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Characteristics of an Agile Organization

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Jim Collins, in his famous book “Good to Great” talks about his teams five year research where they determined what it takes to change a good company into a great one. Can Agile help in the creation of great companies?

 Jean Tabaka suggested a list of 10 characteristics of a truly Agile organization which potentially would help an organization make the leap. Jean suggested the following characteristics in order of increasing importance

  •  Work/Life Balance and Consistent Delivery – Empower teams which are dedicated to personal and organizational goals. Create a discipline of shorter release cycles.
  • Servant and Leader - The entire spectrum of managers should serve by leading and lead by serving. Instead of making decisions for the team, managers should support team commitments.
  • Sustainable and Successful - Maintaining sustainable pace and stability, all divisions of the organization should focus on customer value.
  • Contributing to the Community and Maintaining a Profitable Company – Apart from profitability and core business, making a positive impact on the community should be a focus area.
  • Collaborative and Smart – Hire smart people and foster collaboration to spread the intellect.
  • Bottom-up and Top-down Decision Making – Leaders are informed by knowledge workers and vice versa to complete the cycle. Tacit knowledge helps and informs explicit knowledge.
  • Personal Flexibility and Rhythm – Create a regular cycle of delivery and value.
  • Quality and Faster – Entire organization focuses on value delivery and a quick feedback regarding the value.
  • Creating Your Own Reality and Corporate Vision – Rather than implementing a corporate vision by having clearly defined rigid roles, Agile organizations hire great individuals who guide the corporate vision with their passion
  • Commitment to be great; disciplined culture and metrics – Metrics such as work/life balance, bottom-up and top-down decision making, servant leadership practices, innovation practices and technical debt help to decipher where the organization is on its path to greatness.

Likewise, Mike Beedle emphasized on the following characteristics of a truly Agile organization,

  • Management Pyramid is inverted
  • Greater Liberty and Freedom to accomplish the task at hand
  • Constant Learning, Knowledge Creation and Knowledge Sharing
  • A More Enjoyable and Humane Work Environment
  • A Hyper-productive Cooperative Work Mode
  • Emergent Planning, Architecture and Requirements
  • New values that generate a cooperative culture
  • The Quality of Life

Mike Cottmeyer suggested a list of patterns that he has observed across organizations, which are essential for success of Agile. According to Mike,

There are some patterns I see over and over that are fundamental to a successful agile adoption, or a large scale enterprise agile transformation. Here are the ones I think are most important and why.
  • Cross-Functional Teams
  • Empowered Team Members– Focus is on business outcomes and the teams are empowered to take their own course and decisions.
  • Single Voice of the Business– Business needs to define the priority and value for the development team.
  • Shared Accountability– Everybody has shared ownership of business outcomes.
  • Servant Leadership
  • Continuous Flow of Value– Make sure that the organization is delivering value on a regular cadence.
  • Value over Activity– Every activity should be able to bring some value addition to the organization.
  • Attention to Technical Excellence– There should be a constant watch on minimizing the amount of technical debt that is carried over time. Quality, reliability and scaleability are built in from the very beginning.
  • Early Feedback and Adaptation
  • Total Openness and Transparency– In a truly Agile organization, nothing can be hidden. People can’t hide. Progress can’t hide. Metrics can’t hide. Poor quality can’t hide. Risk can’t hide. Impediments can’t hide.
  • Trust– An environment and culture where people trust each other.

As one would observe, most of the characteristics place a lot of importance on empowerment, communication and collaboration. The key is to promote an environment of trust, learning and deliver business value with a sustainable pace.

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Community comments

  • Great lists!

    by Dave Nicolette,

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    I really like these. Just wondering what's unique to "agile" here, though. Seems this could be entitled "Characteristics of an Effective Organization."

  • Re: Great lists!

    by Andrej Ruckij,

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    I also tend to agree that it is not about agile, but about work principles in general

  • Re: Great lists!

    by Scott Duncan,

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    I agree. All good things. It just seems as time passes, lists like these pop up and include less and less that is distinctly Agile and more that is basic organizational excellence, change management, etc. Not that all of this isn't important, especially in large organizations that seek to adopt an Agile approach. But I sometimes wonder if folks are beginning to find the Agile context for all of this a harder "sell" and are falling back on traditional expression of such things because organizations are more familiar with and comfortable hearing them expressed this way. I just hope the Agile content finds its way into what the organizations end up doing as that is the unique aspect of trying to do all these otherwise good things.

  • This Post

    by Lindsey Niedzielski,

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    Great post Vikas. This is a great resource for IM professionals. We have a community ( and have bookmarked this post for our users. Look forward to reading your work in the future.

  • I wonder if the statements are really in the "spirit" of "Good to Great"

    by Christian Schuhegger,

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    What about the level 5 leaders? And what about that they are "fanatically driven, infected with and incurable need to produce sustained results"?

    Most agile posts come from the direction of creating a "cosy" environment for developers and not from the direction of an "incurable need to produce sustainable results".

    I really try to understand :) I am not certain if my interpretation is right. But I would currently suggest that agile is a tool in the toolbox of a level 5 leader that he can use in the right circumstances.

    In addition I don't think that the mechanics of agile, like described above, count! It is all about mental state of people in the sense of Christopher Avery:
    If you get the mental state of people right and if they come from the direction of and "incurable need to produce sustainable results" then I think agile (in the best sense of the word) will emerge automatically.

    How do you see that?

  • Servant Leadership...

    by Roberto Bera,

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    this sounds like the Holy Gospel, Mark 9,35.
    For years I have heard that religion is one thing and one thing is the "hard reality in". Instead I'm increasingly convinced that there is wisdom: that's all.

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