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Mike Cohn Provides New Patterns of Agile Adoption

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Agile Alliance founding member, consultant, and book author Mike Cohn recently distilled his experiences helping teams adopt Agile into three core pairs of patterns that can be used by teams when launching an agile transition.   He suggests that a team or organization adopting agile should choose the core pattern that best suits their situation from each of the three sets, summarized here:

How widespread: ‘Start Small’ or go ‘All In’?
Mike suggests that the more conventional Start Small approach – in which a transition starts with a pilot team, then gradually spreads throughout the organization – has the advantages of minimizing the cost of mistakes, optimizing chances for initial success, and generating internal ‘experts’ that can help in later phases of the transition.   He follows noting three disadvantages of this approach:  early success with a handpicked pilot team may give false hope for organizational success, it takes longer, and skeptics may view it as a sign of non-commitment by the company.

Conversely, the All In approach – characterized by transitioning all teams right from the start – can benefit an organization by demonstrating management’s commitment, being over more quickly, avoiding dissonance from two processes in use concurrently, and reducing overall resistance.  Mike notes the drawbacks to All In as higher risk, higher cost, the likely need for structural reorganization, and high organizational stress.

How technical: ‘Technical Practices First’ or ‘Iterative First’?
Technical Practices First  – where adoption starts with a focus on the XP practices of simple design, test-driven development, pair programming, continuous integration, and short iterations – presents the team with the advantages of higher probability for rapid and a quicker transition.  Mike notes the disadvantages of this approach as it being generally more difficult and cost intensive, as well as having a tendency to move teams away from the user-centric thinking central to true agility.

In contrast, the Iterative First approach – where the initial focus is solely on getting the team to work iteratively, changing technical practices only when they impede this goal – may be advantageous in that it’s easier to start and often meets less resistance from team members, but poses the risk that teams may choose not ever to adopt the engineering practices fundamental to optimal agility.

How visible: ‘Stealth Mode’ or a ‘Public Display of Agility’?
The Stealth Mode approach – when knowledge of the team’s adoption of agile practices is kept largely only to the team itself – can be beneficial in that it allows the team to achieve success with its new methods before gaining the attention of others; attention from those hoping to emulate them as well as those who might oppose the initiative.  On the other hand, this approach’s drawbacks include a lack of potentially necessary organizational support, as well as having a lower chance of convincing skeptics even when the team is successful.

The Public Display of Agility approach – where the team’s adoption efforts are common knowledge outside of the team or even outside the organization -- has the advantages of providing incentive for the team to stick with the adoption, building support among others outside the team, exposing skeptic’s concerns earlier, and demonstrating a higher level of commitment by the organization to the transition and its success.  Conversely, this approach can be disadvantageous in that it may look foolish announcing something and then failing to succeed, as well as that exposing naysayer objections may be as disruptive as it is helpful.

Mike closes the article by noting that while any combination can result in success, some patterns may have a more a natural compliment to others, such as Going All In with Iterative First.  What’s most important is that the organization does in fact choose deliberately about which patterns it will use on its path to agility. 

Another source of patterns related to Agile Adoption is InfoQ's own Patterns of Agile Practice Adoption by Amr Elssamadisy, and also the Adopting Agile page on InfoQ at:

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