A Litmus Test for Agility

Being Agile seems to be the rage these days and everyone has an opinion on what Agility means and how to do it “right”.  This article doesn’t make process recommendations, but it does provide a quick, effective way to help your team and organization get on track with being Agile (primarily a mindset measurement) and not just doing Agile (primarily a practices measurement).  Presented below is a simple and lightweight test that can be applied by almost anyone; it provides clear steps for improvement, and it is geared for alignment with the core Agile Principles and Values.

The Need

CoachThere are lots of Agile practitioners, coaches and trainers out there claiming to be experts.  Some are genuinely skilled while others have a few key certification letters beside their name and yet little to no in depth, real-world experience.  Although most have a genuine intent to help and they might actually succeed at it, others might inadvertently do more damage and provide harmful guidance.  How can you help them help you?

FrameworkThere are also numerous frameworks, methodologies, and practices that claim they are well suited to help an organization become more Agile.  Some of them are simplistic, process-based approaches that may not account for your environment, culture, or specific business needs, while others are more complex and pragmatic.  Depending on your situation it can be tricky to know what will work best.  How can you find a suitable fit?

MeasurementThere are also many tools and approaches to measure a team’s Agility, the leadership’s alignment with Agile, or the organizational maturity.  Some of these simply measure the number of practices (i.e. are you doing Agile), others account for an in depth assessment of cultural factors (i.e are you being Agile), and some are based on scenarios that are idealistic given common real world business challenges.

Indeed there are a wide variety of indicators of varying complexity, so you might be challenged to determine if they are simply vanity measures, helpful health indicators, or suitable fitness criteria, and more specifically if they appropriately measure for the outcomes you are looking for.  How can you ensure they are providing valuable insights and actionable results so you may make data driven decisions?

Keep it Simple and Focused

Given all these complexities, how do you know what it really means to be Agile, how can you align the effort, and how do you know how successful you are?

The answer is keep it simple and focused, and be outcome driven. Specifically, start with the foundations of Agile and then evaluate Agility from your perspective, your organization’s business needs, your employee’s needs, and most importantly from your customer’s needs.  Then, use that information to measure and steer improvement towards your real desired outcomes of Agility.

In the spirit of keeping it simple and focused, I’m sharing a “quick” and lightweight Agility Litmus Test and Procedure below to measure how you are doing and to ensure you, your stakeholders and your approaches are all headed in the right direction.

A Straightforward Procedure

1) Align With The Agile Manifesto

Read the Agile Manifesto.  I don’t mean gloss over it on the train on the way to work, or over lunch, or during your kid’s sports game.  I mean READ it, focusing on the twelve guiding principles AND the four value statements.

If it helps, boil each of the twelve principles down to two or three key words to provide clarity.  Then, when reviewing each principle ask yourself what you think it really means, and why you think it was important enough for the signatories to explicitly call it out in the Manifesto (what the intent was).  To ensure everyone has a similar frame of reference you may find it useful to host a time boxed, focused discussion on each principle.

2) Choose Key Agile Measures

Of the twelve principles ask yourself which ones (pick 3 or 4 at most) are core, or most important to you and your stakeholders (your organization, your leadership, your customers and your team).  Don’t just speculate or guess what the answers are; you will likely need to facilitate several workshops with the appropriate people to get to the truth to those questions.

This activity in itself is a test.  If there is not close alignment on what the most important principles are then stop right here.  Do not proceed until you align on what those key principles are.  If you proceed without alignment you risk working against one another and not towards a common goal or outcome.  Note that getting alignment might prove contentious so you may need a series of facilitated sessions to hash it out.

Once you align on several core principles they become your key indicators for the Litmus Test for Agility.  These are also your defined Agile outcomes, because they encapsulate what it specifically means for you to be Agile (where you want to be).

3) Perform a Critical Assessment

Starting with your key indicators, honestly answer the question how close or how far away are we” for each one.  Use a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 means “not close at all” and 7 means “we are totally nailing it”.  I chose 1-7 because it gives just enough range to differentiate measures.  That, and it is exactly 1/2 of the pH range for a proper Litmus test!

Be sure to seek fair and equal participation in this evaluation, as it is important to help reduce bias and ensure perspectives are accounted for.  This means you should ensure you have adequate representation from as many groups as is practical.

Honesty and transparency are also extremely critical here so you may require a facilitated session.  You may also need to provide a safe environment to encourage honesty in responses, so anonymous scoring and evaluations would be an appropriate technique to use.

