The illusion of agility (what most Agile transformations end up delivering)

Agility is a unique and continuously evolving state that is typical to a specific organization with its people and its history. A traditional (industrial) approach to becoming more Agile commonly creates no more than an illusion of agility.

Agility is a specific state as it reflects the unique lessons and learnings that an organization and its inhabitants went and go through, the way in which specific annoyances and hindrances were and are overcome, the many inspections and adaptations that occur along the journey. Agility is a unique signature with imprints of the people involved, their relationships and interactions, used and abandoned tools, processes, practices, constructs, within and across the many eco-systems that make out an organization, and potentially stretching across the organization’s boundaries.

No model can predict, outline or capture the unique signature that agility is.

However, many of our organizations have their roots, and their beliefs, in the past industrial age. As they feel the need and the pressure to increase their agility, they naturally revert to familiar, yet old-school, industrial recipes. They undertake cautiously planned attempts to shift to the Agile paradigm, wrapped in separate change projects. They imitate what other organizations do. They copy-paste what others claim brought them success. They enforce processes and practices in a cascaded and mass-production way. They rely on models that prescribe generic pre-empted organizational structures. The learnings and the hard work needed are conveniently ignored. Ironically, these are the exact approaches they need to abandon in order to enter and survive the new worlds that require higher agility.

The mismatch is fundamental. They need and want to hose down their industrial ways, yet re-inforce them. An illusion of agility is created, which is painfully revealed when, often after several years, the deflation by reality happens. In the face of the urgency, the increase in agility is negligible. The actual results are disappointing.

The deflation hits hard when it turns out that the people creating a company’s products and services are not happier (rather they keep leaving and no new talents can be attracted). When it turns out people are not happier funding the work (not achieving the gains and returns hoped for). When it turns out people are not happier buying and consuming the organization’s products and services (and usage and satisfaction keep declining). Overall, the old predominant disconnectedness is not resolved. The top-down line organization with its typical silo structure and separation of skills and expertise is not replaced with team work, shared purpose and commitment. Blaming keeps taking precedence over collaboractiveness.

Agility is a path requiring vision, belief, persistence and… hard work. Agility, as a state of high adaptiveness, is achieved by learning how to regularly adapt upon inspections of actual work and observable results, of implementing feedback loops all around. What works today might not work tomorrow. What works for one combination of teams, technology and business might not work for another combination.

Signposts that might keep you from getting stuck in an illusion of agility are:

  • It is not a transformation if it doesn’t change how you work.
  • It is not an Agile transformation if it doesn’t simplify how you work.
  • It is not an adoption of Scrum if it doesn’t engage and energize people (customers, teams, stakeholders).

Living the art of the possible against unpredicted outcomes engages people as it shapes their future. Getting the most out of the possible thrives upon acceptance of the unwritten state of the future and what that future might bring. Acceleration comes from vision, determination and dedication; from the courage to move away from following a plan or copying a model.

Regardless an organization’s past attempts and choices, reverting to the path of hard work is always a workable way out.

(Thank you, Higher View, for your professional expertise in video creations)

Agile (What’s so funny about peace, love and future dreaming?)

The Agile Manifesto, and the movement that stemmed from it, has hugely improved the world. I believe in continuing the Agile dream and create an even better world (rather than focus on the inevitable downsides of the success).

In February 2001, seventeen software development leaders gathered at the Snowbird ski resort in Utah (United States) to discuss their views on software development. Those were times of failing waterfall and heavy-weight RUP projects (‘Rational Unified Process’). These 17 people were following different paths and methods; Scrum, eXtreme Programming, Adaptive Software Development, Crystal, Feature Driven Development, etc.

Much to their own surprise they found an agreement over a set of common principles, beliefs and viewpoints, published as the „Manifesto for Agile Software Development“. The adjective ‘Agile’ became the label to describe the views described in the Manifesto.

