Once upon a time, in a rapidly changing world, companies were trying to adapt more quickly to emerging technologies, social climates, and markets. Visionaries realized that the structures and processes businesses thought important were the very blockers to achieving success. As a result, these visionaries moved from a phased-gate approach to an iterative, incremental, team-based approach that might allow them to get more done more quickly. At the turn of the century, the term Agile was applied to this thinking, and organizations doing software development moved to making this the de facto way that software is built today.
Or did they?
It’s all too common that many organizations who believe they are Agile in their product development have in fact only adopted some surface mechanics which yield very little in the way of beneficial business outcomes. Few (if any) of these organizations can claim to be getting more done more quickly, especially since an Agile approach to work doesn’t seek either of these outcomes—nor does it promise them.
Today, what is called Agile is a broad topic encompassing many different disciplines with input from thought leaders, researchers, and visionaries from around the world. It involves much more than calling development teams Scrum teams or saying you have a Product Owner or a Scrum Master, and there is far more involved than simply holding some events and checking a few other boxes.
For those looking to actually walk the path of high performance that Agile paves, it’s easiest to conceive how to do so by breaking Agile down into five pillars of Agility: empiricism, Lean thinking, teams, architecture, measures, and approaches. By understanding and leaning into these principles and concepts—as opposed to simply trying out different tools or working techniques—organizations will enable better business outcomes.
Let’s briefly dive into each of these pillars of Agility:
Empiricism is a process of experimentation. Instead of approaching requests for work with big plans and schedules, empiricism suggests that we form a hypothesis, build something to test it, run our tests, and then look at the evidence in our results to determine our next steps. Empiricism requires transparency, so how leaders guide their people is key to getting visible, true results that allow them to make good decisions about what steps to take next.
Lean thinking is a philosophy born of Japanese manufacturing principles about how we organize work to maximize the flow of value. Visualization techniques, removing unnecessary work from the system, simplification, focus, and understanding soft costs (such as the cost of queues and the cost of early decision-making) lead to better business outcomes. Lean thinking encourages leaders to avoid making top-down, sweeping decisions to reduce cost, which ultimately might injure their organizations and create more costs as a result.
“Team” is a word commonly used in business as a label for a workgroup, but not every workgroup is really a team. Teams share a common purpose, they come together around work, and they share rewards and challenges. To be on a real team is a special experience, as the members will enjoy one incredible benefit: moving decision-making closer to the source of information. In other words, those who know the changes than an organization needs to make are unfortunately often not empowered to make them, but on a true team, this barrier is broken down.
Architecture is heavily influenced by communication in human organizations, and communication is surprising in its geometry and impact. Even when techniques and practices have clearly been proven less effective, the business-science gap remains wide. Instead of seizing opportunities by the fly that only have the potential to create organizational change, business leaders should customize their organization’s architecture in a way that best suits its current state.
Measures are only powerful when the right things are being measured. Businesses have been drawn to the idea that counting things to create impressive executive reports is necessary, yet these reports rarely lead to decisions about how to align objectives to strategy. Instead, organizations should focus on measuring those things which confirm the increasing value of their product, their teams, and their business. By focusing instead on a few high-impact measurements, teams will be better-aligned to company goals.
There are many paths to becoming a more Agile organization, and there are many desirable business outcomes from implementing any number of concepts. Approaches such as Kanban, Scrum, and xP were created to help teams and organizations color inside the lines of Agility while changing the way that they work. Kanban is a way to visualize work and manage flow through a process; Scrum is a framework that enables a team to solve complex problems with adaptive solutions; and xP is a methodology that helps a team of software developers increase the speed of feedback while reducing defects. All of these are powerful working techniques to adopt which yield big results.
Too often, leaders view Agile as something that the IT people do. “That team does Agile to build our software,” they say. But at Evergreen, we believe Agile is a method applied from the top down, starting with leaders. If you’re looking to achieve better business outcomes through Agile and learn more about the role that leaders play in enabling these pillars of Agility, reach out to our team of Agile experts at the form below.