Simply put, Agile is a project management methodology. However, for the software development community, Agile is now a culture that teams live by.
Few realize that entire organizations, and not just software development teams, can be run according to Agile methodology.
A well-oiled Agile organization is ideally suited to thrive in today’s business environment where innovation must be married to fast-paced implementation.
This is down to the main principles of the Agile culture, which are as follows:
- Fulfilling customer exceptions: Goal focused development.
- Descaling work: Recognizing that large complex projects are handled best when broken down to small bite-sized pieces.
- Enterprise-wide Agility: The understanding that every member of an organization has a role to play and clearly defining that role.
- Nurture culture: An organization must strive to continuously enrich employees, thereby strengthening the organization’s skill-sets/moral etc.
Read more about these themes in “What is Agile? The four essential elements”. How to make your organization Agile?
But what exactly is this wonderful methodology and how does it work? In this article, I will take a closer look at Agile and describe how you can make your organization Agile.
What is an Agile organization?
Are you trying to create an Agile organization? If you are then you will need to first understand what it involves to implement.
First of all, it is important to realize that the agile journey requires a sustained commitment over a long period of time. It will require changes in perspective, adaptation, and constant revision of business and communication practices.
You will make mistakes, but provided you learn from them to further streamline your approach, you will be successful.
Next, clearly defining/understanding and focusing on your ultimate objective is key, as Daniel Goleman, an expert on emotional intelligence explains in this great article.
Now that you are focused on your goal(s), you are ready to set about building an agile organization.
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Characteristics of agile are as follows:
Goals and approach are clear to everyone
This is the first step. Agile organizations always ensure that goals, core values, and approach are known by the entire organization. This ensures that everyone is on the same page and working efficiently to achieve the objectives of the organization.
Since Agile organizational structures are well-defined, this makes accountability very clear. In an Agile organization, no person can say they were not aware of their tasks and therefore can be held accountable for their mistakes.
Naturally, this incentives individuals and teams to better manage their role and to ensure that they work together to achieve their goals.
Also, since teams are much more involved in the direction of an organization or project (in software development, teams actually plan upcoming sprints and development timelines), they are empowered to help ensure that realistic goals and deadlines are set.
Quick decision making and an orientation towards learning
You will often hear claims that Agile claims to guarantee success. This is not true. Agile philosophy actually works from a different mindset. Agile practitioners are taught to learn how to deal with failure.
All forms of business ventures, be they software development projects or transformation projects etc., are bound to experience failure.
With traditional managerial methods, where organizations undertake a project over a long period of time, it is often the case that projects fail to deliver value in the way that was first envisioned. The problem with this approach is that by then significant investments have already been wasted. Agile operates a “Fail fast, and fail safe” approach. You can read about it in “Fail fast: fail safe”.
Agile teaches individuals and teams to learn to fail fast. This ensures that the failure isn‘t costly and therefore, is safe. Since a team is encouraged to learn from failure, they can utilize this lesson to ensure that they deliver successful projects in the future.
Rapid decision making, experimentation, and continuous learning is the name of the game in Agile. The senior leadership in the organization must support teams in regards to how to fail safely and learn from these failures.
Dynamic leadership practices
Agile is not possible without “Servant leadership”. This is a leadership concept that focuses on empowering people in the frontline, i.e. the salesperson, the customer service executive, etc.
The servant leader is not just end-customer focused but also focuses on his/her team members too. Consequently, the success of the team is also of high importance.
Consequently, servant leaders work towards making the teams‘ work meaningful and productive. Ken Blanchard, the noted management guru has explained the concept in an interview. Read it in “Servant leadership is not what you think: Ken Blanchard explains”.
Such leaders create cohesive teams that have entrepreneurial drive. There is significant flexibility and mobility in such teams, where mobility is driven by merit.
Processes, methods, and tools for the next generation
The purpose of Agile transformation is to deliver greater value to your clients. Indeed, this is one of the key principles of Agile. It requires preparing the organization for the future. Using outdated processes, methods, and tools (PM&T) will only deliver the conventional results.
All organizations will need to infuse new knowledge, new processes, and new tools into their current business practices. In some cases, they will need to completely replace existing ones that are inefficient. An example of this can be seen in software development, where new DevOps tools and communication apps such as Slack can greatly increase the efficiency of many in-house communication tools.
Our guide “The 10 best Agile project management tools in 2018” can help with selecting the right project management tool.
How can you make your organization agile?
Now that you understand the core ideas behind agile, let’s take a look at how you can implement agile. Recognize that to bring agile to the whole organization, you will need to change your business culture.
Don‘t settle for a mix of Agile and non-Agile: the 1st step
You need to make a crucial decision. Do you want your entire organization to embrace Agile? Or, do you want specific departments/divisions/groups to do so?
My advice is that if you don‘t plan to transform your entire organization into an Agile-driven one, then don‘t undertake this project at all.
There are several reasons I say this. Firstly, as I have already highlighted, one of the foundation principles of Agile is to deliver continuous value to the customer. On the other hand, traditional management approaches consider “maximizing shareholder value” as the ultimate objective.
These two approaches directly contradict each other. If management continues to subscribe to the traditional model, the friction with any department that has embraced Agile could cause problems. Read more about this conflict in “How to make the whole organization Agile”.
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Secondly, there is a fundamental difference in the way in which traditional teams and Agile teams work. Managers in traditional teams are expected to know the work/project inside out. Furthermore, they must constantly issue instructions to their team on the work to be done. This approach is commonly referred to as the top-down approach.
