The Agile movement was built on a premise that skilled, motivated individuals working on teams could self-organize and self-manage in order to deliver value and make their customers happy. Acceptance of this premise means that leaders, who are generally already successful, need to change how they make decisions on a day-to-day basis. Changing how successful leaders and managers work is hard. Some organizations and leaders have been able to change how they worked and embraced a systems-thinking view of their organization. This change has shifted significant levels of decision making from middle management into the team. The change in the approach to thinking and decision-making Agile is based on several criteria:
- Cross-functional teams. Scrum, the most commonly adopted Agile framework, demands that functionality is potentially implementable at the end of each sprint (or iteration). In order to transform a story into implementable code requires a range of skills. Teams of all coders, business analysts, database analysts or testers can’t transform a user story into code that can be put into production at the end of an iteration. Cross-functional teams are often at odds with organizations that have organized teams by specialties and then move work around in a matrix or factory fashion. For example, in many organizations coders code and once coding is done pass the code to the testing team.
- Diverse perspectives. Much has been written on the need for teams to have a diverse perspective. In many cases, significant progress has been made on this front. The gotcha is that diverse perspectives include not only different technical specialties and backgrounds but also business acumen. This last item has been a stumbling block with the rise of the proxy product owner who is often a business analyst or someone in the technology hierarchy without access to internal and external customer knowledge because of the barrier between development and the business.
- Using systems thinking to guide work. Organizations are a series of interlocking systems. The software is generally an integral cog in a bigger picture. Systems thinking is an approach to problem-solving that emphasizes the whole process, including the environment the system, like software development, operates within. Organizing work to maximize the flow through the system increases value to the entire organization. Improving any specific step without having a few view of the whole can lead to improvements in a step that to do not translate to the bottom line (this is called local maximization). Often software development offers a constrained example of a breakdown of systems thinking in which specialist such as coders, testers, and business analysts each tries to make their internal processes more efficient without reference to the bigger picture. This lack of systems thinking is typically a reflection of how people are organized and how they are incented. Organization and incentive plans, while not carved in stone, are tied to an organizational culture which makes them difficult to change.
- Servant Leadership (ish). A servant leader is the representative of a goal; a servant leader draws followers to the goal and then helps them to improve. The term was popularized in the 1970’s by Robert Greenleaf and has evolved into a current definition which focuses on helping the team/followers to improve. Servant leadership is a very powerful tool to help unlock the power of teams and therefore is a core attribute of effective Agile. The problem is that servant leadership is difficult to implement and often at odds with the hierarchical management structures common in the corporate environment.
The Agile movement has moved many early adopters away from solely relying on eminence-based leadership, which is associated with seniority and hierarchy as is normal in command and control environments. Much of the easy change is over and a more pragmatic and slow evolution that is wrestling with changing organizations cultures that are less driven to change is now occurring. The shift away from the loud insistence of team-based, servant leadership is a direct signal that Agile as a movement has run its course. Just because the movement is over does not mean that systems thinking and Agile leadership styles will not continue to slowly penetrate organizations. They will continue to penetrate but only as they overcome culture, organizational hierarchies, incentive plans and lack of business involvement which will be a long term grind!
Planned essays in Post Agile Age Arc include:
- Post Agile Age: The Movement Is Dead
- Post Agile Age: Drivers of the End of the Agile Movement and Method Lemmings
- Proscriptive Norms
- A Brand Driven Ecosystems
- A Lack of Systems Thinking/Management (Current)
- The Age of Aquarius (Something Better is Beginning)