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STEP – A Map for an Agile Journey

A Few Obstacles

It is increasingly difficult for companies to compete successfully when their initiatives or product improvements take many months or even years to bring to fruition.

Nimble, rapidly adapting organizations are thriving, winning market share. They make it a priority for everyone to find ways to delight their customers, while finding joy in work for people.

Slow-changing businesses, that fail to engage effectively the intelligence and passion of all their people, see their livelihoods erode and sometimes even vanish altogether.

To complicate matters, the predominant ways in which many executives still think, structure and run their organizations work against speed of adaptation, despite their best intentions to the contrary.

Here are a few of the typical challenges:

  • Many traditional organizations are intent on maximizing the utilization of their people. In such organizations, most individuals are expected to work on a handful of initiatives at the same time (10% on this, 20% on that, etc.), wasting lots of effort in task switching. This approach ignores the fact that cycle times are far longer than would otherwise be possible, quality degrades, and adaptation is hard to achieve cost-effectively, given all the delays.
  • Given such a fascination with peak utilization, people are usually too busy to learn about new ways of thinking or working, or even reflecting on current impediments and their root causes. People often fight symptoms rather than pursuing countermeasures for the root causes.
  • Most organizational boundaries create friction and delays in the flow of value to the customer. Conway's Law has a significant impact on the evolution of systems. Since the structure of a system usually mirrors the structure of the organization that creates it, as an organization becomes more complex over time, so do the work processes and systems it creates. Typical reorganizations further complicate systems evolution, which progressively increases costs and delays.
  • Enterprises waste vast amounts of effort and capital as they typically force each of their divisions to attempt to improve their own performance, rather than focusing systematically on shortening cycle times and improving end-to-end results, as manifested through customer delight for instance.
  • Many organizations fail to harness the power of cross-functional team learning, assembling and disbanding ad-hoc teams, usually clustered by discipline, and around fairly short-lived work items.

While many of us are still victims of cultural inertia, we may break free and travel a more satisfying professional and personal journey if we start by improving our thinking.

A Way Forward

An increasing number of companies, in varied industries, are embracing a different way of leadership, based on deep respect for people that engages everyone in continuous improvement. Many organizations are doing so in order to save themselves from oblivion. Some have the wisdom to be proactive, and avoid substantial difficulties.

See Jim Womack’s Gemba Walks for excellent stories of organizations travelling the journey to sustained adaptability. Consider also Steve Denning’s work on Radical Management for great inspiration in finding ways to promote new patterns of thinking, organization and action, and spreading these improvements effectively.

Inspired by this fresh approach, and given the now ubiquitous nature of software-intensive systems, the concept of Agile software development is increasingly capturing the imagination of leaders in many organizations as a means of increasing customer satisfaction and improving overall effectiveness.

The fundamental difficulty in achieving great results with Agile methods lies in the fact that new ways of thinking and working must be disseminated across organizations and organizational boundaries. To overcome this, we must find effective ways to encourage people to examine the assumptions that drive their current habits and practices, while avoiding or navigating and overcoming resistance to change.

An excellent way to defuse resistance is making it possible for people to find joy in work. Joyful people are far better equipped to thrive and figure out ways of delighting customers – see Barbara Fredrickson's work on Positivity for the scientific evidence.

While simply attempting to make our work more enjoyable is not enough by itself, complementing that focus by harnessing team learning and developing basic stability in our work Teams produces excellent outcomes.

Basic stability in a work process means that each step in the work process is both capable and available. A capable process step means that each time it is called upon, it produces the expected results when supplied with adequate inputs. A process step is said to be available when it is ready to be executed as soon as required. Once a process develops basic stability, it can be measured fairly consistently and experiments to improve its performance can be run with confidence.

Cross-functional, self-organizing, longer-lived teams have much better opportunities to develop work process stability, learn rapidly from their past experience, and make lasting improvements. Creating and sustaining high-performance, learning teams is no easy task; organizations must provide them with a steady stream of work, and create good opportunities for professional improvement for everyone involved as well.

