The Five Whos

Many of the companies I visit start with much the same problem: the development team aren’t collaborating effectively either internally or with the business, so they would like to adopt Agile, or better forms of Agile.

Usually these are pretty awesome companies producing quality software, and it can take a while to work out what the real problem is, and why they want to collaborate more effectively in the first place (other than a vague feeling that “it’s good”).

Asking around for more context, I usually find that while much of the software written is fantastic, a lot of it gets thrown away towards the end of the project, or is surplus to what’s truly needed for the release, and what the clients would really like is for that to happen much less, and releases to happen more often – the promise of Agile, delivered.

Asking further, it often transpires that the projects have either been created without a clear vision in mind, or that the vision has not been communicated clearly, or that the needs of peripheral stakeholders are only being taken into account in a very woolly fashion, perhaps with a single story card saying “Monitoring”.

If you ask the development team, “Why are you doing that?” five times, they will perfectly happily give the answer – as long as it’s a requirement that’s core to the project, at least. They may even, sometimes, be right.

Ask about something like security or performance, though, or try to find out who has the final say on whether something’s ready for production, and in larger companies the development team often don’t know. They think they know why, and that’s usually more dangerous than being aware that we don’t know. I can often tell because their stories either start with, “As a user…”, or miss that line completely, or it’s only ever one Product Owner who gets to come to the showcase.

I’ve just written a blog post for the Lean Systems Society called “Value Streams are Made of People”, which is related to this. Here’s a paraphrased tl;dr:

Before we ask why, ask who. Who will be the first person who cares outside of the development team if we don’t do this? Who do they have to tell, or if they were to (hypothetically) hide it, who would be the next person to notice? Who cares after that? And who’s the person whose job, or company or – heaven forfend – life is on the line as a result?

If we don’t know who cares, how can we know who to ask to find out why?

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