Agile - A Perfect Partner

Over the last decade, Agile has emerged as a charming leader and a shining star. More and more teams are interested in Agile but they are not sure how to get there. Taking a big bang approach to Agile is not a viable option for most of the organizations. Most successful partnerships with Agile are tailored to the strengths and limitations of the organization. This article is aimed at providing an innovative approach for Agile partnering with real life story.

Partnership Phases
As described in the “Figure A”, Agile partnership consists of 4 phases: Explore, Commit, Transform, and Expand.

1. Explore: If a team is new to agile then the best way to test its compatibility is by getting their feet wet. New teams can pick a project and experiment using various agile ideas to get the feel of the process.

2. Commit: It is important that exploration phase does not continue endlessly. Teams should come to a conclusion whether agile will help them achieve their goals effectively or not. If yes, then the team should commit to Agile by aligning with it in true sense. You can't yield full benefits by using partial process. Commitment is the key for the successful adoption.

3. Transform: Agile is less process and more self-realization, hence, adoption is unique for each team.  This process transforms good teams to hyper-productive teams. There are two key driving factors of this transformation, which will be described in detail in the next section:
  • Incremental Investment
  • Inspect & Adapt
4. Expand: If an organization has big teams, then it is important to start implementation within a small subset. Once this subset goes through the maturity, process can be rolled out to other teams.

Building Partnership - A Real Lifecycle
Let’s take a deeper look at these phases to understand key steps involved in building this partnership. Remember, Agile does not need an organization; rather an effective organization needs Agile. Hence, leaders of the organizations should initiate a relationship with Agile. “Figure B” describes how this relationship matures.

Phase 1: Explore (Getting started into a new relationship)
This phase is about getting started into a new relationship i.e. find someone attractive, fall in love, and decide if this relationship is worth pursuing as a formal engagement.

1.1) Infatuation
Reading this article signifies that you are already attracted to Agile. There could be many reasons for this attraction:
  • Thrill of something new, which is very popular and gaining further attention.
  • Customers are very demanding and your organization needs to rapidly embrace the changes.
  • You find it hard to become effective in a controlled environment and you like how Agile promotes self-organization.
  • As a software professional, it is difficult to find good jobs without Agile experience in today’s market.
Agile may look nice to you but it is important to understand if it will add value to your organization. You need to do a quick value assessment to understand if you should give it a try. You can start by reviewing Agile Manifesto (value proposition). You should also review high-level methodology. If Agile can add value to your organization, then you are ready to take your relationship to the next level.

1.2) Dating
As you continue to feel that Agile and your organization are a good match, it is high time to test this relationship by doing a small pilot. Pick a project team, which is best suitable for Agile. Let this team explore Agile principals to help you validate the value proposition. You may need to make a small investment to support this pilot team for them to try new things e.g. infrastructure for automatic daily builds. If possible get a part-time coach to guide this team through the pilot.

1.3) Engage
Don’t let this pilot run endlessly. At some point of time you need to make a decision if it is worth committing on a long-term basis. The pilot should be able to provide you with data points to make this decision.

Phase 2: Commit (Exchange Vows)
Once an organization decides to “Engage” formally with Agile, it is very important to “Exchange Vows” for sustained relationship. It is critical that leaders of the organization understand commitments they need to fulfill. Success cannot be achieved without fulfilling these commitments. Here is a list of key commitments:
  • Commit to change: Agile is all about embracing change, hence, organization should be prepared for cultural changes. Transition plan for the change should be created and necessity of the change should be communicated.
  • Commit to trust & collaborate: Trust and collaboration are key building blocks of any relationship. Your relationship with Agile is no exception. Trust is needed to promote a culture of self-organization whereas collaboration is needed to support a culture of Trust.
  • Commit to invest in the relationship: Agile is very demanding. It is attractive due to its tool-kit of engineering best practices. You need to invest in this tool-kit to keep Agile attractive forever. You will also need to invest in experts who shall make this journey comfortable.
  • Commit to inspect and adapt: No relationship or process is perfect. Perfection comes from continuous inspection and adaptation.
  • Commit to stay together: It is a natural tendency to gravitate towards other attractions, however, it is important to stay with your “first” choice. If you opted for “Scrum” then avoid “Scrum-But” to yield expected benefits.
  • Celebrate: Last but not the least, don’t forget to celebrate. Cherish your decision and get ready for a value driven journey.