Even more to their surprise ‘Agile’ turned into a success, with many people signing the Manifesto and -albeit gradually- Agile taking over the world. A new paradigm was born, in the realm of the software industry. A movement stemmed from it, with Scrum as distinct definition of Agile heading the pack. Over time, Agile seeped into other domains of work and activities, beyond software and product development.

Today, the balance of society incessantly keeps shifting from industrial (often physical) labor to digital (often virtual) work. In many domains of society, the unpredictability of work increases, drastically and continually. The industrial paradigm is rendered useless, definitely. The need for the Agile paradigm is bigger than ever. Scrum is the new reality, now and in the foreseeable future. Actually, Agile and Scrum are inseparable ingredients.

The success of Agile was unplanned, unpredictable, a huge gamechanger and… undesirable (to some).

It deeply saddens me to read, hear and feel the scorning, the resentment, the cynicism. It deeply saddens me that people find little other purpose in life than to make a day job out of negativity, out of pointing at flaws (real or imagined), perceived shortcomings and the incompleteness of Agile. It deeply saddens me to hear people that still are not over the feeling they should have been invited to the Utah event.

Agile as described in the Manifesto, indeed, is imperfect and purposefully leaves room for ambiguities. And, yes, Agile partially turned into a business in itself with forms of bastardization into marketing and moneymaking schemes. And, maybe, there are people and organizations that don’t „get it“ and demonstrate a lack of ‘true’ understanding. That might mean we have not done a good job of helping them discover the value of Agile (in which case a new name will not solve the problem). It might just be in the eye of an ignorant beholder or self-acclaimed experts alike. Who are we to judge?

Regardless, Agile was and is a huge improvement to the world. I am grateful that those 17 people provided us with an amazing foundation upon which to build, discover even better ways to do our work, and keep creating a better world to live and work in.

And, yes, I am wary of the new cult too, the Big gestures and the beatification. I also see the hunts for adoration, name and fame. I observe ideas being stolen, ripped and degraded. All speaking against the Agile and Scrum Values, I know. In avoiding falling into the trap of scorning myself, I have no other choice than to remain with my belief that Agile is not about comic figure-like stereotypes and dress-up routines. Agile is not about massive tap dancing crowds or cheerful ticker tape parades. Agile is not in your title, not in how you look. Beyond being in what you say, Agile is primarily in what you do, how you act.

Still, Agile is a choice, not a must. Nobody needs to join me on my path of continuing the dream. I like to think I am open for any other new, deviant, disruptive idea that introduces more improvements and further humanizes the workplace. In the meantime, I’ll stick to trying whatever I can do to demonstrate the value of Agile, with the Scrum framework as favourite toolbox in my backpack. I can only suggest others to allow their ideas to speak for their positive selves. I am sure blaming Agile (for its broad adoption) is hardly helpful in that regard.

Warm regards
Gunther
your independent Scrum Caretaker

(Thank you, Higher View, for your professional expertise in video creations)

 

The T-Shape Deception

I have never worked with a single person who mastered no more than a single skill. Every individual I worked with had the intrinsic capability to perform in more than one type of work. Every individual I worked with had the intrinsic ability to join forces with people that master other areas of expertise.

Every individual is naturally T-shaped. Ultimately, people can unite to form collectively T-shaped eco-systems, entities, often teams.

I have never worked with a single person who mastered every possible skill needed to perform any type of work that might arise when dealing with complex challenges. The demand for people to be able to do just that, is absurd. Yet, it is how the T-shape metaphor is abused. The idea that a cross-functional entity can only be composed of fully cross-functional individuals.

Every individual is naturally T-shaped. People are impeded or blocked from employing their intrinsic T-potential rather than being unwilling to do so. Common causes are function descriptions, hierarchy, systems, structures, procedures, instructions, incentives, rewards and other HR processes, enterprise career pressure.

The message that external forces need to mould people into T-shapes is an
expression of distrust and disbelief in the potential of people. People are not resources or an assembly of ‘skill’ parts. People don’t need to be deconstructed, disassembled, reconstructed or amended for any preferred shape, like parts forged to fit a pre-empted construction. Systemic impediments need to be removed that prevent people from exploring and discovering their needs and interests, from growing their talents and potential.

