Agile Swarming: What is It and How to Use It for Your Project

As any software project manager might know, juggling multiple projects can be a daunting task. Prioritizing tasks, allocating resources, and dealing with competing deadlines can quickly lead to confusion and frustration. One way that most software development companies and organizations try to deal with this issue is by having individual Agile members work on different items in user story or different user stories each as the case might demand. However, this can also lead to duplication of effort and communication difficulties.

In fact, working individually on user stories has been proven to heighten the risk of late deliveries and incomplete projects. This approach leaves very little time for testing and may lead to sprint failure.

Agile Swarming can ease this problem.

What is Agile swarming?

Agile Swarming is a method that Agile teams use to collaborate on items (user stories) that are of high priority. Unlike traditional Agile methodologies, which focus on individual tasks and iterations, agile swarming emphasizes collaboration and teamwork. The key concept in agile swarming is «quit starting, and start finishing». That is, instead of each developer selecting and working on their own story as is the case in typical Agile, the entire team can take on the user story with the highest priority. Emphasis is on collaboration and the goal is to help teams move through projects quickly and efficiently by breaking down barriers and silos. 

In other words, swarming in Agile development often involves having multiple team members working on a single user story. The management decides the most urgent task and assigns it as the first project to as many people as possible. After completing the first user story, the management assigns the team the second most important task next. This structure enables teams to focus on getting software versions ready for deployment based on their priority.

What specific problem does Agile swarming address?

Agile swarming addresses the challenges of conventional processes and ensures that fast-paced projects are completed well and in time by systematically combining efforts from different team members. For instance, if a user story is composed of 5 stacks with each stack taking 10 hours to finish, a developer working on it alone would take 50 hours to complete it.  Two developers working on the same user story collaboratively could deliver the completed task in half the time. Likewise, more developers in a team would take even less time and have the software up and running sooner.

One developer could be working on code in the development environment while another is compiling the code and readying it for testing. The third developer could be preparing the testing environment. So you can see that we have three developers here all working on the same user story, handling different roles that are all aimed at fast tracking the process.

The swarming method is highly recommended for companies managing fast-paced projects with tight deadlines. It is also suitable for developer teams who may be coming across a complex or mundane project for the first time.

When does Agile swarming become necessary?

There are numerous scenarios where the swarming concept in Agile can be applied. One of them is the process of adding a new feature to a software. Let’s use the example of a social media company that needs to improve the functionality of its short video recommendations. Obviously they’ll need to add more features.  In this scenario, the management team may assign the task of coming up with new features to five developers and two Quality Assurance testers. The team of 5 may design their sprint to contain any number of user stories, say 4, before setting a reasonable deadline, say two weeks, to work on the sprint.

Another scenario is when a crucial application that an organization depends on fails. In such a case, the company can deploy  agile swarming and have people in all departments focus on bringing the application back up and running.

How to use Agile swarming in projects

Start by identifying the priority stories. Then figure out the team combination that is best placed to work on the stories. 

Check out these examples of some of the swarming combinations you can opt to use depending on the priorities. 

Swarming combinationDescription

Product Owner + Developers +Testers

Perhaps the most comprehensive combination. Means the user stories that have been identified as priorities need almost the entire Scrum team  especially at the core coding level including testing. It’s so urgent that the product owner must come in. The product owner's presence provides a channel for feedback, which developers can quickly implement and get the code tested in good time by the readily available testers.

Developers + Testers

Developers work together with testers as the building progresses, instead of pushing testing to the end of development. This scales down the level of bugs by a significant margin.

Developer + Developer

At least two developers work together (recommended to both work from one computer). They are basically working on the same code, resolving issues together. The coding process moves faster.

Developers + Designers + Testers

The work of  the designer is to lay out the storyboards. Most importantly this  combination gives designers the best opportunity to understand the product and come up with the right User Interface (UI) designs as development and testing goes on.  

Quality Assurance + DevOps

Suitable where in cases where most of the development is already or actually complete, but the operational side is lagging. The DevOps team will coordinate with QA to prepare documentation and guide the implementation or launch. 

*Please note that the number and type combinations you can use here are not restricted to these examples. You can actually come up with your own unique combinations. What’s important is to accurately identify the user stories with the highest priority. Next, decide on the most efficient combination to clear off the identified priorities.

