A scenario: you have a successful agile project. It’s made up of a number of small teams, each working on a separate component of the application suite. This has been working extremely well. You are capacity planning for the coming six months and you identify that one of these teams is likely to become a bottleneck. There are just too many stories that fit into their component area. How do you deal with this?
The above is something that looks likely on one of the projects that I am working on. I’ve been putting in some thinking on how this might pan out. This post documents my thoughts.
There are typically two standard reactions to above problem: grow the team that is likely to be the bottleneck, or add an additional team to work on the component. In my experience neither of these works. Adding more people is rarely ever a good way to make a project go faster!
Growing the team
The best agile teams I have worked on have had one thing in common. They have all had between 4 and 6 devs, a QA, and a Scrum Master. As soon as the team gets any bigger than this I’ve found that the following occurs:
- The performance gain of adding each additional dev is less each time.
- It becomes much more difficult to gain consensus.
- Team meetings become more long-winded and less productive.
- Communication becomes more difficult.
- It becomes difficult to maintain team values.
- Code cruft (technical debt) increases.
Thus, adding additional devs and QAs to a team, either permanently or by borrowing from another team, just doesn’t work. Typically I’ve even found that the team goes slower as it has to spend more time cleaning up after itself.
Adding temporary devs (perhaps for a day or two) is, I’ve found, often worse than adding a permanent dev as there is less sense of ownership and shared team values. Working with good developers makes this less so, but I still believe it occurs more frequently than we like to admit.
Adding more teams
Having multiple teams working on a single component’s code base just doesn’t work well. I worked on one project where we had four teams working on the same code. We were tripping over each other all the time. Particular problems I have seen working in this way:
- Communications between the teams becomes a big overhead.
- More difficult to gain consensus on major technical decisions.
- Scheduling work to avoid multiple pairs changing the same code is very difficult.
- Very difficult to maintain shared values across multiple teams.
- One team’s nice code is another team’s cruft.
- Code cruft increases because one team is less willing to refactor another team’s code.
- Different approaches to achieving the same implementation become more prevalent.
- One team undoes another team’s work because they disagree with how it was done.
- Important aspects like performance tend to slip between the cracks.
- Productivity of the combined teams is far less than the sum of the productivity of each team working independently.
Multiple teams working on the same code base is a recipe for disaster. It results in more overhead, lower code quality and more cruft. Also, you get far less productivity gain that you would had you allowed each team to work independently on their own component.
So, given that there is more work than the measured velocity of the team shows they can achieve in the time available. And, given that we don’t want to grow the team or add more teams. How do we solve the problem?
The aim is to keep small teams who can each work on an area of code that they have sole ownership of. This will give them the incentive to ensure that this component is clean, simple, maintainable and has a low level of cruft. It will also maximise the productivity of each individual team by minimising communication overhead.
I think a combination of four specific solutions are the best approach. These being: reducing waste, simplifying requirements, moving complexity and splitting components.
A good agile team should already be pretty good at reducing their waste. Retrospectives that generate actions which are then implemented go a long way towards this. A good Scrum Master who removes impediments is vital. The team will be provided with the best tools for the job.
Still, there is likely to be further waste that can be eliminated to allow the team to go faster. The first set comes from the category of unnecessary process waste. This includes things like:
- Having to attend full meetings where there is very little need for members from the team to be present.
- Long-winded design sessions that could be cut down with a bit more decisiveness.
- Unnecessarily revisiting architecture and design decisions over and over again.
- Re-enacting the same debate repeatedly because consensus wasn’t achieved.
The other set comes from giving the bottlenecked team stories to play that aren’t essential to what they are trying to deliver. This can be things like:
- Helping ops with tracking down a problem
- Adding additional logging of messages to an external system
- Trying to reproduce an infrequent defect
- Updating a build pipeline
In an ideal world, all of the above should be done by the team. However, if that team has a high volume of work to get through then these tasks can easily be divested out to teams that are perhaps not running at full capacity, allowing the team that is to maximise their throughput of important functional stories.
Often performance of teams can be greatly hampered by having requirements that are either too complex or not clearly thought out. Ensure the backlog is groomed to contain only the most essential stories. Make sure these have been paired down to the absolute minimum set of requirements needed to fulfill the business needs.
The worst scenario is having a heavily loaded team working on features that are overly complex and time consuming. I’ve seen many cases where teams have worked on a fairly complex story only to later find that the clients uses just the core 80% of the feature, which could have been built in 20% of the time. The extra 80% of the time spent delivering that last 20% of non-essential requirement is just waste.
Analysts and the business need to scrutinise the backlog, squeezing every unnecessary piece of work from the stories. If the business doesn’t need some small aspect right now then create a separate story and play it later when the team has less critical path work.
This may not always be the most technically pure solution, but it may be the best trade-off in order to deliver a product on time and budget. The complexity can always be relocated in the future.
As an example, consider a story where one component has 8 points of work do to delivery a feature and it’s two clients each have 2 points of work to consume the feature. Total 12 points. However, it might be possible to split the work differently, so that the core component implements something much simpler for 3 points, while the two clients take on some complexity and implement 5 points each. Total 13 points. So, the two approaches are roughly equivalent in size. The second might result in some duplication on behalf of two teams, but this allows the team with a large backlog to complete more stories. A pragmatic trade-off.
If a team has multiple components, then the logical option is to relocate one or more of those components to another team. What if they only have one component?
Ideally, buy reducing waste, simplifying requirements, and moving complexity it should be possible to shrink the size of the backlog for a component. Hopefully the smaller backlog should be sufficiently sized that the team can complete it. What if they still can’t?
To me this seems to be a problem of decomposition. A component that is so large and complex that a team of six devs can’t maintain and enhance it is a component that is too big. In this case it should be split into two or more smaller components, with the current team keeping one part and a different team taking the other part(s).
Making the split is always technically challenging, but provided it is made across a clear interface boundary then my experience is that it is usually possible divide a component up into smaller constituent parts.
This is probably the only way that I would recommend going about adding more people to a project - introduce a new team (or repurpose an existing team) and give them their own code base and component(s) to work on.