Governing Agile Teams

An important, yet seldom discussed, topic is how do you govern agile software development teams.  This is rather strange considering that agile teams are in fact being governed whether you choose to recognize this or not.  If someone is keeping an eye on the budget, or the level of quality being produced, or whether you are building something of value for your stakeholders then you are being governed.  If there are defined roles and responsibilities for team members then you’re being governed.  If you are following common programming or database guidelines, or working towards a common technical or business roadmap, or inviting outsiders to attend your coordination meetings then you are being governed.  The question is are you being governed well?

The Disciplined Agile framework is one of the few places where governance strategies are baked right into the framework.  In fact, we dedicated an entire chapter to governing delivery teams in our book Disciplined Agile Delivery.  In this article we explore the following topics:

  1. What is(n’t) Agile Delivery Governance?
  2. Why Agile Delivery Governance?
  3. How Disciplined Agile Teams Are Governed
  4. Strategies that Enable Delivery Governance
  5. How the Rest of IT Supports Delivery Governance
  6. Concluding Thoughts


What Is(n’t) Agile Delivery Governance?

Governance establishes chains of responsibil­ity, authority and communication in support of the overall enterprise’s goals and strategy. It also establishes measurements, policies, standards and control mechanisms to enable people to carry out their roles and responsibilities effectively. You do this by balancing risk versus return on investment (ROI), setting in place effective processes and practices, defining the direction and goals for a team, and defining the roles that people play within a team.

Agile delivery governance is the governance of agile delivery teams in a manner that reflects and supports the agile paradigm.  We have identified the following principles for effective agile governance:

  1. Collaboration with delivery teams is more effective than trying to force them to conform.  IT professionals are intellectual workers, the type of people whom are more likely to do what you want when you work with them to do so rather than tell them to do so.  For example, if you want an agile delivery team to work towards a common technical strategy (perhaps captured by your organization’s technical roadmap) you are better off having people knowledgeable with that strategy to work directly with the team rather than forcing them to fill out specific documents that will be reviewed at some point.  In this case the framework suggests the specific role of Architecture Owner who is responsible for this.
  2. Enabling teams to do the “right thing” is more effective than trying to inspect it in. Agile team members are human, and being human their natural tendency is to do the easiest thing possible.  The implication is that for things that you want to have happen you should enable the teams to do those things, to make them easy to do.  For example, say your organization wants developers to follow common coding conventions.  One way to do this would be to hold code inspections, a time-consuming process, that validates whether the coding conventions are being followed.  An easier approach would be to adopt a code analysis tool such as CheckStyle and include it in your continuous integration (CI) strategy.  This automated approach requires no extra effort on the part of the developer and provides immediate feedback as to the quality of their code, providing them with a learning opportunity to help them improve their skills.
  3. Continuous monitoring provides more timely insight than quality gate reviews.  Team dashboards that use business intelligence (BI) technology to display real-time measures generated by the use of your development tools have become very common in the past few years.  This enables both the team and their stakeholders to monitor the team’s progress in a continuous real-time manner.  This is orders of magnitude more effective than traditional “quality gate” reviews of artifacts because the information displayed on the dashboards is automatically generated as a side effect of tool usage and therefore incredibly difficult to fake, whereas team artifacts (status reports, specifications, plans, and so on) are hand-crafted and thus contain whatever information the creator(s) decide to capture.  Furthermore, after the initial cost of the dashboard technology this approach is effectively free.  In the original DAD book we referred to this strategy as development intelligence (DI).
  4. Transparency into teams is provides better insight than status reports.  Through application of strategies such as information radiators, team dashboards and active stakeholder participation, the work of a disciplined agile delivery team is effectively transparent.  All of these strategies are described below.  As a result your stakeholders can discover what the current status of your team is simply by looking whenever they want, they don’t need to rely on status reports crafted by the team that may be little more than works of fiction.

Governance often has a bad name with developers, typically because they have had ineffective traditional strategies inflicted upon them for years.  These traditional strategies often prove to be little more than a layer of additional bureaucracy that offers little or no value to your organization.  To put your mind at ease on this issue, we’d like to point out that agile delivery governance isn’t:

  • Documentation driven.  The greater levels of collaboration promoted by agile, in combination with the strategy of team dashboards alleviates the need for many of the artifacts that traditional governance strategies dictate.  Furthermore, as you will soon see, the milestones suggested by the DA framework are risk-driven, not documentation driven.
  • Onerous.  An onerous governance strategy will not be followed by delivery teams, at best they will do just enough work to make it appear that they are following the governance process, which implies that the process has utterly failed.  As a result we’ve kept the governance strategies as light-weight as we possibly can, and when you do it right effective governance actually improves the productivity of delivery teams instead of detracting from it.  These light-weight strategies are described below.
  • Management.  Governance and management are two different things. Governance looks at a team from the outside, treating it as a system that needs to have the appropriate structure and processes in place to provide a stream of value. Management, on the other hand, occurs inside the team and ensures that the structure and processes are implemented effectively.
  • Optional.  Your teams are being governed, like it or not. Our philosophy is that you deserve to be governed well, which is why we’ve taken the time to describe how to do so.


