Book List for Enterprise Agile Transformations

Leaders of Agile Transformations for the Enterprise need to have good sources of information, concepts and techniques that will guide and assist them.  This short list of twelve books (yes, books) is what I consider critical reading for any executive, leader or enterprise change agent.  Of course, there are many books that might also belong on this list, so if you have suggestions, please make them in the comments.

I want to be clear about the focus of this list: it is for leaders that need to do a deep and complete change of culture throughout their entire organization.  It is not a list for people who want to do Agile pilot projects and maybe eventually lots of people will use Agile.  It is about urgency and need, and about a recognition that Agile is better than not-Agile.  If you aren’t in that situation, this is not the book list for you.

Culture

These books all help you to understand and work with the deeper aspects of corporate behaviour which are rooted in culture.  Becoming aware of culture and learning to work with it is probably the most difficult part of any deep transformation in an organization.

The Corporate Culture Survival Guide – Edgar Schein

Beyond the Culture of Contest – Michael Karlburg

The Heart of Change – John Kotter

Management

This set of books gets a bit more specific: it is the “how” of managing and leading in high-change environments.  These books all touch on culture in various ways, and build on the ideas in the books about culture.  For leaders of an organization, there are dozens of critical, specific, management concepts that often challenge deeply held beliefs and behaviours about the role of management.

Good to Great – Jim Collins

The Leaders’ Guide to Radical Management – Steve Denning

The Mythical Man-Month – Frederick Brooks

Agile at Scale

These books discuss how to get large numbers of people working together effectively. They also start to get a bit technical and definitely assume that you are working in technology or IT. However, they are focused on management, organization and process rather than the technical details of software development. I highly recommend these books even if you have a non-technical background. There will be parts where it may be a bit more difficult to follow along with some examples, but the core concepts will be easily translated into almost any type of work that requires problem-solving and creativity.

Scaling Lean and Agile Development – Bas Vodde, Craig Larman

Scaling Agility – Dean Leffingwell

Lean Software Development – Mary and Tom Poppendieck

Supporting

These books (including some free online books) are related to some of the key supporting ideas that are part of any good enterprise Agile transformation.

Toyota Talent: Developing Your People the Toyota Way – Jeffrey Liker, David Meier

Agile Retrospectives – Esther Derby

Continuous Delivery – Jez Humble, David Farley

The Scrum Guide – Ken Schwaber, Jeff Sutherland, et. al.

The OpenAgile Primer – Mishkin Berteig, et. al.

Priming Kanban – Jesper Boeg

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SAFe Program Consultant Training – Review

I want to give some perspective on SAFe and the training that I have been attending these last few days.  The training itself is not actually over, but we are very near the end.  Just one day left, but it is dominated by the SPC exam and open Q&A on advanced topics.  In other words, we have covered the essence of SAFe.

Ad Hoc, Pragmatic and Transformative

When I think about organizations or departments trying to become Agile enterprises, I generally categorize those efforts into three approaches.

The “Ad Hoc” approach is typified by a grassroots movement or an executive decreeing “be Agile” with no one really knowing what that means.  A lot of organizations have some teams in this condition – they try Scrum, try some other Agile-ish things, and have modest successes.  When the enterprise is large enough, these ad hoc approaches reach a natural limit of effectiveness before they become severely blocked by organizational considerations.  Then, the leadership of the organization must turn to systematic approaches to becoming an Agile enterprise: the Pragmatic approaches or the Transformative approaches.

The “Pragmatic” approach acknowledges the difficulty of change, particularly for those in middle management.  There is still a deep acknowledgement of the Agile values and principles, but the pragmatic part is to say that the organization will take quite a long time to adopt those values and principles end-to-end, top-to-bottom.  These pragmatic approaches typically have low risk and good results.  SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) falls into this category along with DAD (Disciplined Agile Delivery) and possibly others that I’m not aware of.

The “Transformative” approach acknowledges the deep nature of Agile as a cultural transformation that can be done quickly when there is urgency to do so.  There is still an acknowledgement that Agile can be difficult for many people as it requires a change in mindset and deep habitual behaviours.  These approaches are transformative because they require all protagonists in the enterprise to be open to this deep and fast change to a new culture.  LeSS (Large Scale Scrum) and RAP (Real Agility Program) are both systematic transformative frameworks.

