Management and Step 1 of 3 [Define]

This step is the shortest step and the hardest step - creative thinking is vital

In an agile development project using the 30-Day Blitz the Define step is the shortest step but it is the most important to the success of the project. The trick here is for business and technical people to define what is known as a “minimum viable system”. That is a system that will not do everything the business people might want but will address their most urgent needs and can be built in the time available on the Blitz (and then iteratively enhanced in follow on Blitzes).

Human nature being what it is, there is the tendency for business people to jump to conclusions about what they need and a tendency for technical people to jump to conclusions about what they can do in the time available, and a deadlock can happen. To avoid this dynamic the sequence of tasks in the Define step leads people through a pragmatic problem solving exercise that stimulates creative thinking. This process needs a good facilitator to guide and orchestrate the process. Figure 1 illustrates the Define process. This is the make or break step. If no agreement can be reached between business and technical people in this step then there is no point in going any further on the project.

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Figure 1.

Define Step Outline

Define Step Uses a Tightly Choreographed Sequence of Tasks

The process starts by defining the business goal to be accomplished. A goal is usually a single sentence that takes the form of stating some action leading to some desired result (don’t confuse a goal with a vision statement which is a much longer statement of values and long term plans). See Figure 2 below for an example of a goal statement.

Once the goal is defined, then people describe the necessary and sufficient set of performance objectives needed to accomplish this goal. An objective is a specific measurable thing to do or action to take. Each objective should be necessary to accomplish the goal and the full set of defined objectives should be sufficient to accomplish the goal. It’s important to keep that necessary and sufficient set of objectives to a manageable number – usually somewhere between five and seven (if you have 20 objectives nobody can remember them so that’s not useful).

When people know the goal and the objectives needed to accomplish the goal the next task is to draw a simple schematic diagram of a system showing the system components and how they work together to achieve the objectives. See Figure 2 below for an example of this. This schematic system diagram is the conceptual design of the system that will be designed and then built during the 30-Day Blitz. Coming up with this conceptual design is the most important part of the Define phase because it frames up the work for the rest of the Blitz.

Remember that most problems and situations seem complex at first but don’t be fooled by the surface complexity. Many business problems, regardless of their details and differences, can be effectively addressed by systems with a common design pattern. Just as most houses and buildings are composed of four walls and a roof (which is not to say all buildings are the same), most systems are composed of a back end, a central data store and a front end (which is not to say all systems are the same either). The back end performs the functions known as extract transform load (ETL). Data is extracted from various data sources, error checked and transformed to a new format and loaded into the central data store of the system.

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