Agile organizations

Top Down or Bottom Up - Large Scale Agile Adoption

So I've worked in both large and small organizations where we have gone through an Agile adoption or the phrase of the day, Transformation. Having seen both sides of the coin I started realizing that you have two paths to take when considering moving your organization to an Agile delivery methodology.

I use the phrase delivery, because I think at the end of the day that is what we are talking about.  Strip away the manifesto's goals of conversation over documentation, accepting change, etc...What are are really talking about is moving an organization from a Project delivery methodology to one that is Product delivery oriented.

What is the difference?  From a Management perspective actually quite large.

  1. Project Delivery - These have very strong controls which move people to a new project.  Budgets are set up for the specific time period of the project and then up front requirements and design are completed in order to ensure that the project is fully ready to be engaged.  Project Managers manage all facets of the project via extensive project planning and plans.  Management receives up dates as to the project progress on a regular schedule, usually weekly. Resources are assigned either in full or in part, yet no one actually monitors nor can they really manage whether or not someone is working 25% on a particular project.  Projects tend to focus on reporting and there is high pressure to ensure that individual projects are green, which drives teams to deliver on the easiest and often less valuable parts of the project first and only at the end of the project is the hard work tackled, which reveals itself as budget overruns or timeline delays (or worse delivery of reduced scope).  Project reporting is elaborate and management receives project reports that are often sanitized.  Value is typically not delivered to the organization until the end of the project.
  2. Product Delivery - The work that is done for a Product is centered around a value stream it delivers and the work is ongoing.  Teams are funded as a whole and are kept together long-term in order to maximize their productivity.  Work is planned out in short increments called Release Plans that span anywhere from 6-12 weeks, with 2 week sprints.  Management receives regular updates (2 weeks) but can access information radiators at anytime, transparency is the key and goal with Agile Product Delivery.  Teams commit to work in 2 week sprints and their commitment is key to building trust with Management.  As time goes by management can trust that both a teams abilities and productivity can be counted on.  Teams are focused on delivering high quality code to production every two weeks which brings value to the organizations investment in them along with the increased value in terms of new sales, reduced costs, etc...Feedback loops via Product Demonstrations provides management the ability to assess where they are going with the product and deliver not what was asked for up front (Project Delivery) but rather what is actually needed (Product Delivery).

So what does the difference between Project and Product delivery approaches have to do with Agile adoption, well everything.

Most Agile adoptions begin at the bottom of the organization with the teams tasked with developing new software.  These efforts are borne, as the Agile manifesto was, out of frustration with how software was being developed in their respective organizations.  Often management is aware of the issues these teams face but are unable or unwilling to make any changes to how things are currently working and why would they?  You learn very early in your career that rocking the boat is not something that goes over well with organizations, my first boss told me I couldn't by computers that weren't from IBM because you don't get fired if you buy IBM. The message is that if anything goes wrong you need to point to well-known names, processes, etc.. with which to blame or use as support.  To think that this doesn't go on today is to place your head in the proverbial sand.

Though we can have great success with bottom up Agile adoptions with respect to improved productivity within small groups/teams, the overall Project oriented organization is typically still in place.  Management still wants to see project plans, have things 'planned' out for up to an entire year, they aren't comfortable with the fuzzy feel of product roadmaps.  They want commitments, even false ones, so that when things fail they can point to the fact that they had all of their planning in place.

For Agile to really take hold, Sr. Leaders need to change the way that they manage both their people and the work.  It starts first I think in understanding that we have not learned how to speak to management very well yet from an Agile/Scrum perspective.

We need to understand what management is really concerned about and then center our product delivery efforts around that.  One of the problems that we face with some of our leaders is that they themselves don't always know what to be focused on, they are looking at multiple balls in the air but at the end of the day as a Sr. Leader I think I have just a few things I should be focused on:

  1. Growth - This is often related to sales, market and revenue.
  2. Profits - Tightly aligned with the first item, our ability to make a consistent profit is what helps us continue to reinvest in our company.  Ever increasing revenue or sales without corresponding profits will eventually lead a company into bankruptcy, money isn't free and it is not endlessly available, in spite of what we think we see with new technology organizations.
  3. Organizational Excellence - Because none of the above can happen unless you have a great organization.