SAFe, as a pragmatic approach, has a number of excellent features that will help an organization accomplish its business and technology goals.

Scaled Agile Framework – Practical, Pragmatic, and Still Pure Agile

One big concern I had about SAFe, based on other people’s comments, was that it somehow was compromising the values of the Agile Manifesto.  I want to say clearly and unequivocally that SAFe is most certainly true to Agile.  This fact was demonstrated multiple times and in multiple ways throughout the training:

  • Explicit statements that SAFe is based on the Agile Manifesto.  At one point, Dean Leffingwell emphatically repeated several times that “we live or die by the Agile Manifesto!”
  • Clear examples of SAFe implementations making choices based on the values and principles of the Agile Manifesto.  It was common to talk about situations where SAFe ScrumXP teams, Agile Release Trains and the people involved made decisions based on “individuals and interactions”.
  • Practices and guidelines that implement the values and principles of Agile are pervasive throughout SAFe.  The Inspect and Adapt meeting, Program Increments, daily business collaboration with SAFe ScrumXP teams, customer collaboration through various forms of backlogs, reviews and demos, focus on simplicity and technical excellence with Architectural Runway, Test-Driven Development and other Agile engineering practices.
  • The instructors (not just Mr. Leffingwell) often mentioned their own philosophy of being flexible with the SAFe “framework” by making appropriate context-specific changes to the details.
  • Even participants in the class who have already started using SAFe in their organizations shared stories that clearly indicated a strong emphasis on the values and principles of Agility.

At the same time, SAFe manages to create a relatively simple interface with a traditional management organization.  This is critical and what makes it really effective as a pragmatic approach to enterprise agility.  For example, at the Agile Release Train level, there are nine roles identified (e.g. System Architect, Product Management, Business Owners).  The explicit acknowledgement and identification of these roles and how they interact with the SAFe ScrumXP teams through meetings, artifacts and other processes and tools helps an organization to map Agility at the staff level to traditional concepts at the middle-management level.  This interfacing is also pervasive throughout the SAFe framework and occurs at all levels of effort from individual team members up to high level business leaders.

Some people have grumbled about the complicated diagram as “proof” that SAFe can’t be Agile.  But a different way of looking at the diagram is that it is comfort for management.  I really appreciate this.  Back in 2004 and 2005 when I was consulting at Capital One on their first enterprise attempt at Agile, one of the coaches I was working with shared a story with me about the importance of comfort.  The project manager for an important project was very nervous that there was no Gantt chart in Agile.  At a personal level, she needed the comfort of having a Gantt chart to track the work of the team.  The coach for this project told the project manager “please, make your Gantt chart – just make sure that you let the team organize themselves without being disturbed to help you with the Gantt chart.”  Most Agilists are anti-Gantt.  This was a real eye-opener for me.  That project manager went on to gain confidence in the Agile team and was able to eventually discard the Gantt chart.

SAFe isn’t just a framework, it’s actually a scaffolding.  When you build an arch, you need a scaffold to keep everything in place until the keystone is in place.  In creating an Agile enterprise, you use SAFe as a scaffold to get you to Agility.

Lean, Agile and Leadership

This training has also spent a lot of time discussing Lean thinking, Lean product flow and Lean leadership.  SAFe asserts four principles of Agile Leadership:

  1. Take a systems view
  2. Embrace the Agile Manifesto
  3. Implement product development flow
  4. Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers

I like this list.  I might change the wording slightly, but in going through the details of what these mean, it is clear that if leaders could adopt these principles, every organization would be a much better place to work.

There is a fair amount of time spent on helping leaders make the shift in thinking from traditional “scientific management” to “Agile leadership”.  There are a lot of good reading references given in these discussions including “Five Dysfunctions of a Team”.  There is also a lot of time spent on value stream thinking including some great discussion exercises.

Organizational Structure in SAFe

SAFe does not define all the structures throughout the whole organization.  By design, it is not end-to-end, top-to-bottom.  It does define a structure for three levels of activity: the team level, the program level and the portfolio level.

