Jan 5, 2010

Book review: Agile Project Management: Creating Innovative Products (2nd Ed.) by Jim Highsmith

Jim Highsmith is one of those few people that have really been-there-done-that and continue to be a pleasure to meet, accessible and down-to-earth. But anyway, this review is about his new book and not about him so I'll get to it. From my perspective Agile Project Management has two accomplishments: It fills in the gaps left by other books on the same subject and brings us one step further on different ways to see and approach the way we manage agile projects, within and outside software development.

Chapter 1 contains one of the best introductory chapters I've seen in any book on management. It is both a great motivation to read the rest of the book with interesting real cases. This chapter also refreshes the audience on the basics of agile, including the declaration of interdependence, which is explained in detail throughout the book, and provides some lesser known and relatively recent basis such as the Agile Triangle (not the Agile Iron Triangle).

Chapters 2, 3 and 4 are a detailed study of leadership values: Value over Constraints, Teams over Tasks, and Adapting over conforming. Similar to the agile values in the manifesto, these invite a cultural change in the way we measure project performance, lead teams, and focus on customer needs. Highsmith explains how the quality of the product and the work environment is improved through these. He also emphasizes on the fact that fail-often-fail-early is of very hight value in building a successful agile organization.

Chapter 5 has two objectives, to introduce an agile enterprise framework consisting of four layers that is arguably more appealing to large organizations, and to introduce an agile delivery framework consisting of five phases. That Agile Delivery Framework is explained in higher detail within the following 5 chapters, one per phase: envision, speculate, explore, adapt, and close. The last part of this chapter provides important practical information on the delivery framework. Chapter 6 has one of the best prep work descriptions you might be able to find and includes a project data sheet and the Tradeoff Matrix, which you might find useful. Chapter 7 digs into the speculate phase. Its contents are useful for those new to agile but not necessarily for those familiar with its basics since it explains fundamentals such as the backlog and story cards. Chapter 8 is about release planning. It introduces some planning strategies and a product planning structure that goes from the roadmap to the iteration. I recommend everybody to read this chapter since it has a bundle of snippets of useful information. Chapter 9 explains the explore phase and includes iteration planning, estimating, management and monitoring. It also talks briefly about technical debt, continuous integration and refactoring at a level good for managers but too light for for technical people. A good portion of the chapter is dedicated to coaching, one of the best parts of the book. Chapter 10 deals with the last two phases: adapt and close. It discusses how diverse activities usually considered secondary are of great importance to successfully fulfill customer needs and rapidly adapt to add value, increase quality, improve performance, and have a realistic view of the project status.

Chapter 11 is about scaling agile projects. Scaling has been a hot topic within the agile community during the last couple of years and Highsmith takes the opportunity to introduce an agile scaling model within the software development organization (other areas of an organization are beyond the scope of the book). scaling is treated at both size and distance levels, which increase the level of uncertainty and complexity. The model has five components: business goals, agile values, the organization, the product backlog and processes. The last three of these are treated differently at product, project, and feature level. I recommend you to read this chapter even if you work with a small team because there is value in understanding what works in the small and what works in the large. It may help you improve what you do in the small.

Highsmith does a great job discussing on chapter 12 how to do governance within agile projects, an aspect most small companies might not have to worry about but most mid to large organizations have to. Chapter 13 is an overview of metrics at a high level. If you want to learn about this topic in technical detail you are better off reading other books such as the David J Anderson's book on agile management and conference proceedings. Chapter 14 is a rather motivational reading on the value of agile

In conclusion, this is a book of high value to get up to speed on agile project management and learn more, recent advances in agile that are useful beyond software development and both in the small and in the large. Although the book doesn't advocate a particular agile development framework it leans mostly towards scrum.

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