What agility is really about

Guest contribution by | 18.11.2021 | Processes & methods |

Years ago, when I read the word agility more often on the web, I looked it up on Wikipedia and the first thing I saw there was a photo with a dog. 🙂

Since then I have learned a lot about agility. Would also be bad if it was different. Although the agile manifesto has been around since 2001, there are still misunderstandings and ambiguities about this topic. Partly also very understandable, because the Internet does not only provide meaningful information, but is often also a source of misinformation. There are also additional terms such as “New Work” and “Company Culture” and other related terms that somehow all have something to do with each other. This can lead to a situation where you can no longer see the forest for the trees (terms) and lose the overview.

The foundation of agility

The foundation of agility is simple and based on values that have always existed.

It is perfectly natural for “new” topics to get a lot of attention in the media and for numerous people to make their opinions known on a topic. Some want to stand out by highlighting their apparent expertise. This often leads to false information. In addition, we humans also tend to make things more complicated than they actually are.

I’ll explain later that the complexity is more in the execution and living of agile. For now, I’ll start at the beginning: The basis for agility is: culture. You can’t become agile without culture. What exactly does that mean?

A good (company) culture consists of togetherness based on mutual respect, appreciation, empathy and trust. Between colleagues as well as at manager level and from manager to employee. In other words, at eye level.

Managers act as leaders and support the teams by proactively showing confidence in their expertise and competencies. They take feedback from teams seriously and encourage it, even when ideas and perceptions do not match their own. Diverse views are important for business success because diversity (which encompasses much more than /m/w/d) is good for innovation. A leader trusts, supports and enables the team to make autonomous and self-responsible decisions. Of course, the team must also bear potential consequences!

This approach motivates individuals and teams. They become more self-confident and creative. They start to think actively and courageously and develop new ideas. Mistakes can be made, because people and organisations learn from mistakes.

These are all values and attitudes that we humans have always treasured and that make it possible for our normal everyday lives to function. Nothing new under the sun, because that’s what my parents taught me and modeled for me even as a little boy. 🙂

Why agile?

Agile today often has to do with changing attitudes and habits that have been the norm in a company for years. Norms that are often no longer valid in today’s world and society.

Each of us has noticed for some time that our world, our society, our work and even the way we act and communicate with each other are subject to continuous change. And the pandemic has even changed our consumer behavior and we are increasingly shopping online.

As customers become more demanding and have more expectations when it comes to customer centricity, customer experience and their “path” to purchase decision (customer journey), it is enormously important for companies to always respond ad hoc to these demands, desires and expectations. In addition, customers like to own the latest and hipest; easily observable in the smartphone product, where manufacturers launch new models on the market on what feels like a daily basis, with ever cooler features. Not sustainable, but that’s another topic.

In addition to customers, many young people with fresh, innovative ideas and new start-ups (also nothing really new but currently en vogue) are ensuring that existing products conquer the market in more contemporary and convenient versions. A development that makes companies constantly question and reinvent themselves in order to make customers happy and fans who remain loyal to you.

Firstly it turns out differently…

Now the sentence mentioned at the beginning comes up, that the complexity is rather in the execution and living of agility. A good friend from Cologne always says, “firstly it turns out differently and secondly than you think”.

Although grammatically incorrect, the statement is absolutely true. In our time, many things cannot be predicted and it is almost impossible to determine fixed outcomes long in advance. Thus, it is important not to meticulously carve everything in stone. What the implementation of the idea will look like at the end of a journey is uncertain. It may even be that due to changes in the market and/or among customers, ideas become obsolete over time. For companies, this doesn’t have to be a downfall, as long as they are agile in taking a different path to make the product even more desirable. Perhaps even with a completely new, different idea. It is important to have a lively exchange with customers. They are the ultimate source of ideas and know exactly what they want or need. Their comments help to actually develop products for specific needs.

“Firstly it turns out differently and secondly than you think.” This statement leads to three things that are becoming increasingly important for companies:

  • courage,
  • openness and
  • curiosity.

The courage to change internal structures and workflows, and to think in terms of cooperation (possibly even across companies) instead of in terms of departments (silos). The openness to hear diverse opinions, also and especially from people who are not experts, but who can make an important contribution with their fresh view from the outside. And curiosity about the unknown, about exciting developments and hence potential opportunities that can be very beneficial for business success and consequently customer satisfaction.

Of course, the whole thing is not always as easy to implement in reality as it reads here. From my own experience I can say: It is a journey and the destination of the journey is worth many efforts. Promise!

We do Scrum, we are agile

Of course, every kind of collaboration needs structures. Structures bring security. Agility does not mean that you simply “work around” and act without structure. However, there are still many misunderstandings in this area as well: Using hip and trendy tools does not make a company and the people in it agile.

Among agilists there is a bon mot: “We do Scrum, we are agile”. A statement that is unfortunately reality in many organisations.