At the team level, SAFe relies on a slightly modified version of Scrum and Extreme Programming (XP) that it calls SAFe ScrumXP.  As a Certified Scrum Trainer, I’m confident that the Scrum described is “good enough” to be legitimate Scrum even if there are small variations.  One example is in the idea of commitment.  Scrum espouses the value of Commitment.  In “old” versions of Scrum, the Scrum Team was required to commit to the work of the Sprint (the business scope).  SAFe keeps this concept.  However, if you look in the most recent version of the Scrum Guide, this concept is no longer present.  One thing that I think is absolutely fantastic is that several of the XP technical practices are required practices in SAFe: Test Driven Development, Continuous Integration, Pair Programming, User Stories, Acceptance Test Automation and Refactoring.  I wish that Scrum would get around to officially requiring these practices.  This set of canned answers is sometimes an irritant for Scrum folks, but the fact is that, again, middle managers are often made more comfortable by being provided with concrete answers.  And, in my not-so-humble opinion, SAFe is providing the right answers.  Since all this is at the Team level, middle managers are even more comfortable because they can tell all these staff-level people how to work.

At the program level, SAFe scales the basic concept of a Sprint up to a larger “Program Increment” (PI) concept.  The core concept that holds the program level together is the Agile Release Train which is based on a limit to the number of people who can work effectively in a social network (Dunbar’s number ? 150).  Again, SAFe is quite definitive about process at this level: Sprints are 2 weeks long and PIs are 5 Sprints long (10 weeks).  Timeboxing is explained effectively with the concepts of cadence and synchronization as a way to ensure predictability at the program level.  Unlike the simplicity of the Team level, the Program level in SAFe introduces a number of important connectors to transitional organizations.  This is done through defining several roles that have extremely close analogues to traditional roles (and even use a lot of the same names), and through other artifacts such as vision, roadmap, non-functional requirements, and features.  There are even a number of recommended metrics for evaluating the performance of the program (not the people).

At the Portfolio level, SAFe simplifies again somewhat in that there are no new aspects of cadence or synchronization introduced, and the number of defined roles and artifacts at this level is relatively small.  One important difference at this level compared to the Program and Team levels is the introduction of a Kanban approach used to feed “Program Epics” to the Agile Release Trains at the Program level.  At this level, Kanban is used to drive the flow of value, but there is not as much emphasis on continuous improvement here (although there is when SAFe discusses leadership).  At all three levels, there is a constant emphasis on the lean concept of focusing on value rather than cost.  This comes in many of the details, but may be a bit difficult for middle managers.  Fortunately, the Portfolio level  includes some excellent advice on working with budgets and allocating those budgets to business vs. technical needs and based on the effort required at the Program level with the Agile Release Trains.  SAFe recommends revisiting budgets every six months (I believe this is meant to be every 2 Product Increments) and is the only aspect of cadence and synchronization at the Portfolio level.

The Training

I’ll admit that overall I didn’t particularly enjoy the training.  I love SAFe.  As a trainer myself, I’m too critical perhaps.  Certainly, the training I deliver has evolved over ten years of work with lots and lots of feedback and mentorship.  However, in the Agile community, the overall standard for training has improved greatly over the last 5 years and I would love to see our three trainers who helped with this course improve their delivery.

There are a also some general comments about the training that I would like to make that are about personal preference.

First, I would prefer more small exercises that are experiential.  For example, there was a great deal of time spent on centralized vs. decentralized decision-making and leadership which could have been compressed greatly with a simple exercise like the “Command and Control Walking Simulation” which takes about 5 minutes to drive home the point unequivocally.  The first two days were largely lecture with a couple big exercises (both the lecture and the big exercises were generally good).

Second, the slides.  The slides.  The slides.  The slides… and more slides!!!  Too much by far.  And using the slides for lecture made it very difficult to stay on track for time with lots of slides missed or touched on only very briefly.  This is anxiety-inducing and boredom-inducing for me.  Some people like lots of slides, but most people don’t.

Third, not enough breaks for a 9 to 6 training session.  Usually just one break in the morning and one in the afternoon as well as a short lunch.  Two breaks and a longer lunch would have made it much more tolerable from a personal comfort level.  At one point on the third day I just had to take an extra break and I ended up missing about 30 minutes before I felt ready to come back.

