The True Meaning of “Agile”

Agile is a term which has become synonymous with Software Development. For those of us who work in Engineering organisations the term conjures up ideas of Sprints, Burn-down, Iterative Delivery Cycles and Retrospectives.

The term itself has a very different meaning:

agile — an adjective: able to move quickly and easily.

Recently within my organisation we have been embarking on an agile transformation journey. The Executive team continually refer to the need “to be agile”.

This direct instruction has, at least within IT, been interpreted as a direct instruction to adopt an Agile Software Development methodology and change our ways of working. Speaking as an advocate of agile development I fully support this initiative; I do wonder though if the meaning of the ask “to be agile” can be achieved if all we do is adopt a new methodology.

What is being asked?

As a large corporate we have historically been slow to respond to change. Layers of management approvals and the need to justify expenditure has led to a slow, bureaucratic and risk averse corporate machine.

The world around us is changing at a very different pace; companies like Monzo, Netflix, Facebook and Google are demonstrating that the need to respond to change is a key differentiator which is required to survive.

I don’t believe our Executive team really care about the successful adoption of a methodology, albeit that it may be a means to an end; what is being asked is that as an organisation we need to rewire our DNA so that we are able to respond to change with flawless execution and at pace.

Why is adopting a methodology “not” the answer?

For me adopting an agile methodology as a company allows different levels of middle management to feel a sense of comfort. We have taken a tried and tested system and have been able to weave it into our existing processes to achieve an objective set by the Executive.

According to the 2018 state of agility survey 96% of Agile Transformations fail to generate the capability to adapt to changing market conditions. In my view this clearly demonstrates that achieving the Executive objective “to be agile” cannot be met by simply adopting a methodology.

I am not suggesting that using an existing methodology is not helpful — learning from others is a key component of any successful agile organisation. A framework can bring structure to the organisation but in order for that framework to be successful the people within the business need to understand and buy into why adopting an agile framework is not enough.

A structural change

I recently read a book called Measure What Matters; the author discusses the organisational structure of Google. One of the points which I found most interesting was that a common feature of Google’s management is that managers have large numbers of direct reports. The rationale for this is to flatten the hierarchy which forces managers to delegate work into their teams and reduces the levels of approval required.

In order to be an agile organisation it is critical to remove bureaucratic process. Quite often within an organisation a decision to invest has already been made by the Executive; why is it therefore necessary for several levels of management to approve the release of the money?

The rationale for this approval chain would typically be linked to risk management; to ensure that the money is going to be well spent and that appropriate due diligence has been performed to verify that the spend is wise. In my view this is one example of where organisations fail to grasp what being agile really means.

One way that I think an organisation can signal that they really are serious about an agile transformation is to flatten the organisational hierarchy and restructure. By reducing the number of approval levels required for an investment decision it becomes much easier for teams to respond quickly to changing market demand and therefore achieve the true intention of the Executive; that is to respond and adapt to consumer demand.

Simplifying Governance and Process

Another key facet of a successful agile transformation is the need to simplify process. In my organisation we have well established processes that have been developed and implemented over many years. While the intention of these processes is well meaning the effect is often to slow the speed of change.

In addition we have also found that many of our processes are siloed into different teams and groups. As a result processes often conflict with one another or cause delays because there are interdependencies between teams.

In my view the solution to this is to break down the silos and develop cross functional teams which contain all of the skills and authority required to respond to change. This doesn’t mean creating one big team but instead focusing on making sure the smallest number of people possible can work together to achieve the stated aims and objectives end to end without the need to depend on other teams within the organisation.

I am not suggesting all processes should be thrown away; but it is important to challenge the need for a process and then when process is required is should be robustly tested to ensure that it is fit for purpose. Critically it should make life simpler for all concerned as opposed to introducing complexity.

We have found that quite often a process is introduced by one group of people which is either not understood by another group or requires information that it is difficult for the other group to obtain. This is an example of an ineffective process because it doesn’t make life simpler for all process consumers and therefore reduces agility.

In summary for organisations “to be agile” every part of the organisation needs to understand that the true ask is that collectively we need to adapt so that we can respond to change at pace. Methodologies can take us so far but if the bureaucratic machine isn’t ready to adapt then ultimately the transformation can never succeed.

Within your organisation have you undergone, or are you in the process of an agile transformation? Have you found that there is a mismatch in understanding between the definition of the word Agile and the adoption of an Agile methodology? Is your organisation one of the 96% who have experienced a failed transformation? If so please reach out to me on twitter and share your experience @stevewestgarth.

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