Are we doing Agile, just because…?

Sam Perera
Feb 11 · 12 min read
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Prologue

At the turn of this century, 17 passionate software professionals met in Snowbird, Utah to discuss lightweight development methods to address the problems with traditional methods, which critics described as blindly planned, overly regulated, micro-managed and non-responsive. Together they published the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, which included four values and 12 principles. It allowed software development teams to evolve through requirements to the solution using a collaborative approach; it encouraged teams to deliver outcomes early and regularly, while learning from what has been delivered. It also provided opportunities to reflect on their current operations and continuously improve them, leading to efficiency gains and software products that respond to the environment they operate in.

Today, Agile has taken the I.T. industry by storm.

Every individual aspires to be identified as someone who knows Agile and has been working in an Agile environment for a considerable period. Among them, some even self-proclaim to be “experts” in Agile methodologies, offering their knowledge to upskill other individuals and guide organisations through process transformations.

On the other hand, the majority of organisations aim to present the impression that they are an Agile powerhouse. Whenever they advertise a job position, they ensure that its description includes the keywords associated with Agile methodologies, such as “Story Mapping”, “Scrum”, “Kanban”, “Backlog Grooming”, and “Retros”.

Agile is increasingly becoming a “buzzword” or a “fashion statement” in some places where it is used, especially within the technology sector. It seems to be drifting away from its original purpose, which has always been to provide dynamic and volatile industries with every chance of succeeding by fostering a fulfilling working environment for everyone involved.

Many professionals like to think that they “know” Agile after following a training course or reading a book on the subject. There are many institutes promoting training programs (online or in-house) that promise to make their students “experts” in Agile. A multitude of consulting organisations have started offering their services to “modernise” a workplace’s ways of working through Agile. And we see many organisations rushing to engage those individuals and entities for a short period in order to be able to “claim” that their ways of working are now Agile.

The Agile Trap

The Agile trap falls into two categories; the people who naively conclude that they are experts in Agile, and organisations that fall into the illusion that they are an Agile organisation.

Individual’s trap

Individuals who are presented with Agile for the first time often conclude that it is just another technique or a methodology, similar to “Data Modelling Techniques”, “Process Mapping” or “Human-Centred Design”. They assume that completing a training program or reading a popular book cover-to-cover is enough to “know it all” in Agile. Immediately they start attaching the word “Agile” to their position title and assume they can train others in Agile methodologies and guide organisations through Agile transformations.

They constantly mention things such as:

  • “The Scrum guide says that we should do A, B and C…”
  • “As per Kanban, we could have only three swim lanes in our workflow.”
  • “We must keep individual updates under 3 minutes during the stand-up!”
  • “We must have a retro for 2 hours!”
  • “My team’s Velocity is such and such story points, what’s your team’s Velocity?”

They become very vocal and advocate for Agile “ theory” at the expense of exploring what’s working and not working for the team. They fail to guide teams toward more progressive behaviours, such as identifying what’s most effective, how to be transparent, learning together and supporting each other, and becoming more predictable in their delivery. Mostly, these so-called experts expect the team members to participate in Agile Ceremonies and strive to operate a strict Agile regime governed by a set of processes and tools.

Organisation’s trap

Organisations that embark on Agile transformation programs primarily tend to focus on:

  • Restructuring the traditional structure of departments and project teams into Tribes, Chapters and Squads,
  • Renaming the titles like Project Manager to the Product Owner, and Business Analyst to Scrum Master or Agile Coach,
  • Assigning senior technical persons to lead their respective Chapters and,
  • Taking the employees through a basic Agile training program that lasts only a day or two.

Organisations often assume that these changes will somehow make teams more collaborative, respond quicker to customer requirements, and deliver software earlier and more frequently. All this while also improving efficiencies and reducing software defects, production issues and system outages, creating a utopian organisation that will go from strength to strength, delivering innovative customer solutions, smashing performance targets and increasing market capitalisation.

Escape the Trap

So, what’s the way out? What needs to change to make a real difference?

Individual’s escape

Being agile is all about mind and perception. It requires synergy between people’s mindset and the actions they perform, supported by the right leadership to make an impact.

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Instead of hanging on to flashy keywords, strive to be a good person!

