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This post is from the CollabNet VersionOne blog and has not been updated since the original publish date.

Last Updated Jan 19, 2015 — Enterprise Agile Planning expert

The ‘Agile Playbook’

Getting Everyone on the Team on the Same Page 
(Especially When It Counts)

Enterprise Agile Planning

Football players spend a lot of time studying their Playbooks. And Coaches spend a lot of time creating and updating them. These guys are serious. The stakes are high in the NFL; millions of people are watching, and millions in revenues are on the line. Their stated goal is the same each week; to win. That means the team's have to work really well as a whole, and each player and support role must know what they are doing.


Thanks to this mindset, the game of American football is a great example to follow as an Agile team in the corporate world. We all need some help with remembering both overarching strategy and minute best practices on the field.  We also want to be sure we get it all down, so we can execute on game day without a moment's hesitation.

Even if we’ve done it many times before, it’s easy to get forget; there’s just so much to know and remember. This is hard stuff we’re doing, and it’s in constant flux. We often find ourselves wanting someplace to go for reference, clarification, advice, and best practices.

The team has had several clients, both large and small, ask me for something they could use to document the way they ‘do Agile.’ If they’re new to the game, often they will look to a consultant or Agile Coach to guide them or help create this information.

Enter ‘The Agile Playbook.’

What Is an 'Agile Playbook'?

In short, an Agile Playbook is both a helpful reference guide and an outline of top-level strategic thinking. It can come in many forms. 

For now, let’s stick with the football analogy. If you’ve watched an NFL game recently, you’ve probably seen the coach holding up a play sheet, as he decides what play to call. If you (or your kid) has an XBOX or PlayStation with Madden NFL, you know it has a Playbook feature built into it. (Note: this could potentially be an interesting feature opportunity for Agile Lifecycle Management (ALM) tool providers!) 

To begin to form your own Agile Playbook, first consider the larger, over-arching deliverable. You want it to be something that's detailed enough to flip through for a situation-specific recommendation. But you don't want it to be so large and cumbersome that you can't pull it out for a quick consult.

Transferring this idea of an NFL Playbook into the world of Agile software development is natural. I’ve heard it referred to by different folks in similar ways, like ‘Agile one-stop shopping’, or an ‘Agile Coach in a Box’, or ‘How we do Agile here at Company XYZ’. 

We, personally, like the term ‘Agile Playbook’ because it’s short, simple, descriptive and believe it drives home the "team" concept nicely. A playbook isn't just for the coaches or the quarterback; everyone on the field needs to know its contents in order to execute successfully when the pressure's on.

Who Can Benefit From an Agile Playbook?

Can you imagine an NFL team without an organized list of plays? So why would we think it’d be any different in our Agile organizations? 

As our enterprise Agile planning expert writes: "I remember playing pickup football and we’d draw pictures in the dirt of what we wanted to do. That was fine for a pickup game, but even my nine-year-old son’s flag football team has a playbook."

So the question of ‘Who wants it?’ is an appropriate one. 

If we think of Mike Cohn’s user story template (As a ___, I want to ___, so I can ___), this is the ‘As a’ piece. Who are we doing this for, anyway? Is it the PMO Director? The ScrumMasters? Product Owners? The Team? Program and Portfolio Management? Executives? 

Our expert writes: "The answer, in my six years of personal Agile consulting experience, is ‘all the above.’ If they don’t ask about this at some point, it’s usually because they haven’t thought about it yet."

Why would a team want an agile playbook?

Ideally, because it adds value. 

This is the ‘So I can’ part of the story. It’s a guide to help them get where they want to go. It’s something we can point to when someone asks, “How are we doing Agile in our organization?” It’s something we can go to for reference when nobody else is around. It can even be used as an onboarding tool.

The Agile Playbook also gets us thinking not only about how we work, but how we can improve our processes. Are we really being empirical? Give it some serious thought in your retrospectives. Perhaps there’s an opportunity to update the Playbook. 

These benefits are, at the very least, worth consideration. If a team or organization decides they don’t see any value in it, they can simply not do it.

