The Goal Is Not Agile

You hear about and read about agile transformations, like this article about ANZ

“We need to break with some of the traditional 20th century approaches to organising and working to ensure we are more responsive to 21st century customer expectations.

“Moving to implement the agile approach at scale in our business is an important evolution in how we run ANZ which will allow us to respond much more quickly to customer needs, create higher staff engagement and make further improvements in efficiency” – ANZ CEO, Shayne Elliott

But what does agile transformation really mean? From the article, the goal of ANZ’s agile transformation is to specifically target customers which is a hopeful sign. If we look at the agile principles we see customer focus is essential:

  • Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
  • Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.
  • Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.

ANZ seems to be looking to improve employee engagement. This can be achieved by recognizing the agile team as equal business team members. They bring a different talent set to the table but they’ll be closer to the customer problem and potential solution than anyone else.

And lastly, ANZ describes their goal to be more efficient. This doesn’t just mean doubling output but doubling the value of each outcome.

ANZ has announced they will use agile as the tool to achieve the objectives. One can interpret from the article that the goal is not to be agile but to use an agile approach to improve and be better. Easy, right?

Although there are several aspects of an agile transformation, I’ll mainly look at it from the agile team’s perspective and how they can effectively change their working environment to embrace the agile culture.

Agile culture

Agile is a mindset or cultural phenomenon that is hard to quickly adopt when the culture is Hierarchical and Command & Control. The ANZ article says, “The transformation program will … shift to a less hierarchical organisation, relying on small, autonomous teams.” I’ve seen companies who take a different road in adopting agile practices to improve. They adopt agile without having a ‘agile transformation’, instead they test and experiment (see this blog post) with new ways of working and discover agile ways worked better than most. The common activity whether doing large-scale ‘agile transformation’ or using a gradual adoption is experimentation.

In the book, “Blue Ocean Strategy,” W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne cite four hurdles a company will face trying to institute broad change:

  1. Cognitive – people must understand why the change in strategy and culture is needed
  2. Resources – changing an organization will require shifting resources
  3. Motivation – workers have to want to make the change
  4. Institutionalized politics – overcoming the way we do things around here

So where does agile fit into this picture? If your organization is doing waterfall or is rigidly hierarchical in nature or is Command & Control, all four hurdles will be a challenge. Agile as a tool won’t solve any of these challenges, in fact, it’s the opposite, these four hurdles will need to be overcome for agile to work best.

How agile transformation happens

Let’s assume for the moment that the organization is a typical C&C waterfall environment. Businesses can be successful with waterfall but that success can have limitations. These limitations primarily center around taking advantage of opportunities requiring speed and the ability to fine tune the product as you go through continuous customer engagement. When we choose to do agile it isn’t because we want agile, it is because we know the waterfall methodology we’re using won’t always work for us.

Why the need for change

Change can be driven for strategic or tactical reasons. The ANZ initiative seems strategic by drawing the customers and the business closer together. Another way agile finds its way into an organization is tactical, like when an important business opportunity comes along requiring very quick results with specific functionality and quality.

For either reason, agile and scrum may seemed the only way forward. There are rumors and anecdotal stories about how great scrum and agile are and for some businesses, the decision to try agile re-enforces one hard truth, “Necessity is the mother of invention” or simply:

Necessity drives innovation

The first hurdle in cultural change, Cognitive, is met: we understand the need to do something different to be more successful. In other words, can the waterfall business cite an instance where a new product is created and delivered in weeks, not months (or years)? With a win here, the business, will be competitively better positioned. The agile team, product, and the executives are convinced a change in strategies and culture are necessary but this understanding is not enough to cause change. Trialing any new idea or new practices is a good way to build confidence that a change will result in success.

Get the right people

For a trial project the business doesn’t engage all developers but only a select group. This trial project has a clear goal and a definite release date, neither can be changed. What can change is the scope (as long as the goal can still be met).

The Resources chosen for the first scrum team are special in their experience and talents. Although there are whole product teams that might be used for this new business opportunity, the business decides to build a new development team by cherry picking people from existing teams. The team might be hand-picked for a number of reasons which may include:

  • Years of experience – with experience comes confidence they’ll be successful.
  • People who are self-motivated – these are not people who sit around waiting to be told what to do.
  • People who are innovative – these people are known for their new ideas and abilities to think around problems.

Selecting people for the first agile initiative is often driven by technical expertise and their ability to solve problems. These people are asked to do something very different from their waterfall paradigm but they are more goal driven than most and change is less stressful to them. After a minimum amount of agile training, 45-minutes feels about right, they’re off.

The idea of shifting resources to get lean will happen without much thought. The initiative to be agile in this trial means traditional reporting lines are cut and the agile team reports directly to the agile sponsor.