4) Determine Actions

Critically review the summary of evaluative responses for your key indicators.  If the average is less than 6 out of 7 then hold a strategic planning session to determine actions to get you closer to achieving those outcomes.  Note also if there is a wide dispersal of the individual responses for a key indicator that would strongly suggest there is a large misalignment amongst the respondents, and you need to address that gap.

One question to ask would simply be “what would it take…”, or “what would we need to do to get us to a 6 or higher?   When following this line of reasoning be sure to account for the coaches, practitioners and experts you are relying on by asking “What can or should they be doing to align with our key indicators and Agile outcomes?”

Also, look at the frameworks and approaches you are using and ask “How can we switch, change or improve our ways to improve Agility?”

Finally, look at the tools and measures you are leveraging and ask “Are these vanity measures or are they really meaningful?” and “How can we improve these measures (not just the values, but the metrics themselves) to provide more meaningful insights and help us better realize our defined Agile outcomes?”

As a group then choose at least one and no more than three specific actions that came out of the discussion above, implement them, hold one another accountable for them, and measure on the next round if your actions had the desired effect of improving the scores for your key indicators.

5) Learn and Refine

Repeat steps 3 and 4 of this procedure at frequent and regular intervals, being sure to not only measure but also define and take new action.

6) Reassess and Pivot as Needed

If time permits or if your key indicators all show consistent strength, consider switching to some of the other Agile Manifesto Guiding Principles.  If it seems logical you may even want to go back and repeat the entire process as your needs and outcomes may have changed.

Conclusion

The core value this Litmus Test for Agility provides is a) in its simplicity, b) in it’s inherent alignment with the Agile Values and Principles, and c) in its focus on what matters most for you and your stakeholders.  It uses the Manifesto as a foundation, and then allows you to focus on what is most important to you.

Like all tests and models this approach has some inherent strengths and weaknesses.  For example, it is lightweight, cheap, easy to implement, and aligned with core Agility, however it is not an extravagant or in depth test so it may not account for complexities.  As such it should never replace sound judgement.

Meanwhile, if you sense or feel there is something deeper going on that may be impeding your organization’s ability to become more Agile then be sure to investigate thoroughly, work with others to obtain nonpartisan assessment, and provide clarity along the way on intent, outcome, and learnings.

If you are practicing Scrum, using a more sophisticated tool such as Scrum Insight (a virtual “Coach-in-a-Box”) can provide much richer, deeper feedback and insights, including recommended actions.  Even the free version of the tool provides keen insight.

Depending on circumstance you might also find it advantageous to call in expert facilitation, advisors or coaches to either conduct an Agility test such as this or even help your team or organization get to the heart of their issues and challenges.  Organizations such as BERTEIG are not only Agile teachers but they are also hands-on practitioners that can coach your team and organization to reaching new levels of Agility, either with a lightweight touch or a fully immersive engagement.

Coincidentally, reflecting, collaborating, providing transparency, and adopting a continuous learning and improvement mindset are in and of themselves indicators of Agility.  So identifying core values such as these and then making them part of your Agile Litmus Test (i.e. making them your new Agility outcomes) shows how simple it can be to improve, adapt and grow even this lightweight approach!


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3 thoughts on “A Litmus Test for Agility”

    1. To answer your question Jose, yes, I absolutely agree that an auto-assessment is biased. Then again, show me a single test that is not biased, whether it be a self-assessment or a supposed independent critical third party evaluation.

      No matter how hard we try, humans will always extrapolate and make assumptions based on our own personal experiences and perceptions. Whether we are willing to admit it or not we are all looking at the world through a bias, all the time. The best we can do is try to limit bias as much as possible, or just simply be honest with ourselves (which this self-test requests) and embrace the results with a learning mindset and a willingness and desire to improve.

      Meanwhile, if someone is not willing to be honest with themselves when conducting a self-assessment like this then I ask what is the point of taking the test? There are no Agile Police and no one will criticize someone for doing poorly on this test, so would someone lie to themselves simply to stroke their own ego, or perhaps obtain some self-satisfaction or self-reward? If so, good for them for leveraging their positive self-serving bias.

      As a result of purposefully introducing a positive self-serving bias into a self-assessment the individual will not likely have any real opportunity to improve, but they will likely get an awesome test score.

      So two fundamental questions to answer honestly before taking the test are –

      1) “What is your true reason for taking the test?”, and

      2) “What would you rather have; an awesome score, or an opportunity to learn and improve?”

      The answers to those two questions will indicate how aligned you are to an Agile mindset.

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