Final Words

I’m happy I invested in this for both myself and for Travis.  We have learned a lot about SAFe, a little about Agile and Lean, and we are both excited about offering SAFe-related services to some of our clients.  At this point I am convinced that it is appropriate and good under some common (but not universal) conditions.

I will probably write several more articles about SAFe as I process the information and start to relate it to more specific aspects of Agile, Lean, organizations, management, leadership, productivity, and, of course, our own Agile Enterprise framework, the Real Agility Program. I’m excited and happy to see that the two frameworks are not competitive or exclusive in any significant way… more about that of course!

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Welcome to LEGOLAND

I was observing a workshop last week that had been put together to create greater cohesiveness in a large organizational team who needed to create a unified vision about their department.

Initially they were broken up into smaller groups to discuss some of the ideas, issues, and challenges they had encountered.  It was obvious how stressed everyone was.  People were speaking animatedly with louder than usual volume, there was a great deal of tension, and everyone seemed agitated and uneasy.

Then came the LEGO.  Mountains of it.  Not just some mismatched pieces either. The kind of LEGO that would have made any child squeal with joy.

LEGO

Each person was asked to create a model of what they thought their department was like at that moment, using the LEGO.  Then another model of what they each envisioned their department could be.  They were then asked to combine the ones they thought were best into a grand model for the department.

I immediately recognized this approach of play therapy used in child psychology, and I was curious to see how it would translate to adults in the workplace.

The effects were wonderful.  The room that was once filled with heated arguments and loads of stress, had transformed into complete calm.  Everyone was so engaged with building their models, they were quiet and relaxed, and whenever there were bursts of noise it was joyful laughter.

Then came the moment of truth, they had to present the large departmental model that they had all collaborated and contributed to making.

They spoke of their vision clearly without argument or dissent.  They shared the space freely encouraging others to speak on parts of the model they didn’t know in detail.  And when they finished their presentation, there was a long pause of silence where everyone was looking at the model, and in each person’s eyes, I saw pride for what they had accomplished together, and a deep sense of hope for the future where it was absent before.

I guess those colourful blocks really do have some magic in them.

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The Real Agility Program – Execution and Delivery Teams

Execution IconIn a recent post, Mishkin outlined the Leadership Team component of the Real Agility Program.  While the Leadership Team track focuses on developing leadership capacity for sustained transformation, The Execution track focuses on launching and developing high-performance project, product and operational teams.  This track is the one that most of our clients use when they run Agile pilot programs and is a critical component of getting quick wins for the organization.

Groundbreaking works such as The Wisdom of Teams (Katzenbach & Smith), The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (Lencioni) and Drive (Pink) have served well to distill the essential requirements of high-performance teams.  Scrum, Kanban, and OpenAgile are proven frameworks that optimize the value of teams and create the necessary working agreements to help teams reach that high-performance state.

The Delivery Team track of the Real Agility Program creates new, cross-functional, multi-skilled, staff-level teams of willing individuals.  These teams are responsible for delivering value—business results and quality.  Individuals are committed to the performance of the team and the organization.  Teams develop the capacity to self-organize and focus on continuous improvement and learning.  A team is usually composed of people from various roles at the delivery level.  For example, and IT project team might be composed of people whose previous* roles were:

  1. Project manager
  2. Business analyst
  3. Software developer
  4. Tester
  5. Database developer
  6. Team lead
  7. User experience lead
  8. Intern

* These roles do not get carried into the new delivery team other than as a set of skills.

The track begins with establishing pre-conditions for success including executive sponsorship, availability of team members and management support.  Team launch involves a series of on-the-job team development workshops designed to enable the teams to create their own set of values, working agreements and high-performance goals.  Teams are guided in the creation of their initial work backlogs, defining “done”, estimation and planning and self-awareness through the use of a collaborative skills matrix.  The teams are also assisted in setting up collocated team rooms and other tools to optimize communication and productivity.

