Agile IRL: Early and Continuous Delivery in Sri Lanka
In this series of Agile In Real Life (IRL) I write about how Agile can be or is applied in non-software development practices. I reflect on things that I come across or write about my own experiences, explaining some of the Agile practices with Real Life examples.
When you think about countries in which you could see Agile applied, probably you would think of a country like Japan, the place where Kaizen (lean manufacturing) originated. But would you think of Sri Lanka?
In the summer of 2018, I went on a holiday with my girlfriend to the ‘Teardrop of India’. Taking a break from Sprints, User stories, and everything that went together with my routines in software development. I did not expect to be triggered and to be thinking about Agile. But when it is so in your face, it was just impossible not to.
Sri Lanka & Tourism
Something good to know about Sri Lanka is that it was very much an up and coming holiday destination. Although it struggled and still struggles with some instability within the country, the size of the island, the diversity of nature, and the history and culture make it a great destination for travelers. Oh, and it is extremely cheap.
This rapid growth of interest from tourists of course had its impact on this island. It is not a country with the best economy so when tourism started to boom (again), the development of hotels took off. That was and probably is still visible if you visit the country.
Most of the Sri Lankan “Hotels” are actually referred to as Homestays, because very often they are not run by corporate businesses, but by a family. For simplicity I will refer to it as 'hotels'.
Why am I telling this background? Because the development of the hotels triggered me to think about Agile. I could see some of the principles being applied. Knowingly? Probably not. But it illustrates that a lot of the agile practices are just smart to do in all types of projects, not just in software development.
Enough talking, the best way how I can tell this story is to just show you. Below you can see two videos I recorded of Homestays we stayed in. Keep in mind that they are your amateur holiday videos, nothing professional, and you will see the occasional wild girlfriend appear.
Early & Continuous Delivery
The Agile principle that I would like to highlight is the first and probably the most important one.
01. Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery.
This is a big differentiator from something like Waterfall, known for being a very sequential (and often long) process. Big projects that go live with a big bang, hopefully fulfilling all the needs that were in the scope of the project.
As you probably notice in the videos is that the hotels are far from finished. They are missing rooms, they are missing a nice lobby, a nice restaurant/bar. Facilities you could see that are planned, but still in development.
For me it was pretty inspiring to see because I think it challenges the status quo of how real estate development is happening right now. Most of the time when I see a building or hotel being built in Europe, it is a construction site for years, and then when everything is finished it has a big opening ceremony.
Is there a reason why this status quo should be challenged? What are the benefits of this Agile principle?
With a Waterfall project, the moment you deliver value is the moment the entire thing is finished. Inbetween you are not delivering any value for the customer, or for your own business that is. Which is a shame.
Take the first video. They could have built all the rooms together, bit by bit. First the frame, then the bathrooms, then the furniture, etc. But instead, they focused first on building and finishing one room. That way the first tourists could already stay the night (value for the customer), resulting in income for the family (value for the business).
By building the Homestay room by room, they could already deliver value for tourists, and generate income for further development.
In the second video, all the rooms were done, but the rest of the facilities were not there yet. The “restaurant” was nothing more than a construction site with chairs. Again, should they have waited until it was finished? Just have a look at the rooms, these were great.
Feedback & Iteration
Another big benefit is that you can already get real customer feedback at an early stage. Something that helps to spot big problems, and is a good inspiration to already make some improvements for both the existing and new “features” (rooms in this example).
In our case, we actually were the first ones (or maybe second) that stayed in the room. And we did have some issues. The hot water was not working every day, and it seemed like the electricity was not wired correctly. A hilarious situation of needing to turn on the bathroom light from outside. Not outside the bathroom, outside the room, on the balcony. Something they should avoid when developing the next room.
By creating business value in an early stage, and getting real customer feedback, you are reducing a lot of risks. The risk of not delivering what users want, but also reducing financial risk.
What if a real estate project takes too long, and there are some setbacks? There is a real risk that you do not have the financial means to see it through until the end of the project. This is not an uncommon case. There are numerous examples of construction companies going bankrupt, leaving big unfinished buildings until some other company takes it over.
Just to think of a couple of other scenarios where the Sri Lankans were reducing risk:
- They can discover that there is no demand for the rooms — the doom scenario. But better to know it before you are expanding the number of rooms and making more investments.
- They make sure they have rooms available before the competition does, starting to make a name for themselves before they do. Not to be underestimated looking at the rapid growth that happened in Sri Lanka.
- They notice in an early stage that negative reviews are coming from users because there is no hot water. Or they notice that nobody is mentioning that big flatscreen, which they thought would be the “killer feature” of the rooms. With still a lot of room to change and iterate you can easily turn this small amount of (negative) reviews into a very positive rating.
Was it weird to stay in these unfinished homestays? Maybe a little bit, because of course that was not something they showed on their booking photos. But most of these places were amazing, with great rooms, and very sweet and kind owners. And for a price of 15–20 euros, it’s hard to really complain.
There is so much to reflect upon, and I would love to get some insights into how the “Project managers” approached things here. How did they prioritize things, how did they decide upon the “releases”, what was considered the MVP? It is interesting what we can learn from these non-software development examples, but for now we can only guess.
Hope you found it interesting and it triggered you to reflect on some of your own practices. If so, please share your learnings in the comments! 👇