The Agile Modeling (AM) Method

The Principles of Agile Modeling (AM)

Agile Modeling (AM) defines a collection of core and supplementary principles that when applied on a software development initiative set the stage for effective modeling and documentation practices. Some of the principles have been adopted from eXtreme Programming (XP) and are well documented in Extreme Programming Explained, which in turn adopted them from common software engineering techniques. For the most part the principles are presented with a focus on their implications to modeling efforts and as a result material adopted from XP may be presented in a different light.
The AM principles are organized into two lists, core principles which you must adopt to be able to claim that you’re truly taking an Agile Model Driven Development (AMDD) approach and supplementary principles which you should consider tailoring into your software process to meet the exact needs of your environment. A third list, deprecated principles which I’ve decided to remove in the second release of the AMDD methodology in order to simplify it.

Core Principles Supplementary Principles

Core Principles:

  • Model With A Purpose. Many developers worry about whether their artifacts — such as models, source code, or documents — are detailed enough or if they are too detailed, or similarly if they are sufficiently accurate. What they’re not doing is stepping back and asking why they’re creating the artifact in the first place and who they are creating it for. With respect to modeling, perhaps you need to understand an aspect of your software better, perhaps you need to communicate your approach to senior management to justify your initiative, or perhaps you need to create documentation that describes your system to the people who will be operating and/or maintaining/evolving it over time. If you cannot identify why and for whom you are creating a model then why are you bothering to work on it all? Your first step is to identify a valid purpose for creating a model and the audience for that model, then based on that purpose and audience develop it to the point where it is both sufficiently accurate and sufficiently detailed. Once a model has fulfilled its goals you’re finished with it for now and should move on to something else, such as writing some code to show that the model works. This principle also applies to a change to an existing model: if you are making a change, perhaps applying a known pattern, then you should have a valid reason to make that change (perhaps to support a new requirement or to refactor your work to something cleaner). An important implication of this principle is that you need to know your audience, even when that audience is yourself. For example, if you are creating a model for maintenance developers, what do they really need? Do they need a 500 page comprehensive document or would a 10 page overview of how everything works be sufficient? Don’t know? Go talk to them and find out.
  • Maximize Stakeholder ROI. Your stakeholders are investing resources — time, money, facilities, and so on — to have software developed that meets their needs. Stakeholders deserve to invest their resources the best way possible and not to have resources frittered away by your team. Furthermore, they deserve to have the final say in how those resources are invested or not invested. If it was your resources, would you want it any other way? Note: In AM v1 this was originally called “Maximize Stakeholder Investment”. Over time we realized that this term wasn’t right because it sounded like we were saying you needed to maximize the amount of money spent, which wasn’t the message.
  • Travel Light. Every artifact that you create, and then decide to keep, will need to be maintained over time. If you decide to keep seven models, then whenever a change occurs (a new/updated requirement, a new approach is taken by your team, a new technology is adopted, …) you will need to consider the impact of that change on all seven models and then act accordingly. If you decide to keep only three models then you clearly have less work to perform to support the same change, making you more agile because you are traveling lighter. Similarly, the more complex/detailed your models are, the more likely it is that any given change will be harder to accomplish (the individual model is “heavier” and is therefore more of a burden to maintain). Every time you decide to keep a model you trade-off agility for the convenience of having that information available to your team in an abstract manner (hence potentially enhancing communication within your team as well as with stakeholders). Never underestimate the seriousness of this trade-off. Someone trekking across the desert will benefit from a map, a hat, good boots, and a canteen of water they likely won’t make it if they burden themselves with hundreds of gallons of water, a pack full of every piece of survival gear imaginable, and a collection of books about the desert. Similarly, a development team that decides to develop and maintain a detailed requirements document, a detailed collection of analysis models, a detailed collection of architectural models, and a detailed collection of design models will quickly discover they are spending the majority of their time updating documents instead of writing source code.
  • Multiple Models. You potentially need to use multiple models to develop software because each model describes a single aspect of your software. “What models are potentially required to build modern-day business applications?” Considering the complexity of modern day software, you need to have a wide range of techniques in your intellectual modeling tool kit to be effective (see Modeling Artifacts for AM for a start at a list and Agile Models Distilled for detailed descriptions). An important point is that you don’t need to develop all of these models for any given system, but that depending on the exact nature of the software you are developing you will require at least a subset of the models. Different systems, different subsets. Just like every fixit job at home doesn’t require you to use every tool available to you in your toolbox, over time the variety of jobs you perform will require you to use each tool at some point. Just like you use some tools more than others, you will use some types of models more than others. For more details regarding the wide range of modeling artifacts available to you, far more than those of the UML as I show in the essay Be Realistic About the UML.
