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Agile Refactoring: Techniques, Best Practices & Challenges

Last updated on
March 29, 2024


Refactoring in Agile: Key takeaways

  • Refactoring in Agile is a continuous, behavior-preserving process integrated into sprints that improves code quality and complements Agile principles by adapting to feedback and maintaining high testability, reliability, and performance.
  • Agile refactoring provides benefits such as improved maintainability, streamlined development processes, and enhanced productivity; it encourages incremental improvements, reducing technical debt and fostering a deeper understanding of the code.
  • Effective Agile refactoring requires best practices like iterative enhancements, consistent refactoring efforts, collaborative approaches, and the use of automated testing, while aiming to balance refactoring with new feature development and overcoming common challenges.


Agile Refactoring: Techniques, Best Practices & Challenges


Dive into the world of Agile refactoring, where adapting swiftly to changes doesn't have to mean drowning in technical debt. In this article, you’ll learn how to improve your code continuously without slowing down development

Discover essential strategies and techniques for effective refactoring and see how they can make a real difference in your projects. 

The essence of refactoring in Agile

Refactoring in Agile is the process of behavior-preserving transformations aimed at enhancing the internal structure of software, all while leaving the program’s observable behavior untouched. In Agile projects, refactoring is an ongoing process, integrated within each sprint. It focuses on incrementally improving code quality, thus preventing poor code quality from amassing over time.

Contrary to regular coding that involves adding new features or fixing bugs, refactoring takes an alternative approach. It focuses solely on enhancing existing code’s quality without adding new functionality, segregating the tasks of expanding and maintaining the code base. The human-centric approach in Agile refactoring emphasizes maintainability and understandability, easing collaboration among team members, and ensuring a faster time to market with reduced technical debt.

The Agile connection

Refactoring complements Agile principles. It aligns perfectly with Agile principles, emphasizing:

  • frequent delivery of working software
  • the ability to respond to changing requirements
  • the principle of continuous and incremental delivery of working software, a core tenet of extreme programming (XP), dovetails with the concept of continuous refactoring.

In the realm of agile software development, Agile’s inherent adaptability allows teams to refactor code while quickly responding to user feedback and changing priorities, ensuring that the software evolves in step with user needs. Improving code through refactoring can directly enhance a product’s testability, reliability, and performance, building customer satisfaction and trust.

The role of unit tests

Unit tests are the faithful guardians of the refactoring process, providing assurance that modifications do not unleash unpredictable issues into the code. They are like the silent whistle-blowers, providing immediate feedback on the impact of code changes, bolstering confidence throughout the refactoring process.

Automated unit testing is a critical component of Agile refactoring, ensuring that the improvements to the codebase do not affect its external functionality. When combined with refactoring, Test-Driven Development (TDD) promotes a rigorous and frequent refinement of the code that maintains high code quality and prevents avoidable rework.

Key benefits of code refactoring in Agile

Refactoring in Agile uncovers numerous benefits. It improves maintainability by enhancing code readability, making modifications and error resolutions a breeze. The standardization and modularity of refactored code facilitate component reusability and decrease maintenance expenses, making it the gift that keeps on giving.

Refactoring offers several benefits, including:

  • Addressing technical debt
  • Ensuring the sustainability of software projects
  • Fostering team adaptability and capacity to integrate changes
  • Responding to evolving project requirements and feedback

These benefits make refactoring an essential practice for software development teams.

Ultimately, refactoring contributes to improved code understanding and more informed decision-making, which leads to sound code design.

Enhanced productivity

The powerful impact of Agile refactoring on productivity is noteworthy. The incremental approach to refactoring minimizes risk and allows for continuous improvements, contributing to sustained productivity. The integration of continuous refactoring in Agile sprints enables the team to maintain higher code hygiene and deliver high-quality products at a fast pace.

Removing duplicate code during the refactoring process can speed up coding tasks and reduce the cognitive load for developers. Additionally, Agile refactoring cultivates a deeper knowledge of coding among team members, leading to increased productivity. Techniques like ‘Extract Method’ can help reduce code duplication and increase code readability, maintaining a clean code base.

Furthermore, unit tests facilitate early detection of regressions in the development cycle, proving more cost-effective than discovering them at later stages or after deployment.

Streamlined development process

Refactoring acts as a catalyst in streamlining the development process in Agile. It involves iterative and incremental improvements that are integrated with other development activities. Agile’s iterative processes support refactoring by enabling changes to be made quickly and continuously, providing a streamlined development cycle.

