My company has started a top-down transition to Scrum and Kanban. Will that make us an Agile company?
About 2 years ago, I attended a conference hosted by the Swiss Association for Quality on the topic of Agility. As a warm-up exercise, the participants were given the 4 values of the Agile Manifesto, then asked to arrange themselves in space. How Agile is your company? How Agile do you think it should be? Very Agile on left, very traditional on the right. There was a cluster of people standing well to the right of center. “Why are you standing on the right?” It turns out that they were all from the railway. “Our job is to run the trains on time.” They were uncertain whether this agility thing was really aligned with their purpose.
|Ron Jeffries (l) and Steve Denning at Agile 2016
Photo thx to Steve Denning
Steve Denning has collected the evidence and laid out the case that Agile is not limited to software, nor is it merely a process, nor is it something you can do with part of your time, nor is it something you can have your staff do. Agile is a mindset, and this mindset is applicable to many if not all fields of endeavor.1 At the same, he questions whether the mindset is actually defined in the Agile Manifesto.2
What is this mindset? Where does it come from? How do you know that you or your company has it? And is it really missing from the Agile Manifesto?
There is no question that Steve is correct in his assertion that Agile is a mindset. Practitioners have known this since the beginning. I remember my first interview, back in 2008 or so, for employment at an Agile consulting company. The mindset question was my interview partner’s key question, and I couldn’t explain it. (No, I didn’t get the job.) In 2009, I opened the first Lean Agile Scrum Conference in Zurich with the thought, “In 2001, we started uncovering better ways of developing software. Since then, we have uncovered the need for better ways to lead organizations.”
More recently, the importance of the Agile mindset was the key finding of the Scrum Alliance Learning Consortium:
“A universal feature of all the site visits was a recognition that achieving these benefits [of Agile values and practices] is dependent on the requisite leadership mindset. Where the management practices and methodologies were implemented without the requisite mindset, no benefits were observed…. What is new is the way that the new management goals, practices, and values constitute a coherent and integrated system, driven by and lubricated with a common leadership mindset.”
Denning, Goldstein and Pacanowsky. 2015 Report of the Learning Consortium
I believe The Manifesto for Agile Software Development (“the Agile Manifesto”) does define a mindset. This mindset leads you to the 4 values, 12 principles, and uncounted practices that are helpful in software development. This mindset also leads you to the five shifts of Radical Management, which are much more generally applicable.
If Agility is mindset, then it starts in the head. It starts in the head of each individual. It starts in the head of the company, i.e. its leadership team, and it starts in the heads of the individuals that make up the leadership team.
I believe that you can assess the Agility of an organization through five simple questions, all derived from the Agile Manifesto, even if they are not primarily developing software. You can ask these questions to their leadership, and you can get confirmation from by asking their staff or customers the same questions.
Let’s look at how the Agile Manifesto defines the mindset, then derive a set of questions based on that mindset. Let’s take the case of a hypothetical railway: How would a railway apply the Agile Manifesto? How could an organization that values operational goals, like having the trains run on time, be Agile as well?
Quickly! What is the first sentence of the Agile Manifesto? If you said something about “people and interactions over tools and processes,” you got the wrong answer! But don’t feel bad. At the last Scrum Gathering in Bangalore, I asked 5 Scrum trainers the same question, and only one of them got the right answer! Here are the first sentences of the Agile Manifesto:
“We are uncovering better ways of developing software, by doing it and helping others to do it. Through this work we have come to value…”
How come no one talks about the first sentence? It carries so many messages! For example:
The first thing we have to let go of is the idea that this is about software. So let’s forget about all the tools and practices, even the values and principles (for a moment)! How could our hypothetical train system be Agile? Let’s start by making the first sentence of the Manifesto a bit more general:
We are uncovering better ways of doing what we do, by doing it and helping others to do the same.
The first question is, what exactly does our train system do? Run trains? Transport people and goods throughout the country? Something else? They might try this one on for size:
We are uncovering better ways of running the trains on time, by doing it and helping others to do the same…
What if our rail system incorporated this statement in its mission? How would that railway be different than the ones we know today? Simon Synek, in his famous work Start with why, gives us a clue:
“One by one, the German luxury car makers begrudgingly added cup holders to their fine automobiles. It was a feature that mattered a great deal to commuter-minded Americans, but was rarely mentioned in any research about what factors influenced purchase decisions.”
