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How Competencies and Mental Shifts Help Agile Adoption

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Jeff Gothelf's recent blog underscores how using competencies has helped agile adoption. It describes their initial concerns about jobs, roles and the contribution of professionals in products development, and how their designers discovered a different approach to deliver value with agile.

Concerns about job changes are a cause for failure in agile adoption, as Jeff Gothelf describes in “How We Finally Made Agile Development Work”:

There are many causes for failed adoption of agile development, but the one that seems to be least often addressed is how people who are comfortable in a waterfall world adapt to this new way of working. For those in some roles (...) the core activity doesn't change (...). For others, the path is not so clear.

Designers previously used a waterfall process, where they worked in isolation during the design phase. When they adopted agile, concerns raised among designers:

The agile process forced us out of the safety of the design phase and into a furiously fast new reality in which product managers, software engineers, and QA specialists were far more involved in the work we created.

"This is not design!" we cried. Our best work wasn't being developed and because of that, we felt significantly less valuable to the business.

But then it became clear that they needed to take a different approach to agile, by using the competencies they already possessed:

We had to rethink the way we did software design. Our expertise, talent, techniques, and tools were still very much necessary, but how they were executed, who was involved with them, and their timing all required change.

The value designers brought to the creation process was now distributed to other roles on the team. (...) Design facilitation was now a much bigger part of our process, as was a broader understanding of all the other elements (...) that encompassed user experience.

Jeff Gothelf concludes his experience story with the following advice for adopting agile:

If you're struggling to figure out where you fit in an agile world, I urge to take a look at your current process and see how you can reconfigure the value you bring to meet the demands of nimble teams. In addition, look beyond your role and into your competencies. What else can you bring to your team beyond what your job title dictates?

In “Developing UX Agility: Letting Go of Perfection”, members of a user experience design team Carissa Demetris, Chris Farnum, Joanna Markel, and Serena Rosenhan describe their experiences when moving from a waterfall development approach to an agile development process:

The agile literature that informed our agile champions did not mention UX activities, so it was up to our UX Design team to work out what it would mean for us to work within an agile framework.

They became concerned about their place in the product development world with agile:

It was not possible for us to add value to the development effort in all of the ways we had previously. To be successful in an agile development model, we had to change how we thought about our roles and our value proposition and recognize some new opportunities for UX designers that come from reframing how we work in an agile context.

Mental shifts helped them to discover approaches for user experience designers within agile projects. Some excerpts:

A typical waterfall project generally limits UX designers to one user research phase, design phase, and usability testing phase (…) In agile development, having multiple opportunities to do each of these activities (...) is liberating.

(...) While it’s important to create high-quality deliverables, it’s best not to make them so polished that they become too precious to change.

While it may feel awkward at first, you’ll need to take an incremental approach to achieving perfection. (…) When you think in terms of just enough, just in time, you are less likely to overdesign a solution.

The user experience design team concludes their experience story with:

[Transitioning to an agile development approach] is (...) the beginning of a new era in software development that presents opportunities that stem directly from the iterative nature of agile development and can actually make our UX designs more successful in meeting the needs of our users. With a few mental shifts, you can discover a new approach to striving for UX perfection within agile projects.

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