Why Agile Delivery Governance?

Your agile delivery governance strategy will enable and motivate IT delivery teams to:

  • Fulfill your organization’s strategies and objectives;
  • Sustain and extend your IT strategies and objectives;
  • Regularly and consistently create real business value;
  • Provide appropriate return on investment (ROI);
  • Deliver consumable solutions in a timely and relevant manner;
  • Work effectively with their project stakeholders;
  • Work effectively with their IT colleagues ;
  • Adopt processes and organizational structure that encourage successful IT solution delivery;
  • Present accurate and timely information to project stakeholders;
  • Mitigate the risks they face.


How Disciplined Agile Teams Are Governed

The following diagram overviews how the Disciplined Agile (DA) framework enables agile delivery governance.  There are two aspects to this diagram: Strategies followed by an agile or lean delivery team that enable governance and the external workflow with people or groups outside of the delivery team that support agile delivery governance.  We explore both of these topics in detail below.

Governing Agile Delivery Teams


Strategies that Enable Delivery Governance

The diagram above called out several agile strategies that support the governance of disciplined agile delivery teams. These strategies are:

  • Enterprise awareness. Enterprise awareness refers to the concept that disciplined agile teams realize that they work within your organization’s enterprise ecosystem, as do all other teams.  There are often existing systems in production that should not be negatively impacted by the release of the solution they are working on.  Better yet their solution will leverage existing functionality and data available in production instead of reinventing the wheel.  They will work with other teams that are working in parallel to them, striving to leverage each others work.  They will work towards your organization’s business and technical visions.  Enterprise awareness is the underpinning of effective governance.
  • Release planning. Early in a project, or when a product team is first initiated, a disciplined agile team will invest some time in high-level release planning.  They do this to identify and think through any dependencies on other teams and often to identify a reasonable cost and time estimate for the current release that they are working on.  They will keep this high-level plan up-to-date as development progresses, sharing it with their stakeholders.  Release planning enables the team to answer critical governance questions regarding projected schedule and cost.
  • Team dashboard.  The basic idea is that the tools used by your team should be instrumented to record important events when they occur. For example, whenever a build is run your build tool could record basic information such the date and time it was initiated, the time it took, the number of tests run, the number of successful tests, and so on. Your team management tool could record when a work item is defined, when work begins on it, when the work is validated (if appropriate), and when it is marked done. This sort of information can be recorded in a data warehouse and later reported on using business intelligence (BI) tooling via a project or portfolio dashboard. In the first DAD book we referred to this strategy as development intelligence (DI) and since the book was published this strategy has become very common within agile teams.   The real-time, accurate information radiated by a team dashboard enables the team to make better decisions and provides better transparency to stakeholders (including governance people).
  • Information radiators. An information radiator is a visible display that shows something of interest to a team or their stakeholders.  Examples include a whiteboard with an architecture sketch on it, a corkboard with index cards tacked to it, and a wall-mounted monitor showing the team’s dashboard.  Information radiators enable better governance by increasing transparency.
  • Active stakeholder participation. Active stakeholder participation is the practice of having on-site access to stakeholders, or at least their proxies (i.e. Product Owners).  Active stakeholders have the authority and ability to provide information and make timely decisions regarding the prioritization and scope of requirements.  This enables more effective governance through improving the team’s access to decision makers.
  • Demos. On a regular basis, typically at the end of each iteration for teams following the Basic/Scrum-based lifecycle, the team either demonstrates the solution to key stakeholders. The team shows completed work and invites feedback. This practice is also called stakeholder demonstration or sprint demonstration.  This enables effective governance by increasing transparency and providing better opportunities for stakeholders to steer the team.
  • Coordination meetings. The team meets for a few minutes, typically at the beginning of each day, to coordinate their activities.  The team lead facilitates the meeting and is responsible for keeping it short and focused. This practice is often called a scrum meeting or daily stand up meeting.  This enables tactical governance within the team itself through increasing internal transparency and reducing the feedback cycle within the team.
  • Light-weight, risk-based milestones. Effective milestone reviews are as simple and short as possible. For a small co-located project teams milestone reviews could be as simple as a few people from the governing body, or their agents, to visit the team room and have the team spend an hour walking them through whatever is to be reviewed. For larger efforts this could be upwards to half a day and be held in meeting room. Teams in regulatory environments may need to invest a bit more effort, particularly around creation and baselining of artifacts to be reviewed and recording of action items from the review. With adoption of common agile practices such as stakeholder demos and team dashboards, described earlier, there will be less need for status discussions in milestone reviews.  The milestones suggested by the DA framework are risk-based, not document based.  For example, the Proven Architecture milestone is best fulfilled through development of beginning-to-end functionality that implements high-risk requirements, not the creation and review of an architecture model.  Light-weight, risk-based milestones
  • Retrospectives.  A retrospective is a facilitated reflection meeting performed by the team, the goal of which is to identify potential areas of improvement. Retrospectives often last thirty to sixty minutes.  Retrospectives help teams to be more self aware and improvement focused, supporting your overall governance goal of continuous improvement.

