The term “Agile” is fast becoming a more common word within the software development community. It’s growing, morphing, being attributed to successful projects, and also being blamed for unsuccessful ones. What comes to mind, for many, when considering Agile as a tool to be used for teams, companies, projects, and products alike, is whether there truly is enough hard evidence around the value of adopting Agile methods.
I would believe it fair to say that there are a lot of doubts and misconceptions around Agile. Do any type of search for examples of Agile success on Google and you’ll find the web short of concrete evidence to support their claims. More often than not, you’ll find success stories that are very specific to a particular demographic, team, company, environment, and situation. Moreover, you’ll find critics of Agile methods and their viability. There seems to be no real foundational 12-Step program to implementing Agile successfully, and there will never be one.
This paper is not going to have all the answers for you. It is not intended to be that. Rather, this paper is an opportunity to take a deeper dive into how you can get started with resources that can help you take your first steps into Agile. Prepare yourself to plan for the change you desire in your team or company, and eventually, help you have the right types of conversations with your management.
I’ve recruited 4 other thought-leaders within the Agile space to help me take in the fuller picture of Agile and what considerations we need to have as we progress towards Agile. I’ve chosen practitioners, not theorists. People who are in the deepest trenches of Agile transformations and adoptions. It is from this lens that I want to people to view this paper. Much has been written about things to consider when adopting Agile to the enterprise and this paper does not belong to that group. This is a view from practitioners, giving you only what is applicable, and executable.
It is fair to say that Agile CAN work for your organization, but it isn’t easy. Let’s take a deeper look into what practitioners of Agile have to say and dive into the deep end with us.
Agile – What is it Anyway?
An easy click over to the Agile Manifesto tells us pretty clearly what the guiding principles are:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
- Working software over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change over following a plan
But what about applying these principles? How do you execute within a complex organization? Some light research has been done around what Agile means to many people. It was found that at the end of the day, Agile, to many, is collaboration and cultivating culture within an organization. Derek Huether would agree with this, saying that, “Agile is the embodiment of empowerment and responding to change.” Meaning, that Agile is simply a term for what businesses and even individuals should strive for: A continued state of being flexible and enabled to change accordingly.
For Don Gray, “Agile is what I call, A high order of abstraction. You cannot put a pound of Agile in a wheelbarrow. Agile can be understood by the Manifesto. That’s a good place to start.” It would seem that many organizations are adopting some facets of Agile at this point. You may not even need to call it “Agile.” In reality, it may be just improving something. Mike Cottmeyer agrees with this an states that, “Agile is a set of principles, 4 principles in the Agile Manifesto expressed through family of methodologies from which the methods are derived from principles. In the end it’s about the Manifesto.” It would seem that how you apply that is a different matter.
“Agile in a lot of ways, represents two different things, approaching and developing projects and products. The belief system from the Agile Manifesto: Being flexible, and being open to how you approach projects. Secondly, Agile is new way of thinking of how to develop projects. Prior to Agile, there wasn’t a codified method. I believe there still is a lot of evolution that needs happening. People will learn and new things will be added to Agile-thinking,” – Chris Goldsbury
Bottom Line Around the Term “Agile”
Agile is a set of principles, a way of considering approaching projects differently, being flexible, and creating a culture of collaboration. In a sense, Agile is all about being open to new ideas.
Adoption or Transformation? – Should Your Company “Adopt” or be “Transformed?”
Often times we hear about “Agile Adoptions” or “Agile Transformations.” Is there a difference? Our practitioners say yes. “People don’t agree on what Agile means because often they don’t have a common definition of how to apply it,” Don states. “For me, adoption of Agile is taking on principles. Transformation is a more embedded process.” Mike adds to this in that, “Adoption is about the things you do. gaining benefit is the transformation. Transformation is a look into the total organization as a whole and more importantly, the cultural transformation that needs to happen.”
It’s apparent that “adoption” and “transformation” are not the same thing. While the term “Agile” may be a mindset of openness and collaboration, how you undertake that in your business, enterprise, or team is a matter of what you’d like to see happen.
In regards to adopting Agile. “Absolutely yes,” Mike states. “There are certain principles and constructs behind Agile that are inarguable. Most organizations can benefit from doing some parts of being Agile. It really is a matter of whether your company can you do the right things in your org to make Agile successful.” One has to be mindful about the current reality of your organization or situation. Take a good look at where things are. “Be flexible,” Chris adds, “You generally get better success when you’re flexible and open to change.”
