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Agility, Business, Transformation & Strategy
Agile at the crossroads
Welcome back to this week’s Upstream Full-Stack Journal, helping you boost your effectiveness across the full end-to-end value delivery stack through strategy, product management, OKR goal-setting & Continuous Discovery.
In this edition:
Agile will need a new strategy to stay relevant
Agile Transformation = Antipattern?
The promising consulting model of one Agile leader
Two book recommendations
Let’s dig in!
Agilists Will Need To Embrace a New Strategy If Agile is to Survive
Blaming “clueless” business people simply won’t cut it any longer
I’ve been involved in five Agile Transformations over my 10 years as an Agile consultant, coach, and trainer.
The engagements spanned multiple consultancies, and these are some reflections as I’m now on my third Agile Transformation in the past 5 years in-house at KeyBank, one of the top-20 U.S. banks.
I started my Agile journey by focusing on all the wonderful things Agile and Scrum could do for an organization.
Just start “being Agile,” and everything would be great!
But I wondered why many of the organizations that had undergone Agile Transformations weren’t doing much “better.”
Despite the fact that Agile processes may or may not have been present to a greater or lesser degree, it was clear the same business problems were still there.
Agile’s grounding in Extreme Programming (“XP”) started from a focus on technical excellence. But over time, I’ve seen Agile lose its grounding in the craft of coding, and become just another project management method.
Worse, I’ve also seen it veer down a path towards a form of “faith,” where “true believers” tirelessly quote “doctrine” — The Agile Manifesto & The Scrum Guide.
In early 2023, perhaps taking their cue from Elon Musk’s radical staff cuts at Twitter/X, CapitalOne eliminated every “Agile” role, cutting over 1100 jobs, sending shockwaves throughout the tech world.
Coupled with this, there continue to be scores of layoffs across all Agile roles.
And this leads me to wonder whether Agile practitioners have been focusing on the right problems.
Becoming “Agile” was never the point
And I believe we’ve all been asking the wrong question all along.
One only needs to look as far as Nokia’s spectacular failure even as they achieved the largest “successful” Scrum transformation ever. It’s painfully obvious just “being Agile” won’t help organizations achieve anything.
Agilists typically start by seeing every business as “cursed” by a Waterfall mentality, waiting for them to come and “save” them. For an agilist, there’s no bigger problem facing business than their “non-Agile” culture.
But despite what many people selling Agile certifications, SAFe implementations, training, coaching, and services will tell you:
Businesses don’t have any “Agile” problems –
But they do have business problems that agility may be able to help solve.
Quite simply, if Agile is to have a seat at the table, it needs to start pulling its weight. How?
They can begin by taking a cue from Design Thinking, and build trust by understanding their customers.
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Agile Transformation = Antipattern?
I’m a big fan of Jonathan Smart and everything he accomplished at venerable financial institution Barclays in the UK, and now, through his own consultancy.
Smart’s observation: doing an Agile Transformation is itself, inherently “non”-Agile:
“The capital ‘A’ Agile mindset leads to the Agile Industrial Complex. It leads to a number of anti-patterns, such as the imposition of practices on people and to certification schemes with questionable value. We don’t want agile for agile’s sake or DevOps for DevOps sake. This can lead to local optimisations where the expected business benefits, end to end, do not materialise.”
The promising approach of one Agile leader
Their thoughtful approach consistently blends consulting excellence with deep Agile knowledge as they push the envelope in helping organizations get the benefits of agility.
The Trust-Influence loop
A cornerstone of LeadingAgile’s consulting approach is the “Trust-Influence Loop,” an extremely helpful mental model that permeates through much of LeadingAgile’s approach to structuring engagements, as well as their approach to working with leaders and teams.
I recommend listening to the full podcast and conversation between CEO Mike Cottmeyer and training lead Dave Prior (from whom I was lucky to receive my Certified Scrum Product Owner training).
In brief, the steps are:
Access – We start by getting access to the person to be coached. This isn’t the time to push the Scrum Guide. We must first build..
Empathy – which lays the foundation for building trust through understanding their concerns & needs. Once that trust is build, we can now introduce our
Point of View – We share our specific perspective on something, that in some small way can move their goals forward; this provides them with
Safety – as they perceive we start from their comfort, and by prioritizing their needs.. From their trust & comfort, we’re given…
Agency – and become empowered to make a necessary change, however small. It’s now up to us to act with
Integrity – to conceive of and work from our level of consulting
Competence – it’s now up to us to demonstrate our ability to back up our proposed change. If we’ve successfully conceived of the right change, we’re able to achieve
Results – It’s not “trust us” – we need to start by demonstrating real results. And real results in smaller ways, at lower levels, then leads to
Access – to ever-higher levels of the organization, and larger, more important changes
And the loop repeats…
I highly recommend agilists either internal or external coaches, to become familiar with and work with this mental model, combined with deepening their knowledge of the mental models and language of business.
Two Book Recommendations
Here are two short books I’ve found most helpful to deepen business understanding in the context of brands you know and use every day:
Working Backwards by Colin Bryar and Bill Carr – The authors dig deep into how important customer-centricity, focus, and small, “two-pizza” teams were to the conception and delivery of many of the products you use every day: Kindle, Prime, Prime Video, and Amazon Web Services (AWS).
Playing to Win by Roger L. Martin and A.G. Lafley – This book offers an incredible view of how strategy played a crucial role in helping P&G design and deliver the great products you use every day, including Tide, Swiffer, Olay, and Febreze.
“Agile” as a delivery method isn’t mentioned once in either book, but both can help you understand what business agility and effectiveness look like.
That’s it for this edition!
Join me next time as we continue to go upstream to make you more effective going from idea to execution via strategy, Product Management, and the full end-to-end delivery stack.