Qualified coaches assist the teams to overcome common issues such as personal commitment, initial discomfort with physical colocation, communication challenges of working with new people in a new way, management interference and disruptions and appropriate allocation of authority.  This assistance is delivered on a regular schedule as the team progresses through a series of steps in the Execution track process.  Usually, these steps take one or two weeks each, but sometimes they take longer.  A team that needs to get to a high-performance state quickly might go through the entire program in 10 or 12 weeks.  In an organization where there is not the same urgency, it can take up to a year to get through the steps of the track.

The coaches for this Execution track also help management to resist and overcome the strong urge to manage the problems of the teams for them.  In order to develop through the stages of team development, teams need to be effectively guided and encouraged to solve their own problems and chart their own courses towards high-performance.

The goal of the Execution track of the Real Agility Program is to help the team go through the stages of forming-storming-norming and set them up to succeed in becoming a high-performance team.  Of course, to do this requires some investment of time.  Although the Execution track is meant to be done as on-the-job coaching, there is a 5% to 20% level of overhead related to the Real Agility Program materials themselves.

See also the article on the Recommendations component of the Real Agility Program.

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Real Agility Program – Leadership Transformation Team

Leadership IconOne of the main components of our Real Agility Program for enterprise Agile transformations is the Leadership Development track.  This track is a series of monthly leadership meetings with one of our consultants to help them establish their Leadership Transformation Team.  This team is based in part on the concept of a guiding coalition from John Kotter’s work (see “Leading Change“), and in part on Edgar Schein’s work on corporate culture (see “The Corporate Culture Survival Guide“) as well as our own specific experience on successful Agile transformations in organizations.

The very first thing, of course, is to establish who should be on the Leadership Transformation Team.  There are six major categories from which the team must find representatives:

  1. The Executive Sponsor, for example the CIO
  2. Business Management, for example an SVP of Sales or Product Development
  3. Process Management, for example the head of the PMO or Compliance
  4. Technology Management, for example VP of Technology or Development
  5. Human Resources, for example a Director of Staff Development and Training
  6. and Apprentice Agile Coaches / Agile Champions

In total, the number of people on this team should be no more than 12, but smaller is better.

Once established, this Leadership Transformation Team must execute on three core responsibilities in perpetuity:

  1. Urgency and Vision: constant, strong, repetitive, prominent communication of the reasons for change and a high level view of how those changes will happen.
  2. Lead by Example: use of an Agile approach to run the Leadership Transformation Team’s work – we recommend OpenAgile for the process, but Kanban may also be used.
  3. Empower Staff: focus on removing obstacles by making structural changes in the organization, helping staff master standard Agile processes and tools, and eventually, creating innovative Agile approaches customized for the organization.

This leadership support is a critical success factor for an Agile Transformation.  One of the first steps in our program for this team is to help with the creation of the team’s plan for the transformation.  This plan can be derived from an number of sources including assessment work, but includes a number of standard items that must eventually be addressed for a successful transformation.  At a high level, these include:

  • Hiring, performance evaluation and compensation
  • Reporting relationships
  • What to do with project managers, business analysts, testers and certain middle managers
  • Key metrics and processes for measuring progress
  • Technology and physical environment
  • Vendor relationships and contracts
  • Compliance, regulation and documentation

Many of these items are multi-year change efforts that need to be closely guided and encouraged by the Leadership Transformation Team.

One final point about the Leadership Transformation Team needs to be made: the work they do must not be delegated to subordinates.  If something is part of their three core responsibilities, it must be handled directly by the members of this team.  Therefore, the team members need to allocate a significant percentage of their time to the effort.  Usually 20% is sufficient to get started.  The proportion may wax and wane slightly over time, but if it gets too low, the Leadership Transformation Team will lose touch with the transformation and the risk of it going bad increases substantially.

See also our article about the Recommendations component of the Real Agility Program.

