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True agile working means going beyond the hype…

“True agile working requires more than a scrum board and a pile of post-its.”

Responding to a rapidly changing market. Operating decisively and proactively. Improving continuously. Organizations rightly sense that they have to move with the times. They realize that innovation is of vital importance and customer loyalty can no longer be taken for granted. They’re aware that they don’t fully understand and can’t fully exploit all of the many opportunities IT offers. Agile working, so they’ve been told, is the answer. Agile is the prime solution to the challenges of today. And so they bring in change management firms and start working with post-its and daily standups. Teams are told they have to improve constantly and make time for retrospectives, definitions of done, and other scrum-related matters. Scrum masters and agile coaches are hard to find. Expectations are high because with agile everything will soon be a whole lot better.

I am an organization changer who has brought agile into enterprises. But, based on my experience, I predict that in a few years the majority of organizations will be saying: ‘We tried agile and it didn’t work for us. We’re going to do something else.’

The popularity of agile feels a lot like hype. Organizations have sky-high expectations and introduce it as if it’s a miracle cure. Everyone’s jumping on the bandwagon – if you don’t, you’ll be left behind. But hypes are superficial so agile is often seen as a collection of routines that automatically lead to improvement. Agile comes in through the window and problems go out the door.

If only it were that simple. I’d prefer not to talk about agile at all anymore, and focus instead on the three invisible pillars that keep an enterprise standing: the capacity to learn and to be customer-focused and flexible. That’s what it’s about, that’s what you need to work on with an agile approach. Agile is not a goal but rather a way to become a customer-focused, flexible and learning organization. And that requires many more changes to an organization than adding a bit of scrum and starting the day with a standup. Organizations need to regroup around the needs of their customers; they need to get rid of silos and make room to fail.

I still have to encounter an organization that says: ‘We have worked on our flexibility, our customer focus, and our capacity to learn. We tried it but it wasn’t for us. We’re going back to the bureaucratic monolith we’ve always been until we find something better.’ No one says that. But organizations do say: ‘We tried agile and it didn’t work for us.’ It’s working with agile in a superficial way that leads to attitudes like this.

Working to create a customer-focused organization

Agile working is seen as the solution to a wide array of problems that organizations face. But the pain such problems entail is often virtually invisible. In a customer-focused approach, the first step, for example, is to set down how long it will take for the customer’s requirements to actually be met. This can often be a painfully long time. The need for a different approach is thus quickly made clear.

We need to deliver faster, so let’s do it in an agile way. No, that’s not how it works. In a customer-focused approach, the first thing you do is gain insight into how your organization creates customer value. What it involves, why it takes so long. Gaining clarity in this regard is something that many organizations already find difficult. Take IT companies, for instance. They are often split into technology silos – application managers together, technical managers together, developers, testers, database administrators, infrastructure specialists – and the work rolls through them all. Most people in such silos don’t know enough about how the process as a whole creates customer value. You can only optimize this value stream when you genuinely understand it. But optimizing means you have to dare to intervene in the way in which your organization is set up, in the way in which you add value.

Organizations that introduce agile as a miracle cure, are making a big mistake. They think it’s enough to simply overhaul their meetings schedule and set up a scrum board and they forget to change how the organization is set up. Tackling the value stream means interfering with people’s positions, something that organizations are often reluctant to do. To optimize customer value and become truly customer-focused, teams have to be built around customers and their needs. That means restructuring and getting rid of silos. True agile working therefore also has consequences for power structures and not everyone finds this easy.

Working to create a learning organization

Agile working enables organizations to learn from daily activities faster than when working in traditional ways. Working in an agile way to create a learning organization only really has a chance if you’re prepared to implement dramatic changes. You can only learn if you appreciate what goes wrong, if you can see what can be improved. In other words: you can only learn if you understand failure. That might sound simple but in organizations, we don’t appreciate failure. Being successful and doing cool things, that’s what we welcome. The promotion goes to the person who can sell themselves the best in that respect. And that is rarely the person who has learned the most.

