Common oversights in choosing methodology

Changing the way a business operates is a daunting task. It involves assessing and understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the current organization, identifying solutions to the weaknesses without compromising the strengths and, ultimately, changing the way people work. Above all, people tend to be resistant to change — and this is the most common issue that arises when adopting a new methodology.

This translates into preparation, more than anything else: Preparing by understanding your options, preparing the organization for change, and preparing to measure your success.

Be thorough during evaluation

The most common oversight in preparing to adopt a new methodology is simply not evaluating all of the available options. It’s an easy pitfall to succumb to: There are so many processes, so many methodologies, so many choices, how can someone possibly make the right choice? Surely all of these published techniques are mature and “real,” does it even matter which methodology we choose? Yes. It matters a great deal. Each methodology has its strengths and weaknesses and very few methodologies can be applied to every development project.

The wide variety of methodologies is a reflection of the complexity of the software development industry. We have many choices in executing any strategic operation, whether a military incursion, a football game or planning for building a house. Likewise, the software industry has evolved a wide variety of processes, each one suitable for different scenarios. While it is certainly true that many methodologies can be successfully applied to many different projects we can’t make the assumption that any one methodology will work equally well in every situation. Adopting a heavy process in a project involving a small team and a short-term schedule is almost always a poor idea, as it leads to extending the project timeline to support unnecessary project artifacts. But less obvious is the impact of pairing a lightweight process with a medium-sized project. How many people is “too many” for an Extreme Programming (“XP”) project? At what point does the lack of formal project controls start to make the project unpredictable? Will the business stakeholders feel the project is not adequately managed? These questions, and many more, emphasize how important it is to prepare thoroughly before choosing a methodology.

Given the plethora of potential methodologies, it’s easy to just pick one and get started. The temptation to simply choose a well-regarded methodology, buy a well-reviewed book on the subject, and forge ahead can be strong. But this “textbook approach” can prove deadly. Without studying the methodology beforehand it’s easy to choose the wrong methodology — and even if a mistake of this magnitude becomes clear over time, it’s usually too late to change course. And much like reading instructions too quickly, it’s easy to realize too late that the process is wrong: Incorrectly implemented, or not the right fit for the situation.

Another pitfall to the “textbook approach:” It leads to following a process blindly and over-adopting, particularly with more comprehensive methodologies that have more to offer. The fallout from this: Teams come to think that comprehensive methodology is a “bad thing,” heavily weighted and full of red tape, unnecessary work and overhead. Using the textbook as an instruction manual makes it impossible to have a complete view of processes and artifacts offered by the methodology and, therefore, the value and appropriateness of each.

Prepare the team and the organization

Just as evaluating and selecting new methodology can be a mine field, so can the actual adoption process. A common oversight when preparing to adopt a new methodology is not planning for the upheaval it will cause: Training and learning curves, changes in operational behavior and metrics, and impact the schedules. Changing the way a business works means everyone has to relearn what they do on a daily basis. This means considering what it will take to implement the methodology within an organization as a whole, and achieving a level of investment in the effort by all the stakeholders.

Team members need to be trained, business units need to be integrated into the process, schedules adjusted to accommodate the new methodology and in most situations a significant learning curve will translate into a slow, steady adoption — as opposed to a sudden, rapid adoption. The former approach provides an opportunity for participants to learn the usefulness of different aspects of the methodology and to gauge its success. The latter approach — attempting to make a complete, rapid transition — often leads to failure during adoption. Too many interdependent processes that are not well-understood by the team leads to poor execution. This can lead to missteps during a pilot project, a time at which such mistakes are highly visible. Not having a steady, progressive and measurable improvement against existing techniques means criticism will come easily.

Measure your success

Creating positive, measurable metrics that demonstrate the benefit of a new methodology is critical. Part of the process is making sure training costs and the cost of adoption is tied directly to business goals. By coupling the business to the methodology, all stakeholders have a vested interested in success. Good metrics demonstrate that progress is being made — both providing a positive measure of success, and avoiding the need for a “big bang” success right out the gates. And, if you aren’t already tracking metrics and measuring success, this is an ideal time to find a management methodology that will.