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Author Q&A and Book Excerpt: Directing the Agile Organisation

Posted by Shane Hastie on Nov 29, 2013 |

Evan Leybourn has written a book titled Directing the Agile Organisation in which he presents ideas about using agile approaches to management and a number of case studies on how the techniques have been applied in a number of disparate organisations.

An excerpt of the book is available for InfoQ readers here, and it can be purchased from Amazon.

He recently spoke to InfoQ about the book: 

InfoQ: Why did you write this book,  what is the problem you are trying to solve?

Evan: I have been using agile techniques and methods since 2003. As my career progressed into management, and away from software projects, it was almost inevitable that I would apply the same agile concepts, values and techniques to management that I had successfully applied to delivering business intelligence products.

What I then discovered was that, while the agile principles and methods remained relevant and useful, the agileconferences I was attending and books I was reading were no longer relevant to me. So, in 2009, I started writing about how I was using agile outside of ICT to share with other managers, an idea I called Agile Business Management. The book grew from there.

InfoQ: Why are you the right person to write this book?

Evan: Honestly, this concept is so new, I'm not sure anybody is the right person to write a book about it. :-)

All flippancy aside, I've been developing these ideas for the last 6 years. A convergence between software development & business management experience and an understanding of where agile can (and more importantly, can't) be applied.

InfoQ: Agile methods are most commonly associated with product development, especially software development, how do the ideas translate to running a business?

Evan: Surprisingly easily. The values and principles behind the Agile manifesto focus on collaboration, transparency, empowerment and communication. These apply, just as well, and sometimes better, to finance, HR or sales & marketing teams.

For example; in many organisations finance is ripe for agile adoption. There is already a strong emphasis on transparency, quality and collaboration. Conversely, sales teams, although they may seem highly adaptable, tend to find the agile approach difficult. I attribute this to the competitive nature between sales staff, especially when driven by commission or bonuses.

I would also add that semantics can be a problem. Agile has its own set of jargon, which can be a significant barrier to entry (and can make agile seem like a club or clique). "Sprints", "scrums", "planning poker", "planning game"; for a successful agile addition, these terms need to conform to a common business language.

Ultimately, good business is about providing value to your customers. Agile provides the tools to define and measure that value.

InfoQ: Which of the agile practices can be applied running to an organisation, which need to be applied and how?

Evan: Where would you like me to begin. :-)

I would generally start with a caveat; an organisation needs to realise that agile is not just applying specific practices. An organisation needs to adopt agile values and change their approach to delivering work, managing staff and engaging with customers. Only then, can they consider which practices to apply.

But I'll give you a couple of examples of where specific practices can apply. An effective agile organisation will utilise (and in some cases restructure around) cross-functional and self-organising teams. More than just a matrix model, cross-functional and self-organising teams are highly focused on specific outcomes, and reduce traditional bureaucratic overhead.

Each business function needs to understand their delivery approach. Some functions (such as HR or sales) are more suited for continuous delivery. In these cases, Kanban practices (and I don't just mean cards on a wall) can be very effective. Alternatively, other functions (such as finance or marketing) are better suited for incremental delivery. In these cases, formal iterations with regular planning (Planning Game) and releases (such as defined by Scrum) are effective.

Additionally, individual teams can adopt differing agile practices depending on their context. For example;

  • Retrospectives: Required for all teams to ensure continuous improvement of work processes.
  • Test-Driven Development (or Test-Driven Work): Defining quality control checks, prior to undertaking work, leads to improved design and delivery of any work package.
  • Daily Stand-ups: Done correctly, daily stand-ups are effective communication mechanisms between team members.
  • Pair Programming (or Pair Work) works just as well with accountants as with software developers.

InfoQ: In order for an organisation to adopt agile management approaches, what changes are needed from a cultural, organisational and procedural perspective?

Evan: Agile Business Management defines four domains of organisational change; business management, customer engagement, organisational structure and work practices.

At all levels, whether a team leader or CEO, an Agile Manager becomes responsible for facilitating day-to-day operation, managing risk, providing governance oversight, and directing the strategic outcomes of the organisation. The key distinction is the act of facilitation, providing support to and removing impediments from their teams. Ultimately, by embracing and shaping change, an agile manager can position the organisation to quickly take advantage of new opportunities in the market.

Customer engagement needs to change to a partnership model. Where customers are embedded within teams and share responsibility and accountability for delivery.

An agile organisational structure emphasises cross-functional and, in some cases, self-organising teams. This is a change from traditional hierarchical organisational structure toward dynamic modular business units that form, and reform, to meet changing business needs.

Finally, agile work processes need to be embedded within, and between, teams. By using incremental or continuous delivery and just-in-time planning, agile teams can adapt quickly when scope & business circumstances change.

InfoQ: One of the common objections to adopting agile approaches is financial forecasting - how does agile management overcome this?

Evan: Agile Business Management proposes three changes to financial management, although not all organisations will be in a position to implement financial change at this level.

First is a change in perception. It needs to be understood that teams have a measurable capacity. You cannot give additional work, or requirements, to a team at capacity without impacting on their ability to deliver. From a financial perspective, there is a near linear correlation between team size, requirements and time for most, non-production, teams. Put another way, you can't ask a team to do more in the same time, without investing in (growing) the team.

The next change is the adoption of monthly or quarterly budgets. To be agile and adaptable, an organisation needs to be able to focus their spending and investment in the most appropriate area at a given time. Yearly budgets make it difficult for organisations to pivot; to stop spending in an area of low business value and redirect that spending to new areas. By reducing the duration of the budget cycle, the organisation can ensure that funding is better targeted to meet changing needs. This can be streamlined for teams that do not vary their month-to-month budget. 

The final change is to introduce contingency spending. Where each team is given a contingency budget, say 10%, which they can spend at their discretion. This allows individual teams, who are best placed to take advantage of changing business circumstance, to make minor investment decisions in a matter of days.

InfoQ: You include a number of case studies in the book, what are some of the important messages and ideas in the studies?

Evan: The most important message is that this can be done, and has been done. There is nothing stopping an organisation, or division within an organisation, from becoming agile.

About the Book Author

Evan Leybourn is an experienced leader, coach and author in the developing field of Agile Business Management; applying the successful concepts and practices from the Lean and Agile movements to corporate management. Evan has a passion for building effective and productive organisations, filled with actively engaged and committed staff while ensuring high-levels of customer satisfaction. His background in Agile Project Management and Business Intelligence informed his understanding of the need for evidence-based decision making and quantitative analysis, to measure corporate success. As well as writing "Directing the Agile Organisation", Evan currently consults across Australia and South East Asia on Agile project management and governance.

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Digital Editions by Doug Wilson

Was quite keen to read this but can't bring myself to purchase physical books anymore. They just end up in boxes in my garage. Why no digital/ebook edition?

Unfortunate word choice? by Johnny FromCanada

The word "Directing" in the book title, and "Management" in the "Agile Business Management" concept are both very un-Agile words ("governing" would have been no better).

Hopefully, that does not turn off Agile-minded readers - it is easy to dismiss supposed "experts" based on simple missteps like this. I am reserving judgement until I get a chance to read the book.

Of course, if the objective is to get traditional upper management onboard with Agile, then such words can be used to bridge the conceptual divide. Good luck!

Re: Digital Editions by Evan Leybourn

Re: Unfortunate word choice? by Evan Leybourn

Author here; I agree, these are rather unagile words. However, I want people to see that you can have adaptive, collaborative and facilitation-based management and it was important for me to frame it within a context that people understand.

(If it helps the original title of the book was Agile Corporate Governance :-)

-Evan Leybourn

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