Is your company Agile?

Is your company Agile?

In most companies, as a product owner, you don’t have the choice of choosing the best agile methodology.

You join “agile” companies or agencies and within your induction week attempt to learn their unique way of working. They will have altered the standard frameworks in some way because they believe they manage their workloads very differently to anyone else.

If you’ve obtained your PSPO Product Owner certification and read all the books you’ll quickly realise what you’re working with is not Scrum but a form of Scrumban, WaterScrum or ScrumFall and you’ll slowly start picking up bad habits which then make you look incompetent when you join your next company and so it goes on. You’ll also recognise that your role as a product owner is not exactly as it should be – you don’t have the control you thought you’d have over decisions and your authority will be undermined at every turn as no-one recognises or give the position the respect it deserves.

Companies believe they are being agile but I’ve found in larger organisations, particularly those with old PMO teams or “old skool” IT managers, they end up saying one thing while maintaining their old processes and tools.

But within older corporations, you find IT departments being asked to become Agile overnight, but you find these department heads gravitating towards processes they recognise. They don’t like change and then you start creating processes such as SAFe. For Agile to be successful it has to be established and embraced from the top-down, which is what makes it more successful within startups; then you see the potential of Agile frameworks.

So is Agile evil or dead?

A timely post from Anthony Marter arrived in my inbox yesterday (why-we-need-to-rethink-product-management-in-an-agile-practice) and some of the ideas resonated with my post as I was sketching it out “…the discussions about Agile have flipped from being embraced in engineering and resisted in the C-suite. We now see blogs from the developer community about how Agile is evil/dead…“. It was the reference to the “C-Suite” (CTO, COO, CMO, CIO, CEO, etc) which jumped out at me and why I believe Agile is not working correctly in most companies.  

Cultural Issue

However, I believe it is more of a cultural issue within these organisations, which hampers Agile adoption.

Corporate cultures are established when a company establishing their vision and mission statements. It represents the type of company they want to be and how they want to be perceived by their customers. It is the collective pattern of values, behaviours, and unwritten rules your organization lives by: consider the likes of Disney, Wallmart, McDonald’s, Coke, or Google. When you join one of these companies you are trained to understand the “magic ingredient” at the heart of their DNA.

Agile is a cultural mindset, a business philosophy – you have to live and breath it throughout the organisation. It has to become part of your DNA. You have to flatten your management hierarchies; encourage openness and empower, train and trust your employees to manage the challenges. The C-Suites need to become servant-leaders and should read It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy” about how to lead people within Agile organisations.

I imagine various C-suite heads picking up their HBR or Business Insider reports in the 1990s and reading about a “wonder solution for operational efficiency” called Agile. They would have decided it was a good idea for inclusion in their annual retreat strategy presentations. They would have persuaded the board that the company would need to adopt Agile in order to remain strategically competitive. While showing the positive stats technology startups were achieving while disrupting their industry and showing the negative effects on their market share.

Once the company boards had signed it off, it would become a business goal and be announced in the annual company report as a target to “become an agile business” within the next year.

These companies would start hiring Product Owners and Scrum masters, writing user stories in a product backlog and holding a daily scrum and saying they were Agile was it all took to become successful. There would be little thought to the changes to the companies culture.

The result would be future power plays from IT and Marketing departments who were omitted from the Digital teams. C-Suite simply demand teams make it work. But the established department heads would begin to play politics and using their strong network connections with various board members would start to undermine the digital teams progress and try to pull the Digital team under its control.

Agile is in your DNA

Startups adopt Agile principles from the first day. It is at their core, and IT and marketing are seen later as support services to support that core. The vision and mission, the very brand essence will include agile principles within their DNA culture and corporate strategy: openness, trust, fail-fast, think-big, people over processes, work-life balance and so on.

For the older organisations, Agile has always been an add-on, they simply see it as a way to produce more, faster while reducing operational expenditure. If you want Agile to work you have to change the entire business, “root and branch”.

The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted that many companies need to radically improve their operations. Change has been forced upon us all but with lightning speed, we’ve been able to adapt our established working practices within only a few weeks.

Remote working (frowned on by senior management who didn’t trust employees to do their jobs unless they were sat at a desk from 9-5) will become an established practice, reducing office costs and reducing the need to commute. I think it will also encourage the adoption of more agile principles.

When the values of commitment, courage, focus, openness and respect are embodied and lived by the Scrum Team, the Scrum pillars of transparency, inspection, and adaptation come to life and build trust for everyone. The Scrum Team members learn and explore those values as they work with the Scrum events, roles and artifacts.Scrum.org

I don’t necessarily agree with Anthony’s interpretation of the problem or solution or the role of the Product Owner in his article (though parts read like my day’s diary entry “…the PO becomes a backlog administrator or order taker – dutifully recording requests from all over the business in the backlog … They spend their days writing up detailed user stories and acceptance criteria, moving Post-Its across a visual board and attending a never-ending stream of meetings…”). For me for Agile to be successful, no one individual or a department can make a real difference, until your company has the principles of Agile within it’s DNA.

As Seth Godin said in his book Tribes, you need to Challenge the Status Quo, Build a Culture and Commit to the Cause. This must be your companies mantra.

You can also watch Seth’s great Ted Talks video about Tribes on YouTube :

Patterns of Learning

In Edward de Bono’s fantastic book Lateral Thinking he emphasises how difficult it is to retrain the brain once it has been learned to think in specific ways. He describes how water dripping on a stone over time creates an indentation (a well) on the stone as the water gently erodes the surface.

Once that pattern is created it takes considerable effort to create a new indentation with a subsequent drip of the water. The second drip will continue to migrate towards the original well. In other words, when you first learn something new your brain will try to compartmentalize it alongside those patterns and belief systems you’ve already established.

This is what I’ve encountered with various companies I’ve worked for over the years, though there have been some exceptions.

Edward’s book is a useful way to look at problems from different perspectives and supports some of the methodologies used by the likes of IDEO and the D.School for generating ideas, (read The Art of Innovation or Sprint). These books have certainly helped me to generate ideas and think laterally over the years.

It’s also important to ensure any system supports the core principles of agile product development:

Startups recognise this much better encouraging the entire company to generate ideas to support servant-leadership and adhere to flatter company hierarchies. However, as they grow and mature start-ups rarely adapt their approach and insist on using Scrum to manage all their tasks. It quickly becomes a mess and that’s normally when I’m asked to come in and sort things out, but you can only really make it work when you get on the board of directors and can establish agile from the very top-down. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to do this successfully at several companies.