Planning ahead in software development – just enough

Big Design Up Front (BDUF) is dead. There may not be too much agreement about any one thing in software development, but the industry has pretty much concluded that BDUF doesn’t work. 

As Agile practices and mindset took hold, up-front architecture was essentially looked down upon. And for good reason: in many cases, a system architecture can evolve and be adjusted over time as the system matures. We call this emergent design. (On the far side of the continuum of up-front planning, opposed to BDUF, lies “Just start coding”, which is still practiced quite a bit too, with varying degrees of success as it is more the extreme case, but may be sufficient in simple cases.) 

Another mantra circulating in Agile circles is to focus on and start with the easiest thing that can possibly work. This approach allows us to focus on solving the immediate problem at hand while ensuring we are not pursuing an overly complex solution. The theory is that – with the help of emergent design – the implementation can be adjusted down the line.

However, as organizations scaled their development teams and systems grew more complex, problems started to surface. It became problematic for several teams working on the same large solution to let design simply “emerge” in real-time, at the team level. After all, an application architecture is not fully malleable and might be resistant to change. And several teams working on the same application require coordination, agreement on architectural approach and at least some level of planning. A more intentional architecture was needed, without resorting back to the BDUF days. And therein lies the key, which is more art than science: finding the sweet spot between emergent design and intentional architecture (see Agile architecture). 

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