Improve the Flow, Don’t Interrupt It

April 24, 2012

Agile development teams exist for the most part in non-agile organizations, and all too often there are too few who understand the implications of this and how well-intended actions actually work against the mindset and techniques of agile development. This can lead to a watering-down of agile (Waterfall/Scrum hybrids come to mind) and a reduction in the benefits obtained as a result.

From a management perspective, agile development should not just about autonomous teams doing their “thing” independently. Those autonomous still need management support – but in a different way. Autonomous teams should be focusing on improving the flow of value to the customer and you as a manager should be supporting those who have direct responsibility for that delivery.

Agile development seeks to eliminate or reduce overhead while using tools and techniques that improve – or at least maintain – professional discipline to drive long-term productivity gains. Agile teams need to work be “in the flow” as much as possible to improve productivity, taking input from customers and internal stakeholders and converting that input into a valuable outcome for the least amount of effort expended. As a manager you must guard against doing two things: interrupting the flow and impeding the flow.

Flow is interrupted when requests (demands) are made to support a separate flow of information and control to the rest of the non-agile organization:

Most of the time these are well-intentioned requests, but it places a counterproductive burden on the team to contend with these reporting and control mechanisms because the information being requested doesn’t contribute to the team’s output. It is a separate output that the team must produce to satisfy the desires of others elsewhere in the organization.

A variation of this is when flow is impeded, such as when a manager decides that since autonomous teams have more responsibility for their work, they can “take on” some of the work of the manager (or some other above-the-flow work):

This work – particularly if it is expected to be performed regularly – will act to continually constrain the output of the team.

Working above the flow is resource-intensive. We are imposing a burden by interrupting employees’ work to support a separate flow of information and control or by pushing existing, above-the-flow work onto the teams. Managers should be watching for and finding ways to keep these non-agile demands off of the team’s shoulders as much as possible, or at least reducing the burden so that the team can focus on improving the flow of value to the customer.

In this new agile world, managers need to add value to those who are now the ones responsible for delivering to the customer. Ask your teams if you are adding value – without being a burden. You may not like the answer, but if you are a burden, start looking for ways to change how you operate. A big change could be that you need to move from “managing” people to helping people manage themselves and the business.

Transitioning to autonomy is not smooth or easy; you will find that autonomous teams need both information and guidance. They will need to understand the customers and the business more deeply than they ever have before. They will also need to understand certain business constraints that you are operating under, budgets being a glaring example.

You can provide a lot of great information and guidance. It’s a process where everyone is accountable for the work being performed, and that you are all working together to produce valuable outcomes for the customer.