Agile like cooking is about  people.

Agile, like cooking, is about people.

Over the past few weeks I have been asking friends and colleagues to formally answer the following question:

What are the top reasons you think an organization succeeds in implementing Agile?

We have already covered the top six reasons organizations succeed with Agile.

  1. Senior Management
  2. Engagement, Early Feedback (Tied)
  3. Trust, Adaptable Culture, Coaching (Tied)

The folks that participated in this survey are from a highly experienced cohort of process improvement personnel, testers or developers. Completing the top eleven success factors in the survey are the areas of process discipline, team size, capable people and appropriate training.

Process discipline reflects the team’s capability to follow and improve the organization’s standard processes. For example, if Scrum were the standard Agile project management process you would expect that the team would follow standard practices of Scrum. The team would use retrospectives to tailor that process based on data gathered through experience within the limits the organization established. Process discipline is required for a group of people to work together to solve a common problem without tripping over themselves. Without process discipline it will be difficult for team members to predict how other team members will behave, requiring a need to built in contingency.

Team size influences efficiency and effectiveness of Agile techniques. Agile teams typically have five to nine members. Team size is the sum of the entire core team: product owner, Scrum Master and the development members. Many of the collaborative techniques typically used in Agile don’t work well when the team’s size expands.  For example, large teams tend to have difficulty completing standup meetings in a reasonable period of time, which causes participants to become bored and inattentive. When team members start to check out, command and control management techniques are generally substituted for Agile techniques and principles.

Capable people are required to apply Agile processes. This was the most obvious success factor and probably the one that is least specific to Agile. Capable people are a requirement for any type of work. The combination of personal capability and engagement, an earlier success factor, both are required for Agile to prosper in an organization.

Appropriate training is required to apply Agile. Training should be provided, not only to the core team, but to all of the stakeholders that will be impacted by the team’s new behavior. Training generally needs to be nuanced. Business stakeholders will have different training and knowledge needs than IT support teams. On a cautionary note, many organizations confuse presentations with training. Training for Agile needs to embrace adult learning concepts that include an explanation and hands on practice before trainees are asked to use the material. In order to be most effective, training should be deployed just prior to time of need (just-in-time training).

Success implementing and using Agile requires that teams keep their eye on the ball both in terms of using the process and delivering value. Process discipline, team size, capable people and training all revolve around people, and it bears repeating that people are center of the Agile world.

Adaptable culture, not adaptable hair...

Adaptable culture, not adaptable hair…

So far we have discussed three of the top factors for successful Agile implementations:

  1. Senior Management
  2. (Tied) Engagement and Early Feedback

Tied for fourth place in the list of success factors are trust, adaptable culture and coaching.

Trust was one of surprises on the list. Trust, in this situation, means that all of the players needed to deliver value, including the team, stakeholders and management, should exhibit predictable behavior. From the team’s perspective there needs to be trust that they won’t be held to other process standards to judge how they deliver if they adopt Agile processes. From a stakeholder and management perspective there needs to be trust that a team will live up to the commitments they make.

An adaptable culture reflects an organization’s ability to make and accept change.  I had expected this to be higher on the list.  Implementing Agile generally requires that an organization makes a substantial change to how people are managed and how work is delivered.  Those changes typically impact not only the project team, but also the business departments served by the project. Organizations that do not adopt to change well rarely make a jump into Agile painlessly. Organizations that have problems adapting will need to spend significantly more effort on organizational change management.

Coaches help teams, stakeholders and other leaders within an organization learn how to be Agile. Being Agile requires some combination of knowing specific techniques and embracing a set of organizational principles. Even in more mature Agile organizations, coaches bring new ideas to the table, different perspectives and a shot of energy. That shot of energy is important to implementing Agile and then for holding on to those new behaviors until they become muscle memory.

Change in organizations is rarely easy. Those being asked to change very rarely perceive change being for the better, which makes trust very difficult. Adopting Agile requires building trust between teams, the business and IT management and vice versa. Coaching is a powerful tool to help even adaptable organizations build trust and embrace Agile as a mechanism to deliver value and as a set of principles for managing work.