Practice humility / Let go of your ego — Thinking less of our own importance is the best way to open our mind to what others think and feel about a particular problem or a situation. It allows us to incorporate other ideas that may benefit everyone in the team, leading to much better outcomes. Sometimes the best ideas come from the people who aren’t as familiar with the current situation, as they may be able to give a fresh perspective on the problem at hand.

Collaborate more — Break free from your own silo of duties and responsibilities you’re assigned to carry out based on your skillset. Develop a generous mindset in order help your team members in any way you can to keep the work moving forward — this could mean helping your fellow engineer with a piece of coding they’re finding difficult to navigate, helping your tester when they’re experiencing a barrage of deadlines or release activities, helping your BA/SM to run the daily stand up, or even making the effort to keep the Scrum board updated.

Collaboration has two main benefits:

  1. It allows you to build a secondary skill-set. For example, helping your testers will allow you to expand your knowledge into testing strategies, frameworks and automation tools; or writing up stories with your business analyst will allow you to develop more analytical thinking, and improve your ability to clearly articulate a problem statement and other requirements. Furthermore, working with one of your engineers will allow you to sharpen your Python or Java skills, which some of us haven’t had an opportunity to use since uni.
  2. It helps team members develop empathy towards each other’s work challenges while developing an appreciation of the effort each person contributes. Collaboration brings the whole team closer together.

Be open and transparent — This is also referred to as “ working out loud”. Make effort to keep your team informed about what you are currently working on, any blockers you are facing and support you may need from others to unblock them and any potential issues you envisage. Although we naturally think that daily stand-up is the only time to talk about progress and blockers, a better practice is to keep making remarks on the progress of your work throughout the day.

You could do this by:

  • Typing in simple progress updates on your team group channel, such as Slack.
  • Update tickets on your physical or Jira board with comments or move it across to the next column whenever there is significant progress.
  • If you are working remotely, start your video feed whenever you participate in a meeting through Zoom, Slack or Skype.

Tolerate failures but embrace the lesson — We all make a wrong turn occasionally. Accepting that things can go wrong, identifying the root cause of the problem as a team, and discussing how to avoid the same mistake happening again is the best way to deal with issues that may arise from time to time. This mindset not only supports individuals and teams to get back on track after something goes wrong, but also encourages people to be bold and ambitious in taking novel approaches that have not been tried before. This is an effective way to increase team motivation and drive innovation.

Do what you say; say what you do — Be accountable for your actions. Take ownership of your work and have an open mind to suggestions if things go pear-shaped. The first step to improvement when something goes wrong is to accept that a mistake has been made. Don’t get defensive and attempt to pass the blame on to someone or something else, as this will only damage the cohesiveness within your team and you will lose a great opportunity to have a conversation that could improve the way team members interact with one another.

Start with the intention to finishStephen R. Covey cites this as one of the seven habits of effective people. If you and your team don’t know what needs to take place before a task is moved from “To do” to “In Progress” to “Done” — what your final goal is (in measurable terms) — how will your team know where to go and how to get there? Agreeing on the “ Definition of Done” as a team, and having a conversation at the start of each task on things that are specific to it, will ensure everyone has a common understanding of the steps to complete and when they will be done.

Play the ball, not the player — As human beings, we all have different points of view and personal preferences. This can occasionally lead to conflict. Whenever this happens, be mindful not to target the person, but to address the issue by going through it objectively. One should never take someone’s sexual orientation, cultural background, race, religion or social status into consideration when trying to resolve a conflict. The way you respond should be based on the wellbeing of the individuals and the team, and finding out how they can get back to their best form.

Organisation’s escape

Organisations are made up of people who share a common goal. If we assume that all individuals start behaving as per the above guidelines, there is an excellent chance that the organisation will become a true Agile powerhouse. When an organisation is set upon the Agile Transformation, the main objective of its leadership is to create a safe and healthy environment in which people can thrive.

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Organisations need to adopt a path that will support each individual to be a good person

This can be achieved by:

Conducting “Due Diligence — Most organisations engage a third-party to navigate them through this important transformation process. Carrying out a proper fact-finding activity on these so-called experts is pivotal to a successful outcome. Whomever you consult will need to genuinely understand your organisation’s intentions, be willing to provide you with honest and timely advice, and be capable of guiding you through the transformation effectively. Third-parties who come into an organisation with the sole intention of making hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars in a “stint” are becoming more and more frequent in the industry.

