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, a state that corresponds to an organization’s people, set-up and 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, the unknown future challenges that will demand distinct responses. Agility is a unique signature with imprints of the people involved and their relationships and interactions, of used and abandoned tools, processes, practices, of constructs within and across the many eco-systems that make out an organization, potentially even stretching across the organization’s boundaries.

No model can predict, anticipate or outline the unique signature that an organization’s state of 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 (although they need to leap), wrapping them in separate change projects. They look around and imitate what other organizations do. They copy-paste what others, regardless whether they operate in the same economical domain or not, claim brought them success. They enforce processes and practices in a cascaded and mass-production way. They rely on text-book models that prescribe generic pre-empted blueprints organizational structures. The learnings and the hard work needed needed to acquire sustainable agility tuned to the organization’s specific context are conveniently ignored. Ironically, these are the exact approaches that block them in their growth, the ways of working that they need to abandon in order to enter and survive the new worlds, the worlds that require a higher agility.

The mismatch is fundamental. They need and want to hose down their industrial ways, yet re-inforce them. No more than an illusion of agility is created, which is painfully revealed when, often after several years, the deflation by reality hits hard. In the face of the urgency, the increase in agility is negligible. The actual results are disappointing.

What was hoped would be achieved is not achieved. The people creating a company’s products and services are not more engaged or motivated (rather they keep leaving and no new talents can be attracted). The people funding the work are not more pleased (not achieving the gains and returns hoped for). The people buying and consuming the organization’s products and services are not more satisfied (and usage and satisfaction keep declining). Overall, the old predominant disconnectedness is not resolved. The traditional 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.

Increasing agility is a path. Progressing on that path requires vision, belief, persistence and… hard work. Agility, as a state of high adaptiveness, can only be achieved by regularly… adapting. Adaptations only make sense upon inspections of actual work and observable results. Think feedback loops (all around). The new reality, for which agility is needed, says that what works today might not work tomorrow. What works for one company (a complex system of interconnected people, processes, tools) might not work for another company. What works for one combination of teams, technology and business might not work for another combination.

Signposts that might help you detect whether an illusion of agility is being created:

  • 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 into productive collaboration (customers, teams, stakeholders).

Note. None of the above makes sense if no proper attention is given to technical excellence.

The new reality tells us to act in the moment more than we ever did before. Embracing uncertainty and unpredictability has a great potential too. Getting the most out of the possible thrives upon acceptance of the unwritten state of the future and what that future might bring. It reminds us that we are not alone in this, that each individual, no matter their function, level, position or silo, can contribute. Living the art of the possible against unpredicted outcomes has the option of engaging people as it shapes their future. 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.

More Agile teams does not make a more Agile organization.

(Thank you, Higher View, for your professional expertise in video creations and Jellylab for the graphics)

Agility, actually (is an organisational state of being)

Agility is an organisation’s state of high responsiveness, speed and adaptiveness. Agility is an organisation’s state of continual adaptation and optimisation, a state in which each status quo is challenged, by our own will or by external turbulence.

Agility is a state that is a natural fit for the unpredictability so common to the work of complex product delivery and to the markets that organisations operate within. However, it requires accepting that the work is unpredictable, a mental barrier to overcome. Agility is why teams and organisations adopt Agile processes. From that adoption agility increases, a new of working emerges, new organisational ways of learning, improving and constant adaptation, and restored respect for people, re-humanisation.

Scrum helps. The distinct rules of Scrum help. Scrum is actionnable. Agile and Scrum, actually, are two inseparable ingredients in a complex product delivery ecosystem. Scrum can be your foundation for agility. Sprints are at the heart of business agility in generating a regular flow of improvements, updates, learnings and various other sources of value. Organisations discover, experiment and deliver on opportunities from an end-to-end perspective in the fastest possible way. People develop new ways of working; through discovery, experimentation-based implementation and collaboration. They enter this new state of being, this state of agility; a state of constant change, evolution and improvement. Re-humanisation takes place. Innovation surfaces again.

The path of increasing agility via Scrum is inevitably bound to be a cobblestone path. It might take some time to accept that agility starts and ends with people, not with procedures or tools. It might take some time to accept that agility takes time, that agility need not be analyzed, designed and planned. It might take some time to accept that agility occurs:

  • Agility can’t be planned;
  • Agility can’t be dictated;
  • Agility has no end-state.

A time-planned way to become (more) agile introduces unfavourable expectations. Introducing Agile methods to increase agility causes significant organisational change. Several existing procedures, departments and functions will be impacted. There is no way of predicting what needs will be encountered at what point in time, how these will be dealt with and what the exact outcome will be in order to control next steps. It is a highly complex and unpredictable journey. There is no way of predicting the pace at which the state of agility will take root and spread.

Scrum and agility are much more about behaviour than about (following) a new process. A decision to adopt Scrum is a decision to leave the old ways behind. It is not only about accepting but about celebrating the fact that agility is living the art of the possible. It requires the courage, honesty and conviction of acting in the moment, acting upon the reality that is exposed by iterative-incremental progress information. Agility is about doing the best possible at every possible moment, constrained by the means we have and facing the constraints. A time-planned way ignores the essence of Scrum and Agile, that of dealing with complexity via well-considered steps of experimentation and learning. Time-plans simply extend the old thinking. In general a plan will even slow down the overall increase of agility, because serious delays and waiting times are incorporated.

