What is Agile?
Very few Agile journeys seem to get off to a smooth start. One reason for this is the Agile coach and teams don’t pause to create a shared understanding of Agile. In their hurry to begin, everyone jumps into “doing” before understanding the “What” and “Why.”
A definition of Agile is essential to shared meaning, which in turn creates a shared purpose. Without a shared goal, there will be chaos and unproductive conversations.
A definition also helps teams to validate that they are working on the right problem.
At the beginning of an Agile journey…
Jane West started her new assignment as an Agile coach with optimism. Her first meeting was with the executive sponsor for the Agile Transformation. Mary Wells was the SVP of the business unit that desperately needed to stave off nimble competitors who were eating away its market share. The SVP’s executive coach and peers recommended Agile to her as a turnaround strategy.
After receiving a quick pep talk, Jane thanked Mary for the opportunity and began her journey. In the next few days, her priority was developing empathy and co-creating a roadmap for the teams’ Agile journey.
Thus begins the trial by fire
A former coach had advised Jane thus:
“While Agile is proven, it does not mean every team needs to adopt Agile or will benefit from it. First, make sure there is a problem worth solving before suggesting Agile.”
Repeating this advice to herself, Jane walked into a conference room. A group of serious-looking people greeted her. Her escort turned to her and said, “Jane, I’d like you to meet the leadership team who will help you. Hello everyone, please extend a warm welcome to Jane!” The escort started clapping, but no one responded. Upon seeing the chilly reception, her companion whispered, “Good luck Jane, call me after the session,” and speedily exited the conference room.
Welcome skepticism as an opportunity to connect
Jane smiled at the group but got no response. Unfazed, she presented herself and invited the audience to introduce themselves. After learning everyone’s name and roles, Jane said something no one was expecting.
“I sense you are not very enthusiastic about me being here. I promise not to stick around unless I can add value. Shall we start with an assessment on whether I am needed? Are you in?”
A few heads nodded.
“Great! Thank you!”
Do you need Agile?
Jane displayed a questionnaire on the screen and said, “Why don’t we start with a rapid assessment of where you are in your Agile journey. I think you’ll like this simple yet effective way to assess your current score. It is not necessary to be accurate; your guess is sufficient for now.”
She invited the managers to select a score for each row, then add each row’s score to calculate their team’s total score.
After a few minutes, the managers were ready. Jane asked if anyone wanted to share their score. A couple of managers sheepishly shared their score. The rest of the managers sat in stony silence.
Then Jane flashed the below on the screen.
The silence in the room was deafening. Each manager knew they needed to change but also felt very vulnerable about sharing a low score.
“Success is the enemy of change”
Jane continued, “This is a rapid assessment of your team agility. Higher scores are more desirable than lower ones. However, a low score is not necessarily bad news. After all, you are giving a quick qualitative assessment. Just because the score is low does not mean you need to do anything about it. For one thing, the timing may not be right to make a change.”
One of the managers pretended to wipe sweat from his brow and said, “Phew!” Everyone laughed.
“If your score is high, the question is, would you like it to be better?” Jane continued. “A truly Agile team improves continuously; it does not rest on its laurels.”
After giving them a couple of minutes to digest the information, Jane raised an eyebrow as if to ask, “Well, what do you think?”
A small voice spoke up, “Keep going.”
Jane knew this was the turning point of the engagement. She continued calmly, “Your SVP invited me to coach your team to become Agile. I will not continue until you agree with your hearts and mind that we can work together to give Agile a fair trial. Do you agree?”
All the heads in the room nodded. “Well then,” said Jane, “Let’s get on the same page on what Agile means.”
Why do you need a definition?
A statement of the exact meaning of a word, especially in a dictionary.
A robust definition will provide insight into the intent of using a word. It ensures that two or more people refer to the same thing with the same meaning and purpose. The chaos caused by misunderstandings is entertaining in TV sitcoms but destructive in the workplace. A common understanding fosters meaningful interactions and is essential for change management. If you don’t know what Agile is, how can you embrace it willingly and mindfully?
The most powerful and overlooked benefit of a definition is this: It will help you sharpen your understanding of the problem to be solved.
After reviewing the formal definition (see below), Jane turned the discussion to their opportunities and pain points. Even though the current methods were not working, the team needed convincing that Agile was a good investment. Jane suggested they start with the business problems and opportunities and not with the tactics of Agile.
During the coffee break, a couple of managers took Jane aside. They whispered to Jane, implying they were sharing a confidential fact for her ears only, “We do daily standup and work in sprints, so we are Agile. You may want to start with one of the other teams first.”
As an experienced coach, Jane did not react to the condescending tone and rush to defend Agile. She mulled over what questions she could ask to clarify that merely following Agile practices does not make the team Agile. She picked up this topic after the break.
What is Agile?
Agile has four parts. This diagram explains it well.
