April 16, 2019

What Good is Agility without Alignment?

One of the biggest misconceptions of agile is that it focuses on speed. How fast can we deliver? How fast can we deliver on this project/product?

This short-sighted view of agile is causing a bigger problem — misalignment. Focusing on individual team velocity is causing misalignment both vertically and horizontally within organizations reducing their overall agility.

Vertical Misalignment

I define vertical misalignment as getting out of sync on whether we validated if we are building the ‘right’ thing. Too often in the pursuit of greater ‘delivery’ velocity, teams are siloed from interaction with the customer and/or business to develop/code stories authored from someone who was in those discovery meetings, based on that author’s single perspective. Isolating those teams from hearing directly from those discovery meetings does not let them witness first-hand to truly spend time understanding the problem or outcome that is trying to be achieved. Instead, they execute on acceptance criteria. This disconnect causes a huge gap for the product teams to understand their purpose for doing the work. This causes frustration from upper management that the team does not understand the customer and makes the teams feel disengaged, as they do not see their true purpose besides turning someone else’s stories into code.

Many leaders propose that they crave bottom-up innovation. You will never get that bottom up innovation until the Product Development Teams are invited to customer discovery meetings. We have to move from the perception that Product Development teams are just ‘techy’ people who produce code. These Product Development teams are great at problem-solving. They went into engineering to solve problems with creative solutions. Having them in the customer discovery meetings allows for direct communication and diverse perspectives and multiple options. Agile has proved what cross-functional teams can do in terms of producing high-quality releases. Taking it a step further, and having them involved in the whole journey allows for better vertical alignment.

Horizontal Misalignment

I define horizontal misalignment as getting out of sync with parallel development working on the same product/product area or supporting control functions like audits, etc. Too often when we are siloed in individual teams, we forget to make sure our work is aligned with other development teams in the same areas or that we’re aligned on work needed in conjunction with development like regulatory compliance. Teams can be siloed from each other by untransparent backlogs, by exclusion to other team events, and by missing connections to outside groups needs. This all accelerates this horizontal misalignment.

Aligning these teams in the end to end value streams sharing a single product backlog helps combat this misalignment. Reducing the teams to 10 or so per value stream can help keep the focus targeted. If no one team can release anything in isolation, then the way they work should not be isolated. Inviting in outside groups like auditing can ensure they all collaborate — inspect and adapt together.

Agility without alignment is simply getting you to nowhere quicker. Focus on ways to stay continually aligned. This continuous alignment will make you faster than delivery agility alone.

I would like to leave you with 3 things:

  1. Ensure you plan the project with the whole product development team involved from discovery to release. This way you can ensure vertical alignment to better deliver the right thing and improve employee engagement.
  2. Setup teams in value streams. Tools like Scrum.org’s Nexus can ensure you align teams who work in the same area to work better together by including shared events and artifacts. Also, including dependent work that needs to be done for regulatory compliance helps keep your organization in horizontal alignment.
  3. Use tools like the Lean UX canvas to allow the team to explore the problem space, the actors, and ideate together. Allow for the divergence of ideas and possibilities to be generated. Then you can choose the best option, not the first option.

Every keystroke is precious so I will end here.

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Lead how you would like to be led.

Dave

Twitter: @DDame

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