Agile actually addresses all of the above, yet we spend more time talking about how we will improve our individual work efforts which causes us to  fail to tie this to the needs of management.  Management on the other hand often views the improvements that come from the bottom up approach as more of an anomaly rather than an organizational improvement worth adopting.

Trust is the missing component when it comes to conveying how Agile will make the entire organization better.

Agile isn't easy and it requires skills that frankly many of our Sr. Leaders lack or don't fully utilize and the politics of most organizations reward behavior that doesn't align with Agile principles such as transparency, open honest conversation and openly questioning the status quo.  We have people in power who got there by way of the non-Agile status quo and changing that means they have to learn how the new game is played in order to stay on top, it's much easier to keep things they way they are over learning how to navigate the new.

So how do we speak to our Sr. Leaders with respect to Agile?

  1. Better ROI - Talk to any Finance executive about what they look at when purchasing a piece of equipment that will deliver revenue and you will hear them talk about Net Present Value of the investment, Positive Cash Flow and Depreciation costs.
    1. We improve ROI in Agile due to our focus on only the most valuable items.  In non-Agile project work often are working on features/functionality that may be important to someone inside the organization yet will bring little or no value to the organization.
    2. When we are able to start talking about the value streams of our organization, be they revenue, cost reduction or improving our brand image we begin to be able to have a better ROI conversation with management.
    3. We also positively impact ROI via higher levels of productivity gained with dedicated teams.
  2. Flexibility - One of the most important elements that 21st century organizations require is the ability to be flexible enough to react to market forces or reactions.  Financing large projects far out into the future with the expectation of some level of return and no we don't really have great track records of predicting future ROI out very far into the future.  With Agile we provide the framework to identify the most valuable work for the business in small planning windows.
    1. Sr. Management needs to understand that this flexibility comes with an obligation to have consistent short term review windows as the team progresses so that we deliver what is actually needed and not what we thought we wanted.  You may have thought you needed a Ferrari when in fact what you needed was a mini-van, we provide the framework to course correct via Sprint reviews every two weeks.  If you plan all of your project up front for the Ferrari, we'll certainly try to make that happen, but in reality as the end of the project nears you will probably get the car but with a lawnmower engine and no brakes, it may look like a Ferrari but it won't operate like one nor will it provide the value the organization really needed.
  3. Predictability - Another key element that we deliver with Agile is predictability and accountability.  Your teams will be much more accurate in planning and delivering in short-term 2 week sprints with a planning horizon of 6-8 weeks.  What management needs to look for is consistent delivery of the committed work that the team makes, commitment is everything.  What Wall Street analysts look for is a business that can provide a solid ROI, react responsibly to their competitors or even better be a market leaders and provide predictable results year in and year out.

So the question at hand is what is better a Top Down or Bottom Up adoption?  My money for long-term success is on the organization that can consume what Agile really means, not just to their development teams but the organization as a whole.  You can't BE Agile if you don't make the paradigm shift from command and control to one of collaborative and collective delivery.

Management and Agile - To Succeed or Not to Succeed

As more and more larger organizations look to Agile as a means of delivering software to their customers the one thing that keeps coming back to me is that for any of this to work there has to be transparency and acceptance that a move to Agile will change your organization, not understanding this will court almost inevitable failure. Agile in itself is an aspirational desire to change the way that we deliver software, one that does away with the project processes that evolved over the years from Waterfall.  I know that waterfall feels sound and safe with all of its up front business analysis, project planning, Steering Committees and that all important Change Management process, but in reality it really is more of a facade than foundation.

Having managed work and projects in both worlds I have seen how it all works.  Recently I was told (in an Agile organization) that Project Managers are responsible for delivery and it was at that point that my thoughts crystallized around my own journey, Project Managers don't deliver, Teams do.