She explained that Agile is a Mindset described by Values, defined by Principles, and manifested in Unlimited Practices. Understanding each element will get a complete picture of what Agile is and what it is not.
What is a Mindset?
A mindset is the established set of attitudes held by someone. It is beneficial to categorize, interpret, and simplify complexity, and it helps taking quick decisions under pressure. Over time, a mindset becomes deeply held beliefs, attitudes, assumptions, and influences on how and how not to do tasks. When there is a lack of awareness, a mindset can breed biases.
From the managers’ responses, Jane saw that the teams were following methods and practices that worked for them at one time. However, they continued to use the same techniques when asked to solve a different type of problem. They grew frustrated when methods and practices that worked in the past stopped working. While they knew change was needed, they felt vulnerable and did not want to be the first to lead the Agile Transformation. After all, a public confession that they were doing things wrong could be career limiting.
Education provides momentum to change. Using examples from her prior assignments, Jane coached the leadership on changing their mindset. She suggested an Agile Mindset class to ground everyone using a common taxonomy and vocabulary for Agile.
What are Agile Values and Principles?
Below is a summary of the Agile Manifesto. It describes the Agile Values and Principles.
The Agile Manifesto is a well-crafted and impressive document. It has held itself well over the years; it is truly timeless. To teach people to interpret and apply it to their work situation, Jane patiently and painstakingly tied her observations to a relevant value or principle. She emphasized, “The Agile Manifesto is not a set of rules to which you comply. Instead, you understand and adapt it to your situation.”
She continued, “My role as your Enterprise Agile Coach is to guide you in interpreting the Agile Manifesto to your specific use cases. Your Agility will grow as you operationalize each value and principle in your teams.”
She enjoyed the silence that ensued as people suddenly had a flash of insight into what Agile is.
What are Agile practices?
A hand went up in the back of the room. Jane raised an eyebrow as if to ask, “What is your question?”
The speaker asked hesitantly, “Coach, how do we operationalize the Agile Manifesto?”
Jane smiled as she responded, “There are many Agile practices that you can adopt. After the Agile Mindset training, I will lead you through a process that will ask questions to help you select Agile practices relevant to you. You get to decide which Agile practice you keep and which one is not working for you.”
The audience was visibly starting to feel better. Jane could see a speech bubble, “Maybe this Agile thingy might work after all.”
Instead of celebrating, Jane was waiting for the money question, which she knew was coming. To calm herself, she counted the seconds as she waited.
A gruff voice from the left of the room asked, “What is the big deal about Agile? What will we get that we are not getting already?”
What are the promises of Agile?
Jane took a deep breath as this was the moment she could connect with the audience and establish her credibility.
In a calm voice, she described the benefits. “There are four benefits from Agile. You can read about them on this slide. I need to emphasize that these benefits are not guaranteed. If you change your mindset and adopt the Agile practices, you have every reason to expect these benefits.”
“The questionnaire you saw earlier was a quick assessment of your score on each benefit you see here. Yes, it was quick and subjective but sufficient to let you decide on whether we should continue and give Agile a fair trial.”
“An Agile Transformation takes time, but you will see improvements along the way. I promise to review the progress of the agile Transformation with you every two weeks. I will need your help to remove impediments, but to be fair, you cannot remove the impediments unless the teams bring them to you.”
One of the managers stood up and started a slow clap. Soon a few others stood up and joined in the applause. A senior manager asked, “So when can you start, Jane”?
Jane smiled, “Looks like I just did!”
What success looks like
It was the weekend after the first meeting at her new assignment. Jane leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. The sound of the waves on the beach was soothing. She wiggled her toes into the warm sand and sipped a colorful drink with an umbrella in it. Life was calm, relaxing, and satisfying.
While she expected the new team’s initial pushback, it took patience and resilience to get through the conversations to arrive at a common understanding. She resolved deadlocks and gridlocks and staved off rathole discussions by sticking to the basics, explaining what Agile means, what it is, and what it is not.
Jane has a lot of work ahead, but she has started well in her new assignment. The initial part of any coaching engagement is the “forming” and “storming” phase. Everyone is getting adjusted to the change in mindset and behavior. The executive sponsor and managers have to systematically and thoughtfully reinforce the need for change and advocate improvements.
Best wishes to you on your agile journey! It can be long and exhausting. To ease the burden, remind yourself “why” you are on the Agile journey, and more critical, don’t forget to stop, celebrate, and sip your favorite beverage along the way. I invite you to check out my LinkedIn for more content on agile practices; an excellent starting point would be: Agile Transformation for Newbies and Rookies.
Venkat Narayanan is the Enterprise Lean-Agile Coach for Cisco’s Data & Analytics organization. His mission is to demystify business, compliance, and operational challenges in extracting value from data. He believes data is a strategic asset; almost all enterprises (big and small) have a “data problem.” Bad data is just a symptom of real business issues.