We’ve Been Agile for Years, But…

When teaching classes on Agile and DevOps, I am always presented with the comment, “We’ve been Agile for years, but…” The student then continues to describe an organization rife with Agile ant-patterns.

Agile and DevOps are primarily cultural transformations. To “be Agile,” we need to unlearn many of our existing management and software development beliefs. We need to shift from a process-based to values-based mindset and belief system.

Over the past several years, many organizations have embarked on their Agile and DevOps journeys. They have acquired the new vocabulary, artifacts, ceremonies, and tools. But, they have not changed how they operate. To truly realize the benefits, organizations need to fundamentally transform their environment and culture.

Here is some guidance on how to shift thinking and behaviors to the Agile mindset:

Building Empowered, Self-Managing Teams

Empowered, self-managing teams are the cornerstone of Agile and DevOps. Accepting and trusting the team to be self-managing is contrary to classical management beliefs. These beliefs are rooted in the industrial past and assume workers need to be managed.

Transforming the classic labor-management dynamic does not occur by fiat. Announcing an Agile transformation initiative and updating the organization chart is the first step. However, “being Agile” requires a long-term commitment to building and maturing the culture. It also requires trust and patience.

Few traditional teams are accustomed to working in this environment. For one thing, the behavioral patterns of self-management are new and not self-evident. The Agile coach and scrum master can play a critical role in this transformation.

Role of the Enterprise Agile Coach

The Agile coach plays a critical role in the transformational effort. The coach is a mentor to executives and managers, and helps guide the overall transformation effort. Coaches have experience working in multiple environments. They know the likely pitfalls, and can help the organization navigate the journey.

An Agile or DevOps transformation challenges our well-worn management patterns. Just like the Agile teams, the managers and leaders also need to adapt to this new environment. The agile coach can be the confidant, mentor, and guide through this process. They can teach and model the new behaviors needed to lead an Agile organization.

For example: coaches can support managers to curb their instinctual reaction to intervene when there is a bump in the road. Organizations undergoing an Agile or DevOps transformation often experience the J-curve effect. There is a dip in performance as teams adapt to then new environment. Understandably, many managers want to intercede and “lead the team.” The coach can guide the managers through this phase and help channel their energy into more constructive behaviors.

Role of the Scrum Master

The scrum master has the day-to-day responsibility to guide the team to adopt the new cultural. Experienced scrum masters observe the team and help them unlearn their long, ingrained patterns. They also teach the new patterns of engagement and behavior.

The scrum master plays a role similar to an athletic coach. Most athletes develop their way of throwing, running, or swimming without the benefit of a professional analyzing and correcting their form. A good coach will adjust the form to be more efficient or avoid injury. Unlearning muscle memory, and learning new patterns requires on-going observation and improvement.

Role of the Team

The team is on the front-line of the enterprise’s transformation effort. Adopting the values and principles of collaboration and self-management are key to realizing the power and potential of Agile. The Scrum Values provide the guidance for the team’s journey:

  • Commitment to the Agile journey, their customers and each other;
  • Courage to make and sustain the commitments and to be honest and open;
  • Focus on the values and principles of Agile, which will lead the team to achieving its potential;
  • Openness to the process and our teammates; and
  • Respect which creates an environment where people to admit when they are stuck or need help.

The sprint retrospective provides the venue for continually examining the team’s performance. Teams should take this opportunity to critically and honestly review how they are working as a unit and ask how they can improve in the next increment.

The team should periodically review their documented working agreements (normative behaviors). Reviewing the agreements helps reground the team to their commitments and inform changes that need to be made.

Establishing clear and measurable performance objectives provides the team with a clear perspective on the progress.

Moving to Servant Leadership

For managers, shifting from a command-and-control style to being a servant-leader is hard. I have had managers ask, “what is my role if I am not providing direction or assigning work?”   Empowering, delegating, coaching and mentoring require a great deal of trust and patience.

I often suggest the manager focus on outcomes rather than process. The team invariably develops its own solutions and methods. The team’s approach will differ from the manager’s.   The manager should be satisfied as long as the team maintains its commitments to the customers and the enterprise.

Managers can use delivery commitments, velocity, and quality metrics to assess the performance. If teams are not meeting expectations, then managers can engage the Scrum Master and team in a constructive dialogue. What are the blockers and impediments? Often environmental or organizational factors are the real impediments.

When a manager initiates a performance conversation, it is not an invitation to step back into the old patterns. Rather, it is an opportunity to practice new, servant-leadership skills.

Embracing Product Ownership

In Scrum, the product owner plays a critical role. Many organizations struggle with this new and unfamiliar role.

The product owner has sole responsible for maximizing the value of the product being developed. The product owner represents all of the stakeholders, which requires business knowledge, leadership skills, and self-confidence.

Organizations adopting Agile must recognize product ownership as a foundational building block. To be successful, the product owner should have a clearly defined role and power within the organization. People with the right background, skillset, experience, and influence should be assigned these roles. In other words, the product owner should have both domain knowledge and political capital.

Transforming Enterprise Governance

Enterprises that have adopted Agile practices at the team level are often challenged by enterprise funding and governance processes. This framework is a challenge for Agile:

  • Governance organizations cling to the “project” as the primary unit of measurement and control;
  • Decisions are based on the triple-constraint paradigm of scope, cost, and time;
  • Funding is allocated on an annual cycle; and
  • Governance and control are tied to process milestones.

A more Agile-friendly governance process would:

  • Fund persistent teams that can deliver a given capacity of work;
  • Shift from executing projects with a specified scope to delivering products with an ever emerging set of features;
  • Regularly prioritize the portfolio and product backlog based on the current enterprise necessities; and
  • Embrace the principle of incremental development and minimum viable product.

These enterprise changes will help align the governance and funding ecosystem to the Agile development mindset and values.

Agile and DevOps are primarily cultural and organizational transformation efforts. They require the unlearning of the old ways of working and adopting new ones. These changes don’t come easily or quickly. For enterprises to be successful, they need to commit to an ongoing process that addresses these cultural and organizational changes.

© 2017, Alan Zucker; Project Management Essentials, LLC

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Jones, M. J., & Sanghi, S. (2006). Chapter 5, Rule-Based versus Values-Based Culture

In Driving excellence: how the aggregate system turned Microchip Technology from a failing company to a market leader. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Retrieved from books.google.com

Scrum Values. (n.d.). Retrieved July 06, 2017, from https://www.scrumalliance.org/why-scrum/core-scrum-values-roles

The Scrum Guide. (2014). Retrieved July 07, 2017, from https://www.scrumalliance.org/why-scrum/scrum-guide

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