Addressing technical debt during refactoring can prevent code deterioration, keeping the development process efficient. Running a small set of sanity tests on every code push and scheduling full automated regression suites for nightly builds can optimize the testing process in Agile development.

Test-Driven Development (TDD) enhances collaboration between developers and testers within Agile teams, ensuring that all members are focused on delivering a product that works as intended.

Effective refactoring techniques for Agile teams

Refactoring techniques are the equivalent of tools in a craftsman’s toolbox, each designed to enhance the software structure. Some common refactoring techniques include:

  • Extract Method: used to improve code quality by reducing code duplication and increasing maintainability.
  • Simplifying Methods: used to simplify complex methods and improve code readability.
  • Refactoring by Abstraction: focuses on enhancing reusability and maintainability by extracting shared functionality.
  • Composing: breaks down large code components into smaller, more manageable pieces.

By applying these refactoring techniques, developers can improve the quality, maintainability, and reusability of their code through refactoring code.

Methods like ‘Simplifying Methods’ and manipulating method calls simplify the complexity and understanding of the code. Techniques like ‘Moving Features Between Objects’ and composing methods are used to redistribute responsibilities for a more cohesive object-oriented design.

In Test-Driven Development (TDD), the ‘Red-Green-Refactor’ cycle promotes refactoring by first writing a failing test, coding to pass it, then improving the code while retaining pass status.

Restructuring methods

Restructuring methods in refactoring bears a resemblance to tidying up a disorganized closet - it’s primarily about placing things in their rightful places to establish a neat and easy-to-navigate codebase. Applying ‘Extract Method’ in refactoring improves code readability and maintainability by breaking down large methods into smaller, reusable parts. Duplicate code sections can be identified and consolidated through refactoring, simplifying the codebase and aiding its maintenance by removing redundancies.

Simplifying method calls through techniques like ‘Decompose Conditional’ and ‘Replace Nested Conditional with Guard Clauses’ makes complex decision-making structures clearer and easier to maintain under time constraints. The ‘Simplifying Methods’ refactoring strategy enhances the scalability and understandability of code, facilitating ease of future modifications and feature additions. These techniques are essential for effectively managing complex codebases, especially as project requirements evolve and expand.

Optimizing object-oriented design

Refactoring by abstraction contributes to optimizing object-oriented design by reducing code duplication and promoting cleaner design through encapsulation of shared logic. Organizing data more effectively by replacing arrays with objects makes working with data easier. Techniques like Move Method, Move Field, and Hide Delegate help in assigning appropriate responsibilities among classes, enhancing object-oriented design.

Applying strategies focused on simplifying methods and moving features between objects promotes less complex and more scalable code structures in Agile environments. These techniques allow Agile teams to:

  • Create a software design that is efficient
  • Create a software design that is easy to understand and modify
  • Enhance the overall agility and performance of the project

Best practices for implementing refactoring in Agile

Implementing refactoring in Agile can be compared to embarking on a voyage. To ensure smooth sailing, it’s crucial to follow the right practices. Before embarking on refactoring, ensure the code is working, establish clear project scope, and ensure extensive test coverage. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design is vital in Agile, and refactoring plays a key role in enhancing overall agility.

Refactor in small, manageable steps to mitigate the risk of introducing defects and to improve software extensibility and maintainability. This approach allows Agile teams to make continuous improvements while minimizing disruptions, ensuring that the journey to better code quality is as smooth as possible.

Consistent refactoring efforts

Maintaining consistency is vital in Agile refactoring. Refactoring should be an ongoing process that is continuously woven into daily programming tasks, not reserved for future phases. Prior to adding new functionalities, it’s essential to perform refactoring to avoid the accumulation of technical debt and the risk of introducing bugs.

Under the pressure of continuous software release cycles, Agile teams can uphold code quality by adhering to the ‘Boy Scout Rule’ and incorporating dedicated short refactoring sprints within the regular development cycle. Striking an effective balance between the introduction of new features and refactoring is crucial for maintaining agility. This can be achieved by integrating refactoring into each sprint and starting with critical code areas affected by new features.

Collaborative approach

Collaboration and communication are of equal importance as the code in Agile refactoring. Team cohesion in Agile promotes shared code ownership, empowering team members to actively participate in code refactoring to understand its purpose. Code refactoring in Agile nurtures a collaborative environment that enhances both the team dynamics and the final quality of the product.