At it's heart Agile is about everyone doing their part to make our product delivery better, whatever that looks like for your organization in that moment in time.  Agile by itself is not prescriptive, the Scrum/Lean techniques and processes that have evolved from our Agile journey may be a bit more prescriptive and become more so when we add things like Scrum certifications to people's palmares.  We need remember that one of the key reasons that the manifesto came into being was an intense desire to find better ways to deliver software, which means the journey has no end and certifications and such are merely ways for us to have a shared language.  Let me repeat, once you commence on your Agile 'journey' it doesn't have an end, you will always be evaluating what you can do better.

So back to the question at hand, to succeed or not to succeed in Agile, what needs to happen?

  1. Trust - First and foremost we need to begin to build trust between Sr. Management and our Product Delivery teams.  If we have a history of delivering late, with fewer features and cost overruns it is really hard for that same management team to flip the switch once you say you are Agile and trust the very teams who haven't delivered in the past.  Trust is a two-way street and the great thing about Agile is that once you begin to master the techniques and methods that successful teams utilize trust is almost a by-product of that.
    1. Commitments - In Waterfall we are making a 'commitment' to deliver a set of value/features in a specified period of time based upon a business requirements document as guidance for what the business/customer is asking for.  When we make a commitment farther out into the future we become less and less accurate with our plans, it is the nature of the unknown unknowns in life.  Things change, they always do, so to expect that our business and software development teams, in today's ever-changing world, can predict 9-12 months in the future exactly what they are going to deliver is simply living in delusion.  Manage reality or it will manage you.  Commitments in Agile are much shorter in time, basically every 2 weeks.  These commitments however are based upon the Vision that YOU management need to provide.  You say you can't plan for the future every two weeks I would argue you can't plan much further out.  By planning and committing in shorter delivery increments, management get an opportunity to change direction without causing massive pain from already planned out work.  We need to be able to change direction or refocus efforts on the things that are most valuable to our business, not what we made big plans for last year that we thought we needed.  Locking in feature development that doesn't meet customer needs, simply wastes money and loses market share.  When teams make and keep their commitments to you, they gain confidence and you gain trust.
      1.  Context - In most waterfall projects we end up asking for absolutely everything we think we might need, when in reality sometimes 70% of what we asked for (or even less) is more than enough to meet the needs we were trying to address.  Focus on the most Valuable things your customer wants and move on to the next highest value work, not diminishing returns on things customers may not value as much as we might.  Teams want to work on what brings the most value to the organization, development teams when provided the transparency of why we need to do something can do amazing things.
    2. Self Organizing Teams - This one really causes I think the most concern for management.  You in essence are saying that the teams that you currently manage are better able to make decisions about how to delivery our products.  Guess what, they are.  These are people who work in the trenches every single day, know every single issue, impediment, risk, etc... associated with your current product delivery processes.  And every one of them has probably said something to the effect of, 'If I was in charge I'd to do X to fix this'.  I've been a Sr. Manager for many years and have built several high performing teams and one of the best things I can do for them is to provide guidance and vision for what I'm looking for and letting them solve the issues that deliver the solution.  I'm a smart guy but I don't have all of the answers and if you are the type of manager who believes that in order to be 'respected' you have to be the one to manage how Agile will change your product delivery processes you will fail personally and the organization will suffer as a whole.  Teams of people can solve major problems much more easily than one person can, so let them have the ability to self organize and empower them with making the necessary changes to improve your product delivery.
      1. Context - With great power comes great responsibility.  By ceding some level of daily control to your teams you are also doing so with the expectation that they deliver on what they commit to..  If they don't then they must provide a game plan based upon the Retrospective on how they will solve their inability to hit their commitments.
  2. Investment - Agile won't come without an investment cost associated with it.  If like many large organizations you have a mess of legacy code mixed with attempts at migrating to newer technology stacks, business requirements and rules imbedded in code with tribal knowledge scattered through the organization.  Agile requires speed in your product development processes which translates into several investment areas:
    1. Automation - When we say automate we mean across the entire spectrum of the organization, if it can be automated you should probably evaluate whether it can/should be.  More specifically we want to automate:
      1. Unit Tests - Developers should be writing unit tests for everything they build, preferably using XP techniques such as TDD (Test Driven Development).  These are not really hard processes but if you are starting from scratch there is both discipline and framework that needs to be built-in order to get to a mature state for test automation.  Unit tests need to be executed with every build, because with that comes fast feedback if something broke, fix it early and you increase speed and profitability.
      2. Integration Tests - Probably one of the harder areas to get high levels of automation in, primarily because the organization hasn't invested in the appropriate product like test environments.  Be prepared in your Agile journey to spend heavily on getting the right environments in place and highly available.  Testing the performance of your system right before you deliver is a recipe for disaster and delays (remember time is money).
      3. Functional Tests - These are the tests management is probably most familiar with and may even have reviewed at one point or another.  These are typically the manual tests that QA will execute at the end of your waterfall project, where we are not baking in Quality but testing out defects.  Building high levels of automated testing at the functional level gets to what I call, Progressive Regression.  Instead of running a final full regression at the end of a 6-9 month project, why not do it every single night?  You will need to again invest in physical environments but also in people training as many in the QA world are not equipped to handle the new role of a Software Engineer in Test.
        1. Word of Caution - Don't rely only on Test Automation in your functional testing efforts, you still need real people with hands on testing capabilities because at the end of the day automated testing cannot always tell you when something is bad from an experience or product flow perspective.
      4. Deployments - One of the hardest things that teams fail at is planning for deployments to their environments.  Making your deployment process as frictionless as possible is a high value target for your organization.  Many organizations don't have a fully functional DevOps org and many in this field are still struggling to figure out how to operate in an Agile world.  Let them figure it out and provide them with the tools that will support automation of critical deployment processes and hold them accountable to doing it.  To many times we purchase tools and then never make the time to actually use them, invest and utilize, that is the key to your ROI.
      5. None of the above work comes without an investment in both hardware and people.  Current requirements processes will change substantially as you move to an Agile cadence.  People will struggle to find their way, some level of productivity reduction is expected in the beginning of an Agile transformation. You as a Leader need to set a clear vision of why the organization needs to change, make it clear that the teams have accountability to deliver the work that they commit to and that you as a leader have accountability to provide them with space to learn, fail and finally improve.  Successful Agile includes failure because without it we aren't really learning from our mistakes, rather hiding the truth.  Agile done right makes everything visible, especially who is accountable for what.
  3. Patience - Nothing great was ever built-in a day or a week.  Odds are good that this will take more time than you thought it would, but also make it clear to the organization that an Agile death march is not something that you are taking on either.  Agile is about accountability and commitment, use these values to your benefit and identify those that simply can't or won't work in an Agile environment.

