Agile? Do you really know what you’re getting into?

Agile? Do you really know what you’re getting into?

We want to work Agile, can you help us?”

We hear this question time and again, and our first thought is; Are you sure?

Do you truly want to become Agile or do you see the need for change around you, but not necessarily the need to change yourself? Agile lays your entire organization bare; are you ready for the uncomfortable and inconvenient truths that go with that process?

Are you willing to do the hard and, sometimes uncomfortable, work necessary to not just work Agile but become truly Agile?

screen-1Why, as a company, would you want to become agile?

In our daily practice we get a cry for help from different parts of the organization; development teams, middle management, the C-suite; people and teams who are stuck and feel the need for change.

In summary (and no particular order) they all want to:

  • Deliver faster
  • Improve inter departmental cooperation (not just within IT)
  • Be more predictable
  • Only work on things that matter (for the customer)
  • Improve quality

In themselves all good motivations which Agile can help achieve, and individually these topics are relatively easy to address.

Some examples.

  1. By focusing on Continuous Integration/Continuous Delivery time to market will decrease.
  2. Making prioritization an integral part of the development process will result in work with true value for the customer.
  3. Measuring the velocity per team per iteration, transparency and good preparation will increase predictability over time.
  4. Are substandard quality, unexpected mistakes, client side testing part of your delivery experience? Well prepared user stories, testing within development teams, fast feedback loops and automated testing throughout the development process will rapidly and visibly improve quality.

Sounds easy enough doesn’t it? Or is (your) daily practice more challenging? Addressing one or more of these questions will indeed result in short term improvements.
Often “small” changes that are not sustainable in the long term; slowly but gradually disappearing again in established, well-known and existing patterns.

Maybe we should look deeper; into the real problems and challenges your organization faces? Let’s admit it; if you’re confronted with these questions they’re often symptomatic for more structural, organizational wide, issues.

At Wemanity we believe in the need for an approach that aligns processes and teams across the whole organization; Integrated Agile.

Today’s companies are complex social systems, with their own rules and habits. Originally defined to provide stability and clarity they are now more a tool of self-preservation; the system maintaining the status quo.

screen-2Simply changing a pattern or procedure won’t be enough to truly change that paradigm. The system, your people, will always want to return to the existing situation; people’s comfort zone, as they have built it over many years.

Habits that are not driven by hierarchy but organically grown “city states” which control what happens on a daily basis. Therefore, to become truly Agile in behavior and mindset, we need to replace these patterns and habits with new ones. This is not a singular change but a process by itself requiring continuous interventions: highlighting the advantages, preventing old habits from returning.

To prevent the growth of new “little kingdoms” the changes should be embedded into all parts of the organization and the old habits must be banned.

So to drive true change we need to:

  • Disrupt existing patterns
  • Change personal behavior, culture and balance of power
  • Work across the entire company.

But in our daily practice we are faced with the fact that even just identifying a situation is often conceived as hostile or an attack on the persons / teams involved.

Example 1: Project X is ready to start.

The business case is in place, all designs are ready, teams are at the starting line. All that is needed is a formal GO by the management team, which somehow isn’t coming. In this case the managers wanted to check everything before providing the green light, but not making time during their weekly meetings to actually discuss this project. More important issues, in their perception, having priority.

Results; teams started their own initiatives “under the radar”.

Identifying this issue to the board and putting in place a process which focused on decision making based on concise business cases, trust and team budgets resulted in less new projects starting; but at the same time adding more value and decreasing time to market!

In order for that process to work management had to relinquish their false sense of control and truly trust the teams / professionals in the company.

In time it turned out that they actually had more control and insights into results than they ever had before.

Example 2:  Who was responsible?

Not clearly identifying responsibilities and a blame culture resulted in none of the three managers wanting to take responsibilities for new initiatives. As a result innovation was slow, the competition running away with the market. When confronted with the situation all three pointed at each other and, in passing, mentioned the dismissive behavior of their CEO.

Leaving this situation unchanged and introducing a new innovation process won’t change anything. Directly identifying the issue with all parties involved and relevant coaching on management culture is required to enable true changes.

Example 3:  People are not the same

Hans has been with company X for 20 years, moving from mainframe maintenance to the role of business analyst. Based on his years of service, knowledge and career development Hans has now been appointed product owner for product Y.

Hans is most comfortable doing what is asked and avoiding discussions; two traits that aren’t very helpful for a product owner (to put it mildly). Let’s be honest; not everybody has what it takes to be a successful product owner.

Companies need to realize that a certain number of years with the company or education / experience level are no indication of the suitability for this specific role, but find this hard to acknowledge. Successful Product Owners can often be identified by looking at their personality, team spirit, communication style and the conviction to say NO.

screen-3And we could go on. Above situations have, in most cases, developed over years and are part of existing and accepted patterns.

Identifying and addressing these patterns requires insight, understanding and willingness to change from senior management, even when it concerns their own role or responsibilities. It may be painful to admit that you’ve been part of a non functioning process for years, not taking the steps to change the situation. This uneasy feeling often results in denial, opposition or underestimating the issue in all layers of the organization.

As Agile coach it’s our responsibility to bring about change with an organization. To do this we’ll have to confront people with their unwanted behavior, tear down ivory towers, identify hidden kingdoms and power structures. Ensure it’s no longer possible to hide behind cumbersome processes and patterns.

Eventually a change will occur that won’t just address the 5 points mentioned at the beginning of this article but will create a culture of trust, based on transparency and honesty. A culture where people dare to confront each other, learn from their mistakes and where transparency and discipline lead to continuous delivery of valuable and high quality solutions.

So, you want to become Agile. Are you sure? It won’t be easy but we’re here and happy to help.


* Big thanks to Marc Nieman for help with the translation

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