As a consultant, for example, I end up again and again in projects in which Scrum is used, although agility is completely missing. Many organisations are not even aware of this situation. Often Scrum is even misinterpreted, resulting in chaos: Managers disrupt the team and ignore the Scrum Master, hand out orders and the topics the team is working on are interrupted. Team members react like in old times and obey. With the result that the planned work is not completed at the end of the sprint and the team feels the displeasure of management, stakeholders and also (end)customers. This creates pressure, displeasure and fear. And it is very bad for the company culture!

It doesn’t help when you use frameworks like Scrum, Kanban or Scrumban. If the mindset and the culture do not fit, you can “scrum or kanban” like a world champion, it will not bring the expected success. Scrum and Kanban are not agile, they are normal tools that can be used as support in a real agile environment.

The application of frameworks

Do you really have to use and implement everything as it is written in the manuals? You don’t have to, but then you might as well leave it alone. Because it really makes little sense when you decide to use a framework or a methodology, if you then only practice it in parts. The developers of a framework will probably have thought about something and not just designed the structures on a whim.

Take Scrum, for example:

I often experience the situation that a team (or even the management!) does not perceive the benefit of the Daily Standup or the Sprint Review.

Explanation:

The Daily Standup, also called Daily Scrum, takes place every day and lasts a maximum of 15 minutes. During this time, each team member says what they did yesterday, what they will do today, and what they need help with today. The goals of the exchange are transparency and alignment, not justification as is often observed. Transparency and alignment are hugely important, especially if it’s an interdisciplinary team, which is often the case.

At the end of a sprint, which in practice often lasts two to four weeks, and in which a part of the product (called increment) is completed and added to the already existing increment, the sprint review takes place. There, the team presents new features to the stakeholders with the goal of receiving concrete feedback. Ideally, there is also a general transparency and trust among the participants during the review, the development is discussed, individual aspects are debated and the development team gains valuable information. This helps to develop features in such a way that stakeholders are satisfied and happy with them.

In practice, however, this is unfortunately not always so easy. Often it is a real odyssey to get the stakeholders to attend this important meeting. This is very bad for the product and also for the motivation of the developers, because ultimately the review addresses the dialog with the stakeholders so that they are informed and up to date.

Lack of tool knowledge in companies

Like many of my colleagues, I have made the experience that knowledge about tools and frameworks is often missing in companies. It’s easy to see this by looking at job postings: “You have deep knowledge in Scrum, Kanban, LeSS, SAFe, Scaled Scrum, Nexus, Design Thinking and other agile frameworks like Jira and Confluence.” I did not make this passage up, unfortunately it is real. A wild listing of frameworks, tools and methodologies.

Jira and Confluence, for example, are programs for project management. Lifeless collections of functions consisting of lines of code.

SAFe is absolutely not agile, but waterfall. It is based on fixed deliverables, a fixed budget and a defined time for the completion of the product. But: SAFe is enormously popular. And with SAFe, the “dance floor” phenomenon can be observed: Everyone stands around the dance floor and waits for one person to enter the dance floor and get started. Then others follow behind. Transferred to the world of tools: first some companies start with it and then the whole world wants it. Partly without sense and also often causing damage. I’m sure you can tell that I’m not a friend of SAFe … 😉

The company as an individual

Is agility worthwhile for your company?

To answer this question concretely and on a case-by-case basis, it is worth taking a look at the environment into which agility is to be “introduced”. I look at each company like an individual. Since every organisation has specific and unique characteristics, an analysis should always take place first before embarking on the long and also often arduous path to agility.

There is very often a feeling today that you have to be agile and that you don’t belong if you don’t. To put it bluntly: agility is not a fashion or a trend. Agile is a big step that brings many consequences. To “do” agile just because the “neighbor” (competition) is doing it too is pointless. However, this assumes that both the company culture and resilience in the marketplace are strong.

The most important question to ask as an organisation before using agility is why. Only when the reason is clear to all stakeholders can the journey towards agility begin. And then it is gradually about improving the culture in terms of collaboration, mutual respect, appreciation, empathy and trust. And about closer cooperation with customers, about courage, openness and curiosity, about mistakes, feedback and learning. The application of frameworks and tools comes into play later.

 

Notes:

Rob van Linda runs a nice blog at https://robvanlinda.digital/. Feel free to stop by, it’s worth it.

And on the t2informatik blog, Lob van Linda has published another post:

t2informatik Blog: The human being in digitalisation

The human being in digitalisation

Rob van Linda

Rob van Linda

Rob van Linda started working with customers in his parents’ company when he was a young man. After the Hotel Management School in Maastricht (NL) he worked as an Event Manager in various countries. In Germany he changed his domain and has since then been active in the IT sector as a link between clients and the team. He is an expert in digitalisation with a focus on people. Rob van Linda works as Chief Digital Officer, Digital Transformation Manager, Leadership Coach, Digital Business Innovator and Marketing Intelligence Manager.