In the following sections (Stop, Transform, Expand, Perfect – or STEP as an acronym) we’ll outline a strategy designed to create, gradually expand and sustain just such high-performance communities. Spreading Agile thinking across an organization and its supplier and customer communities is not a sprint. It’s a life-long journey of exploration, reflection and adaptation.


Starting by stopping might seem like unusual advice. Nevertheless, all improvements are changes, even if not all changes are improvements. Therefore, when people are already engaged in a given way of work, we must find ways to encourage them to stop and question their assumptions and habits. Without changing the way we think and our work habits, we cannot expect to see or sustain improvements.

It is usually insufficient to start with a grass-roots movement. As long as organizations do not explicitly start investing in creating more learning communities, and working with smaller amounts of work-in-process, they will have fewer and fewer opportunities to adapt to customer feedback rapidly enough to create customer delight. However, when leaders stop to reflect on better ways of work, and then promote them consistently, developing better communities, then great results follow.

Here is a story to illustrate this leadership habit. In a leading technology company, Gary, a vice-president of a division that creates some complex hardware that includes a lot of firmware, made the time to study and then practice Agile thinking. Not only that, he made sure that all the leaders of the units in his division did the same, and then everyone started paying attention much more closely to the concerns of their expert engineering teams. In that way, it became possible to articulate and enact a sweeping improvement initiative, which cut across all units, and led to massive benefits.

Rather than continuing the practice of writing firmware from the ground up for each model line, with lots of opportunities to introduce defects and duplicated effort, this division managed to develop a configurable, unified platform. From a single high-quality platform, which is far more maintainable, components can be rapidly configured to suit each model line. Continuous integration and widespread use of automated testing have ensured the continued health of the platform. This also significantly shortened the new product development cycle, which in turn delighted more customers, leading to excellent market gains.

Everyone that comes to learn of the benefits of Agile thinking has a responsibility to inspire colleagues, leaders and staff to also learn more. Inspired leaders like Gary spread the passion for customer delight and organizational improvement. They encourage others to start by stopping to consider what we're doing right now, why we are doing it this way, and exploring what better ways may exist to create delight for customers and provide for joy in work for people.


Out of the total amount of effort available in an organization, some of it usually goes to creating new products, some goes to maintaining existing products, and some, if any is left, can go to improving the work processes of the organization.

Once some executives, some managers and some practitioners in an organization have embraced and Agile mindset and started on a journey of continuous improvement, it becomes vital to form a shared understanding of the spot where the limited capacity for improvement might be best applied.

For example, the Theory of Constraints provides some excellent suggestions on how one might proceed to build a shared understanding of the key constraint that prevents a smooth flow of value to the customer. Agile techniques and tools may then be brought to bear in creating viable countermeasures for that constraint. Once the current top constraint is satisfactorily dealt with, the process may repeat, gradually improving the whole system. Throughput accounting is another subject of conversation that leaders may find quite intriguing, since it provides such a sharp contrast with the traditional cost accounting mindset.

I've been astonished to find that some top executives resist even the mere mention of the term “constraint”, causing them to avoid learning more about ToC and therefore disregard out-of-hand the lessons it has to offer. In some cultures, particularly where individual heroism is prized above team achievement and blame is prevalent rather than a focus on process analysis and improvement, surfacing problems for collaborative resolution is not yet a safe activity.

This is a good reminder that Agile champions must be sensitive to the culture of the leaders they work with. In this case, we must simply adjust the way in which we explain ToC thinking such that its concepts become appreciated and welcome. We could, for instance, emphasize the benefits of visualizing the flow of work, making it obvious to everyone involved, finding the places where the greatest problems arise, and then dealing with the most significant obstruction first, inspecting and adapting as required. Consider Stephen Denning’s Leader’s Guide to Radical Management, Jurgen Appelo’s Management 3.0 and Eric Ries’ Lean Startup for more thought-provoking reading on more effective approaches to leadership and management, more conducive to customer delight and joy in work for practitioners.

