Agile can work

Photo by Vidar Nordli
Photo by Vidar Nordli

A lot has been written about Agile. Many companies follow the trend and are in the middle of a transformation. Others believe that this is yet another hype that will pass. Younger developers know waterfalls only from hiking while experienced executives observe the revolution skeptically. There is hardly a topic that is currently more under dispute – as if it were a new religious war.

And indeed, Agile is rather a question of the mindset than about a delivery model.

But the Agile movement is not so new. Its origins date back to the 1970s when the Japanese car industry reached its limits and the question was how employees could be actively involved in the design of manufacturing processes. Toyota has created a new production system with one major goal in mind: to avoid unnecessary waste.

IT projects also suffered and still suffer from the ever-increasing complexity. After the first cost estimate, the question is often “Can’t we make this more agile?” calling for a quick pragmatic solution instead of great formalism.

A division manager from the department once described it this way in front of the assembled CIOs of the group: The classic waterfall model prepares the parties optimally for the later (legal) dispute; in the agile model all work together on the solution.

In reality, however, this is not so easy. The introduction of pure Scrum methodology is not a big challenge. It is very well structured and can be learned quickly with the support of a coach. Even the developers are rarely the impediment – especially the younger ones have grown up with it and don’t know anything else anymore.

If Agile fails, it is mainly because of the necessary cultural change. That’s what it’s all about. There are several things to consider here:

  1. Clarity about the why: the question cannot be asked often enough and everyone should be fully aware of it in the organization. “Because everyone does it” is of course not enough. But also “cost-saving” is not a sufficient reason. Agile approach will save costs in the mid-term but is first of all an investment into Change. This can take years with larger organizations.
  2. The right understanding: Agility is neither sloppiness nor anarchy, it is rather a very disciplined approach with very stringent rules. It is important to follow these – especially for managers.
  3. Support from the very top: Especially in hierarchical organizations the transformation must be fully supported by the executive board. Here it is, of course, helpful if its not only about words, but agility itself is lived and leaders eat their soup. It’s simply not convincing if the board of directors demands agility while still working in old committee structures.
  4. Business actively joining the solutioning: Agile lives from collaboration on the construction site. If someone has two left hands, then there will be appropriate support. There can be no expectation of moving into a turnkey solution delivered by somebody else.
  5. The right skills: The most critical role in agile development is the product owner. He holds the steering wheel as a helmsman. Here you need both the right knowledge and the appropriate time budget to be able to play an active role.
  6. Stringent overarching governance: Agile projects are more disciplined and managed more closely than traditional projects within. The art lies in orchestrating the armada of speedboats in the right direction. Here it is important to maintain an overview of the project portfolio, architecture and engineering standards. On the program or corporate level, the shepherding is crucial.
  7. Play SAFe on program level: It’s nice when the individual teams enthusiastically work agile and have their fun. The art at the program level is synchronization. How useful are the fast development cycles of a team if the whole system doesn’t work like that? I recommend reading the book “The Rollout” by Alex Yakyma. He described the idea behind the Scaled Agile Framework in a novel style.
  8. A new understanding of leadership: It is about creating the right framework conditions for employees so that they can work at their best. In this setup, the manager is transformed from a coordinator into a coach. This imposed a great challenge.

Agile is not a panacea, but a powerful tool to get a grip on the ever-faster innovation cycles and the exponentially increasing complexity. It also brings together the central actors: the end-user and the development team.

The accompanying cultural transformation presents every organization with special challenges – especially when things are not running smoothly. In the past, project managers used to go out with their broad swords drawn to cut the necessary paths into the thicket. Even in the agile world, committed problem solvers are required – on all levels.

In terms of leadership, this is the bigger challenge, because you have to descend from the leader’s hill and lead much more heterogeneously. But it is fully worth it.

I like to think back to the steering committees of my agile projects. After the formalities were done, the team presented the progress to the sponsors. It was hard to tell who was from which department because they had grown together through the joint project work.

Instead of arguing about which department was to blame for a problem, they looked forward to the next stage of development. In this way, Agile gives pleasure to all involved and saves a lot of energy and effort.

How about you?

Is your organization already agile or are you in the middle of transformation? What are your experiences with agile projects like? Are you sceptical or do you struggle with Agile?

Further good reads:

Forbes: Understanding the Agile Mindset

Manifesto for Agile Software Development

Mitch Lacey & Associates

Translation into English supported by DeepL and Grammarly

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