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Agile Adoption with the Agile Fluency Model

In too many cases agile is failing to deliver on its promise says Steve Holyer. At the OOP 2015 conference Steve explained how we can do better by choosing the rewards and benefits that we want to get out of agile development and plan the investments to achieve the benefits that we choose.

Steve Holyer ran a workshop at OOP 2015 about taking agile adoption to the next level. In the workshop he presented the agile fluency model and explored a solution-focused approach for organization to find their path in adopting agile.

The Agile Fluency™ Model from James Shore and Diana Larsen is described in Your Path through Agile Fluency. This article starts by explaining the concept of fluency:

We’ve observed that Agile teams develop through four distinct stages of fluency. Fluency is how a team develops software when it’s under pressure. Anyone can follow a set of practices when given time to focus in a classroom; true fluency is a skillful, routine practice that persists when your mind is distracted with other things.

The article presents a descriptive model with four levels which teams can use to decide which level of agile fluency they want to aim for and find ways to get there:

Teams progress through four distinct stages of Agile fluency, which we describe with a “star” system. Each star includes fluency at all previous levels. (…) Each star brings specific benefits, and each involves new adoption challenges. As you read through the fluency levels, remember that every level of fluency brings its own benefits. Since achieving higher fluency takes more investment, consider whether a lower level’s benefits are enough for your organization

Diana Larsen explained in the article Agile Fluency: Finding Agile That's Fit-for-Purpose that the agile fluency model is not a maturity model for organizations. In stead it helps teams to focus in order to become more fluent in agile and supports organizations to decide where to invest for developing their teams:

In short, the Agile Fluency path winds through four variations on Agile teams that we've seen repeatedly across many organizations. We named the variations: Focus on Value (1 star), Deliver Value (2 star), Optimize Value (3 star), and Optimize for Systems (4 star). Our experience showed us that different organizations seemed to find a match for their teams and their business needs in each variation. We also noticed that teams that aspired to 2, 3, or 4 stars seemed to gain fluency in a predictable pattern of first gaining skill at teamwork and focusing on business and customer value, then building enough engineering expertise to deliver value on the market cadence, and so on.

To build an understanding of the agile fluency model Steve used a metaphor of how people learn to speak a new language. While learning it you will go through consequence stages of fluency said Steve. In the beginning it feels like Tarzan who is attending a party for the first time. You only know some words and will find it difficult to understand people. Once you become more fluent in the new language then you can go to more parties and talk with people. A next level of fluency enables you to discuss about the party with people, and finally you will be able to talk with people on a philosophical level about parties.

A team’s path through agile fluency start from the assumption that the team can build code. With a culture shift a team learns how they can focus on value; this is the one star level. A shift in skills enables a team to deliver value which is the two star level. On this level the team has a technical basis of software craftsmanship so that they can ship quality products on a market cadence.

The three star level makes it possible for a team to optimize value. They are able to make excellent product decisions at higher speed said Steve. Getting to this level requires an shift in organizational structure. Four star level teams are able to optimize for systems. Strict team boundaries will disappear at this level as people will work together to optimizing the value flow said Steve.

Steve explained that finding your team’s path in agile fluency means choosing your reward by deciding which benefits you want from your agile adoption. This determines the fluency level that you will be aiming it.

Steve did a first workshop exercise where he asked the attendants to form groups of 3-4 people. He asked people in the groups to describe the team that they are working in or working with as coaches or managers, and to explain to the other group members on which fluency level they think their team is and why they think that. Most people said that their teams are a one star team but there were some people from two and three star teams in the room.

One of the groups mentioned that they felt that top management in their organizations was skipping steps in agile adoption. They had the feeling that their managers didn’t care about culture shift or skills shift and were only focusing on changing the structure. This approach might be hampering the adoption of agile.

When you are fluent you can do things without having to think about how you do them said Steve. For example, when the release is critical, do you maintain your technical practices? A fluent team will do that, as it is their adopted way of working.

In the second exercise Steve suggested to the attendants to appreciate the level where their team is currently. He asked the attendants to discuss their team level in the groups and imagine where they would like to be and to find their direction to go there, and to discuss the investment that their organization would need to make to go from where they are now to where they want to be.

One group discussed if their teams needed to go to a three star level or should focus on technical capabilities to become fluent on the two star level. Their might be sufficient benefits for the latter to warrant an investment in developing technical skills in the team. This is the kind of discussions that the agile fluency model can support.

Steve talked about leveling up, i.e. going to the next level of agile fluency. He suggested to choose the target and rewards that you want to get from agile. The only way to get there is to aim for the target and invest said Steve.

You can find the agile fluency model at

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