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Beyond Agile: Subsidiarity as a Team and Software Design Principleby einhverfr (Friar)
|on Jul 21, 2015 at 01:24 UTC||Need Help??|
This is a collection of thoughts I have been slowly putting together based on experience, watching the development (and often bad implementation of) agile coding practices. I am sure it will be a little controversial in the sense that some people may not see agile as something to move beyond and some may see my proposals as being agile.
What's wrong with the Waterfall?
I think any discussion of agile programming methodologies has to start with an understanding of what problems agile was intended to solve and this has to start with the waterfall model of development, where software has a slow, deliberate life cycle, where all design decisions are supposed to be nailed down before the code is started. Basically the waterfall approach is intended to apply civil engineering practices to software and while it can work with very experienced teams in some limited areas it runs into a few specific problems.
The first is that while civil engineering projects tend to have well understood and articulated technical requirements, software projects often don't. And while cost of failure in dollars and lives for a civil engineering disaster can be high, with software it is usually only money (this does however imply that for some things, a waterfall approach is the correct one, a principle I have rarely seen argued against by experienced agile developers).
The second is that business software requirements often shift over time in ways that bridges, skyscrapers, etc don't. You can't start building a 30 floor skyscraper and then have the requirements change so that it must be at least 100 floors high. Yet we routinely see this sort of thing done in the software world.
Agile programming methodologies arose to address these problems. They are bounded concerns, not applicable to many kinds of software (for example software regulating dosage of radiotherapy would be more like a civil engineering project than like a business process tool), but the concerns do apply to a large portion of the software industry.
How Agile is Misapplied
Many times when companies try to implement agile programming, they run into a specific set of problems. These include unstructured code and unstructured teams. This is because too many people see agile methodologies as devaluing design and responsibility. Tests are expected to be documentation, documentation is often devalued or unmaintained, and so forth.
Many experienced agile developers I have met in fact suggest that design is king, that it needs to be done right, in place, and so forth, but agile methodologies can be taken by management as devaluing documentation in favor of tests, and devaluing design in favor of functionality.
There are many areas of any piece of software where stability is good, where pace of development should be slow, and where requirements are well understood and really shouldn't be subject to change. These areas cut against the traditional agile concerns and I think require a way of thinking about the problems from outside either the waterfall or agile methodologies.
Subsidiarity as a Team Design Principle
Subsidiarity is a political principle articulated a bit over a hundred years in a Papal encyclical. The idea is fairly well steeped in history and well applicable beyond the confines of Catholicism. The basic idea is that people have a right to accomplish things and that for a larger group to do what a smaller group can therefore constitutes a sort of moral theft. Micromanagement is therefore evil if subsidiarity is good but also it means that teams should be as small as possible, but no smaller.
In terms of team design, small teams are preferable to big teams and the key question is what a given small team can reasonably accomplish. Larger groupings of small teams can then coordinate on interfaces, etc, and sound, stable technological design can come out of this interoperation. The small team is otherwise tasked with doing everything -- design, testing, documentation. Design and testing are as integrated with software development as they are in agile, but as important as they are in the waterfall approach.
This sort of organization is as far from the old waterfall as agile is but it shares a number of characteristics with both. Design is emphasized, as is documentation (because documentation is what coordinates the teams). Stability in areas that need it is valued, but in other areas it is not. Stable contracts develop where these are important and both together and individually, accomplishments are attained.
Subsidiarity as a Technical Design Principle
Subsidiarity in team design has to follow what folks can accomplish but this also is going to mean that these follow technological lines as well. Team responsibility has to be well aligned with technological responsibility. I.e. a team is responsible for components and components are responsible for functionality.
The teams can be thought of as providing distinct pieces of software for internal clients, taking on responsibility to do it right, and to provide something maintainable down the road. Once a piece of software is good and stable, they can continue to maintain it while moving on to another piece.
Teams that manage well defined technical and stable components can then largely end up maintaining a much larger number of such components than teams which manage pieces that must evolve with the business. Those latter teams can move faster because they have stability in important areas of their prerequisites.
But the goal is largely autonomous small teams with encapsulated responsibilities, producing software that follows that process.