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Reflections on Agile Business Leadership

From push system to pull system thinking

One of the disconnects holding teams back the most in an organization embarking on an Agile transformation is the lack of will and perhaps understanding of vision on the part of the business. The required shift in thinking is from a “push system” to a “pull system”. Historically and still culturally, most organizations, even those claiming to be ‘Agile’ are very much push systems. The business folks in client services – VPs, Directors, sales people, etc. seem to make time (deadline) commitments to clients on behalf of teams and then the teams are given the deadlines to finish the work. Sometimes, the deadlines are decided on in consultation with particular individuals on the teams and very rarely, if ever, with the actual teams themselves. In any case, the fact that the business is almost entirely deadline-driven is the centre of the push system. Deadlines push or drive everything else. Deadlines are fixed and often considered non-negotiable. Deadlines are a taboo subject – it is considered a waste of time to even discuss them because they just don’t and won’t ever move. The general attitude is that if we try to move deadlines, we put the entire business at risk because our clients will drop us and turn to one of our competitors who claim to be able to promise and keep deadlines. If we lose our clients, we lose business, we lose money and it potentially puts us all out of jobs. What this exposes is not only a push system driven by deadlines, but a culture that is actually driven by fear. The not-so-implicit message is that if you miss a deadline, you might lose your job, so you had better do whatever it takes to not miss the deadline. Or else. Push and pull systems and mentalities are like oil and water – they don’t mix. In Agile, there is no place for fear of failure. Rather, teams must be allowed to fail (miss deadlines) and learn from their failures (plan better).

Why quality, not time/cost or scope is non-negotiable

The “make the deadline or else message” is couched and clouded by other talk. The main excuse is to blame the client, as noted above. “That’s just the way our clients work, the way the market works”. Of course, such an excuse contains a kernel of truth. Without a true understanding and embrace of Agile, the idea of not meeting deadlines and the perceived consequences can be truly scary. Generally, there is an understanding from the business that the productivity of teams may drop somewhat as they progress through the storming stage. What this translates into is a difficult discussion with clients around delayed delivery. It is tolerable in that it is temporary. “Once the teams get up and running, we can go back to meeting our deadlines, and even be able to deliver early because Agile is supposed to be faster.” But the benefits of truly adopting Agile are much more powerful than this.

Understanding the true business value of Agile

What needs to be understood is the true business value for investing in Agile processes and practices – how it may add cost and time to the initial development Cycle, but how it saves both the business and the client tremendously on technical debt and support long-term. This needs to be understood and championed by the business in order for the organization to become liberated from its enslavement to the push system mentality. At the heart of such a mental liberation is the wholehearted adoption and commitment to the Agile/Lean principle that quality is non-negotiable. The investment in Agile processes and practices is essentially an investment not only in quality, but in continuous quality improvements towards the goal of being able to frequently deliver products of increasing relevance and quality (value). The ability to ship frequently allows for sustainable growth. All of this is made impossible by the deadline-driven push system mentality/culture of fear.

The urgent need for slack

One of the first things that a team needs in order to focus on continuous quality improvements is slack so that it can learn to learn. The first goal of the business leadership should be to facilitate scope and deadline slack for the team. This goal should also be fully and visibly championed by the business leadership. In order to develop the capability to facilitate slack, the business needs to gain knowledge around the purpose and importance of Agile processes and practices and be able to articulate a strong business case for them. The business leadership needs to develop the skill of educating the team, management and business leadership on the long-term benefits of an Agile transformation – the transformation from a push system to a pull system. The key stakeholders and business leaderships need to possess the courage to engage in difficult conversations with management and clients who may be upset by the short-term pain of delays and missed deadlines and protect the team from continued attempts to push work into the team. Perhaps above all, the business leadership needs to develop an attitude of learning – a humble learning posture that allows for the setting aside of preconceived notions, fears and prejudices around what it means to be a good business leader. A leader possessed of this posture demonstrates a learning attitude by stressing first and foremost the importance of creating slack for the team to learn to learn. It is a common pitfall for inexperienced business leaderships and stakeholders to expect Agile to provide solutions for their push system woes, woes that include the broken trust of clients from consistently broken (unrealistic, dreamt-up) deadline promises and the crippling effects of technical debt (the fallout of the former – when scope, time and cost are fixed, quality is compromised).

If the business leadership, with the support of the Process Facilitators and the Transformation Team, is able to foster the organizational will to create slack for the teams, then the teams will have the space they need to truly focus on continuous quality improvements. This is a critical milestone on the path to realizing the true, measurable benefits of Agile. Although the support of others is needed, the business leadership is in a unique position benefitting from an intimate relationship with both the needs of the business as well as the daily life of the team.

