Lessons Learned from Agile Transformations: Part 4

Fourth in a Fifteen Part Series
By Chad Greenslade

I have often been asked about my lessons learned in delivering Agile transformations.  Below is the fourth in a fifteen part series examining my lessons learned while instituting Agile concepts & practices.  I hope that these lessons help you on your journey to Agile nirvana.

Lesson 4: Understand Common Environmental Constraints

There are some common organizational environmental constraints that you will encounter when moving to an Agile delivery model.  Each of these must be considered and addressed for your Agile transformation effort to take root and flourish.  Each of these should be considered “difficult” to address and requires ongoing effort to engage key players in the organization and change their perspectives to align with transformation goals.

The first and most common constraint is simply the one of management “style”.  Management style can either be a hindrance or an enabler to the transformation.  If your organization is an older one, especially one that has been around since before the Agile manifesto was published in the early 2000’s, the management “style” is most likely a top-down, “command-and-control” model.  In this model, the methods by which lower-level employees carry out work are dictated by higher-level management personnel.  “Command-and-control” is also frequently used in smaller organizations that may have no knowledge of Agile principles or practices.   Agile requires collaboration.  Collaboration necessitates that decision-making occur at the level where the work is taking place.  Agile believes that the resources performing the work are best equipped to guide their own work and successfully navigate obstacles when they present themselves.  In simple terms, the folks doing the work must be empowered to make decisions about the work.  Since collaboration is a bed-rock principle of the Agile manifesto and “command-and-control” does not foster collaboration, the “command-and-control” management style must be regarded as detrimental to an agile transformation in that it stifles collaboration.  Shifting from a “command-and-control” model can be difficult, especially if the next three constraints are not adequately addressed.

The second constraint to overcome is your organization’s willingness to accept change.  In a “command-and-control” environment, the notion of, “we’ve always done it that way” may be prevalent.  Clearly this won’t work when attempting to institutionalize a culture shift.  In this type of environment, you’ll need to confront unwillingness to change head-on.  You’ll want to tout expected Agile benefits (Lesson 3) and reasons for moving to Agile (Lesson 2) and ensure they are well understood by key leaders, stakeholders, and resources.  You should be looking for the, “let’s give it a try” response to your transformation proposal.  When you lay out the case for Agile and start small, you will be able to build confidence on your successes and get more folks on-board with your vision as your experiment progresses.

A major environmental constraint that exists in many organizations is a “process-heavy” culture.  Process-heavy organizations are those with rigid activities that must be completed in order to progress an effort.  This typically manifests itself with paperwork, and lots of it.  Agile requires lightweight processes.  This means that unnecessary or “non-value add” steps are skipped.  Agile is focused on just enough process to get people what they need to complete the work at exactly the right time.  If you’re in a process-heavy culture, you’ll need to reset management’s expectations relative to the process rigor that will be employed.  It’s not that no process will be used; it’s simply that required process will be employed.  For example, if there’s a process that must be followed to introduce new changes to the production environment, you’ll most likely want to follow it.  However, if the traditional waterfall process dictates that a full-blown detailed technical design be completed before any actual coding begins, this can be problematic and antithetical to Agile’s tenets.  You’ll want to thoughtfully analyze existing process and have a meaningful, collaborative discussion with oversight bodies to gain agreement on exactly which processes will be followed and which will not.  When having these discussions, stress the benefits of “speed-to-market” and reduced costs associated with an Agile effort.  You may also find yourself in the position of re-writing the “rules of the road”, specifically for Agile initiatives.

The last key environmental constraint that you must address is trust.  Trust is an absolutely essential component to Agile.  A key item to keep in mind is that trust is earned over time.  When trust does not exist, management tends to micro-manage the engaged resources.  When trust exists, management will get out of the way and let the workers carry out the work.  Trust is required to start an Agile pilot project, and management, including the Scrum Master, must trust the folks carrying out the Agile project to get the job done with quality.  By starting small and demonstrating value delivery, trust will be gained and increased over time.

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Lessons Learned from Agile Transformations: Part 3

Third in a Fifteen Part Series
By Chad Greenslade

I have often been asked about my lessons learned in delivering Agile transformations.  Below is the third in a fifteen part series examining my lessons learned while instituting Agile concepts & practices.  I hope that these lessons help you on your journey to Agile nirvana.

Lesson 3: Understand Expected Agile Benefits

Agile implementations produce benefits for both the team members executing agile and the managers of agile teams.  These benefits, however, can only be realized when company management commits to making the changes necessary to realize them.  Further lessons will expand upon the changes and buy-in required, but for now, understand that teams that adopt agile practices must move away from traditional “command-and-control” and “wishful-thinking” (a.k.a. “predictive”) management philosophies.  Agile can appear to be simple, but key concepts such as self-organization and continual inspection and adaptation have subtle implications that require a change to management’s status-quo approach.

Industry studies show that approximately half of software features developed are never used.  These studies indicate that required features can be developed in half the time by avoiding unnecessary work and waste.  Via continuous prioritization of development requests, agile teams avoid building features that will never be used and focus only on delivering those with the highest business value.  Prioritization is further extended to impediments (a.k.a. “roadblocks”) that surface during daily meetings.  Discovered roadblocks are prioritized and removed resulting in a further increase in quality and productivity.

Agile is known to improve the quality of life for the team members executing it through elimination of the pressures inflicted on the team by management personnel.  A sense of autonomy is instilled when teams are allowed to select their own work and then self-organize around the best way to complete the work.  This fosters the development of innovation within the team, produces higher team productivity, and delivers higher customer and team satisfaction levels.  Allowing the team to deliver a functional and effective product that achieves the market and financial goals of the company produces team spirit, ownership, and results in increased employee retention.

