Friday, August 28, 2015

Three Characteristics of Being Agile

Doing Agile is only an engineering practice, but being agile is the multidisciplinary challenge from top-down and bottom-up.
Many organizations are transforming from doing Agile to being agile, applying agile philosophy, methodology and practices to scaling up and building a truly agile organization is an important aspect of digital transformation. But many such initiatives fail to achieve the expected result, and most of the businesses still get stuck in between, what are the big barriers to being agile? And what are the characteristics of scaling up Agile?

A combination of top-down and bottom-up vision and passion is absolutely required for a buy-in from both ends. A cohesion is needed to make the organization as a whole successful. Seldom a 'theme' is reaching its goal if the people who set the theme or create a vision have different ways in mind than the team who would work on epics or stories. To build an Agile organization, you need a buy-in from all levels within the company. It is entirely possible to run Agile teams, yet in order to scale it up, C-level executives have to understand and essentially accept the idea, otherwise, it could collapse when a conflict (even a small one) between Agile team/project and rest of the organization arises and reaches executive level. Scrum, for example, is very good at bringing problems to the surface. It won't make those problems go away. Or think of a project where the team is working in a kanban mode and the management seeks reporting that is aligned with scrum. That is a conflict! The team needs to buy-in what the management expects and in what way, plus the management needs to buy-in the process teams following to achieve their goals. Hence, a merger of the two is essential.

Agile has required a significant culture change in every organization. Implementing agility starts from the ground up, and cannot/shouldn't be imposed on teams. The development team wants to own their process, talk to their customer and deliver their customers requirements through better quality software and processes. However, ground up cannot succeed if the development team has to fight the company culture, rules, and processes. Therefore, C-level needs to focus on creating the right organizational culture, where people can take ownership of their processes and believe they will benefit from doing so. For a change of that magnitude, support from both bottom up and top down is required. Lack of either will result in the end result that is not truly Agile. Applying Agile principles to scale up and create the characteristics of a truly agile organization is a set of practices:
-We value "Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools." You might follow a process by the book, but if your individuals and interactions aren't right, you won't be very agile.
-"Take a customer-centric view," the customer is the center of Agile.
-"Apply systems thinking." Not just a working software view, but a holistic business view.
-"Assume variability; preserve options." Variability isn't changed. One can still preserve options while following a plan.
-Build incrementally with fast, integrated learning cycles.
-"Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers." Focused on self-organization, not control.
-"Decentralized decision-making." Agile promotes self-organization, an extreme form of "empowerment." And this "trust the people in the trenches" attitude is at odds with most management philosophy.

C-level management does have a hard time getting their mind around Agile, so a selected framework such as SAFe is a good bridge for them. It can if implemented correctly, help move companies towards being “more” Agile. It depends on a lot of factors, though. How Agile a company can be is determined by its corporate culture, geolocation of resourcing, legacy software architecture, quality and development disciplines, and organizational structure. All of these factors only magnify in importance based on the company size. The original question focused on buy-in from C-level management. This is essential in addressing the cultural aspect of the transformation. But, a lot of the other factors will be the true determination of success as well. An only top-down approach will fail because they cannot influence enough change in many of the factors that will impede the teams. If you can’t get a strong bottom-up initiative going, success will be limited. This is where good coaching is extremely important. Get the C-level management to fund the coaching and start finding ways to empower the teams. Encourage upper management to find ways to get out of the way. Otherwise, SAFe will just become another top-down process that will eventually morph back into whatever the company originally had to start with. Once the company adopts the framework, it must work to identifying all the impediments that prevent them from really becoming Agile and start to systematically remove them. It is possible, using the framework, to accomplish this effort over time. If they don’t try, SAFe will just become another useless process facade. And, they will just continue to do what they always did. Also, the challenge with "scaling" frameworks is that they assume the values and principles have already scaled. Very often, it isn't the case.

Doing Agile is only an engineering practice, but being agile is the multidisciplinary challenge from top-down and bottom-up. Being agile also means to become a truly holistic organization. Organizational agility is only achieved when the organization changes, the leadership buy-in, the employees engaged, and the framework & processes are well aligned, and “being Agile" a crucial stage of becoming a digital master.   


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