  • Rapid Feedback. The time between an action and the feedback on that action is critical. By working with other people on a model, particularly when you are working with a shared modeling technology (such as a whiteboard, CRC cards, or essential modeling materials such as sticky notes) you are obtaining near-instant feedback on your ideas. Working closely with your customer, to understand the requirements, to analyze those requirements, or to develop a user interface that meets their needs, provides opportunities for rapid feedback.
  • Assume Simplicity. As you develop you should assume that the simplest solution is the best solution. Don’t overbuild your software, or in the case of AM don’t depict additional features in your models that you don’t need today. Have the courage that you don’t need to over-model your system today, that you can model based on your existing requirements today and refactor your system in the future when your requirements evolve. Keep your models as simple as possible.
  • Embrace Change. Requirements evolve over time. People’s understanding of the requirements change over time. Stakeholders can change as your team moves forward, new people are added and existing ones can leave. stakeholders can change their viewpoints as well, potentially changing the goals and success criteria for your effort. The implication is that your environment changes as your efforts progress, and that as a result your approach to development must reflect this reality. You need an agile approach to change management.
  • Incremental Change. An important concept to understand with respect to modeling is that you don’t need to get it right the first time, in fact, it is very unlikely that you could do so even if you tried. Furthermore, you do not need to capture every single detail in your models, you just need to get it good enough at the time. Instead of futilely trying to develop an all encompassing model at the start, you instead can put a stake in the ground by developing a small model, or perhaps a high-level model, and evolve it over time (or simply discard it when you no longer need it) in an incremental manner.
  • Quality Work. Nobody likes sloppy work. The people doing the work don’t like it because it’s something they can’t be proud of, the people coming along later to refactor the work (for whatever reason) don’t like it because it’s harder to understand and to update, and the end users won’t like the work because it’s likely fragile and/or doesn’t meet their expectations.
  • Working Software Is Your Primary Goal. The goal of software development is to produce high-quality working software that meets the needs of your stakeholders in an effective manner. The primary goal is not to produce extraneous documentation, extraneous management artifacts, or even models. Any activity that does not directly contribute to this goal should be questioned and avoided if it cannot be justified in this light.
  • Enabling The Next Effort Is Your Secondary Goal . Your initiative can still be considered a failure even when your team delivers a working system to your users – part of fulfilling the needs of your stakeholders is to ensure that your system robust enough so that it can be extended over time. As Alistair Cockburn likes to say, when you are playing the software development game your secondary goal is to setup to play the next game. Your next effort may be the development of the next major release of your system or it may simply be the operations and support of the current version you are building. To enable it you will not only want to develop quality software but also create just enough documentation and supporting materials so that the people playing the next game can be effective. Factors that you need to consider include whether members of your existing team will be involved with the next effort, the nature of the next effort itself, and the importance of the next effort to your organization. In short, when you are working on your system you need to keep an eye on the future.

Supplementary Principles:

  • Content Is More Important Than Representation . Any given model could have several ways to represent it. For example, a UI specification could be created using Post-It notes on a large sheet of paper (an essential or low-fidelity prototype), as a sketch on paper or a whiteboard, as a “traditional” prototype built using a prototyping tool or programming language, or as a formal document including both a visual representation as well as a textual description of the UI. An interesting implication is that a model does not need to be a document. Even a complex set of diagrams created using a CASE tool may not become part of a document, instead they are used as inputs into other artifacts, very likely source code, but never formalized as official documentation. The point is that you take advantage of the benefits of modeling without incurring the costs of creating and maintaining documentation.
  • Open And Honest Communication. People need to be free, and to perceive that they are free, to offer suggestions. This includes ideas pertaining to one or more models, perhaps someone has a new way to approach a portion of the design or has a new insight regarding a requirement; the delivery of bad news such as being behind schedule; or simply the current status of their work. Open and honest communication enables people to make better decisions because the quality of the information that they are basing them on is more accurate.