Wouldn't an Agile Playbook Be Yet Another Document for My Team to Juggle?

Yes, it’s a document.

Many of our readers will vividly recall that The Agile Manifesto says ‘Working software over comprehensive documentation.’ 

So, yes, an Agile Playbook is a document. And yes, it’s likely to be pretty comprehensive. But that’s a relative term — more specifics on this will follow in a bit. 

It's also something that can add to speed to value with minimal drawbacks. Keep in mind that The Agile Manifesto doesn’t say documents are evil. 

"In this case," opines our Agile expert, "I believe it’s a very helpful and necessary document to have available in order to get everyone on the same page, and to show auditors that our processes are documented (they like that kinda stuff, ya know)."

Recognize that, despite its friendly, approachable intended nature, an Agile Playbook is admittedly a big deliverable. It takes a lot of time, effort and know-how to put something like this together.

"When I did one for a client a couple years ago, we employed a full-time Tech Writer for about a month," recalls our Agile expert. "That was a huge help. I had initially tried to do it on my own, in my spare time, but that didn’t work out too well. The folks in the Agile PMO, including myself, provided the content, primarily."

But we've also seen other organizations go with almost nothing documented, just pulling in a coach or two and letting it roll. Maybe sharing a few slide decks on an internal page. No strong desire to document the why, when and how they perform their daily work. Perhaps it's because they hadn’t thought about it, didn’t want it by design, or just didn’t have the bandwidth. Or maybe there were other reasons. 

"Personally," opines our Agile expert, "I believe that not documenting something this important to the agile transformation of your organization is irresponsible."

Besides, having your Agile strategy documented — but all over the place in different formats and levels of detail —  can be chaotic. You don’t want to make people go hunt down stuff, let alone guess or assume anything.

In our experience, the more comprehensive yet approachable the Agile Playbook is, the better. It should be as close to one document (or series of web pages) as possible, not multiples. i.e., it shouldn't be nine Powerpoint slide decks, seven Excel spreadsheets, and 12 Word documents with a bunch of buried links to even more documents, slide decks and spreadsheets. Make it as simple as possible. It’s one place to go. One thing to print off (if you desire to have a hard copy) and carry with you for reference. One URL to save as a favorite.

It can help us realize gaps in the way we work.

An Agile Playbook Can Have a Transformative Effect, Even in the Creation Process

Our Agile expert reflects that: "What I learned early on is that the hard work of creating an Agile Playbook forces us to give a long, hard look at the way we’re working now, and how we want to work in the future. It’s cathartic. It helps us identify areas where we can improve our processes. It forces us to ask some difficult questions. And make some difficult decisions."
One way in which to identify areas of improvement around your process is to identify your value streams. This is a basic Lean principle. Most likely, you or someone in your organization has done something like this before. It is needed to consider the answer to questions like: how efficient are we in going from start to finish (request to deployment, concept to cash)? Our goal should be to optimize this. Look to reduce delays, inefficiencies, and improve our cycle time.

How Should an Agile Playbook Handle Documenting Tools and Technical Practices?

Agile teams should be careful to not forget how their tools and technical practices play into Agile strategy, as they’re an important factor in how work gets done. If your organization is using an Agile Lifecycle Management tool, the Agile Playbook might include best practices on how to use that as well – either melded throughout, or as a separate section.

Same goes for development tools that help us with…

  • Continuous integration – Jenkins, Hudson
  • Defect Management – Bugzilla, JIRA, HP Quality Center
  • Integrated Development Environment – Eclipse, Visual Studio
  • Test Management – HP Quality Center
  • Source Code Management – Git, Subversion
  • Agile Portfolio and Project Management – VersionOne, et al.

This can be a lot of information, so when documenting for the Agile Playbook, this is an area where you can make heavy use of links to information beyond the basics of each of the tools we use.

It should be comprehensive, yet brief. If that sounds like a paradox, then don't be afraid to start with a deep level of detail, then iterate with a more-brief summary and a higher level look. You can always retain the more verbose version for later reference.

As a last suggestion, our Agile expert recommends you set a very specific goal for a document that is neither cumbersome nor intimidating.