Good communication plays a crucial role in Agile teams as it allows for more effective collaboration during the refactoring process, ensuring that changes align with the needs of both the users and the developers. By fostering a collaborative environment and promoting shared code ownership, Agile teams can ensure even complex refactoring tasks are handled efficiently and effectively.

Automated testing and tools

Automated testing, TDD, and suitable tools serve as reliable partners in Agile refactoring, safeguarding code quality and warding off regressions. TDD’s iterative process intertwines writing unit tests with programming and refactoring, enhancing automated testing’s role in refactoring. Before initiating refactoring, it’s crucial to verify that existing code functions as intended and that an extensive automated test suite is in place.

Automated tests should be frequently executed at various stages of refactoring, and checkpoints should be established using version control systems before each refactoring step. Choosing appropriate tools and frameworks is paramount for effective test automation, ensuring they are compatible and scalable with the codebase.

Successful automated testing in Agile refactoring requires:

  • Meticulous organization
  • Execution management
  • Configurable and scalable frameworks
  • Requirements validation
  • Ongoing maintenance.

Overcoming common challenges in Agile refactoring

Quote - refactoring should always be driven by a clear purpose

Agile refactoring, like any process, has its own set of challenges. Refactoring in Agile can be challenging due to:

  • Time constraints
  • Reluctance to amend working code
  • Problems when integrating multiple branches
  • Fear of bug introduction
  • Necessity for re-testing, particularly in the absence of automated tests

Agile teams may avoid refactoring under the pressure of continuous software release cycles, potentially accumulating technical debt and resulting in projects that are only partially completed or not fully optimized.

Agile refactoring may encounter pitfalls such as:

  • Not setting clear limits on the scope of refactoring
  • Focusing on the wrong aspects of the code to refactor
  • Indefinitely postponing the development of new features

However, these challenges can be overcome with careful planning, clear communication, and a steadfast commitment to maintaining high-quality code.

Balancing refactoring and feature development

Striking a balance between refactoring and feature development is crucial for an Agile team to retain its agility. Efficient integration of refactoring and new feature development can be achieved by identifying common responsibilities and encapsulating them as reusable components.

Agile teams can support continued agility by focusing refactoring efforts on areas of the codebase that are likely to change or require updates. For example, CyberCube’s development team exemplified balancing refactoring with new feature development by extracting common components and supporting them with unit tests.

Handling complex codebases

Though complex codebases may seem like a tangled mess, they can be efficiently managed with the correct approach. A large front-end codebase with poor separation of concerns and components with many responsibilities poses significant challenges for refactoring. Creating sketches or diagrams of the codebase helps in understanding the existing code, facilitating more accurate predictions of change impacts during refactoring.

Refactoring in small, incremental steps is recommended when working with tight deadlines to minimize the risk of introducing errors and to achieve ongoing progress without major disruptions in the external behavior of the system.

Identifying areas with technical debt, such as code smell, can help pinpoint issues like:

  • unreadable code
  • unused code
  • inconsistent data
  • outdated documentation

It is essential to prioritize and guide the code refactoring process effectively.


Agile refactoring is a powerful tool in the software development process, enhancing code quality, improving productivity, streamlining development processes, and ultimately leading to better products. By employing effective refactoring techniques, adhering to best practices, and overcoming common challenges, Agile teams can truly harness the benefits of refactoring.

Agile refactoring: Frequently Asked Questions

What is the purpose of refactoring?

Refactoring serves the purpose of improving the quality of existing code without altering its external function, making the software easier to maintain and preventing future issues. The goal is to enhance the internal structure while maintaining the original functionality.

Does scrum use refactoring?

Yes, refactoring is used in Scrum as a way to continuously improve and prevent future delays and mishaps.

What is an example of refactoring?

An example of refactoring is renaming methods to make their purpose more explicit and easier to comprehend, which is a common practice. It is recommended to carry out refactoring before altering a program's function to ensure the external behavior of the software remains unchanged.

What is refactoring in Sprint?

Refactoring in Sprint is the activity of improving a code's internal structure or operation without altering its external behavior, ultimately aiming for the continuous delivery of business value.

How does refactoring fit into the Agile principles?

Refactoring fits into Agile principles by promoting the delivery of working software and the ability to adapt to changing requirements. This ensures continuous improvement and flexibility.

Frequently Asked Questions

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Olga Gierszal
Software Engineering Editor

Software development enthusiast with 6 years of professional experience in the tech industry.

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