The Challenge in Becoming Agile

January 16, 2013

Agility “…is a quality of the organization and its people to be adaptive, responsive, continually learning and evolving.”Scaling Lean & Agile Development: Thinking and Organizational Tools for Large-Scale Scrum by Craig Larman and Bas Vodde
I used this quote in a talk that I gave last year at one of our Maine Agile User Group meetings, and it captures something vitally important: Agility is a quality of the people and the organization. And herein lies the real challenge with agile adoptions.

All too often we as individuals – and as collective organizations – reach for the prescriptive fix. Tell us what process we need to follow or what plan to follow, and we’re ready for action. This translates to improving by copying the practices of others, using the same tools and techniques in the hopes that we will transform our results. But we do nothing to actually transform ourselves.

This isn’t to say that you can’t improve by using agile practices, because you can. Adopting Scrum and giving people more autonomy and control over their work will make them happier. Implementing a new technical practice like Test-Driven Development will most likely increase the number of automated unit tests available to you, allowing you to make changes to the software with greater confidence. This is doing agile to incrementally improve your circumstances.

Obtaining transformational results requires that we couple practices and new approaches to work with a mindset and genuine belief in the values and principles found in the Agile Manifesto. These values and principles need to be reflected in our day-to-day actions and behaviors and those of the organization at large. This is being agile.

A prerequisite is the desire to be agile, to start down a path personal transformation as our colleagues (and organization) are doing the same. The process can be bootstrapped by adopting practices without believing in them. If you don’t happen to believe in the benefits of being agile at first, that’s OK. But to give agile a fair shake, act as if you do, then evaluate the results and decide for yourself that maybe, just maybe, your beliefs can change.

If you cling to old ways of doing things, you will not be able to drive the real change that you are looking for. For example, many organizations want more engaged employees; they claim that they want people to take more responsibility. Yet many organizations are command-and-control organizations, operating in ways that don’t place responsibility and trust in the hands of the workers.

The organization doesn’t engage people because a select few in the organization takes responsibility for defining a prescriptive process for the masses – typically one that becomes bloated as the process attempts to address a wide range of contingencies – and then assigns tasks to the workers. This approach, coupled with an HR system that reinforces expectations and behaviors through SMART goals handed down to employees (along with judging performance later) is a recipe for a parent/child relationship, not a collaborative, engaging work environment that says, “we all have a valuable role to play in the pursuit of delighting the customer.”

Workers may discover that taking responsibility be a big change. Scrum – as a framework for self-organizing and self-managing teams – reintroduces people taking responsibility. In doing so Scrum team members will need clear definition from the Product Owner about the needs and desires of the business. However, once people understand the business objectives and have the autonomy to act, greater engagement will result.

This will bring you to another challenge: as Scrum teams work in context of traditional organizations, there will always be some pull back to the old ways. Managers must learn how to foster and maintain a new work environment, to work with people in new and different ways, to support and nudge the organization towards becoming a continuously improving, learning organization.

Transitioning to being agile places a focus on changing existing patterns of thinking and behavior that, little by little, change an organization’s culture – what we believe we need to do in order to be successful. This is where the challenge is, but it is also where the real value is.


Alex Sharp said...

Same way with putting up a business. Always be prepared of what will be happening. Either ways, make sure that no matter what happens, you are prepare to face all of them and later on pass through them all.

March 13, 2013 at 5:43 PM

Efficiency is something that is hard to attain but with proper planning, attitude and mindset. Achieving this together with effectiveness is not an impossible thing to do.

March 15, 2013 at 3:53 PM
Dave Moran said...

@Alex -- Absolutley! The same principles apply.

April 17, 2013 at 7:39 AM
Dave Moran said...

@Daniel -- Not impossible, but it does take some effort to change and combine activities in new ways.

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