Benefits of Agile swarming

  1. Increased efficiency: One of the greatest advantages of swarming in Agile development is increased efficiency. Typical Scrum teams have an estimated maximum efficiency of 10%. That means a task that could be potentially done in a day would take ten days for the average conventional team using Scrum. Swarming focuses on bringing together team members who could all work on the same project and complete it within a short time. As a result, the efficiency for the task increases significantly. The higher the efficiency, the greater the velocity for the sprints. 
  2. Higher collaboration: As can be seen from the examples of the various combinations above, the collaboration between developers and members of the Scrum teams decreases the replication of effort. Everyone that is required for the identified priority is brought on board. They all swarm the priority item and this means that the entire team has access to all the organization’s resources that are essential to the project.  Additional developers will provide an extra pair of eyes to quickly polish the code. The product owner may come with important data that could benefit data scientists on the swarm team.
  3. Decreased WIP: Swarming decreases the Work in Progress (WIP). Teams that assign each developer a user story end up having too much WIP. Most developers are known to often start working on stories swiftly with a lot of enthusiasm but struggle with completing them. Starting projects without completing them or taking too long to complete easily becomes an anti-pattern in the long run.  Swarming teams typically have less WIP since they focus on one item until it’s done. By the time such teams mark their stories as complete, the software will be ready for deployment since it would have undergone all the stages of development and testing.
  4. Predictability: Swarming brings a lot of  high predictability because swarming teams do not use estimates. In addition, the risk of carry-over is much less, and there is improved synchronization.

Common challenges with Agile swarming

  • Can easily turn into a mini-waterfall: One of the biggest problems teams face with Agile swarming is unknowingly falling back into a mini-waterfall system. This happens when the user story is elaborate and the swarm teams decide to divide up tasks, also elaborately.  Say you have 3 developers, 2 testers  and 1 designer. You might be tempted to separate this team into 3 groups and this can get tricky.  So while such teams may have had the intention of using the agile swarming technique, they risk dealing with the disadvantages that come with the waterfall model. This team of 5 is supposed to work together and this should be the focus. 
  • Testing difficulties: Agile swarming encourages continuous software testing over testing after completion. This may not always produce the best results because some features are better tested when development is complete. 
  • Conflicts: Agile swarming team members may step on each other’s toes from time to time while collaborating on projects. Imagine 2 or 3 developers working on the same code from one computer!

Tips to excel with Agile swarming

You can adapt agile swarming in different ways depending on your preferences. One way that matches the common definition of swarming is to have everyone working on the same item from the start 

Another way is to follow a needs-based approach. For instance, when there is an unusual, complex, mundane, or very urgent project, you can have every team member working on it. After getting it done, each member can go back and continue working on the original tasks assigned to them. 

Apply these tips for successful use of agile swarming:

  • Goal setting: Conflicts between team members may arise during swarming. It is critical to set the organization’s goals before the agile swarming process and have everyone agree to place the goals of the organization above interpersonal issues. With this mindset, members will find it easier to collaborate as time goes by.
  • Version control: It would be helpful to utilize version control systems such as Git for code-based tasks. Such systems increase synchronization by having developers merge commits made on the same file that they are accessing using different computers. Git would also help to solve conflicts between developers.
  • Test alongside development: A key advantage of agile swarming is the ability to have software versions tested for quality assurance as the development process takes place. This way, the developers can correct issues as the testers find them before taking the next steps. However, since most companies taking the agile swarming route do not have many versions present at a time, they can have one tester attending to multiple teams.

Conclusion

Like many modern enterprises, you may be struggling to manage fast-moving projects that are competing on priority because members of your team work on user stories at individual level. This may lead to a lot of work in progress (WIP) where so many user stories are started but very few are completed.

Agile swarming solves this problem by focusing on bringing every member to one item until it's ready to deploy. This reduces the WIP, ensuring that what ought to be done is done with greater velocity and higher efficiency. 

Never forget that TESTING is critical throughout the swarming period. Each user story that is being worked on must be tested throughout all the developmental phases. Last but not least, plan the software development lifecycle thoroughly to avoid falling back into a mini waterfall model.

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