Conversely, Agile teams are empowered, i.e., team members make decisions in consultation with their peers. Managers are also part of the decision-making process, but they don‘t make all decisions on behalf of the team. It is a collaborative effort. If one team is Agile while another isn‘t, the probability of friction is high.
The two above examples do not constitute an exhaustive list of reasons why a partial transformation isn‘t productive, but they are apt examples. My advice is not to take a piece-meal approach.
Put your customers at the top of the priority: The 2nd step
By now, you will understand that customer focus is a fundamental principle of Agile.
It‘s time to put this into practice. We will start by asking some questions:
- Who are your customers?
- Why do they buy your products or services?
- How do they use it?
- What challenges do they face?
- What improved features do they need?
Supposing you know the answers to these already, then it‘s time you ask whether everyone in your organization knows too?
Agile requires everyone in the organization to focus on delivering value to customers.
How will software developers in your organization know what customers consider as value if only the sales representative meets your customer, for example? The answer is that they won‘t.
This example exposes the work environment in most traditional organizations. Read “Three ways to make your organization Agile” to see this reality.
There‘s nothing more important to a business than hearing directly from customers. Hence, you need to build cross-functional teams. The salesperson, developers, designers, testers should all get feedback regarding the product requirements, for example, directly from customers.
However, the traditional silo culture in traditional organizations doesn‘t allow such information transfer. Therefore, you must change that culture first and ensure everyone in the organization realizes why this is the foundation of success!
Involve the entire organization in the Agile transformation journey: The 3rd step
A transformation on this scale requires ’skin in the game‘ from everyone in the organization. You will need a healthy flow of input from all team members. The planning process needs to involve everyone.
Remember that all employees already carry significant knowledge. They will almost certainly have important insights and valuable information that will help the project. By involving them, you are not only benefiting from their knowledge, but you are also emotionally involving them in the process. Read more about it in “How to make your organization as fast and agile as a Formula 1 team”.
The 4th step: Bring absolute clarity about the organizational purpose
The most successful organizations have a well-defined purpose. Everyone in the organization knows what that mission is. Managers make sure that teams understand how their work ties into the big picture.
Another good practice is to ensure that everyone knows whether he or she is heading in the right direction. Information regarding their performance or lack of it isn’t hidden away but rather is displayed in front of everyone.
This is an approach that successful Agile organizations share with successful traditional organizations. Remember that this is a practice and not a one-time event. Leaders need to repeat the process for every new task/project.
The celebrated management guru Ken Blanchard explained this process in his book “Gung Ho!”. He outlines three principles: meaningful work, employees in control of achieving the goal, and cross-team support.
The optimal process, not an overwhelming one: The 5th step
Some people have the misconception that Agile doesn‘t need many processes and documentation. The reality is that Agile needs processes, documentation, and discipline. However, it requires only what is needed to ensure the most streamlined processes.
Organizational agility requires managers to define and refine optimal processes and documentation, along with their teams. What doesn’t add value to the project is wasteful, and therefore needs to be replaced or eliminated.
A ’Product backlog‘ replaces voluminous requirement documents. ’Sprint planning meetings‘ replace extensive project planning workshops. ’Daily stand-up meetings‘ take the place of the multitude of governance meetings. To learn more about this process, read “How to build a Scrum development team”.
Iterations instead of a “Big bang”: The 6th step
Agility transformation requires the organization to learn that delivering value is a continuous process. Instead of one big-bang project with lengthy initiation, planning, development, testing, and implementation, you deliver incremental value in iterations.
Customers must be able to see value at the end of the first iteration. In regards to software development, this means a working piece of software with basic functionality. This is called a ’Minimum Viable Product‘ (MVP). From then onwards, each iteration must deliver complete features.
In other words, every iteration in an Agile project must deliver tangible value to the customer. Small cross-functional teams need to work on these iterations. This is a very distinct feature of Agile development.
You as the leader of the organization must ensure teams embrace the Agile approach. You will need the right capabilities to do this. Read “Leading agile transformation: The new capabilities leaders need to build 21st-century organizations” for more details.
Measure what matters: The 7th step
So, now you are underway with your Agile transformation, and your teams have started to work in an Agile way. How are the teams progressing? In order to answer this question, you must measure their progress.
The Agile approach has its‘ own metrics. There are specific ways to track/measure them. A completed feature is “burned down”. You can track these metrics with iteration status charts called “burn-down charts”. If a team has 10 features to deliver in one iteration, they need to “burn through” these.
If the “burn-down” chart is moving downwards towards the right-hand side, the team is progressing well. If the chart is stagnant, then the team is stuck. If new features are added during an iteration, then that could be a scope-creep.
If there is an uptick in the chart, then it signifies a feature previously completed has moved back and required rework. This is not an exhaustive list of Agile metrics or tracking tools, but an example. Read “Metrics for agile projects” for more information.
The 8th step: Build a “Learning organization” by infusing trust
I have earlier described how “fail fast and fail safe” is a key characteristic of an Agile organization. To build a learning organization that doesn‘t fear failure takes some effort. Team members should know that they will not be punished for failure.
This level of trust can only come from sustained open communication. An Agile organizational structure should strive to bring down walls that hamper communication. Whether software developers or network engineering staff, everyone should know that this approach to management is not about apportioning blame.
Failures are opportunities to learn lessons and to set the team on a course of continuous improvement. Read about the importance of open communication in “Characteristics of Agile organizations”.
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