From a management perspective you need to understand your role in the success of any Agile transformation, it must also change the way you look at and manage your business.

You Know You Aren't Agile If

Thought I'd start off the new year and take a page from Jeff Foxworthy and use is famous tag line for Agile. Though intended to bring some humor to the question it really is something that every organization typically asks themselves. Please add more :)

You know your not Agile if:

  • Your Product Owner drops by once in awhile to yell at the team for not giving them what they wanted
  • Your Product Owner is entirely responsible for writing User Stories
  • Your Development and QA teams are separate groups
  • Your teams treat missed commitments like a Hollywood marriage
  • Your team writes user stories in the current Sprint
  • A daily Scrum looks like a bunch of stoners standing around
  • Your product backlog changes more than Kim Kardashian changes her cloths.
  • You think MVP was Kevin Durant last year
  • You think BDD is something you do in the privacy of your own home

We spend a lot of time talking about what Agile looks like, should be etc... but at the end of the day Agile is about addressing the issues that keep you from being great and dealing with them in a manner which focuses on the what not the who.

There is no finger pointing in Agile (just like there is no crying in baseball).

Finding out what stops you from succeeding is a fundamental element of achieving greatness at anything.

You know your not Agile if you are asking yourself if you are or not.

Agile Transformation - Coaching needs and requirements

Having been involved in Agile for over 10 years, and for most of these years I have  helped organizations switch to Agile, I have (I believe) a great grasp of what needs to happen when your organization decides to 'Go Agile'. Yes the larger the organization the more that the organizational change element is brought in to the mix, and for this post I want to focus on the elements of Agile coaching as it relates to these larger transformation efforts, which with SAFe is a hot area of growth for Agile consulting.

