Don’t do Agile, be Agile
Despite what you may have heard, Agile is not dead. A couple years ago, Dave Thomas, one of the creators of the Agile manifesto, declared that Agile was dead, but it wasn’t the idea of Agile he was talking about. It was the word Agile itself.
“The word ‘agile’ has been subverted to the point where it is effectively meaningless, and what passes for an agile community seems to be largely an arena for consultants and vendors to hawk services and products,” he wrote in a post.
The core principles of Agile are still important for helping organizations deliver value more efficiently and effectively, but somewhere along the way the word Agile has become corrupt and depreciated that it causing confusion amongst the industry, he explained. For instance, there are no Agile programmers or Agile teams, there are programmers and development teams who practice agility, and tools that help them increase that agility.
The industry is constantly looking for ways to build on their Agile successes and scale it throughout the rest of the organization, but if they don’t understand the core principles of Agile in the first place, it can be nearly impossible to do.
“Agility requires more than just having a few roles, artifacts and events. It involves actually using each of those things for a specific advantage. Most organizations seem to be going through the motions rather than understanding what truly drives effective, sustainable agility,” said Bob Hartman, founder of Agile for All, an Agile and Scrum consulting firm. “Agile is hard to do well because it requires changing the way we think and the way we do things. We do all that for a reason: to build better products or get better results. If we don’t understand how Agile principles relate to the final results then we will be stuck doing the practices and basically having the old way of work done in short increments.”
The problem is that Agile isn’t something you do, it is something you are. It’s a mindset, according to Steve Denning, an Agile thought leader and author of the book The Age of Agile. “It is a shift in mindset from a top-down bureaucratic hierarchical approach to a very different way of thinking about and acting in organizations,” he said. “If you have don’t have the Agile mindset you are going to get it wrong.”
Denning explained that there are three components of an Agile mindset:
- An obsession with delivering value to customers
- Descaling work into small items that can be handled by self-organizing teams
- Joining those teams together in a network that is interactive and can flow information horizontally as easily as up and down
Most organizations that say they are Agile usually only possess the second characteristic through Scrum, Kanban, or DevOps, but they miss the obsession with adding value and the network component. Without all three components, it is very likely that the organization will revert back to bureaucratic hierarchical top down practices, according to Denning.
“You can’t scale mindsets. You either have them or you don’t, but obviously everyone in the organization has to have the same mindset. If you don’t have people in the organization with that mindset you are going to run into massive conflicts,” said Denning.
Scaling Agile to the enterprise
Most organizations are still in the early stages of scaling Agile. “A decade ago many enterprises thought Agile was only for small teams doing small projects. Now it is being recognized that larger projects can be done using Agile and the results will be far superior to what was done in the past,” said Agile for All’s Hartman.
Steve Elliot, head of Jira Align at Atlassian, used the analogy of crawling, sitting, walking, running and flying when talking about the evolution of Agile within a large organization.
“When you really get to where you are running, flying and innovating more like a startup does is where you are really driving heavy outcomes and you are not letting the burearchy and red tape that comes with a large organization get in your way as much as it typically does,” Elliot said. “The reason this is still such a hot topic is we haven’t completely solved it yet, especially at the enterprise level.”
He explained scaling Agile really means getting to a place where functions are repeatable, predictable and measurable at the team level and then bringing it in to the rest of the business.
“The market and technology moves too fast to work in the old way and so [the business] knows they need to learn a new way of working. I think they are all kind of watching other industry leaders and figuring out how fast they need to get there,” said Elliot
One of the biggest barriers keeping organizations from running or flying is just being able to align the entire organization.
“This concept of taking Agile principles and applying them across thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people is just not an easy thing to do quickly. It really is just a transformational challenge to get that many people on the same page,” said Elliot.
According to Elliot, the ones who are the best at being Agile are the ones who have executive alignment. The executives across different business units, portfolios and teams are all aligned and trying to solve one problem. They are willing to stick their necks out and work on the problem directly and be owners of the transformation, he explained.
But getting everyone in the organization on the same page and the same way of looking at things can take up to five to 10 years in medium-to-large organizations, according to Denning, which can deter Agile initiatives.
“Things can start very small, but they can have fantastic success. It just takes time. It is not going to happen overnight, but it does need courage and a deep understanding of the change involved,” he said.