These strategies support a light weight approach to governance while improving the overall effectiveness of the team.  Where traditional governance was something to be dreaded, agile governance should be something to be welcomed.


How the Rest of IT Supports Delivery Governance

The diagram also called out several important workflows with other teams or activities.  This reflects that fact that IT governance addresses a wide range of concerns, many of which affect IT delivery teams. These external teams/activities support the governance of disciplined agile delivery teams in the following manner:

  • Continuous improvement. People share improvement suggestions with each other to help spread good ideas throughout your organization.
  • Data management. One of the outputs of your data management efforts should be common data guidance for teams to follow as appropriate.  This guidance includes such things as data naming conventions, data source meta data, and report design conventions to name a few.
  • Enterprise architecture.  Your enterprise architecture activities may produce a common technology roadmap and development guidelines for teams to follow.  A common strategy is to embed enterprise architects, often in the role of Architecture Owner, on IT delivery teams to help ensure that the team follows architectural conventions and to provide a concrete feedback mechanism to the enterprise architects.  Development guidelines may include coding conventions, user interface conventions, security conventions, and many others.
  • IT governance. Your IT governance activities will often provide guidance, such as corporate policies or value statements, that are above and beyond the guidance being produced by other IT activities.  IT delivery teams will provide development intelligence (DI) to the governing body to enable them to make better decisions and thereby provide better guidance to teams.
  • People management. Your people management efforts, sometimes called human resource (HR) management efforts, will provide people-oriented guidance to teams.  This guidance often addressed topics such as training policies, vacation policies, roles and responsibilities, and many other things.
  • Portfolio management. Your organization’s portfolio management efforts provide the initial team funding and vision to get them going, effectively giving them initial direction.  IT delivery teams provide development intelligence (DI) to the portfolio manager(s), particularly around planning and spending issues, enabling them to make better decisions.
  • Product management. Your product management activities will result in the development of a business roadmap that will help to guide IT delivery teams, particularly the Product Owners on those teams.  Product management will also provide business priorities which drive the actions of your IT delivery teams.
  • Release management. Your release management team will produce release guidelines and advice for IT delivery teams which helps to drive their approach to deployment.
  • Stakeholders. A team’s stakeholders, but business and otherwise, will provide direction to IT delivery teams regarding what functionality they want and the priorities thereof.  Stakeholders will also provide regular feedback and other forms of input to the teams.  Delivery teams produce consumable solutions for stakeholder, updates to their plans, and development intelligence (DI) on a regular basis – this provides stakeholders with greater transparency and opportunities to steer the teams.


Concluding Thoughts

We end this article with the following observations:

  1. Disciplined agile teams are significantly easier to govern than traditional teams.  This is the result of greater transparency, accurate and timely development intelligence(DI) and greater opportunities to steer disciplined agile teams.
  2. Traditional approaches to governance are guaranteed to harm agile teams.  The bureaucratic, documentation driven governance strategies of yesteryear provide little more than a governance veneer on IT delivery teams regardless of the paradigm being followed.  Agile and lean teams must be governed in an agile/lean manner.
  3. Disciplined agile teams must demand good governance by their organization.  Your teams deserve to be governed well and should settle for nothing less.
  4. Practitioners must be prepared to educate existing IT governance people.  When you provide a coherent governance strategy to management you are more likely to be governed effectively.  Our experience is that most existing IT governance strategies are still traditional in nature and this inappropriate for agile/lean teams.  Worse yet the people involved in the governance effort either don’t know that this is a problem or if they do then they don’t (yet) understand how to govern in an agile manner.
  5. Agile delivery governance is part of your overall IT Governance strategy.  This is true of data governance, architecture governance, portfolio governance, and many other governance aspects.  These other aspects of governance are addressed in the appropriate process blades and collated in Disciplined Agile’s IT Governance process blade.


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