Is There a Single “Most Important” Agile Work Practice?

There are a few times that I have been involved with implementing agile pratices without management knowledge or direct support. In these cases it has usually been necessary to gradually introduce the practices. An unsupportive or apathetic environment cannot be changed instantly and big-bang introduction of agile tends to bring too much negative attention too quickly.

In reflecting on those experiences, as well as “normal” agile implementations, I have felt that there are some specific practices that can stand alone.

Self-Organizing Teams

The practice of a self-organizing team consists of frequent regular status meetings, face-to-face, reporting to the other team members accomplishments, work commitments and obstacles. Scrum has a very strict method of doing this on a daily basis but I have found it valuable to do more or less frequently depending on the team and its environment (generally any less than every second day is not enough). The team, or some assistant of some sort, tracks the barriers and works to resolve them quickly. Management, if it exists, must be contacted through trusted channels to assist with the removal of barriers. And stakeholders must be able to attend the status meetings or receive reports immediately after the meetings.

This single practice tends to have the ability to bootstrap the others. The identification and clearing of barriers provides a way for the team to practice all three Agile Work Disciplines (Empower the Team, Amplify Learning, Eliminate Waste). Reporting accomplishments to the other team members Amplifies Learning. Committing to work is empowering.

Some teams have done only this single agile practice and seen great improvements in productivity, morale, and stakeholder satisfaction. However, there are some pitfalls that must be acknowledged and dealt with.

Pitfall: Speculative Work

The team can tend towards speculative work if there is no strong representative of the stakeholders. This does not always happen since most people are sincere in their desire to “make a difference”. However, if as a team you adopt only this practice and find yourselves doing lots of “what-if?” or “wouldn’t it be neet if…” or “what exactly is our purpose?” discussions, then you need to find some external stakeholder support for your effort.

Pitfall: Failing to Deliver

In many organizations, failure to deliver is an endemic problem and a self-organizing team will break through and start delivering. However, failure to deliver can also become a cultural mindset for an organization or group. A self-organizing team must maintain a goal (not a plan) for itself, and that goal must include delivering something valuable. Again, finding an external stakeholder to support the team’s efforts can help to avoid this pitfall.

Pitfall: No Barriers

Sometimes a team will get into a habit where no new barriers are being exposed. This can often happen when the progress in the work becomes steady and is recognizably better than it was before. The team falls into a “local optimum”. In this case, the team needs a fresh way to view their work. This can happen in a number of ways: a crisis, an external observer, or a change in environment among others.

Do you have experience with successful but incomplete agile implementations? I would love to hear of other experiences and opinions about this.


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