Derek adds some noteworthy insight to this and comments that “Yes, absolutely, try Agile. But it starts on an individual level. There are people that want to be Agile, or be naturally Agile, but then there are individuals who don’t desire for that. There are people who don’t want to be autonomous, but want to be the cog. You don’t have to respect it, but have you have to accept it.”
Individual Readiness Is A Part of Change
“The first step is transformation of the individual…The individual, transformed, will perceive new meaning to his life, to events, to numbers, to interactions between people.” – Edward Deming – System of Profound Knowledge
As an individual reading this paper, you probably want positive value-add change to your organization. First and foremost, change starts with you. Communicating Agile principles and practices are great, but it really takes a servant leaders attitude to be the conduit for positive change from yourself out to your environment. Chris says that you should always look into your situation clearly, and see what is really needed. Be flexible and be prepared for tough questions, pushback, and a potentially long road ahead. If you are dogmatic about your approach then it will not work. Chris has seen a lot of people doing this, pushing a philosophy. Not taking the time to understand the business culture, readiness, and even how it will impact the customers.
Derek adds that he enjoys seeing small wins happen over time, than no wins at all. “Is it a full Agile adoption? No. Usually there are constraints on an environment that will not allow full adoption or areas of the environment that are conducive to being Agile.” In a lot of ways it is about perception. How you effectively communicate value is so important. “Small businesses are more conducive to Agile. Less overhead, less process, and less governance you’re working against. The larger the enterprise, if you are dealing with that as a standard, the harder it can be. But not as the exception.”
“Never attribute to malice or stupidity that which can be explained by moderately rational individuals following incentives in a complex system of interactions.” – Hubbard’s Corollary to Hanlon’s Razor
As you prepare, remember that you are interacting within a complex system of people. “To create something new is where Agile lies. That creates discontinuity.” Don states. You are on the cusp of something new and fantastic. To become a change agent is exciting, but it can also be daunting.
Chris adds that you need to be sometimes painstakingly cautious about your approach. Meaning, you will have to take baby steps in some organizations. “Lead by example. Demonstrate Agile. If you are a manager, that may mean giving up the empire underneath you.” What Chris is talking about is referent power: The power that doesn’t come from people that directly report to you. “When people want to be led, they choose who they want to follow.” How this may apply in your organization is to raise up internal champions for Agile. Whenever you come upon a new problem or consideration, it may not be you who needs to fix it! A different leader may need to be chosen. “If you find yourself making all the decisions all the time, then there is something wrong with that.”
Bottom Line: Do Adopt Agile, Transformation is the Long Road
All our practitioners agree that all companies should adopt the mindset of Agile. Any and every organization can benefit from being open, flexible to change, and creating a better collaborative place to work. One could agree that all of these are great ideas. Now, how do you apply or transform an organization? We’ll jump into that next.
Should Your Company Adopt Agile to be Transformed?
This is where the rubber meets the road, and where many companies have failed. Giving lip service to a set of methods, ceremonies, artifacts, and practices will have you driving down a long road of disillusionment, burn-out, negativity, and suffering. Sounds harsh? Probably because it’s true.
“The righter you do the wrong thing, the wronger you become.” – Russell Ackoff, Organizational Theorist, Author and Co-Author of 31 books
I was very encouraged to hear from all four of our guest contributors the same question: “Why?” – Any good beginning starts with the question of why you are doing it: “Why would you want to do Agile? Increase customer satisfaction? Increase quality? How are you measuring these things? Let’s start with some fundamental assumptions around change. When you adopt Agile you are talking about how we change the way we do something,” Don asserts. “So the real question is what do you want to do? If I’m looking at improving time to market, quality, and increasing customer satisfaction, that is something we can measure.”
“An improvement program must be targeted at what you want, not at what you don’t want.” – Russell Ackoff
If a company truly begins to look at the reasons around why they want to become more Agile, the more focused they will be in their strategy to know it, apply it, and internalize it as a business culture. Start by understanding where your company is today and ask tons of questions. Questions like:
- Why do we really want to change?
- What does success look like?
- What data will be able to support value-added changes to our business?
- What problem are we trying to solve?
- What is the goal we are trying to achieve?
- What is the target we are trying to hit?
- Does our company desire increased transparency throughout the business?
- Is our company environment and culture support increased collaboration?
- Does management and leadership support change?
- Does our company culture support more flexibility?
- Is our company organizational structure and culture in alignment?