Engagement and feedback are interrelated like the bricks in the aqueduct.

Engagement and feedback are interrelated like the bricks in the aqueduct.

In Senior Management and the Success of Agile Implementation, I described the results of a survey of experienced process improvement personnel, testers or developers felt contribute to a successful Agile implementation. Tied for second place in the survey were team engagement and generating early feedback. These two concepts are curiously inter-related.

Team engagement is a reflection of motivated and capable individuals working together.  Agile provides teams with the tools to instill unity of purpose. Working with the business on a continuous basis provides the team a clear understanding of the project’s purpose. Short iterations provide the team with a sense of progress. Self-management and retrospectives provide teams with a degree of control over how they tackle impediments.  Finally, the end-of-sprint demonstrations provide early feedback. Feedback helps reinforce the team’s sense of purpose, which reinforces motivation.

Early feedback was noted in the survey as often as team engagement. In classic software development projects, the project would progress from requirements through analysis, design, coding and testing before customers would see functional code.  Progress in these methods is conveyed through process documents (e.g. requirements documents) and status reports. On the other hand, one of the most important principles of Agile states:

Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.

Delivering functional software provides all of the project’s stakeholders with explicit proof of progress, and provides stakeholders with a chance to provide feedback based on code they can execute. Early feedback increases stakeholder engagement and satisfaction, which also helps to motivate the team. As importantly, since stakeholders see incremental progress, any required course corrections are also incremental.  Incremental course corrections help to ensure that when the project is complete that most value possible has been delivered.

Team engagement and early feedback are both important to successful Agile implementations. Interestingly, both concepts are inter-twined. Feedback helps to generate engagement and motivation. As one of the respondents to the survey stated, “Agile succeeds when it instills ‘unity of purpose’ and builds a ‘community of trust’ within an organization.” Team engagement and early feedback provides a platform for Agile success.

Senior leadership needs to lead by example.

Senior leadership needs to lead by example.

Over the past few weeks I have been asking friends and colleagues to answer the following question:

What are the top reasons you think an organization succeeds in implementing Agile?

The group that participated in this survey are from a highly experienced cohort of process improvement personnel, testers or developers. Not all of the respondents were sure Agile and success belonged in the same sentence (more on that later in the week). There was a rich range of answers, however after the first dozen responses a consensus formed. Today I would like to explore the most important success factor as reported in this survey: senior leadership support.

Senior management support was the most often mentioned factor influencing Agile success. By far one of the significant factors mentioned was that senior management exhibits a true understanding of Agile. In particular, senior managers must understand what Agile really is, rather than falling prey to buzzword bingo.  One of the respondents suggested that, “I feel most senior leaders that I have dealt with don’t have a full understanding of what is needed and it trickles down to the rest of the organization.” Senior leaders need to walk the talk when it comes to Agile if they expect to implement Agile successfully.  They need to prove to both team members and middle managers that they understand how Agile impacts the flow of work through a sprint and that Agile teams are expected to self-organize. Senior leaders will help pull the transition to Agile forward by asking questions that elicit proof that teams are acting Agile.  For example, asking to see team’s burn down chart rather than report-based status reporting sends a strong message that leads behavior.

In many organizations, following the process is as important as the outcome of any specific project. This is based on the presumption that precisely following the process insures success. In the role of process champion, senior leaders own one of the more significant barriers to change. Senior leadership needs to incent teams to try new processes such as Scrum. Senior managers need to understand that Agile frameworks are scaffolds that need to be tailored to fit project needs and requirements. Providing the incentive for teams to experiment will create an environment of flexibility so that teams can decide how address impediments as soon as they are encountered.

Teams need support from senior leadership to allow innovation or Agile implementations will fail. Support for Agile innovation derives from the expectations of senior management that teams will use Agile techniques.  These expectations need to be part of the annual goals and objectives and be in evidence in the questions that leaders ask of middle managers and project teams. The power of asking for questions that require that teams prove they are using Agile is a VERY powerful evidence of a senior leader’s expectations.