The only real casualty will be middle managers who traditionally told the developers what they needed to do. With agile, we push this responsibility onto the team. But agile needs managers to clear away obstacles that slow down or prevent the teams from being successful. It’s only when managers can’t let go of their control over people that they become the obstacle.

Motivation for change

One ingredient used as a motivator is the challenge to be more successful. Using your business’s own track record might be the best evidence that change is required. It’s probably already clear that current processes and practices are not given to quick wins. A long decision chain slows things down. If the decision maker doesn’t like the choices available there could be lots of back and forth negotiations. All of this results in delays. What might not be clear is agile cannot change these circumstances. Agile is more mindset than physical and therefore it takes people to push for change. Agile becomes a guiding set of principles that you aspire to achieve. Arguably the most important of the agile principles after satisfying customers will be getting the development team and business in sync and working together as equals.

One very successful agile transformation I was involved in started with the business leaders meeting with the development team and restating the business problem not as leader-to-subordinate but peer-to-peer; the business has this problem and we need to work with you to solve it. We’re not intending to create an elite team but a team with strong mission understanding. This team wants to be successful and given the business or customer problem, business leaders are asking the team to solve these as best they can. In my experience, this will super-motivate the team to try new ways and explore new ideas. The best part is when the team completes the mission, they become the seeds in other newly formed agile teams. They’ll bring with them stories of both successful and failed adventures, but more importantly, they are the seeds to start institutional change.

Institutional change

“One of the things that limits our learning is our belief that we already know something.” ― L. David Marquet, Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders

Changing the way ‘things are done around here’ is hard. If being successful is a motivator for change then it’s clear that the business needs to understand what processes, practices, and decision paths are slowing us down. It’s likely that processes created for a specific reason have bloated or the original problem has itself changed or disappeared. One way to make this work is to drop everything, then analyse each process or practice to get the essential value of it. For example, if a previous practice had the chief architect review the detailed design once completed, you might change this to the team does the detailed design together with the chief architect. Or maybe an architect needs to be a member of the team. Either way can eliminate a hand-off and a potential delay. The point is to streamline existing processes to capture the essence and intended value, not necessarily throw them away. Of special note are those practices and requirements which are generally non-negotiable such as security, quality, and regulatory. Adopting agile doesn’t mean putting the company or customers at risk. Be cautious and review & streamline these with the right people.

There may also be processes that can be made part of the team’s definition of done (DoD) checklist. For example, we had a governance requirement for high-level designs to be reviewed by a ‘design steering committee’. We made updating the high-level design part of the DoD. We didn’t have a written process for this but did have a checklist that served the development team. High-level designs were decided upon during grooming with the chief architect. Once these were documented the chief architect worked with the steering committee, allowing the team to get on with the business of solving customer problems.

Changing institutionalized practices will be a challenge. Changing institutionalized management structures and practices can be impossible. Changing management often means changing the way human beings see themselves. If you’re the manager of a product team and the team is now empowered to make some decisions you once made, or owning practices you once controlled, you might feel a loss, even if you know:

  • Decisions are best made by people who have the knowledge to make that decision.
  • Keeping practices current, efficient, and relevant is best done by the people who use them the most.

By empowering the agile teams to make some decisions and giving teams the responsibility to continuously improve their work practices doesn’t mean managers are obsolete. Managers are critical in setting the boundaries from which the teams operate. Management are the enablers for the agile teams. It’s management’s responsibility in an agile world to ensure the agile teams understand the boundaries, what decisions they’re empowered to make, what processes and practices they own, and, most importantly, management ensures the agile team has the knowledge and support they’ll need to be successful.

Success is about being better, not being agile

My first scrum team was successful beyond all expectations. So successful in fact that the CEO asked afterwards, why aren’t we doing this “agile thing” with all our teams? With that comment from the CEO, comes the first truth about agile transformations: it’s not about agile, it’s about being better. I would wager most CEO’s are less concerned with how or what you do to be successful than they are about being successful. The article about ANZ says “implement the agile approach at scale” which can mean many things.

In my situation, what agile meant to the CEO and the rest of the business was a different approach that included:

  1. quick feedback loops to make decisions,
  2. high visibility of progress and setbacks,
  3. highly motivated teams,
  4. the agile team’s focus on business goals,
  5. the agile team’s continuous engagement with customers, and
  6. the teams desire to solve customer problems with the customer.

All these things made the teams better, made the business better, and made the customers happy. These agile things could not have happen at the scale it did without change.

Author: Robert Boyd

I’m a CSP (Certified Scrum Professional), CSM (Certified ScrumMaster), and CSPO (Certified Scrum Product Owner). For 30 years I’ve been streamlining processes and systems. I’ve introduced agile methodologies to software and product management departments, resulting in a 300 percent increase in feature deliveries.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.