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Are We Becoming Agile?

Updated: Feb 9, 2020

Over the last 20 years my coaches have led transformations that are completely outside the normal software delivery paradigm, and instead focused on leveraging Agile in data-centric, DEVSECOPS, infrastructure, marketing and even recruiting initiatives. As a result, my answer to the basic question of “What is Agile” and our approach to measure “Are we becoming Agile?” have solidified.

In this article I will share our answer and approach as well as ideas on what to do next if your organization seems challenged in addressing this for themselves.

What is Agile?

For me, I best identify with Agile as an adjective.

Agile; adjective - the ability to be fast and nimble; quick and exact in movement and thoughts; able to adapt to changes quickly and easily with a sense of purpose.

And of course, this adjective should be applied to entire value streams, from start to finish. Value streams represent the entire series of steps that we use to build solutions that provide a continuous flow of value to a customer. Will Agile make your developers write code faster? Not sure. Will Agile help you reduce your cycle time from idea to customer delivery? Yes.

Also, central to my perspective of the meaning of Agile is the declaration that Agile is something you become, not something you do. It is not about emulating practices that the industry admires but may not work in your environment. It’s about understanding the fundamental “whys” behind the Agile practices and using that knowledge to identify those pragmatic activities and events that will help your situation.

Additionally, Agile does not come free, except in nature. For most of us in a business setting, Agile has an impact on that environment and if these impacts are not embraced, then Agile as a framework for a way of thinking and delivering solutions will not thrive.

But first, a story.

Let me further explain with a real-life example. It involves my pet dog, Bella. Much of what I know about Agile, and Lean, has come from her over the years.

On the weekends, when I am home, my wife assigns me a user story to be frequently played called “Take Bella outside to do her business”. Last Saturday, Bella reminded me that it was time to play this story.

I grabbed her leash and headed towards the back door of our house, with Bella excitedly at my side. When I arrived at the door and peeked outside, I saw something of interest. Something that Bella was completely unaware of at the moment.

You see, we live next to a State Park, so my deck and backyard blends into several acres of woodland. As I attached the 12-foot leash to Bella’s collar, I noticed that there was rabbit on our deck, about 3 inches from the door. I thought to myself “It’s gonna get really interesting in the next minute”.

In fact, it did.

Upon throwing open the back door, time slowed down. Just like in the various automobile accidents that I was involved in as a teenager. Time slows down to a crawl and you notice everything, in great detail, for about 3 seconds, then it speeds back up to normal.

I noticed first that yes, rabbits can not only hop, but they can jump straight up in the air, and scream. In parallel, I saw Bella immediately, in a split second, refocus on the rabbit and take a step towards where the rabbit was sure to land. Her paw barely landed when I saw her pivot to the right, staring directly at a deer. A deer was on the edge of the woods, doing deer things like staring off in the distance.

At this point, normal time resumed, and Bella shot like a bullet towards the deer. Needless to say, you know how this story ends - Bella is on a 12-foot leash. The rabbit disappears and Bella, although constrained by the leash and standing on her hind legs continues to bad-mouth the deer. At least until I convince her gently that this is not the battle she wants to have today.

So, Bella, in this short story epitomized the core meaning of Agile - the ability to be fast and nimble; quick and exact in movement and thoughts; able to adapt to changes quickly and easily with a sense of purpose.

She quickly, based on a sense of purpose, adapted to changes and determined her purpose would be better suited by getting introduced to the deer. The rabbit was interesting for a split second but having the dialogue with the rabbit had a very low cost of delay. There are dozens of rabbits in our woods, but it’s rare to see a deer. Plus, a deer represents a larger threat to our homeland security than a rabbit, according to Bella’s interpretation of her mission.

You may also ask yourself “What enabled Bella to be Agile?”. I believe there are many items. Bella had a sense of purpose, confidence, trust in me, a high level of autonomy, a great situational awareness, ability to inspect and adapt, de-centralized decision making, among other traits. This highlighted to me the key enablers of Agile and what is required in an Agile environment for the people to succeed.

Yes, I am aware of the Agile Manifesto and its underlying principles, but these days, I do see many environments that just do not provide enough in terms of enabling Agile to thrive.

What are the Key Enablers of Agile?

1. Empirical process control theory (aka Agile) asserts that knowledge comes from discovery, feedback and experience. It requires transparency, inspection and adaption. This is enabled through expediting feedback. Trust is also a fleeting concept if Transparency is not embraced.

2. Agile also requires the ability to make decisions quickly based on the information at hand, versus analysis paralysis or perfection. Agile is a framework, not a methodology. Agile replaces a programmed, prescriptive approach with a heuristic one, based on discovery, with respect for people and self-organization to deal with unpredictability and solving complex problems.

3. Agile requires a new mindset in contrast to traditional management. Often the distinction is shown in where confidence lives. With Agile the source of confidence shifts from the process, stage gates and a detailed plan to the people and their inherent ability to discover and adapt.

4. Bring the work to Teams; stable, small, self-organized Teams, rather than bringing individuals to the work.

5. Insist on visible, frequent improvements by each Team. It should be viewed as one of the primary accountabilities of each Team.

6. Enable Teams to be motivated. Motivation is driven by - purpose, autonomy and opportunities for craftsmanship. When a task gets more complicated, it requires some conceptual, creative thinking, once you take money off the table, 3 factors lead to better performance and personal satisfaction - autonomy, mastery and purpose. More on this topic from RSA Animate – “Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us.” by Dan Pink.

7. Agile demands the use of timeboxes to optimize predictability, limit variance and mitigate risk. The end of each timebox becomes an opportunity to reflect, inspect and adapt.

The interesting thing as well, actually one of the first items I learned from my original coach, is that each of the Agile practices work extremely better when all are addressed. Our key enablers behave in the same way. Each individual key enabler strengthens the others. As well, any gap in a key enabler will reliably bring down the remaining healthy ones.

Call to Action

So, the call to action is to examine your organization, your environment to see if all of these key enablers of Agile have been embraced. The best way is to perhaps team up with some other stakeholders and generate insights, both subjective and objective, relative to each key enabler.

I would suggest using these insights to generate a simple, single radar chart. Capture on a relative scale from zero to 100 with zero being “terrible - not enabled” to 100 being “enabled and thriving” where you believe the organization is for each key enabler. Also capture perspectives on which way the organization is trending, negative, neutral or positive.

If ones are viewed as weak, then start on a path to inquire even deeper, understanding what brought your organization to this place and then pair up to identify and prioritize potential next steps to improve on your path to “becoming Agile”.

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