For context, Chrysler introduced modern cup holders with the Chrysler Voyager back in 1983o3. My 1993 BMW 3-Series did not have them. My 2001 BMW 5 Series had pretty flimsy cupholders, and my wife’s 2011 BMW 5 Series finally has pretty good cup holders.
What was missing here? A culture of learning, particularly of learning from outside the organization. An Agile organization is a learning organization. An Agile organization will be looking for, validating and embracing new ideas quickly, so that they can get better at doing what they do.
What does it mean to have an “Agile Mindset?” At the very least, someone who has the mindset is in alignment with the first sentence of the Agile Manifesto: We are uncovering better ways of doing what we do, by doing it, and helping others to do the same.
What does your organization do for its customers or stakeholders? The answer must contain a verb, and should represent something of value to your customers or stakeholders. So making money is not what you do. It is a result of what you do.
Even the choice of mission says something about what the organization values, which may in turn determine its ability to meet the challenges of the 21st century. If our train system just wants to run the trains on time, how capable will it be to respond to new market challenges like digitalization (Uber, Zipcar, Mobility) or technological advancement (electric cars, self-driving cars)?
Are you uncovering better ways of doing what you do, by doing it? This is about your culture of change and improvement. If you prefer the status quo, you are unlikely to be uncovering better ways of doing what you do.
Are you uncovering better ways of doing what you do, by helping others to do the same? “Helping” is a peer-to-peer activity, not a top down activity. So this not about getting training for your staff, this is about advancing the state of your art, having time to improve skills and technology, and learning and sharing beyond your own four walls.
The Agile Manifesto defines 4 value pairs:
“Through this work we have come to value:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
[Customer visible value] over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan
That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.”
As above, I have replaced “Working Software” with “Customer visible value” to make it a bit more general. The first of the twelve principles are:
There are no straw man arguments in the Manifesto. Intelligent people can and do value all of these things. In the experience of the Manifesto’s authors, emphasizing the points on the left produces better results than emphasizing the points on the right. For example Scrum, a leading Agile framework, strives to ensure that the right people talk to each other about the right thing at regular intervals. If followed, the Scrum process ensures that this happens.
By putting valuable things in relationship to one another, Agile values become a tool to guide decision making, which in turn enables more distributed decision making.
Must an organization embrace these values to be an Agile organization? This is a harder question, because context can be very different. What would an Agile police force or military unit choose to value? What would our hypothetical train system value?
As a frequent user of the Zurich public transportation system, I believe that they want to provide a high level of service to their customers, defined as on-time performance, frequent connections, ease of use, and comfort. But if they catch you without ticket, they have no mercy, and they don’t care about your reasons!
Ensuring compliance with ticketing rules or showing compassion to loyal customers? How would our Agile train system decide this case? Would they want to handle it differently? Answering this question requires thought, and who is best positioned to make this decisions? The people who understand the problem best.
What other conflicting values might our train system choose to evaluate? For example:
Our hypothetical train system could prefer either side of these pairs, and still be “uncovering better ways to run trains.” While valuing compliance over loyalty seems to come in conflict with the first Agile principle, it might be necessary to ensure the existence of the train system. An Agile organization knows what it values and why. An Agile organization has reflected on its values, using the values of the Agile Manifesto as its starting point, and can explain why it values what over the things it does not.
Have you reflected on the values and principles of the Agile Manifesto and what they mean for you? Can you concisely explain your values and why you value them?
It may be possible to kid yourselves, but kidding your customers and staff is much harder. So ask yourself:
Now go ask your customers, stakeholders, and staff the same question! (Thanks to Raphael Branger of IT-Logix for this suggestion!). Comparing your internal perception with the external perception is both a reality check and your first opportunity to start uncovering better ways of doing what you do!
If you can concisely answer the first question and answer yes to the remaining questions, then I believe you can say you have an Agile mindset. If your company and its leadership can answer yes to these same questions, then I believe you can claim that your company is an Agile organization:
I started interviewing the leadership of various companies that have an affinity to Agile. The first feedback has been, “this provokes interesting discussions!” and “let’s give this to our customers and see what they think!). As I get more data, I will share in this forum.
I have created a one-page questionnaire (“Peter’s 5 Question Assessment“) which you can use to conduct this assessment. I call it release candidate two, because it is a work in progress. Feel free to try it out, and please send me suggestions, improvements, and data!
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