These are tough questions to ask, but our coaches agree that if you don’t ask these types of questions before you embark, you may find yourself in a place that was neither helpful for your company, nor valuable for your customers.
“You have to build a culture, or have a culture that supports ‘being Agile.'” Derek says. “There may need to be a leadership change, and a cultural change, meaning that there need to be people to support that change.” Chris adds that if you go into a company and think that you can to push something down their throats it won’t work. If you’re dogmatic about your approach you won’t succeed.” He goes on to say that: “I see a lot of people doing this. pushing a philosophy. Not taking the time to understand the business and their customers.”
Agile Isn’t a Good Fit If You’re Not Willing to Change
“Creativity is a discontinuity.” – Russell Ackoff
Agile in total is creating something new. Agile is a new way of thinking. Agile is introducing change into a system. “Anytime to introduce change into a system, things can get all messed up. People go through a period of chaos, and until it becomes normalized, things are going to be weird. A good coach normalizes the experience of change in a company” says Don. Mike adds that “Certain principles of Agile that are transcendent. I think that Agile is a good fit when you are delivering some tangible product or a good fit when you’re dealing with problem domains where either you don’t know the direction your heading, or you need to figure it out as you go. It may be that it’s not even valuable to figure it out up front because you need feedback. If you have brutal top down organization with heavily matrix’d projects structures… it might not work.”
Some organizations are already Agile because they are already set up in a way conducive to Agile. Meaning they fully embody the culture of collaboration, communication, flexibility, empowerment of teams and individuals, and try to do the best they can for their customers and get out of the way.
Bottom Line on Agile Consideration for Your Company
When thinking about whether your company should adopt Agile or not, take into consideration: Culture, the type of projects, products, or services your company builds, and even regulatory issues. Ask the tough questions: What problem are we trying to solve? Are we ready for change? Is our culture ready to bend, stretch, and ache a little to get there?
What to Prepare to Communicate to Management About the Value of Agile Implementation
You are ready. You are prepared. You have taken a look at your current environment and see that it is ripe for Agile opportunity. You know where you can find small wins. You know how to measure success in them. You have asked the tough questions and have received enough positive feedback from management and stakeholders on the potential. You are ready to roll. So what next?
“One never becomes a leader by continuously improving. That’s imitation of the leader.” – Russel Ackoff
At the end of the day, we need to back to the question: “What problem are we trying to solve?” Don asserts, “If we are trying to solve a simple problem, why are we taking on Agile? That may not be the best course of action.” Consider thinking about what sort of change you want to plant into your organization.
Define the Problem First, Then Ask How Agile Adoption Will Resolve That Issue
“When a system is taken apart, it loses its essential properties. The system behavior is not the sum of its parts, it’s the product of their interactions.” – Russel Ackoff
Take into consideration who your management is. Your message may just depend on where you management comes from. In terms of Personality Theory – People who come from development side are generally intuitive in nature. The business side? Data oriented. Don suggests that a healthy combination between showing data and describing what it means is a good approach.
Derek, speaking from his experiences, suggests looking at and preparing to discuss what we can deliver now. “You don’t need to ask for the kitchen sink every time. I want to give you the most important thing the quickest. The pain point often is the long duration of delivering value. Focus on the highest priority and problems we need to solve. From there your strongest critics can become your strongest allies.”
Demonstration of successes can often help win over management. Chris suggests doing an assessment of the current environment, system, or processes. From there, one can easily see where some universal Agile practices make sense. “You also have to consider their context. Some care about how you improve things, some don’t care about that type of detail. Do they have to show stockholders? Do they need to be able to communicate risks and management overhead?”
For Mike, he is cautious about what to communicate to management: “Very rare that management even cares whether you are using Agile or not. You may not even want to talk about team culture, retention, or happy developers. To me it’s about business value and predictability. Is the business getting the outcomes they desire or want?”
Bottom Line for Communicating to Management About Going Agile
There are several factors we need to consider before we communicate:
- Data – Show measures of potential change and value of those changes
- Small wins – Sometimes bootstrapping small areas within your control can show demonstrable value
- Management Speak – Communicate to management about things they care about: Business value and predictability
Agile can work for you and your organization. It takes patience, resilience, and even a bit of gumption. There are a lot of misconceptions around Agile and where it works and where it doesn’t. We agree that it can work in all companies, but your companies milage may vary on its environment, readiness for change, and management style. True Agile transformation is the goal. Take incremental steps towards that goal and exposure yourself to others who have faced the challenges you are facing. There is a whole community out there ready to help you.