Monday 1 December 2008

Change Control

With another December rolling around already, we head into that risky territory that we must navigate once a year - seasonal trading for many companies is picking up, yet now is the time when most support staff are trying as hard as possible to be on holiday. A tricky predicament - and what better time to talk about change control?

A lot of people - particularly fellow agilists - regard change control as a pointless, work-creationist, bureaucratic impediment to doing actual work. If it's irresponsibly applied, then I'd have to agree with them, but there are ways to implement change control that will add value to what you do without progress grinding to a halt amid kilometers of red tape.

Firstly, let's talk about why we'd bother in the first place. What's in it for us, and what's in it for the organization, to have some form of change control in place? Talking about it from this perspective (i.e. what we want to get out of it) means that whatever you do for change control is much more likely to deliver the benefits - because you have a goal in mind.

Here's what I look for in a change control process:
• The discipline of documenting a plan, even in rough steps, forces people to think through what they're doing and can uncover gotchas before they bite.
• Making the proposed change visible to other teams exposes any dependencies and technical/resource conflicts with parallel work.
• Making the proposed changes visible to the business makes sure the true impact to customers is taken into consideration and appropriate communication planned.
• Keeping simple records (such as plan vs actual steps taken) can contribute significantly to knowledge bases about the system and how to own it.
• Capturing basic information about the proposed change and circulating it to stakeholders makes sure balanced risk assessments are made when we need to decide when and how to implement something, and how much to spend on mitigations.

Ultimately, this all adds up to confidence in the activities the team are undertaking, and over time, will lead to less late nights and less reactive work.

And here are my rules of thumb for how change control should be implemented:
• Never let any process get in the way of doing the bloody obvious. If someone's on fire, you don't go and get the first aid manual and look up 'F' for fire.
• Change control can be granular, with stricter controls on more critical elements (like settlements), and a more flexible approach on lower impact or easier to restore elements (like content and feeds).
• Don't just take a off the shelf or copy another organization verbatim - this is the kind of thing that got change control the reputation it has - think about what you need and do something appropriate.
• Start small and grow up - it's easy to add more diligence where it proves necessary, but much more difficult to relax controls on areas where progress is pointlessly restricted.

So what do you actually do? As I said above, start off lightweight and cheap - a spreadsheet should do it, there isn't always the need for a huge workflow management database. Make a simple template and make sure you circulate it the way information is best disseminated in your organization (email, intranet, pinned on the wall - whatever gets it seen). Borrow ideas from your industry peers, but keep in mind the outcomes that best serve your circumstances. Most of all, identify the right stakeholders for each area of the system, appreciate the different requirements the applications under your stewardship have, and get into the habit of weighting risk and thinking before you act.

Here's to peace of mind - let's spend December at christmas parties, not postmortems!

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