With the large Agile transformations I've been involved with I have identified what I believe are the three main types of coaches you are likely to come across in an Agile transformation:

  1. Those that have had experience in the trenches, who have led Scrum teams, built the products that are delivered to the business.
  2. Those that have primarily been involved with Agile 'transformations' at the management level.
  3. Those that have taken the necessary courses to 'become' Agile and may have been  a Project Manager in another life. (I'm not denigrating PM's as I was a PM who first experienced Agile from this perspective, I'm rather saying that there are coaches who haven't actually been involved with Agile, but have gone out and obtained Agile certifications, making them 'look' like people who have the right 'credentials' when people who don't know Agile are looking to hire coaches)

Let's talk about what each one brings to the table and what you need to look for when bringing on a coach to support your specific Agile transformation.

  1. Coaches from the Trenches
    1. Key Benefits- These individuals bring a wealth of experience with how to operationalize Agile. They get it, they believe in it and they now what works, how to make course corrections when something isn't working AND they have huge levels of creditability with technical teams.  They talk the talk and can walk the walk.
    2. Key Weaknesses - If there is one the weakness with this type of coach is that in larger scaled Agile transformations, there are very specific processes and formats that get rolled out to the entire organization so that everyone is doing the same thing.  Sounds right doesn't it?  This individual will want to work out what works for their team and not always align to the Transformation processes, causing frustration between the coach and the group leading the transformation.
    3. Things to think about - Agile is not like making cars where every production line making car X has to be doing the same thing so that you maximize the speed of the process and build in your quality and productivity INTO the process.  Agile isn't like that, rather Agile is a framework that should allow for each Scrum team the flexibility to determine WHAT works for them without being prescriptive.
      1. My Input When I am helping an organization move to Agile I like 'sprinkle' the framework and tenants of Agile to the teams and then let the teams iterate on the process that works for them.  I give them the things I look for to determine how they are doing, such as stable velocity, good backlog and effective and accurate estimation (which of course feeds the stable velocity).  The 'from the Trenches' individual is one who will succeed very will in this type of environment and not very well in an extremely structured Agile process.
  2. Coaches who were Managers - These individuals have typically seen their organization have success with Agile and have made the decision to move into an Agile career.
    1. Key Benefits - As with the from the Trenches coach, this individual does 'get it' and has an ability to gain creditability with upper management and can convey the higher level benefits to them.  This individual talks the talk of management and understands how to get in the head of management to help them understand their responsibilities in helping a transformation succeed.
    2. Key Weaknesses - So far I see way more of these individuals as coaches than I do the in the trenches coaches.  This can cause issues because they can sometimes tend to take a more hands off approach in working with their teams and don't have the experience nor creditability to work with the technical teams in a direct manner.  They simply don't have the technical and Agile chops to help the team grow and aren't as adept and making course corrections to the process.  Here you are seeing the effects of Top down driven Agile over bottom up (which I'm more a proponent of).
    3. Things to Think about - Consider having these types of coaches run more of the program level coaching, working more closely with upper management to help them mature in their thinking and protect the teams as they figure out how to be successful in their Agile processes.
  3. Certification Coaches - As I indicated these are the people who have been involved with software development for many years, perhaps in the project management career path and have taken Certified Scrum Master classes and maybe Certified Product Owner.  Though they understand 'software development' they don't, IMHO, understand Product Development and all that this implies in an Agile world.
    1. Key Benefits - Of the three types of coaches, these individuals probably offer the least from a benefits perspective if expected to lead an Agile transformation effort.  These types of individuals understand the basics of Agile and run teams from that perspective.  Not having worked in the trenches they haven't yet had the opportunity to deal with real world Agile and the challenges it presents.  This is not to say that these individuals don't have the skills, knowledge or capabilities to be great coaches but what I am saying is that if you have a large number of coaches fall into this group then your PD teams will be at a disadvantage and this individual will struggle to gain creditability with their Scrum teams and your Agile adoption will fail.
    2. Key Weaknessess - As stated above, these coaches tend to not yet have the creditability or depth of knowledge to be as effective as coaching types 1 and 2, they will need to be partnered with more experienced coaches to enable them to be successful and grown their Agile skills.
    3. Things to Think about - Look for people who can demonstrate servant leadership in their past experience, this is a key behavior of successful PM's, Tech Leads and Managers.  I believe my success in Agile is primarily due to the fact that I am a servant leader by nature.