Understanding of Agile concepts by the leadership — Change starts at the top. This gives any change the best chances for success. A leadership team that walks their talk inspires their employees to take their advice and look up to them. Great leaders do this by understanding what it means to be Agile themselves; the values, the principles, and adopting them into their own behaviour and daily routine. In other words, leading by example, they exemplify the model worker described above in “ Individual’s escape “.

Creating a “safe” environment — When Google conducted an employee survey ( Project Aristotle) back in 2012, “Psychological Safety” was listed as the number one reason for individuals and teams thriving. This is not just true for Google, but across many other teams in many organisations.

Fostering an environment where your teams feel free to trust and respect each other will encourage workers to keep pushing boundaries and trying new things without the fear of retribution. This is fundamental for getting your teams to figure out the best ways to promote intuition and innovation.

When an idea fails to achieve the desired outcomes laid out at the start, the best action the organisation can take is to encourage the team to reflect on what went wrong and incorporate the lessons learnt before they continue further.

Providing a solid initial training — Invest in a solid initial training program for your employees to learn the basics of the Agile methodology. Keep an open mind about practices your organisation might adopt down the line. Be it Scrum, Kanban, Scrumban or Lean, providing the opportunity to learn these practices properly gives everyone involved the option to choose the methodology they think suits them best by making an educated decision.

Providing a solid foundation on Agile methodologies not only makes the transition process more effective but also creates a great pathway for everyone to continue learning the more philosophical side of the Agile mindset later on.

Taking the whole organisation through the transformation — Most organisations assume that only the technology teams need to undergo Agile transformations. While this might be true in situations where the rest of the teams work with well-established and defined processes that don’t change frequently and don’t deal with circumstances or requirements that require experimentation, it is important to at least take the entire organisation through an awareness program.

This will allow teams that are not directly impacted by the transformation to anticipate and prepare for the changes that are going to occur around them and take part in a conversation that may highlight key challenges that need to be addressed in order to make the transformation smooth and effective.

Treating the transformation as a “journey”, not an “activity” — Being an Agile organisation means being able to continuously transform by establishing internal and external communication and collaboration structures to respond to the dynamic and volatile work environment.

By virtue of its dynamic and volatile nature, it is clear that the process of transformation cannot be articulated as an “activity” with a specific end-date. Instead, it has to be embraced a “journey” that the organisation continues to undertake. The approach requires frequent assessments of the needs of their current and potential customers, and strategies in place to provide the best products and services to their customers in the most efficient manner.

Having a conversation on the cultural aspect — Let’s face it; Agile transformation is more a cultural transformation than a simple transformation of processes. For the process part of the transformation to be effective, the conversation about workplace culture needs to take place at all levels of the organisation, starting at the very top. The leadership team will have to acknowledge and identify ways to align organisational values to the values described in the Agile Manifesto and devise strategies to support each employee to become a person with the qualities and mindset that has been described in the “ Individual’s escape “ section.

Cultural change is challenging, and that is precisely the reason most organisations find Agile Transformations are harder than they initially thought.

Invest in the right technology and tools — A key ingredient in achieving any goal is to equip your teams with the right tools to support their activities. In order to encourage collaboration, enable flexible working, increase productivity and cultivate innovation, the organisation will have to invest in tools and technologies that are specifically designed and developed for these purposes. Without them, teams will end up spending most of their time and effort trying to make the “things” work, rather than concentrating on the “problem” they have to solve.

Summary

At its heart, Agile does not talk about story mapping or backlog grooming, or throughput or cycle time. It also doesn’t talk about SAFe or Scrum or Kanban or Lean. All Agile really is a simple and straightforward set of values and principles for all of us to follow.

  • For the individual, Agile wants a person who is ready to adapt and try new ideas, embrace collaboration, learn from their mistakes, practise kindness and respect others.
  • For the organisation, what it seeks is to foster an environment where people are encouraged and motivated to do the “right thing” and the “thing right” without fear and intimidation.

Let there be many more people motivated to go to work who come back to their loved ones feeling fulfilled; let there be happier customers who are loyal to their brands; let there be products and services that provide value to their users; let there be organisations that are ethical and environmentally sustainable; and let there be shareholders who get a fair return on their investment.

LET THERE BE AGILE! LET US ALL BE AGILE!

Thank you for reading!

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