It’s hard to spend time in the software development world or digital business space without encountering the term “Agile” in some form or fashion. Since the introduction of the Agile Manifesto in 2001, new life has been given to this simple adjective, and has subsequently evolved into a development philosophy that’s taken the business world by storm. Hot new phrases like “delivering value early and often” and “business agility” have inspired board rooms around the world and created an unstoppable rise of Agile adoption. As companies race to seek this value through radical change, an ever-widening gap has emerged between adoption and understanding. Many companies have raced to the hills to seek the gold mines of value that Agile promises, while forgetting to equip themselves with the knowledge and tools to mine the value when they get there. In this blog series, we help you build bridges across this gap, giving your business the basic tools needed to find real value in Agile.
Let’s Do Agile
Allow me to paint a picture that you may have encountered. Some well-intentioned manager or customer, excited by a recent conference or conversation excitedly announces, “Let’s do this next project Agile!” When pressed for details they go on and on about “Stand Ups,” “Product Reviews,” and “Backlogs.” Over the next couple of weeks people watch videos, read articles, and roughly patch together a quilt of techniques to wrap around the routine work of their projects. Like farmers marching to battle with pitchforks and kitchen knives, the eager teams arrive to the fight to find their rapidly acquired tools and training woefully inadequate for the task. To keep management happy, they adopt a veneer of agile language. You keep the “standups,” talk about “delivering early and often,” and you rename all your requirements “user stories.” In reality, it’s apparent to everyone but your managers that you just slapped some Agile lipstick on the same smelly pig called Waterfall that’s been wallowing in the mud of your organization for years. Agile is gradually reduced to a few new rituals, a set of corporate buzzwords, and some flashy marketing material on your company’s web page. What went wrong?
First Things First
You may have experienced something like the above scenario at your organization. For those that have advanced beyond it to a real Agile workplace, you probably realize that the people involved lacked a fundamental understanding of what Agile really is. Agile is not a series of steps or techniques that, when spoken like an incantation, turn a toad into a handsome prince. It’s first and foremost a philosophical shift in what we value in our organization. In fact, the Agile Manifesto says nothing about techniques, methods, tactics, or “stand ups.” Rather, it outlines a new set of value propositions that drive what we prioritize in our work and represent the core of what Agile truly is. Unlike the change in practice, technique, and strategy that corporate leaders welcome, Agile proposes change in something much deeper…ourselves.
In an extended quote, one of the authors of the Agile Manifesto, Jim Highsmith, has this to say about the grand ideas that emerged in 2001 and spawned the Agile movement.
“At the core, I believe Agile Methodologists are really about “mushy” stuff—about delivering good products to customers by operating in an environment that does more than talk about “people as our most important asset” but actually “acts” as if people were the most important, and lose the word “asset.” So, in the final analysis, the meteoric rise of interest in—and sometimes tremendous criticism of—Agile Methodologies is about the mushy stuff of values and culture.”
There is nothing wrong with excitement for the value that Agile promises or adopting the techniques that Agile frameworks promote. However, these things produce little to none of the change that Agile promises if they are not preceded by an honest, open, and ongoing evaluation of corporate values and culture.
How to ‘Be Agile’
So, what does the Agile Manifesto have to say about being Agile? The good news is the ideas are simple. Unfortunately, the required shift in thinking is hard. Let’s take a quick look at the first Agile core value to illustrate this point.
We value individuals and interactions over processes and tools. At face value this seem like common sense and is what most company leaders believe they want, until they are faced with reality.
To illustrate, imagine your company recently invested in a new project management tool to help the executives get a better high-level view of all the project statuses and risks. The tool is part of a change initiative that is expected to improve operational efficiency by 10% through tighter risk control and higher visibility into project budgets. Some of the “Individuals” on the project teams are complaining that the tool is constraining and the way the tool packages information about their projects is misrepresentative of what’s actually happening. Moreover, they fear it’s beginning to incentivize behaviors that make their work look more successful based on tool measures, but are ultimately less successful for the project. The executives dismiss these grumblings as typical resistance to change, especially since the organization has already invested hundreds of man hours and significant operational funds to acquire and implement this tool.
These same executives would, no doubt, cling to their conviction that they value individuals and interactions over processes and tools, but when the rubber meets the road, which did they choose?
Remember, the Agile values do not say that there is no value to the items on the right (i.e. processes and tools), but demand that when faced with the choice, organizations value the items on the left (i.e. individuals and interactions) more. Starting to see why this is hard?
Where Change Begins
The Agile values serve as a touchstone in scenarios like the one above and act as a lighthouse in the ongoing and complicated storm of an operational business. A desire to reap the value that Agile promises must be accompanied by an equal desire and commitment to cultural change, which begins and ends with corporate leadership. So, when thinking about Agile and the change it could bring to your organization, start by reading The Agile Manifesto. Study it. Think about it. And then ask if you are ready to change.
Looking into the Future
If you’ve done the research and the answer is yes, then congratulations, it’s time to dive into the differences between Agile methodologies and frameworks.
For those of you that are still in the research phase, remember that Agile methodologies, frameworks, techniques, and buzzwords have little effect if they are not built on the foundation of Agile values and principles. We hope you read the Agile Manifesto and invite you to explore the Agile principles and values in our eBook, The Agile Imperative: 5 Questions to Guide You to Agile Excellence.
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