Making Agile Stick: The Science of Building Sustainable Organizations
Walk around the cubicles of most organizations undergoing an agile transformation, and you’ll hear familiar skepticism: "Agile” is the flavor of the month — as if mandated stand-ups and a new software tool to manage user stories will have any tangible impact on troubled projects and beleaguered teams. The more seasoned office veterans will offer their jaded, and often vindicated, predictions: in two years, executives will turnover, “Agile” will prove to be nothing more than a fad, and nothing will have really changed.
We don’t believe this is the way it has to be. We believe there is a better way — a way to deliberately craft and cultivate organizations in which true agility is a self-sustaining force of real change — change that lasts.
While coaching and developing organizations at the enterprise-level, we found ourselves in need of a shared mental model of agility — one which avoided the trappings of overloaded terms and methodology recitation. When we sat down and codified our perspectives of Agile, we found ourselves with a model that we believe better equipped us to build organizations with sustained effects:
- Lean Product Management.
We believe in migrating away from teams that deliver projects and create teams that build great products. Lean Product Management reflects a wide-scale shift in the way an organization thinks about and approaches product development.
- Technical Excellence
In software, technical practices enable frequent delivery and powers innovation by allowing frequent feedback from customers. When technical practices are left to atrophy, our organisations becomes riddled with legacy code and teams spend the majority of their time putting out fires. Strong, disciplined, and ever-evolving technical practices enable agility.
- Transformational Leadership.
Lean Product Management and Technical Excellent both require leaders, at all level of the organization, who continually reinforce the values. By moving authority down the ranks and developing people rather than evaluating them, we can embed agile value and principles. Transformational Leadership creates an organisation that won’t just be successful today, but in five, ten and fifteen years into the future.
We believe that the organisation which deliberately pursues all three dimensions, which develops leaders to teach these principles to future generations, will achieve the benefits of sustained agility.
Key attributes of our model:
- It encompasses the whole-of-organisation. Agile isn’t just this “thing the software teams do”. Done properly, it encompasses all aspects of the organisation: product management, HR, finance, executive teams, marketing, etc… This model more clearly communicates the breadth of change that an organisation should be prepared to undertake.
- It is process-agnostic. While we believe that certain methodologies and processes are more conducive to effective delivery than others, the real value lies in an organisation that can consistently develop generations of people who understand why.
- It is industry-agnostic. While our roots our in software, this model can be applied to any industry.
- It facilitates more meaningful conversations. We can have meaningful conversations about each dimension independently— for example, maturing a company’s leadership development program, or evolving technical practices.
- Each dimension is mutually supportive. Although each dimension can be developed independently, they have an multiplicative effect when applied together: a progress in one dimension enables the progress in another. For example, a strong technical craft enables the short feedback loops required of lean product management.
There have been many articles claiming that “Agile is dead”, implying somehow that a set of values and principles can ever be killed. The true spirit of “Agile” lives on in many organizations, but has largely been co-opted by methodologies that look like “Agile”, but are really the same old process with new names.
We believe that this model provides a more meaningful way to talk about these values, and do so in a way that can help embed this values in an organisation so that they persist in the long run.
References that have influenced our model:
 Don Reinersten, “Product Development Flow”
 Mary & Tom Poppendieck, “Lean Software Development: An Agile Toolkit”
 David Marquet, “Turn the Ship Around”
 Gen. Stan McChrystal, “Team of Teams”
 Bob Martin, “Agile Software Development: Principles, Patterns, Practices”
 Todd Little, Kent McDonald, Pollyanna Pixton, Niel Nickolaisen, “Stand Back and Deliver”
And many more…
An earlier version of this article can be found here.