Why the business leadership needs to own the process

The first way that the business leadership creates slack for the teams is by championing the process. In OpenAgile, like all other Agile methodologies, there are key features of the process the purpose of which are to give space for new teams to begin to make the often seemingly inconsequential, yet ultimately critical first steps towards continuous quality improvements. One of the most obvious of these features is the Agile team meetings. In the early stages of team development, organizational understanding and will, the OpenAgile meetings (particularly the Reflection and Learning aspects of the Engagement Meetings in OpenAgile) can easily be discounted as an obstacle preventing the team from getting the “real work” done. What is often forgotten under the pressure of deadlines is the fact that in order for a team to be able to learn to make continuous quality improvements, it needs to develop the capability of systematic (frequent & regular) inspection and adaptation of the way that it works. It is easy to save on the short term pain of perceived non-negotiable deadlines (meeting deadlines at all cost = success) by compromising on investing in the process, especially when the team is still learning to learn and the effectiveness of the meetings is not yet apparent. When the team and the organization have an expectation of Agile as something that fits into the push system and allows for a team to function better within such a system, it can be hard to understand how spending time in a kind of meeting that the team doesn’t seem good at yet can be of any value. This is where the business leadership needs to stand firmly behind the process. The team needs the meetings – the space to reflect, learn and plan – in order to learn to become more effective at making continuous quality improvements – a critical feature of an effective pull system. Without the meetings, the team will never develop this critical capability and as a result, will never become an Agile team. Instead, the team will revert back to getting the “real work” done with all of the quality problems crippling the organization and which led to the decision to adopt an Agile framework in the first place.

Why the business leadership should care about burn-down

Another key feature of the process for the business leadership to understand and champion is the concept of burn-down as represented by the burn-down chart of an Agile team. Agile doesn’t care about how much work the team gets done. It assumes that the team is doing valuable work and getting things done – in other words, that the team is managing itself and working towards its goals and commitments. There are no tools in Agile for an individual, least of all the business leadership, to measure and manage how much work the team is getting done. Agile acknowledges the reality that real (sustainable) productivity cannot be forced on any team. Instead, a team grows its productivity at a sustainable pace when it is given enough slack to do so. The team makes a plan at the beginning of the Cycle based on what it understands about its capacity, works towards that goal throughout the Cycle and hopefully delivers valuable results at the end of the Cycle. By learning to apply the process of continuous improvement, quality and productivity go up hand in hand. That is the essence of the pull model. Through all of this, the team manages “how” it gets work done. The productivity of a team can be measured, but the burn-down chart is neither an appropriate nor effective tool for measuring the productivity of a team. Instead, burn-down provides one specific measurement and ONLY this one measurement: WORK REMAINING (in order to achieve the goal/commitment of the current Cycle). It does not and cannot tell you how much the team got done and even less so the whys and hows of the output and productivity of the team during the Cycle.

So what is the purpose of burn-down and why should the business leadership even care? If it can’t be used as a tool to measure the productivity of the team (in other words, if it can’t be used to manage the team) then what importance can it possibly have? These are typical questions of teams and individuals that are coming from a traditional project management, i.e. command & control, i.e. “push” system mentality. Understanding the purpose of burn-down depends on the ability to make the shift from the push system paradigm to the pull system paradigm. In a push system, burn-down is nice but somewhat irrelevant. For an organization committed to an Agile transformation (towards a pull system of self-managed teams) it is an invaluable launch pad for powerful conversations that live at the heart of continuous quality improvements.

