The popularity of the term “agile” originated in the Agile Manifesto which was written in 2001 to describe preferences for trade-offs in software engineering. The items on the left are favoured over the items on the right in order to deliver more valuable software as fast as possible.
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
- Working software over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change over following a plan
Almost 20 years later, agile has spread far and wide, and become the default way of working across more than just the software industry. Many organisations have embraced this mindset in order to do more with less, and deliver better outcomes for customers faster than ever before.
At the heart of this ideology is a very powerful, yet simple idea: trust your team to do the right thing and optimise all business processes to empower, rather than control them.
Where it all goes wrong!
Even though agile is widely adopted, it is often misunderstood to be a methodology or process that businesses can simply put in place and reap massive improvements in productivity. When measured using traditional metrics, many organisations are surprised to see little improvement or even the numbers getting worse!
This is because they have failed to grasp the most important concept around an organisation becoming agile. You can measure this misunderstanding by looking at common agile dysfunctions such as:
- Treating estimates like targets or deadlines
- Measuring velocity across teams and making performance judgements based on it
- Breaking down a large project plan into many pre-planned sprints ahead of time
- Changing project manager’s job titles to be “scrum masters” or “iteration managers” but without any change in behaviour or mindset
- Teams not being able to decide their own solutions to the problems they are directed to solve
- Teams not having all the resources and skill sets required to truly be autonomous and fully responsible for business performance
Usually the people at the coalface get it. They already know what needs to happen, when given total clarity about what business priorities exist and how to measure success.
The problems are often caused middle management failing to adapt or worse, those people acting through fear about becoming less valuable in the new way of working.
What is required for success?
Top level executive management needs to truly understand what shift in attitude is required, believe in it themselves, and be willing to work hard on transforming culture across all levels of the organisation. Without executive buy-in, no amount of training or consulting will change anything.
Once that commitment is present, the change will take time, communication and trust.
New cross-functional teams may be required, disrupting traditional functionally-orientated groups with existing reporting lines. Functional groups should instead become focused on organisational-wide best practice, training and decentralised decision making.
Access to information needs to become completely unhindered and free-flowing.
Customers need to be invited to participate directly in planning and review of unfinished deliverables, to catch problems as early as possible and adapt.
Teams need to be encouraged to measure the things that really matter, ask tough questions and be empowered to change plans to suit market realities.
The leadership team needs to focus on communicating crystal clear priorities and precisely defining the organisational purpose and values. All work that does not serve that purpose in some way becomes unimportant.
These statements may seem radical, and in reality in any large organisation there will always be exceptions. But the core principles of agile are universal. If you want to see dramatic improvements in real-world performance, you must be willing to disrupt the traditional red tape and bureaucracy that has always slowed down progress.
You must be willing to embrace agile principles to shape your new culture of innovation, trust and autonomy.