New ways of thinking and fresh habits cannot be effectively disseminated across an entire organization all-at-once. It is far more effective to start small, by establishing a few cross-functional, self-organizing, longer-lived teams, and learn how to make an Agile way of work function effectively within the context of the organization's existing culture and business partners. See Diana Larsen and Ainsley Nies’s Liftoff for excellent guidance on how to launch Agile teams and projects with the best possible chances of success.

When Gary started the Agile journey in his division, he engaged his leadership team to develop a shared understanding the key obstacle to reducing the cycle time of the product development process. By examining the situation more closely, it became apparent that the firmware development process was the most significant limiting factor. The leaders focused on managing change for people’s sake; they embraced an iterative model for Agile management, helping teams to simplify their work and make it more joyful. The transformation began gradually, a few people at a time.

Everyone started looking at metrics as starting points for fierce conversations, to better confront reality. It gradually became safe to surface challenges and adapt creatively to “bad news”. See Susan Scott’s Fierce Conversations for more inspiration on how to achieve excellence in communication and team learning.

It is amazing how in matters of athletic performance, we wouldn’t dream of sending teams on the pitch without expecting them to have trained together for a good while, and taking advantage of the services of a good coach to help them accelerate their pace of improvement. Yet, in software-intensive systems engineering, very few organizations apply this basic wisdom and formally coach their teams to help them accelerate their pace of improvement.

Gary and his leaders chose to develop their Agile coaching skills, and saw significant long-term improvements in their organizations as a result. Consider Lyssa Adkins’s Coaching Agile Teams for more inspiration on the value of coaching teams and what it takes to become an excellent Agile Coach.


Once we’ve created a few stable Agile teams, and given them good coaching support to help them succeed, we’re beginning to learn how to practice improved habits in the context of the parent organization, and we may start to influence its culture.

Agile Champions in the organization can start by establishing mentoring programs and communities of interest focused on various disciplines or engineering aspects. In this way, the hard-won knowledge of the early Agile Teams can be systematically spread to increasingly wider audiences in the organization, and hopefully even across organizational boundaries.

One key impediment to overcome is the fact that many people still think primarily in terms of projects as the central focus of planning and activity, often asking themselves if agile methods may or may not be suitable for a particular project. Instead, we need to find ways to encourage people to think in terms of embracing a culture of continuous improvement for all teams, across the entire organization. Agile methods are merely a source of inspiration for the kinds of practices and techniques teams might consider using to improve their flow of work. Building longer-lived, increasingly effective Agile Teams opens up new ways of organizational development and strategic planning. No process is ever perfect. All teams can benefit from improvements in their work process, regardless of the nature of the initiative they currently focus on.

Therefore, establishing and sustaining a culture of continuous improvement is far more beneficial to organizations. Agile thinking is an excellent source of inspiration for the kinds of improvement experiments one might consider for the various impediments that teams may encounter.

Over time, as more Agile Teams form, their journey to high performance can be eased in a number of ways; they get good Agile coaching support; they may start with a core of veterans from the early Agile Teams; alternatively, they may invite mentors from other Agile Teams; they find increased support for Agile ways of work in the product ownership and management communities; they take advantage of the lessons learned by other Agile Teams, and find out what countermeasures work best by participating in various communities of interest.

In such an organization, leaders can start planning based on more predictable engineering capacity, as the velocity of each Agile Team can be forecasted much more accurately based on its historical track record. Meaningful statistical analysis becomes possible, further guiding continuous improvement initiatives. This also makes strategy deployment much more reliable, and portfolio and program planning can be significantly improved. Consider the Scaled Agile Framework for an overview of enterprise-grade framework for applying the Agile mindset across portfolios, programs and projects.

In this way of work, rather than attempting to determine how many people would be required to complete a given scope envelope (for a certain portfolio, program or project), with an arbitrary budget, in a set period of time, leaders can focus instead on planning with a fixed budget, deciding how many teams they may wish to set aside for specific initiatives in order to achieve a desired release capacity and rhythm.

Scope then gets elaborated and brought to life in order of greatest customer benefit or satisfaction, aggregating features into minimum viable product increments, and releasing them as rapidly as possible. Consider the Beyond Budgeting movement and Throughput Accounting for more related concepts that explain in more detail how this can be made to work well from a financial management perspective.

