Agility is doomed, but we can still save IT !

The Coach With a Mouth
Feb 15 · 7 min read

A call to update the Agile Manifesto.

Disclaimer : I only have a few years of experience as an agile coach. But I had the chances and opportunities to see and experience agile transformations from various vantage points. From within, as an observer and as a coach. Here is an early checkpoint on my state of Agile.

When I started as an IT Project Manager back in 2012, it was weird. I wasn’t from IT; I studied chemistry and biotechnology before making a failed gig in the finances industry, right after earning my MBA in International Management.

It was weird because I couldn’t understand the technological issues my teams were facing. However, I was good with people, problem solving logic and numbers.

This characteristic as “not an IT guy” saved me. I only had the choice to let the experts make the calls on the systems we were working on. And it’s around the same time I discovered agility which helped me put words and concepts on what I was doing naturally as a weird Project Manager: inverting the “Iron Triangle”.

After some years as a Project Manager/Scrum Master I was considering passing the PMP certificate. But it strucked me, one day I was thinking about that option, that most of the projects I had been assigned to were in dispair financially and team morale was not so good. I suceeded to put them back in tracks and up teams morale, but ultimately I noticed that all PMs I replaced were PMPs.

Saving the Certification bodies

To their discharge, I believe they were only following what they were told to do, from the PMBOK. Don’t get me wrong, the PMBOK is an astonishing exhaustive piece to get Project Managing skills… to a certain point. This toolbox was missing an important piece, and was evolving too slowly for an industry where technologies started to become obsolete after a year or two. But that’s not the worst problem about the PMP.

Today, the worst about the PMP is this constant self gratification and advertasing about the salaries you can make when you are a PMP. Is it reduced to only that ? Have they shift to a “finite game player” (read and watch Simon Sinek’s Infinite Game book and conferences) to be the highest salary maker in this industry where this is not (or should not) be a Project Manager’s raison d’être? What about making each project a success story?

What about agility then?

Agility was already dominant in some circles when I started in this industry, however in my local market, the latency for adopting new tendencies was turning us into early adopters at that time. Fast forward to today, and the market is somewhat more mature and a second wave of adoption is on it’s way. Unfortunately, so are “one size fit all recipes — à la PMBOK” that started a few years ago. And with customers chasing for buzz words, some frameworks are becoming the new norm. In a recent Scrum Master Trends survey from scrum.org, it was observed that 49% of companies were not using a specific framework, whereas 51% were, and SAFe was predominant (23%).

from scrum.org 2019 Scrum Master Trends survey

With the PMP jurisprudence in mind — customers were asking for PMP PMs most of the time for their projects — I was relieved to see that 49% of the compagnies still haven’t turned to a specific framework. However, I was also saddened with this figure as it is showing a trend following the one the industry took with PMP (like vs Prince 2, etc.). Even more saddened to read RFPs asking for specific frameworks before any coach could have diagnose their State of Agile. And with the framework organizations geared as for profit companies looking to certificate as much people as they can, one can ask if its really what they need.

Our core belief is simple: Better software and systems make the world a better place. We help enterprises achieve this mission through the development and publication of the SAFe website, and through our world-class courseware, training, and certification programs.

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Any framework need, or should have, specific prerequisites for its implementation in an organization. Consulting companies should morally give guidance to a customer that only seek for a buzzword, even if it’s on their RFPs. Saying “Wait, lets check our options” should be the first discussion. The situation is as much in dispair with Scrum and Kanban entities (scrum.org, scrum alliance or Lean-Kanban University) which are also looking to certificate people, with more focus on volume than on quality.

And thanks to my colleague Caroline, I believe that one of the solution is to put a 2-stage gate on certifications. There the theory part, that even a non-agilist could get if he’s good at studying, but you need to pass a “pratical” test or proved for a certain number of months of pratice. Driving permit mostly work that way. Pilot licenses work that way, even PMP certification work that way but the gates are inverted — you must proved your experience before accessing the classes. ISO certification work that way.

With a group of friends, our latest brainstorm on the matter…

I would strongly support any certification body that put in place that 2-stage gates process. Will that option resolve the perception they are hunting for dollars, from you, their cash cows? I don’t think so, but it would have a meaning to held this certifications when today they are almost “given”.

Saving Agility

I strongly believe that organizations must reach a certain maturity, not a scale, to be able to make agility at scale or adopt a specific approach. The lack of maturity in top and middle managers today — as agility was mostly a bottom-up trip before reaching CEOs — make it dangerous to adopt such transformations. One of the biggest caveats of adopting agility at scale when you are not mature enough is that most of your teams and operational people might be ready. Some middle managers are too. I could even give some VPs the benefit of the doubt. However the organization is not. Its culture is not. Its accountability is certainly not agile ready. Its CEOs are definitively wanting to make the organization agile, but change must not change them (This may also be a call to put a Chief Agile Officer at the C-People table, as a temporary role until all other C-people have shift). This is where we can identify bad leaders because they are not looking to be the example in that change.

People have the natural tendancy to mimic the others that are “above” them, and in organizations it’s a very strong behaviour. You want to make progress in your career, then you mimic, even unconsciously, what your boss did to get in the “I’m your boss” seat. If s/he harassed people, there is a high chance you will too. If s/he regularly acknowledge successes and bon coups, there is a high chance you will too. So if CEOs and top management ask for change but don’t do it, whatever the recipe you use, the framework or approach, it will be fragile. The moment the coachs will leave the place (and most are consultants, not even permanent employees), the chances that this agility transformation fail are high. They have to impersonate this change, this cultural shift. And to a point, we do not hear about a lot of successful agile transformations. We do have Spotify and ING as big organizations having moving towards agility, but you can’t take their model and apply it to your organization. Don’t forget that Agility is adaptive, not prescriptive.

But the fault is not only on CEOs. If I had one critic to address to the Agile Manifesto is that it’s mostly IT oriented. Damn, it’s even in its title “Manifesto for Agile Software Development”. Today, I would love to see this manifesto evolving so that top managers would feel more challenged and included. And as almost all organizations are doing software in-house now, here is my proposition :

I would add one little word to make it up to date again: “Organizations”.

==> “Manifesto for Agile Software Development Organizations”.

We could also add two or three more principles to cover a whole organization and drive a cultural shift that is the key for a successful transformation, agile, digital or whatever name you want to call it. I would call it “cultural transformations”.

Modern Agile, as my colleagues pointed out, removed the sense of software development. However if we would like to update one of our fundation and brainstorm for such new principles, what would be your propositions?

Could these be new principles ?

“Agile processes are not tied to one Departement (IT), it should be a matter of the whole entity, represented and supported by the strongest leaders of that organization”

“At regular intervals, the organization reflect on how to become more efficient, and then tunes and adjusts its behaviour accordingly while”

“Agile standardization or “one size fit all recipes” at scale should be avoided to allow the organization to try various, locally diverse agile paths”

The author

Éric Wursteisen is passionnate by helping people becoming more efficient in thriving organizations. Nowadays, as an agile coach, he’s exploring paths and opting for principles that mostly revolve around being an agnostic coach.

The Coach With a Mouth

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Tackling many agile myths or simply looking into concepts with a grain of humour and lot of salt. I mean, a grain of salt and a lot of humour… well, it depends!

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