When you go looking for coaches consider your organizations size, current development maturity and honest assessment of the problems you face with your current Product Delivery processes.  And I do mean HONEST, if you can't take honesty then Agile is not for you.  The Continuous Improvement element of Agile demands honesty and if you are an organization that doesn't want to hear that you PD teams have issues then you will continue to have a less efficient model of delivering value to your customers (and isn't that what ALL of this is really about?)

These will provide you insight into what you will need to move towards Agile.

Also try to avoid labeling your coaches when they come in such as that one is our BDD expert, that one is our blah blah expert. This will tend to keep other coaches from participating and sharing their skills for a specific area and ensure that you processes for that specific area of expertise will suffer ( I speak from experience on this one ).

Agile and the Management Impact

You're a technology manager in an organization that has decided that they are going to adopt Agile.  Thunk......now what? You've spent years becoming the high performing manager you are today, managing the day-to-day details of your team, holding things together, making decisions big and small....You are the leader, success of your team hinges on your ability to make decisions that impact the way the team works. Your team is successful because of your management efforts....Sound like you?

This Agile thing is telling me that my teams are now going to be 'self-organizing' and be able to make decisions on their own...what the heck am I going to do?

Managers who are asked to move their organization to Agile may often believe like they are providing the path to the doorway out of the company.  This resistance can be one of the primary impediments to successful Agile adoption and as an organization Sr. Management needs to be aware of this paradigm and provide support to middle managers that Agile is not about replacing them but truly about getting them into a position where they are focused in the truly valuable parts of their job - Strategic Planning, Employee Development..the bigger picture.

Stephen Covey teaches that successful managers are the ones who are able to remove themselves from the quadrant of activities that are Urgent and Important and focus on the activities that were Important but Not Urgent, meaning remove yourself from day-to-day decision-making over planning and strategy development.

So many of us can get sucked into the day-to-day minutiae of our teams that we end up ignoring the bigger picture areas which should be our focus.  Why?  Because dealing with Important and Urgent activities is an addictive feeling, you feel like you are making important decisions when in fact your team is probably more than capable of making them without you.

Agile provides your team with leadership opportunities that aren't found in more traditional process control organizations.  Step back and let your team grow.  I've been amazed how teams, when given the opportunity, can solve process issues and impediments to productivity that I would have never thought of.  The collective minds of your organization are capable of great things.

As a manager you need and want to embrace this power and provide support for you team.  Let them help you and help the organization deliver on the promise that Agile provides.

How can you help?

  • Understand that for your teams to succeed they need to fail, yes I said that.
  • Don't attend their ceremonies (standups, retrospectives)  Why?  The team needs to be able to speak openly and honestly about what is working and not working without you being present.
  • Use the working metrics available to you, velocity, burndown.  If your team says they are going to do 'x' story points and they do that consistently, what else do you need to know?
  • Don't force your opinions on what they 'SHOULD' be doing.  Have confidence that you have hired great people and they like you want to succeed.
  • Work closely with the Product Owner and Scrum Master to discuss any concerns you have.  Understand why things are working a certain way before leveling your judgement.
  • Don't act as a Scrum Master or Product Owner of the team. Why?  You manage their careers and it's highly unlikely that the team will receive the benefits of iterative continuous improvement if they don't feel confident that they can say when things aren't working well.
  • Don't believe that everything is great the way it is, anything can be improved.

Agile will provide transparency with respect to the areas of your organization that isn't working efficiently.  As a management team you will need to focus your attention on addressing these impediments as your Agile teams mature.  If these hurdles and impediments aren't dealt with you will reach a ceiling on the ROI that Agile can provide.  As with your teams, management needs to be honest with themselves about broader organizational issues so that a stronger and more effective organization emerges.

Agile isn't just about delivering software faster, it's much more than that.  Understanding that will make the transition your Agile smoother.

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