This approach to strategic planning and product development has the significant benefit that it can dramatically reduce the amount of wasted effort that goes into the production of features of insufficient value to the user community. If we’re only creating features that customers are delighted to use, we have a superlative product. The faster we can correct our mistakes (eliminating useless features, keeping products simple and elegant), the better we can serve our customer communities.

Gary has invested in expanding the effective use of Agile thinking and practices across his organization. Since the improved firmware platform influenced the product development processes in virtually all the product lines, everyone started to benefit significantly from it. In addition to using a simpler, much higher quality platform, and all teams started to apply problem-solving more consistently, in an environment in which it was safe to surface problems and explore countermeasures together. In this way, many conversations led to balanced decisions that optimized the organization as a whole.


In the context of Agile thinking, “perfect” works much better as a verb — the action of refining or enhancing a work product or a work process. Agile organizations start from the belief that there is no such thing as a “perfect process” that, when followed to-the-letter by dutiful (and possibly not particularly skilled or intelligent) workers, will guarantee success.

Instead, people in Agile organizations believe that people naturally want to achieve audacious goals. People relish the opportunity to delight customers, to contribute in the achievement of meaningful, valuable outcomes. Highly educated knowledge workers value autonomy in finding ever better ways of achieving great results, and they expect opportunities to develop professional mastery in their chosen field of work. See Dan Pink’s Drive for better motivational insights and techniques.

Achieving customer delight and sustaining it over time is a journey of continuous improvement in itself. Delighting a customer once may happen by accident or fortunate circumstance. Also, what may delight a customer at one time may rapidly become an expected service level. Achieving delight with the same type of improvement or technique may not be possible a second time. To keep delighting customers time and again, people need intense commitment to developing a profound understanding of the customer needs. Based on such deep insight, derived through relentless learning, teams can continue to imagine fresh ways to delight their customers.

Agile teams are designed to keep learning together, to keep delighting customers, to keep finding ways of making their work more joyful and professionally satisfying. Effective Agile teams and their wider organizations purposefully and systematically subject every aspect of their work to intense scrutiny, ever on the lookout for impediments to counteract and opportunities for innovation and systemic improvement.

The foundation that makes this possible is the deep respect for people that leaders of Agile teams demonstrate. They go and see what is actually happening in the world of work, ask why things are as they are, engaging everyone in a process of scientific problem-solving, and show deep respect by acting as Chief Obstacle Removers, making life simpler and better for their people.

Gary’s organization hasn’t completed their journey of improvement. They’re well aware that in some ways they’ve only just begun. They’re excited about the next steps in their journey, working out how keep improving and scaling their better ways of work to even more teams and product lines.

The way ahead

Any Agile Journey is fraught with challenges – I’m using the term “Agile” here in its most general meaning, in which it draws upon elements of Lean, ToC, Six Sigma, Systems Thinking, Queuing Theory, TPS and more. There will be countless impediments to imagine countermeasures for, lots of inertia to overcome, numerous opponents that might prefer the status quo were preserved, and plenty of conflict and troublesome situations to navigate.

And yet, despite these hazards, the Agile-inspired pursuit of continuous improvement, focused on achieving delight for customers while providing for joy in work for people, promises to become the dominant culture of the most sustainable future businesses. Do you dare to begin the journey? All it takes is a STEP.

About the Author

Horia Slușanschi serves as an Agile Coach and Strategist leading the HP Agile Mentoring Office and the HP Software Engineering Profession. He's intensely passionate about helping teams and leaders to find joy in work in the pursuit of customer delight. He holds a PhD in Computer Science, and has a fairly eclectic background inspired by the Agile mindset, Enterprise Architecture, Lean Six Sigma, ToC, various ancient Chinese and Indian texts and many other ways of thinking.

He is quite active in the wider Agile community, serving as co-organizer of AgileWelly, and as New Zealand Chapter Engagement Representative and co-lead of the Knowledge Management team of the PMI Agile Community of Practice. Horia is also a keen skier and an avid photographer. Reach him at or @KiwiHoria

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