Commitment to the business requirements come from the Agile teams

When a team decides on a plan for a Cycle of work, the plan is a commitment. This is a critical step in the Agile process. It is only after a unanimous commitment from the whole team that the team begins to work on the plan. If any individual team member feels hesitant about the work in the plan, tasks and potentially even Value Drivers should be removed until everyone is comfortable making a commitment. When the business leadership is telling a team what the plan is, then it is not the team’s plan and therefore it cannot be a team commitment. This is not only an inappropriate use of authority, it is also breaking the Agile process. Moreover, when a plan and therefore a commitment is forced onto a team, the team cannot be held accountable for failure. Worse yet, the team will never learn to plan. If a team is not able to plan, then it is not able to make commitments. If the team is overwhelmed by an overly-ambitious, management-forced plan, it will not learn to evaluate its capacity and apply that knowledge to long-term planning and project estimates. It will not learn to make meaningful quality improvements and reflect on its progress. It will not learn to self-manage or self-organize. The purpose of burn-down is to establish commitment velocity. In other words, the amount of work that the team can truthfully expect to complete during the Cycle when it is making the Plan. The difference between the number of tasks in the Cycle Plan and the number of tasks remaining at the end of the Cycle gives the team its commitment velocity. Commitment velocity is always based on minimum historical velocity. The team uses commitment velocity to make a Cycle Plan containing no more than the number of tasks represented by its commitment velocity. This allows the team to spend just the right amount of effort and time on planning and allows the team slack to focus on the truly Agile work of learning and continuous quality and process improvements. Over-planning, especially when it is wedded to over-committing or even worse, non-committing (a common push system mentality pitfall forced onto teams by the business leadership) leaves the team in a state of dependent on daily micro-management and can completely halt the progress of a team. Not to mention that this is a flagrant violation of Agile values (truthfulness, responding to change over following a plan) and principles (sustainable development). Such compromises to foundational Agile values, principles and processes may produce desired results in the very short-term, but the long-term costs can be crippling to teams and organizations. The wasteful activity associated with team dependency on micro-management is what often leads organizations to the accumulation of technical debt that places them in dire competitive disadvantage and desperate need for Agile transformation in the first place. If an organization misses out on this golden opportunity, teams can become demoralized and innocuous to the Agile practices and the promise of an Agile transformation can quickly erode.

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What’s in your Agile Transformation Backlog?

Michael Badali, a good friend of mine, has asked a great question on LinkedIn: What is your Backlog for Agile Transformation?.  From his question:

While I think that Band-Aid off quick is more likely to be successful than Band-Aid off slow, often Agile Coaches & Leaders are put in the position of Kaizen instead of Kaikaku. When asked for a detailed waterfall plan and schedule on how to become Agile… I generally refuse and create an Agile Transformation Backlog – a prioritized list of things that need to be done to become Agile. Please share your prioritized list of things that need to be done to be Agile.

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Cool Blog – SustainabilityCulture.com

One of our partner organizations, HBI Leadership, has launched a blog called SustainabilityCulture.com.  Check it out!

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Stonecutters, Paycheck Earners, or Cathedral Builders?

All credit for this is due to Mary Poppendieck as this is entirely cribbed from her Agile2007 talk on agile leadership.

A man walks into a quarry and sees three people with pickaxes. He walks up to the first one and asks, “What are you doing?” The first quarry worker irritably replies, “I’m cutting stone, what does it look like? I cut stone today, I cut stone yesterday, and I will cut stone tomorrow!” The man asks the same of the second person who replies, “I’m making a living for my family.” The man turns to the third person and asks him, “so what are you doing here?” The third worker looks up for a moment, looks back at the man with a proud expression and says, “I’m building a Cathedral!”

The moral of the parable is likely clear, but it bears applying to organizational dynamics. Basically, consider that everyone gets annoyed with aspects of their jobs. The question is one of response. Basically, if a person is annoyed with his job, does he:

  • Complain? He is probably a stonecutter.
  • Ignore it? He is probably a paycheque earner.
  • Fix it? He is a cathedral builder.

Cathedral builders are absolutely critical to a healthy organization. They push the organization towards a vision, often propagating the high-level vision throughout all levels of the organization. Unfortunately, these are also people who annoy the stonecutters and paycheque earners, because they won’t participate in the complaints, and they agitate for changes which make it hard to ignore things and just “do the job.” But your success will rely on them… find them, shelter them, and grow them. And whatever you do, don’t “promote” them into positions where they aren’t effective. Empower them, and if you need to add salary and title that’s fine, but let them find their own area of maximal contribution. Guaranteed you, Mr. business owner, aren’t smart enough to see what that is.

Organizations that fail to see this remain mediocre or failing organizations. Organizations that find ways of harnessing their workforce and coaxing people into the next level of engagement, succeed.

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