Time-plans create the illusion of deadlines and a final end-state. Agility has no end-state.

Living the art of the possible engages people and accelerates a transformation as it shapes the future, thrives upon the future and what the future might bring. It’s a bright future for organizations that have the vision, the determination and the dedication.

These basic truths must be in the hearts and minds of every person managing, guiding, facilitating, hoping or striving for agility. And even then, it takes time for agility to settle in the hearts and minds of the people impacted. After all, people have been instructed in the wrong behavior of the industrial paradigm for 15 to 20 years, or more. Agility starts and ends with people, not with tools, procedures or games.

Agility (inconvenient truths)

 

 

Agile and Scrum, actually

In early 2001, with the creation of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, the adjective ‘agile’ obtained a specific meaning in the context of software development. The manifesto, commonly known as the Agile Manifesto, holds 4 value statements with 12 principles behind it. In these values and principles the signatories of the manifesto captured the mindset, the DNA, common to their approaches to software development.

Over the years to follow, Agile became a proper noun, capitalized, pretty popular and ultimately big business as the methods for Agile software development were increasingly adopted. Success obfuscates and diminishes actionability, it seems. Today “Agile” is all over the place; coming in many flavors, wrappings, definitions, interpretations, and discounted. “Agile” sells. It is probably the most used prefix for roles, jobs, positions, functions and phases found in the software industry. The fact that Agile is a set of values and principles is easily ignored, as are the actual values and principles themselves.

Correlating ‘scaling’ to Agile has a similar neglect. Tactics change with scale. Strategies change with scale. Values and principles don’t change with scale. Claims and statements on the need, the ability, the inability, the whatever to scale Agile are plainly besides the point. Values and principles are agnostic of scale.

Agility, as an extension of Agile, refers to the state that people, teams, organizations hope to achieve by adopting Agile development processes. Agility, as such an extension, is a state of high responsiveness, speed and adaptiveness; a state of constant invocation of change, evolution and improvement. A state of agility enables people, teams, organizations to better deal with the natural complexity and unpredictability of the work of software development itself, the organizational context within which it happens and the external circumstances faced. The adoption of Agile indeed is an important foundation for this (business or enterprise) agility.

Scrum emerged in the early ’90s from the work of Jeff Sutherland and Ken Schwaber. They formalised and turned Scrum into a cohesive set of rules and roles for complex product development, that was formally presented to the public for the first time in 1995. The definition of Scrum, its rules and roles are described in the Scrum Guide. Both co-creators of Scrum are signatories of the Agile Manifesto. The values and principles of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development underpin the Scrum framework which thrives on empiricism and self-organization. Scrum is better understood when seen through the lens of the Agile Manifesto.

As with Agile, the Scrum Values and Scrum’s fundamental roles and rules as described in the Scrum Guide don’t change with scale. But scaled implementations of Scrum require different tactics in implementing the rules.

In Scrum, actually… Agile is the DNA driving the behavior throughout the software development ecosystem.

Agile and Scrum, actually, are two inseparable ingredients in a software development ecosystem.

Agility can’t be planned

I have been fortunate. I have been involved in some larger scale Scrum transformations. I have learned much. I have much to learn.

Here are some basics that are fundamental to set the right expectations for a enterprise Scrum transformation. I will relentlessly repeat and remind these. Because introducing agile without accepting these essential truths closes the door to the path to agility instead of turning it into a gateway of opportunities.

Agility can’t be planned. Agility can’t be dictated. Agility is never ready.

A time-planned way to introduce agile at an organizational scale sets unfavorable expectations. Change processes are highly complex and therefore not predictable. And agility is much more than following a new process. It is about behavior, it is about cultural change. In a transformation towards an agile way of working, there is no way of predicting what change needs will be encountered at what point in time, how these are to be dealt with and what the exact outcome will be. There is no way of predicting the pace at which the change will spread and finally take root.

A decision to move to agile is a decision to leave the old ways behind. It is not only about accepting but about celebrating that agility is living the art of the possible. It requires the courage, honesty and conviction of acting in the moment, acting upon the reality that is exposed by iterative-incremental progress information. Agility is about doing the highest possible at every possible moment, given the means we have and the constraints that we face.

Time-plans create the illusion of deadlines and an end-state. Agility has no end-state, but introduces a state of continuous improvement, a state in which each status quo is challenged, all the time.

Agility can’t be planned. Agility can’t be dictated. Agility is never ready.

This must be in the hearts and minds of every person guiding or driving a Scrum transformation. Because agility needs to settle in the hearts and minds of every person impacted by a Scrum transformation. And in general those people have been instructed the wrong behavior for 15 or 20 years. In general a plan will slow down the transformation process, as it just extends the old thinking. Living the art of the possible engages people and accelerates a transformation as it thrives upon the future. A bright future if you have the vision, the determination and the dedication. And if you have, I hope I can help you. And I will bring metrics, practices and tools that will light your path.