"If you can’t fit the Agile Playbook into your front pocket comfortably, it’s probably too big. When I say brief, I mean about under 50 pages for a large organization. Any more than that, I think folks begin to feel overwhelmed and push it away. Any less, and it’s hard to be comprehensive. 

"There’s no science behind that decision, but if I apply my own average attention span to the matter, this sounds about right. I think much of this also depends on the format you use: Microsoft Word, Powerpoint, HTML, etc. Again, where appropriate, I like to make liberal use of links to other documents/sources to help minimize the length. I recommend placing it on a well-known organizational site such as Wiki, Sharepoint, etc. Provide a highly visible and pronounced link from your internal company home page, and give the option of printing out a hard copy. In fact, I like to have several hard copies available in the Agile PMO to hand out to folks who want one. You’d be surprised how quickly they go. I’ve found that a nice ringed binder works best. That way, if there are changes, you can swap out a page or two."
With all that said, keep in mind that a digital reference can be just as useful and much more portable than a physical document.
After all, most NFL teams now use tablets (iPad or Surface) almost exclusively for their Team Playbooks.

If you’ve watched ‘Hard Knocks’ on HBO, you already know that the phrase “Turn in Your iPads” has started replacing “Turn in Your Playbooks” when players are cut from an NFL team. Those teams have discovered that the technology goes far beyond the old playbook capabilities. 

To dive a little further, there’s a product called ‘PlayerLync,’ which is at the forefront of this movement. It has revolutionized the way teams push out film and significantly altered the way they communicate. Beyond saving printing costs, digital playbooks are improving the effective, real-time communication by allowing coaches and quarterbacks to add and share plays with the click of a button. Every time new data, film or information is added, a banner alert pops up (like a text message), signaling players to view the updates.

What Uniquenesses Might Separate Agile Playbooks Between Different Organizations, and What Commonalities Might They Share?

Our consultants have helped put together a number of these Agile Playbooks for different clients now, and each was utterly unique. 

But there are many commonalities, like the general Agile principles and practices. At the end of the day, folks want to know what to do, who does it, when to do it, and why. All these things can be exclusive to the organization or industry. The extent to which Scrum, Lean, and XP practices are applied also varies from company to company.

An Agile Playbook Can Help Eliminate Uncertainty, Fear, and Apprehension

When teams in an organization are using both the framework and the tools differently, they might experience some level of fear when making daily work decisions. It could be that they're not all using the Agile Lifecycle Management tool in the same way. 

The question, then, emerges: how in the world can we expect to have rolled up views into the different management levels (Portfolio, Program, and Project) without a common agile project management tool? This opens the door to confusion on many levels, especially when we start talking about agile metrics/reports. 

But it’s not just the management level that has a problem if teams are not all on the same page. The individual team members also experience fear… fear of doing the wrong thing, or doing it incorrectly, getting called to the carpet or, worse yet, being publicly shamed, written up, or fired. 

The idea of a shared Agile Playbook is that if we’re all on the same page, and everyone knows what’s expected, this fear diminishes greatly. Life gets better for everyone.

Start Your Agile Playbook With a Simplified Outline

For those wondering how to start forming their own Agile Playbook, we suggest starting with a few common basics. However, keep in mind that each organization’s Agile Playbook is their own. We cannot share the exact Playbooks that our experts have helped put together with clients, as that information is proprietary. 

But we can share with you a more generic outline of what an Agile Playbook might look like:

About the Agile Playbook
What is Agile and Scrum?
Implementing Agile and Scrum at Company XYZ
Essentials of Agile and Scrum at Company XYZ (How ‘We’ Do It)
Agile Planning
Agile Execution
Agile Cultivation
Agile Tools
Agile Reporting/Agile Metrics
Staying Compliant with Agile
Company XYZ Communities of Practice (COP)

Fleshing out these bullets can start you down the path towards creating a guiding reference that can ensure everyone has the same strategy in mind when trying to execute. Not everyone will remember every play perfectly, but with the ability to point to a document, teams can continually evaluate their performance and align it with the organization's overarching goals.

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