Rather than judging people for the expertise they (don’t) demonstrate, focus on creating a context, an environment in which people can unleash their motivation and their multi-skilled potential. An environment where people can bring in their multi-skills and expertise to leverage a cross-functional and multi-skilled entity (like contributing to T-shaping a team). In the end, problems in the Complex Novelty space go beyond any individual’s problem-solving capabilities, T-shaped or not. They need T-shaped teams and eco-systems to be an integral part of. And -ultimately- a context in which cross-fertilisation happens; people extending their skill sets through peer collaboration and peer learning.

Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
(Principle #5 from the Agile Manifesto)

The purpose of the Scrum framework is to establish essential boundaries of such an environment of self-organization and intrinsic motivation thriving on the professional drive of people to create excellent products. Scrum Master, as a modern manager, is accountable for fostering such an environment of Scrum. A safe environment where people can demonstrate traditionally unsafe behavior, like going beyond the limitations of their function descriptions.

Scrum. Period.

I observe a revived interest in Scrum. I observe how people, teams and organizations re-discover Scrum. Scrum has the simplicity they grasp for. They see the value Scrum brings. Simple and valuable, not easy. In a forward-looking observation I described it as the third Scrum wave that is rising.

Scrum is simple indeed, yet has so many aspects to be discovered by so many organizations. Scrum serves a journey of product discovery. Adopting Scrum is a journey of discovery in itself.

Scrum is a simple, yet sufficient framework for complex product delivery, for managing complex challenges. There is a high cohesion in the minimalist set of rules and advised activities of Scrum. There is no such thing as individual Scrum practices. Scrum lays down essential boundaries within which people self-organize, within which people devise a way of working tuned to their own context. Scrum can wrap many practices. When applied well, the integral result is still… Scrum.

The themes of the recent past of Scrum were ‘scale’ (volume) and ‘divergence’ (different names and movements). Distractions. People, teams and organizations realize that it did not result in the agility they need in their complex context. I observe a revived interest in the cohesion of Scrum, the framework as a whole. People, teams and organizations learn that over-focusing on isolated elements of Scrum has not helped them tackle their complex challenges and humanize their workplace.

While rediscovering Scrum, as a whole, people, teams and organizations discover that Scrum still leaves plenty of room for their context-specific needs. Scrum is designed to holistically support people, teams and organizations to create, maintain and sustain complex products. Scrum does not replace people’s intelligence and creativity, rather provides a frame for people to operate within and create valuable results. Scrum is intentionally low prescriptive. Scrum offers a limited set of mandatory prescriptions, which in turn allow many variations to apply the rules.

Scrum most often does not fit the existing, rigid structures of many organizations, the hidden impediment to achieve true agility. Stick with Scrum. Consider the core framework to be immutable. Period. Start small. Through practice all people involved will ingrain new behavior, enact the Scrum Values and grow a new working culture, a more humanized workplace.

Twisting Scrum, hacking into the basics of the framework breaks its cohesion, covering up dysfunctions rather than revealing them, probably disregarding the principles and foundations upon which Scrum is founded, rather than promoting great behavior. Such versions and implementations are possible. Isolated use of Scrum’s terminology or individual elements is possible. They might look like fun. They might work. They lack cohesion. They are not Scrum.

The 3rd Scrum wave is rising. Will you sink? Will you swim? Be a laggard of the second wave? Or will you surf?

On a personal note I want to add that I am delighted to see a shift from ‘Agile Coach’ to… Scrum Master. A good sign. A sign also that the need is real to have someone working with the teams and with the organization in fostering a healthy environment, an environment where innovation and creativity can emerge, where people can demonstrate traditionally unsafe behavior.

The future of Agile (is in the small)

Where Agile is synonymous to ‘adaptive’, organizational adaptiveness comes through small, networked communities and ecosystems collaborating.

This will happen inside organizations, and across organizations. For many organizations the challenge is how to adopt such organizational setup. It is a critical challenge because it is the only way to wake up from the latent coma caused by size, cash and rigid structures. Many large organizations, in their current state, are dead already.

