I had initially planned to write about how agility, in the way we deliver software at ASOS, is in line with our very own values — or as we call them, our ‘ABCs’, which stands for ‘Authentic, Brave, Creative’.
Being agile is all about being authentic because it focuses on people, teamwork and essentially puts trust at the heart of our delivery process. It encourages us to be brave by challenging the status quo and promoting continuous improvement at all levels: individuals, teams and organisations. The agile methodologies have also been founded on the premise that developing new and exciting software is undoubtedly a creative process, involving different people with different skills, and certainly not a repetitive, predictable industrial process like manufacturing. This is why I feel agility comes naturally to our tech teams, because it fits perfectly with the ASOS values.
However, I feel that focusing my post around this would somehow miss the point. Agility, much like our ‘ABCs’, is not an end in itself but rather a means to an end.
How agile we are doesn’t matter
It doesn’t really matter how well we estimate our stories, how sleek our retrospectives are or how efficient our stand ups are. It doesn’t matter how we best forecast our velocity, whether JIRA is a better tool than VSTS, and if our multiple boards radiate the right information. What really matters is whether we are satisfying our customers, our stakeholders and our employees.
Don’t get me wrong, agility is a beautiful thing and these techniques, practices and tools are improving many aspects of how we deliver software across the company. Quality, transparency and productivity are improving as we implement more agile engineering practices within our teams, as we improve our ceremonies or as we gain clarity on the outcomes we want for our customers by writing even better user stories. However, I am convinced we can go beyond that.
The true benefits of agility will be felt when we, as individuals, as teams and as an organisation, can embrace the set of values and assumptions behind the agile manifesto. To put it simply, when we can ‘think’ in an agile way whenever we try to solve complex problems. I agree that this may sound a bit vague, so I’ll try to give you some examples of the core beliefs, which are, in my opinion, part of an ‘agile mindset’:
· Building new and innovative software is a complex endeavour involving people, not resources
· It is a creative process focused on outcomes, not on outputs
· Everything changes all the time, which is why adaptability and a thirst for knowledge is key to what we do
· It is vital to have enough room to experiment and try new things, even if it is understood that these experiments might not succeed
· In that sense, there is no failure, only feedback and lessons to learn, which help us to adjust our next actions towards our desired outcomes
· Innovation and using new technologies are two separate things. They might overlap, but it is not because you use new technologies that you are necessarily innovating (and vice versa)
· Software delivery teams are more driven by intrinsic motivations (autonomy, mastery, purpose), than by extrinsic motivations
· People will excel at what they do when they have put the effort in, not because they have innate intelligence
· When it comes to delivery teams, the whole is better than the sum of its parts
· The best decisions are taken by the people closest to the work
· The best products are built when delivery teams collaborate with customers
I understand that some of these assumptions can sound controversial because they directly challenge how most organisations are currently set up and envisage delivering software. For instance, the way that some teams are structured in component teams instead of feature teams prevents them from taking full ownership of the features they are helping to deliver. Or the fallacy that adding more people to a team will invariably lead to more software being delivered (generally, the opposite happens, especially when the reason to add more people is to meet unrealistic deadlines). Another example is the multiplication of job titles across the industry, which unconsciously tends to pigeonhole people in specific roles and prevents their growth in other areas, even though it would eventually help teams deliver better software.
Of course, it would be very tempting to dramatically change our structures and the way we operate, and align them wholeheartedly with these beliefs, hoping that it will automatically trigger an agile epiphany across the organisation. Only it doesn’t really work this way — it would be like building a brand new and highly functional office without any foundations. At the first tremor, everything would fall apart. Unless we go through the journey of discovering our agile mindset and what it truly means, any effort put towards implementing new ways of working and new organisational structures would be doomed, and we would have to quickly go back to our old working practices.
It is crucial to start creating the conditions for this mindset to emerge amongst each one of us, knowing that unless we accomplish this, we may never achieve the ideal environment as we grow to continue to foster high-performing teams.
How do we get there?
It won’t happen magically overnight, it takes time and effort from every one of us:
· The kind of agility the ASOS agile community is championing aims to show what more, as an organisation, we are capable of
· The new talent we are bringing in is also helping us transition. The ability to blend in and continuously challenge the status quo is at least as important as, if not more, than the technical skills we are seeking
· The culture our tech leaders are creating by embodying Authenticity, Bravery and Creativity is enabling our collective agile mindset to blossom
If each one of us manages to slowly shift the way we view work, from a means to pay the bills or a way to flatter our ego, to a place where we have the confidence to come as we are and become better human beings (as well as becoming better developers, QAs, BAs, architects…), we will unleash the extraordinary potential of agility.
Reda Kechouri is a Delivery Manager at ASOS.com. When he’s not helping data science teams to become awesome, he collects records and occasionally DJs in East London. You could say he is a bit of a hipster, yes.