Finally, agile is known to improve the profitability of the company by affecting components of the profit margin.  These include customer retention, innovation, timely and accurate delivery, and workforce motivation.  Customers are retained when they are cared for and provide critical referrals necessary to grow the business.  Accurate and timely delivery of exactly what customers need, when they need it, enhances customer satisfaction and revenue streams.  Innovation ensures synchronization with market trends and anticipation of future customer requirements.  A motivated workforce is a productive workforce and one that provides an edge over the competition.

Lessons Learned from Agile Transformations: Part 2

Second in a Fifteen Part Series

By Chad Greenslade

 

I have often been asked about my lessons learned in delivering Agile transformations. Below is the second in a fifteen part series examining my lessons learned while instituting Agile concepts & practices. I hope that these lessons help you on your journey to Agile nirvana.

 

Lesson 2: Understand Common Reasons for Moving to Agile

 

I believe there are three (3) common reasons for moving to an agile delivery methodology. These reasons have nothing to do with IT specifically, but rather align themselves more generally with the common goals of product delivery. These are timely delivery, resolving quality deficiencies, and speed to market.

 

In the traditional waterfall model, an IT project could have a duration of several months or years and not produce anything of value for the business, if it produces anything at all. A common stakeholder complaint is that they rarely, if ever, know when anything will be delivered. Sponsors and stakeholders become reluctant to allow the project to continue when there is no end date or discernible deliverables in sight. An obvious and common risk is that a new opportunity or project will present itself resulting in the original project being cancelled, ending the work before anything of value is delivered. An agile delivery methodology alleviates concerns related to timely delivery by producing incremental product units on a pre-defined timescale.

 

Today’s business environment is constantly changing. Whether it’s new products being developed, old products being retired, competitors being acquired, divestitures, market expansions, new legislation or regulations, the only constant is change. This has an overwhelming and obvious effect on the information needs of the organization required to make accurate business decisions. Furthermore, a business is often willing to invest in building a solution to meet these information needs before all of the needs are fully known or understood. The traditional waterfall model is not conducive to the ebbs and flows of today’s business environment. It creates a situation in which a project team attempts to collect all requirements at the beginning of the software development effort, even though they may be unknown at the time of collection. The project team then takes the requirements as defined (or undefined) and attempts to build the solution over the course of months or years while discouraging changes to the requirements during the development process. This invariably breeds an environment in which the product delivered not only fails to meet the initial requirements, but also fails to address the changes in business conditions that occurred since the original requirements were collected. Stakeholders regard these as quality deficiencies even though the system may be coded exactly as the requirements specified. An agile delivery methodology alleviates quality concerns by continuously engaging the consumers of the information system throughout the development lifecycle and embracing the inherent changing requirements of today’s business environment.

 

A key theme of a successful business is continuous innovation. A common complaint from an executive whose business is failing to innovate could be, “our competitors are consistently beating us to market with new products or features.” An agile delivery methodology keeps the organization focused on product release milestones via the inherent cadence that accompanies the methodology. It also seeks to discontinue the use of non-value add activities such as unnecessary documentation or process which further refines the focus of the product delivery team.

Lessons Learned from Agile Transformations: Part 1

First in a Fifteen Part Series

By Chad Greenslade

I have often been asked about my lessons learned in delivering Agile transformations.  Below is the first in a fifteen part series examining my lessons learned while instituting Agile concepts & practices.  I hope that these lessons help you on your journey to Agile nirvana.

Lesson 1: Identify the Agile Sponsor & Champion

Before you start your Agile journey, you must identify a Sponsor or a “champion” from the ranks of the executive team.  The Sponsor will be similar to the captain of a ship.  You will work with this person to define the destination and ensure the “ship” (the Agile transformation effort) is on the right course.  The sponsor will keep the larger executive team up-to-date on a regular basis.

In order to identify a Sponsor, you’ll want to find someone that is involved in several high-profile, important initiatives within the company.  You’ll want someone who is approachable and understands the importance of relationship building.  You’ll also want someone who is familiar with, and has influence over, gaining the funding you need to make the transformation.  Finally, you’ll want someone who identifies the fact that the transformation you seek won’t happen without training the folks involved in the transformation and is willing to throw his / her support behind an Agile education initiative.  Your Sponsor will be tasked with selling the need for proper training for both the teams executing the Agile practice and the executives consuming the Agile product.

Your Sponsor will be the organization’s representative for the transformation effort.  You’ll want to work with this person to establish tenets of the transformation vision and clearly articulate why the organization is undertaking the initiative.  The development of “talking points” and “elevator speeches” will be critical to effectively allay concerns of folks involved with, and affected by, the initiative.

The Sponsor will be the person that removes the “roadblocks” encountered during your journey.  For this reason, it’s important to select a person who is comfortable with people at all levels of the organization.  The Agile transformation team must be comfortable with sharing honest and open feedback with the Sponsor and requesting his or her assistance in accomplishing their objectives.  Like any good leader, your Sponsor must possess active listening and follow-through skills in order for team members to feel heard.  The Sponsor does not have to be a “technical” person but they should have a firm grasp of the delivery process.  The Sponsor should be universally regarded as a leader throughout the organization and someone who has the influence, not necessarily the power, to get things done.

Lastly, it’s critical that the Sponsor have a firm grasp of the “big picture” and understand the cultural mindset shift that must occur.  Prior organizational rewards mechanisms may need to be changed in order to properly incentivize people to make the changes necessary.  It will be important to measure the transformation effort against established success criteria and publish successes, or setbacks, as required via development of necessary publication materials.  Open recognition and publication of successes is critical to boosting team morale and enforcing the change that you need in order of the transformation effort to be successful.