September 9, 2016

5 Beliefs That Predict Enterprise Agile Success

Kurt Bittner

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Agile approaches, including Scrum, are empirical approaches to delivering software and business value. It is ironic, then, that the biggest impediment to adopting an Agile approach is the culture of the adopting organization. The Cambridge English Dictionary states that culture is "the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time.” The beliefs of the people in the organization, and especially its leaders, are powerful predictors of whether that organization will successfully embrace Agile principles.  

Change is painful. The change that we ask organizations to make when they embrace Agile principles can be deeply unsettling. We ask the people in the organization to potentially see that everything they have come to believe about planning and managing software delivery, and even business value delivery, is wrong. They may believe that the best way to deal with uncertainty is to have a more precise plan. They may believe that resource specialization is the best way to manage scarce skills, and they believe that career paths based on specialization will best guarantee their economic success. They may believe that they will get the best results if they reward individual success and punish individual failure. Organizations that embrace Agile principles reject all of these beliefs, and many others, as false. When we ask people to embrace Agile practices, we are asking them to abandon a world view that, while not perfect, may seem to them better than the next best alternative. At the core of our mission to help them, we must show them that Agile is not just different but better. We are only successful in that mission when their beliefs change.

In order for us to do this, there have to be cracks in their world view that can let new ideas penetrate. I have found that the following beliefs establish the possibility that the organization is open to change. The greater the degree to which the people in an organization affirms these beliefs, the more open they will be to embracing Agile principles. Conversely, when those people do not affirm these beliefs, their organization’s cultural inertia may be too strong to overcome.

Belief #1: “If the organization does not change, it will cease to exist.”

There is nothing like imminent demise to make an organization willing to try something new. Plenty of organizations find themselves in this position today; upstart digital innovators are breaking old business models at a pace that traditional organizations cannot match. When an organization’s leaders believe that their current culture cannot produce the innovative products and services that the market demands, they are open to changing anything and everything.

The problem that many organizations face is that they don’t see that the world has changed around them until it is too late, if they even see it then. They can powerfully insulate themselves from seeing the truth. When they do finally see it they can succumb to despair or finger-pointing. Neither are productive. They must come to believe that Agile is a way out of the crisis in which they find themselves in order for an Agile transformation to be successful.

Belief #2: “The path forward cannot be planned or predicted without experimentation.”

Even when they believe that they are in trouble, people may still cling to the belief that traditional, predictive planning will save them. They may believe that if they can just deliver the competitor-killing new product that they have on the drawing boards, they will be fine. The problem with this belief is that when markets change, assumptions change along with them. Traditional planning approaches are chock-full of assumptions about markets, features, and customer needs that have never been tested or validated. As long as the organization believes that “the business” knows what customers want, they just need to deliver it faster, they will continue to cling to traditional delivery models.  

If they believe that they already know what they need to deliver, they will see no benefit in working iteratively, delivering working software, measuring the result, and refining their definition of the right solution. They will believe it reasonable to expect a detailed plan on when those requirements will be developed and tested. They must first come to believe that their understanding of customers is imperfect, that they really only have theories about what customers really need, and that they need to form and test hypotheses about those needs in order to achieve success. Once they believe this they are ready to embrace an empirical approach.

Belief #3: “Delivering business value is more important than individual employee utilization.”

Knowledge work in the 20th century came to be characterized by functional separation into roles and job categories, based on the assumption that work is specialized and that the best way to reduce cost is to keep expensive resources as busy as possible all the time. This usually means that people work on lots of different projects at once to minimize idle time. Since almost everything modern organizations do requires people to work together, the result of this is that everyone waits on someone else to get things done. More multitasking means more waiting on others, which leads to more multitasking and more waiting. The result is that delivering even the simplest change can take a very long time due to waiting and hand-offs.

Delivering value to customers, faster, means reducing wait time, which means reducing role specification and dedicating resources to focus on product delivery. The Scrum team does this by having dedicated multi-skilled resources that reduces their dependence on resources external to the team. This minimizes wait time and improves time-to-market. Until organizations value time-to-market more than employee utilization they will be unable to improve their ability to deliver value quickly.

Belief #4: “The organization’s leaders believe that their teams are capable of making decisions and doing the right thing.”

Traditional organizations reward and promote based on the ability for individuals to get things done. They reward initiative and results. They celebrate “heroes” who single-handedly rescue troubled projects from disaster. The underlying belief is that teams are incompetent on their own and without a strong hand guiding them they tend to be hapless. This, unfortunately, tends to be true in organizations who punish mistakes and does not encourage learning and innovation. Leaders in these cultures use phrases like “accountability”, and want to have “one throat to choke”.

Unfortunately, when the work is complex, these “heroes” usually cause more damage than they fix. Delivering software, or designing complex physical products that involve software, is a complex team activity, not the result of individual heroic acts. When the work is complex enough to require a team of professionals to deliver the product, managers must trust that the team is capable of making important decisions. Managers can set goals, ask questions, and clear impediments, but they must accept that they don’t understand the work and can’t effectively direct it. This realization can be an emotional punch in the gut, and is one of the hardest transitions a manager has to make when adopting an Agile approach.

When leaders believe in teams, they are tolerant of mistakes. They ask questions that help the team to learn from empirical data. They use retrospectives at multiple levels to help the organization learn and improve. They DO NOT look to lay blame or punish mistakes. They DO help the team clear roadblocks and make sure they have the resources they need.

Belief #5: “The organization’s leaders believes that innovation is more important than efficiency.”

An organization that values efficiency over innovation believes that it knows its customers and that it is building the products those customers want. It also believes that it is doing it better, at least in some important dimensions, than its competitors. An organization that values efficiency over innovation believes that it will differentiate itself through lower costs, or it believes that its prices are good enough and it simply wants to increase its profit margin. An organization that thinks efficiency is more important than innovation will never successfully embrace Agile principles.

An organization that values innovation over efficiency does not yet know what its customers want, or it seeks a new set of customers with unknown needs. It also does not yet know what it needs to do to meet those unknown needs. It relies, instead, on an empirical approach, on forming hypotheses about what customers need and what will satisfy them. It values fast delivery of high quality solutions, and it values and acts on feedback. Agile approaches help organizations systematically create solutions that test these hypotheses and adapt based on results.

Recommendation: Understand your organization’s belief system and choose battles carefully  
Large organizations are complex societies with sub-cultures and pockets of non-conformity. Even small organizations can have sub-cultures. If you’re trying to introduce Agile practices into an organization, focus on finding small enclaves where the traditional belief system is being threatened by forces from the outside - an emerging market segment, or one which is threatened by digital competitors. Build Agile success here first.  Success will get attention from other parts of the organization who are also similarly threatened and ready to change. Not all these beliefs may be fully in place, but there need to be signs that the beliefs are starting to change in an Agile-friendly direction. Beliefs can be influenced, nurtured or dampened, but they are ignored at one’s peril.