The Whole Team Approach to Agile

My colleague, John Campbell, and I recently attended the STC RMC event where Alyssa Fox of Micro Focus spoke to the chapter in a presentation titled, “The Whole Team Approach to Agile Development: How it Affects User Assistance.” As technical communicators in a company that is working toward a DevOps model and considering¬†integrating¬†Agile as part of that model, this event couldn’t have come at a better time. Alyssa not only provided valuable insight into the Agile methodology, but also prompted us to analyze what we are doing right and where there may be room for improvement.

What We’re Doing Right
While Agile is still relatively new to us, we were pleased to hear from Alyssa that we are on the right track when it comes to a couple things, notably:

Teamwork
“Holding the whole team responsible for product quality improves teamwork, increases quality, and reduces documentation. Closing communication gaps and fostering that shared commitment on the team pays off in a big way for the team, the product, and the users.”

Our department specifically is considering a reorganization in an effort to create more productive, efficient, and cross-functional teams. Not only have we been holding work flow improvement meetings to identify bottlenecks and inefficient processes, but we’ve implemented and adopted new tools across the board to aid in this effort.

Swarming
“Swarming involves the whole team working on a problem or user story together before moving onto another story. Swarming also means that team members from other functional areas might help write documentation or work on other user assistance. For example, development team members might write the first draft of docs.”

Our subject matter experts consistently write the first draft of docs. Their drafts often require our assistance with considerable cleanup and design, but pulling information straight from the source gives us a great foundation from which we build more accurate, thorough, and consistent documentation.

Where We Can Improve
As with any new adventure, there will undoubtedly be a learning curve. With Agile, that learning curve seems to be pretty steep. Here are some hurdles we’ve identified in our race to Agile:

Buy In
Just this month, multiple members from our team participated in Agile and Scrum training delivered by an outside consultant. This was very helpful in providing team members with a foundational level of the vocabulary and theories that comprise Agile, but knowing how to apply it to our existing environment is a challenge. Luckily, Alyssa said it’s common to retrain teams multiple times to help them fully understand how to put Agile into practice.

Silos
Although we are actively working to eliminate information silos across our teams, we still encounter situations where information lives on our colleagues’ local drives or, worse, in their heads. Our new knowledge base, launched in January, will help this as we continue to collect documentation from individuals and make it available for everyone to access.

Estimating Time
More than ever, our documentation efforts will require improved and consistent time estimation. While this hasn’t been a pain point as of yet, we anticipate this will be a crucial factor for successful sprints in the future.

Bonus Wisdom
I addressed only a small portion of Alyssa’s wealth of knowledge above, so I’ve paraphrased some other aspirational bits of wisdom that I appreciated from her presentation as well:

  • Many companies will fix technical issues before usability issues. Write the best label the first time rather than have to explain it in documentation.
  • Information developers should look at UI reviews and participate in testing in order to advocate for the user. Making the user call tech support costs the company money.
  • Help people do their jobs. Don’t document around confusing technology.

In Conclusion
Embracing Agile and doing it right in a new DevOps environment has proved challenging but Alyssa’s insight was both informative and reassuring. John and I look forward to expanding our roles as information developers and joining sprints in the future, and now we feel better equipped to do so.

For more information on Alyssa Fox, visit http://www.stc.org/about-stc/leadership/board/item/alyssa-fox-2

This blog post was created with help from John Campbell.

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