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How Agile Can Transform Itself For The New Decade

Agile Teams work together cross-functionally

By Mark Samuel & Stacia Topping –

Agile has proven to be such a valuable process and tool for technology companies that organizations in other industries have adopted it with success, as well. But our world continues to change, causing the business environment to speed up, become even more integrative and require an accelerated need to transform to a new level of operational excellence. The changes in our world require us to revise, modify and create new ways for how we live, work and think. Whether or not agile will be able to evolve effectively remains to be seen. Some have said it’s stuck and can’t pivot, especially in terms of future value (see “The End of Agile” and “The End of Agile: A Rebuttal,” for example).

In order to manage the execution of agile ideology and the development process itself, numerous methodologies were introduced, including but not limited to scrum, kanban and spiral. The intention was to create accountability, sustainability and effective collaboration on the timely delivery of products. But the ever-present and ongoing breakdown of these methodologies continues due to dysfunctional human behaviors, regardless of how well the methodologies have been put into place for software development or other projects.

One of the ways this breakdown shows up is in the (scrum) daily standup. Daily standups are rarely limited to 15 minutes, regardless of whether the team is actually standing. And little of that time is spent on how to collaboratively resolve delays. Teams rarely have the ability to “swarm” tasks that are blockers or behind schedule due to the lack of diverse expertise of team members who keep effective collaboration an unfilled ideal.

Another way breakdown occurs is in time estimations. Planning meetings and retrospectives can take considerable time, as does story writing. None of this is usually included in the estimations. The estimations themselves can become a matching game, causing people to make assumptions about how much time things will take based on how similar they are to previous releases, products or projects. So the development cadence can become predictable and slow due to the fact that we aren’t creatively solving for execution, but merely recycling previous behaviors. There is rarely, even during the retrospective, a commitment to process refinement and/or course correction beyond the identification of what went well and didn’t go well.

This leaves us with agile as a well-intentioned ideology with the imperfect execution of scrum, kanban and spiral. The absence of addressing cross-functional execution breakdowns across the organization and delivery improvement efforts within agile prevents the optimization of performance. Product teams that adopt agile methodologies may seem to operate within a bubble of the development organization, but they are in fact part of and dependent upon the operational ecosystem of the entire organization, which is rarely agile, even in the demanding and rapidly changing business climate of recent months.

Additionally, the methodologies are often myopic in numerous ways. The focus is on the release, product, project or team. Ideally, these are aligned with the overall business goals and priorities for the organization, but rarely are they aligned in a precise and detailed manner. We also tend not to think beyond our own team or group. We are dependent on other teams for resources and processes yet simultaneously compete for those same resources. So how do the various releases, products, projects, programs, teams, managers, departments, pillars and leaders align, collaborate and execute on the overall business priorities? While the various cogs in the engine may work to a greater or lesser degree, does the whole engine work, and is it driving the ship in the direction it needs to go? And can we quickly and effectively pivot the direction of the ship to address this uncertain and ever-changing business landscape today?

The agile ideology brought agility, sustainability, collaboration and awareness of customers to the forefront at a time when software development often involved detailed plans that took months, if not years, to build and deliver without any input from the customers. And agile can still be effective for the management of software development. But the business climate of today calls for collaboration, flexibility and focus beyond just our development teams. It requires companies, organizations and enterprises wanting to navigate the ever-changing “new” or “next” normal to think beyond whether agile and scrum methodologies are relevant or irrelevant.

In order for companies, organizations and enterprises to stay alive and effective, we need to shift our thinking and behaviors to create a culture of organizational alignment on business priorities where we aren’t just focused on delivering a product or project, but we are focused on how the delivery of a product or project contributes to the business as a whole. Agile and its accompanying methodologies may help us break the development tasks down into manageable, defined chunks of deliverable work, but we need to imbue that work with a focus toward the rapid forward movement of the entire company.

There are several questions that are at the heart of transforming and expanding successful agile efforts in our new rapidly changing business environment:

  • How do organizations create a culture of accountability, sustainability and effective collaboration to rapidly deliver business products and priorities across all levels, not simply at the project team level?
  • How do we alleviate the need for managers to be over-involved in micromanaging projects and teams so they have the space and time to collaborate across the organization on clearly defined and agreed-upon priorities?
  • How do we create a culture of trust within upper management that allows our leaders to focus on the business strategies and direction required in this rapidly changing business landscape?
  • How do we think beyond individual projects, programs and various product development methodologies in order to effectively address the organizational need for alignment across teams, managers, departments and pillars toward business priorities?

We need to ask and answer these questions today to create an agile transformation that will lead us successfully into the next decade.

This article was first published as a Forbes Coaches Council Post.

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