In 2013 I created the book “Scrum – A Pocket Guide (A smart travel companion)“, helping people restore, update or confirm their understanding of Scrum. I am currently working on a new book on the current state and the future value of ‘Agile’.

Find my thoughts on how the future of Agile is actually in the small in a short movie. It takes less than 2 minutes of your time. Enjoy!

Traces of my presence at events (Selected Recordings 2012-2017)

I go to speak at events without commercial or monetary intentions. I primarily go to meet people and share ideas and connect with the Agile communities and Scrum practitioners. On my YouTube channel I have uploaded all recordings of my sessions that are available.

Following is a selection (so far):

2012 – Entering the public domain

In March 2012, at a Scrum.org trainer event, Ken Schwaber checked with me on the possibility of a yearly event about Scrum in the Netherlands. We moved it forward and the first Scrum Day Europe event happened on 11 July of that same year in Amsterdam. My session, “The emergence of the Customer-Oriented Enterprise”, wasn’t recorded, but you can check out my rehearsal of the presentation at the mentioned March trainer event.

Find the presentation at Slideshare.

Note: At the heart of the concepts presented (2012) is the belief I expressed in my book “Scrum – A Pocket Guide” (2013) and the ideas I am building on again in my “re-vers-ify” narrative (2017).

2013 – Scrum for the enterprise

At Capgemini I had already  worked with Ken Schwaber on Agile transformation ideas and Scrum at the enterprise level. As I entered Scrum.org as director for the Professional Series in June 2013, that was our first priority to elaborate on. We presented a first set of ideas at the second edition of the Scrum Day Europe event on 4 July 2013 in Amsterdam.

2014 – Evidence-Based Management

We started focusing more on the inspection part of “Agility Path”. We separated it into “Evidence-Based Management (of software)”. The plan was to present it jointly as the opening keynote of Scrum Day Europe 2014. However, as Ken had visum troubles, I presented it alone.

I had already written a paper about the core ideas of the concept presented. As ideas keep evolving, I started using the term ‘Empirical Management’ and am tending towards using ‘Exploratory Management’ nowadays.

2015 – Scaled Professional Scrum with Nexus

Our focus shifted from organizational transformations back to helping people and teams to employ Scrum. A lot of concerns existed around employing Scrum in the large. Figuring that ‘Scaled Scrum is still Scrum’ we probably ignored the need for too long. We created the Nexus framework, and described it in the Nexus Guide. I presented our approach to Scaled Professional Scrum with the Nexus framework as the opening keynote at Scrum Day Europe 2015.

2016 – The Future Present of Scrum

Scrum has been around since 1995. In the spring of 2015, Ken and I discussed how “Done” was a much misunderstood and certainly undervalued purpose of Scrum. Having created some blog notes about it, I used the 21st anniversary of Scrum (2016) to make it my core speaking topic, as “The Future Present of Scrum (Are we Done yet?)”.

2017 – re-vers-ify

In 2016 I continued my journey of Scrum as an independent Scrum Caretaker. The opportunity to work with diverse organisations and teams helped me consolidate over a decade of ideas, observations and beliefs of Scrum. I realized that all ideas I had been working on before and -certainly- after 2012 were connected. I created a narrative called “re-vers-ify”, or “re-imagining your Scrum to re-vers-ify your organization”.

Too often still the organisational waste, abuse and impediments, ruthlessly highlighted by Scrum, are ignored. Meanwhile organizations grasp for rhythm, focus and simplicity. Re-vers-ify shows a positive path forward, without falsely predicting the end result.

It became my speaking topic for 2017. I presented it as the opening keynote at the first ever Scrum Day Ukraine event in Kyiv on 11 March 2017.

Since 2003 countless people have told me I limit myself by ‘just’ doing Scrum. After 14 years, still, every day is like my first day of Scrum. Every day again Scrum turns out not a limitation but a gateway to options and possibilities to help people, teams and organizations.