Agile working starts with being transparent about what you’re doing. What was the plan and how far have you come? What went well? Where did you fail? What can you learn from the differences between what was planned and what was actually achieved?

It’s focusing on failures that is really important. We might find this uncomfortable but we can’t do without it. How did we learn to ride a bike? Literally by falling down and getting back up. Grazed knees, running crying to mom – but never losing the desire to do better next time.

Failing is an essential part of the learning process and that applies to organizations too. If you turn failing into something negative, if you punish it instead of rewarding it, you will end up driving learning out of your organization. The role of management is important here because they have to discourage mediocre performance and reward ‘mistakes’ and lessons learned.

Managers don’t find this easy because it means letting go. I regularly hear managers exclaim: ‘Should I just let everyone mess around aimlessly?’ Of course, that’s the other extreme. Naturally, you can make results agreements with people and offer help if goals aren’t achieved. And, if things go wrong time after time, that’s when you intervene. Focusing on how someone does their work takes away the opportunity for them to learn from their mistakes. Focusing on what someone should do, lies, in the first place, with the customer. After all, the customer is paying for what they want, so you, as a manager, should take a step back. For managers, working in a truly agile way to create a learning organization, for the most part means facilitating and organizing things so that people can do their job, strengthening links between your people and your customers, and believing that mistakes lead to useful feedback and ideas.

Investing in small steps

Respond on time to market trends. Stop in time if you see that something is no longer delivering value. Organizations understand the need to be flexible. Agile working is therefore often introduced as a miracle cure for rigidity. But, just like working on a customer-focused approach and creating a learning organization, here too we have to implement real changes to make agile a useful tool.

Many organizations are obsessed with achieving results against all odds. They don’t stop in time. Despite the enormous investment, results are not achieved or take longer than promised…time to call on agile! Productive scrumming and working in short cycles to still achieve that final result. The sunk cost is invariably taken into consideration when deciding on additional investments – we’ve already spent so much that we can’t stop now – when you really should be looking at what impact those additional costs will have on the envisaged end result. What you’ve already spent is gone, there’s nothing more you can do about that.

True agile working means not only choosing short sprints, but also investing in small steps. In a traditional course of action, we consider in advance how much money will be spent on a project as a whole, what the scope will be and how much time will be needed to achieve the end result. Such projects are entirely inflexible because all the parameters are fixed. Messing with the scope inevitably means spending more time and money, or comprising the quality level agreed in advance. Tying everything down beforehand results in a false sense of security. You think you know how much time and money will be spent but in reality, it always turns out differently. When we work in a truly agile way, the budget is set at the operational level and per iteration, we consider if the next step is worth the investment. If you do this properly, you will be optimally flexible and the sunk cost will be kept low.
Often, teams find this flexible way of working very interesting, not least because they have more insight into the scope of their work. For project and investment payers and decision-makers, it’s a lot more difficult. It’s easier for them to set a detailed project budget and outcome in advance than to constantly have to make new investment decisions throughout the process. In the traditional situation, everything was settled in one go, now it seems like there is a built-in uncertainty factor that has to be constantly offset. Nonetheless, limited scope and small steps deliver so much valuable interim feedback that an organization is able to gift itself a priceless degree of flexibility.

True agile working means going beyond the hype…

True agile working requires more than a scrum board and a pile of post-its. Simply revamping how you meet and work under the guise of agile achieves nothing. After a year of standups – with or without post-its – the novelty will have worn off and, inevitably, real changes will never take place. That is the moment when organizations start looking at the next hype.

But if we together take the opportunity to become a customer-focused, flexible, and learning organization, the value will be created automatically. At the moment, giving up our regular positions and learning to appreciate failures feels like making a sacrifice. Such sacrifices are a heavy burden when you have no clear view of what you’re working towards.

But from my experience, I know that you will definitely reap benefits. I’ve seen how bureaucracy is reduced at organizations that work in a truly agile way, how enthusiasm returns to teams, and how organizations visibly create more and new value for their customers.

Author: Rob Kobussen