Principles Deprecated From Agile Modeling Version 1

To simplify AM, I chose to remove several principles in January of 2005. Although these are still valid ideas which are not going away, but they just won’t be considered “first order principles” anymore. I found over the years that as I training and mentored people in AMDD that I didn’t need to discuss them very much for people to understand the approach. The principles which I removed are:


v1 Principle Description Reason for Removal
Everyone Can Learn From Everyone Else You can never truly master something, there is always opportunity to learn more and to extend your knowledge. Take the opportunity to work with and learn from others, to try new ways of doing things, to reflect on what seems to work and what doesn’t. Technologies change rapidly, existing technologies such as Java evolve at a blinding pace and new technologies such as C# and .NET are introduced regularly. Existing development techniques evolve at a slower pace but they still evolve — As an industry we’ve understood the fundamentals of testing for quite awhile although we are constantly improving our understanding through research and practice. The point to be made is that we work in an industry where change is the norm, where you must take every opportunity to learn new ways of doing things through training, education, mentoring, reading, and working with each other. This is a great idea, one that seems to be followed by the vast majority of agilists, but it’s very general and therefore does not need to be a principle of a specific modeling methodology.
Know Your Models Because you have multiple modelsthat you can apply you need to know their strengths and weaknesses to be effective in their use. Knowing what you’re doing is always a good idea, but did it really need to be an explicit principle? Likely not.
Know Your Tools Software, such as diagramming tools or modeling tools, have a variety of features. If you are going to use a modeling tool then you should understand its features, knowing when and when not to use them. Same issue as knowing your models.
Local Adaptation Your approach to software development must reflect your environment, including the nature of your organization, the nature of your stakeholders, and the nature of your initiative itself. Issues that could be affected include: the modeling techniques that you apply (perhaps your users insist on concrete user interfaces instead of initial sketches or essential prototypes); the tools that you use (perhaps there isn’t a budget for a digital camera, or you already have licenses for an existing CASE tool); and the software process that you follow (your organization insists on XP, or Scrum, or their own process). You will adapt your approach at both the team level as well as the individual level. For example, some developers use one set of tools over another, some focus on coding with very little modeling whereas others prefer to invest a little more time modeling. I’m a firm believer that you should tailor a software process to meet your exact needs. However, that doesn’t mean that this idea needs to be part of AM, instead it needs to be part of your overall software process improvement (SPI) strategy.
Work With People’s Instincts When someone feels that something isn’t going to work, that a few things are inconsistent with one another, or that something doesn’t “smell right” then there is a good chance that that is actually the case. As you gain experience developing software your instincts become sharper, and what your instincts are telling you subconsciously can often be an important input into your modeling efforts. If your instincts tell you that a requirement doesn’t make sense or it isn’t complete investigate it with your users. If your instincts tell you that a portion of your architecture isn’t going to meet your needs build a quick technical end-to-end prototype to test out your theory. If your instincts tell you that design alternative A is better than design alternative B, and there is no compelling reason to choose either one of them, then go with alternative A for now. It’s important to understand that the value of courage tells you that should assume you can remedy the situation at some point in the future if you discover your instincts were wrong. Same issue as everyone can learn from everyone else.



Recommended Reading

Choose Your WoW! 2nd Edition Choose Your WoW! A Disciplined Agile Approach to Optimizing Your Way of Working (WoW) Second Edition, is an indispensable guide for agile coaches and practitioners. It overviews key aspects of the Disciplined Agile (DA) tool kit. Hundreds of organizations around the world have already benefited from DA, which is the only comprehensive tool kit available for guidance on building high-performance agile teams and optimizing your WoW. As a hybrid of the leading agile, lean, and traditional approaches, DA provides hundreds of strategies to help you make better decisions within your agile teams, balancing self-organization with the realities and constraints of your unique enterprise context.