Creating a contract for work done in an Agile environment

March 5, 2011
3 Iterations of Agile Development Framework

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I’ve been talking to some colleagues lately who do consulting work, usually software development, for various companies.  Typically, they have been engaged by clients in traditional (or “waterfall”) projects, where they provided specific functionality that met specific quality criteria and had to be completed according to a specific schedule.   In return, they received an agreed-upon compensation.

These types of projects were relatively easy to estimate, bid, and negotiate with clients because all of the deliverables (content, schedule, and quality) were fixed in advance.

However, as more and more of their clients are wanting to have their projects developed using Agile, their traditional types of software contracts simply don’t work.

One of the fundamental aspects of Agile is that a small amount of the work in the total project is performed in a short time period, or sprint.  Each sprint lasts 2-4 weeks (on average) and the content for each subsequent sprint is identified in part by determining how well (or poorly) the already completed work meets the customers’ needs.  Thus, if a certain bit of functionality is developed in a given sprint, it could be modified significantly (or even re-done completely) in one or more subsequent sprints.

Thus, it is possible for a client to spend so much time refining and “polishing” work that has already been completed, that the overall duration of the project extends far, far beyond the original target completion date.    And as you can appreciate, the client doesn’t typically offer additional compensation to the people doing the work — arguing that the work should have been done “properly” in the first place — although it’s not clear how anyone could have done the work “properly” when the client didn’t know what they wanted in the first place.

It’s clear that the Agile development methodology is not going away — its advantages are too great to ignore.   So we need to modify the contract language we use to engage consultants accordingly.  Otherwise, consultants will either go broke attempting to provide the “free work” required by ever-changing functionality or will simply refuse to perform work in an Agile environment.

Here’s what I think…

In a software project there are only 4 variables — (1) the content being provided, (2) the schedule for the delivery (or deliveries), (3) the quality that is achieved, and (4) the resources that are deployed to do the work.   (Note:  Cost is an attribute of a project, not a variable.)

Thus, if a contract is going to embrace Agile development concepts where (a) the project’s content is allowed to change frequently to accommodate re-work, (2) the project has to achieve a specified level of quality, and (c) the project’s schedule must adjust to accommodate any re-work — the ONLY variable left is “the resources that are deployed to do the work”.    And since every resource contributes a certain amount of effort to the project — the contract must specify a certain amount of work (or “hours”) that the client is paying the consultant (or consulting organization) to perform.

This type of contract is not especially attractive to a consultant because it is too transparent.   A potential client can easily identify the hourly rate for different consultants and compare them with rates from others.  Thus, “premium” consultants (or consulting organizations) must provide additional justification on the “value” of their services — which is often not easy to provide in a convincing manner, especially in difficult economic times.

In some cases, clients are also not as comfortable with this type of contract — because it makes it difficult to justify continuing to do business with a long-established consultant (or consulting organization) when it becomes obvious that their hourly rates are significantly more than those of other potential providers.

However, as more and more contracts are written with Agile development in mind — consultants and their clients will become more comfortable — just as development teams have increasingly embraced Agile in recent years.

So, if you are a consultant I urge you to develop a contract where you get paid on an hourly basis soon, so that you are well positioned to bid opportunities for Agile projects.  And if you are a company that employs consultants for Agile projects, I encourage you to request contracts with hourly labor rates, so that you can optimize the quality of your projects.


Creating Product Features Instead of Feature Elements — a Key Agile Environment Challenge

July 11, 2010

Ever have one of those situations where multiple events all pointed you in the same direction?   Recently this happened to me on the topic of “feature elements versus product features” in an Agile development environment.

First I had a discussion with a potential client, then a friend was lamenting about incomplete features in his company’s latest sprint, and then there was the presentation by David Hussman on this topic at the July meeting of the Agile Bazaar.   So this is what I learned…

One of the fundamental ideas behind the Agile development methodology is that your development process is divided into small cycles or sprints.  The idea is that each sprint is sufficiently well-defined to allow it to be delivered to your customers.  And then your next sprint could focus on refining previously completed or new capabilities — depending on what the market (and your customers) need.  In this way, your product is theoretically ready to go to market at the conclusion of any sprint, so you don’t have to wait until all of your “planned development” for a given release has been completed (and tested).

However, this approach doesn’t accommodate situations where your product must include a certain set of related features (we’ll call them “feature elements”)  which cannot be completed in a single sprint and which your product really must include.

For example, assume that you are creating a word processing application which will allow users to create, save, edit, format and print documents in a variety of ways.

Your product MUST have the ability to “create a new document”.  Likewise, without the ability to “save” your changes and then “load” or “open” a previously saved document — the value of your product will be minimal.   This is why, most applications that deal with “objects” provide feature elements for performing “CRUD” (Create, Read, Update, Delete) operations.

Yet, some of these feature elements are much more challenging to implement and thus take longer to complete — often requiring multiple sprints — which is at odds with the Agile concept of being able to deliver the results of any sprint to your customers.

A modified Agile approach known as Kanban appears to resolve this conflict, because the focus is on delivering complete product features and not just feature elements.  In essence, a sprint is not suitable for delivery to customers unless all of the key elements of a product feature are completed.   Thus, to return to our word processor example, you might implement “Create”, “Save”, and “Open” in different sprints, but your product would not be distributed to potential customers until all of these product feature elements had been completed.

This development approach seems nearly ideal to me — but few companies seem to be using it and some strong Agile proponents seem extremely reluctant to embrace it.

So what do you think?   Is Kanban simply too new for many people to have tried it?  Or is it better in theory than in practice? Or is it simply not “Agile enough” for you to consider?

Do you have any experience with Kanban or know of any companies that have used it?  If so, what did you (or they) learn?


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