Phase 3: Transform (Mature Bonding)
This phase is focused on settling down in the relationship i.e. stand-up together every morning, invest incrementally for the betterment of life, share likes-dislikes, collaborate and adjust. This simple philosophy transforms individuals into a well-functioning team.

3.1) Incremental Investment
Process of transformation requires some investment to create a stable base. If you need a brick-house then you need to invest in bricks. You cannot get desired stability by using sticks instead of bricks. Similarly, Agile needs key building blocks to provide you with a most stable and value driven culture. You don’t need to invest everything up-front. Your teams need to continuously inspect and make right investment choices to adapt. Following are the key investment areas:

  • Training/Coaching – Validate approach and expedite learning
  • Cross-Functional Teams – Avoid Silos to increase collaboration and self-organization
  • Engineering Best Practices – Forget about agile if you can’t build, deploy and test daily
  • Tools & Infrastructure – Do you have sufficient infrastructure to support automation and various kinds of testing? Will an Agile tool help to reinforce key principals?
3.2) Inspect & Adapt
Agile’s iterative nature provides an opportunity to observe how things progress on a daily basis. In addition, it also provides an opportunity to review the whole iteration and decide on ways of improvement at the end of each iteration. If we observe the right things and make the right choices, then we can improve as much as we want. Unfortunately, we were not born knowing the right things to observe.  That’s why “inspect and adapt” plays a key role in transformation. A few things you may wish to inspect more closely are:
  • Relationship (Process) Maturity: It is hard for teams to understand practical value of the agile concepts in the beginning. Teams can create a Agile Maturity Scorecard and review it after every iteration to take incremental improvement steps until they mature in all areas. Scorecard is a useful way of answering the question: "are you doing Agile?". There is much more to high-performance than just following the process.
  • Agile Attitude: This is the hardest part of the adoption process, which may take a long time to fix esp. at the management level. Here are the key elements of Agile Attitude:
- Change is the norm, not the exception 
- Reality rules, not the project plan 
- The future drives the baseline, not the past 
- The process serves the people - it does not handcuff them 
- Leading takes precedence over managing
    • Self-Realization: Iterative nature of the process helps people gain efficiency by self-realization. Daily standup meetings and frequent retrospectives make people more receptive for constructive feedback and continuous improvements. This part of the Agile plays main role in transforming good teams to hyper-productive teams.
    • Goals and Expectations: Agile adoption goals should be reviewed on a regular basis as the targets may change with continuous learning. It is important to set the right expectations for the stakeholders.

    Phase 4: Expand (Grow Family)
    This phase is focused on enjoying fruits of hard work of the previous phase. It is time to grow and celebrate.
    • Expand Business: Agile drives faster time to market, which results in bigger business opportunities.
    • Expand Portfolio: Agile results in low cost of doing change, which increases operational efficiency to expand portfolio
    • Expand Agile Adoption: Agile builds hyper-productive teams, which set a good example for others to follow.

    In a nutshell, Agile is a perfect partner and this partnering brings a radical shift and a big cultural change. If you are the change agent in your organization then don't wait! Date with Agile for sometime and decide if you are made for each other. Like any other relationship, Agile relationship will have its ups and downs as you get used to each other. Always remember, "Winners never quit." They “inspect and adapt” and find better ways of getting the best out of the relationship. I wish you all the best – Explore, Commit, Transform & Expand the Agile Family.

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