Seen and Unseen Value

The idea at the heart of agile development is really very simple: many incremental, functional improvements create more value than one big, centralized push. At 8th Light, we demo completed features to our clients at the end of each weekly iteration. It’s a chance to show clients that we’re making progress and creating tangible value. Perhaps more important, it shortens the feedback loop between feature ideas and implementation.

A good user story creates “business value.” But note the “business.” There are many story-like tasks that create lots of value for developers. Refactoring crufty code into something more stable and extensible always extends its lifespan. Speeding up the test suite might mean writing twice as fast. A new design pattern or library behind the scenes can eliminate scores of future headaches. And yet none of these improvements are visible, and none really create business value. They all have second-order effects on business value, usually on scales longer than one week, but the immediate effects are invisible.

It’s easy to spend a whole week on pseudostories with nothing visible to show. (I’ve certainly done it!) And it’s easy to feel resentful when lots of work looks like nothing new at all. But consider a client’s perspective and invisible efficiencies start to look pretty lame: imagine a carpenter showing off her rad new nailgun (twice as fast as a hammer!) instead of the house she’s supposed to be building.

Unseen improvements are hugely helpful, but they don’t count if they aren’t visible. That doesn’t mean they can’t be made to count. It can require creativity, but it’s possible to make unseen improvements more obvious–show, don’t tell, as the writer’s adage goes. Show how using a repository makes it easy to swap in new data sources. Show the new views that reuse carefully extracted components. Show a new feature that Clojurescript made possible. Setting visible goals along the way makes unseen value clear.