Both Denning and Elliot agree that executive buy-in is one of the biggest challenges when it comes to a new way of working, but as there are more Agile successes in the industry and executives are pressured to compete in the market, that challenge should go away with time, they said.
In addition to alignment, Flint Brenton, CEO of the enterprise Agile solution provider CollabNet VersionOne, explained communication and collaboration are key, and can help with the overall alignment. Once the overall leadership alignment is in place, Brenton explained a number of things have to happen: You have to commit as a company that you are going to change the way you build software and understand it takes time; you have to change the culture and empower teams; and you have to select the platform to support Agile.
“Large enterprises will take some time to scale horizontally across the organization to get teams straightened out and understand how to get predictable in a more Agile fashion as opposed to the traditional planning cycle,” said Elliot. “If we are trying to measure results more ruthlessly and frequently, it ends up being an organization change, culture change and how you think about business in general, even all the way to funding. It just takes time.”
Don’t let scaled Agile mislead you
Despite all the conversations to scale Agile, Denning explained the word scaling puts businesses on the wrong track. Agile is about descaling things, and finding ways to simplify things into the smallest possible component, then connecting them together in a network, he said.
According to Hartman, instead of thinking about scaling, organizations should think about breaking projects down into smaller teams, understanding what is truly valuable and what can wait, and limit the amount of work in progress. “One project at a time is optimal for a lot of reasons. This is a huge learning curve for most organization. They want a lot of things in process, which slows it all down,” he explained.
“Organizations need to first recognize that scaling is not a requirement for success. Second they need to recognize that however they start with scaling, it needs to be inspected and adapted as they learn,” added Agile for All’s Hartman. “When they have projects that truly need scaling, the next step is understanding the need for small empowered teams that work together toward a common goal. Scaling agility requires agility — at all levels of the organization. It can’t be something where a bunch of teams work together and nothing else changes.
Additionally, organizations need to recognize and understand how scheduling, planning and leading all change. “Tradeoffs need to be made and they need to be made with agility in mind. When we focus on being more Agile, we tend to get results. It feels more risky, but in the end it is actually less risky than all the assumptions we put in place that make us feel better about most projects,” said Hartman. “There have been many studies done on Agile and the results achieved. When small, empowered teams work together toward a common goal the results are amazing. When small teams are simply told what to do and there is no flexibility in what is created then the results don’t tend to be much better than prior to the agile implementation. In fact, things can sometimes get worse as people simply think they are in more meetings that serve no purpose.”
Atlassian’s Elliot predicts in five years, Agile will be the safe choice among enterprises. “It is proven to be more effective. Hanging back with the old method is actually going to be the way where you are at more risk because you look like a dinosaur and you are not getting results.”
It’s also important to be careful of the tools you implement in a large Agile initiative. A lot of times, organizations turn to a scaling Agile framework like SAFe, LeSS or DaD to help; however Denning believes just like the term scaling, these frameworks lead people in the wrong direction.
SAFe, for example, “is all about an internal system running in a top-down fashion and trying to create a hierarchy in a bureaucracy within which Agile teams can function, but once you have them locked in these compartments, you are not talking about Agile at all,” he explained.
Hartman is also wary about recommending a framework because too often organizations look at them as silver bullet. Instead, Hartman explained a good starting point is to understand issues and choose strategic, tactics and practices based on needs.
Elliot agreed that frameworks can be tricky because people tend to live and die by the framework and start to forget about why they are doing it in the first place. But he also explained without a framework it is hard to have a common language across the organization and understand what or what isn’t working. “Organizations don’t have to use an off-the-shelf framework. It can be a framework that the organization designs. But you need some level of structure and process to Agile. I don’t think you can do it without [a framework].. There has to be some way above the teams to look across different products and look at what is happening with customers in a uniform away,” he said.
However CollabNet’s Brenton believes a framework like SAFe can help provide a good pathway to Agile success. Organizations just need to have a conversation about how stringent and strict they want to be around the SAFe principles. For instance, organizations will take the SAFe principles and decide to only focus on a couple in order to get a baseline and then continue to work at taking Agile and SAFe to the next level. “You have to do a self-assessment and determine what is your capability to make those changes and basically ramp the change,” said Brenton. “You have to look at your own company and determine what is your ability to execute and then you adjust your expectations and your deployment model accordingly and that is the best way to ensure success.”
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